Monday, July 22, 2024

Ships and Swans and Singing

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Grief and its processing have been front and center in the last two chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring. Frodo and Company stumbled into Lothlórien after the fire and trauma of Moria and moved from a denial of Gandalf’s death to an unsteady acceptance. Galadriel embraced the tragedy of her situation – and her people’s situation – rather than battle brittlely against it and lose herself. “Farewell to Lórien” deals with the aftermath of these decisions, as Galadriel and the Fellowship take and deep breath and plunge into the next stage of their journeys.

The Grey and Leafless Worldships

As could be expected with Tolkien, there is a heaviness in leaving Lothlórien. The whole chapter is layered with a sense of sadness and loss. It’s made explicit in the landscape, as the company travels down to the Anduin and notice that the trees on the other side were “bleak and bare.” As they sail away, they see Lórien “slipping backward, like a bright ship master with enchanted trees, sailing on to forgotten shores, while they say helpless upon the margin of the grey and leafless world.” There’s even the additional layers of missed opportunities: Sam learns that he could have learned the secret of Elven rope-making if he had spoken up about it just a bit sooner. Though Lothlórien helped them heal, there’s a sense that having it and leaving it only made everything worse.

“Tell me, Legolas, why did I come on this Quest? Little did I know where the chief peril lay! Truly Elrond spoke, saying that we could not foresee what we might meet upon our road. Torment in the dark was the danger that I feared, and it did not hold me back. But I would not have come, had I known the danger of light and joy.”

It’s a potent question for anyone: is it better to have or experience something beautiful with the sure knowledge it will be lost, or never experience it at all? It’s an especially deep cut for poor Gimli, though, who seems to have found a new version of himself during his time in Lórien. He was surprised by the unexpected and lost it nearly as soon as he gained it. Despite its value, Lothlórien has provided the Fellowship with an additional layer of sadness as it launches off into the next stages of its quest.

The key to the success of “Farewell to Lórien,” however, lies in the fact that it’s not entirely backwards-looking. Despite all the sadness and nostalgia of leave taking, this chapter is focused on launching characters into the next phase of their stories, with all the tension or uncertainty that demands.



Besides her two songs, “Farewell to Lórien” seems to be much more about the Fellowship than about Galadriel. This makes sense – the story is about to move on without her. But her appearance is so rife with interesting, unspoken tidbits and this chapter does a beautiful job of putting a period (or perhaps an ellipsis) at the end of her story.

Galadriel has had a difficult couple of days, but never doubt this: the lady knows how to make an entrance.

Sailing proudly down the stream towards them they saw a swan of great size. The water rippled on either side of the white breast beneath its curving neck. Its beak shone like burnished gold, and its eyes glinted like jet set in yellow stones; its huge white wings were half lifted. A music came down the river as it drew nearer; and suddenly they perceived that it was a ship, wrought and carved with elven-skill in the likeness of a bird… In the midst of the vessel sat Celeborn, and behind him stood Galadriel, tall and white; a circlet of golden flowers was in her hair, and in her hand she held a harp, and she sang.

 Obviously, this is a bitchin’ way to make an entrance even without any context. But there is a lot of context.

Swans and Ships and Singing

First, a quick back story of Galadriel. Her mother (Eärwen) was a Teleri elf and her father (Finarfin) was a Noldor elf. Back, way back, in Tolkien’s legendarium, the Noldor were the earlier group of elves to arrive in Aman, the immortal land of the Valar. They were known for their cleverness and prowess in creation and their most infamous member, Feänor, created the Silmarils. The Teleri dawdled a bit before coming over to Aman. They were “from the beginning lovers of water, and the fairest singers of the Elves, were after enamored of the seas, and their songs were filled with the sound of waves upon the Shore.” When they came to Aman they settled in a city on the shore called Alqualondë. There they kept their ships, “made in the likeness of swans, with beaks of gold and eyes of gold and jet.” 

This is Tolkien, so all things start like this…

These swan ships – based on the description in The Silmarillion, identical to Galadriel’s swan ship– were not long-lived. Not long after all the Elves were settled in Aman, Feänor – asshole extraordinaire – led a rebellion of the Noldor against the Valar after the theft of his Silmarils. Realizing it was difficult to escape an island without ships, Feänor politely asked demanded that the Teleri join him and hand over the ships. When they refused, Feänor and his Noldor followers killed the Teleri who tried to stop him.

This was received… poorly, and ultimately led to most of the dark depths of unhappiness that make up The Silmarillion.

It is also something that troubled Galadriel. We get very little information about her throughout The Silmarillion, with one exception. Soon after the Noldor’s arrival in Beleriand, Galadriel is speaking to her friend Melian. Melian is clearly aware that the Noldor are being cagey about something and pushes Galadriel to open up. Eventually Galadriel spills the secrets of the Silmarils, the death of Feänor’s father, and the rejection of the Valar. She refuses, however, to speaking of the killing of the Teleri at Alqualondë.  “For that woe is past,” said Galadriel. “and I would take what joy is here left, untroubled by memory.”

Galadriel has dealt with a double tragedy (with some guilt thrown in for good measure). She lost a part of herself and her former life when she chose to make the trek across the ice to Beleriand and to start a new life, “untroubled by memory.” She succeeded, by all measures, for a very long time. But Lothlórien is fading too, and being untroubled by memory is no longer a real option. We talked last time about how Galadriel’s rejection of the Ring is the rejection of a very Noldor-esque temptation: she’s breaking the pattern set by her father’s side of the family. And then, the very next time we see, Galadriel seems to be embracing memory and all that it entails.

…and then end like this

She appears on the water, in a ship identical to that of her mother and her mother’s ancestors. She is singing, about Eldamar, her ancient home. After a very Noldor-esque temptation, Galadriel seems to have embraced a very Teleri-esque appearance. It’s beautiful on one hand, a sign of acceptance and engagement with the past rather than rejection. But the difficulty of that kind of emotional step is not glossed over: Galadriel sadness is tinged with fear throughout this chapter and she’s clearly concerned that now that she has turned to look back upon her past, it will not accept her.

“O Lórien! Too long I have dwelt upon this Hither Shore
And in a fading crown have twined the golden Elanor.
But if ships I now should sing, what ship would come to me,
What ship would bear me ever back across so wide a Sea?” 

“Who now shall refill the cup for me? For now the Kindler, Varda, the Queen of the Stars, from Mount Everwhite has uplifted her hands like clouds, and all paths are drowned in deep shadow; and out of a grey country darkness lies on the foaming waves between us.”

It’s fascinating to me that in Tolkien’s world a victory over temptation is not a solitary and certain victory. It’s not the conclusion of a story but the beginning of a new one, a reorientation towards a new a different potential. That’s frightening. In these chapters Galadriel chooses to begin the process of coming to terms with herself and her past, a fraught endeavor that will likely leave her more vulnerable than she has been in a long time. It was the “good” choice, but it has its costs. Frodo can already see it:

“She seemed no longer perilous or terrible, nor filled with hidden power. Already she seemed to him, as by men of later days Elves still at times are seen: present and yet remote, a living vision of that which has already been left far behind by the flowing streams of time.”


“On Which Side Will You Journey?”

Galadriel isn’t along in this reorientation. As she heads out on her nebulous journey, the Fellowship is about to restart their own, very explicit one.

Much like MovieFrodo, Galadriel knows what comes next. She’s just afraid of doing it. The Fellowship, though? They have very little clear idea of what they’re doing.

From the start the Fellowship has been very cagey and avoidant about their final mission. Aside from Frodo and Gandalf, no one really had to think about it. Aragorn and Boromir were always planning to turn aside to Minas Tirith. Merry and Pippin don’t really have a solid concept of what exactly Mordor is or entails. Sam has been near-sighted enough in his focus on Frodo that the broader implications of the mission were never relevant.

This luxury gets brutally upended with the death of Gandalf. No one wants to go to Moria – especially while sitting under the mallorn trees in Lórien.

It was plain that most of them desired to go first to Minas Tirith, and to escape at least for a while from the terror of the Enemy. They would have been willing to follow a leader over the River and into the shadow of Mordor; but Frodo spoke no word, and Aragorn was still divided in his mind.

It’s a very relatable moment for all characters (and a nice example of how to make your characters fearful of their fate without being whiny). But walking into Mordor is something that has to get done eventually. It’s the ultimate purpose of their fellowship. This is a tough moment for everyone, but it’s tough in a special way for Aragorn.


His own play, while Gandalf remained with them, had been to go with Boromir, and with his sword help deliver Gondor. For he believed that the message of the dreams had been a summons, and that the hour had come at last when the heir of Elendil should come forth and strive with Sauron for the mastery. But in Moria the burden of Gandalf had been laid on him; and he knew that he could not now forsake the Ring, if Frodo refused in the end to go with Boromir. And yet what help could he or any of the Company give to Frodo, save to walk blindly with him into the darkness?

Gandalf’s death has ricocheted him into an odd position. For quite a while now, Aragorn has had a fairly certain sense of his destiny. He is supposed to return to Gondor – heir of Elendil and all that – and save it. It’s not an easy task, but an apparently clear one. He even got dream summons and pretty stones to confirm it! But to fulfill that destiny would now mean abandoning Frodo to his fate. It’s a Catch-22: should Aragorn fail in one leadership position in order to fulfill another? Is it worth staying with Frodo out of loyalty and offering little help, when he could abandon him but do greater good elsewhere? It’s a hard question, and harder not to feel for Aragorn when he experiences a wave of relief in knowing they can all hop in boats and put off the decision for another chapter.

Also difficult: Frodo’s position. His thoughts are almost entirely silent, with the exception of his doubt about Borormir’s motives. Frodo’s task has been a lonely one from the start, but I’d imagine it’s reaching brutal levels here. No one (save Sam) really wants to go with him, but most people feel obligated to do so. This tension and imminent uncertainty makes the departure from Lórien all the more difficult. It also pulls tight the narrative tension as we head into the penultimate chapter.


Final Comments

  • I had remembered this as the “gift giving chapter,” which is less true than I’d first thought. It’s still a nice scene though, and we get some nice Mordor and Shelob foreshadowing when Frodo receives the Phial of Galadriel. It’s also a nice reminder that Galadriel is resolutely her own character and not just a Wise Helper Figure. Though she’s gifting them with things that they’ll use later on, she’s not spelling out exactly what all of them must do. She doesn’t know for sure, and she has her own things she has to worry about.
  • shipsSpeaking of gifts: Sam got the best gift, right? Sam definitely got the best gift. “For you little gardener and lover of trees,” she said to Sam, “I have only a small gift.” She put into his hand a little box of plain grey wood, unadorned save for a single silver run upon the lid. “Here is set G for Galadriel,” she said; “but also it may stand for garden in your tongue. In this box there is earth from my orchard, and such blessing as Galadriel has still to bestow is upon it. It will not keep you on your road, nor defend you against any peril; but if you keep it and see your home again at last, then perhaps it may reward you. Though you should find all barren and laid waste, there will be few gardens in Middle-earth that will bloom like your garden, if you sprinkle this earth there. Then you may remember Galadriel, and catch a glimpse far-off of Lórien, that you have seen only in our winter. For our spring and our summer are gone by, and they will never be seen on earth again save in memory.”
  • Best gift-giving scene¸ though, goes to Gimli. As Priscilla pointed out last chapter, Galadriel’s gift of three strands of her hair to Gimli is a giant middle-finger to Feänor. He was refused a strand of Galadriel’s hair because he asked her like a big creep. This makes her line to Gimli – “For none have ever made me a request so bold and yet so courteous” – just the best. Morty also made a good observation about this scene last week. Galadriel declares to Gimli that “your hands shall flow with gold, and yet over you gold shall have no dominion,” a good depiction of his character going forth.
  • I liked Legolas’s response to Gimli’s grief about Lothlórien. His point that Gimli chose to leave, in order to help his friends, will mean that his memory of the place will remain unvarnished. Staying, even if an immediate relief, would eventually have stained the place with guilt. This struck me as wiser than we’ve seen Legolas so far. I wonder if this is because he’s now better friends with Gimli.
  • While reading through the Silmarillion I was forcibly reminded that Tolkien named one of the hills of Aman Tuna! You’re better than that, Tolkien. Please, pull yourself together.
  • Do we ever find out what happens to the Dimrill Dale? Haldir reports that it is “full of vapor and clouds of smoke… there are noises in the deeps of the Earth.” That sounds… not great.
  • Prose Prize: The last description of Galadriel. “She shone like a window of glass upon a far hill in the westering sun, or as a remote lake seen from a mountain: a crystal fallen in the lap of the land…now she sang in the ancient tongue of the Elves beyond the Sea and he did not understand the words: fair was the music, but it did not comfort him.”
  • Next Chapter: Boats! Orcs! Argonath! Decisions!

Art Credits: The featured image and film still are from Peter Jackson’s 2001 The Fellowship of the Ring and are courtesy of New Line Cinema.  In order, the other images come from Peter Xavier Price, Ted Nasmith (both images of the Teleri ships), Elleth, and Aelin Laer

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