Despite Frodo’s physical weakness and inexperience, he does have the weapon of words at his disposal, which he wields effectively on a number of occasions. After the confrontation at Weathertop, Strider tells Frodo that it was not his sword thrust that hurt the king of the Riders, but rather the Elvish words Frodo cried out as he lunged: “O Elbereth! Gilthoniel!” Elbereth was a queen of the Elves in ancient times, in the First Age of Middle-earth. Her name means “Star-queen” in the Elvish tongue. Though it may seem strange that a mere name would cause the Black Riders to flee, we see again that language is always potent in Tolkien’s world. Indeed, Tolkien—who was a passionate student of philology, the study of language—built his entire history of Middle-earth around languages he himself invented. Whenever we see these brief glimpses of foreign words in The Lord of the Rings, we must keep in mind that they are not nonsense, but are part of a comprehensive, structured linguistic system. Tolkien’s Elvish language—along with the Dwarvish language and the language of Mordor, among others—has a system of characters, grammar, and vocabulary. It is fitting, then, for Tolkien to give great power to language in the world of Middle-earth. This power, however, cuts both ways: though Frodo’s Elvish incantation serves as protection, Strider also warns the hobbits against even mentioning the name of Mordor while out in the open and unprotected, as it could bring them great harm.
The Ring displays its powers again here, but also its limitations. When Frodo dons the Ring to escape the notice of the Black Riders, his invisibility comes along with another gift, the ability to see through the Riders’ cloaks. He can see their pallid faces and their horrifying eyes, and he observes a crown on the head of the tallest of them. Yet despite the thrilling insight the Ring affords Frodo, Tolkien invites us to wonder about the practical usefulness of this suddenly enhanced vision. Blessed with the power of the Ring, Frodo does not act like a superhero. The others in the Fellowship are more active, whereas Frodo’s role is observational and detached rather than participatory or aggressive. Certainly Frodo is less of a threat to the Riders than Aragorn, who wildly brandishes two burning logs as he lunges at them. It may be that the Ring, for all its power and all the knowledge it offers, is not an effective tool in a quest such as Frodo’s.