Rescuing Frodo from the Tower of Cirith Ungol and its baleful, vulture-headed stone Watchers, Sam twice makes use of the Phial of Galadriel, and we notice again how its power corresponds to the virtue of the bearer:
Sam drew out the elven-glass of Galadriel again. As if to do honour to his hardihood, and to grace with splendour his faithful brown hobbit-hand that had done such deeds, the phial blazed forth suddenly, so that all the shadowy court was lit with a dazzling radiance like lightning; but it remained steady and did not pass. (Bk6 Ch1)
Frodo and Sam then invoke the name of Elbereth in a quasi-liturgical manner, with a versicle and response in Quenya (“Elven-Latin”), and “the will of the Watchers was broken with a suddenness like the snapping of a cord.” Just as had happened in their defeat of the previously unvanquished Shelob, the two feeble hobbits triumph over hopelessly superior evil forces by relying on their heavenly Lady, their earthly Lady, and the Lady (or Ladies’) Gift.
Sam’s Marian spirit is also manifested in the inspired song (cf. Eph. 5:19) that he sings alone in the tower, “moved by what thought in his heart he could not tell.” It is a song of hope that refuses to be conquered, even when objectively all seems lost. Sam proclaims that “above all shadows rides the Sun / and Stars for ever dwell: I will not say the Day is done, nor bid the Stars farewell” (Bk6 Ch1). In Christian terms, we would say that in these and similar instances, Our Lady is intervening to sustain her child’s flagging spirit—the very kind of fruit that results from cultivating a genuine relationship with her. We also learn from the example of Sam and Frodo that Mary does expect her children to do what lies in their power, to exert whatever effort of will (great or small) they can put forward, with the help of grace.
Flos Carmeli, vitis florigera, Splendor cæli, virgo puerpera, singularis. Mater mitis sed viri nescia Carmelitis esto propitia, stella maris. Radix Iesse germinans flosculum Hic adesse me tibi servulum patiaris. Inter spinas quæ crescis lilium Serva puras mentes fragilium tutelaris. Armatura fortis pugnantium Furunt bella tende præsidium scapularis. Per incerta prudens consilium Per adversa iuge solatium largiaris. Mater dulcis Carmeli domina, plebem tuam reple lætitia qua bearis. Paradisi clavis et ianua, Fac nos duci quo, Mater, gloria coronaris.
Flower of Carmel, tall vine blossom laden; Splendor of heaven, childbearing yet maiden. None equals thee. Mother so tender, who no man didst know, On Carmel’s children Thy favours bestow. Star of the Sea. Strong stem of Jesse, who bore one bright flower, Be ever near us and guard us each hour, who serve thee here. Purest of lilies, that flowers among thorns, Bring help to the true heart that in weakness turns and trusts in thee. Strongest of armour, we trust in thy might: Under thy mantle, hard press’d in the fight, we call to thee. Our way uncertain, surrounded by foes, Unfailing counsel you give to those who turn to thee. O gentle Mother who in Carmel reigns, Share with your servants that gladness you gained and now enjoy. Hail, Gate of Heaven, with glory now crowned, Bring us to safety where thy Son is found, true joy to see. Amen.
Are there areas of my life where I have allowed myself to be cowed into submission by implacable and seemingly invincible foes? What would happen if I renewed my confidence in Mary’s power to do what I cannot, to bring me where I could never go on my own?
Consider the simplicity of the means that Frodo and Sam employ: a brief invocation, a couple of stanzas of a song. Have I perhaps made devotion to Mary more complicated in my mind than it needs to be? . . .
Just as Frodo was filled with renewed courage by wielding the Phial and calling on the name of Galadriel, his faithful servant Sam, by doing the same, is able to shake off the terror of Shelob and the certainty of death, while defending his fallen master. He, too, yields to the gift of inspired speech, and cries out in the words of the Elven-hymn to Elbereth. In an instant his battle-fury is rekindled. It would not be an exaggeration to understand the Star-glass and Galadriel’s name as sacramentals (see CCC 1667), which impart grace according to the disposition of the person who makes use of them:
As if his indomitable spirit had set its potency in motion, the glass blazed suddenly like a white torch in his hand. It flamed like a star that leaping from the firmament sears the dark air with intolerable light. No such terror out of heaven had ever burned in Shelob’s face before. The beams of it entered into her wounded head and scored it with unbearable pain, and the dreadful infection of light spread from eye to eye. (Bk4 Ch10)
Phial-Galadriel-Elbereth: this sacramental chain of representation, from the most tangible and earthly to the most incorporeal and celestial, brings supernatural power to bear at exactly the moment needed to bring about the defeat of evil. Divine wrath has been meted out—a foretaste of the final judgement. By his act of reverential faith, Sam the lowly gardener is suddenly transformed into a holy warrior, made capable of performing impossible deeds of valour. Without this Marian intervention, both he and Frodo would have perished and their Quest would have ended in utter disaster. But they are both “of the seed of the woman” (see Rev. 12:17), through whom she defeats the ancient serpent again and again. She will do the same through us.
Ave maris stella, Dei Mater alma, Atque semper Virgo, Felix cœli porta.
Sumens illud Ave Gabrielis ore, Funda nos in pace, Mutans Evæ nomen.
Solve vincla reis, Profer lumen cæcis, Mala nostra pelle, Bona cuncta posce.
Monstra te esse matrem, Sumat per te preces, Qui pro nobis natus, Tulit esse tuus.
Virgo singularis, Inter omnes mitis, Nos culpis solutos, Mites fac et castos.
Vitam præsta puram, Iter para tutum, Ut videntes Jesum Semper collætemur.
Sit laus Deo Patri, Summo Christo decus, Spiritui Sancto, Tribus honor unus. Amen.
Hail, star of the sea, bountiful mother of God and ever Virgin, happy gate of heaven.
Taking that Ave from the mouth of Gabriel, preserve us in peace, giving Eve a new name.
Loose the chains of the bound, bring light to the blind, drive out our ills, invoke all things good.
Show thyself to be a mother, may he who was born for us receive our prayers through thee.
Singular virgin, more gentle than all, absolve us from sin and make us gentle and pure.
Grant us a pure life, prepare a safe way, that in seeing Jesus we may rejoice for ever.
Praise be to God the Father, glory to Christ on high, and with the Holy Spirit honour to the three in one. Amen.
Learn more about the three most prominent Marian sacramentals: the Holy Rosary, the Brown Scapular, the Miraculous Medal.
The very first vision of Mary that we encounter, as we retrace the journey of the central characters in The Lord of the Rings, occurs as Frodo, Sam, and Pippin are being hunted by what they know only as a Black Rider—who (they will eventually learn) is one of the Nine Ringwraiths, the most fearsome servants of Sauron, the Dark Lord. They are in the gravest peril they could possibly be in Middle-earth, short of encountering the Enemy himself. They are saved by an unexpected, providential meeting with a group of Elves, who are on their way westward through the Shire, but when they hear of the hobbits’ plight they agree to take them into their company for the night. Very significantly, it is when Frodo hears them speaking the name of Elbereth that he recognizes them as High Elves, the most holy of the peoples of Middle-earth: “‘These are High Elves! They spoke the name of Elbereth!’ said Frodo in amazement.”
In Tolkien’s mythos, Elbereth (star-queen) is one of the names of Varda (the exalted), one of the benevolent Powers of the world. As her name indicates, she rules the stars. Gilthoniel means “star-kindler.” Much later in the story, the narrator explains: “Varda is the name of that Lady whom the Elves in these lands of exile name Elbereth” (Bk2 Ch8). Analogously, in Catholic liturgy and piety, the Virgin Mary is reverenced under many titles. She is frequently invoked as “Our Lady” and “Queen of Heaven.” One of the most well-known Marian hymns, the Salve Regina, calls upon her to show us her Son “after this our exile.” Like the Elves, we Christians do not consider ourselves to have a permanent home here below. We are on pilgrimage through a land of shadows, dangers, and suffering. But we have a bright beacon shining down upon us as a sign of hope that we will one day reach our homeland safely. And it is good for us to sing in praise of her beauty, especially when evil threatens to overtake us.
The Elves, too, sing a hymn to Elbereth in the woods of the Shire, out of sheer joy at her loveliness, manifested in the stars that shine overhead:
Snow-white! Snow-white! O Lady clear!
O Queen beyond the Western Seas!
O Light to us that wander here
Amid the world of woven trees!
Gilthoniel! O Elbereth!
Clear are thy eyes and bright thy breath!
Snow-white! Snow-white! We sing to thee
In a far land beyond the Sea.
AVE REGINA CAELORUM
Ave, Regina cælorum, Ave, Domina Angelorum: Salve radix, salve, Porta, Ex qua mundo lux est orta: Gaude Virgo gloriosa, Super omnes speciosa, Vale, o valde decora, Et pro nobis Christum exora.
Hail! O Queen of heav’n enthron’d! Hail! by angels mistress own’d! Root of Jesse, Gate of morn, Whence the world’s true Light was born. Glorious Virgin! joy to thee, Loveliest whom in heaven they see. Fairest thou where all are fair! Plead with Christ our sins to spare.
Marian antiphon from the Liturgy of the Hours, Night Prayer (Compline)
When the troubles and evils of this life press in on us, the temptation is to narrow our vision, to “look down” and to turn in upon ourselves. Instead, we can choose to “look up,” to gaze in awe and wonder at our heavenly homeland and its glorious inhabitants. Praise is one of the purest forms of devotion because it is gratuitous. Today, let’s look for an opportunity to express our admiration for our heavenly Queen’s beauty.
There is a vast treasury of hymns and poems to Our Lady in our heritage. We can look up one that we are not familiar with, and make it our own.
Like the Elves, we can use the sight of natural beauty to remind us of the Blessed Land where our Queen awaits us, beyond the bounds of time and space.