Prayer varies widely in its purpose and its execution, regardless of the Someone-Else with whom we are communicating. During the process of (Presbyterian) Confirmation, I was taught to remember ACTS—adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication—during my regular prayers. ‘Lament’ is another type of prayer-purpose that should not be overlooked, but remains blessedly separate from our recommended daily prayer checklist. By then, the Confirmands had all (mostly) memorized the Gloria Patri, the Lord’s Prayer, and a few others that our church happened to use on a regular basis. Prayer in its various forms is a fundamental way through which one communicates with God, and indeed Tolkien urged Christopher to seek comfort in the ‘praises’ which he should know by heart so “you never need words for joy” (Letters, 66).
It has by now been firmly established that The Lord of the Rings came from a deeply faithful Christian, a devoted sub-creator / “renewer,” acting as “the prism, not the light” of the work that was ultimately produced (Splintered Light, 173-4). Tolkien’s own Catholic faith came through accidentally at first, as he explained in a letter to Robert Murray, an influence which was acknowledged and maintained upon its discovery. It was a deliberate choice “not [to] put in, or [to] cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion’” (Letters, 172). That said, the people of Middle Earth are clearly not without faith. One of Tolkien’s many anonymous critics described Middle Earth as “‘a world in which some sort of faith seems to be everywhere without a visible source, like light from an invisible lamp’” (Letters, 413). Given the history of light in Middle Earth, perhaps this comment was not far off the mark.
If prayers and song are a gift from God in our world, and if such a “source” is invisible in Middle Earth, what then do we make of the words in LOTR that are clearly worshipful? Calls to Elbereth are repeated as song, poetry, and cries of desperation, directed at the light-giving Star-Queen. Such communication includes nearly every form of prayer I learned during Confirmation. Without the “religion” of a guiding Creator, a Christian-like God, it is worth noting that the Elves (and others, as necessary) turn to the one who brought the light to Middle Earth. As a symbol of hope and sheer goodness, it seems natural that Elbereth would be so important—not only to the Elves—in the fight against Sauron.
Prayer is indeed the last resort more than once during the quest to destroy the Ring. Frodo cries to Elbereth while facing the sheer terror of the Black Riders, and Sam is later bolstered against Shelob by the words of the Elves’ hymn to Elbereth Gilthoniel. It is almost a passive thing, a prayer of supplication which the two Hobbits experience in these darkest moments. Frodo “heard himself crying aloud,” (Bk I, ch. 11) and Sam’s “tongue was loosed and his voice cried in a language which he did not know,” (Bk IV, ch. 10) as if the intervention is provided both against the darkness and in the formation of the prayer itself. Tolkien did not speak much in his letters on prayers of supplication, save to suggest that “there is nothing to do but to pray” (Letters, 393) about perhaps the most difficult struggles of the moment. When all else fails, prayer is offered as a final source of comfort, wisdom, and strength—and the potential for actual intervention. The light provides guidance to Sam in the deepest darkness, and it is through the light again that he realizes his own strength.
Though Tolkien naturally turns to prayer as part of his Catholic faith, he lifts the sacrament of communion to the highest importance in terms of communication with God. In fact, he says, “The only cure for sagging of fainting faith is Communion” (Letters, 338). It is with this assertion that he is able to further separate the faith and hope of Middle Earth with true Catholicism or any other religion. Through this distinction, and his other discussions of religion with Christopher and other correspondents, he reiterates his assertion that Middle Earth does not have “religion.” This is an important distinction when considering prayer in The Lord of the Rings, and the distinction becomes confused when examining the relationship between the light-bringer and those who would call her name. Tolkien’s argument is both implied and explicitly stated: “you cannot maintain a religion without a church and ministers” (Letters, 237), but moreover “the religious element [of The Lord of the Rings] is absorbed into the story and the symbolism” (Letters, 172). While many reeled at the idea that LOTR is fundamentally Catholic, further confusion arose based on the lack of explicit religion in Middle Earth.
In the repeated cries to Elbereth, one witnesses again the real importance of light against the darkness of Sauron. Simply her name and the words of a hymn are used for a variety of purposes, ranging from lament to praise and of course supplication depending on the issue at hand. The repetition is reminiscent of Tolkien’s urging to Christopher on the ‘praises,’ and indeed it seems the words are a gift of comfort to those who need them. Though they are without “religion,” it seems appropriate that the people of Middle Earth look to the light as their source of hope and guidance against the darkness in the world.