Words of Power
by Joseph Bradford
Throughout the stories Tolkien wrote, one common theme is woven into his mythos: Words have power. This should not strike anyone as odd, as the Professor was a philologist by trade and at heart. In fact, Tolkien states plainly in his prologue that the original purpose behind the stories was to create a world in which to place the languages he had created:
“ I desired to do this for my own satisfaction, and I had little hope that other people would be interested in this work, especially since it was primarily linguistic in inspiration and was begun in order to provide the necessary background of ‘history’ for Elvish tongues” – Forward, The Fellowship of the Ring
Words in the world of Arda hold more weight than just the meaning behind the speech. Tolkien knew that words, even in our society, carried a certain power all their own. Words, and the ability to speak and comprehend them, separates us from the creatures around us. This distinction Tolkien makes known when he creates the Elvish word for what the Elves call themselves. Most people believe, as well as myself for most of the time I read through The Lord of the Rings that the Elves referred to themselves as “The Eldar.” In fact, the Elves call themselves the Quendi or “Those who speak in tongues.” This fundamental ideal that the Elves themselves realized from the beginning gives us some insight into who they were from the very first time we meet them. In fact, throughout most of the “history” of the Quendi that we get to see, spoken word seems to be heralded over the written word. This could be due to the fact that the Elves live…well basically forever, so they would need no reason to write stuff down; they simply remembered everything.
Words in our world have created bonds of friendship, incited riots, started wars and then ended them. We form phrases into oaths to bind people to each other, oaths to uphold a standard of behaving in society, oaths for protecting your country, and so on. Words bind us legally if said in the right context. When we give our “word” to someone, we assure them that we will uphold a promise made. Words carry weight, regardless of circumstance. Arda is no different.
We see examples throughout the histories of Arda where mere speech can conquer someone, or blast another into total submission. They can cause a character to hold sway over another’s ideals and actions. Words can create as well as destroy.
In the very beginning of The Silmarillion we see an example of creation taking place. The Ainur sing their music and the idea of The World that Is comes into thought, yet it is the word of Eru that brings Eä into being.
“Then there was unrest among the Ainur; but Ilúvatar called to them, and said: 'I know the desire of your minds that what ye have seen should verily be, not only in your thought, but even as ye yourselves are, and yet other. Therefore I say: Eä! Let these things Be!” – The Ainulindalë
The Use of Speech As a Weapon
When one typically thinks of power and magic in Middle-earth, the scene of Saruman blasting a fireball at Gandalf from atop Orthanc in the movie version of the story comes to mind. Magic as we see it today is just that: spells with fantastical effects such as element manipulation, fireballs hurling at one another, and so on. We do see instances, especially in The Hobbit where a wizard will conjure fire to scare enemies, but we don’t see these effects being hurled around like they are going out of style.
We do, however, have many examples where words, and speech in general play a major role in battles and events throughout the stories. Throughout the history of Arda we see battles large and small fought with sword, bow and eventually machine. There is a great line in The Fellowship of the Ring where Gandalf has to tell Aragorn “Swords are no more use here!” While he was referring to the struggle of wills he would eventually have with the Balrog in Moria, this idea that not everything is won with the sword is a fundamental theme throughout some of Arda’s greatest battles.
Even in the scene that plays out a page or two later with the Balrog, we see the effect of the power Gandalf has in declaring himself to the Balrog.
“ ‘You cannot pass,’ he said. The orcs stood still, and a dead silence fell. ‘I am a servant of the Secret Fire, wielder of the flame of Anor. You cannot pass. The dark fire will not avail you, flame of Udûn. Go back to the Shadow! You cannot pass.’
“ The Balrog made no answer. The fire in it seemed to die, but the darkness grew.” – The Bridge of Khazad-Dûm, The Fellowship of the Ring
The Balrog seemed to suppress its flame after Gandalf declared that the fire would have no power over him. This creature, one of the Maia like Gandalf as well, is a spirit of Shadow and Flame, but due to Gandalf’s proclamation has to set aside one attribute of its very nature. In the end, the struggle between Durin’s Bane and the Grey Pilgrim is decided by the sword, but the battle is evened a bit by the power of Gandalf’s word.
Some other examples are found throughout The Silmarillion, as we see full battles themselves completely waged by words. As Beren sought the Silmaril that would win Lúthien’s hand, he called upon King Felagund to fulfill an oath sworn to Beren’s father, Barahir. Though Felagund knew that his oath would claim his life, as he told Galadriel earlier in The Silmarillion, he went with Beren to help fulfill the quest. Along the way they were waylaid by Sauron, a mere lieutenant in Morgoth’s army at the time, and a battle was fought not by sword, or any way of warfare as we know it, but rather a contest of Songs of Power.
"This befell the contest of Sauron and Felagund, which is renowned. For Felagund strove with Sauron in songs of power, and the power of the King was very great; but Sauron had the mastery as is told in the Lay of Leithian: - Of Beren and Lúthien, The Silmarillion
The battle goes back and forth, Sauron singing of piercing, treachery, betraying. Felagund counters with resisting, trust unbroken, strength like a tower. The song of the two titanic figures swelled, bringing the beauty of Elvenland and the power of Elvenesse into Felagund’s words. However, Sauron cripples and ultimately wins when he sings about evil’s triumph in those lands: the Kinslaying at Alqualondë.
“Then in the doom gathered; darkness growing
In Valinor, the red blood flowing
Beside the Sea, where the Noldor slew
The Foamriders, and stealing drew
Their white ships with their white sails
From lamplit havens. The wind wails,
The wolf howls. The ravens flee.
The ice mutters in the mouths of the Sea.
The captives sad in Angband mourn.
Thunder rumbles, the fires burn-
And Finrod fell before the throne."
– Of Beren and Lúthien, The Silmarillion
Crippled and defeated, Finrod Felagund, the King of Nargothrond is imprisoned along with Beren by Sauron. There is no “mortal” struggle here as we would know it, but the effects of the songs of power taxed and utterly defeated Felagund just as much as a sword fight might’ve. Worse in some respects even. Being reminded of the greatest error in the history of the Elves, and having that be used against you would be debilitating indeed.
Powerful Words of Rescue
We see another display of this same type of power a few pages later when Lúthien, being aided by the hound Huan, comes to Minas Tirith (not the same as in The Lord of the Rings) to rescue Beren. She sings a song that Tolkien states that “no walls of stone could hinder.” Sauron comes forth himself, and after being defeated by Huan, yields the tower and the surround isle to her and flees. Tolkien goes on:
“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; and many thralls and captives came forth in wonder and dismay, shielding their eyes against the pale moon light, for they had lain long in the darkness of Sauron.” – Of Beren and Lúthien, The Silmarillion
Declared her power. Think about that for a second. She simply stood on the bridge and declared her power. With this, the walls of the tower fell. She didn’t come against it with siege weaponry, nor did Huan bash his mighty body against the door to the keep in an effort to open it. She simply declared her power, and the stone tower crumbled.
Words Overcoming Even the Mightiest
In a final example from the Lay of Leithian, we see Lúthien use her power to help achieve the goal of obtaining a Silmaril. Daunting though it may seem, she disguises herself and Beren and they enter Morgoth’s stronghold. The Dark Lord, however, is not tricked and he quickly casts down their disguise by the sheer power of his will. Lúthien is undaunted to be standing in front of Melkor. She names herself and even offers her services as a minstrel before him. Morgoth then is blinded by an evil lust and allows her to roam free before him. He soon regrets that decision:
“Then suddenly she eluded his sight, and out of the shadows began a song of such surpassing loveliness, and of such blinding power, that he listened perforce; and a blindness came upon him, as his eyes roamed to and fro, seeking her.
"All his court were cast down in slumber, and all the fires faded and were quenched; but the Silmarils in the crown on Morgoth’s head blazed forth suddenly with a radiance of white flame; and the burden of that crown and of the jewels bowed down his head, as though the world were set upon it, laden with a weight of care, of fear, and of desire, that even the will of Morgoth could not support. The Lúthien catching up her winged robe sprang into the air, and her voice came dropping down like rain into pools, profound and dark. She cast her cloak before his eyes, and set upon him a dream, dark as the outer Void where once he walked alone.” – Of Beren and Lúthien, The Silmarillion
It's not just the song, but the context!
Notice how this is called “Words of Power” and not “Songs of Power?” That was by design. While the battles waged, and the power displayed was typically in the form of a song, it’s the context of that song that holds the real power. The songs between Sauron and Finrod Felagund are on equal footing, one combating the other with opposing views. It’s not until the Kinslaying is brought up that Sauron has the mastery. The utter woe and despair of the Noldor (excluding the sons of Fëanor it seems) that is shown forth in the song by Sauron is what brings Felagund to fall before the throne and not the song itself.
The same could be said of the song that subjugates Morgoth. A song of surpassing loveliness, of blinding power, the Silmarils react to the song and cause the burden to be even greater than normal for Morgoth to bear.
The context of Gandalf’s declaration against the Balrog in Moria is what cows the Maia before him. Gandalf even warns those who accompany him to Orthanc following the events at Helm’s Deep to beware Saruman’s voice. He doesn’t warn them of his fire powers, but rather the sorcery of his tongue. Even though Saruman is defeated, he still holds power.
Throughout the history of Arda we see words being used for more than just mere communication. Tolkien has at its heart created a world where words and the power behind them can sometimes be more powerful than an army besieging a keep. In the end, we can’t even really call this magic, as in the world of Arda, it’s just how things are (see Galadriel’s response to Samwise in Lórien). This difference helps make the world Tolkien cultivated more unique, especially when compared to the subcreated worlds that followed in Arda’s footsteps.
Words in our world today carry a lot of weight as well. While we may not be able to blow the hinges off a door with a simple declaration of our power, our words and meaning behind them can help foster peace, or move a populace into blind loyalty. They can portray love and kindness, hate and slander. Our words can tell stories and bring about the creation found only in our imagination, and they can inspire others to great deeds otherwise unseen. Our words, and our ability to communicate them separates us from other life on this planet, and that alone should be reason enough to cherish the power each of us holds.