Before the Downfall of Númenor, the realm of the Gods in Valinor was still present in the world, and those Elves who wished to reach it could do so by sailing on into the West. After the Downfall, Valinor was taken away, and the World took on the round shape we know today. Mortals sailing into the West simply circled the globe and eventually returned to their starting place.
For the Elves, however, a way was left open to return to Valinor; the Straight Road. An elven-ship sailing into the West left the Bent World, and travelled through the air 'as it were on a mighty bridge invisible'1, until they came to Tol Eressëa and the Undying Lands.
The Straight Road was not entirely closed to Mortals; some by the special grace of the Valar could use it, as did the ring-bearers at the end of the Third Age. Other mortal mariners too, it was said, would sometimes find the Road and come to the shores of Aman before they died.
It is not certain whether the Straight Road could be traversed in both directions (that is, whether Elves of Valinor could return to Middle-earth). There are suggestions in Tolkien's unpublished writing that this may have been the case (though this is also contradicted by his later letters). It is suggested, for example, that Glorfindel of Rivendell, who appears in The Lord of the Rings, may have been the same Glorfindel who was slain in the Fall of Gondolin in The Silmarillion, returned from the halls of Mandos. We do know that the Wizards travelled eastward from Aman to Middle-earth, so at least eastward travel was possible, if only for the special emissaries of the Valar.
Aman, Arda, Bent World, Eldar of Eressëa, Elves, Far West, Half-elven, Last Ship, Masterstone, Otherworld, Ring-bearers, Seeing-stone of Emyn Beraid, Seeing-stones, Straight Way, The West, [See the full list...]
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