Marian Devotion & 
The Courtly Tradition in 
Elbereth & 

"Its center was not God, but imaginary Deities, Love and the Lady.  It still tends to make the Lady a kind of guiding star or divinity - of the old-fashioned 'his divinity' = the woman he loves - the object or reason of noble conduct.  This is, of course, false and at best make-believe.  The woman is another fallen human-being with a soul in peril.  But combined and harmonized with religion (as long about it was, producing much of that beautiful devotion to Our Lady that has been God's way of refining so much our gross manly natures and emotions, and also of warming and colouring our hard, bitter religion) it can be very noble."
Letter to Michael Tolkein, 6-8 March 1941

"I think I know exactly what you mean by the order of Grace; and of course by your references to Our Lady, upon which all my own small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity is founded.  The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. "
--Letter to Robert Murray, S.J., 2 December 1953

Marian devotion is something quite foreign to most Protestant Christians, as well as to many readers of The Lord of the Rings, be they Christian or non-Christian. Its particular flavor in Tolkien is one both medieval and Vatican I in nature, and he acknowledged it as unconsciously and consciously influential on his conception of the Elves' devotion to Elbereth and on his conception of Galadriel in The Fellowship of the Ring.  Clearly, the high medieval cult of Mary raised her place in Roman Catholic veneration to new levels, and this pious exaltation was mixed with the ideals of courtly love, as Tolkien himself acknowledged.  Such ideals included:

  • The lover looks on the beloved as one who is higher and can be approached only with a suppressed awe and wonder.
  • The lover's body is deeply disturbed with a malady like sickness.
  • The lover becomes his beloved's servant. He proves his loyalty and patience by seeking to obtain her nearly unobtainable affections.
  • The lover always dwells inwardly on the beloved.
  • Jealousy disturbs love, for a true lover is always loyal.
  • Such a pursuit empowers the lover’s prowess, courage, and obedience.  He may even be moved to greater piety and loyalty to his kingdom

Likewise, Marian devotion was mixed with the Pre-Raphaelite veneration of medieval and mythic woman in their art and poetry, a medieval (and neo-classical) revival which stressed not only views of woman as victim and innocent, but also as friend, as sweet romance, as unfulfilled desire, and as erotic longing.

Three Roman Catholic Hymns of Marian Devotion (Two Medieval, One 19th Century)

Salve, Regina, Mater misericordiae,
vita, dulcedo, et spes nostra, salve.
Ad te clamamus, exsules filii Hevae,
ad te suspiramus, gementes et flentes
in hac lacrimarum valle.
Eia, ergo, advocata nostra, illos tuos
misericordes oculos ad nos converte;
et Jesum, benedictum fructum ventris tui,
nobis post hoc exilium ostende.
O clemens, O pia, O dulcis Virgo Maria.
Hail, holy Queen, Mother of Mercy,
our life, our sweetness and our hope.
To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve;
to thee do we send up our sighs,
mourning and weeping in this vale of tears.

Turn then, most gracious advocate,
thine eyes of mercy toward us;
and after this our exile,
show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.

Alma Redemptoris Mater, quae pervia caeli
Porta manes, et stella maris, succurre cadenti,
Surgere qui curat, populo: tu quae genuisti,
Natura mirante, tuum sanctum Genitorem
Virgo prius ac posterius, Gabrielis ab ore
Sumens illud Ave, peccatorum miserere.
Loving Mother of our Savior, hear thou thy people's cry
Star of the deep and Portal of the sky!
Mother of Him who thee made from nothing made.
Sinking we strive and call to thee for aid:
Oh, by what joy which Gabriel brought to thee,
Thou Virgin first and last, let us thy mercy see.

Stella Maris, John Lingard (d.1851)

Hail, Queen of heaven, the Ocean Star,
Guide of the wanderer here below,
Thrown on life’s surge, we claim thy care.
Save us from peril and from woe.
Mother of Christ, Star of the Sea,
Pray for the wanderer, pray for me.
O gentle, chaste and spotless maid
We sinners lift our prayers to thee.
Remind thy Son that He has paid
The price of our iniquity.
Mother of Christ, Star of the Sea,
Pray for the sinner, pray for me.

Clearly, Elbereth is an object of not just veneration, but also intercession. Along with Frodo crying out for her help on Weathertop--a name of terror to the Nazgűl, Legolas's invocation to her before he shoots the Nazgűl's winged steed, and Sam's invocation of her in Sindarin in Shelob's lair, Galadriel invokes also her in a song of longing for forgiveness and return. 

Compare the sentiments in the above Marian songs to those of Elvish devotion below. What attitudes and imagery do these share with the Marian tradition? What do they share with the courtly tradition?

Hymns to Elbereth

O Elbereth Star-kindler
There slants down like shining jewels
From heaven the glory of the stars.
After gazing afar into the distance
From tree-tangled Middle-earth
Snow-white, I sing to you
Beyond the sea, here beyond the great sea.

A Elbereth Gilthoniel
Silivren penna míriel
O menel aglar elenath!
Na-chaered palan-díriel
O galadhremmin ennorath
Fanuilos, le linnathon
Nef aer, sí nef aearon!

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.

O stars that in the Sunless Year
With shining hand by her were sown,
In windy fields now bright and clear
We see your silver blossom blown!

O Elbereth! Gilthoniel!
We still remember, we who dwell
In this far land beneath the trees,
Thy starlight on the Western Seas.


Edward Burne Jones, 
The Golden Stairs

"I was particularly interested in your remarks about Galadriel. . . . I think it is true that I owe much of this character to Christian and Catholic teaching  and imagination about Mary, but actually Galadriel was a penitent: in her youth a leader in the rebellion against the Valar (the angelic guardians).  At the end of the First Age she proudly refused forgiveness or permission to return.  She was pardoned because of her resistance to the final and overwhelming temptation to take the Ring for herself."
Letter to Mrs Ruth Austin, 4 February 1971

"Galadrial was 'unstained' : she had committed no evil deeds. She was an enemy of Fëonor.  She did not reach Middle-earth with the other Noldor, but independently.  Her reasons for desiring to go to Middle-earth were legitimate, and she would have been permitted to depart, but for the misfortune that before she set out the revolt of Fëonor broke out, and she became involved in the desperate measures of Manwe, and the ban on all emigration."
--Letter to Lord Halsbury, 4 August 1973

Galadriel, for more complex reasons, is herself an object of courtly, even quasi-Marian devotion, though Tolkien is careful to point out her distinctiveness. Nonetheless, one must acknowledge the changing views he held of her. She was at one time culpable in the revolt surrounding the Noldor, then later Tolkien decided she was a more pure ideal.  How is devotion (Marian and/or courtly) pictured in these passages? Are Frodo's responses to Arwen (281/ II.i) and Goldberry (153-155/ I.vii) comparable?

  • Her courtesy towards Gimli (442-443)
  • Her examination via her glance of the members of the fellowship (443-445)
  • The Mirror of Galadriel (449ff.)
  • The parting feast (463ff.)
  • Gimli's praise and request (467-471)
  • Her songs (463, 469-470)

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding