In the Lothlórien chapters, we’re told of Galadriel’s mental abilities of telepathy and mind-reading. Since these are “slippery slope” areas, potentially fraught with the dangers of over-reach and mal-intent, I thought I’d take a closer look at her actions and how it relates to the rest of Tolkien’s work. This is by no means an exhaustive treatise on telepathy in Tolkien’s writings – Tolkien himself did this in an essay entitled Ósanwe-kenta – but rather, a closer look at Galadriel.
We might start by taking a look at mind reading vs. telepathy, as it appears that Galadriel had the ability to do both. Mind reading, by definition, is invasive and could be done against the will of the person whose mind is being read. Telepathy, on the other hand, is simply mental communication between two willing minds.
Our first taste of this with Galadriel is when the Fellowship arrived in Lothlórien (as discussed here). She tried to reach Gandalf with her mind, but could not see him. This was an attempt at telepathy. But there’s also her interaction with Fellowship themselves, a sort of conversation where she offered each something they wanted. Sam described it as feeling “as if I hadn’t got nothing on.”
“She seemed to be looking inside me and asking me what I would do if she gave me the chance of flying back home to the Shire to a nice little hole with — with a bit of garden of my own.”
Boromir, especially, had a problem with this. “Maybe it was only a test, and she thought to read our thoughts for her own good purpose; but almost I should have said that she was tempting us, and offering what she pretended to have the power to give.” He refused to listen and the communication was cut.
On the surface, this appears to be a good example of mind-reading, an attempt to read the Fellowship’s thoughts (I’m going to assume that Boromir was being polite when he called her own purpose “good”) against their will. But was it really?
A fine and clear example of telepathy immediately comes to mind – this, from the end of the book, after the One Ring is destroyed. We’re told that Celeborn, Galadriel, Gandalf and Elrond would sit under the stars and communicate with each other about the old days.
“If any wanderer had chanced to pass, little would he have seen or heard, and it would have seemed to him only that he saw grey figures, carved in stone, memorials of forgotten things now lost in unpeopled lands. For they did not move or speak with mouth, looking from mind to mind; and only their shining eyes stirred and kindled as their thoughts went to and fro.
This, of course, is fully consensual telepathy – just another form of communication. This was similar to when Gandalf had spoken to Frodo with his mind, telling him not to put on the Ring. It was also what Galadriel was trying to do when trying to reach Gandalf as the Fellowship first arrived. This all seems a bit innocent compared to what she attempted to do to the Fellowship themselves. Was she trying to break open their minds to see their caramel and nougatty centers? It wouldn’t be such a stretch to think so, but Tolkien, it seems, would disagree.
In his Ósanwe-kenta essay, he talks about the communication of thoughts, addressing both consensual telepathy and forceful mind-reading. Telepathy was the original form of communication between Illuvatar and all minds. All minds (sámar) “are equal in status, though they differ in capacity and strength.” By nature, one mind will perceive another mind, and be able to tell that it’s a mind. However, that mind cannot perceive more than that “except by the will of both parties.”
We’re told that it’s possible, if both are open, for one to speak to another just like in normal communication. This explains the silent conversation between Gandalf and the Elves from above, but it also seems to cover the worries expressed by Sam and Boromir. Still, it’s obvious they’re not the same.
The stories that were told in the Silmarillion seem to indicate that Melkor (Morgoth, Sauron’s master) penetrated the minds of the Valar and Elves, deceiving them while closing his own mind to them. This might be what it seems, but, as Tolkien explains in this same essay, they (and apparently we readers) were deceived.
He contends that forcing the barrier of the mind is únat (“a thing impossible to be or to be done”). On top of this natural law, there was also an axan (basically a commandment from Illuvatar) that “none shall directly by force or indirectly by fraud take from another what he has a right to hold and keep as his own.” This apparently included thoughts.
Melkor, however, didn’t exactly follow the rules. We’re told that he “repudiated all axani” and “would also abolish (for himself) all únati if he could.” So yes, while Melkor wished that there were no rules, and broke whatever rules he could, there were some that he simply couldn’t break. One of those rules was mind-reading.
He tried to break down this barrier by force of will and fear, but found that they didn’t work. Instead, “he would come by stealth to a mind open and unwary, hoping to learn some part of its thought before it closed, and still more to implant in it his own thought, to deceive it and win it to his friendship.” To do this, he would seem to become a benevolent giver of gifts, a friend with a special love for his target. He would instill this false trust and in that way be able to convince the mind to open to him.
This seems eerily similar to how Galadriel was acting toward the Fellowship. She most definitely used stealth to speak to their open and unwary minds, and did learn things before it was closed. Of course, she didn’t implant her own thoughts or really deceive them to win their friendship, but that wasn’t her purpose. She wanted to learn more about them and was able to do so. It seems like only Boromir closed the connection.
Now, obviously Galadriel wasn’t evil, but, as we’ve seen through the past couple weeks worth of posts about her, she had a clouded side (at best). This was not a fully consensual, two-way conversation. She didn’t (and couldn’t) read their minds, but this Melkor-like trick worked well enough to suit her needs.
Galadriel seemed to be walking a very questionable line along the axan, the commandment from Illuvatar, that “none shall directly by force or indirectly by fraud take from another what he has a right to hold and keep as his own.” While Melkor happily crossed it and was angered that he could not do more, Galadriel seemed to do it without hesitation, but for what appeared to be a better end.
A Few Notes
- The Ósanwe-kenta essay does not appear in the History of Middle-earth series. No idea why. You can read an annotated version of it here (it’s a PDF).
- While poking around online to see different takes on mind-reading in Tolkien’s works, I came across way too many conversations about “real world” mind-reading vs. Tolkien’s mind-reading. They would compare the two and critique Tolkien on how he didn’t get it right. Seriously come on, people. Super seriously. Come on.
About the Photo
Starting automatically is right! Both Melkor and Galadriel automatically started compressing (oppressing?) the minds of their targets. Be super careful.
- Miles today: 10
- Miles thus far: 1134 (220 miles since leaving Lothlórien)
- 169 miles to the Falls of Rauros
- 639 miles to Mt. Doom
Book II, Chapter 8, Farewell to Lórien. Drifting down the Anduin, February 20, 3019 TA. (map)