On the shores of the shoreless sea (03.05.15 by Simon J. Cook) - Comments

Et Eärello Endorenna utúlien. Sinome maruvan ar Hildinyar tenn’ Ambar-metta!


Sleeping in the house at Crickhollow, his last night in the Shire before setting off into the Old Forest and on the path that will lead eventually to Mordor and the fires of Mount Doom, Frodo has a dream:

He was on a dark heath, and there was a strange salt smell in the air. Looking up he saw before him a tall white tower, standing alone on a high ridge. A great desire came over him to climb the tower and see the Sea. He started to struggle up the ridge towards the tower: but suddenly a light came in the sky, and there was a noise of thunder.
‘A Conspiracy Unmasked’, The Fellowship of the Ring
Frodo's Vision on Amon Hen - Cor Blok

On his first night at the house of Tom Bombadil, the first safe haven encountered after leaving the Shire, Frodo dreams of another tower. At the top of this second tower he sees Gandalf rescued by Gwaihir, lord of the Eagles. This is a different tower and a different dream. This second tower is Orthanc, built by the men of Númenor but now home to Saruman, the traitor. Orthanc is situated in a valley enclosed by a circle of sheer rocks with hills and mountains in the distance. Here at Isengard we are a long way from the sea. If we want to find a tower like that of Frodo’s dream in Crickhollow we must put down The Lord of the Rings and turn rather to Tolkien’s meditations upon the Old English poem that cast such a deep spell over him, Beowulf. For in his famous lecture ‘Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics’, delivered before the British Academy in 1936, Tolkien criticized the state of academic Beowulf studies by way of the following analogy:

A man inherited a field in which was an accumulation of old stone, part of an older hall. Of the old stone some had already been used in building the house in which he actually lived, not far from the old house of his fathers. Of the rest he took some and built a tower. But his friends coming perceived at once (without troubling to climb the steps) that these stones had formerly belonged to a more ancient building. So they pushed the tower over, with no little labour, in order to look for hidden carvings and inscriptions, or to discover whence the man’s distant forefathers had obtained their building material. Some suspecting a deposit of coal under the soil began to dig for it, and forgot even the stones. They all said: ‘This tower is most interesting.’ But they also said (after pushing it over): ‘What a muddle it is in!’ And even the man’s own descendants, who might have been expected to consider what he had been about, were heard to murmur: ‘He is such an odd fellow! Imagine his using these old stones just to build a nonsensical tower! Why did not he restore the old house? He had no sense of proportion.’ But from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea.
‘Monsters and the Critics’, pp. 7-8 (emphasis added)

Just like the lecture itself, this analogy is very famous; it is frequently quoted and often explained in detail. Not all explanations of the various details are identical, but everyone agrees on the general idea: the Beowulf-poet has used ancient songs and stories in the making of his poem, the tower; the scholarly ‘friends’ are primarily interested in these older materials, and for this reason they knock the tower over and search among the rubble for inscriptions of interest. These scholars fail to recognize the aesthetic value of Beowulf as a poem in itself, which value is expressed by the view on the sea commanded by the tower. And this ocean vista brings us back to the tower that appeared to Frodo in his dream at Crickhollow. Does the similarity of building and view signify, perhaps, that in penning this early passage of The Lord of the Rings Tolkien was signaling his intent (if only to himself) to build a tower similar to that constructed all those centuries earlier by the unknown author of Beowulf? Perhaps. But why engage our imagination prematurely in such speculations when we can follow Tolkien’s imagination further by way of his great gift to us, his words? Consider, for example, what the following passage brings to our image of the tower. Also from 1936 British Academy lecture, Tolkien is here discussing the vision behind a particular phrase in Beowulf:

…he who wrote hæleð under heofenum may have meant in dictionary terms ‘heroes under heaven’, or ‘mighty men upon earth’, but he and his hearers were thinking of the eormengrund, the great earth, ringed with garsceg, the shoreless sea, beneath the sky’s inaccessible roof; wherein, as in a little circle of light about their halls, men with courage as their stay went forward to that battle with the hostile world and the offspring of the dark which ends for all, even the kings and champions, in defeat.
‘Monsters and the Critics’, p. 18

Another famous and oft-quoted passage, which goes to the heart of what Tolkien took to be the great virtue of the pagan North – its peculiar form of courage in the face of despair. This ‘Northern theory of courage’, as Tolkien called it, is the will to fight the unwinnable battle against the forces of darkness. (It is wonderfully illustrated in the 2003 movie version of The Return of the King in the scene in which Théoden is told: ‘Too few have come. We cannot defeat the armies of Mordor’; to which the King of Rohan replies: ‘No. We cannot. But we will meet them in battle nonetheless’). In her acclaimed study of Tolkien’s vision, Splintered Light, Verlyn Flieger singles out just this passage as the embodiment of Tolkien’s sense of the darkness of life, of his own tendencies to doubt and despair, all of which she juxtaposes with his vision of light – that “Joy beyond the walls of the world” glimpsed in the unlooked for happy ending of the fairy story (OFS 75, Splintered Light Chapter 3). As with so much of Tolkien’s thinking, this is gripping stuff; but what bearing might it have upon our image of that tower with a view of the sea, which was conjured up in 1936 as a metaphor for the aesthetic value of Beowulf and which appeared to Frodo in his dream the night before he left the Shire?

Actually, in trying to think about our tower and its view, this passage sows only confusion, at least in the first instance. In commenting upon the meaning of the words hæleð under heofenum, Tolkien introduces us to the bleakness that he finds at the heart of the old paganism of the North – a mood of despair in which the hero fights with the offspring of the dark without hope of victory. His image of this hopelessness is constructed by way of juxtaposition of the small circle of life within which men live their brief lives, the unreachable heaven above, and the shoreless sea that surrounds it. The sea, from this perspective, is an endless expanse, deep, and cold with the chill of despair. Which compels the question of why anyone would strive to build a tower from the top of which they could look, not inwards at the small circle of light that is our mortal life, but outwards over the surface of the deep. What is so appealing about gazing into the horizon where the empty abyss of the shoreless ocean touches the unreachable heaven above?

An answer, or at least the glimmerings of the beginning of one, is again to be found in Beowulf; indeed, in the very first lines of this Old English poem. Here is Tolkien’s translation:

Lo! the glory of the kings of the people of the Spear-Danes in days of old we have heard tell, how those princes did deeds of valour. Oft Scyld Scefing robbed the hosts of foemen… he who first was found forlorn… a good king was he! … Then at his allotted hour Scyld the valiant passed into the keeping of the Lord; and to the flowing sea his dear comrades bore him… high above his head they set a golden standard and gave him to Ocean, let the sea bear him. Sad was their heart and mourning in their soul. None can report with truth, nor lords in their halls, nor mighty men beneath the sky, who received that load.
Beowulf, p. 13

These opening lines set the scene for the first part of Beowulf’s story – his victorious fight with the monster Grendel in the legendary golden mead hall called Heorot. The poet begins his poem by building up a stirring image of the background to this story, which he achieves by describing the genealogy of the Danish royal house down to King Hrothgar, and then telling how this king built the great but doomed mead hall (doomed because, as all once knew, Heorot would be destroyed in the ultimately futile assault upon King Hrothgar by his son-in-law, Ingeld, last king of the Heathobards). This is all splendid stuff; but for now we must pass over the great part of it, permitting ourselves to pause only over the first name that we find in the genealogy with which the poem begins, the name of Scyld Scefing.

For Scyld Scefing came from and returned over the shoreless sea. This is suggested in the poem with regard to his death, or rather his sea-burial. But Tolkien tells us that when the poet sang of Scyld Scefing as “he who first was found forlorn”, his original audiences would have known this for a reference to a great king, the founder of his people, who came as an infant over the ocean alone on a boat. And Tolkien goes further, asserting in his commentary that in the image of the king who arrives and departs over the sea the Beowulf-poet has hinted of a further shore on the other side of the shoreless sea, a mysterious land in the uttermost West, beyond the cold circle of darkness that surrounds our mortal life. And this is very interesting. For here, surely, is the glimmer of a view across the sea for even a glimpse of which it might be worth building and then climbing a great tower!

We have a lead and must follow it. Let us unpack Tolkien’s scholarly reflections on Scyld Scefing. In his commentary on Beowulf, Tolkien explains that, as he appears in the poem, this good king is a composite figure produced by the blending of two distinct traditions – the one concerning Scyld, the warlike and no doubt fictitious founder of the Danish royal house, the other a much older myth bound up in traditions concerning the ancient Vanir gods of fertility and the coming of agriculture to the North. It was the ancient pagan myth of the corn-god Ing, or his descendant the culture-hero Scef, which contained the idea of the infant child alone on a boat that arrives on the shore. And in general it was this ancient Vanir myth, rather than the Danish royal genealogy, that fascinated Tolkien. Indeed, from his commentary on Beowulf it is clear that Tolkien believed the historical Heorot to have been built upon the very site of an ancient sanctuary sacred to the Vanir fertility cult associated with Ing and Scef. We must discover more about the traditions of this cult, or at least of Tolkien’s understanding of them.

As it happens, we have a pretty good idea of how Tolkien conceived of the ancient tradition of Scef, the culture-hero associated with the cult. This is because around 1937 he wrote his story down: today it can be found in volumes five and nine of the History of Middle-earth series under the title ‘King Sheave’. This story begins with the arrival, on the Atlantic shore, of an infant boy with a sheaf of corn beneath his head (after which he is called). The boy becomes king and teaches his people not only the art of agriculture, but also runecraft and “song and verse-craft” and many other new things and new words. The children of King Sheave become kings of the Northern tribes, and in their day there is peace in the North and “a man might cast a golden ring upon the highway and it would remain until he took it up again.” On reaching old age Sheave lay upon his bed “and became as one in deep slumber”; his people placed him upon a ship, where his:

…golden banner flew above his head… and the sea took him, and the ship bore him unsteered far away into the uttermost West out of the sight or thought of men. Nor do any know who received him in what haven at the end of his journey.
Lost Road pp. 94-5 (see also Sauron Defeated pp. 273-76)

These last lines of ‘King Sheave’ echo those opening lines of Beowulf that tell of the funeral boat that bore Scyld Scefing. And here is a conundrum. In the main, Tolkien’s ‘King Sheave’ is clearly a conjectural reconstruction. That is, knowing that there was once a story like this, and based upon what fragmentary evidence can be pieced together, Tolkien creates an ‘as if’ story of how the original tradition might have been told. And yet he introduces into his story an element that he was certain did not belong to the original tradition. This is the ship-burial, which he found in the story of Scyld Scefing in Beowulf, but which we know (from his commentary) that Tolkien held an innovation introduced by the Beowulf-poet. So we have a conjectural reconstruction of ancient pagan tradition that includes a known innovation from Christian times. What is going on here?

Engaging with this last question brings us face to face with the beating creative heart of Tolkien’s scholarly and artistic imagination. Let us start with what he has to say about Scyld Scefing’s sea-burial in his commentary on Beowulf. With this artistic innovation, observes Tolkien, the Beowulf-poet is making the “suggestion” (no more: for “the idea was probably not fully formed” in the mind of the poet) that Scyld Scefing had come “out of the Unknown beyond the Great Sea, and returned into it: a miraculous intrusion into history, which nonetheless left real historical effects” (Beowulf 151). Singling out the lines, as to how no man knows to what haven came the funeral boat, quoted above from both the poem and Tolkien’s (echo of the poem in) ‘King Sheave’, Tolkien declares that here, in this Old English but nevertheless Christian poem:

we catch an echo of the ‘mood’ of pagan times… A mood in which what we should call the ritual of a departure over the sea whose further shore was unknown, and an actual belief in a magical land or other world located ‘over the sea’ can hardly be distinguished… It was a murnende mód [mourning mood] filled with doubt and darkness.
Beowulf pp. 151-2 (emphasis in original)

So if the sea-burial is an addition to actual pagan tradition, such artistry, believes Tolkien, captures a profound truth concerning the spirit of ancient English paganism itself. Such artistry combines two distinct elements: the hint of a land of mystery, an idea of a place beyond death, and a mood or feeling that saturates the vision of such a land. To the ancient Northern tribes the Atlantic Ocean was an uncrossed expanse of sea, encompassing the middle-earth upon which lived mortal men. The further shore beyond the ocean surrounds mortal life, yet is of immeasurable distance from it; a distance that places this shore out of mortal reach. Any songs and stories that recall this further shore surely descend from very long ago, and have grown dim and ragged in the telling. The image of Faërie is not only suffused with doubt and sorrow but has faded to the very edge of memory.

Further Shore

On his second night at the house of Tom Bombadil, “either in his dreams or out of them” (he cannot tell which), Frodo hears in his mind a sweet singing:

a song that seemed to come like a pale light behind a grey rain-curtain, and growing stronger to turn the veil all to glass and silver, until at last it was rolled back, and a far green country opened before him under a swift sunrise.
‘Fog on the Barrow-Downs’, The Fellowship of the Ring

Here, surely, is the rolling away of the grey gloom of paganism, the mourning mood that suffuses the vision of the further shore in ancient English pagan story. And if there is any doubt that Frodo, in the house of Tom Bombadil, has caught a glimpse of Faërie in the west, that doubt is dispelled at the end of The Lord of the Rings when, having kissed Merry, Pippin, and Sam goodbye, Frodo sails away on an Elvish ship:

And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.
‘The Grey Havens’, The Return of the King

Of course, Frodo’s is hardly the only crossing of the shoreless sea envisaged in Tolkien’s fairy stories. Journeys of the Elves between the Great Lands and Valinor, the undying lands in the uttermost West, movements of an immortal race in and out of exile, provide the overarching structure to the various tales of the First Age eventually published as The Silmarillion. At the heart of the Second Age stands the realm of Númenor, situated on an island midway between Faërie and Middle-earth, the home of mortal Elf-friends, but destroyed when these ‘men of the West’ seek immortality and set sail toward the further shore. The Third Age is bound up in the line of the kings, the descendant of Elendil who escaped the deluge of Númenor, arriving – like Scef – on the shores of Middle-earth from over the western ocean. And the end of the Third Age sees the departure back into the West of the remaining Elves of Middle-earth, together with Gandalf and also the ring-bearers. These various arrivals and departures across the Great Sea frame the mythical histories of the first ages of our Middle-earth.

There is no gloom or sorrow in Tolkien’s image of the undying lands. Indeed, the rolling back of the grey rain-curtain to reveal a sunrise over white shores and a green country provides an image of the turning of sorrow to joy. As such, this is an image of that unlooked for happy ending that Tolkien declared one of the functions of fairy stories today, in our modern age. In the epilogue to his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ Tolkien discusses the joy of the Christian who discovers that the story of the gospels is true, that Christ really has conquered death. One can hardly avoid the conclusion that in Frodo’s vision of the further shore Tolkien has self-consciously transformed a pagan into a Christian mood. There, in the opening lines of Beowulf, we find an image shrouded in uncertainty, identified by Tolkien with an echo of a bygone paganism; here, in the lines penned by Tolkien himself, is a joyous vision unveiled behind a curtain of sorrow. Frodo, and with him all readers of The Lord of the Rings, discover with joy what the unknown poet who composed Beowulf, and his pagan English forefathers, glimpsed only dimly and with sadness. The difference of mood is a contrast of paganism and Christianity. And yet this cannot be the whole story.

Frodo does not only encounter the further shore with joy, he also sees it clearly. This greater clarity of vision cannot be explained in terms of a switch from a pagan to a Christian perspective. The Christian may have faith, and faith is the conquest of doubt; but faith by definition is not certain knowledge. Faith may bring joy to the heart, but it does not reveal to the mind’s eye that which is above or beyond. The faithful Christian who climbs the tower and gazes out over the shoreless see still sees but through a glass darkly. More importantly, perhaps, beyond the shoreless sea is not God’s kingdom: the “road to fairyland is not the road to Heaven; nor even to Hell” (OFS 28). The pagan is no doubt confused about what lies upon the further shore; but the Christian should not mistake the immortality of the Elves who dwell in the undying lands for the eternity of heaven, the realm of mortals who have conquered death. In short, the traditions of paganism belong to a realm of myth and fairy story distinct from that of true religion. The clarity of vision with which Frodo (and through him ourselves) see Faërie has nothing to do with Christianity. So while Tolkien certainly worked to remove the heathen elements from English paganism, the lucidity of his image of Faërie was not an obvious facet of his Christianity.

The key to the clarity of Frodo’s vision is to be found in a concern with pagan tradition that, on the surface at least, has little to do with religion. Tolkien was long associated with the study of English at Oxford. The roots of Oxford English lie in the nineteenth-century study of Classics, and ancient Greek tragedy had been taken as a benchmark of literary excellence in the establishment of a canon of English literature around the turn of the century. Tolkien resisted this idea of literature, pointing out that tragedy is a form of drama, and as such a visual as much as a spoken art. Real literature, he insisted, begins and ends with stories; and the origins of literature are the oral traditions recorded by the folklorist and the anthropologist and discerned within extant but ancient texts by the philologist. In other words, the origins of the national literature were to be found in the traditions of ancient English paganism. Tolkien did not only value Beowulf as a tower with a view of the sea; like the critics he criticized he was also intensely interested in the many allusions it contained to older oral traditions, stories told by the English before their migration to the British Isles. But this was not only to advance an unconventional notion of the origins of English literature, it was also to coopt into English studies material that might otherwise be considered the preserve of the student of comparative religion. The ancient traditions of the English were bound up in their pagan worldview; but Tolkien took them, not as documents in the history of religious belief, but as stories.

Writing introduces permanence; the most certain thing that can be said about a body of oral tradition is that it will change in time. An obscure, but strangely relevant illustration of what this meant for Tolkien can be found in an outline of a story that he composed as a young man about a mysterious figure called Ingwë, found today in the second volume of the History of Middle-earth series. The story was intended to begin with and branch out from the greater story of Eärendel, the half-Elven mariner at the center of Tolkien’s conception of the passing of (what came to be called) the First Age. At one point in his travels Eärendel was to take refuge with Ingwë, and give to him an enchanted Elven drink that bestowed upon him immortality (implying, we should note, that Ingwë was born a mortal man). Ingwë is subsequently shipwrecked at sea, rescued alone on a raft, and then taken as king of the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Frisians, “who adopt the title of Ingwaiwar. He teaches them much magic and first sets men’s hearts to seafaring westward”. But after many years, “Ingwë sets sail in a little boat and is heard of no more” (Lost Tales II 312-13).

Who is Ingwë? One obvious answer is that Ingwë is just another name for the person whose tale Tolkien later tells as ‘King Sheave’, and whose ancient tradition was taken by the Beowulf-poet as one of the two threads by which he wove his opening account of Scyld Scefing. Indeed, the return of Ingwë back over the ocean evidently draws upon the innovation of the Old English poet. In his commentary on Beowulf Tolkien makes clear that the story of the mysterious arrival of the baby over the ocean was told about both the corn-god and the culture-hero, “his descendant”. The culture-hero is Sheave. The corn-god is the ancient fertility deity of Vanir tradition, known by the Norsemen as Frey but Ing by the English. Tolkien’s later ‘King Sheave’ tells the story of the culture-hero, while our early outline concerns Ing (Ingwë), who later tradition made into a god. But another obvious answer, at least to readers of The Silmarillion, is that Ingwë is the Elven King of the Vanyar. Actually, the forerunner of this Elven Ingwë also appears in these very early fairy stories: head of the royal claim of the Inwir, one of the first emissaries to Valinor, this other Ingwë meets his death after leading his people back to the Great Lands to battle Morgoth. So this Elven Ingwë is distinct from the subject of our outline, who becomes king of the Northern tribes, who call themselves the Ingwaiwar. And yet their stories have such striking parallels that the shared name can hardly be accidental.

By positing two kings with the same name, the one born mortal but becoming immortal, the other born immortal but meeting his death, Tolkien has set up the conditions of the later confusions of pagan oral tradition. Specifically, his own supposedly very ancient stories provide the raw materials by which a pagan generation, who have largely forgotten the Elves and their role in the early history of the North, have come to imagine a god called Ing at the center of all the traditions concerning Ingwë. As such, this early story of Ingwë illustrates Tolkien’s general approach to the ideas (as opposed to the mood) found in ancient English pagan traditions. Positing his own stories as much more ancient than any known pagan traditions, these historical traditions are made to appear as corruptions of (Tolkien’s own) original fairy stories. Put another way, Tolkien’s stories are conjectural reconstructions, showing what the original stories that eventually became the known traditions of paganism might have looked like. Frodo’s vision of the further shore is more clear than anything found in Beowulf, not because it is somehow more Christian, but because it is (imagined by Tolkien as) the more ancient. Frodo’s is the original vision, very dim reflections of which can be discerned in Beowulf, which Tolkien once referred to as “the remnants of the oldest recorded English tales of Faërie (or its borders)” (OFS 46).


Faërie is not only over the sea, it is also here. Or rather, if you can look over the shoreless sea and glimpse the undying lands then, on turning round, a perilous realm of enchantment will open up before you. This is one of the lessons of Tolkien’s famous essay on fairy stories, which, he tells us, are not stories about fairies but about Faërie, the land of enchantment, a distant realm that we might find ourselves walking within at any moment. But it is actually a lesson Tolkien discovered in Beowulf. For if the Old English poet commences with an invocation of the pagan tradition of the king who came to his people from beyond the shoreless sea, he proceeds to tell the story of a haunted hall, an ogre, a giant-killer, and a mortal struggle with a dragon. The little circle of light surrounded by the shoreless sea becomes the arena within which a fairy story unfolds. And of course, The Lord of the Rings, with its Elves and orcs and wizards and magic rings is also a fairy story set in our Middle-earth, albeit very long ago. In their passages across the shoreless sea, Sheave and Frodo and others ensure that our inner shore is encompassed within the realm of fairy story.

Our tower overlooking the sea stands on the shore of a perilous realm. Frodo, in his dream, longs to climb the tower and look upon the sea. Eventually, he will not only arrive at the ocean in waking life but sail over it to the further shore. But first he must undertake a journey inland, through many lands, some enchanted, some filled with monsters, some with heroes, but all found on the nearer shore of our Middle-earth. And at the end of his quest, before he departs from Middle-earth, Frodo takes part in the coronation of Aragorn, the king who has returned to his people, the heir of Elendil, who came to his people from over the ocean. And what of the tower built of ancient stone by the unknown poet who composed Beowulf? Again, in the introductory invocation of Scyld Scefing we have an initial glimpse of arrival and departure over the mysterious sea, which is then followed by a heroic fairy story set on this nearer shore. Our towers are not the same. But it seems that they share more than just design and view. For surely the old stone with which the Old English poet constructed his tale of monsters and a hero came originally from stories not so different to those of Frodo and Aragorn and the great events of the first ages of the world? Over time such stories no doubt became corrupt, with much forgotten and much confused. But this is just to observe that between our two towers was built an ancient pagan hall.

Then Aragorn took the crown and held it up and said:

Et Eärello Endorenna utúlien. Sinome maruvan ar Hildinyar tenn’ Ambar-metta!

And those were the words that Elendil spoke when he came up out of the Sea on the wings of the wind: ‘Out of the Great Sea to Middle-earth I am come. In this place will I abide, and my heirs, unto the ending of the world.’
‘The Steward and the King’, The Return of the King

Works Cited

Flieger, V. Splintered Light: logos and language in Tolkien’s World. Kent State University Press, 2002.

J.R.R. Tolkien. Beowulf. A translation and commentary. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014.

J.R.R. Tolkien. ‘Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics’. In The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. London: Harper Collins, 1997.

J.R.R. Tolkien. Sauron Defeated. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1992.

J.R.R. Tolkien. The Book of Lost Tales Part II. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. New York: ballantine Books, 1992.

J.R.R. Tolkien. The Fellowship of the Ring. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1977.

J.R.R. Tolkien. The Lost Road and Other Writings. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. New York: ballantine Books, 1996.

J.R.R. Tolkien. The Return of the King. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1977.

J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien on fairy-stories [OFS]. Edited by Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson. London: Harper Collins, 2014.

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