It would be hard to find an elf lord more consistently vilified by fans of Lord of the Rings than Celeborn. Opinions on the character appear to range from ‘I always thought Celeborn a Jerk too. Galadriel lies way out of his league.’ Blatherings
To ‘again I’m struck by what a total non-entity Celeborn is…Did the early departure of his daughter to Eressea take the life out of him? Has he been henpecked into complete apathy? Is he clinically depressed?.’
This dismissiveness has even made it into official published tie in material such as The Complete Guide to Middle Earth, which remarks that although Celeborn is described as ‘Celeborn the Wise’ he doesn’t appear to be particularly wise.
Now, it certainly can’t be denied that in the theatrical version of Peter Jackson’s films the character was little more than a pretty piece of scenery, with a method of delivering his lines which has variously been described as ‘drugged’, ‘camp’ and ‘zombie-like’. A friend of mine, whose opinion seems representative, but who sweetened the blow, knowing that I was a fan, said:
‘ I don’t know if it’s just me, but the way Celeborn seems to talk in the movie, animation and radio-play, and his lines in the book tend to make me think that he’s not all there. That part of him has drifted off
somewhere and isn’t going to make a come-back any time soon, although not necessarily in a bad way; more as though he’s seeing past the mundane.’
Which seems to be a fairly accurate, even generous, reading of movie!Celeborn. In giving the character some of Galadriel’s ‘mystic’ dialogue; ‘I can no longer see him from afar,’ and giving Legolas some of Celeborn’s less likeable musings; ‘going needlessly into the net of Moria’, Peter Jackson seems – to me – to have attempted to make the character appear less abrasive and more stereotypically wise. But, in my opinion, it’s an attempt which has robbed Celeborn of his distinctive and very unusual personality, making him into a cut price version of Galadriel.
It’s my contention that if the scene had been played as written, accurately representing book!Celeborn, we would be able to see that this is one elf lord who is anything other than apathetic. In contrast, he is one of the most swiftly decisive, practical and forceful elves in the book.
Much of the larger overview about the cultural differences between Noldor and Sindar elves, the reason for his enmity towards dwarves, the similarities of Celeborn to both Elu Thingol and Thranduil, I have already covered in a more general essay, which you can find here:
What I’d like to do in this shorter piece is to look more closely at the evidence – the scenes of ‘Lord of the Rings’ in which he appears, and see if we can come to a more book-based reading of the silver-haired Lord of Lorien. I certainly won’t claim that it will make anyone like him more – as I say, he can be quite an abrupt and abrasive character – but I hope that at the end of it, if people still dislike him, it will be for what he is, not for something that he is not.
So, without further ado, let’s pick up our copy of ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’, and turn to chapter 7; ‘The Mirror of Galadriel’, which I will be heavily quoting and/or paraphrasing.
We first meet Celeborn and Galadriel when the Fellowship are taken into their presence at Caras Galadhon. Our initial impression of them is as perfectly equal; ‘On two chairs beneath the bole of the tree and canopied by a living bough there sat, side by side, Celeborn and Galadriel… Very tall they were, and the Lady no less tall than the Lord; and they were grave and beautiful… no sign of age was upon them, unless it were in the depths of their eyes; for these were keen as lances in the starlight, and yet profound, the wells of deep memory.’
Notice that it is not only Galadriel who has a keen and penetrating gaze. This description definitely implies that Celeborn’s mind is as sharp and profound as hers.
Next Celeborn greets each of the companions courteously by name, singles out Frodo to do him honour, and goes beyond courtesy into positive kindness towards Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli. He reassures Aragorn that however hard his long preparation for kingship has been, at least it is now almost over, one way or the other. He welcomes Legolas as a kinsman, though – judging from Legolas’ words at Nimrodel – Legolas had no idea even if Lorien was inhabited, and so can hardly have been in touch. And to Gimli he says that his presence is a sign of better times ahead, and offers friendship:
“Welcome Gimli son of Gloin! It is long indeed since we saw one of Durin’s folk in Caras Galadhon. But today we have broken our long law. May it be a sign that though the world is now dark better days are at hand, and that friendship shall be renewed between our peoples.”
(Quite some greeting from an elf whose king was murdered by dwarves and whose country was sacked by them.)
Once they’re all arrived he says, essentially, ‘I thought there were meant to be nine of you? Has there been some change of plans we weren’t told of?’
This is a perfectly reasonable question, and a conversational gambit which leaves it open for the Fellowship to reply by telling him what has happened.
At this point Galadriel can’t help mentioning that she knows Gandalf set out with them. To be frank, quite what this interruption achieves, I don’t know, (other than to draw attention to her mystic powers) because she has to admit that she doesn’t know where Gandalf is or what has happened either. She just uses rather more words to say it than he does.
Aragorn gets the conversation back on track by exclaiming that Gandalf “fell into shadow. He remained in Moria and did not escape.”
At this, all the elves in the hall cry out in grief. Celeborn says “These are evil tidings, the most evil that have been spoken here in long years full of grievous deeds.”
This ought to be set against any later criticism Celeborn makes of Gandalf – it’s quite clear that Celeborn thinks Gandalf’s death is a disaster of epic proportions. But he’s also perturbed that he hasn’t been informed of something so important. He turns to Haldir and says ‘Why has nothing of this been told to me before?’
Thus implying (a) that he has a network set up for him to be told of important news, and (b) that Haldir (and presumably the other March Wardens) report to Celeborn, rather than Galadriel (since he says ‘me’ rather than ‘us’.)
This is not the behaviour of someone who is apathetic. Nor is it the behaviour of a consort to a ruling Queen – it is the behaviour of someone who is in charge, and accustomed to being obeyed and kept informed.
Legolas explains that they didn’t tell Haldir, because they didn’t want to dwell on their grief, and Frodo adds that nevertheless their grief is very great. This is all very well, but it’s not getting Celeborn and Galadriel any nearer to finding out what happened, so Celeborn cuts to the point and says “Tell us now the full tale.”
He’s not a sensitive bloke – not the kind who will wait until everyone’s feeling better to press for explanations. He’s a ruling Lord, and he wants information. Lorien – sandwiched between Dol Guldur, Moria and Mordor cannot afford to let something this vital slip past, and Celeborn’s tight control on the conversation and practical questioning ought to be seen in the light of his realm being encompassed by potential foes. He can’t afford to be too sensitive.
So, the Fellowship tell him that Gandalf died fighting a Balrog.
Celeborn already knew there was a Balrog in Moria – Lorien has had trouble with it before. The last time the dwarves disturbed it, many of the Lorien elves, including Nimrodel, fled before it to the sea. Amroth, King of Lorien (possibly Celeborn and Galadriel’s son), followed Nimrodel, whom he loved, with the tragic result that he was drowned in the Bay of Belfalas. Gandalf – if he was any kind of loremaster at all – must also have known that it was there. So Celeborn says, in so many words ‘Why did the old fool try to go through Moria?!’
Naturally this doesn’t endear him to anyone. But that doesn’t stop it from being a perfectly apt comment. It isn’t touchy-feely, it isn’t sympathetic, but it is on the ball. Gandalf was the only useful Maia left on the side of Good since Saruman had been corrupted and Radagast had got sidetracked from the whole ‘saving the world’ business. With two evil Maia to contend with, (Sauron and Saruman), the world needed Gandalf. He should have been more careful and avoided the one foe in Middle Earth capable of doing this to him. (Remember, at this point nobody has any idea that Gandalf will ever be coming back.)
Then, because, if you’ve had long enough to get over it, you may come to forgive the Dwarves for stirring up a Balrog next door the first time, but it’s something of a push to forgive them for – unbelievably! – doing the same bloody thing again! he loses his temper and threatens to throw not only Gimli out, but the whole of the Fellowship with him.
I find this interesting, because – to me – this is Celeborn’s moment of temptation. He’s just discovered that the Good-side’s Maia is dead, and there is a wide-awake Balrog on the doorstep which, conceivably, he will have to fight. But instead of being tempted to take and use the Ring, his major temptation seems to be to get the thing out of his realm as soon as possible.
It may be that his reaction stems from a wish to protect his wife – given that she’s just been handed several new reasons to take the Ring. Or an attempt to protect his people from (a) a Balrog sent by Sauron to fetch the Ring, or (b) Galadriel, should she take it, now that there is no Gandalf around to restrain her. But his criticism of Gandalf, and his wish that he’d never let the Fellowship into Lorien in the first place, ought to be seen – in my opinion – as the initial, unfiltered response of an elf who (as Faramir will say later) is ‘wise enough to know there are some perils from which a man must flee.’
Now, OK, his reaction – taking it out on Gimli – is not nice. But it can hardly be described as dull, apathetic or stupid. It’s not a case of having his head in the clouds, but rather a case of briefly snapping under too much bad news.
At this point, Galadriel steps in to calm him down, get him to the point where he doesn’t want (metaphorically) to send ’em all off to get a Silmaril from Morgoth. She does this by appealing to his better nature; asking him to remember that it isn’t Gimli’s fault for going where Gandalf took him, and to feel sympathy with Gimli’s desire to look at his ancient city – something which Celeborn, whose own homeland lies destroyed under the sea, can easily understand. Then she soothes the guest’s ruffled feathers by showing the compassion and empathy appropriate to a great Lady.
One of a medieval Queen’s roles is exactly this – to provide a dampener in an environment of male pride, to be a ‘peace weaver’, to be the restraining and loving face of womanhood in a male-dominated society. It’s as much a ceremonial function as the gift giving or cup bearing she does later.
“As the hostess at the event, the lady is the binding force for the gathering. The warriors stand in a relationship of ‘fictive kinship’ whereby each of them is adopted into a family structure within the hall. The lady is the matriarchal figure in that scheme.” (Stephen Pollington: ‘The Mead-Hall. Feasting in Anglo-Saxon England’)
In yielding to his wife’s feminine gentleness, all Celeborn is doing is allowing her to fulfil the function of a Queen. He’s not being a door mat, he’s not being hen-pecked. He is acting in a social context which is now foreign to us, but to Tolkien would have been as familiar as Beowulf. It’s a social context in which the Queen is picked and valued for her wisdom and her mystical powers, and her council is listened to. That doesn’t make her the ruler of the country – the ruler of the country is the Lord. It makes her, in ceremonial terms, the mother of the country, to be listened to and loved as a mother, and revered as a sage.
At any rate, at Galadriel’s display of sensitivity, Celeborn’s better nature reasserts itself, and he apologizes to Gimli, saying that he was overcome with emotion.
Notice – he’s not (despite what reams of fan fiction might tell you) the calm one out of the two of them. He can be greatly moved by grief, he can clearly be angry and aggressive. We haven’t seen an elf like this since the Silmarillion! Surrounded by the distantly regretful, uber-cautious Noldor, like Gildor, Galadriel and Elrond, Celeborn is – to me – one of the very few truly alive ones left in a community anaesthetized by guilt, uncertainty and sea-longing.
Having apologized and set the incident behind him, Celeborn finishes by saying “I will do what I can to aid you, each according to his wish and need.” Which, as far as he’s concerned, seems to be the end of the matter. And why shouldn’t it be? He’s seen them, heard their news, and decided to help them. End of story, nothing more to say.
Again – notice that it’s Celeborn who makes the decision to help the Fellowship; Celeborn who speaks for Lorien, committing Lorien’s resources to the task. And notice he does it before Galadriel does her mystic bit. It’s only after he has decided what to do that Galadriel gets involved.
She begins by doing a PR job on herself, which is so successful that I hardly know anyone who doesn’t think she’s wonderful, despite the fact that ‘blowing your own trumpet’ and boasting about your own achievements is generally regarded (at least in Britain) as a sign of insecurity.
She then examines the Fellowship’s hearts. Evidently she misses Boromir’s little problem, because there’s no sign she’s spoken to Aragorn about this afterwards.
Then Celeborn closes the conversation and dismisses them, telling them to rest and reassuring them that no one’s even going to talk about the Quest for a while, until they’re recovered.
On this evidence he’s not dull or stupid. He’s terse, he’s succinct. He doesn’t need a lot of waffling around the point. He decides what to do and does it, and doesn’t feel the need to show off or impress people. He has a bit of an anger management problem, but – given the provocation – we are probably catching him on the worst of bad days. And, less noticeably, he has a surprising quiet humility. The ability to accept a correction and act on it, in order to avoid behaving unjustly, is surely a good quality in a king. One which his famous forbear, Elu Thingol, could have done with.
When they say goodbye to the Fellowship (in Chapter 8; ‘Farewell to Lorien’) you get the same sort of pattern again. Celeborn speaks first. He finds out who’s going. He asks if they know where they’re going and reminds them that the direct road of the Quest does not go through Minas Tirith. When he finds out that they don’t know what to do, he gives them boats, which will (a) buy Aragorn a bit more time to think about it, and (b) considerably speed up the journey – and we know how much speed is needed by this point.
Then he describes the land they will journey through – rather like a man giving travel directions, and warns them about Fangorn forest (in very general terms).
Of course, given that Merry and Pippin do later go to Fangorn and find help there, this seems like a stupid piece of advice. But consider that Merry and Pip were very nearly stood on and squashed by Treebeard, and only avoided the wrath of the Huorns because they were with him. Considering that Treebeard himself (grudgingly) agrees that there are patches of his country worse than the Old Forest, it’s actually quite a reasonable warning.
As this is a character study, I don’t think I can pass over Celeborn’s interaction with Boromir at this point. Celeborn, the Lord of this country, its king in all but name, advises them against Fangorn and then, (in the sort of courtesy that he’s capable of when he’s not under serious stress), acknowledges that perhaps Aragorn and Boromir already know this. Boromir responds by saying ‘what I have heard seems to me for the most part old wives’ tales…’ and goes on to boast about his long journeying, and conclude that ‘I do not much doubt that I shall find a way through Rohan, and Fangorn too, if need be.’
I know I am not the only one who thinks that Boromir’s bluster at this point verges on the outright disrespectful (and indeed, we know from Boromir’s own words that he holds ‘these elves and half-elves and wizards’ in contempt.) So Celeborn’s mild ‘Then I need say no more,’ is, in my opinion, a remarkable exercise in self restraint. Clearly – although he can get very annoyed indeed – it isn’t over anything as petty as his own self importance. He gently tells Boromir off, yes, but not for any disrespect towards himself – only for his disregard of knowledge just because it’s old.
Celeborn’s caution; ‘…do not despise the lore that has come down from distant years; for oft it may chance that old wives keep in memory word of things that once were needful for the wise to know.’ Is as close as we get in the text to a defence of Middle-earth and Tolkien’s life’s work to the critics. Middle-earth itself is rooted and sprung out of lore that has come down from distant years, despised by intellectuals, and preserved by nursemaids and nannies in tales told to children. That it has value far beyond the sniggering of those who think adults should not be reading fairy-tales, cannot be doubted by those of us for whom it is a central pillar of our thought and understanding.
Much more could be written on this subject. As is the way of wisdom, Celeborn’s statement looks inconsequential, or obvious, but in fact has astonishing ramifications. I won’t go into them here, because they have been covered much, much better in Tom Shippey’s books. ‘The Road to Middle Earth’ goes deeply into the ancient lore on which Lord of the Rings is based, and ‘JRR Tolkien, Author of the Century’ explains how that lore still has relevance and importance today. For the purposes of this essay, then, suffice it to say that Tolkien would have been in total agreement with Celeborn at this point.
But to get back to the character study… Again, what we’re seeing in this scene is Celeborn doing all the down to earth, material, practical stuff. Now, granted, he doesn’t have the same magic all-knowingness of Galadriel – he has to ask people questions instead, like everyone else in the world – but when you look at what he’s actually doing it’s all hard-headed, straightforward, practical thinking. Then Galadriel – once more fulfilling a ceremonial role – gives out gifts, and they say goodbye.
And then, of course, Celeborn leads the army of Lorien in a war against Dol Guldur, repels the enemy three times, drives them back and takes Sauron’s citadel. Also not the actions of a weak or absent minded non-entity.
Part of the problem is, I think, that in order to see Celeborn accurately, you have to take Galadriel out of the picture. She is a character with whom Tolkien seems to have fallen in love – throughout his life he revised her again and again to make her more and more perfect, more and more powerful. Naturally therefore the focus in the Lothlorien chapters is on her. She’s the Noldo, she’s the Ringbearer – and she is the showy, ambitious one of the two of them. The one who is most respected (in the case of the Rohirrim, most feared) and most influential in the outer world.
If Celeborn is at ease living with such a wife, this presents a problem for us – the readers – because we are sexist, and we try to put our own twentieth century interpretations on the marriage. We say to ourselves ‘his wife is more powerful than he is, therefore he must be a worthless non-entity’ (because, of course, a “real” man could not bear to marry a woman who might, in any way, threaten his own glory.)
Now this is a strange and rather sad assumption. If Celeborn has the wisdom to value intelligence, power and compassion in his wife, the humility and rock solid self assurance not to care if she gets more attention than he does – how does this make him a jerk?
It’s clear from the events in Eregion, or the fact that he stays in Middle-earth when she leaves, that – when they don’t agree on a course of action – Celeborn goes his own way and does what he thinks is right. So he’s in no way under her thumb.
In fact they seem to be a very successful partnership. Given how they work things out in the Lothlorien chapters, it looks as though she does the mystical ‘seeing into the future’ and ‘making magic items’ stuff, and he does the nitty gritty practical stuff of making sure people know where to go and how to get there. If she’s the strategist of the marriage, he’s the tactician.
And given people’s near worship of Galadriel, it seems strange to me that they don’t trust either her implicit judgement in choosing who to marry, or her explicit statement about Celeborn’s wisdom, and strength as a ‘giver of gifts beyond the power of kings’. Rather than saying that her judgement failed and continues to fail when it comes to her husband, perhaps what Tolkien intended was for the reader to think that he must be a pretty special guy, or she wouldn’t have married him.
To sum up: It would have been nice to meet the real Celeborn on film – the intense, practical Lord of a small, threatened country. Sharp of mind and sometimes of speech; passionate, tactless – recalling the more emotional and dangerous elves of the Silmarillion – but also decisive, generous, approachable (notice that even Merry feels comfortable enough with him to volunteer his own opinions,) unconcerned about his own glory, deeply untempted by the Ring of Power. Both as helpful an elf lord as you could wish to meet, and a loving and supportive husband.
And it so nearly happened! The scene of Celeborn talking to Aragorn, in the Extended Edition of FotR, is perfect. That’s how he should have been throughout. If he had… Perhaps people would have been put off by his assumption that he had every right to criticize Gandalf (it’s not as if the track record of the Maia he has met in his lifetime is a particularly encouraging one, after all). Perhaps people would have disliked him for his evident prejudice against dwarves (something he shares with Legolas at this point). Perhaps they would have been surprised to meet an elf who was openly angry. But I seriously don’t think anyone could have found him merely dull.