Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Legolas, a Radical Warrior

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 second of a two-part series dealing with Legolas Greenleaf, son of Thranduil and prince of Mirkwood. The first section looked at the evolution of the character over numerous drafts and tales; this, the second, looks at Legolas’s role in the published Lord of the Rings.

Last time we looked at the transformation of the character(s) called “Legolas Greenleaf” throughout some of Tolkien’s major drafts and stories. Here’s a quick recap: in The Fall of Gondolin, Legolas Greenleaf is a night-sighted elf of the House of Galdor who leads the refugees from the sack of Gondolin to safety through the mountains. He’s so familiar with the terrain that the text says he knew the land just as well in the dark as he did the day. His night senses are compared to those of a cat. Legolas then vanishes from the tales until somewhere around the fifth draft of “The Council of Elrond” in The Lord of the Rings, where he replaces yet another Galdor (here a messenger from Mirkwood; Galdor of the Havens doesn’t show up until later). At first, he appears to be a rather humorous addition who lightens the mood in dark places, far more akin to The Hobbit‘s Rivendell Elves than to the retiring, somewhat melancholy Legolas of the published book. Tolkien continues to play with Legolas’s role throughout the drafts, but the elf’s active role in the major developments of the plot is relentlessly pared down. Legolas, though he remains a significant member of the Fellowship, begins to seem more like a bystander, leading Christopher Tolkien to describe his father’s tinkering with the character as ultimately “irrelevant” to the integrity of the narrative.

What are we to do with Legolas Greenleaf? Perhaps at one level he’s meant to represent, like Arwen, how the power of the Elves has faded since ancient times. But I’d suggest that we need to meet Legolas on his own ground, as it were, before we can make such a judgement. Perhaps Legolas, as Tolkien himself said, “achieved the least of the Nine Walkers”; but perhaps the point is that we aren’t supposed to be measuring Legolas in terms of achievements, as we would Aragorn, for example.

When Legolas appears on the scene in “The Council of Elrond,” he is little more than a “strange elf” wearing the greens and browns of the forest. The narrator tells us that he’s a prince—he’s there with a message from his father, King Thranduil—but for all that accords him little attention, less even than Boromir. No one seems to offer him any sort of deference beyond what is usually shown towards Elves by mortals. At least in the House of Elrond he is no great presence. The same is true of the journey later taken by the Fellowship. Legolas is never referred to as a prince, nor is he often mentioned in connection with his father (unlike Aragorn and even Gimli). The name “Thranduil” occurs more often in the Appendices than it does the main narrative; only Celeborn of Lórien refers to Legolas as the “son of Thranduil,” and that only once (II.vii.355); and Legolas himself mentions his father one time only, calling him “my Elven-lord” (VI.iv.956). In all, Legolas’s status as heir to an elvish throne and son of one of the few or only remaining elf kings of Middle-earth is underdeveloped and no one, not even Legolas, pays it much mind.

Legolas’s role in the Fellowship is similarly ambiguous. As an elvish archer, he possesses great skill, but Tolkien never blows this out of proportion. His greatest feat with the bow is to shoot a Nazgûl from the sky—and even then, the bow of Galadriel is praised before Legolas’s skill or strength. The elf himself is characteristically nonchalant about this victory (II.ix.387). He isn’t a rugged warrior like Boromir, or a remarkable swordsman like Aragorn. He even famously blows a twenty-to-two lead over Gimli in their friendly contest at Helm’s Deep. He tends to be uncomfortable in man-made dwellings, unlike Gimli, and there’s no implication that he has some particular talent that marks him as being useful, beyond the fact that he serves as the “token elf” of the party.

In fact, Legolas tends to be surprisingly useless at key moments in the trip. On the pass of Caradhras he stands to the side waiting while Aragorn and Boromir carry the Hobbits and baggage through the way they (the Men) have made. After leaving Lórien, Aragorn and Boromir again carry the three boats, which are, the narrator remarks, light enough that Merry and Pippin could carry their own over flat terrain “with ease.” And yet, somehow “it needed the strength of the two Men to lift and haul them over the ground that the Company now had to cross” (II.ix.391). It’s unclear, to me at least, why Legolas was unable to lift a miraculously light boat, especially one specifically made by Elves and for Elves to use. The Elves have faded, to be sure, but Legolas was still described by Tolkien as “tall as a young tree, lithe, immensely strong, […] endowed with the tremendous vitality of Elvish bodies” (The Book of Lost Tales II 333, my emphasis).

Is Legolas just an irrelevant addition to an otherwise tight, masterful narrative? As the very phrasing of my question suggests, I don’t think so. Tolkien was too careful, too meticulous with the narrative, to include surplus characters with no value. So, let’s look at what Legolas does offer the Fellowship. Fair warning: there isn’t space here to touch on each of the incredibly numerous examples, but they exist!

Legolas understands and exists in the world in a way that is radically different from all of his companions. This is strikingly evident in the way he pays close and even reverent attention to the stories of the places and persons around him. It’s Legolas who knows what the stones cry out in Hollin; Legolas who feels the mistrust and anger of the trees in Fangorn and connects it to the ways they have been mistreated and abused; Legolas who is unafraid of the shades on the Paths of the Dead; and Legolas who, nearly every time he speaks at any length, reminds us of the importance of memory and history to relationships. In fact, in an early draft, Tolkien planned to have Legolas tell stories of the history of Rohan in the Golden Hall itself—a more dramatic reflection of the elf’s ability to appreciate the long and varied stories of everyone and everything that populates Middle-earth.

How does this play out in practice? For one thing, when he comes to a new natural environment, Legolas doesn’t jump to conclusions. He literally stops and listens. He presses his ear to the stone at the Gates of Moria. He leans forward with a hand to his ear at the eaves of Fangorn. He points out the intertwined nature of the stream and the maiden that both bear the name “Nimrodel” and hears the voice of the one within the other.

And when Legolas’s knowledge falls short, he pauses and carefully reassesses the situation, stoutly resisting any rash conclusions. Take the journey through the Huorn forest as an example. Gimli jumps to cynical conclusions, accusing the living phenomena of a vast, far-reaching hate that wishes to “crush” and “strangle,” but Legolas is quick to kindly refute his friend’s generalizations. The Huorns clearly “know little of Elves and Men,” Legolas points out, and thus are incapable of hating them. The elf then offers his own interpretation of the Huorns’ miraculous appearance, but in even this he’s careful: his claims are always qualified. “I think you are wrong,” he says, and “that is whence they come, I guess” (III.viii.549). Legolas respects and values the unknown by first refusing to generalize or stereotype, and second by admitting that his knowledge is limited and thus makes him a less-than-qualified spokesperson. We should take time to understand a person’s roots, Legolas’s behavior admonishes, before we presume to explain or condemn their actions—especially if that person is unlike anything we’ve ever encountered.

This attitude is, I believe, what finally allows Legolas to overcome his ingrained prejudice and learned racist attitudes towards Gimli. From the Council of Elrond up through the arrival in Lothlórien, Legolas consistently engages Gimli in petty quarrels and snide bickering that hardly seem to fit his character (though, granted, he isn’t always the one to initiate those conversations). The problem is that Legolas has been taught specific narratives about the Dwarves that he has taken as true, and then applied to Gimli. Rather than acknowledging Gimli as an individual with a personal history, Legolas treats the dwarf as a faceless representative of stereotyped and biased stories of the race. His behavior, however, undergoes a radical change in Lórien. Why?

We can find the answer again in history and memory. Galadriel’s interaction with Gimli is significant because she draws from her own long history and is able to meet the dwarf on a common ground: she sees past engrained racialization and bonds with Gimli over the beauty of cherished Dwarvish landmarks, even taking the time to refer to them in Gimli’s own language. I can’t help but imagine that Legolas was moved to reconsider his own prejudice based on this simple scene. It’s after this that he goes away among the Galadhrim, often taking Gimli with him. A lot of truly excellent fan fiction exists speculating on why this is the case. Here’s my theory: I think, touched by Galadriel’s example, they begin to take time to actually learn about each other and the land around them.

This solution suggests itself because the relationship of Legolas and Gimli from this point forward is focused on place, land, and story-telling. The enduring mark of their friendship becomes the promised trips to Fangorn and the Caverns of Helms Deep. Legolas, who half-jokingly says he would “give gold to be excused” a journey into the caverns and “double to be let out, if [he] strayed in” (III.viii.547), is so moved by Gimli’s description of a Dwarvish paradise and agrees to voluntarily enter. Gimli, who literally cries out in terror during several encounters with trees and Huorns, vows to travel through dark, mysterious Fangorn. We aren’t told what Gimli thought of Fangorn, but we do get Legolas’s reaction to the Glittering Caves, and that response is a fitting tribute to his vision of the world: Legolas “was silent, and would say only that Gimli alone could find fit words to speak of them” (VI.vi.978).

Here, I believe, Legolas is insisting that true, honest communication with and about the earth—and people unlike ourselves—requires a special relationship that shouldn’t be presumed or taken advantage of. Instead, it must be learned and earned, and nearly always requires that we give up some of our own prejudices and bigotry to do so. In the end, or so legend goes, Legolas has so far moved beyond his original attitudes that he becomes a sort of spiritual guide accompanying Gimli to a traditionally elvish paradise.

Perhaps Legolas’s didn’t “achieve” much. If we look at him only on the surface, all we see is a passive, irrelevant character who side-steps his royal duties and stands by while others toil (even if he does perform a few radical acrobatic feats). But if we take the time to look at Legolas the way he looks at others, we can begin to see that his work is of a different kind and nature. It’s the sort of work that takes place in gentleness and silence, and yet isn’t weak. Legolas might not ride up to the Black Gate and challenge the tyrant himself, but he will ride with you if you go, and all the while he will have been firmly resisting the Dark Lord’s influence even when it appears in his own companions (and in himself!) in the guise of unfair assumptions, hate speech, and generalizations.

There are ways of fighting evil other than with bombast and sword, and though they may be quieter and gentler they are not the lesser for it.

I hope it’s now easy to see that Legolas plays a powerful role in The Lord of the Rings and that his purpose in the story is to unassumingly point us to a better way of living in this diverse, scarred world of ours. He cultivates a vision of a world that is based on radical hope and hospitality, not violence and exclusion. It’s no accident that he helps Faramir and Éowyn create a garden across the river—an Edenic notion if I’ve ever heard one! And I like to think that the Legolas of Gondolin who saves refugees because of his intimate knowledge of the land is but a less subtle envisioning of what the Legolas of The Lord of the Rings is still doing: bringing people together, through darkness and across divides, by taking the time to know them and their places.

The communion Legolas invites with the world and those around him is one that is respectful, open, and sacrificial. It’s a very selfless position: I think I now understand why he doesn’t talk about his status in Mirkwood. Such a spirituality and worldview as his insists that one is always ready to acknowledge and, importantly, to correct one’s own faults, weakness, ignorance, and biases, rather than to insist on one’s own wisdom and preeminence. Aragorn might be the returning king, and rightly so, but Legolas is a prince who humbles himself to serve and respect others by listening to who they are and what they have endured. Because of this I have found him the more inspiring.

Illustration: “Legolas and Gimli visit Fangorn,” by alystraea.

Megan N. Fontenot is a dedicated Tolkien scholar and fan who also fancies herself an apologist of Legolas’s significant contribution to the ethos of 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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