The Mythic Well II
by Annie Hamilton
The myths and legends of Northern Europe have provided a wealth of inspirational material for modern authors. In particular, fantasy writers of the early part of this century delved the rich mine of Norse mythology as the starting point for their own epic tales of adventure. The germ of inspiration may occasionally be obscure, but rarely is it so deeply buried as to be untraceable.
Within Norse mythology, there were legends concerning various stellar objects. For instance, Orentil was the name of a star - most probably the Morning Star - traditionally created when the thunder-god, Thor, flung a frost-bitten toe into the heavens. The toe belonged to Orentil (after whom the star was named) and it met its unexpected fate when it froze off while Thor was carrying Orentil across an icy river. Orentil was a mariner. Another seafarer named Orentil can be found in the Prose Edda, a mediaeval Icelandic saga. In the Edda, Orentil is a wanderer, like the Greek hero, Ulysses, who travels far from home.
In beginning his tales of Middle Earth, J.R.R. Tolkien borrowed substantial elements of these legends. Critical to his original inspiration was the character of the mariner, Earendil, an elf whose heritage also combined a human and angelic lineage and who was eventually to become the bearer of the Morning Star. Toes intact, fortunately!
However, Orentil was not the major influence in the formation of this crucial character. The single greatest factor in the inspiration of Earendil (and indeed, of the whole vast epic of Middle Earth) was a few lines from the Old English poem, Christ, by Cynewulf (c.750 - c. 825) which Tolkien read in his early twenties: Eala Earendel engla beorhtast ofer middangeard monnum sended. (Hail Earendel, brightest of angels, Above Middle-earth sent unto men.)
Cynewulf was an overtly Christian poet of the eighth century to whom four poems can be clearly attributed. His identity remains unclear, but he may have been the Bishop of Lindisfarne or a priest in the diocese of Dunwich. His verse contains repeated themes of religious mysticism, asceticism and above all, a love of the sea.
Tolkien undoubtedly paid homage to Cynewulf in creating his Elven language, Quenya: Earendil in that tongue means sea lover. It is a playful, punning tribute however, because in Old English it means light or the first dawn. Moreover, Earendel was a reference to the Morning Star and had religious connotations in that Christ was sometimes symbolised as the Morning Star:I am the root and offspring of David, the bright morning star. Revelation 22:16
All these influences were to have a profound impact on Tolkien. The greatest enchantment seems to have been Cynewulf's images of Middle-earth, an angelic guide and a light in the heavens. Tolkien began to use these features in the poems and prose he was writing at the time. Eventually - decades later - this tiny acorn had become an immense oak: a fantastic history of Middle Earth, fourteen separate languages, songs, poems, fragments, short stories and children's adventures. And they culminated in the twentieth century's No. 1 bestseller - The Lord of The Rings.
Now you're possibly wondering about the purpose of all this detail concerning Orentil, Earendel and Earendil It's because intrinsic to all these names is the motif of the Morning Star. A motif that is not confined to Tolkien's fantasy, but which recurs in - believe it or not - Babylon 5! And it appears in such a way that, if Tolkien's debt to Cynewulf is substantial, Straczynski's debt to Tolkien is incalculable.
At the time of writing (more than eighteen months after the episode, War Without End, was first aired), no answer has been given to the question asked by quite a number of fans: "What is the meaning of Entil'zha?" That it has a meaning is clear: "I tried to develop a basic language structure for each of the races on B5. There are certain commonalities to the structure of names. I came up with some prefixes and suffixes and assigned meanings to them, the same as real names. For instance, Rathenn (referred to by Delenn in "Voices") and Delenn have the same suffix, which has a specific meaning. You can break it down: Ner-oon (Legacies), Del-enn, Rath-enn, Der-onn, and so forth. The various parts have specific meanings, but I generally keep that to myself, just for amusement."
So wrote Straczynski while commenting on Voice in the Wilderness Part 1. At the risk of spoiling a huge joke, I am prepared to reveal what Straczynski is too reticent - or still too busy laughing about - to tell us.
Entil'zha< >Orentil<> Earendel< >Earendil < >Entil'zha
The morpheme `entil' occurs in both Entil'zha and Orentil and its close relation `endil' occurs in Earendil. This would be nothing more than a curious coincidence were it not for the considerable number of parallels between the characters of Earendil and Entil'zha/Valen, which are detailed on the following pages.
However, before skipping over to those, it is worthwhile to mention at this point that Entil'zha doesn't literally translate from the Minbari as morning star, but rather as star at the point of dawn. A technicality, perhaps, but nevertheless I think I'm making the right call here since a strictly literal formulation would have lost other subtle overtones. I suspect (but cannot be certain without more information than is currently available) `til' may be the Minbari element for toe (`tal' being foot) - and such an allusion would point straight back at Orentil even more decisively than it already does, since Orentil treated as a Minbari word would translate as star at the point of day. Despite this congruity, there is a problem: it's the apostrophe in Entil'zha. It is impossible to be absolutely certain what letters it stands for, but it seems probable that `en', `til' and `zha' have embedded connotations of stars, moon and sun, thus indicating Light in three different ways. And as we know, the Minbari are not just passionately fond of triplets, but also have a Religious Caste pre-occupied with matters of the Light.
All the forgoing translations (as well as those hereafter) are based on my unswerving belief that the language devised by Straczynski for the Minbari is hardly distinguishable - in any real linguistic terms - from Tolkien's Elvish languages, Sindarin and Quenya. Minbari has a few quirks of its own, but they are very minor. So minor on occasions that one could be forgiven for sometimes thinking that there is no fundamental difference at all. For an example in recent episodes, let's look at a name like Forell (from Lines of Communication). Until the opening credits, I had never come across the Minbari elements, `for' or `ell' before. Nevertheless, I immediately translated the name as king of the north on the basis that `for' is Sindarin for north and `ell' probably meant king because `ella' is a rare Eldarin suffix for queen.
Usually it's not that simple. Nor is it normally that explicit. You see, there is a King of the North in The Silmarillion. His name was Fingolfin and he was an elf. In Babylon 5, the Minbari, Forell, tells the harrowing tale of how his people were brutally forced out of their homes by the Warrior Caste and compelled to cross an arctic wasteland where many perished. This parallels a singularly famous incident in the history of Middle Earth: the hazardous crossing of the Grinding Ice by the host of Fingolfin who, having been exiled from their homes, had no choice other than to chance the dangers of the ice floes after they were betrayed by their elven kin and allies.
Often - as here - it defies the odds. Are we really expected to believe that the only reason this astonishing similarity of name - `The King of the North' - and history occurs is because Tolkien and Straczynski are both drawing from the same well-spring of Western mythology? Yeah, sure. Pull the other one: it plays jingle bells. Or is it that we could rightly conclude that Straczynski's pronouncements are really exquisitely fine exercises in semantics and by saying he's using the same mythic well he's actually admitting to using Tolkien's imagination as his primary source of inspiration? But not the only source, of course. There's Arthurian legend - as we've been repeatedly told. Strange that A Late Delivery from Avalon seems so much closer to the tale in The Lord of The Rings told by the father of Gimli the dwarf about the human, Grimbeorn (`beorn' is an Old English word for bear, borrowed by Tolkien) than it does to any story about King Arthur (a name which derives from the latin for bear). A little cosmetic treatment may change the outward appearance, and disguise the origin of the storyline, but when the stepping-stones are so easy to track back, is it possible to seriously consider this as genuinely Arthurian in nature? I have grave doubts - as I have already expressed. The tale of Beren (the human hero who is granted a return from the dead) and Luthien (the half-elven maid) in The Silmarillion and The Book of Lost Tales seems to me far closer in essence to the Sheridan-Delenn romance than any Arthurian legend where the male-female relationships (with a very few notable exceptions) involve adultery, treachery, faithlessness, lechery and an odd spot of incest.
But what I don't have doubts about is that we should be careful not to forget Patrick McGoohan's The Prisoner to which there are a considerable number of genuine references, as well as quite a few that double as allusions to The Lord of The Rings. (That's The Lord of The Rings, the character, not The Lord of The Rings, the book.)
But back to Minbari: according to my calculations, if you consider each morpheme of that language as separate, there are well over four hundred points of comparison linking Straczynski's Minbari to Tolkien's Elves. If you don't include each morpheme as separate, there are only about a hundred correspondences. And these parallels do not include Entil'zha/Earendil selection coming up nor the large number of names of Sylvan Elves (or, alternatively, elves with the element for silver in their names) who for some curious reason can almost all be found in the same place - amongst the human telepaths! Last time, of course, we looked at the forty-plus parallels between the Vorlons and the Valar, but that's as nothing. Wait till we get to the Narn, the Centauri, even the Pak'ma'ra! And let's not forget geography: there's been a lot of people notice and comment on the linguistic as well as descriptive relationship between Tolkien's Khazadum and Straczynski's Z'Ha'Dum. (But of course with a triple encryption, Khazadum is only a third of the story!)
I'm sure there's an explanation for this extraordinary level of coincidence. Perhaps Straczynski should follow Colleen McCullough's example when her novel The Ladies of Missalonga was found to contain over eighty parallels to L.M. Montgomery's The Blue Castle.
A few last points before we go look at some of the correspondences. The story arc of the Babylon 5 universe spirals backwards in loops of various time lengths through the history of Middle Earth - not altogether consistently (since, among other things, some character's triple encryptions would put them into especially difficult situations at times: I would have particularly liked to have seen Garibaldi use the alien healing machine to save his own life!) but in sufficient detail to suggest that Tolkien's epic creation forms a template for B5, if not as a one-to-one correspondence or specific isomorphic match, at least as a detailed guide. It isn't difficult to extrapolate that if B5 ends at the beginning of Middle Earth's history, then we're heading towards the creation of the Vorlons who, if the missing part of the Earendil/Entil'zha equation ever surfaces, will almost certainly also be part human and part Minbari.
In conclusion, I leave you with a very small lesson in basic Minbari. One prefix, one suffix, though which is which may be open to question. va: time (from Vaire: weaver of time) len: traveller (from len/lem: journey, way, travel)
I cannot go without thanking Karen McDonald, Linda Mitchell, Jose Cobos, MCSK, and Witold Tieze for their helpful questions and insights. For this second look at The Mythic Well, I used the same reference books as last time, with the addition of George K. Anderson's The Literature of the Anglo-Saxons, Fernand Comte'sDictionary of Mythology, J.R.R. Tolkien's Unfinished Tales and a very large bottle of Moccona coffee.
Let me leave you with one of my favourite B5 quotes:I was raised by elves with attitude. jms