Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Golden Wood and the Silver Tree, Relationships Between the Immortals of Middle Earth

In class we discussed at length the role that love plays throughout Middle Earth in its various forms. However, every example of love that was discussed in class involved mortals. It was brought up that perhaps mortals are able to love more passionately or even love at all due to their finite existences when compared to immortals, who are often not mentioned within the story as having a spouse (Gandalf, Saruman, Sauron) or whose relationship with their spouse is not explored very thoroughly, either due to departure to the Grey Havens (Elrond’s wife) or due to narrative momentum (Galadriel and Celeborn, Tom Bombadil and Goldberry) Galadriel’s husband in particular is interesting in that, almost every reader of Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion can barely remember what he was there for, but Tolkien takes the pains to describe him as Galadriel’s equal and distaff counterpart in every way. By taking a closer look at Galadriel’s “great love” with her husband, Celeborn, perhaps we can gain a greater understanding of how immortal relationships work and thrive in Middle Earth.

Galadriel and her husband are portrayed very interestingly within both the Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion. They are treated as equals in almost every way. One of the first things Tolkien notes about the pair when introducing them in Lord of the Rings is their similar extreme height. In the Silmarillion, they are often introduced as “wedded to the Lady Galadriel” or “with Galadriel [Celeborn’s] wife” in an alternating fashion. They are consistently referred to as co-rulers of Lothlorien, and although Celeborn is often forgotten by Lord of the Rings readers, as Galadriel takes center stage in the following events of the story, he is actually introduced first, both in the Lord of the Rings proper, and in the list of Eldalie who remained in Middle-earth in the Silmarillion, “Celeborn of Doriath, with Galadriel his wife”.

While Galadriel and Celeborn are introduced and referred to as equals throughout the story, they are also presented as visually and narratively symmetric and opposite. While Galadriel is known for her deep gold hair, to the point that Gimli asks her for a strand, Lord Celeborn’s hair is described as “silver long and bright” (LotR, bk2 ch7). Celeborn is the one who recognizes and greets aloud every member of the Fellowship, while Galadriel “said no word but looked long upon [Frodo’s] face”.  Even their hall is described as a mix of both the Lord and the Lady, as, “The chamber was filled with a sof light; its walls were green and silver and its roof gold”. Finally, while Galadriel is the Lady of the “Golden Wood”, Celeborn’s name literally means “silver tree” (combining “celeb”, silver and “orne”, tree) or “silver-tall’ (‘orn’ or ‘orna, tall). This level of symmetry and complement is not as overtly seen in the mortal relationships in the Lord of the Rings. While we have the Elf/Dwarf or Elf/Human and Tree/Jewel symmetry in relationships like Legolas and Gimli and Aragorn and Arwen, there is not so much literal mirroring as with Galadriel and Celeborn, which serves to elevate their characters from the romance of the mortal relationships to something far more mythical, evoking the sun/moon symmetry between pantheons of gods found in other mythologies.

It is interesting to note that there are actually two entities in Middle Earth named Celeborn, the ‘Tree of Silver’, a seedling of the tree Galathilion and the ancestor of the White Trees of Numenor and Gondor, and Galadriel’s husband and co-ruler of Lothlorien. This may connect to Galadriel’s love of trees and her role as the Lady of the Wood. In the Silmarillion, it’s mentioned that a seedling of Celeborn was brought by the Firstborn as a gift to Numenor, later flourishing into fragrant white groves of trees, growing into the White Trees of Numenor. Celeborn the literal ‘Tree of Silver’ not only mirrors Celeborn, Galadriel’s husband’s, noted silver hair, but also his role as a ‘ruler’ over generations of white trees throughout Middle Earth, as the progenitor of all the famous White Trees, as the Silver Tree to Galadriel’s Golden Wood.

Indeed, many of the loves of the more powerful immortal characters seem to connect to a deeper character motif for the character themselves. It’s mentioned in the Silmarillion that Morgoth, when Luthien dances to distract Morgoth, that Morgoth, “conceived in his thought an evil lust, and a design more dark than any that had yet come into his hard since he fled from Valinor” In another version of Tolkien’s legendarium, in which he tries to reconceive Middle Earth as a round world and rewrite the story of the sun, he mentions, “Melkor could not ‘beget’, or have any spouse (though he attempted to ravish Arien, this was to destroy and ‘distain’ her, not to beget fiery offspring)” (History of Middle Earth vol. 10). This attack results in the loss of Arien, which leads to a wandering, guide-less sun in Middle Earth, creating deserts where it wandered too close and forever blackens Morgoth, causing him to shun the light. These examples of Melkor’s ‘loves’ connect to his character motif of corruption and evil, as he twists the pure love that other characters in Middle Earth champion into a dark lust that is used to subjugate and humiliate other characters.

It’s worth examining the fact that despite the Silmarillion describing the relationship between Galadriel and Celeborn as a “great love”, their love has nowhere near the drama or romance of mortal loves like Aragorn and Arwen. In the Lord of the Rings, they are not described touching a single time throughout the scenes they are in, simply operating side-by-side. Whereas, Arwen’s despair at Aragorn passing away is described:

But Arwen went forth from the House, and the light of her eyes was quenched, and it seemed to her people that she had become cold and grey as nightfall in winter that comes without a star. Then she said farewell to Eldarion, and to her daughters, and to all whom she had loved; and she went out from the city of Minas Tirith and passed away to the land of Lórien, and dwelt there alone under the fading trees until winter came. Galadriel had passed away and Celeborn also was gone, and the land was silent.

This level of despair and emotion is not at all present between Galadriel and Celeborn, because as Galadriel passes to the Grey Havens with Gandalf and Frodo, Celeborn stays behind for quite a while, growing weary of his lands and moving to Rivendell to live with his grandsons, the sons of Elrond. He is mentioned in the prologue to be the very last one with living memory of the Elder Days in Middle earth to depart to the Grey Havens. There is no mention of a similar despair or grief as Celeborn is left behind. There isn’t even a clear record of when he leaves for the Grey Havens to join Galadriel, or why he chose to stay behind for a time. Maybe the reason why the immortal relationships in Middle Earth are treated with such lack of passion when compared to the mortal ones is due to the mortality we discussed in class. Because the immortal characters are able to be safe in the knowledge that they can always rejoin each other in the Grey Havens and have spent an eternity in each other’s company, their reactions to each other and their parting end up being less dramatic when compared to Aragorn and Arwen. They also seem to represent more mythological roles in their relationships, reflecting motifs and symbols key to their characterizations, much like the relationships between gods in Greek or Norse mythology.



  1. There seems to be a tendency to brush aside the relationship between Galadriel and Celeborn as insignificant since it lacks drama and “flashiness” in comparison to the other relationships in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. On a somewhat related side note, I feel like this tendency has been exacerbated by the fact that the majority of Celeborn’s scenes with substance were cut from the theatrical editions of the LotR movies (and now only exist in the extended editions), which unfortunately trivializes both Celeborn and his relationship with Galadriel, so I’m happy to see these two characters and their relationship getting more attention here. I like the point you make in the last section of your post, and hopefully I can add a bit to it. As you noted, Tolkien described the relationship between Celeborn and Galadriel as a “great love.” In addition to that, their relationship contains all the hallmarks of a grand “HEA”: both are wise, powerful, otherworldly beautiful, rulers, immortal, and have been together for thousands of years. It is almost literally a fairytale romance, yet you’d never guess based solely on the interactions that are described between the two. Galadriel and Celeborn are far less visibly demonstrative than the mortal/immortal pairs that we discussed. This is usually chalked up to the length of their relationship and the lack of urgency bestowed by immortality, but I wonder if there is something more to it. In our world, couples that have been together for decades are generally less flamboyant than new couples, but the quiet affections that replace dramatic actions are still quite visible. However, even this quiet affection is absent from Galadriel’s and Celeborn’s portrayal in the books - mere lack of urgency cannot explain this, for a lack of urgency does not equate a lack of passion and feeling. There is no doubt that Celeborn and Galadriel love each other deeply, but something of the elves’ nature prevents them from attaining the same visible depth of emotion that mortal relationships display. Part of it may be societal – perhaps overly public displays of affection are frowned upon in elven society. Part of it may be personality – neither Galadriel nor Celeborn come off as the type to make grandiose gestures in the name of love. Perhaps part of it has to do with the way that the elves have been linked to Arda and were born loving the beauty of Arda. All-consuming love is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot in romance as both an ideal and something to be avoided. When applied to the relationships of elves and men, men can achieve all-consuming love because they can choose to give themselves wholeheartedly to another individual. In contrast, elves cannot do this because part of themselves will always remain bound to Arda. This is a poor comparison, but I imagine the elves’ relationship with Arda to at times be like the relationship between a genius and their craft. The genius devotes themselves to their craft to such a point that all other relationships can at best hope to be secondary. Similarly, the elves have been made to be so tied to Arda that their love for it surpasses any other loves that they may have.

  2. Lovely reflection on the symmetry in Celeborn's and Galadriel's relationship and the imagery associated with them. Like M.Lee, I would have liked to hear more about what Tolkien's description of this "great love" teaches us about love. I was struck in our conversation in class by what we discovered about the relationship between mortality and love--sorrow and joy. It is interesting that Tolkien does not introduce this motif into Galadriel and Celeborn's relationship. RLFB

  3. I think that balance is a huge part of The Lord of the Rings, both in characters and the way they interact with each other. Mortals, like normal people in real life, have drama and problems in their relationships because time is such a huge factor. For immortal creatures, like elves, it’s not. I think the most important characteristic of love in the story is balance. For characters like Galadriel and Celeborn, who are both extremely powerful and important, love and balance end up being the same. Their great love could just be a mortal way of describing what cannot really be described beyond being perfect balance. These two seem to be two halves of a whole. They compliment each other perfectly in name, physical appearance, power, and practically everything else. This balance of power and love creates stability—which is really what a loving relationship provides for mortals as well, or what the partners both strive for. Look at Arwen and Aragorn, they have a great love, but also do their best to balance each other out. The “one half of a whole” concept is something that mortal couples strive for, but that immortal couples naturally gain because they are immortal.