Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Galadriel, Mighty and Valiant

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 week’s installment is the first of two articles taking an in-depth look at the life and lessons of Galadriel, Lady of Light.

Galadriel’s first words in The Lord of the Rings position her firmly within the tradition of Tolkienian women. When the Fellowship reaches Lothlórien, and it becomes clear to the Lord and Lady that Gandalf is not with them, Celeborn is concerned. Was there a change of plans? he wonders. Or perhaps he misunderstood Elrond’s message? Galadriel, and not one of the Company, responds. “‘Nay, there was no change of counsel,” she informs her husband, speaking in a voice unusually deep. “Gandalf the Grey set out with the Company, but he did not pass the borders of this land. Now tell us where he is; for I much desired to speak with him again. But I cannot see him from afar, unless he comes within the fences of Lothlórien: a grey mist is about him, and the ways of his feet and of his mind are hidden from me” (LotR 335).

Galadriel, we can infer here, is something of a seer. She can watch the progress of the world from afar, though at least Gandalf is a mind that is closed to her. This is, of course, all the clearer when she uses the intensity of her gaze alone to interrogate and test the resolve of each member of the Fellowship. And again, we witness her seer-like qualities in a very traditional sense when she invites Frodo and Sam to look in her Mirror and see what Sam innocently calls “Elf-magic.”

What stands out to me about Galadriel’s characterization in The Lord of the Rings is that she is, first and foremost, discerning. Yes, she’s powerful, mysterious, ancient, and sorrowful; but her reactions to the people and events of the world around her are always wise and measured. Consider her response to Celeborn’s rather insensitive accusation of the Dwarves’ role in waking the Balrog. First, she gently corrects him—not in a way that shames him or undermines him in front of their guests, but also in a way that brooks no refusal. Galadriel then turns to Gimli, offering understanding and a welcome which changes the trajectory of the Dwarf’s entire narrative. She calls on the Lord Celeborn to place himself in Gimli’s shoes; and then, in case anyone was in doubt as to what she meant, she turns to the Dwarf and speaks to him of the beauty of his people’s treasured places—and does so in his own tongue.

This shows incredible discernment. Galadriel knows exactly what will diffuse the tense situation, exactly what Gimli needs to hear in order to set aside his ingrained prejudices, exactly what Legolas needs to hear in order to do likewise, setting the stage for their mutual acceptance and deep friendship. The Fellowship is immeasurably better for that one, lifechanging moment.

She wasn’t always like that, though. Though she first appears as the wise woman of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien continued to add complexity to her character even after it was published, and along with that complexity, her power and influence in Middle-earth also grow. Oddly, then, Tolkien’s writing of the character moved from future to past, and he wasn’t at all sure of her history when she first stepped from the shadows of the trees to offer light and comfort to weary travelers. And he never was quite sure… In the last month of his life he continued to alter Galadriel’s story, leaving us a trail full of contradictions and half-certain sketches. Indeed, according to Christopher Tolkien, “”There is no part of the history of Middle-earth more full of problems than the story of Galadriel and Celeborn, and it must be admitted that there are severe inconsistencies ‘embedded in the traditions’; or, to look at the matter from another point of view, that the role and importance of Galadriel only emerged slowly, and that her story underwent continual refashionings” (Unfinished Tales, hereafter UT, 220). But we’re getting ahead of ourselves already.

The road that brought her to that flet in Lórien, to that generous response to Gimli’s grief, was a hard and trying one. Galadriel, after all, was born in Eldamar in the morning of the world, before the first sunrise, before the moon first walked his wandering path. Even in those early years she was mighty among the Noldor, crowned with the golden hair of the Vanyar, her mother’s kin. According to The Peoples of Middle-earth (hereafter PM), “Galadriel was the greatest of the Noldor, except for Fëanor maybe, though she was wiser than he, and her wisdom increased with the long years” (337). I find that “maybe” curious, half-comical, even, as if the race were just too close to call. Clearly Galadriel turns out to be the better of the two. But greatest? Our narrator just isn’t sure.

For all my dismissiveness, I suspect that this has to do with the potency of their spirits. Both Galadriel and Fëanor are great in that they aspire greatly and have the capacity to achieve much. They are driven by passion and a desire to be always doing, creating, living to a fuller extent than they did before. Both were, fascinatingly, driven by pride and an insatiable desire for control—in the beginning. “She was proud, strong, and self-willed,” we’re told, “and like her brother Finrod, of all her kindred the nearest to her in heart, she had dreams of far lands and dominions that might be her own to order as she would without tutelage” (PM 337). The choice of words here is significant. Notice that she wants dominion. She wants a realm that might be her own. She wants to rule it as she would and without tutelage.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? All of these things are explicitly negative desires in the context of Middle-earth. It’s no wonder she was swayed by the words of Fëanor. According to one telling, “Galadriel, the only woman of the Noldor to stand that day tall and valiant among the contending princes, was eager to be gone [from Valinor]. No oaths she swore, but the words of Fëanor concerning Middle-earth had kindled her heart, and she yearned to see the wide untrodden lands and to rule there a realm at her own will. For the youngest of the House of Finwë she came into the world west of the Sea, and knew yet nought of the unguarded lands” (Morgoth’s Ring, hereafter MR, 112-113). First of all, not swearing oaths seems like a reasonable move, and gives us at least one good idea of why Galadriel is considered wiser than Fëanor. It’s important, though, that we don’t condemn the Noldo for her adventurous spirit (the narrator doesn’t either, you’ll notice). The Valar themselves explore and search out the mysteries of Middle-earth. Where we might say Galadriel is at fault, then, is in her pride, her self-will, if you will, that pushes her to defy the Powers in order to claim a kingdom for her own.

For all that, the desire for control is in line with Galadriel’s nature, regardless of the fact that it ought to be suppressed for ethical reasons. In Eldamar, Galadriel “grew to be tall beyond the measure even of the women of the Noldor; she was strong of body, mind, and will, a match for both the loremasters and the athletes of the Eldar in the days of their youth” (PM 337). She also “was then of Amazon disposition and bound up her hair like a crown when taking part in athletic feats” (Letters 428). In other words, she always stood out, even when surrounded by the greatest of the Elves in a time of their flourishing. Unfinished Tales, for example, clarifies that Galadriel was about six feet, four inches tall (273).

Now, we can easily see that Galadriel is a woman of incredible spirit and potential. “She did indeed wish to depart from Valinor and to go into the wide world of Middle-earth for the exercise of her talents,” Christopher Tolkien clarifies, quoting his father; “for ‘being brilliant in mind and swift in action she had early absorbed all of what she was capable of the teaching which the Valar thought fit to give the Eldar’, and she felt confined in the tutelage of Aman” (UT 223). I consistently find myself amazed by that assertion. Who else, so early in their lives, could claim to have learned all the Valar would teach them? Well, Fëanor likely would, but as we all know, he’d be wrong. But our narrator obviously understands that Galadriel is in a different position. She has legitimately reached her potential in Valinor, like a precocious child who is far smarter than they have any right to be, who is far ahead, say, of what their grade or school has to offer. Not surprising, is it, that she was ready to explore new territory? The text goes on to point out that even Manwë had heard of Galadriel’s desires and had not forbidden her (UT 223).

This is really where things start to get tricky. Above, I quoted a passage that said she was “the only woman of the Noldor to stand that day tall and valiant among the contending princes” (MR 112). That’s not actually the full story. In the final months of his life, Tolkien started an overhaul of Galadriel’s storyline. His reasons for doing so are vague and thus sometimes unconvincing. He was at least partially moved by a desire to recast Galadriel as a more perfect symbol of Mary, mother of Christ, which meant that she could in no way be implicated in the rebellion of the Noldor, for Mary is sinless. There are therefore two major versions of Galadriel’s story in existence (with lots of smaller variations within those major divisions, of course).

The first is the version I’ve been setting up above. It was the first, and the one longest in existence, which is one reason I’ve privileged it here. Another reason is that it tends to make more sense than the other. So let’s finish out that version first.

Galadriel, caught up in the fervor of the moment, is one of those who lead the Noldor out of Eldamar (MR 120). Indeed, “Even after the merciless assault upon the Teleri and the rape of their ships, though she fought fiercely against Fëanor in defence [sic] of her mother’s kin, she did not turn back” (PM 338). When Fëanor burns the ships at Losgar, Galadriel steps up to help her kinsman lead the remaining Noldor through the hellscape of the Helcaraxë. In one letter, Tolkien clarifies that though Galadriel did reflect aspects of the character of Our Lady, Mary, “actually Galadriel was a penitent: in her youth a leader in the rebellion against the Valar” (407).

In another place, Tolkien wrote, “Pride still moved her when, at the end of the Elder Days after the final overthrow of Morgoth, she refused the pardon of the Valar for all who had fought against him, and remained in Middle-earth. It was not until two long ages more had passed, when at last all she had desired in her youth came to her hand, the Ring of Power and the dominion of Middle-earth of which she had dreamed, that her wisdom was full grown and she rejected it, and passing the last test departed from Middle-earth forever” (PM 338). Thus, though he believed that Galadriel embodied much of the beauty and grace he imagined were contained in Mary, she was by no means perfect, and in fact had much to answer for. Her life in Middle-earth became sad, yes, a “long defeat,” even: but in all likelihood it was no more than she deserved. She was, in other words, observing penance for her sins.

All of this gets thrown out the window as Tolkien grew older. In 1973, less than a month before his death, he responded to a letter positing an explanation for Galadriel’s claim that she had “passed the test.” He wrote, with what seems like more than a tinge of exasperation, “Galadriel was ‘unstained’: she had committed no evil deeds. She was an enemy of Fëanor. She did not reach Middle-earth with the other Noldor, but independently. Her reasons for desiring to go to Middle-earth were legitimate, and she would have been permitted to depart, but for the misfortune that before she set out the revolt of Fëanor broke out, and she became involved in the desperate measure of Manwë, and the ban on all emigration” (431).

As much as I find myself wanting to validate Tolkien’s own claims, I can’t help but approach this skeptically. Doubtless, as Christopher notes, he intended to overhaul all of Galadriel’s narrative so that it would in fact concur with this changing conception of her role in the departure from Valinor. But in the end, it’s hard to agree that Galadriel “had committed no evil deeds.” What then would we do with her many statements in the published Lord of the Rings? What test has she passed? Why is there no ship that can bear her back into the West? It would take a lot of work to make her narrative fit with a Marian referent.

And, frankly, I prefer the old Galadriel. Don’t get me wrong—I revere the figure of Mary and I think it’s important, at least as far as Tolkien’s Catholic context is concerned, to consider that characters might figure the Lady in one way or another. But Galadriel as a penitent is an important piece to the larger puzzle. We need Galadriel the penitent: she provides a useful and productive counterpoint to Fëanor’s violent and selfish refusal to repent. We’ll explore this in more detail next time, when we pick up with Galadriel’s early years in Middle-earth, her gradual journey towards wisdom, and her eventual abnegation of the pride and possessiveness that characterized her youth.

Original art by Elena Kukanova copyright 2020, used with permission by creator.

Megan N. Fontenot is a dedicated Tolkien scholar and fan who loves, almost more than anything else, digging into the many drafts and outlines of Tolkien’s legendarium. Catch her on Twitter @MeganNFontenot1 and feel free to request a favorite character while you’re there!

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