Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Prayer and the Presence of God

The first thing that struck me as odd in the selected readings for today’s class was the very different effects the phrase“ A Eleberth Gilthoniel” seems to have. Facing a ravenous spider preparing to make Frodo into a feast, Sam utters the words and imbued with strength and courage that rivals Turin. (Lord Of The Rings 729) This would suggest that the words are source of internal comfort and bravery, despite Sam lack of knowledge about their origin. In other instances, the words seem have supernatural properties. (Or at least as supernatural as LOTR gets) Frodo invokes the words at the ford while being chased by the Black Riders. Not only do they seem physically harmed by the phrase but the river suddenly rises in response and sweeps the horsemen away. (Lord Of The Rings 214)
We decided to understand the invocation of these elven words as prayer. Silent prayer is undoubtedly allowed and encouraged in the Catholic religion. However, there is not an instance in Tolkien’s story where the characters engage in silent prayer or speak the Elven name of Varda in their minds. It seems that if they expect a response they must voice the words. We’ve talked in class about how prayer and praise in Tolkien’s eyes is the highest form of sub-creation in response to God’s creation. Spoken prayer is a connection to God through mimicking his creation and proudly declaring faith. God spoke the world into existence and Illuvatar weaved together Arda out of music. The most proper sub-creation in response is then both speech and song, which also happens to be the only way Eleberth is ever mentioned in the story. In an unrelated class, while reading Genesis, a central question was the significance God’s method of creation. Stepping into God’s remarkably snug shoes for a moment, I think that the method of speech was chosen because it reflects conviction and intent. Once God declared the world’s existence, there was no taking it back. Speech reflects commitment to the subject. Frodo and Sam’s invocation of the words is an outward declaration of their faith, which is important to Tolkien. In Letter 250, Tolkien implores his son to outwardly declare his faith through prayer and praise and renew his commitment to God every day. The fact that it takes praises spoken to convey no lack of conviction to elicit inward and supernatural responses from above is Tolkien’s way of reminding us that we should wear our faith on our sleeves.

Tolkien speaks about how he understands our relationship to God in Letter 89 through the analogy of a dust mote bathed in a ray of light. He mentions “And the ray was the Guardian Angel of the mote: not a thing interposed between God and the creature, but God's very attention itself, personalized.”(Letters 89) This imagery interestingly shows up in The Lord of The Rings when describing the place where Faramir and his men, at the time the most at risk men in Middle-Earth, take refuge. “The level shafts of the setting sun behind beat upon it, and the red light as broken into many flickering beams of ever-changing colour…”(Lord of The Rings 674) However, the light the most evidently serves as our guardian angel is language, most specifically Elvish.  In Tolkien’s story, language so often connects us with God. As aforementioned, it engages us in the same method of creation that God himself used, which has some spiritual significance. It is also true that the chanting of Elvish literally draws the attention of God or supernatural beings. It is curious that the prayers are always mentioned in Elvish, with no mention of Varda or a common speech translation of Elbereth. We tried to explain this by relating Elvish to the way Latin is used in Elvish tradition. I think the history of the Elves more accurately describes the power of Elvish in function of the story. The Elves are the only creatures to have come in constant and prolonged contact with the Valar. Much is made of how the Valar taught the Elves who came to Valinor. In some sense, one can infer that they created with each other, communicating in Elvish which gives some spiritual meaning to the language.  However, it is curious that Sam, who has no training in Elvish, is able to utter the words in times of peril. It implies that despite the language gap the Valar help all of Eru’s children. Using prayer to create in the fashion of God seems to put us in his presence.

-Javon Brown 


  1. I agree with what you said about speech reflecting conviction and intent. I'd almost say that speech binds. God is bound by His words that create, outwardly declaring his faith will help to bind Christopher's will to it. Maybe this is another difference between evil and good in Middle Earth. People like Saruman are not committed or bound to their words, but people like Aragorn are.

    --Larry B.

  2. I agree with what was said, and find it interesting, as you say, that there was never a translation form Elvish into other languages, despite Tolkien making several. It is interesting that chanting in Elvish always seems to have the ‘supernatural’ effects upon the world, despite there being some translations into other speech. It could be that the Elves simply have a stronger connection, as they have always been in contact with the Valar, but I think it might be something more along the lines of “the original is always better”. I think that because the Valar and Eru were first ‘named’ by the Elves and were originally called thusly by the Elves, the only race at the time, that the power might be weaker with a translation as it recognizes the concept, but does not encompass the totality of what it represents. I don’t think there is a correct answer here, so I will freely admit that I’m just musing aloud. In essence, the two theories are fairly close anyway. I suppose that there are even more theories out there. I wonder that Tolkien left this ambiguous, as it must be deliberately so, given his detail in so many other aspects of his work.

  3. Thanks for the post, Javon. Another piece of the puzzle may be that Tolkien frequently refers to Quenya frequently as “Elf-Latin”—mostly seeming to convey that it’s a now-mostly-unspoken tongue still used as a lingua franca, particularly for conveying erudite matters, like Latin in, say, the Middle Ages. One strongly suspects that he also meant to convey it had the sacral quality of Latin.

    Just as Flieger’s Splintered Light explains Tolkien’s representation the splintering and dimming of the Divine Presence in the universe through the presence of numinous light, Tolkien’s philological background would have pushed him to think similarly about the presence and understanding of truth and meaning in language, and just as Elves are the witnesses of the Light, they also are its primary relators. But just as the Light breaks up and fades, so do their languages. Consequently (and perhaps going out on a limb here) I think the older a form of Elvish we find, the more intrinsically hallowed it’s going to be. And Elvish is going to be more holy than the tongues of Men, Dwarves, etc., because of the Elves’ role as the first-born children of Ilúvatar. I deeply doubt Tolkien would have made similar claims for the intrinsic sacrality of Latin based on its antiquity (by that token, Hittite would be holier yet), yet because of its association as the universal language of the Church of the West (I know, that’s a contradiction) and its function in the Tridentine (and earlier) liturgies, I think he probably couldn’t help but think of it as both civilizational and holy (even as a Romance descendant dethroned his beloved Anglo-Saxon in 1066).

    I think one element left out here a bit is that Tolkien is at pains to describe his Elvish Genesis in musical terms, not speech terms, but it may be that that music is a little beyond Men and Hobbits and so speech, poetry, and song (all close cousins) come a little quicker to us—and speech quickest of all in extremis.

    Thanks again for the post—I think you’re on to something very resonant here.