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.
Frodo first hears these words sung in the woods of the Shire, translated in his mind by the enchantment of Elvish minstrelsy. There's one word, though, that had puzzled me since I first read it as a boy: breath. What on earth does it mean to say Elbereth's breath is bright? I finally decided to think it through a little the other day. When I could find no meaning of 'bright' in Old, Middle, or Modern English to describe someone's breath suitably, I turned to consider 'breath.'
It came together right then. My mistake had been to think of 'breath' as her physical breath, which is why the phrase made no sense. The praise of Elbereth's eyes earlier in the same line allowed me to mislead myself, especially since we rarely use 'breath' to mean 'spirit.' It is the splendor of her spirit the hymn praises. The irony, of course, is that in the very next line we see a clue that Tolkien is not using every word in the sense we most readily understand it: snow-white.
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