Skip to comments.[Analysis: Tolkien/Lord Of The Rings] Speaking of Legolas...
Posted on 11/17/2002 9:27:52 AM PST by JameRetief
Speaking of Legolas...
I decided to set myself a challenge and write something about Legolas which hasn't been said before. There seems to be a lot of curiosity about this Elf. People want to know all sorts of things about him, such as what color was his hair, who was his mother, when was he born, was he at the Battle of Five Armies?
If someone were to produce a television series based on the Fellowship of the Ring (the company, not the book), they would have to come up with their own history for Legolas. The inevitable exploration of each character's background would result in episodes where Gandalf first learns that Middle-earth is dangerous even for Maiar (say, within a year after he steps off the boat); where Aragorn tracks down his first Orc; where Gimli learns to cope with being the son of Gloin; where Frodo remembers the day his parents drowned; where Pippin watches as his sister Pearl takes Lalia the Fat for her last ray of sunshine; where Merry goes into the Old Forest for the first time; where Sam capers about with Rosie Cotton and her brothers, and he first realizes he loves her; and where Boromir tries to come to terms with the fact that he'll never be King of Gondor.
What would Legolas' past conflict be? What sort of experience would an immortal Wood-elf have such that it would help define the character of Legolas as he revealed himself to the Fellowship? There is really only one moment of doubt for Legolas in the story that Tolkien did tell us. That was when he recognized the Balrog. That is not to say Legolas was always sure of what to do. In typical Elf fashion he does not give Aragorn clear advice on what to do when they and Gimli are pursuing the Orcs which have seized Merry and Pippin. "My heart bids me go on," he says. "But we must hold together. I will follow your counsel."
Legolas' moment of doubt before the Balrog was a defining event. He panicked. He recognized the Balrog for what it was and lost heart. "Ai! Ai!" wailed Legolas. "A Balrog1 A Balrog is come!" He dropped his arrow to the ground, rather than shoot the thing. Nonetheless, the encounter may have better prepared him for confronting the flying Nazgul over Anduin. Legolas had leaped up the bank and drawn an arrow, seeking a target. "Elbereth Gilthoniel!" he cried when he sensed the approach of the flying Nazgul. He was startled and moved by fear, but now he had greater courage.
Such a growth in Legolas' character is good, but it reminds me of the silly premise that went into Lieutenant Commander Data in the "Encounter at Farpoint" storyline. Supposedly, he had been serving in Starfleet for something like 27 years. In all that time he had learned virtually nothing about humans and human emotion. What did they do, assign him to serve only with Vulcans until Captain Picard signed him up on the Enterprise?
Legolas refers to his companions as children, and when he, Gimli, Aragorn, and Gandalf are approaching Meduseld he says that the leaves have fallen five hundred times in Mirkwood since the Rohirrim came out of the north. He also makes it sound as though he had lived through all five hundred years. Elsewhere he says he has watched many an acorn grow up and die as a hoary old oak tree. As Elves go Legolas is probably not ancient, but he seems to have been around for a while. And yet, Lorien is a mysterious place to him. Legolas has never visited there. It seems strange that he should not know anything about a land of Silvan Elves.
We may thus suggest that Legolas may have been born after his father left the Emyn Duir (the Mountains of Mirkwood) and led his people north to settle along the Forest River. That would have been shortly after Sauron rose again and established himself on the hill of Amon Lanc, building the fortress of Dol Guldur. And yet, one of the peculiar inconsistencies in Legolas' character is that he knows the Lay of Nimrodel. The lay itself had to have been composed sometime after 1981, the year in which Nimrodel and Amroth left Lorien. Who wrote it? How did the story get back up to Mirkwood so that Legolas could learn it?
The most likely answer seems to be that during Sauron's absence from Dol Guldur (the years of the Watchful Peace, TA 2063 - 2460) the Elves of Mirkwood went abroad and travelled as far as Gondor. Calenardhon's population was declining in these years but Gondor was still able to hold the Anduin against its enemies. Celeborn and Galadriel took up rule in Lorien after Amroth's departure and it may be they did not enact their policy of secrecy right away. So some of Thranduil's people may indeed have travelled to Lorien in those years and learned the lay. Legolas says merely, "It is long since any of my own folk journeyed hither back to the land whence we wandered in ages long ago, but we hear that Lorien is not yet deserted."
That's a curious thing to say. From whom did they hear the land was not deserted? Probably from Elrond's folk. And Legolas did learn the Westron translation of the lay in Rivendell, apparently. So it seems that Legolas was young enough not to have ever been in Lorien, or even to have approached it while its people were still active in the broad world. It may be, therefore, that he was born sometime in the Watchful Peace, and perhaps towards the end of it. He would thus be quite old even by comparison with the long-lived Gimli and Aragorn.
Yet again Tolkien sets an apparent inconsistency before us. When Aragorn and Legolas discuss Celeborn's warning about Fangorn Forest, Legolas professes to know nothing, save only that old songs speak of the Onodrim, the Ents. He has not travelled as far as Aragorn. Yet later on, when they enter Fangorn to look for the missing hobbits, Legolas says, "It is old, very old. So old that almost I feel young again, as I have not felt since I journeyed with you children."
That's a rather strange comment from an Elf who hasn't travelled far. Mirkwood is an ancient forest in its own right. But Mirkwood, unlike Fangorn, has been home to creatures which cut down trees, clear paths, and do other things which strip the age from forests. Elves, Men, Orcs, and even the giant spiders all make Mirkwood a very different forest. Perhaps Legolas was experiencing the sense of wonder that any child would feel upon first stepping out into the wider world.
Legolas may have visited Rivendell more than once. He doesn't seem to be unfamiliar with Elrond's people. The journey from Mirkwood to Rivendell would not have been very perilous for many years after the Battle of Five Armies (since most of the Orcs of the Misty Mountains were killed in that battle). Some people have wondered if Legolas might not be a younger son of Thranduil. His role as messenger to Elrond, and Thranduil's later granting permission to Legolas to lead some of their people to Gondor seem to indicate Legolas may not have been his father's heir. Of course, Thranduil may only have been bowing to the inevitable as far as letting Elves leave for Gondor.
If he were barely more than 500 years old at the time of the War of the Ring, Legolas would have lived through several significant events. He would recall the coming of Smaug to Erebor, and the destruction of the kingdoms of Dale and Erebor. He would remember the Long Winter, and probably would have been one of the Elven lords defending Thranduil in the Battle of Five Armies. He thus would have known some dangers and hardships, and so was well able to care for himself. He seems to fight the Orcs well enough at Parth Galen and later at Helm's Deep to show he is an accomplished warrior. He threatens Eomer's life on Gimli's behalf with all the confidence of a veteran.
Since Tolkien doesn't mention Legolas in the scanty accounts of the War of the Last Alliance most people seem willing to accept that Legolas was probably born in the Third Age. But it may seem radical to some to suggest he was probably born late in the Third Age, perhaps even well into the Watchful Peace. But there is precedent for a "relatively young" elf to rise to prominence. When the Noldor fled into Exile Turgon and his wife Elenwe probably did not have any children. Their daughter, Idril, was still a child when Elenwe was lost during the crossing of the Helcaraxe. Idril therefore grew up in Middle-earth.
Orodreth was also apparently born and raised in Middle-earth, being the son of Angrod and a Sindarin Elf (according to the latest information published in The Peoples of Middle-earth). Orodreth's children were Gil-galad and Finduilas, who would have been even younger at the fall of Nargothrond than Legolas seems to have been during the War of the Ring. Voronwe, Tuor's friend, was the son of Aranwe of the Noldor and a Sindarin Elf who was related to Cirdan. And Maeglin, the son of Eol and Aredhel, was only a couple hundred years old when he died in the fall of Gondolin.
Thranduil may have had three or four children, and Legolas could easily have been the baby of the bunch. Hence, to him the events of the First Age and even the story of Nimrodel and Amroth would seem far away. He would be a stranger in Lorien and because of the perils inhabiting Middle-earth he might not have begun leaving his father's kingdom until after the Battle of Five Armies. It may be the Battle of Five Armies was the first true defining event in Legolas' career.
Certainly when the Elvenking of The Hobbit set out with his army he didn't expect a battle. Smaug was dead and there was hardly anyone else around to bicker over the dragon's hoard. Except for the fact he was a king going after a large hoard of gold and jewels, he should not have felt much need for an army. So it would make sense if he brought his youngest child with him.
All that said, we are still left with questions about Legolas. We cannot, alas!, be sure of anything concerning his past. He probably knew Aragorn and Gandalf before the Council of Elrond, but there is no sign of recognition. He probably had been to Dale and Erebor, but he and Gimli don't seem to have really known each other before the Council of Elrond. Of course, they travelled together for some weeks before they began bonding. Legolas seems to have made the first overtures of friendship when he tried to soften his words about the history of the Balrog on the borders of Lorien.
Of course, Legolas also lost his temper when Gimli refused to go blindfold alone into Lorien. That was the only time Legolas ever became cross with anyone. Was he speaking as a proud Elven prince, or as a young Elf-lord who had not yet burned out his youthful fires? Legolas was still curious about the world, following Aragorn all the way to Gondor, seeking the hidden secrets of Fangorn, and allowing himself to become absorbed in the beauty of Aglarond.
Perhaps most Elves would have appreciated the sights Legolas encountered on his journey, but there is something youthful and refreshing in the way he glances back at the spirits following Aragorn's company. "...Legolas turning to speak to Gimli looked back and the Dwarf saw before his face the glitter in the Elf's bright eyes...."
There is something playful in the way Legolas engages in a deadly game with Gimli at Helm's Deep. Can anyone picture Elrond counting coup on Orcs in the midst of a very serious struggle over the future of Rohan? Or what of Feanor? Filled with fury though he was, at the end of his life he was still the stern and measuring father. Whatever mirth he might have known in youth had long since fallen away. So, too, was the mirth of Fingolfin long since shorn from him when he rode forth to challenge Morgoth to battle. And the Maedhros who chided his angry brothers with laughter over Thingol's cession of empty lands to the Noldor became a grim and determined lord who, by the end of the First Age, was consumed with weariness and the burden of guilt.
Legolas seems rather impetuous when he and Gimli are riding through the "herd" of Huorns and Ents who have saved the Rohirrim at Helm's Deep. He can barely contain himself as they ride through the trees, and when he discovers eyes looking out at them, he turns back from the road and starts to enter the strange wood. Only Gandalf's caution brings Legolas out of his curious Elvish euphoria. It is hard to imagine Celeborn or Galadriel being so overcome with curiosity they would abandon their mission to find out more about the eyes in the wood.
The character of Legolas is not so much compelling as confounding. I think many people wonder about him because he seems such a paradox, both old and young, both wise and yet inexplicably ignorant of the wide world around him. Legolas is a subtle stroke of Elvish youth at the end of the Elder Days. It may be there were few young Elves around at the time, and his may have been the last great adventure for a young Elf in Middle-earth. When Celeborn finally sailed over Sea, Tolkien notes, the last living memory of the Elder Days went with him. But when Legolas built his ship and departed, it may be that the last sparkle of youthful Elfdom vanished from Middle-earth, too.
Author: Michael Martinez
Published on: March 31, 2000
Michael Martinez is the author of Visualizing Middle-earth
This is the third article in my Daily Tolkien threads. Coming from many sources, these articles will cover many aspects of Tolkien and his literary works. If anyone would like for me to ping them directly when I post articles such as this let me know. Enjoy!
1) Who was Tom Bombodil? by Gene Hargrove
2) Celeborn Unplugged by Michael Martinez
3) Speaking of Legolas... by Michael Martinez
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