The climax of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power‘s first episode is a sucker. The weary warrior Galadriel spends the entire episode wrestling with an important decision, and in the final scene, she makes a crucial decision in a riot of light, music, and ocean water. It is wonderful. It is moving!
But also, what the hell just happened? Why was there all that light? That seems like a much bigger deal than just getting in and out of a boat?
Sail west with us, reader, and we’ll unpack The Rings of Power‘s touch with the divinity of Middle-earth.
[Ed. note: This article contains spoilers for The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power episode 1.]
If you’ve seen the episode then you know: Galadriel spends the hour balancing her belief that the great war is not over, as Sauron is still at large, against her desire to go to the Undying Lands on the other return side of the sea. In the end, just as her comrades burst into a homecoming song and the divine light of the land of the gods descended upon their ship, Galadriel jumped overboard. She takes one last look at her home, then turns and begins her long swim across an entire ocean back to shore.
Because elves are just that, man.
Rings of Power shows all of this with only light explanation: it is framed as a journey home, but without examining much more of Valinor’s importance to elves in general, or to Galadriel and her kin in particular. The show may have more explanations up its sleeve, especially as it looks like Galadriel will be spending a lot of time with human characters next – they’ll likely have questions about how she ended up in the middle of the ocean.
But if you just can’t wait, let’s unpack everything that’s going on here.
What is Galadriel giving up?
As is typical of JRR Tolkien, he had many ways of referring to the Immortal Lands, the mysterious home of the elves. If you want to talk about the continental landmass, it’s Aman. If that’s where you want to talk about the nation of elves and gods, Valinor is it. And if you just want to refer to all of this in general, you can call it the Immortal Lands or just the West with a capital W.
Most elves in wider Middle-earth have never seen Aman, but they know it is a home the gods have prepared for them, a home they will eventually move to when they get tired of living in Middle-earth – and one whose spirits will go to resurrection if they ever die. But for Galadriel and her kin, a tribe called the Noldor, it is different. The Noldor were all indeed in Valinor, and lived for centuries amidst its splendor – Galadriel was even born there when Rings of Power shows in its opening scenes.
At the beginning of the elves’ war against Morgoth, the Noldor left Valinor to exact revenge on the dark god who had stolen the work of their greatest craftsman. The gods advised them against it, but they did it anyway, and in the process they got into a boat fight that escalated for the first time to elves killing other elves. As punishment, the gods cursed the Noldor terribly.
Under that curse, the fall of Mandos, all Noldor aims would turn to evil, the treasures they sought to salvage would always elude them, and their quest would be marred by duplicity and betrayal, even by their own kin. Forbidden to return to Valinor forever, they were also cursed to grow weary of the wide world and long for a home they would never see again.
By the time Morgoth was defeated, most of the Noldor had died violently in one way or another, but in recognition of their help, the gods pardoned any of the Noldor who opposed Morgoth. That is why Galadriel’s soldiers are so determined to set aside their task and return from the field. They haven’t returned from the front since the end of the war, and if they do, they can go home. You can free yourself from centuries of longing under the sinking of Mandos.
But for Galadriel, returning to Valinor has an additional, personal meaning. The final aspect of the curse was perhaps the most terrifying: the Noldorin elves who left Aman would be denied their immortality, as Galadriel mentions in it The Rings of Power when she says her people had no word for death.
wait how does this work
Elves are immortal but not indestructible. When an elf is killed in battle, her spirit separates from her physical form and travels to a place in Valinor called the Halls of Mandos, overseen by Middle-earth’s god of the afterlife, a man named (you guessed it) Mandos. His realm is a system of great caves and subterranean chambers lined with god-woven tapestries depicting the entire story.
Most of the elves are then given new bodies for their spirits to inhabit and join with all the other elves living in Valinor. Some elves stay in the halls for a while because their experiences – like violent trauma – can make them suicidal for a while. And as in the Fall of Mandos, the gods can also simply forbid certain humans from being given new bodies, forcing them to remain in the halls of Mandos as sad, disembodied shadows until the end of time.
Tolkien himself never settled on the reason Galadriel stayed in Middle-earth after the Noldorin ban was lifted, which is what it is Rings of Power lots of space to create. In these first few episodes, Galadriel wants to finish the job her late brother started and put an end to Sauron’s machinations. This doesn’t necessarily contradict Tolkien either; Galadriel had a brother, Finrod, who was captured by Sauron and died in the Dark Lord’s dungeons in a single, unarmed battle with a werewolf, whom he also killed.
It’s not particularly relevant, but I really just wanted to mention the werewolf fight.
Until the fall of Mandos was undone, Galadriel would have had no reason to hope that Finrod would never live again, not until the end of days when the supreme god of Middle-earth, Eru Ilúvatar, would destroy the world and restore its original, perfect purpose .
So Galadriel does not simply give up going home and being freed from divinely inspired longing like her kin. She also refrains from seeing her brother again, at least for a long time. No wonder it takes her until the very last minute to make her choice.
But why does Galadriel give up?
I can’t say for sure. But I asked Galadriel’s actress Morfydd Clark to hire her.
Clark said a simple way of putting it would be that Galadriel doesn’t feel that she deserves to return to the elves’ promised land because of her responsibility to protect Middle-earth from Sauron. The difficulty of this choice stems from the longing for the undying lands of the west that all elves feel, at least to some degree, even characters like Legolas and Elrond.
“There’s that Welsh word, hiraeth, that doesn’t have an English translation,” Clark told me over Zoom. “It’s a longing and longing for a place you can never go back to, almost a place you might not even have experienced. Memories of your ancestors and things like that.”
She cited Welsh entertainer Max Boyce’s “Hiraeth” as an example. The song’s only English verse is: “Tell me then, ye scholars, why.” hiraeth more than longing? Why when the darkness wants to hide me hiraeth come and sleep beside me?”
But for Clark, Galadriels hiraeth for her homeland is balanced by her hiraeth for their responsibility. Galadriel fears that “if she returns to Valinor without completing what she was supposed to do, the hiraeth will still be there. And that would be the most unbearable thing.”
The longing for more than a simple heavenly existence was key to Tolkien’s vision for Galadriel, one of the most unique characters he created for Middle-earth, and Clark’s interpretation of it Rings of Power‘s improvisation fits the theme quite well. It’s hard to imagine anything worse than being denied your allotted place in heaven—other than being the only person in heaven who deeply yearns to leave.
https://www.polygon.com/23331177/rings-power-galadriel-jumps-boat-episode-1-ending-lord-rings-explained Explained why Galadriel jumps at the end of The Rings of Power Episode 1