Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme selected by the Tolkien Society is Hope and Courage. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts!
Note from Briana: As many of our readers will know, Amazon released their take on Middle-earth’s Second Age, The Rings of Power, in 2022. One of the first controversies surrounding the show was the depiction of Galadriel as a soldier. Today’s guest poster has written extensively about the portrayal of Galadriel in The Rings of Power, so we are including some excerpts from longer posts here and hope you will click through to Substack to read the essays in full. The first excerpt here is from “The Sunne in Splendour: A Character Defense of Morfydd Clark’s Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power:”
Many skilled artists have contributed their talents to depicting this Elven lady in paintings, portraits and other forms of art. But for nearly 20 years, Cate Blanchett’s regal, ethereal and distant portrayal had been the gold standard for cinematic portrayals, and had become nearly synonymous with how people saw the character. Even a more political and badass depiction in The Hobbit trilogy didn’t shake this perception of Galadriel as an almost Marian figure. So when Vanity Fair, in our first ever serious look at The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power in February 2022, depicted Morfydd Clark’s Galadriel in a full suit of mid-15th century plate armor and described her as “Commander of the Northern Armies…as angry and brash as she is clever” a certain segment of the internet predictably erupted. To them, this was just one more indication that Amazon was intent on turning this character into nothing more than a vehicle for a woke, feminist agenda. This group of online folks was never large, but it was loud. And once the show aired they received reinforcements, for the character of Galadriel that was depicted here was a far cry from the serene vision of grace and wisdom that Blanchett showed. If you ask people to describe this version of Galadriel, you’re most likely to hear a whole host of unflattering adjectives: proud, petulant, childish, stupid, incompetent, ruthless, arrogant, brash, single-minded, genocidal, psychotic…I could go on. And, miracle of miracles, this line of thought has united both the online left and right, with commentary ranging from alt-right fanatic Nerdrotic calling her “Guyladriel” to politically liberal critic Grace Randolph being the first to refer to her as a “Mary Sue” and “Karen.”
But Morfydd’s Galadriel did not lack defenders either. Like Gimli threatening to fight 200 Rohirrim over a perceived slight to his Lady, or Richard of Gloucester riding to the rescue of his brother’s vanguard at the Battle of Tewkesbury, far more people have stood up for this interpretation of Galadriel ever since that Vanity Fair article. Their arguments, based on a willingness to keep an open mind, an engagement with everything that Tolkien wrote about the character as seen in his wider legendarium, and actually watching the show rather than some rage-baiting, hatemongering video on Youtube, have long rested on stronger footing than those of the other side. I am proud to be one of these people, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because this cause has inspired me to learn even more about Tolkien, his world and his ideals. I have come a very long way from my first Twitter thread defending Morfydd Clark’s Galadriel back on September 4 last year, and I will doubtless continue to journey. To everyone who has paved the way before me, I thank you, and hope that this essay will be a worthy contribution to this cause.The Sunne in Splendour
The second excerpt is from “Triumphant Leader: A Defense of Galadriel’s Depiction As a Warrior in The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power:”
Much as is the case when trying to learn about Galadriel’s character, The Silmarillion at least initially doesn’t give us much information about her physical appearance or attributes. For that, we have to turn to Unfinished Tales, where we read the following: “Her mother-name was Nerwen (Man-Maiden) and she grew to be tall even beyond the measure of the women of the Noldor. She was strong of body, mind, and will, a match for both the loremasters and the athletes of the Eldar in the days of their youth.” We learn even more in Letter 348, where Tolkien wrote to Mrs. Catherine Findlay: “She was then of Amazon disposition and bound up her hair as a crown when taking part in athletic feats.” So, it’s clear that Galadriel in her youth was a far cry from a static, regal sorceress, but was an athlete, a tomboy, and exceptionally physically powerful even for an Elven lady. And Elven ladies are already fast and strong, to a degree that we could describe as superhuman. In Morgoth’s Ring, the tenth volume of the History of Middle Earth, we read that “there was less difference in strength and speed between elven-men and elven-women that had not borne child than is seen among mortals.” A sentiment that is repeated in the more recent compendium The Nature of Middle Earth.
Some people will argue that this doesn’t necessarily translate to Galadriel actually being a warrior, or having a martial spirit. True, and for that we need to look at the phrase “Amazon disposition.” Tolkien wasn’t just using this as a word for a strong, athletic woman, although Galadriel would certainly count. No, he was using this for an actual warrior woman. Only two other women in his entire legendarium are described using this word, and in both cases they are explicitly warriors. In the essay on the Druedain from Unfinished Tales, we read of Haleth of the Edain that she was “a renowned Amazon with a picked bodyguard of women.” The Silmarillion goes into more detail, telling the story of how when Haleth’s people were attacked by orcs and her father and brother were slain by them, she took up arms and led the defense for seven days until they were relieved by the Sons of Feanor. And in the Book of Lost Tales, we read of Measse, one of the first Vala conceived by Tolkien, who is described as a “war goddess” and an “Amazon of the bloody arms.” Tolkien, let us remember, was a philologist, a student of language, words and their uses. When he refers to Galadriel, Haleth and Measse as Amazons, he had a very specific reason for doing so, and it wasn’t physical appearance; Galadriel was a Noldorin elf, Haleth a mortal woman, and Measse a demigod. Something else links these three women. And since in two of those cases that purpose is to illustrate their martial characteristics, it stands to reason that the third instance would be a warrior as well.Triumphant Warrior
6 thoughts on “In Defense of Morfydd Clark’s Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power (Guest Post by Charles Larrivee)”
I enjoyed Galadriel in RoP for the most part, and I do think it makes sense that in the Second Age she’d be a bit of a different person from who she is in the Third Age! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with us about her characterization!
My personal thoughts: first of all, the whole “Guyladriel” thing is rather absurd because that basically implies that all it is to be a man is to be incredibly rude, morally compromising, and good at killing people. I am a man myself and find that incredibly offensive. Also, is it just me or does that really resemble Galadriel’s own mother-name, “Nerwen”. The question as to whether Galadriel was ever a warrior is much older than this series, and though Tolkien did not state definitively, I suspect she was meant to be at least by the time of Tolkien’s death, judging from the quotation, “In the years after they [i.e. Galadriel and Celeborn] did not join in the war against Angband, which they judged to be hopeless under the ban of the Valar and without their aid.” (The Unfinished Tales, p. 232) In other words, Galadriel would have gotten herself involved if not for this fact, and it has nothing to do with her being a woman (so she was probably an exception to the general rule that Elven women do not fight). She is also obviously not a Mary Sue in the series (unlike Tolkien’s final 1973 version of Galadriel where he completely did away with her desire for power and dominance and thus took away the significance of the “I pass the test” line—I have strong opinions here). If anything, the biggest complaint I had about Amazon’s portrayal is that she seemed to me to be incredibly incompetent and unheroic. Generally, I think people are inserting their politics too much rather than examining what Tolkien actually said. If Tolkien were actually against women in battle, I might understand the objection that Amazon is inserting its politics, but he clearly wasn’t or else he wouldn’t have written women the way he did (and anyway, I suspect there were more objections here than there were for, say, The Chronicles of Narnia movies which very clearly ignored C. S. Lewis’ views on the subject).
One thing that very much annoys me is when people see Galadriel as just the character we see in The Lord of the Rings or worse, Peter Jackson’s films, because that is toward the very end of her life in Middle-Earth after she has already overcome her faults and now is passing the final test of humility, a thing she would not have done in her youth (and yes, I am not a huge fan of Cate Blanchette’s portrayal just because she seemed to me too creepy, ethereal, and unapproachable, when Tolkien in part was inspired by the Virgin Mary, and therefore I think she should come off as ethereal but still approachable and motherly; also, Galadriel I don’t think should be too far of a step up from Elrond in power, all things considered since they are both Eldar and ring-bearers).
I did have problems of my own (I doubt Tolkien’s Galadriel would have actually consented to lead armies as a servant of her younger cousin, for instance, and also they missed the opportunity to have a strong married woman with an adult daughter as a protagonist, which is rarely done—also, she does almost nothing in the entire series that Tolkien actually said she did in the Second Age, unlike Gil-Galad, Celebrimbor, and Elrond, who at very least occupy roughly the same positions as they are supposed to), but I firmly agree the “warrior Galadriel” objections are ridiculous since it seems to me fairly strongly insinuated anyway. Galadriel, along with Finrod and Celebrimbor, is one of my favorite Elves, and I would be very disappointed if they cut out her proud and self-willed nature in the First and Second Ages because I think it places a lot more weight on her actions in the Third Age.
The outcries before the release of an adaptation are often over-hyped and later shown to be unwarranted. I wasn’t too bothered about the addition of a warrior Galadriel since there is enough textual evidence to suggest both that she could in theory have wielded a sword and, yes, that she was stubborn, proud, and self-willed. Still, I admit that when I saw Rings of Power, I didn’t like her depiction, but not for the reasons people were worried about.
If I recall, one of her first scenes showed her leading her company into the icy North wastelands against their will, making them go beyond their strength, and basically endangering all of their lives for what was seemingly her personal mission of revenge. I can support a vengeful Galadriel who does foolish things in her pride, but it’s hard to get audience sympathy for a company leader who is willing to kill their subordinates for personal issues. I would have preferred to see something like her on a solo mission, pushing HERSELF behind her strength. Really, I was just appalled at how terrible a leader she was and seriously questioning why Gil-galad would entrust her with the lives of any Elves!
She also looked pretty terrible in other scenes. Like showing up in Numenor to demand they essentially all bow down to her because she’s an Elf and demanding they follow her to war. (Keep in mind–at this point she has no evidence of Sauron’s whereabouts. If she gets the ships to sail–where is she going with them? Is she going to take them on another years-long scavenger hunt across the land for a villain no one has seen in years and few believe in??)
Just the fact that she’s a noble Elf and has been at Gil-galad’s court should mean she has a tiny bit of decorum and diplomacy. It just made her look wildly incompetent to show up in a sovereign nation and try to take over its armed forces without even showing common politeness to the rulers and inhabitants. In LotR, Frodo, Pippin, and Merry show more common sense and courtesy when meeting sovereigns, and they’re not noble and haven’t interacted with any kings of queens before.
My issues with RoP Galadriel are not at all that she’s a warrior or even proud. It’s more that her characterization needs to give me a little more reason to believe she’s a leader others can believe in and follow. I assume she’ll grow into it. It’s just rather painful in season one to see how incompetent she is both as a captain and as a diplomat. And, weirdly, it seems like the show might actually want me to believe that she IS good at these things.
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I agree with more or less everything you have said. Also, let us keep in mind she should be older than every other Elf in the series except maybe Celebrimbor if you really want to be fair, and they did not show it for me. True. I don’t know how familiar you are with The Silmarillion but the character of whom she reminds me the most in the lore is actually Fëanor, which is half-accurate, since they do have similar flaws, but Fëanor took it much further. I think studios made the unfortunately common mistake of in trying to make a character arc, making the character start out as more flawed than she is supposed to be. That is what confuses me about the “Mary Sue” objection because if anything, Tolkien’s Galadriel is more of a Mary Sue than this adaptation, and in my opinion this is not a good thing. That is actually what confused me about the Vanity Fair promotional article calling her “angry and brash as she is clever” because… I really don’t think the character is clever.
But to be clear, I love the idea of seeing a younger Galadriel in physical combat. I just really don’t see so far why this character had to be Galadriel since she seems to bear only the vaguest similarity with the character in the source material so far, as she is neither Lady of Harlindon nor Lady or Eriador nor Lady of Eregion.
Sometimes I think film adaptations really play up certain characteristics because they fear audiences won’t understand nuance. For example, I thought that Peter Jackson’s LotR films made Boromir a bit more boorish than he is in the book. Like Galadriel, he is proud and it is a character flaw. But the way the films have him speaking up in the middle of the Council like he’s dense and didn’t understand a word Elrond said, or dropping Narsil (surely an heirloom he would hold in honor!) and then walking away, leaving it on the ground, make him seem less worthy of respect than the book, which acknowledges his flaws but also his strengths.
I wonder if something similar happened with Galadriel in RoP. The writers wanted to show that she is headstrong and Not the Galadriel You Know, and couldn’t find a way to balance her flaws with the type of maturity she should have gained by now. So they just made her seem incompetent and, as you note, not very clever. Honestly, it’s hard to think of anything very clever she did throughout the whole season.
As to why Galadriel and not another character that would have made more sense? My guess is they knew audiences were familiar with Galadriel and it was all for marketing. They couldn’t even use Hobbits, so they had to find a name that would draw in a more general audience.
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True. I think they overplayed the weakness of, say, Frodo or Elrond as well in the films or, if we want to talk about The Hobbit, Thorin and Thranduil, all to show aspects of their characters which are in the books but still greatly exaggerated, too much in my opinion. Galadriel here I would say is the same (I hope that is what they are doing with Gil-Galad as well because I don’t want him to stay unlikeable, but we’ll see).
I understand that from a financial perspective… just not an adaptation perspective. Granted, I don’t know to how much of Galadriel’s Second Age history they have the rights, but still, they could have at least kept her husband and daughter and had her live in Eriador and be close friends with her cousin, Celebrimbor. I also think Celebrimbor’s relationship with the Dwarves and Narvi (if they are allowed to use him) would have been nice but… well, better than nothing. I do think it would have been more impactful if Celebrimbor were the one with a relationship with the Dwarves rather than Elrond. Other than Elrond apparently not being particularly familiar with Dwarven culture in the books (not even knowing Dúrin’s Day in The Hobbit), I think it would have given him more agency in creating the Rings of Power. His relationship with Galadriel would have fit perfectly into the lore as well and would probably make his presumed impending death more impactful (I assume he will die in Season 2).