Mind-Reading and Telepathy in Middle-earth – Comparing Galadriel to Melkor?

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.

Camera: Argus C3 Film: Eastman 5222

Camera: Argus C3
Film: Eastman 5222

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)

10 thoughts on “Mind-Reading and Telepathy in Middle-earth – Comparing Galadriel to Melkor?

  1. Interesting. Extrapolating this, Valinor Elves probably have some facility with this, which would explain Feanor’s epic success in rousing the rabble to join him in Exile. I suppose ruling Elves would benefit at some points in their administration from some of this mindwarping. but then, wouldn’t this mean the Maiar and Valar have this tool in the arsenal as well? Though it seemed Manwe ran a stiffly moralistic ship. Pity, at the weaponised level that it probably manifest for them, wielding it (judiciously of course) could have saved Middle-earth and himself a ton of heartache and awkwardness. But, that would come with its own neat package of slippery slopes.

    OT: The mechanics probably is something the Jedi referenced with their mind-tricking 😛

    • The Valar totally do this all the time. Especially with dreams. Gandalf too. But yeah, they mostly held back to let the Elves take care of their Morgoth problem. Mostly.

      *these are not the Silmarils you’re looking for*

      • Aside from dreams, none of them did much overtly right? Only Ulmo had the gumption to go with his gut feels and DO things and to hell with majority vote counts.

        The Elves had more gumption on the whole, thanks in no small part to Feanor, than the Valar to deal with the bad applr in the Ainur creche. That says a lot.

        • Yeah, pretty much just Ulmo when it came to actually doing stuff. As far as weaponizing mental powers, it just doesn’t seem like it was even possible in Tolkien’s world. Morgoth came closest to pulling it off with the Orcs, but he had to create/alter/whatever beings in order to make this happen.

          It does say a lot about Feanor. And you can’t even say that if Feanor hadn’t rebelled, none of this would have happened. Morgoth was going to be Morgoth regardless of Feanor. Now, things could have been better had Feanor not been all dickish, but I’m just Monday morning quarterbacking at this point.

  2. Funny as well how Morgoth came across as a benevolent giver of gifts and after accessing their minds Galadriel gave the fellowship gifts that obviously meant a lot to them, bearing in mind also Sam’s gift after the “bit of a garden of my own” thought.

    • Morgoth was called the Giver of Gifts, but so was Sauron, as Annatar – we even get a story behind it (mostly in Unfinished Tales, if my memory isn’t shot from too many Christmas cookies).

      Your connection with the gifts is interesting. There’s so much you could do with them had she been a touch more like Sauron, say, if she had taken the Ring. If she had become the Dark Queen, then the soil given to Sam becomes something hideous, and Frodo’s vial… well, I guess that would still be a small part of the Silmarils, but maybe she’d want it back or something. It also seems like she had no idea what to get Boromir, Merry and Pippin, so since Lothlórien clearly had a belt surplus, that’s what hey got. She gave Gimli her hair to get back at Fëanor, and gave Legolas a bow because shut up and go away, Leggy. As for Aragorn, he would have followed Galadriel no matter what she was.

        • I wish someone would do a fanfic from the Elves’ point of view of the whole gift giving scene. The line “to hell with it, the rest are getting belts!” has to appear.

  3. As for weaponizing mental powers well Gandalf apparently strove with will of Sauron:

    “Very nearly it [One Ring] was revealed to the Enemy, but it escaped. I had some part in that: for I sat in a high place, and I strove with the Dark Tower; and the Shadow passed. Then I was weary, very weary; and I walked long in dark thought”

    “The two powers strove in him. For a moment, perfectly balanced between their piercing points, he whithered, tormented. Suddenly, he was aware of himself again. Frodo, neither the Voice nor the Eye: free to choose, and with one remaining instant in which to do so. He took the Ring off his finger. He was kneeling in clear sunlight before the high seat. A black shadow seemed to pass like an arm above him; it missed Amon Hen and groped out west, and faded. Then all the sky was clean and blue and birds sang in every tree.”

    The shadow is of course power of Sauron or the expression of his will (in general Sauron is ‘master of shadows and of phantoms’). Through palantiri also such straining contest of wills would take place. According to the essay about telepathy, the ”degree of will on both parties needs not to be the same”, if the other mind is simply open, or does not actively resist it seems that some mental probing could take place, after all the knowledge that can be get that way is as complete as any that can be obtained as essay says again.
    From the essay we read that nothing can penetrate the barrier of unwill, that the greater the power of pressure the greater the resistance, but technically if enough pressure would be given towards one mind to cause torment to it, then wouldn’t it be possible that some would simply…gve up, cease resisting and so in fact open mind by the act of their very will just to escape the torment and some would be fixed in their resistance (if indeed the great mind forcing itself on the other is felt as a great pressure)? I don’t know maybe I’m misinterpreting here. There is also curious statement, that the will to communicate with spoken language is also the will to transfer of thought and opens mind.

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