Friday, June 21, 2024

The Mirror of Galadriel

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When the Fellowship arrived in Lothlórien in the last chapter, the narrative of The Fellowship of the Ring seemed to temporarily float in place. Outside a few brief exceptions, there’s little mention of the quest, writ large. It’s easy to forget that their leader and friend had just apparently died, in a horrific and violent manner. The emotional mirrors the physical: the Fellowship doesn’t think of Gandalf; Lothlórien shuts out the outside world. It’s a chapter of denial. “The Mirror of Galadriel” is a chapter of acceptance.

Caras Galadhon

“The Mirror of Galadriel” begins much like “Lothlórien.” Things are soft and muted, and they are beautiful.  The Fellowship slowly approaches Caras Galadhon as darkness has fallen, and they watch the mallorn trees slowly illuminate with lights:

They stood in the twilight like living towers. In their many-tiered branches and amid their ever-moving leaves countless lights were gleaming, green and gold and silver… As the night deepened more lights sprang forth, until all the hill seemed afire with stars.

Caras Galadhon is described as a city, but it’s more of an anti-city. There are no people anywhere to be seen, no sign of movement or bustle. There is only the sound of singing coming from somewhere unseen. It feels a bit like walking into a cathedral and hearing Gregorian chant, but being unsure from where it is coming.

No folk could they see, nor hear any feet upon the paths; but there were many voices, about them, and in the air above. Far away up on the hill they could hear the sound of singing falling from on high like soft rain upon leaves.

There’s a deep sense of solitude in Lothlórien. It strikes me as beautiful, but so lonely. Though there’s singing, it’s so far away from the fireside songs sung by Elves in Rivendell. After the crashing and clanging, the doom-booms of Moria, it feels as if the Company is suddenly being startled into stillness and silence.


Lothlórien and Grief

After the shock of the change of pace and scenery, reality and acceptance starts to slowly seep into the Fellowship. “At first we were weary and danger was too close behind,” Aragorn observes, “and afterwards we almost forgot our grief for a time, as we walked in gladness on the fair paths of Lórien.”

It’s telling that the turnaround comes when they first meet with Galadriel. She is an absolutely wonderful character in her own right (and more on her below). It’s telling that in her first interaction with the Fellowship she does two things. She makes them directly address Gandalf’s death, and she makes them turn inwards and think about themselves. This acknowledging of both the external and internal marks a key pivot point in these two chapters.

It’s subtle, but important. On the simplest level, time (narratively speaking) starts to move again.

Now as the companions sat or walked together they spoke of Gandalf, and all that each had known and seen of him came clear before their minds. As they were healed of hurt and weariness of body the grief of their loss grew more keen.

There’s no longer the sense of timelessness that Frodo repeatedly invoked in “Lothlórien.” The time spent in Lothlórien is not simply Faerie timelessness. It’s a space of safety that allows for healing. There’s almost nothing that happens there – Sam mentions this later on – but this stillness allows for the time and the space for the Fellowship to come to terms with their grief.

Galadriel hiked this hellscape all the way to Middle-earth. It was probably uphill both ways.


It’s been a while since we’ve had a woman show up in The Fellowship of the Ring (in my edition it has been 144 pages since a woman appeared, 244 since one spoke). Obviously, this is not great. A huge litany of names have shown up so far in Tolkien, and if we refrain from including dead elf maidens of ages past, I count three women (Lobelia, Goldberry, and Galadriel) who have spoken in 400+ pages. Not great.

This is especially odd to me, because it’s not simply that Tolkien didn’t like women, or didn’t care enough to write them. He’s clearly more than capable of writing excellent and interesting female characters – Galadriel is proof of that, as will be Eowyn. The Silmarillion is a treasure-trove of dynamic female characters. Their rarity in The Lord of the Rings is rather mystifying to me.

But even with that caveat, Galadriel is just the best. For all her lofty powers, she is not particularly cruel or aloof (as movie-Galadriel can often seem). She reaches out immediately to a rather grumpy Gimli. She praises the beauty of dwarvish work – which she would have seen with her own eyes – and shows him genuine kindness. It apparently was all poor Gimli was longing for (and, we’ll soon see, Galadriel’s pretty hair) and two pages later he is trekking around Lothlórien with his new elf-buddy Legolas.

But beyond that, Galadriel has such a deep current of history running underneath her. Excluding the anomaly of Bombadil she is possibly the oldest and most powerful being in Middle-earth. She was born in Valinor and saw the light of the Two Trees. In the wake of her uncle Feänor’s rebellion, she followed another uncle across the frozen ice-sheets of Helcaraxë in order to explore new lands and rule a region of her own. She was the first to doubt the intentions of Sauron-in-Disguise when he helped the Elves create the Rings of Power. She mentions here, nearly off-hand, that while she can know Sauron’s mind, he cannot know hers. She’s a fascinating figure: proud and wise, isolationist and empathetic, powerful but ultimately losing.

[Celeborn] has dwelt in the West since the days of dawn, and I have dwelt with him years uncounted; for ere the fall of Nargothrond or Gondolin I passed over the mountains, and together through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.


The Test

This tension – that Galadriel is essentially the most powerful being in the world, and also the one who is possibly fading the fastest – makes the end of this chapter very powerful. Frodo, being the generally reasonable hobbit that he is, thinks that this powerful and helpful lady might be a better Ringbearer than he would be. And so he offers Galadriel the Ring. 

“And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of a 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 illumined 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.”

There is a tendency in adaptations of Tolkien’s work – lookin’ at you, PJ – to make Ring temptation scenes intense. There are flames, screeching sounds. In Jackson’s film, Galadriel temporarily turns into some kind of celestial sea witch for a few seconds, accompanied by monster voice. I get this. It’s necessary to keep up the stakes. And to do that it’s necessary to convey the immensity of the Ring’s power. But while I get it, I also think it can do a disservice to character and to larger themes.

This scene, with only a slight hint of supernatural power, is simple and powerful. Galadriel one of the last of her kind in a dying world and someone is openly offering her the possibility to restore it. Frodo, though he probably doesn’t know it entirely, is making an offer that is weighted with thousands of years of history. Galadriel came to Middle-earth in the aftermath of her uncle creating a beautiful piece of jewelry that consumed him; she watched the subsequent pursuit of that jewelry tear apart her family and her people for generations. One of that family’s descendants made the Rings of Power.

Galadriel is breaking a cycle. And Tolkien’s skill as an author is obvious, because her choice is placed in the forefront. The fearfulness of the Ring is not necessarily in its power or its compulsion (though that is certainly there). It is in its quiet insistence that it can make one’s deepest, darkest aspirations possible, and then dare you to do them. The danger of this scene is not that the power of the Ring threatens to possess Galadriel, or consume her. The danger lies in the possibility that her sense of self will be consumed by her desires.

And it’s not. Galadriel in this moment eclipses so much of her family and remains herself, diminished but intact.

Final Comments

  • Though not as definitive as Galadriel’s the rest of the Company is tested in “The Mirror of Galadriel” as well. They are all put to the test when Galadriel mentally offers them a variety of (mostly unnamed) comforts that they could accept in place of the dark road towards Moria. It made me laugh that Boromir – who insists that it’s needless to even ask if he listened, since the men of Minas Tirith are always true to their word – also insists that it’s no one’s business what Galadriel offered to him. It is sweet that only Samwise is visibly upset by the questioning. He is also the only one who immediately tells everyone else what he was offered.
  • Sam’s vision of The Shire being threatened and the Gaffer being kicked out of his home are effective images. I’m not sure anyone would ever think Sam would actually leave at this point. But his anguished response – an escalated version of his farewell to the great and noble Bill the Pony – sells the scene anyways, and really makes me feel for poor, sweet Sam.
  • I wonder if the news of Gandalf falling to the Balrog was especially difficult for Galadriel: her cousin (Fingon) and her uncle (Feanor) were both killed by Gothmog, the most fearsome of the Balrog of the First Age.
  • It would be so easy for Galadriel to be cruel, or cold. She’s so old, and so powerful, and she has countless reasons to be bitter. I truly love that she’s not. She mentions that Frodo that his arrival in Lothlórien, her home, was essentially it’s death knell. “If you fail, 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. We must depart into the West, or dwindle to a rustic folk of dell and cave, slowing to forget and to be forgotten.” But she makes certain to also tell Frodo that she does blame him for it, and he is accountable only for his own task.
  • Galadriel also echoes Gildor when she insists “I am not a counselor.” Oh Elves. So wise, so far-seeing, so unhelpful.
  • I have nothing to say about Celeborn. Though I did scoff when Galadriel called him the wisest Elf in Middle-earth. Maybe she was being sarcastic? She did just correct him for speaking ill of Gandalf.
  • Sam on Lothlórien: “If there’s any magic about, it’s right down deep, where I can’t lay my hands on it.”
    Frodo, having none of it: “You can see it and feel it everywhere.”
  • “And I’d not mind a glimpse of what’s going on at home,” he said as an aside to Frodo. “It seems a terribly long time that I’ve been away. But there, like as not I’ll only see the stars, or something that I won’t understand.” I feel you, Samwise. If you look in a Tolkien pool, you’re gonna have to see some stars.
  • Prose Prize: I really love the simple “I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.” But special credit also to “The air was cool and soft, as if it were early spring, and yet they felt about them the deep and thoughtful quiet of winter. It seemed to them that they did little but eat and drink and rest, and walk among the trees; and it was enough.” That sounds like my version of heaven

Art Credits: The header image is from Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), courtesy of New Line Cinema. In order from top to bottom, the rest of the images are courtesy of Michelle Soneja, Ted Nasmith, zdrava, and aegeri.

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