Galadriel’s ambition

[Version française ici]

Last week, someone on Tumblr sent me this remark: « You know it is interesting that Galadriel fantasied with which she will do with the one Ring if she had the chance. When Frodo actually offered her the Ring she loomed about him as a Dark Queen that would rule not only a kingdom but all Middle Earth. Such were her ambitions. »

And I thought it could interesting to open this blog with a repost of my answer.

Yes indeed, and that’s a very important element ;don’t forget that her mother-name, Nerwen, means “Man-maiden”, because she displayed features that are usually ascribed to males. Among those features, her pride and her ambition are not the lesser ones: “She was proud, strong, and self-willed, as were all the descendants of Finwë save Finarfin”, says the ‘Shibboleth’ and the Unfished Tales, in which her pride is constantly.

Besides, in The Silmarillion and some other texts, she’s described as a true aspiring queen, who craves power and domination. During the rebellion of the Noldor, she “yearned to see the wide unguarded lands and to rule there a realm at her own will” (The Silmarillion Ch. 9), “she had dreams of far lands and dominions that might be her own to order as she would without tutelage” (UT 2 Ch. IV).

Don’t forget that if she remained in Middle-earth at the end of the First Age, it is, depending on the versions, because

  • the Valar wouldn’t allow her to return

« The Exiles were allowed to return – save for a few chief actors in the rebellion, of whom of The Lord of the Rings only Galadriel remained.” (Letter 297)

  • she had other ambitions, and refused it.

She was not the only one though, as Tolkien noted in his letter to Milton Waldman (letters 131), when he said about the Eldar who remained in Middle-earth that

« they wanted to have their cake without eating it. They wanted the peace and bliss and perfect memory of ‘The West’, and yet remain on the ordinary earth where their prestige as the highest people, above wild Elves, Dwarves, and Men, was greater than at the bottom of the hierarchy in Valinor”.

As for the climax of those ambitions in Galadriel’s narrative arc, which appears in ‘The Mirror of Galadriel’ in LOTR, Tolkien wrote quite a lot about it ; in a draft for another letter (246) he said that “it appears that Galadriel conceived of herself as capable of wilding the Ring and supplanting the Dark Lord […] In any case, Elrond and Galadriel would have proceeded in the policy now adopted by Sauron: they would have built up an empire with great and absolutely subservient generals and armies and engines of war, until they could challenge Sauron and destroy him by force.”

And although “It was part of the essential deceit of the Ring to fill minds with imaginations of supreme power” (letter 246), at first, Galadriel nonetheless “refuse[d] the pardon of the Valar for all who had fought against him [Morgoth] and remained in Middle-earth. It was not until two long ages more had passed, when at last all that she had desires in her youth came to her hand, the Ring of Power and the dominion of Middle-earth of which she had dreamed, that her wisdom was full grown and she rejected it, and passing the last test departed from Middle earth for ever. » (UT 2 Ch. IV)

Galadriel is one of the rare Elves with a complete redemption arc (with Finrod and to a certain extent, Celebrimbor), that is the meaning behind what Tolkien called her “rejection of the temptation”. That leads us to the question of redemption which is crucial for the Noldor (not only).

“ Her personal ban was lifted, in reward for her services against Sauron, and above all her rejection of the temptation to take the Ring when offered to her.” (UT 2, Ch. IV)

In Le Dictionnaire Tolkien (dir. Vincent Ferré) – unfortunately only available in French so I’ll do my best with the translation – for the entry “redemption”, Annie Bricks wrote:

“ The inner reversal which brings this repentant Elf [Galadriel] to retrace her steps, comes from her own understanding of the way Arda works, and this understanding allows her to wilfully accept Iluvatar’s laws, and not just obey them. Her former desire to contribute to the greatness and beauty of Arda through the creation of a kingdom has materialised, although not as was intended. Yet, similarly to the Valar who have already noticed it, Galadriel knows then that her role and that of her people is coming to an end, and that it would be vain to keep on trying to revive the ancient beauty. She frees herself from her own illusions, which are hindering her, and in line with the original meaning of atonement ( at-one-ment), her redemption offers her reunion and reconciliation.”

So yes, her ambition (from her youth) was to govern and to be an independent queen in a beautiful world which she would improve through her own government. When Frodo offers her the Ring, this ambition comes back, stronger than ever, enhanced by the will to defeat Sauron. But she understands that it’s not how things work, she understands her role is no longer in Middle earth ; she gives up on her ambition and humbly accepts her fate, and can thus return to Valinor.

Galadriel is not a flawless character ; she’s very complex and her motives deal with fundamental questions, theological and philosophical, and that’s what makes this character so fascinating and the story so enthralling.

In extremely later texts, Tolkien altered the story of Galadriel, and questioned the idea of the ban of the Valar and her motives to leave Valinor, but that’s another point. Actually many other things could be said about Galadriel and the parallels we can draw between her and Finrod, or even Fëanor, about redemption in Arda, etc. but I think we should leave it at that for the moment.

[Feel free to react, comment, to leave a feedback, to correct me or disagree with me – just remember to be polite and respectful. Thank you!]

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