Galadriel: Rebel, Ringbearer, Lady of Light

At the risk of outing myself as a nerd (as if having a Tolkien-centric blog hadn’t done that for me already), my younger brother and I have watched the Jacksonmovies together an embarrassing number of times. During one of our many viewings of Fellowship, my brother (who hadn’t read the books, and to the best of my knowledge still hasn’t) made the observation that while she’s clearly on the side of the good guys, Galadriel can come across as, well, rather sinister.

Describing Galadriel in these terms (in addition to “sinister”, I’ve heard “creepy” and “unnerving”) might seem a little incongruous at first glance – after all, she’s an Elf (and when are they ever less than perfect, in LoTR at least), and those of us (readers and Fellowship alike) who saw her in Lothlorien know there is no reason to be suspicious of her loyalty. However, it’s perfectly in keeping with Tolkien’s presentation of Galadriel as she is viewed by much of the world outside Lorien – and particularly by the Men of Rohan and Gondor, for whom the very real elf-woman who rules in Caras Galadhon has been transformed by time and unfamiliarity into a half-forgotten legend of a dangerous sorceress who ensnares men in her webs, and whose land it is dangerous for any mortal Man to enter. Take, for example, Eomer’s comments on meeting Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli in chapter 2 of The Two Towers:

 “‘Then there is a Lady in the Golden Wood, as old tales tell!’  he said, ‘Few escape her nets, they say. These are strange days! But if you have her favour, then you also are net-weavers and sorcerers, maybe’”.

 (Book 3 chapter 2, “The Riders of Rohan”)

Later in the same book, Faramir – a far more intelligent and erudite character than Eomer – expresses similar concerns about the Lady’s power, albeit in a characteristically more thoughtful tone:

 “’You passed through the Hidden Land”, said Faramir, “but it seems that you little understood its power. If Men have dealings with the Mistress of Magic who dwells in the Golden Wood, then they may look out for strange things to follow. For it is perilous for mortal man to walk out of the world of this Sun, and few of old came thence unchanged, ‘tis said.”

  (Book 4 chapter 5, “The Window on the West”).

Although these are clear examples of how the years have warped mortals’ understanding of the elves who still live among them, there is also a degree to which people are right to view Galadriel with some trepidation. After all, as one of the few remaining protagonists of the rebellion of the Noldor (of the original leaders it’s just her and Maglor, who’s presumably still wandering around the seashore somewhere), she has a distinctly chequered past. And although she didn’t take the oath of Feanor and doesn’t have the blood of the Kinslaying on her hands, she is nevertheless put under the ban of the Valar.

What is more, she displays a number of personality traits which are neutral at best. Restless, ambitious and eager to escape the constraints of life in Valinor, In a tantalising brief reference to her in the Silmarillion (apparently she stood “tall and valiant among the contending princes” on the day the Trees were destroyed and Feanor swore his oath”), we are told of her adventurousness and curiosity (“she yearned to see the wide unguarded lands” of Middle-Earth), but also of her desire to “rule there a realm at her own will” – that is, her ambition and will to dominate. And although she’s clearly mellowed considerably over the intervening millennia, we definitely see glimmers of the old Galadriel during her most memorable scene in the Lord of the Rings, the scene of her temptation by the Ring.

All this goes a long way towards making Galadriel into a far more complex, nuanced character (and to a certain extent more identifiable, although there are always going to be limits on how far readers can identify with an intimidatingly beautiful immortal elf who has powers of prophecy and is several millennia old). And it’s given further depth by another aspect of her character that is touched on obliquely in several places in the LoTR and then explored in more depth in Unfinished Tales and in several places in Tolkien’s letters – that is, her identity as an exile. Although these are precisely the kind of details it’s easy to overlook on a first (and even a second and third) reading, the two songs Galadriel sings as the Fellowship leaves Lorien are full of longing and wistfulness that gains infinitely in meaning once you know the full background to her story. First, in her song in the Common Tongue, she laments the passing of the years in Middle Earth and the fact that the way home is barred to her:

“O Lorien! Too long I have dwelt upon this Hither Shore

And in a fading crown have twined the golden elanor.

But if of ships I now should sing, what ship would come to me,

What ship would bear me ever back across so wide a Sea?”

(Book 2 chapter 8, “A Farewell to Lorien”)

Then, in her Quenya song (for which Tolkien helpfully provides a prose translation), she repeats her belief that the way back West is barred to her, and adds a hopeful prayer that Frodo may do as she cannot and find his way there someday: “Now lost, lost to those from the East is Valimar! Farewell! Maybe thou shalt find Valimar. Maybe even thou shalt find it. Farewell!”). Galadriel’s status as an exile – and her obvious fears that she will never be allowed to return home – are alluded to once more in the book, this time in a cruel and taunting way, by Saruman following Sauron’s defeat and his own unceremonious eviction from Isengard. As the remaining Fellowship and their assorted hangers-on (who include the Lord and Lady of Lothlorien) pass the old villain on their way back north from Minas Tirith,

Saruman takes a momentary break from lamenting his misfortune and kicking Wormtongue to taunt Galadriel with the notion that she is as doomed to fade as he is, asking “And now, what ship will bear you back across so wide a sea?” (note the echo of Galadriel’s own words earlier). “It will be a grey ship, and full of ghosts”.

That’s hardly the last I want to say of Galadriel – she’s one of the most written-about women in the legendarium, and I anticipate returning to her several times (among other things, I want to write about the various versions of her backstory contained in the essay on Galadriel and Celeborn in Unfinished Tales, about how she exercises power as a leader, and about her identification with the Virgin Mary). For now, though, it’s time for me to head to bed, so I’ll leave you with these incomplete thoughts.

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3 thoughts on “Galadriel: Rebel, Ringbearer, Lady of Light

  1. Simeon Teitelbaum says:

    One topic suggestion: Gandalf’s relationship with Nienna (am I right?) I think it she who was Gandalf’s mentor who had a key formative effect on his personality and how he would end up directing his talent and focus. When looking at female elements in Tolkien’s writing, it has to be relevant that the key influence on perhaps Tolkien’s most iconic character was a wise goddess

    • theironylady says:

      Hi! Thanks for commenting – and that is a fantastic idea, which I hadn’t thought of. I’ll add it to the list right away and try to get to it sooner rather than later! I’m not much of a Valar fan for the most part, but I do find Nienna quite intriguing!

  2. Damien RS says:

    Peril: there’s the fact that she seems to use a telepathic character trial as a way of saying ‘hello’.

    Power: from that same song: “I sang of leaves, of leaves of gold, and leaves of gold there grew /
    Of wind I sang, a wind there came and thrrough the branches blew.”
    Literal? And how did Galadriel throw down the walls of Dol Guldur during the War? Army, or more magic?

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