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 second of two articles taking an in-depth look at the life and lessons of Galadriel, Lady of Light.
In our last column, we followed Galadriel’s story up to her arrival on the shores of Middle-earth. We saw her walk a long and heavy road from her youth as one of the greatest of the Noldor in the glory days of Valinor to the turning point of her life, as she stands “tall and valiant among the contending princes” (Morgoth’s Ring, hereafter MR, 112-113), to the horror of the Helcaraxë. There, she, along with Fingolfin and his sons, secures the survival of her people, and with great losses and an enduring bitterness against the house of Fëanor, they emerge in Middle-earth. In defiance of despair they “[blow] their trumpets in Middle-earth at the first rising of the Moon” (Sil 82).
The symbolism here is striking. The Moon is, as we know, the response of the Valar to Ungoliant and Morgoth’s destruction of the light of the Two Trees: it’s their protection of that light, but it’s also their acknowledgement that they should not have hoarded the gift and that the Children of Ilúvatar need what protection it has to offer against Morgoth. In a way, we might read the arrival of Fingolfin’s people in a similar vein. They are meant to act as a response to and a protection against the evil deeds sparked by Fëanor’s folly. They are the correction to a terrible choice—an opportunity for and a sign of the redemption of the Noldor. Not that they always succeed. Often they withdraw, or look the other way… In fact, I would suggest that Galadriel alone, with her final rejection of the Ring and all that it symbolized, managed to fully live up to the promise that is illustrated here. Indeed, it’s said in The Peoples of Middle-earth that resisting Fëanor’s influence became Galadriel’s primary concern (338). This second coming of the Noldor is thus cast as a sign of hope for the future that is ultimately fulfilled in one simple sentence: “I pass the test” (LotR 366).
But we’re not there yet. In the aftermath of the burning of the ships at Losgar, Fëanor’s betrayal, and the Helcaraxë, Galadriel joins Melian in Doriath, where the two women become confidants and the Ainu Melian mentors the young, headstrong Noldo, “for there was much love between them” (The War of the Jewels, hereafter WJ, 38). Galadriel learns “great lore and wisdom” through her relationship with Melian (WJ 178). She is no longer the same. The trauma of her experience weighs heavy: she refuses to speak of her time in Valinor after the death of the Two Trees, instead saying, “that woe is past, […] and I would take what joy is here left untroubled by memory. And maybe there is woe enough yet to come, though still hope may seem bright” (WJ 41). Melian respects this, though she is able to learn some of the story of the Kinslaying for the sake of Thingol (who later learns the full story through the sons of Finarfin).
As a side-note: I suspect that Galadriel learned to hone her powers of sight, which were already considerable (Peoples of Middle-earth, hereafter PM, 337), during this lengthy sojourn with Melian. She’ll put these skills to use later, in that she’s able to speak with Elrond and Gandalf without any verbal utterances, mind-to-mind (LotR 985); she tests each of the Company upon their arrival in Lothlórien (LotR 357); and of course, we’d be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge her use of water touched by Eärendil’s starlight as a sort of seeing-glass.
At this point we ought to pause and address what I call the Celeborn Conundrum. That is: where did Celeborn come from and how did Galadriel become involved with him?
According to the story in Unfinished Tales, Celeborn was one of the Teleri. Galadriel, becoming restless in Aman, relocates to Alqualondë to stay among her mother’s kin; while there she meets Celeborn, who is a prince, the son of Olwë. In this version, Galadriel and Celeborn are about to seek the permission of the Valar to go to Middle-earth when Fëanor rebels and shows up at Alqualondë. Galadriel, who already disliked Fëanor, and Celeborn then join the Teleri in fighting against the people of Fëanor. Then—again, in this version—since Celeborn’s ship is one that is saved, “Galadriel, despairing now of Valinor and horrified by the violence and cruelty of Fëanor, set sail into the darkness without waiting for Manwë’s leave, which would undoubtedly have been withheld in that hour, however legitimate her desire in itself” (UT 224). Here, Galadriel doesn’t participate in the rebellion, and she doesn’t have to experience the Helcaraxë. Her movements are prompted by a sort of gut-level, instinctual reaction born of horror and despair.
The story we find in the published version of The Silmarillion is, of course, easier to fit into the standard version of Galadriel’s narrative. There we learn, though only briefly, that Celeborn was a kinsman of Thingol who was also, at the time, dwelling in Doriath. The Silmarillion thus gives a different reason for Galadriel’s decision to remain in Doriath: “there was great love between” herself and Celeborn—not Melian (108). Regardless, Galadriel still becomes the pupil of Melian and grows in knowledge and wisdom during her time in this hidden kingdom. Later in their lives they depart to seek their fortunes, as it were, ultimately coming to rule the realm of Lórien as Lady and Lord.
I’d like to slow down here, at the threshold of “the heart of Elvendom on earth,” as we find it in The Lord of the Rings. Galadriel’s welcome of Gimli is notable, as I pointed out last time. But at the same time, it’s entirely understandable: after all, Galadriel was one of the Noldor, most beloved of Aulë, the Dwarves’ maker. Indeed, Unfinished Tales points out that Galadriel “had a natural sympathy with their [the Dwarves’] minds and their passionate love of crafts of hand, sympathy much greater than that found among many of the Eldar: the Dwarves were ‘the Children of Aulë’, and Galadriel, like others of the Noldor, had been a pupil of Aulë and Yavanna in Valinor” (226-227). Thus, already, Galadriel is uniquely positioned to reach out to Gimli in the only way that could have affected him.
Her gentle rebuke of Celeborn is significant, too: “If our folk had been exiled long and far from Lothlórien,” she asks, “who of the Galadhrim, even Celeborn the Wise, would pass nigh and would not wish to look upon their ancient home, though it had become an abode of dragons?” (LotR 356). Take a moment to ponder this. Galadriel has lost so many homes. She found herself an alien in even Valinor the fair; she is, in at least one version, driven out of Alqualondë; she sees the fall of Nargothrond, the realm of her brother; and Doriath, which had long been her home, also falls. Now she stands amidst a constant reminder both of Valinor (from whence comes the Mallorn) and of the slow but irreparable fading of Lórien itself.
The arrival of the Fellowship is only the final nail in the coffin, as it were: “Do you not see now wherefore your coming is to us as the footstep of Doom?” she cries to Frodo. “For if you fail, then we are laid bare to the Enemy. Yet if you succeed, then our power is diminished, and Lothlórien will fade, and the tides of Time will sweep it away” (LotR 365).
Her sympathy for Gimli’s desire to see Moria emerges from her own grief over her lost homes, and from the endless grief-amid-joy that is life in Lothlórien. So, gently, she reminds Celeborn that they have more in common with the Dwarf than he readily realizes.
Another moment influenced by Galadriel’s past experiences is, I believe, her rejection of Sauron. When Frodo sees the Eye of Sauron in the Mirror, Galadriel knows immediately. She acknowledges their shared experience and then offers comfort: “Do not be afraid!” and a caution:
But do not think that only by singing amid the trees, nor even by the slender arrows of elven-bows, is this land of Lothlórien maintained and defended against its Enemy. I say to you, Frodo, that even as I speak to you, I perceive the Dark Lord and know his mind, or all of his mind that concerns the Elves. And he gropes ever to see me and my thought. But still the door is closed! (364)
Notice that Galadriel slightly adjusts the traditional way of referring to Sauron. Lothlórien is “maintained and defended against its Enemy”—not the Enemy. Galadriel thus admits a very personal understanding of the conflict against Sauron. I suspect this is in part due to the fact that she wields Nenya, the Ring of Adamant, and was a personal friend of Celebrimbor: the betrayal that the One Ring signifies is all the nearer, all the more painful. But that isn’t all: Unfinished Tales asserts that Galadriel suspected and scorned Sauron when he first appeared in Eregion under the guise of Annatar, Lord of Gifts (228).
It seems likely that this is the case because Galadriel saw Fëanor in the newcomer, and so old bitterness and antagonism was aroused. Annatar is, after all, a character very much in the Fëanorian tradition: a vibrant, charismatic spirit, a talented craftsman who is always eager to develop more and more fantastic creations. And, as with Fëanor, Galadriel is right. The “Lord of Gifts” turns out to be every bit as possessive and power-hungry as Fëanor of old, and Galadriel might have seen the Ring as a sort of analogue to the Silmarils.
As I said before, Galadriel is doing penance for allowing herself to be swayed by Fëanor’s words. Part of that process means resisting everything Fëanor stood for. Sauron is therefore a natural enemy.
Ah, Fëanor. It seems that Galadriel just can’t avoid his caustic legacy, even when she least expects it. Before looking at her refusal of the Ring to close her narrative, let’s turn briefly to her interaction with Gimli during the gift-giving at the end of the Fellowship’s sojourn in Lórien. It reveals yet another shadow of Fëanor’s influence.
It’s curious that Galadriel doesn’t simply give Gimli a gift like she does the others, instead asking him to name his desire. Perhaps it’s a conscious attempt to allow him to speak for himself, to not reduce him to some kind of stereotype: it’s a recognition that for all their similarities, she doesn’t pretend to know Gimli entirely. Gimli, overwhelmed by such an offer, tells her he needs nothing; it’s enough to have seen her and heard her kindness. In recognition of his selflessness and courtesy, she insists that he chose something.
His reply must have shaken her, though she doesn’t show it. Gimli hesitantly, respectfully “name[s] a single strand of your hair, which surpasses the gold of the earth as the stars surpass the gems of the mine. I do not ask for such a gift. But you commanded me to name my desire” (376).
First of all, it’s important that we understand that Galadriel’s hair was considered a treasure even back in Valinor. Her High-elven name was Altarielle, “Lady with garland of sunlight” (MR 182), and it was said that her hair was “touched by some memory of the star-like silver of her mother; and the Eldar said that the light of the Two Trees, Laurelin and Telperion, had been snared in her tresses” (PM 337). According to one of Tolkien’s letters, she “bound up her hair like a crown when taking part in athletic feats” (428).
But that’s not all. More importantly, Fëanor was infatuated with it—her hair was the most beautiful thing the craftsman had ever seen, and, characteristically, he wanted it. It’s said that he asked her three times for a single strand of her hair so that he could use it to improve his own work (PM 337). Each of the three times, Galadriel vehemently refused.
Imagine her surprise, then, when literally Ages later, a gruff, silver-tongued Dwarf admits that all he wants from her is a single strand of hair. The Elves around them “stirred and murmured with astonishment, and Celeborn gazed at the Dwarf in wonder, but”—and this is significant—“Galadriel smiled” (376). Undoubtedly remembering those encounters with Fëanor, she tells him that “none have ever made to [her] a request so bold and yet so courteous” (my emphasis). Then she asks him why. And Gimli doesn’t say he wants to use it to embellish some creation waiting back home. What will he do with it? “Treasure it,” he says. It’ll be “an heirloom” and “a pledge of good will between the Mountain and the Wood until the end of days” (376). In other words, it will heal breaches that have grown and deepened and become more and more painful as time has passed.
And so she freely gives him three strands of her hair. One for each time Fëanor asked the same, though with greedy intentions. And she tells Gimli that he will have treasure in abundance, but it won’t have any power over him. He won’t become greedy or possessive—unlike Fëanor.
The readiness with which Galadriel responds to Gimli’s words illustrate her growth in wisdom and grace during her exile. To see most clearly what she has learned, however, we must turn to her personal test: the offer of the One Ring and her refusal of it and all it entails.
The key point is that the Ring offers her all that she desired when she first sought to leave Valinor. And she considers it…tries it on for size, as it were:
She stood before Frodo seeming now tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful. Then she let her hand fall, and the light faded, and suddenly she laughed again, and lo! she was shrunken: a slender elf-woman, clad in simple white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad. (365)
The contrast here is undeniably shocking. We see for a moment what Galadriel might have been—indeed what her spirit was—but what, ethically, she could not let herself become. Her rejection of the Ring is in reality a rejection of the ideals that caused her to listen to Fëanor, to seek dominion in Middle-earth. And for just a moment she listens to those temptations, testing herself.
I read her ultimate decision as symbolic of the redemption of the Noldor as a people. She is the last of her kind; she is the only one who has had the opportunity to fulfill the promise of the rising Moon, which we discussed earlier. The temptation of the Ring was that she might become the culmination of everything that had ever lured her people away from basic morality: glory, power, authority: to be loved and despaired over, to be stronger than Arda itself, “beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night” (365). Galadriel’s exclamation, “And now at last it comes,” suggest more than just the fulfillment of her personal desires; this chance to show her quality, as it were, is also the chance to find out just what the Noldor are capable of.
In this moment, though, “from the ring that she wore there issued a great light that illumined her alone and left all else dark” (365). We’re shown here in a very visible way what that choice would mean for the rest of Middle-earth, and unsurprisingly, it’s exactly what it has meant every time someone seizes power and glory for themselves without considering the implications and the cost: everything around her falls into shadow.
Galadriel’s choice is the explicit answer to Fëanor’s, for when he had the chance to share or horde light, he chose the latter route, and so wrought upon Middle-earth some of the worst tragedies of all her days. In The Peoples of Middle-earth, Tolkien wrote that “it was not until two long ages more had passed [since Galadriel’s part in the rebellion], 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” (338).
I find Galadriel’s story one of the most compelling in the Middle-earth legendarium specifically because she isn’t perfect. It takes her a whole lot of time to learn and grow as a woman to come to this moment and make the difficult, necessary choice. She is no less passionate and powerful—in fact, in some ways, she’s more so. But she is wiser, and the tragedies and joys of her past twine together to make her indeed a figure of a grace which is at once mighty and valiant.
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!