LotR as a "Fundamentally Catholic and Religious Work"
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The White Star
I believe when people talk about the "layers" in Tolkien's fiction, they're often referring to the sacramentality they experience in it. What's seen on the surface is what it is. But it can point to a deeper reality that we perhaps sense more than logically understand, which is a natural response to a mystery.
The sacramental example I'd like to look at now is perhaps less obvious than lembas not only because it doesn't have a direct Sacramental parallel as lembas does with the Eucharist, but also because it's so absorbed into the story and into Tolkien's entire mythos: the light of Eärendil. In the mythology of Middle-earth, the light of Eärendil - our planet Venus - is the light of a silmaril. When I see it at its brightest, usually on a clear, cold winter evening, I can appreciate why Tolkien gave it this identity. As far as evidence of its sacramentality, perhaps most striking is that we didn't need to wait for the publication of The Silmarillion to sense that there were layers beneath what we knew about Eärendil from LotR.
But its history makes its sacramentality more clear. If we trace it back, the silmaril that legend says is worn by Eärendil as he sails the heavens is the only one of the three silmarils that is in any way still available to the inhabitants of Middle-earth at the end of the Third Age. Even that one is out of their reach, for pretty much the same reason that the Undying Lands have been moved beyond the Circles of the Earth: to keep it safe.
If we go back a step further, the light of the silmarils is that of the Two Trees of Valinor which were destroyed by Morgoth (the closest equivalent to Satan in Tolkien's mythos) and Ungoliant (Shelob's ancestor). The greed of evil can be seen in Ungoliant draining the life and light of the Two Trees and still being unsated. Because the light had been captured in the silmarils before the trees were destroyed, the gems kept the light of the Two Trees in existence.
The entire history of the silmarils is one of tension between the light's inherent goodness and the unholy lengths to which people will go to possess it.* Eärendil receives the silmaril for its safekeeping, and sails with it to the Undying Lands to seek the aid of the Valar at a time when Middle-earth is in dire danger of being utterly lost to evil. The aid is given, but because he has set foot in the Undying Lands Eärendil cannot return to Middle-earth; instead, the legend says, he sails the heavens with the silmaril on his brow. The light of Eärendil is a sign, on several levels, of the hope that goodness can survive beyond the grasp of evil, whether that means keeping the light of the Two Trees from being utterly consumed by Ungoliant, bringing the aid that keeps Middle-earth from becoming entirely overcome by evil, or sailing the heavens with the silmaril so its light can be protected while still providing hope to the inhabitants of Middle-earth. (The full story of Eärendil is found in the Silmarillion, but there's a summary in Appendix A of LotR, including "...his ship bearing the silmaril was set to sail in the heavens as a star, and a sign of hope to dwellers in Middle-earth oppressed by the Great Enemy or his servants.")
So Sam's response to it is appropriate:
Far above the Ephel Dúath in the West the night-sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.
As he often does with the more sacramental aspects of the story, Tolkien avoids telling us directly and definitively that Sam's white star is Eärendil. But he tells us that it's the lone star Sam sees in the west as the sky darkens into night and, significantly, that it's white. It would be possible for the star to be something other than the evening star/Venus/Eärendil, but that's its most likely identity.
Perhaps the most significant thing about the event is that apparently Sam doesn't recognize it as anything other than a "white star" - but the response it draws forth from him would be just as fitting to someone who did realize it was Eärendil. As mentioned briefly in the "Sacramental Spirituality" essay, the light of Eärendil acts as an efficacious sign. It's not just a symbol of hope; it actually imparts the hope it signifies, even if the person being affected doesn't recognize what it is. In fact, many readers choose this as one of their favorite scenes in the book without noticing the likely identity of the white star themselves. That they react to it in much the same way as Sam does, is a tribute to Tolkien's writing and a marvelous example of sacramental spirituality in action.
The concept of efficacious signs is essential to sacramental spirituality. Without it, sacraments would be reduced to symbols that could be intellectually explained, and their effect would primarily depend on the understanding of the person on the receiving end. With it, they become mysteries of God's action in the life of the person being affected. A person can receive the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick even if he or she is unconscious. An infant can receive the Sacrament of Baptism even if too young to understand it. As the child gets older and grows into adulthood, he or she will have the choice of how to respond to the gift of grace given in the Sacrament, but God always acts first. Sam - or a reader - can receive hope from the "white star" without recognizing its identity.
Sam is the perfect character for this scene. If Frodo had seen the white star instead of Sam, he would have certainly recognized it, and it would be more difficult to separate his intellectual reaction from the sacramental effect of the light. Sam's earlier response to talking about the light of Eärendil, "Don't the great tales never end," has something of the same sense of hope about it, but isn't as profound as his reaction to the pure experience of the light.
Sam has another glimpse of this light at the very end of the book that carries some intriguing sacramental "baggage." As we watch (from Sam's point of view) the ship carrying the Keepers of the Rings disappear into the West, we're told that "...the light of the glass of Galadriel that Frodo bore glimmered and was lost." Sam, of course, is writing the part of the Red Book from which the information for this scene is taken, and he records what he saw (as the good sensate that he is); he also still thinks of the light as one step removed from Eärendil, as "the Lady's starglass."
But is that really what he saw? The ship is sailing west in the evening. Sam might be seeing the light of the phial as it disappears over the horizon. But he might be seeing the light of Eärendil as it sets just after the sun. From the sacramental point of view, it really makes no difference; the two sources carry the same light. If Tolkien consciously set the time of sailing in the early evening to make this connection**, it wouldn't have been to set a puzzle for us; it would have been to reinforce the sacramental nature of the light itself, as we're aware of the same light from two different physical sources. Perhaps Sam saw both lights merged on the western horizon. If we unite the effect of Sam's earlier sighting of the "white star" with his glimpse of the light of Eärendil (from whatever source) at this point in the story, it becomes an even more powerful sign of hope. The Baltimore Catechism definition of a Sacrament is "an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace." The difference between a sacrament and a Sacrament is the phrase "instituted by Christ." By that definition, the light of Eärendil can't be a Sacrament, but it's definitely sacramental.
*Even before the Sil was published, we had an echo of this in The Hobbit through the Arkenstone, a gem that has some physical resemblance to a silmaril and which so stirs Thorin's desire that he's willing to betray a friend and risk death (his own and others') in a battle over it.
**I've never seen any indication that Tolkien did have this connection in mind. The time between the setting of the sun and the fall of true darkness is also a traditional time in fairy-stories when it's possible to pass between our mortal reality and Faërie. With two mortals on the ship, this could have very well been the reason Tolkien chose early evening as the time it sails. The poem "The Sea-bell" in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and The Tolkien Reader uses traditional aspects of a mortal entering Faërie; although Tolkien wrote it before LotR, by letting us know that in the Red Book it was given the second title of "Frodos Dreme," he allows us to make at least a once-removed connection between traditional elements of Faërie and Frodo's sailing West. But even if Tolkien didn't intend the time of sailing to be a link between the phial and the possible presence of the evening star, it's still there for us to reflect on.