‘A Ban Was Set Upon Her Return’ – Tolkien Reinterprets His Own Writing

“After the overthrow of Morgoth at the end of the First Age a ban was set upon her return, and she had replied proudly that she had no wish to do so.” – from The Road Goes Ever On: A Song Cycle, published 1968.

We learn in the Silmarillion that the Noldor, including Galadriel, had been banned from returning to Valinor. After the First Age, however, this ban was lifted and nearly all of them returned. Galadriel, however, was unwilling to “forsake the Hither Lands where they had long suffered and long dwelt.”

These two statements are in full contradiction with each other. Was Galadriel unwilling to return to Valinor because she simply wished to live in Middle-earth, or was she specifically banned from re-entering Valinor, and boastful of the fact?

They are simply irreconcilable. So let’s take a look at each.

Writing through the 1940s and 50s in both the Lord of the Rings and what would later be published in the Silmarillion, Tolkien maintained that Galadriel and the rest of the Noldor had been allowed to return to Valinor. In the late 60s, however, he changed his mind.

But he couldn’t simply rewrite this portion of Lord of the Rings. And though he could have done so with his unpublished Silmarillion stories, he instead chose to explain that such a ban had always existed in an apparently unmentioned state.

In an August 1967 letter (No. 297), Tolkien explained the missing link between these two statements:

The Exiles were allowed to return—save for a few chief actors in the rebellion, of whom at the time of The Lord of the Rings only Galadriel remained. At the time of her Lament in Lórien she believed this to be perennial, as long as the Earth endured. Hence she concludes her lament with a wish or prayer that Frodo may as a special grace be granted a purgatorial (but not penal) sojourn in Eressëa, the solitary isle in sight of Aman, though for her the way is closed.

These mentions of the ban of Galadriel date from around 1967. This was the first he wrote about her in almost a decade, allowing her story to remain unchanged through those years. Yet for some reason or another, when he revisited her Lament for The Road Goes Ever On, he saw something new in what he wrote.

No longer did Galadriel simply wish to remain in Middle-earth despite being pardoned by the Valar. She was now ruled by them to be unfit to return. He thought not only of her Lament, but of what he had written in the Silmarillion writings of the 1950s.

He stated in the above letter that Galadriel had been one of the “chief actors in the rebellion”. This is hinted at in the published Silmarillion, but is fairly downplayed. She swore no oath as Fëanor had, and she didn’t really seem to be all that influential in convincing other Noldor to leave. We’re told that she wanted to see the world and “rule there a realm of her own.”

While this, in Tolkien’s world, is not a good quality, it certainly didn’t seem like she was one of the “chief actors in the rebellion” – a classification that would befit only Fëanor and his sons. And while they had all died prior to Valar’s forgiveness of the Exiles, it seems pretty clear that, in the earlier writings, Galadriel had been forgiven but chose to remain despite that forgiveness. Now we are told that not only was she unforgiven, but also specifically banned.

So what gives? Why did Tolkien make this change? Honestly, I think it just makes more sense.

If Galadriel had been allowed to return and brushed it aside with a “thanks, but no thanks,” it seems almost pointless. However, if, as Tolkien reiterated in a 1971 letter (No. 320): “Galadriel was a penitent: in her youth a leader in the rebellion against the Valar (the angelic guardians). At the end of the First Age she proudly refused forgiveness or permission to return. She was pardoned because of her resistance to the final and overwhelming temptation to take the Ring for herself.”

The redemption of Galadriel is a much more compelling story than the wishy-washy Lord of the Rings/Silmarillion version. What’s best is that this new detail – the ban – can easily be applied to both with only a little stretch.

Furthermore, in the late 1960s, it was only the Lord of the Rings that was published. The Silmarillion would not ever be finished and would be compiled without his help after his death. The story of the Ban of Galadriel easily fits into the framework of everything we know about her from Lord of the Rings.

It’s a much more tenuous fit, however, in the published Silmarillion, which is why Christopher Tolkien left it out when compiling it. But his father actually built upon it, changing much of what he had already written about Galadriel in the Silmarillion stories, written in the late 1950s.

The publication of The Road Goes Ever On: A Song Cycle in 1968 made the Ban of Galadriel part of the canon. It was the only thing about the ban that he published in his lifetime. It was also the first time the ban was mentioned. And according to his son, it was the first time he thought of it.

In Unfinished Tales Christopher Tolkien wrote: “This statement [of the ban], very positive in itself, does not however demonstrate that the conception of a ban on Galadriel’s return into the West was present when the chapter ‘Farewell to Lórien’ was composed, many years before; and I am inclined to think that it was not.”

So this begs the question: is the Ban of Galadriel canon? Does something Tolkien wrote in a note in a strange little out of print book about his songs dictate what should be accepted as a fact? Oddly enough, I think the answer is yes. But I think it needs to be stressed that context is key. The reader should remember that it was not Tolkien’s thinking when he wrote and published Lord of the Rings. Neither was it his thinking when he wrote the Galadriel bits of the published Silmarillion. But since this statement in The Road Goes Ever On was written by him and published within his lifetime, I don’t see a choice but to accept it – the Valar definitely had a ban against Galadriel’s return.

When it was published in the late 60s, it was most certainly a new thought, but this new thought caused him to return again to Galadriel not long after. He would take her rebellion and subsequent ban a step farther when he sat down once more to write about her life. We’ll get to that in our next post.

Camera: Ansco Color Clipper Film: Kodak Portra 160NC (expired 04/2003)

Camera: Ansco Color Clipper
Film: Kodak Portra 160NC (expired 04/2003)

A Few Notes

  • The Road Goes Ever On: A Song Cycle is now out of print. The used copies are usually saltier than I wish, but it’s something that I really wish I had.
  • Though he would run with the ban for a few years, Tolkien would rethink it once again in the weeks before his death causing us to question again whether it would have remained canon if he had lived another year or so.

About the Photo
If only I had a photo of a gate barring access to the beach! This will have to do, though. It was taken at Dry Falls in central Washington.

  • Miles today: 10
  • Miles thus far: 1074 (160 miles since leaving Lothlórien)
  • 229 miles to the Falls of Rauros
  • 699 miles to Mt. Doom

Book II, Chapter 8, Farewell to Lórien. Drifting down the Anduin, February 19, 3019 TA. (map)


6 thoughts on “‘A Ban Was Set Upon Her Return’ – Tolkien Reinterprets His Own Writing

  1. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, this Galadriel would be so much more awesome than the wafting paragon in LotR. I can see how she might be a chief instigator in the rebellion – perhaps she was the one who really persuaded those of her cousins and siblings to go along, and caused Finarfin to tag along, even though he turned back.

    I do find it more interesting that despite the carnage of the kinslaying, she and her brothers continued to be ok with the Fëanorians as travel-mates. Something deep going on there.

    • She just keeps getting better, doesn’t she? Don’t worry – that will end soon.

      I really do like this version of her. Like I said, it just makes sense. It’s interesting that, for the most part, this new version doesn’t contradict what little is said in LotR. Sure, it contradicts the Silmarillion, but that wasn’t published. This is a lovely return. It even makes the Lament and the “passed the test” bit actually make sense.

      And yeah, it seems like everything else remained the same – the Fëanor bits as well as the Kinslaying, etc etc. That would change soon, too. What’s most shocking is how close in time these changes came to each other. But first, she gets darker. I love it!

  2. Another great post Eric. I’ve been catching up today and you’ve really rounded Galadriel out with all of your research. She is a fascinating character and because she is a principle part of the story of the Ring, her fate is bound to much that happens before and after the Ring.

    I have always wondered what an amazing scene it would have been if Peter Jackson had added Galadriel and Celeborn’s assault on Dol Guldur.

    But I jump ahead. I look forward to the next installment.


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