Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Prayers, Psalms, and the Power of Elbereth

            The invocations of Elbereth and Gilthoniel intrigued me after last class and brought many things to mind from the Lord of the Rings as well as from other works in this same mythology.  We talked at length in class about how similar these instances are to the praises of especially the Catholic tradition, and discussed the nature of the words and what they call upon.  These instances are especially interesting given the insights into Tolkien through his letters.
            In Letter 54, Tolkien speaks of the guardian angel and the importance, for him in saying the praises to help him remember the guardian angel.  And again, in Letter 89, Tolkien speaks of the guardian angel, and of seeing a ray of light, a Light that is the guardian angel.  This passage struck me in a number of ways.  First of all there is the way in which this Light seems to be akin to the vial of Frodo given by Lady Galadriel.  The Light of Earendil is held in the vial, and it brings Frodo, as well as Sam, not only Light but seemingly a protection as well.  There seems to be a guardian angel of sorts that, while not doing anything explicitly, looks out for the Ring bearer. 
Not only is it Light in darkness, but it gives a sense of presence and being to Frodo and Sam.  The similarities between this and parts of Scripture are striking.  Christ is described the Light of the World, and He brought to the world the light of truth.  Also, angels are always described with light.  These instances give a conception of the phial as spiritually powerful and encouraging.
To connect this to the invocations of Elbereth, Sam after calling upon the Elven lady and challenging Shelob again, “the glass blazed suddenly like a white torch in his hand” (226).  There seems to be connection between these two, the name of the Elf and the verse on her, and the phial containing Earendil’s light.  There is both a power in the words themselves, and in the light of the phial, but the two also seem to bring a new strength to Sam.  Just as Tolkien was encouraged in the words of the praises and in the light from the Sacrament, but also what they seemed to bring him, a spiritual and physically sense of presence.
Scripture constantly expresses prayer as having multiple results and affects.  Prayer and praise is a way to talk to God, literally to converse with him.  But they also are to call for help, and strength; and while prayers may not be explicitly answered, praises and prayers are to bring strength and comfort.  The 23rd Psalm is a prime example. It says
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
    I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me.
This reminds me of the way that Sam calls upon Elbereth.  The words themselves have a strength and give the speaker a comfort, but there is also a spiritual affect; there is an extent to which this prayer does bring God closer to you in a time of trial.
To broaden the discussion, these invocations of Elbereth in relation to the praises, have made me think of the many other parallels between the verses and poems in the Lord of the Rings and Biblical writings.  The one that immediately came to my mind was the parallel between the prophecies of Christ and those of Aragorn.  Bilbo’s poem about Aragorn which he recites at the Council of Elrond, reminds me of many prophecies of Christ.  They are mysterious and in a way not understandable until the one who fulfills them comes to claim the prophecies.  Similarly, in a dream that comes to Boromir, he hears a verse concluding “And the Halfling forth shall stand” (The Fellowship of the Ring, 158).  Along with many other things in the verse, this line is unclear until Boromir recognizes Frodo as Frodo claims the quest as his.
Otherwise, throughout the text, there are more examples of this as well as of parallels in history.  Biblically, the parallels between Christ and people like David are very important, and are helpful for investigating these two people.  In a similar way, the story of Beren and Luthien parallels Arwen’s and Aragorn’s tale; or the way in which the allegiances made in the Third Age for the final battles mirror the old allegiances, thought between different groups, of the Second Age.
            Last, I want to briefly discuss the nature of the Lord of the Rings.  While Tolkien himself says that it is not explicitly religious, as say C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia were, he does say that it is unconsciously religious (Letter 142); thus, I think there is something missed if you do not read his works with a Christian perspective.  I do not think that it is a mistake to read the stories without this attitude, but there is an added depth to the books and the legendarium as a whole given a Christian perspective and analysis.
As a couple of people mentioned in class, they felt a little left out, as if they were missing something, or could not appreciate something to the full extent.  I on the other hand, as a Christian, have a very great appreciation for the text.  I see ideals and theological concepts being worked through and pondered on, that help me think about my faith in a new way, and see it at work in new place.

Many of the things that appeal to me so much, do so because of the commonality they have with what the Christian faith teaches and seeks to understand.  The story of self-sacrifice, having pity and expressing mercy, humility, strength in the small, are some of my favorite parts of these stories partly because of growing up learning about how Christ was the prime example of all of these things.

~Brendon M


  1. One of the more interesting things about the medieval understanding of history is that they almost always thought of something as the expression of some *type*. Thus, as you note, David is a type for Christ, as is Moses, Noah, etc. This typological resemblance is more than just a similarity though. There's a sense in which there's a very real metaphysical linkage between the various recurrences of a type, a sense in which they're all simply instantiations of a deeper truth (i.e. the Incarnation). I think that Tolkien is very much tapping into this understanding, whether consciously or unconsciously, in his work, and that's what we see in figures like Aragorn, Gandalf, Frodo. I think this a very important aspect of the LotR, and it manifests itself in ways beyond these Christ-figures (perhaps most notably in the anti-Christ-figures that we encounter throughout, who are likewise mirror images of each other). So, you're very much on to something here.

  2. Hey Brendon!
    I think in looking at the way that Tolkien incorporates Christianity, we can see that he wasn't creating a direct allegory of religion. It seems to be very much less explicit parallels between characters. Elbereth can be seen as a Christ figure, but also has links to a Virgin Mary (as does Galadriel). CS Lewis’s books rather have much stronger parallels 1 to 1.
    I think what strikes me is the similarity of themes and practices to religion. As a Christian, when I'd previously read the books, I didn't really read into the religious aspect very much--in fact although there are prayers invoked throughout, since I'd never read the Silmarillion, I felt like a religious aspect was almost lacking. I think focusing on the prayers and religious aspects, I feel that the stories give a better sense of what Tolkien’s religion meant to him. It seems very intimate and personal, how the prayers are uttered in times of weakness. Also, there is a pomp and circumstance of religion that is lacking from the books—they instead are littered with prayers and religious symbols, but no large ceremonies or obvious practices.
    I think overall, I agree that you don’t have to miss anything by not being Christian. While Faery stories enhance every day life and struggles, whether one is Christian or not, we still struggle with questions of death and suffering, and can still learn from exploring these ideas through Faery stories. The themes that people struggle with are human struggles, and so if one takes comfort in the religious themes or not, they can still learn and grow through reading the stories. That’s part of the magic in it—wherever you are and wherever you come from, Tolkien’s works still speak.