‘I pass the test,’ she said. ‘I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.’
After refusing the take the One Ring from Frodo, Galadriel breathed a big ol’ sigh of relief. She had passed some kind of test or something and would apparently live out her days as a typical Elf (more or less).
This whole thing is interesting and a bit tricky. While it’s tempting to recall that Galadriel was banned by the Valar from returning to the West, at the time this passage was written (and even after Lord of the Rings was published) this specific ban did not yet exist in Tolkien’s writing. While it’s true that the Noldar had been banned by the Valar from coming back to Valinor after the whole kinslaying thing, after a bit of paper shuffling and the War of Wrath, that ban was rescinded. Everyone who was still alive was pardoned, and most went back.
That is, except Galadriel and Gil-galad (and a relative handful of others). In the Silmarillion we learn that she willingly chose to remain in Middle-earth after all of her kin had returned to the West. Having refused the pardon, it’s not said (or really implied) that she was then barred from ever going back to Valinor.
Especially at the time when Tolkien wrote the Lord of the Rings and its Appendices, he made no mention at all of a ban on Galadriel. Christopher Tolkien, writing in Unfinished Tales believes that it had not yet come about – and wouldn’t until a decade or so later.
So if the test wasn’t something set up by the Valar to see if Galadriel was able to return to the West, what was it?
Since she was not banned from returning to Valinor, the test she passed was simply the refusing of the One Ring. Taking possession of Sauron’s Ring was something which she had day dreamed about for years and years. If she had taken it, there’s no way she could have returned to Valinor, just as there would have been no way for her to remain Galadriel. And obviously, since she didn’t take it, those things were possible, if not inevitable. But she had to come face to face with the One Ring in order to prove to herself that she could refuse it.
However (and this is a huge however), the water isn’t so clear about this. Just because Tolkien never spoke of a ban against Galadriel’s return to Valinor, that doesn’t mean that she thought she could simply waltz back in. What was barring her way was, more than anything, her ignorance of whether or not she could even get back.
Right as the Fellowship was leaving Lothlórien, Galadriel sang a couple of songs. The first, which can be read here, gives us some interesting clues as to how Galadriel had created and was maintaining Lothlórien: by singing stuff into existence.
It was her own mirror of Valinor on Middle-earth conjured up by a song. In it, she compares Valinor to Lothlórien, but tells of the coming of winter – something Valinor never had to deal with. And while she could create all everyone saw around them – the leaves of gold, the wind – she could not sing up a ship to take her to the West.
But if of ships I now should sing, what ship would come to me,
What ship would bear me ever back across so wide a Sea?
And so even though she passed the test, she wasn’t certain that she could go back by her own designs (and actually seemed pretty certain that she couldn’t).
This theme is taken even further in her following song in which she laments that the years have slipped away from her like too much drink.
Who now shall refill the cup for me?
Galadriel’s cup was near empty, and she could no longer refill it herself. Lothlórien, it seems, was not sustainable, even by her own Ring of Power. No matter what happened to Sauron’s One Ring, whether it was destroyed or found by Sauron, her time was coming to an end. The best case scenario was that she and those Elves around her would “dwindle to a rustic folk of dell and cave, slowly to forget and to be forgotten.”
…all paths are drowned deep in shadow; and out of a grey country darkness lies on the foaming waves between us, she sang of Valinor. Galadriel felt shut out, closed off from the West, and it’s not really certain that she was humble enough to accept her part in it. She sang as if this was being done to her. The ways were blocked because “Varda, the Queen of the Stars, from Mount Everwhite has uplifted her hands like clouds….”
Varda was Elbereth, Queen of the Valar. After the Noldor (including Galadriel) fled Valinor, as Tolkien explained in The Road Goes Ever On, “Varda lifted up her hands, in obedience to the decree of Manwë, and summoned up the dark shadows which engulfed the shore and the mountains and last of all the fana (figure) of Varda with her hands turned eastward in rejection, standing white upon Oilosse.”
And yet, there’s no mention at all of a ban. Neither Galadriel nor Tolkien mention it at all in any of Lord of the Rings. He would later decide that there was a ban, after all, but when he wrote this, there was no such idea. Galadriel’s reason for not returning to the West was fully her own.
In closing, she sang specifically to Frodo: Now lost, lost to those from the East is Valimar! Farewell! Maybe thou shalt find Valimar. Maybe even thou shalt find it. Farewell!
Here use of “thou,” second person singular, was speaking directly to Frodo. And “maybe” was really a bit more certain, like “May it be that you, Frodo, will find Valinor.” And of course, he did.
And of course, she did, too. But that’s a different story. Mostly.
A Few Notes
- Sometimes I feel like I’m rehashing things or flogging a dead Shaddowfax. But really, I think that though I’m repeating some things, it’s necessary to proving the point.
- So much of this is explained in The Road Goes Ever On: A Song Cycle, and I really wish I’d have a copy of it. Salty, though it is!
- I suppose it’s possible that Galadriel immediately knew she was going to go back to Valinor, but decided to serenade Frodo and friends with a couple of her golden oldies.
About the Photo
Looking west from some shore (probably the Grey Havens or something) toward some distance place (totally Valinor). Here, you can see Varda’s cloudy hands drowning everything in shadow. Promise.
- Miles today: 10
- Miles thus far: 1014 (100 miles away from Lothlórien)
- 289 miles to the Falls of Rauros
- 759 miles to Mt. Doom
Book II, Chapter 8, Farewell to Lórien. Drifting down the Anduin, February 18, 3019 TA. (map)