The Dayspring From On High Comes to the Aid of the Hobbits

Frodo and Sam are trapped in the darkness visible of Shelob’s Lair as the foul monster advances upon them. As he grips the sword that he took from the barrow Sam suddenly thinks of Tom Bombadil. “I wish old Tom was near us now.” And as he does so it is not Bombadil who comes, but Galadriel, in an insight of such clarity that it has the force of a vision. Sam sees her as the giver of gifts upon the lawn in Lothlórien when she gave to Frodo the Star Glass, “a light when all other lights go out.”

Frodo raises the glass and the light of a Silmaril blazes forth in the darkness. Frodo is wonderfully empowered by this and he advances upon Shelob crying, “Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima!” Frodo does not know what words he speaks for it as if another voice has spoken them in this place of utter darkness but they and the light of a star drive Shelob  back and Frodo and Sam are able to escape.

The words that Frodo cries are “Hail, Eärendil, O Brightest of Stars! ” and readers of The Lord of the Rings will remember the verses that Bilbo chanted in the halls of Elrond in Rivendell of the great hero who brought aid to the defeated peoples of Middle-earth at the end of the First Age. They will remember too that Sam spoke of how he and Frodo were still a part of the story of Eärendil and how the great stories never seem to end.

For Tolkien these words were of the greatest significance. At the very outset of the creation of his mythology when he was a young student of old languages he read some words in an Anglo-Saxon poem that had a profound effect upon him.

Eálá Earendel engla beorhtast ofer middangeard monnum sended 

Or, “Hail Earendel, Brightest of Angels, over Middle-earth sent to men!”

Some who knew Tolkien say that for him words did not merely describe something but could convey to him the very reality they sought to signify.  It was as if he were an initiate in a mystery cult.  Thus on reading the words in the old poem he actually encountered the Brightest of Angels. It was a visionary, a revelatory experience, just as it was for Frodo in the darkness and from it was born the whole mythology from which The Lord of the Rings came.

It is this experience that Tolkien brings to one of the darkest moments in his story. It is the Brightest of Angels who drives Shelob back! And there is something more. The poem that Tolkien was reading at the moment of revelation was one that was related to Advent, the time of year when Christians focus most keenly upon the longing for the coming of Christ. In the poem are found the O Antiphons that form an introduction to the singing of the Magnificat,  the great song of Mary, at evening prayer in Advent. They are most often used today when the popular carol for Advent, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, is sung. Unlike CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia,  Christ is not born within the story. That was deliberate upon Tolkien’s part. But what happens at this moment is a cry of longing for an end to all darkness and even an end to death itself. Eärendil, the Morning Star, bears witness to the Sun that will rise, scattering the gloom from before our paths for ever.

And it all begins in the darkness with a moment of near despair and the thought that comes to Sam, “I wish old Tom was near us now.” For us to know light in the darkness it is not necessary that we should be scholars of old languages. Neither Sam nor even Frodo know what Frodo cries. But they have said, Yes, to their great pilgrimage and they have not turned back and so they receive “a light when all other lights go out” simply because they need that light.

And so can we when we need light in our darkness.

17 thoughts on “The Dayspring From On High Comes to the Aid of the Hobbits

  1. Stephen! How beautiful! I didn’t know any of this background and it has made a truly wonderful part of this great narrative still yet more bright.

    Frodo and Sam reach out in darkness to the thought of someone with great Joy; whose songs were stronger… And they receive. Tom, I think, if my memory serves me (which it may not, I’m no Tolkien scholar)… Tells the hobbits if they call his name he will come… There is a great power in Naming. The Name of the “I Am” resounds to me, here… Frodo names the Brightest of Angels and Shelob cowers before the Name and the Light.

    And nothing shall stop he who moves in the light… We see it reverberating through the psalms.. this sense that he who reaches out into the Light and finds succour there will be firm as rock and equally as immovable. Light perceives the very heart of darkness, as you retweeted earlier … And the darkness cannot stand this Knowing or Naming …Because when darkness is Known, it loses much of its terror. And this, even as you say, Stephen, when Frodo and Sam do not themselves comprehend the precise meaning what is happening/being said… The Light flows through them.

    O Oriens … I thought this would be a passage of darkness, Stephen, and yet you have shown me it blazing with incomprehensible Light. With the power of he who says ‘pray these things in my Name’. Thank you

    • I thought this would be a passage of darkness too. I still remember the first time I entered the darkness of Shelob’s Lair as a teenage boy. The vast spider terrified me. Jubilare challenged me not to dismiss the right kind of analysis and if I had not explored Tolkien and his discovery of the Old English text I would have stayed in the darkness with the monster. It’s Mark 1.10, we are in the desert assailed by the devil and by wild beasts and angels come to minister to us.
      I don’t know if you know Malcolm Guite’s wonderful series of poems on the O Antiphons? I read his one on O Oriens this morning. If you type his name and O Oriens into your search engine you will go to it easily. I want to reflect further on his poem and the Eärendil story next week.
      And I am so glad that you got it when I tried to say that we start with what we know and that is enough. Sam remembers Tom’s words that you remembered too. I think of Carol King’s great song, You’ve got a Friend, “You just call out my name and you know that wherever I am I’ll come running to see you again.”

      • I read “waiting on the word” this year, so yes, very much enjoyed Malcolm guite’s poetry. And there were some beautiful reflections about O Oriens in various places – many of which came back to mind when I read your words.

        And yes, I love that song, too!

  2. Oh! I love this post!
    The words that Frodo cries are “Hail, Eärendil, O Brightest of Stars! ” and readers of The Lord of the Rings will remember the verses that Bilbo chanted in the halls of Elrond in Rivendell of the great hero who brought aid to the defeated peoples of Middle-earth at the end of the First Age. They will remember too that Sam spoke of how he and Frodo were still a part of the story of Eärendil and how the great stories never seem to end.

    So true! Great job!
    But…

    You left out the really really cute part!!!!

  3. “Hail Earendel, Brightest of Angels, over Middle-earth sent to men!”

    I love this for a reason perhaps not readily apparent. Lewis once wrote something, I think in an address to students, about doing their work honestly, not trying to manufacture results overtly edifying to Christian theology, but in the faith that whatever we uncover honestly, will eventually be to the glory of God, and will be used by future generations in ways we could not ever imagine.

    The author of the above quote would surely, never in a billion years, foresee what effect it would have upon Tolkien, nor what would come of that spark.,

    As a writer, I find influences like that, too, picking up breadcrumbs that were left by my predecessors, many of them not even sharing my faith, that influence my own work. And I have to wonder if they were left, unbeknownst to their creators, just for me. Which naturally leads me to wonder what breadcrumbs I am leaving, and who I may be leaving them for. Who knows what line might come off my fingertips, a line of little significance for me, but that might have been put in me to leave for someone who comes after me. Might something I put down in, as Lewis says, “simple obedience,” spark a world? It’s a humbling and an encouraging thought. Though it is also horrible to think what evil I could do as unknowingly in disobedience.

    • My own conviction is that grace keeps the best of us and, as you put it beautifully, will use things in a way that we cannot foresee. On Sunday someone told me that I had said something recently that greatly affected a member of her family. I have no memory of ever saying it. As to the wrong that we do, what strikes me when I learn about the failings of those that I have admired is that they are closer to me as a consequence. We both need the same grace.

      • Very true.

        My mother recently reconnected with a student she had failed in one of her classes. It turns out that that failure hurt him very deeply, but also woke him up and motivated him to work harder. He contacted her to thank her for doing her job in failing him.

  4. One of the best gifts that we can receive comes from the person brave enough to say that what we have done is not good enough and that we can do so much better. They call us to be our very best and when they finally say, well done, we know that we have done something truly praiseworthy. My daughter, Bethan tells me that when she wants to play a piece on the piano really well then she goes to her Polish teacher. The reason is that if it is not good enough her teacher will say so. “Come back when you have learned the notes!” she will say. But when she feels that Bethan has played the piece well then her praise is really worth something. I really respect the young man who thanked your mother for failing him. I can see a fine man being formed who will be a source of strength to those around him and your mother’s courage to fail him will have played a big part in that story.

  5. Pingback: The Paths of the Dead. A Journey from Despair to Life . | Wisdom from The Lord of the Rings

  6. Reblogged this on Wisdom from The Lord of the Rings and commented:

    Thanks to the people who have been reading this post today in the fourth week of Advent when, from of old, the church has sung the O Antiphons, an ancient prayer that had such an effect upon the young Tolkien when he first read them in Old English. The connections between Tolkien’s Christian faith and his legendarium are often hidden but they shine forth in Shelob’s Lair. When you have read this why not try putting the O Antiphons into a search engine and see where they take you.

  7. This is beautiful. Without making it sound far-fetched, there seems to be some divine intervention which occurs at this particularly desperate moment. Such thoughts – like Sam’s here – come out of nowhere but they’re the ones to show us the way and help us out, even in some truly unexpected manner.

    • Thank you for your comment. I read a really fine reflection on the blog site, Fellowship of the King, today which picks up on similar points to my own post. But apart from my reflections on Tolkien and an Old English prayer I was also thinking about my own prayer. Sometimes a thought or a feeling comes to mind at just the right time just as you said yourself.

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