The Virgin Mary in “The Lord of the Rings”
Author’s Note: This post falls as part of a series on female saints, but since there is so much that can be said about the greatest of all saints, the Blessed Virgin Mary, I chose to focus on her as represented in the literature and movies of the Lord of the Rings, which provides a familiar common ground for many of us.
The Lord of the Rings books and movies depict some of the strongest female characters in fiction—Eowyn and Galadriel. Granted, these female characters do not sojourn with the Fellowship towards Mordor, nor do they deliver the Ring into the fires of Mount Doom. However, the journey and destruction of the Ring would have been impossible without their assistance. Likewise, while Christ’s Passion and Resurrection conquered sin and death and brought forth salvation, the Blessed Virgin Mary enacted a significant role in the economy of salvation with her yes to God’s request that she bear and raise our Savior. Many of the Church Fathers emphasized the role of Mary in salvation. Saints Irenaeus, Jerome, Ambrose, Augustine, and others distinguish a parallel between Eve and Mary.
Thus Galadriel and Eowyn represent the Virgin Mary. This is not me reading my personal devotion into a text; Tolkien himself was a pious Catholic, with intense personal devotion to the Eucharist and the Blessed Virgin. Tolkien wrote in correspondence to a Jesuit priest about the order of grace in The Lord of the Rings and its relation to, “our Lady, upon which all my own small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity is founded.”
Galadriel and Eowyn certainly embody this sort of beauty—the elf-queen Galadriel in her majesty, and the royal shieldmaiden Eowyn in her ardent courage.
Galadriel most certainly suggests the Blessed Virgin as represented through Catholic tradition. She is queen, mother, ethereal, and ever present to those who request her aid. Catholic iconography from the 15th century onward represents Mary as Our Lady of Perpetual Succor, and Pope Pius IX formally bestowed this title upon her in the 19th century. In The Two Towers, Galadriel appears to Sam during a moment of grave distress in Shelob’s lair, paralleling the image of Mary as she who appears to offer help.
Amidst the darkness and the threat of death, “then, as [Sam] stood, darkness about him and a blackness of despair and anger in his heart, it seemed to him that he saw a light: a light in his mind, almost unbearably bright at first, as a sun-ray to the eyes of one long hidden in a windowless pit.” This was no light flooding the actual darkness of the spider’s lair, but rather the blackness of Sam’s despair, for it was a vision of Galadriel. “Far off, as in a little picture drawn by elvn-fingers, he saw Lady Galadriel standing on the grass in Lorien, and gifts were in her hands. And you, Ringbearer, he heard her say, remote but clear, for you I have prepared this.’ ” Sam remembers that Galadriel gifted Frodo with a star-glass that can provide light when all other lights go out. The light from the Phial of Galadriel overpowers the darkness of Shelob’s lair and the despair of the two hobbits, providing them with guidance unto safety so they may complete their journey.
Eowyn is a shieldmaiden of the house of Rohan, humble yet desiring her own place on the battlefield. Her actions point to Mary as represented in Scripture. Like the Mary of the Gospels, Eowyn is gentle and young. Like the handmaiden of the Lord, the shieldmaiden’s destiny held something truly great. The Elf-king Glorfindel foretold 1,000 years before that the Ringwraith leader, the Witch-King of Angmar, could not fall “by the hand of man.” During the Battle of Pelennor Fields, Eowyn disguised herself as a man named Dernhelm so she could fight in battle. When the Ringwraith injured her uncle Theoden, Eowyn confronted the Witch-King.
“A sword rang as it was drawn. ‘Do what you will, but I will hinder it, if I may.’ ‘Hinder me? Thou fool, No living man may hinder me!’ ” The Witch-King warned Eowyn and he prepared to strike her so that he may finish off Theoden.
“Then Merry heard of all sounds in that hour the strangest. It seemed the Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel. ‘But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Eowyn I am, Eomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.”
Eowyn then removes her helmet, allowing her “bright hair, released from its bonds, gleamed with pale gold” to tumble upon her shoulders. At this moment, Tolkien depicts her as fierce and brave while still gentle and feminine: “Her eyes grey as the sea were hard and fell, and yet tears were against her eyes;” simultaneously “slender but as a steel-blade, fair yet terrible.” Eowyn swiftly delivers a fatal blow to the Nazgul steed, thus knocking the Witch-King to the ground. Merry the Hobbit pierces the Witch-King from behind with his sword, and “with her last strength [Eowyn] drove her sword between crown and mantle, as the great shoulders bowed before her. The sword broke sparkling in to many shards. The crown rolled away with a clang.” No living man could or would kill the Witch-King, as the prophecy foretold. It was living woman, the shieldmaiden of Rohan, who brought down the Lord of the Nazgul. With the Witch-King’s death, Frodo and the others were freed from his ruthless pursuit and could destroy the Ring. The death of the Witch-King allowed the Fellowship and their allies to win the Battle of Pelennor Fields, which then enabled them to distract Sauron and draw the Orcs out of Mordor, thus allowing Frodo and Sam to travel through Mordor undetected.
Likewise, the great battle between good and evil in Scripture points to the pivotal role of a woman. Genesis 3:15 prophesied “enmity between [the serpent] and woman, and between [the serpent’s] seed and her seed, and he will bruise [the serpent’s] head, and [the serpent] will bruise his heel.” Many of the Church Fathers associated this prophecy with the Theotokos (the title given to Mary meaning Mother of God). Her “yes” to God enacted the events necessary for the triumph of the cross. Mary’s seed, Jesus, crushed Satan’s head. Like Eowyn, Mary did not accomplish the final victory; yet like Eowyn, she fulfilled a prophecy as her actions played a significant role in the defeat of evil, a role no man could play. Genesis 3:15 indicates how victory over sin and evil must be accomplished through the work of both woman and man (the woman and her seed); Eowyn’s prophesied victory over the Witch-King demonstrates the work of both a woman and men to conquer the evil forces of the Ring.
After completing his masterpiece, Tolkien described The Lord of the Rings as, “of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.” Mariology figures prominently into Catholicism, especially the Catholicism of Tolkien’s 19th century world. Since Tolkien abhorred allegory, it makes sense that there is no directly Mariological figure in the novels. Yet through Galadriel, Eowyn, even Arwen, we see hints and glimpses of Mary, as represented both in Scripture and Catholic tradition.
View Sources Photo Courtesy of: http://lotr.wikia.com/wiki/File:17268_Fantasy_Fantasy_-_LotR_Wallpaper.jpg
Photo Courtesy of: http://lotr.wikia.com/wiki/File:17268_Fantasy_Fantasy_-_LotR_Wallpaper.jpg J.R.R. Tolkien in a letter to Robert Murray, S.J., on December 2, 1953. http://campus.udayton.edu/mary/questions/yq2/yq403.html.  J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Boston; New York: Mariner Books, 1966), 703.  J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, (Boston; New York: Mariner Books, 1966), 823.  Ibid 823.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Ibid.  Ibid 824.  Tolkien, J.R.R. Tolkien in a letter to Robert Murray, S.J., on December 2, 1953. http://campus.udayton.edu/mary/questions/yq2/yq403.html.