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Galadriel: A Lesson

You might recall Galadriel from The Lord of the Rings as the beautiful and other-worldly queen who reigns over the apparently timeless realm of Lothlorien, visited by the Fellowship of the Ring on their quest; you might also picture her as Cate Blanchett from Peter Jackson’s famous film version of the book. What I’m betting you don’t know is her role in the history of Middle-earth — and the reason I can be certain you don’t know is because Tolkien wasn’t sure himself.

Galadriel gives us a fascinating instance of how Tolkien’s imagination worked. Having created her to fulfil a role in his trilogy about the One Ring, sought desperately by Sauron at the end of the Third Age, the professor was then faced with the task of retroactively inserting her into his prior mythology. By tracing her story, we can not only see how his mind worked, but how his mythology was constructed and re-constructed over the period of many years, with his ideas changing all the time. What we are left with is an incomplete story: Galadriel’s position and function is not fully settled by her creator before his death. That leaves us with an intensely gripping character study, the nature of which may be unique in Middle-earth. You can read more about this in my book, The Myth Makers.

Here's an excerpt from that book:

The character of Galadriel is another 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 examine other such repeated representations below, 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, Telperion and Laurelin.

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.

Read much more in my book.


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