And so we come at last to the forest of Lothlorien and to that most enigmatic and compelling Tolkien creation, the Lady Galadriel.
Sadness greets us almost as soon as we enter the forest of Lothlorien. We as readers are still haunted by the devastating loss of Gandalf in Moria, and here we get a glimpse of the sadness that seems to permeate all aspects of the Elven way of life, when Legolas sings the melancholy song of Nimrodel. Sung as they hear the waters and their pure sound, the song nevertheless reminds the Company, and the reader, of the perpetual presence of sadness and mourning.
The last line of this first chapter is easily one of the most devastating that I have ever encountered. Aragorn (we learn the full details later), is clearly here remembering the days when he met Arwen, the love of his life and the Elf who will give up her immortality to spend her life with him. In this beautiful wood, he can reclaim, at least for a brief, heightened moment, the youth that he possessed in that faraway day. Yet this optimistic vision is quickly followed by the last line in the chapter: “And taking Frodo’s hand in his, he left the hill of Cerin Amroth and came there never again as living man.” Truly, truly heartbreaking.
It is in the Lothlorien chapters that we get what is perhaps the strongest indication of the vast backdrop of the history of the Elves. Further, we also get a sense of the tense relationship between Elves and Dwarves, and while the causes of that rift are left largely alluded to rather than explicit, the Elves’ intense distrust of Gimli heighten the sense that this is a world that is harshly and sometimes irresolvably divided and fractured (though, of course, Gimli does gain the trust of Legolas and requests the three golden hairs from Galadriel’s shining head, so perhaps there is a glimmer of hope after all).
Just as interesting, however, is the fraught and complex relationship between the Elves and time. Verlyn Flieger (one of my all-time favourite Tolkien scholars) has written extensively on Tolkien’s relationship to time, and to that I will just add that these chapters bring to the fore the perilous and ultimately tragic nature of immortality. It is the one thing that humanity desires the most, and yet for the Elves, who possess it, it is a burden. They are condemned to watch the world they often love so deeply decline, and even the powerful among them must diminish and go into the West.
In that sense, the Elves seem to transcend history, or at least to live alongside it. Yet it is precisely their position outside of history that gives them such an acute awareness of the frailties of humankind. They possess the sense of vast perspective that their mortal counterparts seem to lack, for they remember much that even the highest of the races of men, such as those in Gondor, have lost in the mists of time. Yet this too seems to be a part of their curse, for though they seem to be some of the few that can learn the lessons of history, they also remain mostly powerless to change it. History, for Tolkien, is one long march toward defeat (a point that Flieger also makes).
And then we have Galadriel, in whom these issues of time find their fullest expression. As the one who has command of the Mirror, she has a stronger sense than almost anyone else of the power inherent in the commingling of past, present, and future. She warns both Frodo and Sam of the perils and potentials of this seeming mastery of time, and it is again one of those terrifying moments when we as readers suffer along with the characters, uncertain as to whether Sam would be better off leaving to return to the Shire or whether he should continue on with the Quest. As it turns out, either choice could have turned out ill, and it this sense of indeterminacy that gives time, and history, so much of its terrifying allure.
The intricate temporal construction of this chapter leaves us as readers feeling more than slightly bereft. Just as Frodo and Aragorn will never come again to this place where the spirit of the Elves of old still lives on, so can we not regain that original feeling we had upon reading The Lord of the Rings for the first time. Or, to be somewhat more precise, while we can return to that world by re-reading the book (of course), we can never precisely replicate that same sense of wonder and joy that we had when we first encountered Tolkien’s wonderful creation (though we can, of course, find variants of it in our numerous re-readings). It is a large part of Tolkien’s masterful genius that he can give us new joys each and every time we read his work.
Next up, we continue the journey down the River Anduin and the tragic events that lead to the breaking of the Fellowship.