Saturday 26 February 2011
Legolas, Gimli and the key passage of Lord of the Rings
From Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien:
'We will come', said Imrahil; and they parted with courteous words.
'That is a fair lord and a great captain of men,' said Legolas. 'If Gondor has such men still in these days of fading, great must have been its glory in the days of its rising'.
'And doubtless the good stone-work is the older and was wrought in the first building,' said Gimli. 'It is ever so with the things that Men begin: there is a frost in Spring, or a blight in Summer, and they fail of their promise.'
'Yet seldom do they fail of their seed,' said Legolas. 'And that will lie in the dust and rot to spring up again in times and places unlooked-for. The deeds of Men will outlast us, Gimli.'
'And yet come to naught in the end but might-have-beens, I guess,' said the Dwarf.
'To that the Elves know not the answer,' said Legolas.
Ever since I began reading the Lord of the Rings way back in 1972, this has struck me as one of the key passages in the book: perhaps the single most important key.
But my reason for thinking this has changed over the years.
My understanding of the implications of this passage has, indeed, almost reversed.
This passage is about two aspects of the human condition, seen from two perspectives: fecklessness versus idealism; or, this-worldliness versus other-worldliness.
At first I identified with the elf and dwarf in terms of dismay at the restless distractability of Men - their inability to follow-through and finish any difficult task, the fact that their arts and crafts are always flawed, imperfect; men are always looking for something different, failing to keep their attention on the job.
Compared with dwarves and elves, men are shallow - almost like children. And the best of men are the Numenoreans like Imrahil, who are ennobled by an infusion of elvish blood and spirituality.
(Dwarves are conceived as a separate species, while Men and Elves are con-specific - and can interbreed, despite their differences.)
But from an elvish perspective this means that - at best - Men are merely second-rate and mortal elves. The best of Men's work - their arts and crafts - is nearly, but not quite, as good as the elves - and in architecture inferior to the dwarves.
The ultimate reason is Men's psychology: Men cannot stick to a difficult job right through to the end.
From the perspective of dwarves, the works of Men are a sequence of promising starts and disappointing results: 'merely 'might have beens'.
This my younger self perceived, and sadly agreed with.
But the wiser elf Legloas is not content to leave Gimli with the last word.
Although he does not understand, he recognises the limit of his understanding - and admits as much. Legolas perceives that the triumph of Men is part of providence, of the divine plan for Middle Earth - and therefore that there must be more to it than the accident of superior fertility.
Gimli and Legolas both perceive that the distractability of Men is a flaw in this world, in terms of what Men can achieve on Middle Earth.
But the elf seems to recognize that Men's distractability may be a consequence of something higher than either elf or dwarf can perceive - that Men may (in a nutshell) be distracted by something not of this world - that Men are unfitted for Middle earth because their destiny lies elsewhere.
Of course this was precisely what Tolkien believed, and what lies behind this passage and which lends it such depth and fascination. It explains my fascination with this passage, and also it explains why I missed the deeper meaning for so long - until I read and understood the Marring of Men/ Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth.
As such this famous passage represents and illustrates the method and secret of LotR - its subtle glimpses of depths and vistas beyond the frame of the story.
Note: the fact that this exchange between Gimli and Legolas was omitted from the movie version of LotR is a strike against the movie, and represents a failure to appreciate the core message of the book. I say this despite being a great admirer of the movies.