The magic of Lothlórien in The Lord of the Rings is a fine example of how the Inklings use the power of vertical speech.
Quoting Max Picard from The Worlds of Silence, Peter Kreeft said that in modern writing, words have lost their vertical static quality:
The architecture of the Hebrew language is vertical. Each word sinks down vertically, column-wise, into the sentence. In language today we have lost the static quality of the ancient tongues. The sentence has become dynamic; every word in every sentence speeds on quickly to the next … each word comes more from the preceding word than from the silence and moves on more to the next word in front of it than to the silence.
In modern writing, words are used primarily as communication tools. People use words to get their message across. This type of speech is message-driven, not meaning-driven.
You look for words just to move the reader along as quickly as possible from one word to the next horizontally. Words are whips to get the reader going.
The Inklings use words vertically, not horizontally.
For them, each word is alive. Each word speaks through a particular sound shape – and needs to be heard.
When you “hear” the word’s speech, the curtain of the world is drawn for a second or two and you see… what the words dimly point to.
The Inklings use words to allure the reader to the silence around the words – not to get the message across. As Treebeard said:
You must understand, young Hobbit, it takes a long time to say anything in Old Entish. And we never say anything unless it is worth taking a long time to say.
To use words vertically means to find words that make the reader spellbound for a second or two. Preferably longer.
The right words are inspired by Mercury himself – they descend from heaven like fire and become “proper names” in the mouth of the herald.
Like a piercing line of poetry, they make you stop breathing the air of the world and plunge into a meditative reverie as you breathe in the fragrance from beyond the walls of the world.
Tolkien’s description of the magic of Lothlórien is a case in point.
How does Tolkien describe Lothlórien?
Just like Tom Bombadil, Lothlórien could easily have been left out of the plot. Linearly speaking, nothing “happened” there except that the fellowship felt the magic of Lothlórien and got some rest.
Technically, the chapter about Lothlórien is just as extraneous as the chapter on Tom Bombadil.
But it’s a fine example of vertical speech that introduces the reader to the perilous realm of Faerie.
The effect of entering the realm of the Lady is such that all the company feels the presence of some inexplicable magic.
For some, it is a delight. For some, it is torment.
Tolkien seems to suggest that the whole land was Galadriel’s mirror – not just the stone mirror itself. As the fellowship walked through the enchanted wood, they saw their secret thoughts and desires revealed as if in a mirror.
Some liked it; some hated it. But they couldn’t hide from it.
They stepped into a land of the Last Judgement unfolding 24/7.
How does the Mirror of Galadriel work?
Galadriel wasn’t the Judge – she was the revealer of what was in each person’s heart.
The Judgement was internal, not external.
To Boromir it was torment. For Aragorn, it was a delight.
Approaching Lothlórien, Boromir said,
It is said that few come out who once go in; and of that few none have escaped unscathed.’ ‘Say not unscathed, but if you say unchanged, then maybe you will speak the truth,’ said Aragorn.
There was judgment going on. Boromir felt it acutely and perceived it as torment. Aragorn felt it acutely and perceived it as a transformation.
Time was moving slowly, if it moved it all. At last, it seemed to have stopped altogether.
Frodo felt that he was in a timeless land that did not fade or change or fall into forgetfulness. When he had gone and passed again into the outer world, still Frodo the wanderer from the Shire would walk there, upon the grass among elanor and niphredil in fair Lothlórien.
What is the power of Lothlórien?
In this chapter, Tolkien stops the reader from wondering about what’s going to happen next. There’s no “next” in Lothlórien. It’s all now.
Frodo felt he was, is, and will always be here. The unfading beauty of the enchanted wood made time irrelevant, and Frodo stepped out of the world as if walking in Valinor of old.
Sam was standing puzzled and finally said, “This is more Elvish than anything. I feel as if I was inside a song, if you take my meaning.”
Haldir, the leader of the Elves, smiled, “You feel the power of the Lady of the Galadrhim.”
Galadriel was behind this magic. The light of the Two Trees shone in her hair, and this light was the light of Judgement.
This is the judgment: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness… John 3:19
In the final analysis, we are all judged by how we responded to our encounter with the Ultimate Beauty.
For some, it will be an eternal delight. For some, eternal torment.
If you came with a pure heart, it will be a delight. If you came with an idol, it will feel like a curse.
The beauty of the place was irresistible.
Frodo stood awhile still lost in wonder. It seemed to him that he had stepped through a high window that looked on a vanished world. A light was upon it for which his language had no name.
Why Lothlórien seemed young and ancient at the same time?
Tolkien describes the magic of Lothlórien as a song of enchantment – or as a portal into the Light for which Frodo had no name.
Frodo stops, lost in wonder. And that’s what Tolkien does to the reader as well – he stops us in our tracks and gets us to face a Light from beyond the confines of the world.
This Light is a call. A call to drop the Ring – that Precious something that got a hold of us – so we can be ushered into a Song. Or rather the Music. The Music of Iluvatar.
That’s why everything in Lothlórien seemed young and ancient at the same time. This land was a Song, a theme of the Great Music. Every note that cometh out of the mouth of Iluvatar creates the world anew, yet it is the same world.
Frodo felt as if he saw these trees for the first time – as if they had just been made. And yet they were ancient as the stars of Varda.
The shapes seemed… as if they had been first conceived and drawn at the uncovering of his eyes, and ancient as if they had endured for ever.
Frodo was the bearer of the Ring, but his heart wasn’t possessed by its evil. The land of Galadriel became for him a doorway into the bliss beyond words.
Frodo stood still, hearing far off great seas upon beaches that had long ago been washed away, and sea-birds crying whose race had perished from the earth.
Aragorn caught the Light of the Song too. He stood there lost in wonder.
At the hill’s foot Frodo found Aragorn, standing still and silent as a tree; but in his hand was a small golden bloom of elanor, and a light was in his eyes.
And he was transformed!
The grim years were removed from the face of Aragorn, and he seemed clothed in white, a young lord tall and fair; and he spoke words in the Elvish tongue to one whom Frodo could not see. Arwen vanimelda, namárië!
Is the magic of Lothlórien the same as the Silver Trumpet?
In Owen Barfield’s The Silver Trumpet, similar magic happens every time the Silver Trumpet is blown. It’s not merely a sound – Barfield describes its effect on the human being as the Ultimate Judgment that lays bare the secrets of the heart.
For Princess Violet, the sound of the Silver Trumpet was a delight:
And at the very first note of the trumpet, Princess Violet forgot the Prince and the garden and Princess Gamboy and Mountainy Castle and the sky above her and dreamed she was afloat beneath tons and tons of clear green water near the bottom of the sea, and—oh, yes—far away someone was booming a huge bell.
For the evil Gamboy, it was torture:
Princess Gamboy had come to hate and fear the strange power which that trumpet had over her.
The Silver Trumpet is Barfield’s metaphor for the transformative power of the pre-Babel language. Its very sound is the Pentecostal Fire, the Ultimate Call, and the Final Judgment at the same time.
It lays bare the secrets of the heart because it ushers the person into the Ultimate Beauty.
But many times, the secret-breathing worldFrom “The Tower” by Owen Barfield
Whispers to thee, yet whispers with a voice
Which memory shall warehouse as a shout.
This world is breathing secrets, but we often don’t hear its whispers until something amplifies them for us into a shout. It can be a memory, a line of poetry, a sound, an experience – in fact, anything vertical enough to make us stop for a moment or two and hear the Music from the invisible Realm.
Lothlórien is a metaphor for a place that amplifies whispers into shouts. Lothlórien is the Silver Trumpet that helps us hear the whispers of the secret-breathing world.
It is that faint memory, that line of poetry, that Sound, that shifts our consciousness with its irresistible vertical power.