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.