Cuiviénen is (or was) a lake, a ‘starlit mere’, in a forgotten corner of Middle-earth – forgotten because none of the action of The Lord of the Rings takes place there. Its name is derived from cuivië (‘awakening’ or occasionally ‘life’) and nen (‘water’).
It is the place where the Elves wake up. Consciousness stirs in them; they open their eyes and see the stars, the only light present in Middle-earth at that moment. And while they look on those lights, they hear ‘the sound of water flowing, and the sound of water falling over stone’.
Ted Nasmith has made a lovely illustration of the scene.
In a casual aside in the middle of the description, there is this – to me one of the most heart-wrenching passages in the Quenta Silmarillion:
In the changes of the world the shapes of lands and of seas have been broken and remade; rivers have not kept their courses, neither have mountains remained steadfast; and to Cuiviénen there is no returning.
Some of the best stories involve a return; the return to one’s place of birth or old school, or a meeting with an old friend; the comfort of seeing that some things stay the same, the discovery of how you yourself have changed, but also the sweetness of the memory that only the place itself can recall. (For Dutch readers: someone had this experience recently while visiting our house.)
All this is denied to the Elves. To Cuiviénen there is no returning.
I was invited recently to come to an open evening of the Navigators Student Union, a Christian movement that aims to train Christians ‘to know Christ and to make Him known’. It started its ministry to university students at the University of Nebraska, and opened its first Dutch chapter in Delft.
The person who had invited me was temporarily absent, so I knew no one there, but I was cordially invited to come over with one subgroup to the Bible study. A kind student lent me his bike and I accompanied the others through the city to a private room.
During the informal chatting prior to the Bible study, the two other new people asked me what I studied.
‘I just finished my Theology studies,’ I said.
‘How old are you?’ one of them asked.
‘Twenty-six,’ I said.
‘You’re old,’ he deduced.
‘How old are you?’ I said.
He turned out to be seventeen – younger than my brother who is already 7 years younger than I am.
In the course of the conversation, I became uncomfortably aware that I was indeed old. There was a time when I could simply go to meetings like these and present myself as an interested student. But I am no longer a student.
I remember Bible studies from my student years, when I would wait for questions, think about them seriously, and give the best answer I could give (with a strong readiness to debate opponents). Now, I was constantly aware of group dynamics, thinking about the intention behind the questions that were asked, and biting my tongue to refrain from giving all-too-complete answers that would kill thought rather than stimulate it.
The 17-year-old had a vaguely Christian background; he was intelligent and curious, but he did not know what theology was or where the book of Genesis could be found in the Bible. So I did my very best to come across as just another guest (which I was), not as a teacher, even if I was a bit grey around the temples.
It was a good and open conversation, a bit awkward at times, but Bible studies tend to be that.
Still, it was unsettling to sit there, feeling all the time that I was too old for a student group. When did that happen? Was I not irresponsible and free enough to pass for a student? Not filled with grand impractical thoughts, overconfidently expressed theories, shadowy dreams about the future, the urge to know everything about things that were interesting, a serious pretense of seriousness, and a strange docility?
On Saturday, I will go on retreat. One week later, I will be ordained. From that day I will walk around in Delft as a minister (Latin for diakonos) of the Church. It still seems light years away. But when it happens, nine centuries from today, what other things will I be too old for?
To Cuiviénen there is no returning.
But from Cuiviénen there is a road to walk.