I’d like to revisit this when I have time. I think there’s more to be said about words of power in general. But I’ve only just realised a bit of a parallel I’d not considered before. First, Sam & Frodo’s escape from the Watchers at Cirith Ungol:
At length they came to the door upon the outer court, and they halted. Even from where they stood they felt the malice of the Watchers beating on them, black silent shapes on either side of the gate through which the glare of Mordor dimly showed. As they threaded their way among the hideous bodies of the orcs each step became more difficult. Before they even reached the archway they were brought to a sudden stand. To move an inch further was a pain and weariness to will and limb.
Frodo had no strength for such a battle. He sank to the ground. ‘I can’t go on, Sam,’ he murmured. ‘I’m going to faint. I don’t know what’s come over me.’
I do Mr Frodo. Hold up now! It’s the gate. There’s some devilry there. But I got through and I’m going to get out. It can’t be more dangerous than before. Now For it!’
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.
‘Gilthoniel, A Elbereth!'(*) Sam cried. For, why he did not know, his thought sprang back suddenly to the Elves in the Shire, and the song that drove away the Black Rider in the trees.
‘Aiya elenion ancalima!'(**) cried Frodo once again behind him.
The will of the Watchers was broken with a suddenness like the snapping of a cord, and Frodo and Sam stumbled forward. They ran. Through the gate and past the great seated figures with their glittering eyes. There was a crack. The keystone of the arch crashed almost on their heels, and the wall above crumbled, and fell in ruin. [LotR, VI, 1, ‘The Tower of Cirith Ungol’]
Sam & Frodo’s combined efforts here are enough to break the ‘spell’ which is designed to prevent their escape. In the moments immediately following the breaking of the spell, the archway above the gate is destroyed.
This put me in mind of Lúthien’s destruction of Sauron’s tower when she went to rescue Beren:
But Lúthien heard his answering voice, and she sang then a song of greater power. The wolves howled, and the isle trembled.
Ere [Sauron’s] foul spirit left its dark house Lúthien came to him, and said that he should be stripped of his raiment of flesh, and his ghost be sent quaking back to Morgoth; and she said: ‘There everlastingly thy naked self shall endure the torment of his scorn, pierced by his eyes, unless thou yield to me the mastery of thy tower.’
Then Sauron yielded himself, and Lúthien took the mastery of the isle and all that was there[.]
Then Lúthien stood upon the bridge, and declared her power: and the spell was loosed that bound stone to stone, and the gates were thrown down, and the walls opened, and the pits laid bare[.] [TS, 19, ‘Of Beren and Lúthien’]
There are clear differences, of course. The ‘power’ upon which Frodo & Sam call is not their own; they call Elbereth, Varda, lady of the Stars. On the other hand, the power upon which Lúthien calls is her own. She has just gained it from Sauron.
But even as I write this it makes me think also of Gandalf’s encounter with the Balrog in Moria within the Chamber of Mazarbul. At that point, Gandalf still did not know what the presence in the room was. But he fought it through the sheer force of will vs will. But when the door starts to open, things get more desperate.
‘What it was I cannot guess, but I have never felt such a challenge. The counter-spell was terrible. It nearly broke me. For an instant the door left my control and began to open! I had to speak a word of Command. That proved too great a strain. The door burst in pieces.’ [LotR, II, 5, ‘The Bridge of Khazad-dûm]
Here, the power is, of course, Gandalf’s own. Or at least, it is the power he has been given the authority to call upon. As with Sam, Frodo, and the Watchers, Gandalf is faced with a struggle of wills. It is only when the will is insufficient that aiding words are called upon.
We may be grateful that it did not prove ‘too great a strain’ upon the hobbits.
(*)Starkindler, O Elbereth!
(**)Hail Eärendil, brightest of stars!
What a fascinating reflection on this subject!
The thing that strikes me about your three examples is that although all power is derived from another source in Tolkien’s legendarium (even Morgoth is only a creature of Illuvatar) in the case of Gandalf in Moria and Lúthien before Sauron’s fortress it is mingled with the capacity to use it that Gandalf and Lúthien have developed in their long lives whereas Frodo and Sam have developed no such capacity and for them the power is pure gift. That would explain why they are not wearied by their use of the word of command which as you rightly say is a really good thing as Frodo, in particular, has no strength left.. I am trying to remember the conversation that Frodo has with Galadriel about being able to use the Ring. I think that Galadriel makes this kind of point about Frodo’s capacity to use it and then she warns him against even trying! Power is always potentially corrupting.
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Wonderful points, Stephen. I like the idea of the use of the spell to be a gift given to F&S. It is probably what we would call a prayer being answered in today’s Christian terminology. Whereas in the case of Gandalf or Lúthien, it would be closer to Jesus working a miracle.
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