A Knife in the Dark & Flight to the Ford
In his desperate hour trapped upon Weathertop, surrounded by the Black Riders of Mordor, Frodo strikes out against their approaching leader with his sword and an arousing cry. Such imagery should not surprise: it is a common literary and cultural trope, the doomed hero fortifying himself (and any others with him or her) through comforting or bold words and then plunging themselves into the enemy. Only when the shadows have been deterred and Frodo awoken from his painful encounter does Aragorn remark on the true nature of the matter: that Frodo’s blade was of little importance, for “more deadly to him was the name of Elbereth.”
O Elbereth! Gilthoniel! Such were the words the sprung forth from Frodo’s mouth in the dire moment. Words of a foreign tongue, of a being unfamiliar to either average hobbits or readers, which will be repeated yet again at the Ford against the Nine in their entirety:
“‘By Elbereth and Lúthien the Fair,’ said Frodo with a last effort, lifting up his sword, ‘you shall have neither the Ring nor me!’”
Who then be Elbereth, and why does such a name possess power against the forces of darkness? Elbereth is an elvish epithet meaning “star-queen,” as is Gilthoniel signifying “star-kindler.” Oh Queen of the Stars, Star-kindler! Such translation suggests a female of great authority. And so she is: for the owner of such attributes is Varda, one of the Valar, who are the angelic spirits who helped to create and govern the powers of Middle-earth. Varda is the wife of Manwë (the king of the Valar), and it was she who created the stars for the sake of their beauty. She is the cosmic counterweight to the darkness embodied by Sauron (and more specifically his predecessor, Melkor), and the elves consider her to be their great intercessor and ally amongst the “gods.”
These qualities, as well as her other elven titles – “Ever-white,” “Lady of the Stars,” “White as Snow” – suggest the wellspring of inspiration from which she sprang in Tolkien’s mind. For the epitome of feminine beauty, intercession, and authority, especially for a Catholic such as Tolkien, is Mary, the mother of Christ. Now Varda is not Mary: for neither Mary is not an angelic being, the creator of light and stars, nor is Varda the mother of the Redeemer, of God Incarnate in the World. Tolkien is well-known for loathing blatant allegory, and so here is a prime example of him “sub-creating” or “rifting” on the idea and person of Mary for his work. This is not the first time Tolkien has created this relationship, and (anticipating Galadriel) it will not be his last.
Nevertheless, understanding the parallels between Varda Elbereth and Mary is essential. The closest thing to a prayer in The Lord of the Rings may very well be an Elven hymn to Elbereth that will appear in a chapter to come, a song with qualities very similar to the Hail Mary:
“O Elbereth Gilthoniel, from heaven gazing afar, to thee I cry now beneath the shadow of death! O look towards me, Everwhite!”
There is value, then, in the name of a woman. Swords cannot pierce the veil of shadows; humble human efforts can seem to pale in comparison to the depths of the darkness. Yet the name of a holy intercessor, the woman of grace, can inflame one’s soul and drive back the demons that haunt, whether one walks the paths of Middle-earth or our own realms.
2015’s Reflection: “On the Wilderness”