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.




Unknown said...

Elves in Tolkien are a lot like elves in the sagas: they're people who are buried in megalithic mounds and reincarnate.

They stop doing that and that's why they all sail to the west---and give up this world. It's part of that same inevitable providence.

How do you think the destruction of the one ring---and consequent fading of the other rings of power---is bound up in all this?

Bruce Charlton said...

There is a lot about elves and their destiny in volumes 10 and 12 of the History of Middle Earth.

It is hard to summarise (and my knowledge is incomplete and a bit shaky!) - but I think it was only the high elves who were affected by the destruction of the One Ring - they were then confronted by the choice of either going to the West or 'fading' to become Silvan elves, and eventually living secret lives hidden from men (which is how Tolkien envisages elves that survive into the modern age).

But this also meant that the Silvan elves lost their leaders - since they were always led by High elves (who had dwelled in, were or descended from elves who had dwelled in, the undying lands) or Grey Elves (like Thranduil and Legolas - descended from elves who had begun the journey to the undying lands - having at least begun the journey seems to have meant they were 'higher', or more enlightened, than those who refused the journey).

There are also some interesting ideas about elves souls refusing to leave Middle Earth after their death, and becoming ghosts and spirits - sometimes malevolent.

Troels said...

Great topic :-)

I do think that both your younger and your older selves have grasped an important reading of this passage. As Carpenter says in the Biography, Tolkien was ‘a man of antitheses’ (Verlyn Flieger expands on this in her excellent book Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien's World in chapter 1, which is called ‘A Man of Antitheses’), and part of this antithetical nature was precisely this contrast of hope and despair, which is also found in his fiction.

The reading that your younger self would arrive at is characteristic of the despair in Tolkien — the idea of fighting the long defeat. That this view is expressed by two characters whose being is bound within the world is probably significant because, as you've learned in the Athrabeth, the hope for Men really lies outside the world, outside Eä.

We could also put this in the terms of the Athrabeth, in which Finrod speaks to Andreth of the two types of hope: Amdir, which is ‘An expectation of good, which though uncertain has some foundation in what is known’ and of which Men, according to Andreth, have none, which is to say that they despair, and Estel, trust, which ‘is not defeated by the ways of the world, for it does not come from experience, but from our nature and first being.’ This is the hope expressed in the phrase ‘in God we trust’, and this is the hope we find in Tolkien's fiction, the hope that ‘He [Eru, God] will not suffer Himself to be deprived of His own, not by any Enemy, not even by ourselves.’

With this in mind, I should say that it is part of the beauty of this passage that it encapsulates both the hope and the despair that was such integral parts of Tolkien's nature (and both of which he could take further than most people) and which he, consciously or not, incorporated in his fiction. Do not reject the perceptions of youth, but embrace them as one aspect of a polarized, di-polar world-view ;-)

As for the results of the destruction of the Master Ring, I do think that it affected all the Eldar (as this is used in the published Silmarillion — i.e. all those Elves who set out on the Great March and their descendants. This includes the Silvan Elves of Mirkwood and Lothlórien). Whatever made the Sindar and the Silvan Elves stay in Middle-earth was fading, and there was no room for them in the world of Men. The invitation that was re-issued at the end of the First Age included not only the Calaquendi and their descendants, but all of the Eldar, and nearly all of them would have left during the Fourth Age, leaving only the Avari and a few others to fade in Middle-earth.

Bruce Charlton said...

Troels - Thank you for the comment.