In The Book of Lost Tales (BoLT) Tolkien name drops the "Sleeper in the tower of pearl", but apparently only ever had very rough ideas about this part of the story. At one point, and then abandoned, the Sleeper was going to turn out to be someone called Idril. But since this predates all the later development of The Silmarillion, it's not safe to assume this is the same as Idril in the published version.

Who was Idril at the time of the writing of BoLT, and would there have been any potential significance of her turning out to be the Sleeper?

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    The Sleeper in the Tower of Pearl likely developed into Elwing, who dwelled in a tower on the shores of Araman after Earendel was put up into the sky.
    – Spencer
    Jan 11, 2021 at 0:51
  • @Spencer thanks, and this probably ties in well with Eärendel being mentioned in proximity to said passage(s). Though it doesn't really address the question.... Jan 11, 2021 at 4:01
  • Thus a comment.
    – Spencer
    Jan 11, 2021 at 4:35
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    Idril was not a later development. She is present as daughter of Turgon, wife of Tuor, and mother of Eärendil in the earliest conceptions of the mythology. I'd have to sit down and read all the relevant parts of BoLT, but which part do you find problematic?
    – chepner
    Jan 11, 2021 at 16:10
  • @chepner not problematic, I'm only reading through BoLT for the first time, and I'm doing it with an open mind. I know names got moved around a lot, so I wasn't making assumptions on who is who. Jan 11, 2021 at 20:35

1 Answer 1


The Sleeper of the Tower of Pearl is a character in one of Tolkien's poems that preceded The Book of Lost Tales.

On June 24th 1915, back when Tolkien's entire legendarium consisted of just a few loosely connected poems and some linguistic stuff, he wrote a poem titled "The Happy Mariners". This was published in June 1920 in The Stapeldon Magazine and then in a slightly revised form in 1923 in A Northern Venture. (The 1920 version can now be found in Tolkien and the Great War, and the 1923 version in The Book of Lost Tales part 2.)

I know a window in a western tower
That opens on celestial seas,
And wind that has been blowing through the stars
Comes to nestle in its tossing draperies.
It is a white tower builded in the Twilit Isles
Where Evening sits for ever in the shade;
It glimmers like a spike of lonely pearl
That mirrors beams forlorn and lights that fade;

My forte is regurgitating Tolkien books I've read, not critically analysing poetry, so I'll just quote Hammond and Scull on this one.

The poet, looking out from a window ‘that opens on celestial seas’, describes ‘a white tower builded in the Twilit Isles’ that ‘glimmers like a spike of lonely pearl’, and ‘fairy boats’ that ‘go by to gloaming lands’. He admires the ‘happy mariners’ upon their journey ‘To those great portals on the Western shores / Where, far away, constellate fountains leap, / And dashed against Night’s dragon-headed doors / In foam of stars fall sparkling in the deep’.
J.R.R. Tolkien: Companion and Guide - "The Happy Mariners"

At the time this was written, Tolkien's mythology had not been much developed. The only real connection the poem even really had to his previous poetry was the mention in passing towards the end of Earendel. ("Ye follow Earendel through the West - / The Shining Mariner - to islands blest") John Garth notes that it's likely Tolkien didn't have anyone in mind to associate with Sleeper, who at this time was only created for the poem.

But the story of the Sleeper was never developed, and at this early stage it is not at all clear that Tolkien himself knew exactly what place his images might take within his mythology, any more than he had known exactly who Eárendel was when he first wrote about him. It is possible that in 'The Happy Mariners' these details are seen at the time of their first emergence into his consciousness and that he then set about 'discovering' their significance.
Tolkien and the Great War - Chapter 5 - "Benighted wanderers"

When Tolkien wrote The Book of Lost Tales a few years later, he tried to incorporate some of his earlier poetry into the mythology. So the Sleeper of the Tower of Pearl gets mentioned in a few places, giving some context to the poem, but overall both the Sleeper and the Tower still remain rather undeveloped. As you've noted, Christopher points out there was a rejected note in an outline that the Sleeper would be Idril. This outline postdates the poem by several years and was created after Idril was already the wife of Tuor, so it's safe to assume that this rejected idea would have the same character. (The significance would probably be that the Sleeper was then Eárendel's mother, as he's the only character the Sleeper has ever sort of interacted with.) However, this is the only time that Tolkien gave the Sleeper a named identity. Like many parts of the Book of Lost Tales, it just wasn't fully developed before the work was abandoned, and the Sleeper does not appear in subsequent versions of the Legendarium.

While somewhat debatable, John Garth also speculates that the Sleeper may have actually been Tolkien himself, describing the feelings he had in 1915 in the training camps on the way to the war.

Eárendel's poetic function here is quite different to what it was in 'The Voyage of Eárendel the Evening Star', written ten months earlier. Then, Tolkien had celebrated the star-mariner's daring twilight flight, and the poem had followed him across the night sky. But the speaker in 'The Happy Mariners' is apparently confined in this tower and cannot sail in Eárendel's wake; the twilight is a paralysing veil. Perhaps these differences of viewpoint reflect the change in Tolkien's own situation and mood between defying the rush to arms in 1914 and committing himself now, in 1915, as a soldier. Read this way, the statement that the enviable mariners 'bide no moment and await no hour' looks less opaque, implying that Tolkien, as he began training for war, voiced some of his own anxiety about the future through the figure in the tower of pearl.
Tolkien and the Great War - Chapter 5 - "Benighted wanderers"

  • Ok, thanks. So, basically, Eárendel's mum, but as we all now, his story was never actually written. I'm up to the Nauglafring chapter in BoLT2, so I'll get the raw story soon. Jul 4, 2021 at 21:08
  • @DavidRoberts - Yes, but only in the brief time between writing the note and rejecting it. Other than that he/she is just a new character.
    – ibid
    Jul 5, 2021 at 2:05
  • Oh, absolutely. But that is why I asked for precisely the time when Idril=Sleeper, not elsewhen :-) Jul 5, 2021 at 3:09

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