Episode 12: Getting Medieval on Earendel

Once upon a time, the people of England had a mythology rich in symbolism and metaphor pointing to the ultimate truth. There was one story in particular which captured the imagination of poets, the story of a star that entered into time and lifted the people of the world out of darkness. The star’s name was Earendel—but what did his name mean? Who among men was so wise that he could unravel the riddle and make clear the mystery? J.R.R. Tolkien believed he knew! O come, O come, and learn the story of the star!

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The O Antiphons of the Advent Lyrics
I. “O King of the people and their hearts’ desire; O Cornerstone, who make both things one: come and save humanity whom you have fashioned from clay.” 
II. “O Key of David and Sceptre of the House of Israel; you who open and no one closes; who close and
no one opens: come and lead the captive sitting in darkness and the shadow of death from his prison-house.” 
III. “O Jerusalem, city of God most High: raise up your eyes to heaven and behold your Lord, who comes now to release you from your shackles.”  
IV. “O Virgin of virgins, how shall this come about? For one like you has never been seen before, nor will there be a successor. O daughters of Jerusalem, why are you amazed by my situation? The mystery which you perceive is divine in nature.”  
V. “O Morning Star, Splendour of eternal Light and Sun of Justice: come and shine upon humanity sitting in darkness and the shadow of death.”  
VI. “O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, Expectation of the peoples of the earth and their Saviour: O Lord, our God, come to save us.” 
VII. “O Joseph, why did you believe what before you feared? Why indeed? The One whom Gabriel announced would be coming, Christ, is begotten in her by the Holy Spirit.”  
VIII. “O King of Peace, you who were born before the ages: come forth through the golden gate, visit those you have redeemed, and summon them back to that place from which they rushed headlong through sin.”  
IX. “Lady of the universe, sprung from royal seed: Christ has now come forth from your womb like the groom from the bridal chamber: He lies in a manger who also rules the stars.”  
X. “O Lord of the heavens, you who are eternal with the Father and one with the Holy Spirit, hear your servants: come and save us now; do not delay.”  
XI. “Let us praise the Lord, whom the angels praise, whom the Cherubim and Seraphim proclaim, ‘Holy, holy, holy,’ and ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts. Heaven and earth are filled with your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.’”  
XII. “O wonderful exchange: the Creator of the human race, assuming a living body, deigned to be born from a Virgin: and, becoming man without seed, bestowed on us His divinity.”
—Cited by Craig Williamson, trans. Bernard Muir

  • Ed. and trans. by Mary Clayton, Old English Poems of Christ and His Saints, Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2013), 1-31
  • Trans. Craig Williamson, The Complete Old English Poems (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), 301-325
  • Read by Michael Drout (Wheaton College) at Anglo-Saxon Aloud: lines 1-103 (O King of Nations, O Key of David, O Jerusalem, O Virgin of Virgins); lines 104-213 (O Dayspring, O Emmanuel, O Joseph); lines 214-347 (O King of Peace, O Splendor of the World); lines 348-439 (O Blessed Trinity, O Wondrous Exchange)
  • Bernard J. Muir, ed. The Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry, 2nd ed. rev., 2 vols. (Exeter: Exeter University Press, 2000) (cited by Williamson)
  • Notes on sources at The Hymns and Carols of Christmas
Advent Lyric V, The Exeter Book
On the symbolism of Advent
Liturgical texts
  • The Magnificat (Luke 1: 39-56)
  • O Antiphons: O Sapientia, O Adonai, O Radix Jesse, O Clavis David, O Oriens, O Rex Gentium, O Emmanuel
  • O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” trans. John Mason Neal (1818-1866)
  • Hartker Antiphoner, St. Gall, Stiftsbibliothek MS 390-391: O Virgo Virginum, O Gabriel, O Rex Pacifice, O Mundi Domina, O Hierusalem
Supporting Texts
  • J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (London: Allen & Unwin, 1954-1955): bk. 2, chap. I (Bilbo’s song); bk. 4, chap. IX (“A light when all other lights go out!”) 
  • J.R.R. Tolkien, Letters, ed. Humphrey Carpenter (London: Allen & Unwin, 1981), Letter 297: Drafts for a letter to ‘Mr. Rang’ (on the meaning of “Earendel” in Tolkien’s mythology)
  • J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” in Tree and Leaf (London: Allen & Unwin, 1964)
  • Susan Cooper, The Dark is Rising (London: Chatto & Windus, 1973). NB the Infogalactic entry on the Doors through which the Old Ones enter into Time: “Their origin is not explained in the books.” 
Further reading on the Exeter Advent Lyrics 

Images (h/t A Clerk of Oxford, who has even more beautiful images in her blogposts about the Advent Lyrics)
  • Virgin and Child, London, British Library, MS Add. 34890 (“The Grimbald Gospels”), fol. 115, A.D. 1012-1023, Christ Church Cathedral, Canterbury
  • Virgin and Child, walrus ivory, Winchester (or Canterbury?), A.D. 1000-1020, Victoria and Albert Museum A.5-1935
  • The Trinity, London, British Library, MS Add. 34890 (“The Grimbald Gospels”), fol. 114v
Course Study Guide


  1. I have an idea and observation about how the Creator may enter in His creation without destroying it. This comes from mathematics, something orthogonal to the literate mind it seems. The Fourier Transform and its inverse allow for separating a source, such as light, into its component frequencies and structures. The key concept is that the transform as observed takes on the form and properties of the aperture at the focal plane. Your discussion of Mary as being or holding the crystal makes sense; she as the gate and aperture transformed the unbounded Power to a structure and intensity that can be among us as Priest, King, and Sacrifice. The Ascension can be viewed as an inverse transform from Earth back to Heaven, with the Spirit being sent to be among us always. The usual optical disclaimer applies: do not gaze too long at the full Glory, lest you burn out your mortal sight.
    That gate's key was shaped as the eternal "yes" needed to open the lock, so the King may enter and depart as needed. It's to our shame that modernists keep working to build a dark wall in front of the open gate, to block the Light from fear and spite.

    That's a parable for the left- as opposed to right-dominant brains.

    Tolkien's letter concerning the origin of Earendil had me in fits of laughter. Of course he wrote it, wrapped around a riddle! There was nothing of real Chistianity in his staid Edwardian days of his youth. However, this would be prior to personal observation of when the Leager of Thangorodrim broke after five centuries, and the unbridled powers of Hell were loosed on fair and innocent Beleriand. One tends to believe fervently in the mythos and images ignored in more bland and banal times.

    1. I love this! In medieval terms, Mary is the Mother of all the liberal arts, both those of language and of number, the trivium and the quadrivium. You make me want to think about the numbers more! Merry Christmas!

  2. Silent Draco - I am not familiar with that form of mathematics, although I follow (I think) the gist of what you are applying as a metaphor to Mary and her Fiat. Perhaps you've chanced on to an interesting mathematical argument for her role as Co-Mediatrix?

    1. It's possible, but I want to pray and reflect further. Prosaic enough inspiration; I was in the middle of stretching exercises while listening, and some light filtered in through branches to leave a pattern on the wall, the series of brighter and darker shadows around a bright center. The gate, or aperture at the lens' focal length as metaphor popped to mind. An even- order Fresnel pattern, diffusing the Light to a level mortals can bear.

      The metaphor is in mathematical language, not a verbal tongue. The metaphor popped so fast, that I had to stop to draw and scribble notes before it vanished.

  3. I just started listening to your Medieval History lessons. I'm wondering if there's a link somewhere to get a simple map of the places you are talking about as we go. Your links are so numerous (which I'm thankful for) that even when I click one that says map or atlas, the site is so huge that I can't seem to navigate to a simple map. Right now I am listening to IV.

    1. Check for the episode guide for each lecture. The particular maps are there. Enjoy!


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