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Inspired in part by this question.

In the Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Frodo uses the light of Eärendil against Shelob, saying the phrase "Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima" to light it. At some point, he drops it and the light dims, and after he picks it up again he says the phrase to light it up once more.

However, after being paralysed by Shelob, he obviously drops the vial again, along with the sword Sting, but the vial stays lit, despite no longer being held, even after Sam picks it up, so Sam never has to speak the phrase to use it. Why is that?

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    He chose the Silent Spell feat
    – xDaizu
    May 4, 2017 at 11:53
  • @DisturbedNeo More or less answered your follow-up question. Let me know if there's anything else I should add that you're uncertain of.
    – Voronwé
    May 9, 2017 at 11:44
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    I get it, so the reason the phial was dropped in the movie was because movie-Frodo sent Sam away and so couldn't simply hand it to him, but the movie still needed Sam to be in possession of it for his fight with Shelob. I have to say, every time I see a LOTR question on here, the answer always seems to end up being "Peter Jackson basically disregarded the source material and did his own thing". May 9, 2017 at 13:11

4 Answers 4

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It doesn't need to be activated by the words. It's activated when a person of strong spirit (and hope) wields it.

Seen in the case of Frodo when he first remembers of the Phial:

'The star-glass?' muttered Frodo, as one answering out of sleep, hardly comprehending. 'Why yes! Why had I forgotten it? A light when all other lights go out! And now indeed light alone can help us.'

Slowly his hand went to his bosom and slowly he held aloft the Phial of Galadriel. For a moment it glimmered, faint as a rising star struggling in heavy earthward mists, and then as its power waxed, and hope grew in Frodo's mind, it began to burn, and kindled to a silver flame, a minute heart of dazzling light, as though Eärendil had himself come down from the high sunset paths with the last Silmaril upon his brow. The darkness receded [...]

Frodo gazed in wonder at this marvellous gift that he had so long carried, not guessing its full worth and potency. Seldom had he remembered it on the road, until they came to Morgul Vale, and never had he used it for fear of its revealing light. Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima! he cried, and knew not what he had spoken; for it seemed that another voice spoke through his, clear, untroubled by the foul air of the pit.

The Lord of the Rings - The Two Towers: Chapter IX - "Shelob's Lair"

Frodo shouts the words "Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima!" automatically after the Phial is lit. As Frodo become mentally stronger, the Phial becomes more powerful.

The second time it is 'activated' is when Sam wields it during his fight with Shelob:

As if his indomitable spirit had set its potency in motion, the glass blazed suddenly like a white torch in his hand. It flamed like a star that leaping from the firmament sears the dark air with intolerable light.

The Lord of the Rings - The Two Towers: Chapter X - "The Choices of Master Samwise"


For your follow-up question: Frodo doesn't drop the Phial at all in the book. He hands it over to Sam, who keeps it with him.

'That would not help us now,' said Frodo. 'Come! Let us see what Sting can do. It is an elven-blade. There were webs of horror in the dark ravines of Beleriand where it was forged. But you must be the guard and hold back the eyes. Here, take the star-glass. Do not be afraid. Hold it up and watch!'

[...]

'Orcs!' he muttered. 'We'll never rush it like this. There's Orcs about, and worse than Orcs.' Then returning quickly to his long habit of secrecy, he closed his hand about the precious Phial which he still bore. Red with his own living blood his hand shone for a moment, and then he thrust the revealing light deep into a pocket near his breast and drew his elven-cloak about him. Now he tried to quicken his pace. His master was gaining on him; already he was some twenty strides ahead, flitting on like a shadow; soon he would be lost to sight in that grey world.

The Lord of the Rings - The Two Towers: Chapter IX - "Shelob's Lair"

Sam then stows the Phial into a pocket, but he never drops it.


In the film adaptation of The Return of the King however, it is shown that the Phial is activated only after Frodo chants the words.

Frodo holds the luminous star-glass before him, facing something behind the viewer

Non-canonical of course, but it made a pretty good scene.

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    I see, so it's inconsistent because the movie changed the way the phial works. May 4, 2017 at 10:12
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    Yep. It would have been hard to show whether Frodo was feeling 'brave' or not in the film, so they just changed the way the Phial was activated: an incantation.
    – Voronwé
    May 4, 2017 at 10:14
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    @DisturbedNeo ....or, maybe they thought that giving Elijah Wood a line to say would help show his spirit, since there's no narrator. May 4, 2017 at 18:57
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    @DisturbedNeo: the movie version still isn’t inconsistent — it’s just a bit misleading, in making it look like the words are an incantation that activates the vial, as opposed to being something he says as part of summoning up the courage that really activates it. A whole lot of “inconsistencies” in the movies come from watching them with the expectation that LotR magic works like Harry Potter magic.
    – PLL
    May 5, 2017 at 14:43
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    In the book, Frodo holds the phial, the phial glows in response to his bravery, and he cries out the Elvish words. In the movie, Frodo holds the phial, cries out the words, then the phial lights up. It's not the same throughout both media, therefore it is inconsistent. I'll concede that the way the phial works may not be inconsistent, however. In fact I'm sure the magic works in the same way, it's just that the movie dumbs down the LOTR magic to better fit audiences' expectations (having been raised on HP magic, as you mention). May 5, 2017 at 14:55
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Sam did say some words when he used the Phial, singing a song of Elbereth as opposed to Frodo's simple line that he spurted out. This was in my opinion fueled by Sam's love for the Elves and his knowledge for their songs. Before his use of the Phial, he saw Elves walking through the halls of Elrond and their songs came to life.

Galadriel!’ he said faintly, and then he heard voices far off but clear: the crying of the Elves as they walked under the stars in the beloved shadows of the Shire, and the music of the Elves as it came through his sleep in the Hall of Fire in the house of Elrond.

Gilthoniel A Elbereth!

And then his tongue was loosed and his voice cried in a language which he did not know:

A Elbereth Gilthoniel
o menel palan-diriel,
le nallon sí di’nguruthos!
A tiro nin, Fanuilos! 1

And with that he staggered to his feet and was Samwise the hobbit, Hamfast’s son, again.

‘Now come, you filth!’ he cried. ‘You’ve hurt my master, you brute, and you’ll pay for it. We’re going on; but we’ll settle with you first. Come on, and taste it again!’

As if his indomitable spirit had set its potency in motion, the glass blazed suddenly like a white torch in his hand. It flamed like a star that leaping from the firmament sears the dark air with intolerable light.

The Two Towers: Book Four - Chapter X, "The Choices of Master Samwise"

One thing to note is that it's not certain that his indomitable spirit had set the Phial in motion, however I think it crucial to note that Sam's song reflects his heroics in the story, and Tolkien's opinion that Sam was the true hero of the story.

With regards to your second point about Frodo "dropping the phial" after being paralysed. This is incorrect. Frodo hands Sam the phial while he attempts to cut through the Cobwebs with Sting.

Come! Let us see what Sting can do. It is an elven-blade. There were webs of horror in the dark ravines of Beleriand where it was forged. But you must be the guard and hold back the eyes. Here, take the star-glass. Do not be afraid. Hold it up and watch!

The Two Towers: Book Four - Chapter IX, "Shelob's Lair"

Either she did not see Sam, or she avoided him for the moment as the bearer of the light...

ibid

After this Sam never gives the Phial back to Frodo, and instead hides the light under the Elven cloak he received in Lothlórien.

and then he thrust the revealing light deep into a pocket near his breast and drew his elven-cloak about him.

ibid

Hardly had Sam hidden the light of the star-glass when she came.

ibid


1Translation of the Song to Varda:

O Elbereth Starkindler, from heaven gazing afar, to thee I cry now beneath the shadow of death! O look towards me, Everwhite!
Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien - Letter 211: To Rhona Beare

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  • Yeah, it seems like the book has the Hobbits say something in response to the phial activating, whereas in the movie it looks like it was changed to have what Frodo says be some kind of "magic phrase" that activates the phial. May 4, 2017 at 10:14
  • Give me a second, I'm just trying to answer all your questions quickly. I'll also get the translation of the song as a footnote
    – Edlothiad
    May 4, 2017 at 10:16
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Citation needed, but when Frodo uses it the first time, he is inside Shelob's lair (which may be a place of power), not very courageous, and away from the light of the stars.

When Sam picks it, he is outside of Shelob's lair, and his heart is brave.

Once inside Mordor, the vial does not work anymore, so maybe Shelob's lair is like a less powerful version of Mordor, which makes it more difficult to light the vial.

(I know I need some citations to improve my answers but I do not have the book at hand, sorry)

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    So, you're saying the reason it didn't go out the second time was because they were outside of Shelob's lair? I guess that makes sense. May 4, 2017 at 10:00
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    It's only a guess, but the fact that it is affected by the location is demonstrated later.
    – Nygael
    May 4, 2017 at 11:56
  • I must disagree: The very first sentence of ch. 2 in bk, 6 says that “Samwise had just wits enough left to thrust the phial back into his breast.” There was a Nazgûl coming to defense of the Minas Morgul. Later, in that same chapter, Frodo says “‘It's dark, and we cannot use the Lady's glass. Keep it safe for me, Sam. I have nowhere to keep it now, except in my hand, and I shall need both hands in the blind night. […]’” The reason they could not use it in Mordor was simple: they were sneaking through the heart of the enemy's lands with orcs all about. Feb 24, 2018 at 21:32
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According to the wiki, the vial shines when Sam uses it in response to his indomitable spirit. You do not need to speak the words in order to activate it; even though Frodo did shout the words he had no idea what they meant.

The words Aiya Eärendil elenion ancalima! mean “Hail Eärendil, brightest of stars!”

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  • The wiki says it shone "extra bright" in response to his spirit, and the vial was already lit in the book when Frodo handed it to Sam, who wasn't even there in the movie, having been sent away. I guess part of what I'm asking is why the vial didn't dim after Frodo dropped it the second time? May 4, 2017 at 9:59
  • Lotr.wikia is an awful source, please refrain from using it.
    – Edlothiad
    May 4, 2017 at 12:23

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