At the end of the Third Age of Middle-earth, many elves, and some hobbits, sail into the West.

What exactly does this mean—where are they sailing to? Do the characters know what to expect, or is it an unknown? The characters speak as if they are going to an afterlife. Doesn't anyone ever sail back?

I know there used to be an island—Númenor—to the west of Middle-earth, and that it sank, Atlantis style.

  • 9
    Read the Silmarillion; it's all there.
    – user8719
    Jan 5, 2014 at 15:15
  • 3
    Voting to close as "too broad" based on the criterion that "good answers would be too long for this format". The answers here are good, but they also leave a lot unanswered relating to the original geography of the world, the battles against Melkor, the War of Wrath, motives of the Valar (and even what exactly are the Valar?), etc; this is all necessary to understand exactly what is meant by "going West".
    – user8719
    Jan 5, 2014 at 15:49

4 Answers 4


This is not only explained in The Silmarillion, but in much less detail in the appendices to LoTR, which are definitely worth a read.

Very briefly, originally the world was flat, and the Valar (basically, the gods) dwelled on Valinor in the far west.

When the Elves awoke in Middle-earth, the Valar invited then to join them there, and those who obeyed the summons became known as Eldar. Later, some of the Eldar - including Galadriel - rebelled and came back to Middle-earth.

Much later, at the end of the Second Age, the Men of Númenor themselves rebelled against the command of the Valar that mortals were not allowed in Valinor. The Valar then appealed to Eru - i.e. God - who "bent the world", in other words, made it round, and removed Valinor from the round Earth so that mortals could not sail there.

However it was still permitted for Elves to sail on a "straight sea" and reach Valinor, although they could not then return to Middle-earth.

  • 3
    The Valar are not really gods. More alike to angels. Eru is more akin to a god.
    – The Fallen
    Jan 5, 2014 at 16:56
  • 13
    @@SSummer Eru is God, Valar are gods without the capital 'g', in the olympian sense :)
    – Eureka
    Jan 5, 2014 at 19:22
  • Yes, that was what I was going for. As I understand it, angels don't really have free will it any creative power in Christian mythology: that's obviously not the case for the Valar, even if the ultimate creative power comes from Eru. Jan 5, 2014 at 20:06
  • 7
    @DanielRoseman According to Christian mythology, Lucifer and 1/3 of the angels rebelled against God back before the fall of man, so they're not just puppets or avatars.
    – Rag
    Jan 13, 2014 at 23:50
  • definitely worth a read
    – Yohann V.
    May 29, 2015 at 11:34

To understand this, it is helpful to know a brief history of the earlier ages. Valinor, also known as The Undying Lands, or Aman the Blessed, was another continent adjacent to Middle-earth. It was the residence of the Valar, the Maiar, and many Elves (Eldar). It was a land of peace and beauty. After Melkor (Morgoth) stole the Silmarils and poisoned the Two Trees, touching off the War of the Jewels, as recounted in The Silmarillion, many of the Elves, specifically the Noldor, returned to Middle-earth to fight. This took place primarily in the First Age.

In the Second Age, the Island of Númenor grew in power, and became arguably the greatest of the kingdoms of Middle-earth. The men of Númenor were valiant and noble, until they were corrupted by none other than Sauron himself, manipulating them to his own ends. During the reign of Ar-Pharazôn, the great armament was launched, a massive invasion force even the Valar could not repel. So when the men of Númenor touched down, they "laid down their guardianship of the world, and called upon Eru." This resulted in three things:

  • First, the invasion force was trapped underground until Dagor Dagorath, or The Last Battle;
  • Second, the Island of Númenor was sunk beneath the ocean, and no longer accessible to men;
  • Third, and most importantly, Valinor was removed from the circles of the world, and could only be accessed by sailing a specific path, and only by those the Valar allowed (mainly Elves, and a few other notable exceptions).

So that answers where they are sailing to. As far as what to expect, the hobbits really don't. All they know is it is a land of rest. As noted in this question, it did not grant mortals eternal life, so it is not really an 'afterlife', but it was supposed to ease the hurts Frodo, Bilbo, etc. had received in their fight against evil.

Gandalf certainly knew what to expect, having been there for ages past, and some of the elves could conceivably have lived there as well (Galadriel did). Those who had been born in Middle-earth likely had heard stories and descriptions of it from those who had.

As far as sailing back, beings did sail back before Valinor was removed from the world. The aforementioned Noldor came back in great numbers to fight Morgoth (it is worth noting that because of this, many were exiled from Valinor for a time). It was certainly possible and feasible for anyone who liked to sail from Valinor to Middle-earth during this time. However, it is not clear if this would automatically result in some kind of adverse action.

After Valinor was removed from the world, however, we only find one instance recorded of someone sailing back to Middle-earth. That is the five Istari (wizards), who landed at the Gray Havens. This is where Gandalf was given Narya, the Ring of Fire, by Círdan the Shipwright. Presumably anyone wishing to sail back from Valinor would also need the Valar's permission, just as anyone sailing to Valinor needs the Valar's permission.


Its interesting to note that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, the east brings the birth of a new day, and the west heralds its demise, by such admittedly simplistic logic, I had surmised that "sailing into the west" symbolised the death of those who did so.

  • This is an interesting concept, however given the Elves are returning West it doesn't quite hold up. Although it does symbolise, at least in terms of the Elves, their departure from Middle-earth and the rise of the time of Men, the Second-born
    – Edlothiad
    Mar 14, 2020 at 9:22
  • @Edlothiad I've recently seen an exhibition of Tutankhamun's artificats, and 'sailing into the lands beyond the setting sun' has been a thing for millenia. They buried several (model) boats with him. Although, as you say, it's a version of the afterlife for immortals, so it seems Bilbo and Frodo have some special dispensation to have their fates to be joined with the elves.
    – richardb
    Mar 14, 2020 at 12:56
  • @richardb They did yes, as did Sam. They were ring-bearers.
    – Edlothiad
    Mar 14, 2020 at 20:51

The east is change and the future (Sauron is in the east). The west is the past, tradition, and stability (nothing dies there) - it is remembrance and the abode of the dead. The part of Middle-earth that Tolkien focuses upon is set between them (and the conflict between prideful rising powers and old powers that serve and sacrifice themselves).

And yes, I know that Tolkien disliked allegory; he did however enjoy using symbols.

  • 3
    -1. Sailing into the West is literally (as explained in-universe) going to Valinor. May 29, 2015 at 9:44
  • -1. Sailing to the West is indeed a literal thingey.. May 29, 2015 at 11:16
  • This post would make a really interesting comment. May 30, 2015 at 0:24

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