Lothlórien is an inverse of Moria. The latter was darkness and sharp stones, the promise of hidden threats and fire from the deep. Lórien is bright sun on golden leaves, waterfalls likened to gentle lace, the promise of protection bracketed by cool and healing waters. It would have been easy for Tolkien to leave the contrast at that. The Golden Wood could have provided the Company with a much-needed respite after a brutal three chapters culminating in Gandalf’s (apparent) death. But instead we get “Lothlórien,” an odd, layered chapter filled with beauty, sadness, and a persistent sense of strain.
Lothlórien and Time
The Lord of the Rings has been permeated with oldness. Oldness is associated with power, with magic, with a sense of majesty. There is the Old Forest, the old age of Bombadil, the ancient remnants of old cities and civilizations scattered around Eriador, Arnor, and Hollin. Lothlórien at first seems to be another iteration of that:
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 Lórien the ancient things still lived on in the waking world.
Lothlórien is old, a piece of the Elder Days remaining intact as time flies by and inflicts its damage on the rest of the world. It’s a refuge, a safe space, a shadowless land surrounded by shadows and wolves. But it’s also more than that:
Frodo felt that he was in a timeless land that did not fade or change or fall into forgetfulness. When he had gone and passed again into the outer world, still Frodo the wanderer from the Shire would walk there, upon the grass among elanor and niphredil in fair Lothlórien.
Lothlórien isn’t just old, it’s literally timeless. Tolkien’s world is so overripe with nostalgia – it’s everywhere, permeating almost everything. It makes perfect sense that its magical epicenter is one in which nothing is lost to time.
“As they did so the South Wind blew upon Cerin Amroth and sighed among the branches. Frodo stood still, hearing far off great seas upon beaches that had long ago been washed away, and sea-birds whose race had perished from the earth.”
Everything is in Lothlórien. It’s a place where everything exists and nothing expires, a world impervious to loss.
Lothlórien and Sight
It’s also a place of clearer sight. When Frodo stands atop Cerin Amroth and looks around the woods around him, he twice – in a very short number of sentences – references the insufficiency of language. Instead he thinks of the sharpness of the world, how its oldness and immediacy make it seem like something entirely unique:
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 forever. 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.
It’s a very Neoplatonic way of envisioning an idealized world (and Tolkien, as a Catholic, was probably well-versed in this sort of Neoplatonism that was originally popularized by early Christian writers like St. Augustine and Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite). It calls to mind the philosophy that the individual objects of the world are simply reflections of ideal forms. And Frodo seems to catch a glimpse of these forms in Lórien. It’s telling that when he touches a mallorn tree, he’s struck by the fact that he does not view it through the lens of a gardener or a forester or a carpenter. He simply views it as a tree.
Lothlórien universalizes the world – it takes the specific and the unique iterations of something and overlays them, so a tree becomes Tree, green becomes Green. By picking up this approach Tolkien was able to create a landscape that is both intensely tangible and strangely ethereal.
Lothlórien and Strain
Of course, none of this is quite true.
Take a look at the last two pages of “Lothlórien” and it’s easy to come away with the idea that Cerin Amroth and Caras Galadhan are a verdant, shimming paradise, far removed from all strife. But if this were ever true, there are signs throughout the chapter that this view is increasingly filled with cracks. There is evidence of strife everywhere in Lothlórien, to the extent that the woods are ringed by armed scouts and all of the bridges into the land have been destroyed. Orcs are skirting the borders and making inroads into the forest. Climb a tree and look to the east, and within sight is the dark smear of Southern Mirkwood and the tower of Dol Guldur.
The attitude of the Elves of Lothlórien is not much more promising. Haldir is presented as an outlier for showing any interest in venturing in the outside world or learning much about it. They have a distrust of outsiders – especially dwarves – that is so intense that they insist blindfolding poor Gimli despite the fact that he’s traveling with another elf and the man who is engaged to Galadriel’s granddaughter. Despite the fact that Lothlórien feels more ‘magical’ than Rivendell, there is the sense that it comes at a cost. Everyone who lives within its borders seems to be constantly striving to maintain it, and to know that their task will ultimately fail.
The Value of Nostalgia
Also: for a timeless land where everything lost seems to still exist, Lothlórien has a real thing for nostalgia and the persistent awareness of sorrow. Take Haldir, speaking to the Company as they are walking through the Woods:
“Some there are among us who sing that the Shadow will draw back, and peace shall come again. Yet I do not believe that the world will ever again be as it was of old, or the light of the sun as it was aforetime. For the Elves, I fear, it will prove at best a truce, in which they may pass to the Sea unhindered and leave Middle-earth forever. Alas for Lothlórien that I love! It would be a poor life in the land where no mallorn grew. But if there are mallorn-trees beyond the great Sea, none have reported it.”
Haldir’s attitude here is so interesting to me. There’s the sense – always, with the Elves – of fading away, of their time coming to an end. That the world will never again be as beautiful as it used to be. It explains some of their flippancy – they’re dicks again in this chapter, scaring the Company on purpose then laughing at them. It’s a silly comparison but they’re a little like Middle-earth hipsters, laughing at these men and hobbits who are jumping onto the bandwagon so late in the game, never knowing what it was like at the start.
But at the same time Haldir expresses such a genuine love of his home. Even when contemplating sailing across the Sea – where presumably some of that “light of the sun as it was aforetime” may be present – he doesn’t seem excited. What’s the point without mallorn trees?
I’m also very intrigued by how valuable this sense of nostalgia is, or how Tolkien conceived of it when he wrote it. Most of the stories that come from the golden age to which the present elves look back were really terrible. Take the tale of Nimrodel and Amroth that Legolas sings of at the start of the story. He himself admits that it is “long and sad, for it tells how sorrow came upon Lothlórien.” In brief, it’s a story about how Nimrodel insisted to her lover Amroth that they flee from the dangers encroaching upon Lothlórien. On their way to the sea the lovers get separated. Nimrodel was never heard from again; Amroth cast himself into the sea.
It’s a sad story, and features a Lórien not noticeably different than the one in The Fellowship of the Ring. Most of the stories of the elder days of Middle-earth and Arda are deeply sad. The Silmarillion is not a happy book. I’m curious, then, as to what that says about the Elves’ views of the past and their attitude towards the changing nature of Middle-earth. They seem wistful of the past, unconcerned and incurious about the future. I’m unsure at this point how Tolkien would have felt about this.
Speaking of Middle-earth’s future: this is a good chapter for Aragorn. He steps up to the plate as the company’s new leader in Gandalf’s absence, managing to convince a grumpy Boromir and a proud Gimli to make their way further and further inside of Lothlórien. Though it’s not explicit here, he is such a nice counter to the Elves. Aragorn’s ties to the past make him a prime candidate for nostalgia about the glory days. But Aragorn seems to have very little interest in such thoughts. While he undeniably appreciates the beauty of Lórien it’s accompanied by a care and interest for Middle-earth’s future as well.
He also gets to be the star of the chapter’s rather beautiful closing lines:
“Here is the heart of Elvendom on earth,” 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 against as living man.
The long flowing sentences provide a sharp contrast to the brusque, short sentences that closed out “The Ring Goes South,” “A Journey in the Dark,” and “The Bridge of Khazad-Dûm.” Even better is the sudden intrusion of omniscient narration in the last line. Tolkien almost never uses this in The Lord of the Rings and so it stands out rather jarringly. It’s a nice way to suddenly destabilize the reader’s sense of time at the close of a chapter about a place that is timeless.
- In a lot of ways – especially in the early conversation between Boromir and Aragorn about the Wood’s peril – Lothlórien is akin to Faerie. Both are perceived as beautiful and dangerous, pockets of the world where time and space seem to shift. I wonder if the contradictions inherent in Lórien come from the fact that Tolkein was pulling from both his own Catholic background as well as a pagan / Celtic concept of fairy stories.
- I like the way that the Mirrormere from the chapter’s opening pages foreshadows Lórien. Both involved idealized pictures of the past, both involved idealized views of nature. It also sets up a nice tension where – in a chapter where elves and dwarves are constantly snipping at each other – the two peoples appear to have quite a bit in common.
- I do genuinely like many things about Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Fellowship but Lothlórien feels off to me. The movie is all darkness and deep, blurry blues. Tolkien’s description is bright yellows, greys and golds. Perhaps it would have been difficult to convey the proper tone on film, but I do miss it the book’s color palette.
- Legolas and Gimli both have a good chapter for their characters. It’s fitting for Gimli’s character that he would be so outraged at a bunch of elves refusing to admit the legitimacy of his word:
“I will go forward free,” he said, “or I will go back and seek my own land, where I am known to be true of word, though I perish alone in the wilderness.”
“You cannot go back,” Haldir said sternly. “Now you have come thus far, you must be brought before the Lord and Lady. They shall judge you, to hold you or give you leave, as they will. You cannot cross the rivers again, and behind you there are now secret sentinels that you cannot pass. You would be slain before you saw them.”
Gimli drew his axe from his belt.
(Of course Gimli drew the axe from his belt).
- “Alas for the folly of these days!” said Legolas. “Here all are enemies of the one Enemy, and yet I must walk blind, while the sun is merry in the woodland under leaves of gold.” I love this line from Legolas. It starts off seeming so noble and open-minded, but then you realize he’s pretty much saying “It’s such a bummer that this war means I can’t look at the trees.” Elf princes are so entitled these days.
- Samwise! Sam is fucking relentless. He follows Frodo to both the Mirrormere and up a tree in Lothlórien even though no one invites him. I love him for it. And I was happy when he finally got an explicit invite up Cerin Amroth with Haldir.
- Prose Prize: Lots of pretty descriptions of trees here. Take your pick. I do quite like this passage though: “As they did so the South Wind blew upon Cerin Amroth and sighed among the branches. Frodo stood still, hearing far off great seas upon beaches that had long ago been washed away, and sea-birds whose race had perished from the earth.”