One of the big points we brought up in class was the power of the word “Elbereth” and the impact that word had on the forces of evil in Middle-Earth. We discussed whether or not this word (or the phrase “Elbereth A Gilthoniel”) was a prayer and had the force of the Valar behind it. What I want to look into is the actual power that these words have and whether the power is physical or spiritual.
One of the key passages that we looked at was the incident at Weathertop where Frodo cries “Elbereth A Gilthoniel” at the advancing Black Riders, and how Aragorn comments how those words had more impact than Frodo’s blade (LOTR 193). This made me curious as to how those words had an impact on the Black Riders, and I feel like we were not able to ascertain exactly what sort of power was held within those words. One suggestion was that when the words were uttered, they acted as a communication with the Valar, who then gave power to those words and brought harm to the forces of evil. That seemed to be the easiest conclusion to draw.
However, there are some issues to this conclusion. We saw that, as was noted in the Council of Elrond, the Valar were not going to intervene in the conflict on Middle-Earth, for it was the task of those that inhabit the land still to deal with the evil that is the Ring (LOTR 259). This suggests that there would be no sort of power behind the name of Elbereth. The only contribution the Valar made to the fight against Sauron was sending the Istari to Middle-Earth to assist. While the words may be prayers, they would not be answered due to non-intervention of the Valar.
There are some examples that cast doubt on this, however. The name seems to carry some sort of power with it. One example of the power of the name “Elbereth” is when Sam is battling Shelob. When all hope seems lost, he grasps the Phial of Galadriel and cries out in a language he does not know. This indicates that there is something guiding him to commit these actions, suggesting that there is some higher power that is giving him strength to wound and drive away the giant spider. While doing so, the Phial of Galadriel was ablaze with light and caused pain to Shelob (LOTR 713). This would lead to the conclusion that there is some power behind the name, or there is something within the Phial that causes it to have the power to harm evil.
This passage would seem to show a direct intervention in the affairs of Middle-Earth by the Valar through the use of the name “Elbereth.” It suggests that Elbereth actively answered Sam’s call for help and gave him strength to fight. I do not think that is the correct conclusion to draw, however. I see the power Sam gains as being derived from the Phial. It is latent power that is stored within the light captured from the Silmaril star. The Phial also gives strength in and of itself, such as when it gives Frodo strength when he touches it at the stairs of Cirith Ungol, when his hand was going for the Ring instead (LOTR 691). This indicates it is the Phial itself that has the power, but that power relies on the user. Since Sam is a faithful servant of Frodo, his strength is amplified by the power of the Phial. Frodo was carrying the burden of the Ring, so it was assisting him in remembering his strength. I do not think that the Valar are actively guiding events in Middle-Earth.
I want to also look at the nature of the power behind these words that harm evil, and whether that power is physical or spiritual or some other. I want to first look back at the Weathertop scene. Aragorn notes that the name of Elbereth was more powerful than the slashing of Frodo’s sword, but does not go into further detail. The only evidence we get is that there is a shrill cry that rings out before Frodo is stabbed with the Morgul blade (LOTR 191). I would say that there is some significant effect the name of Elbereth has on the Nazgul. That being said, what is that effect? Is it a physical blow to the Nazgul or a spiritual strike?
I can only speculate here, but I would shy away from saying there was some sort of physical harm done to the Nazgul based on the word. That would imply that the name of Elbereth could be taken to be a spell of some sort that strikes the forces of evil. I do not think that is the case. Based on what was said, there does appear to be some sort of spiritual effect on the Nazgul. We do not know the nature of the shrill cry it gives out, but it would most likely be out of fear or anger. I would venture to say that while the word itself does not carry power, the name does.
Elbereth is the most beautiful of all Valar, and the one who Morgoth hated and feared most. She shines with light and gave light to the Two Trees in Valmar and hallowed the Silmarils. This would suggest that she is the polar opposite of Morgoth, Sauron, and their forces of darkness. By invoking the name of Elbereth, Frodo and Sam are striking fear into the hearts and minds of the forces of evil. All forces of evil hate the light, even orcs cannot function well in sunlight. There is a reason why orcs will not say her name (LOTR 891). Elbereth represents the power of eternal light, something that the forces of evil hate and fear, just as Morgoth did.
This theory also connects to the battle between Shelob and Sam, as he invokes the name of Elbereth (albeit unconsciously) to drive away the spawn of Ungoliant, the most evil and darkest of creatures in Arda. There is a subtle irony here, as Ungoliant sought to devour the Silmarils and feast on their light (The Silmarillion 80), but it is the captured light of a Silmaril that terrifies Shelob and causes her great pain. In this case, the cry of the name of Elbereth calls forth the power of her hallowed Silmarils, captured within the Phial. That is the power that gives Sam strength and leads him to beat Shelob.
I would conclude in saying that the power of the name of Elbereth is what it represents: light and goodness. That would explain why it has such effect on the Nazgul at Weathertop. The actual power of the word is not in any divine intervention, it is what the name represents and the power it represents. Just like the Phial of Galadriel, the name of Elbereth is what can utterly defeat evil and drive it into the void. I would say that it is really not a prayer, rather it is more a statement of reverence and determination, as Elbereth is the original creator of the stars and a beacon of light in Valinor.