Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Legolas, Prince of Mirkwood and Environmental Intercessor

In this biweekly series, we’re exploring the evolution of both major and minor figures in Tolkien’s legendarium, tracing the transformations of these characters through drafts and early manuscripts through to the finished work. This is the first of a two-part series dealing with Legolas Greenleaf, son of Thranduil and prince of Mirkwood. This first section looks at the evolution of the character over numerous drafts and tales; the second will look at Legolas’s role in the published Lord of the Rings.

Legolas is one of the more popular characters to come out of The Lord of the Rings. We can, I think, attribute much of his fame to the success of Peter Jackson’s film franchise and Orlando Bloom’s performance in the role of the immortal warrior-prince. (In fact, it’s surprisingly difficult to find fan art that isn’t either based on or influenced by Bloom’s Legolas.) But for many fans, there is little enough material to work with, at least if we look only at his role in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: Legolas is often described as a flat character, one who changes little and whose impact on the narrative is slight at best. Tolkien himself wrote that of all nine members of the Fellowship of the Ring, “Legolas probably achieved the least” (Unfinished Tales, hereafter UT, 412). Christopher Tolkien, commenting on his father’s drafts of The Lord of the Rings, consistently describes the emendations and additions to Legolas’s character—and even the addition of Legolas’s character—as structurally irrelevant or insignificant.

It has long been my opinion (and in this I am undoubtedly joined by others) that Legolas is the most understated and underrated member of the Fellowship.

I suspect that Christopher Tolkien, and perhaps even JRRT himself, was less than clear about the elf’s actual impact on the narrative. It is possible, in other words, for an author to create a character whose significance and depth goes beyond their immediate reckoning. While I can’t say for sure that this is the case, it is clear that Legolas’s tremendous impact on both the narrative and his companions is often overlooked despite the fact that he is uniquely positioned to provide the Fellowship with the one thing it lacks: a profound spirituality attuned to the stories, movements, and needs of the environment (more on this point in the next installment).

None of this is readily apparent when he first steps on stage. Legolas Greenleaf is, according to Christopher, the first of the members of the Fellowship to appear in any of Tolkien’s writings (The Book of Lost Tales 2, hereafter BLT2, 215). In the early sketches of and experiments with The Fall of Gondolin, Legolas Greenleaf is an elf of Gondolin, of the House of the Tree (BLT2 190), who secures the escape of the refugees of the sack of Gondolin by leading them through the winding paths of the mountains in a dark so deep that even the orcs could not perceive them. In those tales he is described as “night-sighted”: his “eyes were like cats’ for the dark, yet they could see further” (BLT2 192). At that time, he was an elf of the House of Galdor, unconnected with Mirkwood and Thranduil. Indeed, we’re told at one point that this Legolas “liveth still in Tol Eressëa named by the Eldar there Laiqalassë” (BLT2 218). This tale appears also in the drafts recently published as The Fall of Gondolin.

At this point, though, Legolas fades from the narrative: he doesn’t make an appearance in Christopher Tolkien’s edits of The Silmarillion, nor does he show up in any of the other lost or ancient tales. Tolkien doesn’t include him in the rough “Sketch of the Mythology” or the Quenta Noldorinwa, both of which deal with the sack and subsequent fall of Gondolin.

In the appendix to The Book of Lost Tales 1, we’re given a primitive etymology of the name “Legolas.” It was, originally, a confusion of the names Laigolas and Legolast. The former meant “greenleaf,” the latter, “keen sight.” Tolkien remarks that the conflation likely arose because the Elves “delighted to give two similar-sounding names of dissimilar meaning.” It is possible, therefore, that “both were his names” (BLT1 202). Later, in two separate letters dated 1958 and 1967, respectively, Tolkien emends his earlier etymology and explain that “Legolas” means simply “green-leaves” or “Greenleaf” (Letters 282 and 382).

Legolas as such does not enter The Lord of the Rings until later in the revision process: approximately the fifth draft of “The Council of Elrond.” He is preceded in the third and fourth drafts by his erstwhile lord in Gondolin, Galdor (there is no indication in the drafts that this is Galdor of Gondolin—Tolkien recycled the name multiple times). Galdor is, like Legolas, a messenger from the king of Mirkwood—but unlike Legolas, he does not appear to be any relation to the woodland ruler. This is a step forward in another way, though, because in the very earliest drafts of “the Hobbit sequel,” as in the older Beren and Lúthien tales, Mirkwood is either conflated with or exists within Mordor. In fact, Taur-nu-Fuin, which is the name of the place of horror Sauron inhabits after Lúthien expels him from Tol-in-Gaurhoth, is for a long time translated as “Mirkwood.” Thus we can see that Mirkwood, perhaps prompted by advancements and claims made in The Hobbit, is starting to emerge as a place distinct from Mordor. It does, however, remain the habitation of the Necromancer.

“Mirkwood” has a longer history than that. Christopher Tolkien notes in The Lost Road and Other Writings (LR), that the term is “an ancient Germanic legendary name” usually referring to “a great dark boundary forest” in general, but sometimes specifically used in reference to the Eastern Alps (LR 100-101). It was known as Myrcwudu. This bit of etymology explains both Tolkien’s characterization of the forest as a place that harbors both good and evil (Thranduil and Sauron), and his conflation of Mirkwood with Taur-nu-Fuin, which was said to exist at the place where the power of Sauron and the might of Melian met and warred. The designation of the myrcwudu as a boundary-forest is particularly significant, as in many Celtic and Germanic legends, boundaries such as the forest edge and the seashore were “thin places,” areas where the supernatural hovered on the edge of perception and might at any moment come bursting through.

This is the environment from which Legolas emerges. Mirkwood is, as we know from The Hobbit, a mysterious place of shadows and great terrors. The Silvan elves (Legolas and his father, at least, are Sindarin) dwell primarily in the northern sector of the great wood, working to keep the horrors of the south at bay. They apparently have little to do with their elvish kin, and in the waning light they live out their fading lives. In The Hobbit they are depicted as far more forbidding and dangerous than the elves of Rivendell, who famously first appear singing ridiculous ditties in the trees. Legolas recognizes Mirkwood’s isolation throughout the journeys undertaken by the Fellowship, and often remarks on the fact that he has heard tales of other lands/peoples, but that these are either partially forgotten or are fables uncorroborated by experience. This isolation shapes Legolas’s characterization more and more as Tolkien revises and adjusts The Lord of the Rings.

Legolas’s role in the Fellowship fluctuates wildly as Tolkien slowly discovers the narrative we now know as The Lord of the Rings. He remains a minor character up to the Company’s ascent of Caradhras. There, he engages in an exchange with an exasperated Gandalf that recalls its later version in the published Lord of the Rings:

“It is a pity,” said Legolas, “that Gandalf cannot go before us with a bright flame, and melt us a path.”

“It is a pity that Elves cannot fly over mountains, and fetch the Sun to save them,” answered Gandalf. “Even I need something to work on. I cannot burn snow. But I could turn Legolas into a flaming torch, if that will serve: he would burn bright while he lasted.”

“Spare me!” cried Legolas. “I fear that a dragon is concealed in the shape of our wizard. Yet a tame dragon would be useful at this hour.”

“It will be a wild dragon, if you say more,” said Gandalf. (TI 170)

And so Legolas shuts up. The conversation, lighthearted as it is, is characteristic of the narrative at this early stage, even if it’s inconceivable that any elf, remembering the sufferings of the past, would joke about having a tame dragon. But Gandalf’s frustrated threat comes to naught in the end, and Boromir, along with “Trotter” (Aragorn’s early incarnation), forces a path through the snow, leaving Legolas alive, well, and very specifically not on fire.

Not long thereafter, Legolas wanders away from the Fellowship at the doors of Moria. It is the elf who then discovers the tentacled Watcher in the Water: “‘Legolas came at last running up, gasping for breath,’ and sprang over the tentacles that were already fingering the cliff wall; ‘Gimli grasped him by the hand and dragged him inside” (TI 180). “At this point,” Christopher remarks, “my father abandoned the idea. At the Bridge of Khazad-dûm, Legolas’s role is again expanded. He is, as in the published version, first to name their dark enemy, but his cry is ominous: he first announces the coming of Balrogs, rather than a singular Balrog. Tolkien immediately emended this, but it’s enough to suggest that the battle of Moria might have been far more disastrous than it ultimately was.

On the Bridge, Legolas, overcome with innate terror and attempting to flee the demon, is shot in the shoulder by an orc arrow. He loses his bow, drops to his knees, and crawls across the Bridge clutching its hewn sides with his hands (TI 203). Tolkien later drops this idea, too, but retains Legolas’s cry of terror, which is clarified later when Legolas explains that the Balrog is the greatest of the enemies of the Elves save the Dark Lord himself.

After the company escapes from Moria, the narrative is relatively stable up to the farewell to Lothlórien, with a few minor changes. One of these is that Legolas and Gimli already appear to be on better terms; the former follows the latter, Frodo, and Sam, down to the Mirrormere and looks into the clear waters discovered by Dúrin when he awoke in Middle-earth. Later, when the Company is blindfolded in Lórien, however, their animosity is once again apparent. When an elf (who later disappears from the tale) meets Haldir and his companions, he remarks with surprise over the fact that one of their kin, a woodland elf, should be their prisoner. Legolas bristles, and retorts that he certainly isn’t a prisoner: he’s simply “showing the dwarf how to walk straight without the help of eyes” (TI 242).

Tolkien’s outline of the story from this point forward is radically different in many respects from the published version. At one point, he plans to have Legolas, Gimli, and Gandalf break the siege of Minas Tirith with the help of Treebeard; at another, Legolas and Gimli, giving up on the Quest, abandon the Fellowship after leaving Lórien. Legolas plans to join the elves of Lórien, and Gimli his own people, so both head north. Before reaching their destinations, however, they are either captured by Saruman or meet the transfigured Gandalf (Tolkien experiments with both ideas). Galadriel’s message for Legolas is also different, prophesying not his eventual discontent with Middle-earth, but rather that after he runs out of arrows (a dark fate miraculously avoided by the films) he will come under the eaves of a strange and inexplicable forest (referring to the Huorns’ appearance at Helm’s Deep).

At a certain point, however, the published narrative begins to emerge, and Legolas and Gimli accompany “Trotter” in his attempt to rescue Merry and Pippin from Saruman. Once this crucial plot point (along with other chronological difficulties) is settled, we can see Legolas’s true role in the narrative all the clearer. It is a lesser role in many respects, especially if we look only at action or achievements, but one that I believe is no less significant than those of his companions. Next time, we’ll turn to the Legolas of the published Lord of the Rings, and in the process pick up on its nuanced and thoughtful representation of environmental responsibility and intercession.

Image: Legolas by Jenny Dolfen.

Megan N. Fontenot is a dedicated Tolkien scholar and fan who is currently living a somewhat nomadic life while between graduate programs. She also fancies herself a champion of what she believes is Legolas’s central role in The Lord of the Rings. Catch her on Twitter @MeganNFontenot1 and feel free to request a favorite character in the comments!




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