The Virgin Mary in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings
Adapted transcript: Today, we meet the Virgin Mary through the many female characters in The Lord of the Rings. What’s exciting is that the content of this exploration draws intentionally from Tolkien’s own Catholic faith. He once wrote to a friend that “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.” And when a Jesuit friend once wrote to him regarding how Mary-like so many of his characters were, Tolkien replied: “I think I know exactly what you mean… by your references to Our Lady, upon which all my own small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity is founded.” Wow, that’s high praise for Mary! Now this is not at all saying that characters like Galadriel or Eowyn were meant to directly symbolise Mary, or be a caricature of her. No. Tolkien’s genius is that he is able to infuse his faith across many characters and themes, so much so that his Catholicism permeates his work, saturating it with divine grace. As philosopher Peter Kreeft once commented: it’s actually hard to name what isn’t Catholic about The Lord of the Rings. It makes up such an essence to his story that it becomes imperceptible, maybe a little like how Jesus is so much in the essence of the Eucharist, that he becomes imperceptible! Profound.
Today I’m going to be focusing on three key women in The Lord of the Rings: Galadriel, Eowyn and a lesser known character called Varda. Each of these three women however, are unique, and like light through a crystal, will capture for us a different shade of Mother Mary’s beauty.
Galadriel and the Virgin Mary
The first lady we’ll explore is Lady Galadriel. Tolkien describes her as the beautiful elven queen of Lothlorien forest, “the mightiest and fairest of all the Elves that remained in Middle-earth.” You may be interested to know that the etymology of the name Galadriel means “glittering garland” harkening perhaps to the woman crowned with twelve stars in the book of Revelation. The fact that Lady Galadriel is very beautiful is well attested by all the characters who meet her, including the gruff dwarf Gimli. But this detail is no accident either. For Mary is Immaculately Conceived, and hence would have been flawless in every single way, the crowning glory of God’s creation! Yet Mary’s beauty is not just earthly but also heavenly, and Tolkien goes to length to describe Galadriel’s beauty as ethereal and otherworldly, a beauty which casts a light upon Lothlorien for which human language had no name, and made Sam feel like he was inside a song. So it goes for the beauty of Mary and indeed all the saints, whose holiness positively radiates from them and basks the world around them in God’s light. Maybe this is why artists paint halos around our saints.
Among many Marian traits, Lady Galadriel acts as a powerful intercessor for the fellowship’s journey, just as Mary is for our earthly journey. Galadriel figuratively extends her mantle of protection across the whole fellowship and aids their quest in many ways. As an example, when Frodo and Sam are parched and exhausted in the middle of Mordor, Sam cries out: “If only the Lady could see or hear us, I’d say to her: ‘Your Ladyship, all we want is light and water; just clean water and plain daylight, better than jewels, begging your pardon.’” This prayer of Sam is soon granted, and a ray of sunlight suddenly leaks through the ashen clouds of Mordor… then, the sound of trickling water tickles the ears of the parched hobbits. Encouraged and refreshed, the hobbits are then able to edge closer to their goal at Mt Doom.
Catholic tradition has always honoured Mary as the dispenser of graces, or the mediatrix of graces. God, in his wisdom, chooses to act with and through his human agents. Before leaving Lothlorien, you may remember that Galadriel bestows upon each member of the fellowship a gift that is fitting for their mission. I find it interesting that her gift to Frodo was a glass phial containing the light of the star Earandil. This is because two of the most ancient titles for mother Mary are Star of the Sea, and Morning Star. Mary’s mission is always to guide weary travellers to her Son, just as the stars of night guide weary sailors back home. Remember, on Good Friday, Mary experienced what it was like to ‘lose’ the presence of God, and be shrouded in the darkest of nights for three whole days. Hence when the Light of the World seems to have gone out in our lives, we turn to Mary’s light to be our guide. Likewise, we know that both Frodo and Sam use Galadriel’s glass phial during their darkest moments “when all other lights go out” and at the hour of death. This same phial is used to resist the evil of the ring at Minas Morgul, and for slipping past the Watchers at Mordor. And if all that isn’t Marian enough, Tolkien even manages to give Galadriel an apparition … where she appears to Sam while he was in Shelob’s lair. Just as Mary apparates through places like Fatima and Lourdes and Guadeloupe during times of our greatest crisis, so too does Galadriel appear to Sam during his.
Some of us may remember that on 13th May, 1981, there was an assassination attempt upon Pope John Paul II. Some suggested this was to fulfil the Third Secret of Fatima, in which a bishop in white was prophesied to be slain among many martyrs. But, the bullet that was fired at John Pauyl II took a miraculously route through his body, narrowly missing every major organ and artery. JPII very quickly attested this was due to the guiding hand of Our Lady of Fatima’, whose feast day was 13th May. Later, Pope Benedict XVI would reflect that quote “the mother’s hand” that deflected the fateful bullet only shows once more that there is no immutable destiny, that faith and prayer are forces which can influence history and that in the end prayer is more powerful than bullets and faith more powerful than armies.”
Arguably the greatest gift Galadriel and the elves bestow upon the fellowship is the gift of Lembas bread. If you’ve seen the movies, Lembas are those simple, plain looking wafers that were wrapped in green leaves. Now, ever since the LOTR was published, many commentators have seen parallels between Lembas bread and the Holy Eucharist – not least Tolkien himself. First of all, it was Mary who first brought forth the Bread of Life from her womb to the world. Likewise, it was Galadriel who brings forth this precious and sacred Elven bread for the fellowship. Secondly, Lembas bread is called “way-bread” by the elves – hearkening to Christ who is both the Way and the Bread of Life. Like the Eucharist, Lembas is pretty unsubstantial and ordinary tasting – and yet in the words of Tolkien, “lembas had a virtue without which they would long ago have lain down to die… it fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind.” Likewise the strength of the Eucharist doesn’t lie in its quantity, but in its quality. It feeds the spirit, not merely the body. Having said that St Catherine of Sienna and Joseph of Cupertino literally lived off the Eucharist alone for many years… so Bread of Life literally takes on new meaning!
Eowyn and the Virgin Mary
We now move to our next female lead in Lord of the Rings: Eowyn. Pale, slender and with golden locks that tumbled like the sunlight, Eowyn is a lady of Rohan, niece to King Théoden and sister to Eomer. Tolkien describes her as “young, faithful and beyond fear,” and when King Théoden was about to be slain by the Witch King, she was one of the only two people who remained by his side (like Mary and John at the foot of the cross). Now if Galadriel had embodied something of Mary’s maternal role, then Eowyn embodies Mary as the warrior queen. And mark my words when I say, Satan hates Mary! Indeed the devil particularly fears Mary because Genesis foretells that it is through her offspring that his head would be crushed. Remember that Satan is the proudest of all creatures, and hence is extremely humiliated at being defeated by woman – a lowly handmaiden at that. I like how Tolkien calls Eowyn a lowly shield maiden, because I think it echoes Mary being called a lowly handmaiden. Anyway, the theme of crushing the serpents head is as relevant for Eowyn as it is for Mary. Those of you who know your scriptures would remember that when Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth, Elizabeth greets her by saying “blessed are you amongst women!” But did you know that this greeting itself is hearkening back to two other women in the Old Testament, women who crushed the heads of the Israel’s enemies? Firstly there is Jael in the book of Judges – who drives a tent peg through the head of Sissera the Canaanite general. And then, in the book of Judith, you have the Hebrew widow Judith, who beheads the Assyrian general Holofernes while in his drunken sleep. Both these women were called “blessed among women” and therefore both foreshadowed the role of Mary in the defeat of the Enemy of enemies– the Serpent himself. Let’s not be deceived to think Mary is just a peaceful mother – she is that, but she is also the mighty warrior queen of heaven. And her weapon of choice – her humility and obedience to God.
But back to Eowyn. You may remember that during the battle of Pelannor fields, King Théoden is gravely wounded by the Witch King who was mounted upon his Fellbeast, that black snake/dragon creature. But just before the Witch King could finish Théoden off, Eowyn bravely positions herself between the Fellbeast and her beloved king. She is at this stage is dressed as a man solider, and the Witch King taunts her saying that ‘no living man may hinder me’, without realising that of course Eowyn is no man, but a woman. Taking off her helmet, she raises her sword in readiness. Then, as Tolkien describes it “she does not blanch, maiden of Rohirrim, child of kings, slender, but as a steel blade, fair yet terrible. A swift stroke she dealt, skilled and deadly. The outstretched neck she clove asunder, and the hewn head fell like a stone.” In other words, she cuts of the head of the Fellbeast, and with a little help from Merry, plunges her blade into the Witch King’s face and vanquishes him. This defeat turns the tide of the Battle of Pelennor Fields, and restores enough hope for the good people of Middle Earth to fight on. We know of course, that the ultimate victory would come through Frodo and Sam, but the victory of Pellanor Fields clears the way for this last showdown. Like Mary, Eowyn’s role in salvation, while not absolute, nevertheless paves the way for the ultimate victory ….one that would be delivered by her Son when he rises from the dead.
Perhaps some of you today feel like poor King Theoden, flung off his horse and paralysed by the enemy’s relentless attack upon you? Take courage, and turn to Mary, queen of heaven, both fair and terrible. Invoke her aid, and know that just as Eowyn stands between the Nazgul and her King, so too Mary stands too between the Devil and yourself. Hear Mary declare to the devil something of the same words Eowyn said to the Witch King “You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Be gone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.”
Varda / Elbereth Gilthoniel and the Virgin Mary
Now this mysterious third Marian figure in Tolkien’s world is in some ways his most direct reference to Mary and yet at the same time, his most veiled. Most people who have only seen the movies and not read the books will probably not recognise her at all. Nevertheless, at different moments during their quest, the hobbits suddenly find themselves invoking a mysterious figure in a mysterious language, crying out “O Elbereth, Gilthoniel”. In book one Frodo finds himself crying out these words just before he is stabbed by the Morgal blade upon Weathertop. And in Book three Sam also cries these same words just before his battle with Shelob the spider. But who is this Elbereth Gilthoniel? In Tolkien’s extensive mythology, he tells us that Elbereth is the Elven name of the goddess Varda, one of the most revered creatures who helped God-like Iluvatar create the world. The Elves actually gave two names to the goddess Varda: “Elbereth” (meaning Star-queen) and “Gilthoniel” (meaning Starkindler) for it was her who created the stars that the elves so greatly revere. Some of you may know that stars play an astonishing role in the miraculous image of our Lady of Guadeloupe. The arrangement of the 46 stars on Mary’s tilma, actually coincide with the star constellations as they would have appeared over Mexico City on the morning of Dec 12, 1531. This was the morning the image first miraculously appeared before Juan Diego and the astonished bishop, an event which started the rapid chain reaction conversion of the Aztec peoples … and beyond. Mary, like Varda is truly star queen, and the queen of heaven. Movie buffs may also remember Frodo mutters something strange just before he raises the Light of Earendil against Shelob. Frodo cries out “Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima! Translated, what Frodo mutters is actually “hail Earandil, brightest of stars!” Sounds just a little bit like “Hail Mary, full of grace?”
And a last fun fact – did you know that the day Sauron’s Ring was actually destroyed was March 25th? Why is this significant – for you Catholic nerds out there? Because March 25th is the Feast Day of Mary’s Annunciation – the day Mary said yes to the angel Gabriel, and the day the Word first becomes flesh and dwelt amongst us.
So I really hope this article has enkindled within you a greater appreciation for Mary and the genius of Tolkien’s writing. The timing of this article could not have been more perfect for myself, as I’ve just finished a beautiful novena to Mary Undoer of Knots, imploring Mary for the gift of repentance, and the grace to undo a particular Big Knot currently in my own life! Writing this alongside that has given me such a renewed love for my heavenly mother… but … she’s also your mother too! So spread the word! If you’ve found this article helpful, please pass it on to your family and friends and church circles.
For today’s Practical Pilgrim exercise, consider how you can deepen your love for the Mary’s prayer of choice – the Rosary. No prayer is as devastating against the Kingdom of darkness as the Rosary, something St Padre Pio called the sword and shield against Satan. But just as importantly, there is no surer path to holiness than the path Mary took: the way of humility. Praying the rosary daily fosters a greater humility in us firstly because each Mystery moves us away from love of self, towards love of Jesus. Also, praying the rosary itself is already confessing that we need help from Mary in order to truly follow her son. Mary’s entire life was to lead us to her son, so we can be pretty confident that if we pray as she implores us to, our love for Jesus will also blossom. Amen! Okay guys, journey forth, take care and God bless.
Check out Keys of Peace music
Special thank to the guys at Keys of Peace for the beautiful rendition of Salve Regina playing this episode. It was playing as I wrote this episode too! Check out some of their other work below: