Saturday, May 28, 2011

Prayers of Middle Earth

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.



  1. Lovely discussion of the place of prayers, particularly to Elbereth, in the LotR, but what, then, are we to make of Tolkien's apparent inconsistency, insisting on the one hand that the LotR is a "fundamentally religious" work while on the other that it and the other stories of the legendarium has no overt "religion"? "While many reeled at the idea that LOTR is fundamentally Catholic, further confusion arose based on the lack of explicit religion in Middle Earth": what do we make of this, in the end?


  2. Two part response!

    Your post reminded me something from my old (Methodist) Confirmation days, as wells are conversations with my Baptist preacher Grandfather. I was taught the importance of ACTS, but what was stressed equally was the idea that prayer was a chance to talk to God, to chat, to check in, as if he were a friend. I don't know if this sort of prayer had a name, but I do remember it being my favorite sort; in part because I loved to talk, and also because I didn't only want to pray when I wanted something, or had done something bad. In the LOTR, the characters never seem to call on the light, or Elbereth in times of peace, or at least relative peacefulness. Perhaps this is due to the lack of religion; without a central church to organize prayers and the like, it makes sense that they would only pray in times of trouble.

    This segues into part two, a semi-response to Professor Brown. Maybe Tolkien is not making a distinction between spiritual and religious? I doubt that a master of language like Tolkien would fail to make a distinction between the two, but for our own purposes, if we call Middle Earth a spiritual place, one where there is a recognized higher power, but no formal way of interacting with it and no formalized beliefs about it and the world, we can understand the presence o prayers and hymns, without need a formal religious organization.


  3. To be honest I’ve always been rather off-put by Tolkien’s comment that the people of Middle Earth do not have religion. While it is true that they don’t have churches or ministers, the people of Middle Earth (or at least the elves) are quite devoted to the Valar, which seem to perform the same role as a god for them. The fact that they pray to Elbereth so frequently throughout the books only solidified this notion in my head of the elves being religious, despite their lack of the trappings of formalized religion (churches, ministers, etc.).

    Your post makes the helpful distinction that the people of Middle Earth simply don’t have God, that the Valar are simply not the Middle Earth equivalent of God (and you can’t have religion without a god –can you?). For some reason, the elves never seem to pray to Eru. Come to think of it –I wonder why that is. Surely the Valar must have mentioned him once or twice –why wouldn’t the elves worship Eru, the Creator, instead of the Valar, the Created? Perhaps this was a conscious decision on the part of Tolkien to keep the religion of Arda from becoming too similar to Christianity, but it seems rather inconsistent to me.

    I’m afraid this response was rather unfocused –so, too, are my thoughts on this subject.


  4. On your last question LP, God is not the only thing that Catholics pray to. Prayers to saints are quite common. They do not quite fall into the ACTS prayers, but are calls for intercession. Of the saints the Virgin Mary has the most prayers. I went to a Catholic high school. The following, the Memorare, was the school prayer:
    Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thine intercession was left unaided.
    Inspired by this confidence, I fly unto thee, O Virgin of virgins, my mother; to thee do I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy hear and answer me.

    The Virgin is personally called to intercede in our lives. This to me seems similar to prayers to Elbereth or any other of the Valar. Mary is a piece of creation, less powerful than her mighty creator. Yet she is prayed to (although not worshiped). Perhaps Frodo and Sam are not supplicating but asking for intercession.
    This isn't an answer to why its done, I'm just suggesting that such behavior exists in Christianity as well as on Middle-Earth.

  5. Haha, forgot to sign that last post.


  6. What might prayer do in a work of literature that does not contain explicit religion? It could make prayers more like some of the other artifacts of Middle Earth, by which I mean, somehow having closer contact with nature. There is no notion of invention; it all simply is, and it is simply what people have. Might this also be how religion is indicated in some of Tolkien’s ‘primary,’ mythological reading, reading that lacks the kind of theology that we’ve come to attach to religion? Making the whole universe a religious universe emphasizes the significance of the universe’s phenomena. Moreover, the prayers of Middle Earth frequently raise, in situations of life and death, that basic religious question, “What shall I do to be saved?” They acknowledge that salvation is something that comes both from within and from without (something that has incited huge controversy within the Christian tradition). Here, the problems of sin and free will are not theological questions; they are practical questions about what to do. These are questions that people face all the time, whether or not they’ve got religion. I think that Tolkien found in revision that his Catholicism and his story converge. But points of identity will not be missing between the Christian sacred story and any heroic romance. But did his story converge on Catholicism, or do they both converge on something else? You quote Tolkien about the “religious element” being absorbed into the story and its symbolism; this speaks volumes about the nature of a literary work. The religious is absorbed, not allegorized. The chief images (including characters) of the story don’t necessarily change appearance because they’ve absorbed the religious element. The Christian layer is appropriate, and the parallels may even suggest that Tolkien’s story belongs itself to something else, but it does not resolve the story.

  7. I agree with some of the other comments here: it seems difficult to reconcile Tolkien’s ostensibly inconsistent assertions about the religious nature of The Lord of the Rings—namely, that it is “fundamentally religious,” and yet it has no overt religion.

    As one possible solution, perhaps we could dwell a bit more on the different meanings “religion” might have. Prayers to Elbereth of course constitute a certain kind of ‘religious’ act, but this is not necessarily the same kind of ‘religion’ as that which requires a church and its ministers to sustain itself (see Tolkien’s comment in Letter 237). I hope someone more knowledgeable than I am might comment on this point. It might be productive to apprise ourselves of different notions of “religion” throughout history—my guess is that our notion of what “religion” means, as a specific and distinct category of human life, is a relatively modern innovation.

    We could also turn to C.S. Lewis’ “Meditation in a Toolshed” for a kind of answer, too—as to how religion in The Lord of the Rings might be everywhere, and yet nowhere explicit. For Lewis, once you step inside the beam of light so as to ‘look along’ it, you can no longer contemplate the beam as an object itself: he writes, “Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no toolshed, and (above all) no beam” (emphasis added, 212). I wonder if this might be true of religion in The Lord of the Rings, too—is religion so much a part of The Lord of the Ring’s frame of reference that, once you step inside the book (as a work of art) and inhabit its sense of meaning, you can no longer contemplate religion as an overt object of study?


  8. It is interesting that the bulk of our discussions on religion and worship focus on prayer and invocations of god. Now, words, language, voice and names are very important to Tolkien’s works, but it is also important to look at other actions and rituals that could be considered religious or spiritual in nature.

    Tolkien’s Roman Catholicism comes through subtly, but traditionally religious practices are not uncommon in Lord of the Rings. A very basic example of a Catholic sacrament that is found throughout is matrimony. Particularly, matrimony as a foundation for procreation. After they are wed, Sam and Rosie have thirteen children. Similar to saying grace before a meal, Faramir and his men turn and face west for a moment of silence before dinner with Frodo and Sam.

    Though not always an explicit religious custom, the specific practices of funeral ceremonies are often imbedded in religious belief. After Boromir and Théoden die, their funerals both involve crossing their arms across their chest, surrounding their bodies with their greatest possessions and song. Most notably, however, is Boromir’s confession of his final sin to Aragorn before his death: “I tried to take the Ring from Frodo… I am sorry. I have paid” (“The Departure of Boromir, The Two Towers). In response, Aragorn takes his hand, kisses his brow and tells him to “Be at peace!” (“The Departure of Boromir, The Two Towers) In the Roman Cathloic Church, penance is the proper name of the sacrament of repentance of sins.

    Although it may not be explicit, there is spiritual and religious significance to many of the acts in Lord of the Rings.

    - BLS

  9. It is problematic to say that the ‘source’ of faith in Middle Earth (presumably meaning religion or God) is invisible. For faith has no source if not in the hearts of Man. Faith does not come from God to Men but is rather Man’s only tool for making communion with God. So the criticism that the source of the faith in Middle Earth is invisible is false.
    It is Faith’s Target that is invisible. And why shouldn’t it be so? For many people in our world, the object of their faith is a mystery, so that faith itself is a mstery. It is the same in Middle Earth.
    But there is of course the example of the temples of the Numenoreans to Morgoth after the coming of Sauron. It is odd to me that this should be the extant example of organized religion in Tolkien’s universe, as a form of domination rather than salvation.
    And yet maybe this fits, for among other things, LoTR is a story of the redemption of man after the fall of Numenor. Perhaps, then, it makes sense that Men cannot locate a true faith until their redemption is achieved. Perhaps a true church becomes possible after the end of the 3rd age.

    Mattías Darrow.