The character of Galadriel is an instance of Tolkien’s retroactive imagination at work. Not originally envisaged in his first tales of Middle-earth, Tolkien, having written her into a key role in The Lord of the Rings, felt compelled to weave her history backwards into the tapestry of that earlier set of stories - a process which he did not complete, leaving us with various sometimes contradictory versions of her history. We shall see, though, that this very incompleteness, though unintentional, adds to the effect that Tolkien in the end created with this character. Adopting Tolkien’s story-telling technique of trying to see ‘what had really happened’ rather than merely inventing things out of thin air, it is possible to look back on the strands of information we have about the Elven princess and to piece together a comprehensive character study which in turn reveals more depths about Middle-earth as a whole.
According to Tolkien’s Legendarium, Galadriel was the fourth child born to Finarfin, prince of the Noldor, and Eärwen, princess of the Teleri. Her father named her Artanis, meaning ‘noble woman’, but, due to her unusual height and strength, her mother’s name for her was Nerwen, ‘man-maiden’. She was free-spirited, wilful and bound up her hair as a crown when taking part in athletic feats. Her unusual beauty and power possibly made her proud.
But then we get a very specific instance of Tolkien’s creativity working through images: throughout both the earlier works and the concluding chapters of the tale of Middle-earth as seen in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s mind operated through a series resonant images. We have examined other such repeated representations earlier, but here the brightness and colour of Galadriel’s hair, first described by Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings, becomes an echo of the magical light of the Two Trees in Valinor: though the source of Galadriel’s hair colour was from her parents, the Eldar felt that her gold and silver hair had captured the light of the Two Trees in Valinor.
Prior to ‘inventing’ the character of Galadriel, Tolkien had written that the Elf Fëanor conceived the idea of capturing the light of these trees inside jewels which he called the Silmarils, but now, working in his peculiar retroactive way, Tolkien gave Galadriel a key instigating function in his mythology - he asserted that Fëanor had been inspired to capture the Trees’ light by Galadriel’s hair, after she had refused him a lock of it. This becomes more significant when it is realised that the whole chain of events described in The Silmarillion, and consequently the entire history of Middle-earth thereafter, would not have happened had not Fëanor been so refused. It’s the first clue as to Tolkien’s revisionist notions of Galadriel’s central nature as a character in the fabric of the mythology as a whole.
Tolkien writes that, during the Darkening of Valinor, Galadriel swore no oaths but that Fëanor’s words about Middle-earth kindled a desire in her heart. Having passively inspired Fëanor to create the Silmarils, Galadriel’s inner motivation as a character now takes shape: she feels a void, a desire to rule a realm of her own. Perhaps we are not stretching things too far to suggest that she wished to escape the patriarchy of Valinor, and of her own family, weighted to the male side as it was. Her ‘man-maiden’ nature was prompting her, possibly, to look to the dark and wide unguarded lands to the East. Adding to her complexity, even though she participates in the revolt of the Noldor, she fights against Fëanor in defence of her mother's kin in the Kinslaying of Alqualondë. There is a suggestion (retroactively revised by Tolkien) that she travels among a second group led by Fingolfin, which joined the battle at Alqualondë late; perhaps she is in the group that does not participate in the killing, although that is not clear. Tolkien is at pains to distance her from the worst of Fëanor ’s revolt. As Mandos’ prophecy lays out the Doom which the Kinslaying has necessitated, Galadriel’s father Finarfin abandons the march of the Noldor and returns to Valinor. But Galadriel and her brothers at this point take their leave from their father and cross the grinding ice of the Helcaraxë to eventually arrive on the northern shores of Middle-earth.
Making it to Beleriand, Galadriel and her eldest brother Finrod Felagund come to Doriath as guests of Elu Thingol, its king. There Galadriel meets Celeborn, who soon afterwards (in Elvish terms) becomes her husband. But in terms of the way Tolkien’s imagination worked, it is Galadriel’s friendship with Queen Melian the Maia which is key. In effect, Galadriel becomes Melian’s protégé. As Galadriel does not have any particular role in the events of the War of the Jewels, we do not hear much of her again until after the cataclysmic War of Wrath and the overthrow of Morgoth. Here we discover that a ban is set upon her return to Aman by the Valar: she expresses a lack of concern, and a desire to remain in Middle-earth. However, two late essays written by Tolkien and published in Unfinished Tales contradict this: in one of them, though Galadriel revolts along with the other Noldor, she's offered the pardon of the Valar, but refuses to return to Aman nonetheless. The variations at this point serve unintentionally to cloud her true inner nature and add to her depth as a character.
She and Celeborn come to Lindon with the other survivors of Beleriand and rule over Harlindon, before moving to Eregion. Eregion is ruled by Celebrimbor, a grandson of Fëanor and distant cousin of Galadriel. Galadriel is probably present during the crafting of the Rings of Power before she and Celeborn eventually cross the Hithaeglir through Khazad-dûm and relocate in the lands to the East of the mountains, becoming great among the Wood-elves.
When Sauron places the One Ring on his finger and the Elves become aware of his treachery, Celebrimbor, afraid for the safety of the Three Rings, sends them to two of the Wise: Narya and Vilya for Gil-galad, and Nenya for Galadriel, cementing her stature as a key player in the evolving mythology.
In the Battle of Dagorlad during the War of the Last Alliance, Sauron is apparently destroyed and the One Ring lost, leaving Galadriel free to use Nenya. Celeborn and Galadriel rule Lindórinand jointly, as the Lord and Lady of Galadhrim. They establish Caras Galadhon, and, using the power of the Elven Ring of Power, transform the realm of Lothlórien into one of light and life, protecting it from the intrusion of evil throughout the Third Age in a reflection of the way in which Melian placed a girdle of protection around the older realm of Doriath. Galadriel becomes in a way a ‘mini-Melian’, representing in the lower harmonic of the remnants of Middle-earth the kind of superior and far-reaching power that Melian the Maiar had done in the days of Beleriand.
Galadriel’s role in the post-Beleriand world is assured, then: the gift of Nenya enhances it, giving her a relatively ‘super-natural’ power correspondent to that of Melian, her mentor.
In T.A. 2463 the White Council is formed and Galadriel, possibly the greatest threat to Sauron alive at that time, as one of the members, recommends that Gandalf be made head of it. This alignment, though again retroactively inserted into the mythology by Tolkien, makes sure that we as readers know her moral position. The fact that her recommendation is not taken up but that Saruman is appointed instead, is a narrative necessity given that we already know the events of The Lord of the Rings - but the key point is that Tolkien is taking pains with this retroactivity to ensure that Galadriel is seen as ‘moral’ - though she left Valinor at the beginning of the story motivated by a desire for power and under the cloud of the Doom of Mandos, and though she refused an opportunity to plead for a return to its shores after the War of Wrath with an implication that she was prideful and dismissive, we are being persuaded that she is part of the forces of good. Tolkien is careful, in other words, to build our sympathy for her in the history, while retaining her depth and complexity as a character in a way which is profound.
He has done the same thing with other characters, as we have seen elsewhere: at first glance, Aragorn appears to be a standard Epic hero but on closer inspection is revealed to be much more complicated as a personality. Similarly, Frodo Baggins hovers between typically naive young stalwart hero and a much more nuanced and ironic figure. Gandalf also, in many ways described as the archetypical wise old man of fiction, has been found to possess layers of character development beyond ordinary parameters. And so it is with Galadriel: one of the ‘deserters’ of Valinor (though explicitly not an ‘Oathbreaker’), motivated by a desire for power similar to that of many of the more villainous figures in the mythology, Galadriel is given shades of rationale which go much deeper and make her a far more rounded personality.
Based on what we know about her innermost motivations so far, for example, it is possible that, during the War of the Ring, when she meets the Fellowship in T.A. 3019 and Frodo offers her the One Ring, she could fail the extreme temptation and take it for herself. Clearly, it aligns with her goal to be a queen under her own rights which has prompted her into action from the start. If we therefore consider the entire opus of Tolkien’s mythology as a study of Galadriel, this moment of temptation is the central one:
‘I do not deny that my heart has greatly desired to ask what you offer. For many long years I had pondered what I might do, should the Great Ring come into my hands, and behold! it was brought within my grasp. The evil that was devised long ago works on in many ways, whether Sauron himself stands or falls. Would not that have been a noble deed to set to the credit of his Ring, if I had taken it by force or fear from my guest? And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair! '
She lifted up her hand and from the ring that she wore there issued a great light that illuminated her alone and left all else dark. 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.
'I pass the test,' she said. `I will diminish, and go into the West and remain Galadriel.'
The two central psychological motives that we have sensed Tolkien developing in her - the desire to be a queen, to rule in her own right, and the opposite desire to be virtuous and to serve the greater good - are here played out. Galadriel resists the One Ring successfully.
In giving parting gifts to the Company of the Ring, she is unsure what to give Gimli; he requests a single strand of her hair, as Fëanor had done long ago. Tolkien’s vast, incomplete, retro-structured line of imagination has come full circle: Galadriel’s refusal to part with her hair which launched the whole narrative is here balanced by her willingness to give it as a gift. She rewards Gimli with three strands, later embedded in Silmaril-like imperishable crystal in memory of her.
Galadriel attends the wedding of Aragorn and Arwen, but in T.A. 3021 she bades farewell to Celeborn her husband and goes West to Valinor, the multi-layered conflict in her character resolved and her salvation assured.