Friday, May 26, 2017

Varda and Mary - sorry, Tolkien, I'm pretty sure this one's just allegory.

From a merely structural perspective, Tolkien seems to be heavily alluding to a connection of sorts between the Aratar Varda and the Virgin Mary; while Tolkien consistently rejects allegory on a fundamental level, Varda’s position within the Elves’ common history, as well as certain speech patterns presented to the reader make a substantial tie borderline irrefutable. While Varda is in never explicitly referred to as a mother in any way, shape, or form (along with all of the other Valar, she is technically childless), Varda occupies a unique space in Elven legend that firmly places her in the role of a collective mother, the primary trait of Mary. Additionally, several poems addressed to Varda in her Elbereth nomenclature very directly mimic the lingual patterns of Catholic prayers, one of the more directly forthright reflections of Tolkien’s religion in the Lord of the Rings universe.

To briefly descend into the pseudobiology of the LotR universe, the Awakening of the Elves – what can be regarded as their “birth” as a species, for lack of a better phrase – involved three Elves “waking up” in Cuiviénen, more or less fully formed and functional from the get-go, outside the lack of a common language.

“Imin, Tata and Enel awoke before their spouses, and the first thing that they saw was the stars, for they woke in the early twilight before dawn.”
As the Elves, created by Eru himself, seemed to gestate in a sleep-like state, waking up fully functional, I’ve always found the early Elves to be somewhat biologically reminiscent of creatures that hatch from eggs – particularly birds, especially considering their normally arboreal lifestyle (but that’s more or less beside the point here). Elves “hatched” from their slumber, and much like birds, woke up to meet an empty nest without their biological parent in visible sight. Many birds have been classified as performing something called filial imprinting upon birth, which, as thoroughly studied by Konrad Lorenz, involves a newborn bird characterizing essentially the first thing it sees upon exiting the egg as its mother, and retaining that association for the entirety of its lifespan.

In the case of Imin, Tata, and Enel, the first thing they saw upon their birth were “the stars”, which, in the LotR universe, are essentially the manifest representations of Varda herself. These “newborn” elves absolutely imprinted themselves onto the stars in the sky; as they grew up and eventually met Varda herself, this imprinting became transferred in a sense to Varda, as the incarnate representation of the stars.

Their fascination goes substantially further than even mere study itself, as during the initial establishment of Quenya, soon after the newborn elves gain consciousness, the prefix “El” can be interchangeably used (in most cases) between “Elf” and “Star”, or in Tolkien’s words, “It is not surprising that the Edain, when they learned Sindarin, and to a certain extent Quenya also, found it difficult to discern whether words and names containing the element el referred to the stars or to the Elves.” The elves refer to themselves as “Eldar”, which forms a linguistic backbone for all sorts of their linguistic elements, yet also create names like “Elrond” and “Elros”, which employ the “El” prefix in its “star” connotation. This combination seems to demonstrate an incredibly deep tie between the elves self-identity and Varda, almost mimicking that of the reverential relation between children and their mothers. This “collective mother” situation seems to be very reminiscent of the way that the Virgin Mary is treated in the Christian religion, from the self-referential side of things (naming like half of the female royalty from the past millennium after Mary) to the way people refer to Mary during prayer. Additionally, the “Virgin” aspect seems to stay similarly in effect with relatively minimal translation, as Varda (amongst all the rest of the Valar) is entirely childless, yet mother to an entire race of creatures. Certain of Mary’s titles also seem directly reminiscent of Varda’s role in Tolkien’s mythology: both “Star of the Sea” and “Morning Star” seem like they could be easily transferred to describe Varda, much as Varda’s nicknames of “Holy Queen” or “Star-Queen” could just as well refer to Mary.

Another parallel between Mary and Varda comes in the specific way that Tolkien phrases the various characters’ prayers to Varda. The dominant form comes in the poem “A Elbereth Gilthoniel”, an elvish hymn composed in Iambic tetrameter. Frodo invokes the latter half of the poem as the Ringwraiths are about to slay him on the peak of Weathertop:

O Elbereth Star-kindler,
from heaven gazing afar,
to thee I cry now beneath the shadow of death!
O look towards me, Everwhite!”

This prayer of salvation almost directly mimics the structure and wording of the Salve Regina, one of the more important prayers addressed to Mary:

“To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve:
to thee do we send up our sighs,
mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.
Turn then, most gracious Advocate,
thine eyes of mercy toward us,
and after this our exile,
show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”

Between the goal of the prayer – to appeal to a heavenly mother that’s supposed to be watching over the prayer’s actions – and the invocations of “crying out” and “looking”, A Elbereth Gilthoniel is an almost direct translation of the Salve Regina into Tolkien’s LotR world, much as Varda seems to be a translation of sorts of the Virgin Mary.

On a final note (not necessarily to add to the above comparison, but just something I’ve noticed), one particular side effect of the Elves’ immortality makes this comparison feel a bit odd to me. The numerous characters we see talking to each other and invoking Varda’s name throughout the Lord of the Rings proper – from Frodo, to Sam, to Aragorn, to Legolas – appear to be using it as a sort of epithet, much in the way modern language has adopted similarly holy individuals’ names. However, while our world is separated from these characters we invoke by hundreds of generations, a number of characters in the LotR world have directly interacted with Varda (the foremost being Elrond and the Istari), so having them hear her name invoked in such a sense must seem somewhat surreal to those characters.
Works Cited

Tolkien, J. R. R., and Christopher Tolkien. The Silmarillion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. Print.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings. New York: Mariner/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. Print.
Tolkien, Christopher. The War of the Jewels. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1994, Print.


  1. On the contrary, I think your last comment adds to the overall Varda/Mary comparison quite well. That some of Tolkien’s characters have interacted directly with Varda, and that many more have actually received her aid, sort of entrenches Varda in the same intercessional role that Mary was viewed to have. Some late medieval sects really focused on Mary’s personal relationship with believers, and on her appearances and interactions with real people. A figure like Elrond in Tolkien’s work provides the same sort of validation as somebody in medieval times who has claimed to have seen Mary in visions or otherwise interacted with her.

    One aspect of this comparison that I still wonder about is how Varda’s specific title of Star-Kindler might translate. Using the light of Telperion, she created the stars; Mary, on the other hand, does not have this explicit craftsman role. Of course, she bore and raised Jesus; but this sort of involvement in the rearing of an individual seems to be a different kind of craftsmanship entirely, if it can be considered as that at all. Relatedly, Varda doesn’t seem to have as much of an intimate thematic connection with any other character as Mary has with Jesus; she is wedded to Manwe, but this seems to be a fundementally different sort of connection as that between the Mother and the Son.

    Altogether, however, I agree; Tolkien’s depiction of Varda is about as allegorical as he ever gets.

    -AJ Corso

  2. The Elves as hatchlings imprinted on the stars of Varda--it is going to be hard to unsee that image! I like the comparison between the Salve Regina and A Elbereth Gilthoniel, I think the imagery supports it. Likewise, the emphasis on Mary as Star of the Sea is hard not to see in the image of Varda as Starkindler. As another post pointed out, it is interesting how little emphasis Tolkien places on mothers in his stories--including with the Valar, as you point out. What happened to Mary as Mother of God? Here Tolkien seems to be trying so hard not to parody Christianity, he leaves out an essential element of the mythology. RLFB