Wednesday, June 4, 2014

What if Varda Was One of Us?

As we established in our discussion during Monday’s class, the entire Lord of the Rings saga contains undertones of the religious and divine. Although never explicitly described, Tolkien’s complex pantheon are referenced by in multiple aspects of the story. Even so, as we have previously discussed, there is a huge importance that Tolkien places in free will and that the inhabitants of Middle Earth overcome their dilemmas free from the influence of the divine. Interestingly enough, there are multiple instances in which characters face difficult circumstances or hardships and are aided by praises to Elbereth Gilthoniel, or Varda, one of the Valar. Are these praises a prayer to the Valar to incite action? Do the results they demonstrate contradict the theme of agency and independence that Tolkien lays out? By looking at the most glaring examples of presence and absence of the divines, I feel as though we can begin to reconcile these occurrences of seemingly divine influence with Tolkien’s thematic foundations.
What struck me as the most notable moment of divine presence was the incident with Sam and the light of the Phial. In Chapter 10 of Book IV, Sam’s encounter with Shelob can almost be seen as being shaped by outright divine intervention. Sam, facing death, is able to fend off the monster by using the Phial of Galadriel. The Phial emanates a piercing light  that fills Sam with the courage and strength he needs to push forward. This all takes place after Sam cries out praise.
“A Elbereth Gilthoniel
o menel palan-diriel,
le nallon sí di’nguruthos!
A tiro nin, Fanulios!”
This invocation is clearly demonstrated as something that is foreign to Sam. It is described as coming from Sam almost involuntarily and “in a language which he did not know”. Even Sam’s impulse to use the Phial only comes to him after “some remote voice had spoken” to him. By all appearances, Sam, in this moment of darkness and desperation, is being directly aided by Elbereth. Upon closer inspection, it would seem that this may not necessarily be the case. While the words Sam says are surely from outside of him and surely they hold some great power, their origins may not be so obviously divine.
The words that Sam calls upon are a psalm that invites Elbereth to give protection in the face of death. As such, these words would not make much sense coming from Elbereth herself. Instead, it seems possible that there is some other external force acting out to protect Sam. Before he begins speaking in words he does not understand, Sam calls out “Galadriel!” and immediately has visions of the elves. It was from the elves that Sam originally heard this language and the songs to Elbereth and it is to them that Sam would seem to have a connection to. If it was only through Galadriel and the power of the elves that Sam was able to find his strength, it would accommodate the idea that the divines have had no hand in shaping these events.

Now, on the other hand, it would be expected that, if there were divine influences working against Sauron, they would manifest themselves at the most dire and important moments in the quest to destroy him. It would be these moments, such as Sam and Frodo nearly meeting their end before Shelob, where the divine power should appear at its strongest. If a character ever needed divine assistance, none did more so than Frodo before the fires of Mt. Doom. It is at this moment that Frodo is closer than ever to reaching his goal, yet his resolve has faded before the temptation of the ring. However, the entire scene is one of darkness and isolation from anything divine or holy. Even when Sam goes to the phial that had saved him once before, it gives him nothing. “In his great need he drew out once more the phial of Galadriel, but it was pale and cold in his trembling hand and threw no light into that stifling dark.” When Frodo finally gives in to the power of the ring, it is not Elbereth, not some divine power, and not even Galadriel that saves him. It is Gollum, the creature that couldn’t be any further from divine. The anger, greed, and violence that had overwhelmed Gollum blinded him and sent him into Mt. Doom with the ring. Frodo reflects on the strangeness of this and how Gandalf predicted that “even Gollum may have something yet to do”. It would seem that, if arguably the most important moment in the entire epic is shaped by the sinfulness and imperfection of a creature like Gollum, there must not be a true presence of the divines shaping the events of Middle Earth in such a direct way.


1 comment:

  1. It's interesting that the event which causes you to say that there must not be a true divine influence shaping the events that culminate on Mt. Doom is precisely the moment where I feel like the influence of the divine is most pronounced. Perhaps it's simply because I spend my days immersed in the Middle Ages, but my reaction has always been *of course* Tolkien has the sinful, imperfect creature save the day, because, within his fundamentally Catholic understanding, it's a sinful, imperfect thing -- even more sinful than Gollum -- the unjust execution of an innocent man, that truly saves everyone's day. The trick might be in considering that the divine works in much more subtle ways than we might expect. Think of Bilbo finding the ring. A bumbling hobbit, generally the most useless of a rather rag-tag group, stumbles across a lost ring in the dark of a cave, and thus sets the stage for the salvation of Middle Earth. Yet, we're basically outright told that this finding was the result of divine intervention. Might also Gollum's managing to pick his way across Mordor, through all the perils that Frodo and Sam narrowly avoid, to arrive at the exact instant where all seemed lost be the product of a similar sort of "nudging" on the part of the divine?