Saturday, January 15, 2011

Looking West

“A! Elbereth Gilthoniel!
silivren penna míriel
o menel aglar elenath,
Gilthoniel, A! Elbereth!
We still remember, we who dwell
In this far land beneath the trees
The starlight on the Western Seas.”
J.R.R. Tolkien: The Lord of The Rings, Book Six, The Grey Havens

When I walk down the street I live in, with its mobile phone bodegas, one Euro shops, veiled women and perfume bathed boys, it leads to a bridge over the little river Wien, sharing its name with the city, that runs into the Danube further down, having passed through and underneath the city’s central districts.

Passing over that bridge, my view is directed, always and inevitably, westward. And in this certain instance, the direction almost perfectly matches the real compass quarter. The view thus leads upstream towards the edge of the city, passing castle Schönbrunn and leading on to the hills of the Wienerwald beyond the periphery. Naturally, this is an imagined view, as far as the mind’s local horizon carries it, in fact obstructed by a slight bend of the river, bridges, houses, and other structures. What it shows, though, at all times, is a corridor towards the West, a gaze that leaves the city rather than moving towards its centre (which would be, theoretically, gazing into the opposite direction), a gaze also that reveals the endlessly different and beautiful skies of the moment and, catching the right times, the western directions possibly greatest treasure: the sunset.

In me, this view is at all times a powerful conglomeration of emotions and associations. Gazing out of the city, seeing much more of the open sky than many other times, down in the deep canyons of Viennese streets, but there is more to it than that. For, most times I pass this bridge, it is on the way to the city’s main (international) train station: the Westbahnhof. And every time I go there, or to other large train stations, be it to embark on an own journey, or to pick someone up or see them off, an almost irresistible longing to travel envelops me. Boarding a train with the most remote destination possible and letting it carry you away, through gradually less familiar lands and landscapes, always this same longing. Thus has passing over this bridge and gazing West taken on my intense longing for journey, and every time I cast that look, I am captured by the same feeling.

In this very personal sense, the direction of West has a very distinct and special emotional meaning to me. It means embarking on a journey into the direction of sunset’s most beautiful light, travelling through the night and re-emerging into a far away day. Is that not, in a sense, the same longing Tolkien imprinted his Elves with? It might be me and my associations, but marching to the Grey Havens to board a ship that will carry you hence into the West, over the mighty sea, is just that emotion I was trying to describe. That certain sense of longing, intertwined with the most beautiful melancholy of parting and moving on.

Soon, I will take my Grey Ship and journey on into the West. My days in Vienna are drawing to their close.

In that time the last of the Noldor set sail from the Havens and left Middle-earth for ever. And latest of all the Keepers of the Three Rings rode to the Sea, and Master Elrond took there the ship that Círdan had made ready. In the twilight of autumn it sailed out of Mithlond, until the seas of the Bent World fell away beneath it, and the winds of the round sky troubled it no more, and borne upon the high airs above the mists of the world it passed into the Ancient West, and an end was come for the Eldar of story and song.”
J.R.R. Tolkien: The Silmarillion, Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age

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