Lothlorien: The Worst Wound

rhododendrons 4

There is a Lothlorien in each of us. Ours may not look exactly like Tolkien’s; nonetheless it is there, a timeless place of unearthly beauty that we return to now and then for solace. You might have come across yours in childhood, or in a book, or through a painting. Mine came in a dream. I was driving through some patch of middle England, an in-between blank patch on the map, separating the major cities. It was a region of tranquil hills and slumbering villages. After driving for a few hours, up and down along narrow lanes bordered by hedges so tall I could not see over them, I found myself in a quiet hamlet with golden dirt roads and white-walled, timber-framed, thatched cottages. I spent the night in a room above the pub. When I awoke at dawn, it was to the sound of cowbells passing through the street. I rolled out of bed and looked out of the window to see shafts of morning sunlight slanting through amber dust motes. The cows had gone by, but I could still hear the bells, and the white walls of the buildings seemed very white. At that moment I was pervaded by an intense sweetness; it was a revelation of my secret home, but one that I would find again only in dreams. I looked at maps for that blank patch in the center of England, but of course there is no such thing: it is all filled with towns. Nevertheless, this dream world is present in my experience of every landscape; to some degree I am haunted by it.

Some fifteen years after this dream, I was wandering in the hills around Dharamsala, northern India, the Himalayas looming behind me, when I found myself exploring a village. Then I heard cowbells, and I stopped, realizing that I was standing in a dusty, golden lane with white-walled houses all around me. The dream came back in a flood. It was late April too, and the mountainsides were covered with red rhododendron blooms as far as the eye could see: no wonder the gods had chosen this magical place to be their dwelling. Yet I was not in a dream, I was standing there, and at least I have photographs of the rhododendrons. It was about as far away as one could be from central England, but it was as if my dream-landscape had found an anchor in the world I walked and breathed in. But encountering this real golden landscape that evoked the inner one proved that the inner one could not possibly be physical:it was there, inside me, spilling out of me into the landscapes that have the power to evoke it.

A fantasy writer has the privilege of externalizing this inner landscape into a fictional one that can be a field of action. But all privileges have their dangers, and the danger here is to make the inner landscape literal — and in literalizing anything, we end up denying it its infinite power to suggest. The Lothlorien chapters could have been a heavy-handed attempt to describe a mythic paradise, but instead they form the most moving and beautiful part of The Fellowship of the Rings — for unlike the Peter Jackson film version, and like Dante, the book ends not with a conflict but with a vision. And what is this vision? In reaching for an understanding of Tolkien’s account of Lothlorien, we can come closer to our own Lothloriens.

As soon as he [Frodo] set foot upon the far bank of Silverlode a strange feeling had come upon him, and it deepened as he walked on into the Naith: it seemed to him that he had stepped over a bridge of time into a corner of the Elder Days, and was now walking in a world that was no more. In Rivendell there was memory of ancient things; in Lorien the ancient things still lived on in the waking world. Evil had been seen and heard there, sorrow had been known; the Elves feared and distrusted the world outside: wolves were howling on the wood’s borders: but on the land of Lorien no shadow lay. (340)

As with Tom Bombadil’s kingdom, this is another of Tolkien’s versions of an unfallen Eden. This time it is an island, otherworldly but besieged, and in some sense it doesn’t really exist: Frodo is “walking in a world that is no more” — like a memory, or a faded dream. It exists but does not exist. Tolkien is working hard to describe this equivocal place in such a way that we do not become literalists about it. He tries again:

It seemed to him that he had stepped through a high window that looked on a vanished world. A light was upon it for which his language had no name. All that he saw was shapely, but the shapes seemed at once clear cut, as if they had been first conceived and drawn at the uncovering of his eyes, and ancient as if they had endured for ever. He saw no color but those he knew, gold and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had at that moment first perceived them and made for them names new and wonderful. In winter here no heart could mourn for summer or for spring. No blemish or sickness or deformity could be seen in anything that grew upon the earth. On the land of Lorien there was no stain. (341)

Again, it is pre-lapsarian: no stain is a wonderful way to describe it. Nothing has been spilled, nothing smeared. It is unspoiled perfection, clean and perpetually new. It doesn’t really exist any more, and perhaps hasn’t existed yet because nothing has happened to it. This land itself is unmarked by history, and stands outside time. The exists/doesn’t exist, here/no longer here paradox is picked up at various points in these chapters:

Already she seemed to him, as by men of later days Elves still at times are seen: present and yet remote, a living vision of that which has already been left far behind by the flowing streams of Time. (364)

Still Tolkien is unsatisfied with this, and tries again, now putting it in the perspective of Sam, who usually gets such things:

“I thought that Elves were all for moon and stars: but this is more elvish than anything I ever heard tell of. I feel as if I was inside a song, if you take my meaning.” (342)

Frodo’s versions are lyrical and descriptive, but Sam’s is mystical, more radically epiphanic: he gets inside the inside of Lothlorien, is enveloped by it, and not only hears it sing but inhabits its song. Lothlorien is not just an experience to be contemplated, beheld; rather, it is a dream that becomes your life.

So far Tolkien has made three attempts to capture the meaning of Lothlorien without flattening it, and all of them are lovely — but something is missing. He tries again through Frodo:

…he laid his hand upon the tree beside the ladder: never before had he been so suddenly and so keenly aware of the feel and texture of a tree’s skin and of the life within it. He felt a delight in wood and the touch of it, neither as forester or as carpenter; it was the delight of the living tree itself. (342)

Now Frodo,  the lyrical intelligence of the novel, switches mode from contemplative to tactile — and it is rare for Tolkien to emphasize the bodily. If you have ever placed your hands on a tree trunk and stood there quietly, trying to feel the life of the tree through the cool texture of the bark, you will know how Frodo must be feeling. The experience is elemental: living wood. But it is also skin on skin, one living being meeting another, without the mediation of words or sight. So Lothlorien is about this too; it is not just a vision, but a sensuous encounter with the natural. However, Tolkien still feels that something is lacking, and for that he brings needs a warrior-king. Notice how the language now modulates to the archaic and elevated:

At the hill’s foot Frodo found Aragorn, standing still and silent as a tree; but in his hand was a small golden bloom of elanor, and a light was in his eyes. He was wrapped in some fair memory…”Here is the heart of Elvendom itself,” he said, “and here my heart dwells ever, unless there be a light beyond the dark roads that we still must tread, you and I. Come with me!” And taking Frodo’s hand in his, he left the hill of Cerin Amroth and came there never again as living man. (343)

This is exquisite prose in the epic mode. What exactly might “came there never again as living man” mean? Does it mean this is his last visit to Lothlorien before he dies? — that he returns as a spirit? — or in legend? The omission of the article in the phrase “living man” turns humanity into a kind of substance or state: “it was his last day as student” is not the same as “it was his last day as a student.” The syntactical inversion “came there never again” gives the thought a ringing finality by putting “never again” in the foreground, and the archaism of the syntax already suggests a lost and irretrievable experience. Aragorn’s perspective — that of a man filled with loss — makes Lothlorien something we simultaneously love and mourn .

In the two chapters that follow the entry into Lothlorien, the most moving pages for me are the ones in which Galadriel presents her parting gifts to everyone. These gifts are significant because they are the physical traces of Lothlorien that our warriors will carry away with them — just as my wanderings in the Himalayas gave me a physical trace of the dream landscape. They are significant because they express something of the nature of the recipients, because Galadriel has the power to see them, and to know them better than they know themselves: “I felt as if I hadn’t got nothing on, and I didn’t like it,” (348) says Sam on what it felt like to be looked at by her.  Of these gifts I will discuss only two, just because I find them particularly rich.

“For you little gardener and lover of trees,” she said to Sam, “I have only a small gift.” She put into his hand a little box of plain grey wood, unadorned save for a single silver rune upon the lid. “Here is set G for Galadriel,” she said, “but also it may stand for garden in your tongue. In this box there is earth from my orchard, and such blessing as Galadriel has yet to bestow is upon it. It will not keep you on your road, nor defend you against any peril; but if you keep it and see your home again at last, then perhaps it may reward you. Though you shall find all barren and laid waste, there will be few gardens in Middle-earth that will bloom like your garden, if you sprinkle this earth there.” (366)

The image of this plain little box is potent and contradictory. On the one hand, it embodies a garden, and a garden embodies a human aspiration for inner peace and harmonious existence in a threshold realm between home and wild: contentment, organic growth, and the deep daily bond with plants and living things. It evokes a sense of responsibility to nature, and the delighted attentiveness required by the activity of cultivation. In this regard, the box is a token of the life worth living, and the home we want to defend and to return to: it expresses the point of the whole terrible mission, and without this point we might as well just stay at home and die. On the other hand, the box is also a miniature coffin, containing Lothlorien synecdochically in a pinch of soil (just as Frodo’s little phial of light is a miniature memorial of Gandalf). A lesser novelist would have made the box contain seeds, but Tolkien is wiser and understands Galadriel: the box is meant to express to Sam the burial of Lothlorien, dirt to dirt — but only in the form of a garden will it survive. Once again, the point is made that Lothlorien is gone already.

The biggest surprise in this gift-giving is the reaction of the gruff and fiery Gimli, who has already been disarmed by Galadriel’s wisdom and beauty of spirit:

And the Dwarf, hearing the names given in his own ancient tongue, looked up and met her eyes; and it seemed to him that he looked suddenly into the heart of an enemy and saw there love and understanding. Wonder came into his face, and then he smiled in answer.” (347)

When she asks him what he wants and he timidly requests “…a single strand of your hair, which surpasses the gold of the earth as the stars surpass the gems of the mine,” (367) she cuts off three strands, puts them in his hand, and says, “…your hands shall flow with gold, and yet over you gold shall have no dominion.” (367) It is Galadriel’s gift that reveals the depth of the dwarf’s soul, for of all the warriors it is he who best understands the meaning of Lothlorien.

Gimli wept openly. “I have looked the last upon that which was fairest,” he said to Legolas his companion. “Henceforth I will call nothing fair, unless it be her gift.” He put his hand to his breast. “Tell me, Legolas, why did I come on this quest? Little did I know where the chief peril lay…I would not have come, had I known the danger of light and joy. Now I have taken my worst wound in this parting, even if I were to go this night straight to the Dark Lord.” (369)

Gimli turns out to be the character most sensitive to transcendent beauty. After Lothlorien, nothing else is worth living for: the vision he has been granted contains the very fulfillment of sentient existence, a vision of the inner radiance of things, and all intelligent action strives for the consummation of life that is this vision. Once it is seen, there is nothing more to live for. Being forced to live on is like being given the most subtle, delicious meal of your life, and then afterwards made to consume junk food: all other eating will have lost its relish. After Lothlorien, experience itself loses its relish, and even a painful death is preferable to a life in which the best is only a memory.

To the less sensitive, memory may be good enough. The hobbits and Aragorn can somehow go on, perhaps because they have a faith in things that Gimli doesn’t have. Tolkien makes Gimli the real culmination of the Lothlorien chapters because the “wound” dealt at Lothlorien, the wound of elusive beauty, breaks his heart and makes him unable to live whole any longer. Perhaps all our Lothloriens secretly have the same effect. Just as Gimli has to hold this loss inside him through all the subsequent action, so we too push on in our grand tasks, carrying the vision and the loss — but secretly, because it is not something we share lightly.




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