That Darn Elf a random musing

and more


Whose folk know the swift Forest River.

"There are those among you who can handle boats: Legolas whose folk know the swift Forest River; and Boromir of Gondor; and Aragorn the traveller." I skipped right over Celeborn's words the first time I read this, I had no use for floatin' boats; they were to jump off of to look at the sunken boat. Then I journeyed with a friend to her buddy's cabin in the Adirondacks. The cabin was on the shores of a great lake called Franklin Falls Pond, more like a small inland sea. There were two sea kayaks at the cabin, which I ignored till I discovered the lake's visibility was approximately to the end of my arm. I hung up my snorkel and said, "Well, what about those floatin' boats?" Got in one, weebled, wobbled, yawed and did the hula, and finally got the big blue boat to go in a straight line. I didn't get out of it for the rest of the week. Less than a year later I had my own sea kayak ("Makenuk's Fin"...makenuk is Kwakiutl for orca, and the fin is a reference to a northwest coast Indian legend in which the orca-folk take off their fins to walk on land in human form: the fin becopmes the boat...the paddles, Ramalinte and Minya, are named in Elvish). I have discovered a whole world I never knew: cormorants in the mist, eagles soaring over the glacial boulders of the Susquehanna, the swift curents of that great river, dancing the tides offshore, paddling silently beside dolphins, finding strange and inaccessible corners of a familiar island, weathering a storm in a duckblind, reaching the rock with the ancient petroglyphs.

Now I read those lines: Legolas, whose folk know the swift Forest River...and I have a whole world to connect them to. He has known the feel of the bottom coming up under him in the shallows, the rush of adrenalin as he hits fast water, the feeling of soaring silently like a bird upon the wind. He could glide past the painted turtles on the rocks without ever sending them with a startled splash into the water. He could watch a beaver at work, or keep pace with a hawk overhead. He would know the harsh sound of a heron's call, and the ratcheting cry of the kingfisher. Water would be as much his element as trees.

"Tell me Legolas, why did I come on this Quest? Little did I know where the chief peril lay!...Torment in the dark was the danger I feared, and it did not hold me back. But I would not have come had I known the danger of light and joy. Now I have taken my worst wound in this parting..." Gimli is smitten with Galadriel, (as some of us are with Legolas. perhaps) some Elvish cupid's arrow has gone straight through his heart. Legolas is no insensitive clod here as he offers words of comfort to a friend: "Alas for us all...for such is the way of it, to find and lose, as it seems to those whose boat is on the running stream...I count you blessed, Gimli Son of Gloin: for your loss you suffer of your own free will, and you might have chosen otherwise. But you have not forsaken your companions, and the least reward that you shall have is that the memory of Lothlorien shall remain ever clear and unstained in your heart and shall neither fade not grow stale."

"Memory is not what the heart desires. That is only a mirror...or so says the heart of Gimli the Dwarf. Elves may see things otherwise. Indeed I have heard that for them memory is more like to the waking world than to a dream. Not so for Dwarves." But we see the difference in their viewpoints. Elves are intensely imaginative, memory is not like a faded photo, or half-remembered dream. They seem to be in that zen state of be here now, yet with their clear memories, living in the whole timestream at once. I suspect, from reading the biographies, and Letters of JRR Tolkien, that though he identified himself with the Hobbits most often, that he was more than a little Elvish; memory and imagination being as powerful for him as the waking world.

The Fellowship sets out upon the Great River, the Anduin, and eventually the Brown Lands rise into bleak wolds over which flows a chill air from the east. There is little speech and no laughter among the Company now, each of them busy with their own thoughts. "...the heart of Legolas was running under the stars of a summer night in some northern glade amid the beechwoods." He is an utterly natural creature, tied to the rhythms of earth and tree and star. And in love with it. If you dropped him into the midst of New York City, he would die.

"The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness". (John Muir).

Here, on the banks of the Anduin, we catch a glimpse of Legolas' keen vision, as he verifies Aragorn's sighting of a faraway eagle. This echoes of the Faithful Indian Sidekick in all those old westerns and Daniel Boone stories...Hawkeye, Last of the Mohicans. But it also is a physical representation of something in the Elvish soul; that ability to see beyond the surface of things. To see far, in space and time. If you live forever, you see the world like Hawk, not Mouse. You see the whole great round world spread beneath you, you have a broader perspective. This little incident, this day, is but a passing ripple in the stream of time.

Later Legolas answers Sam and Frodo's musings about Lothlorien and how time seemed to flow differently there: "nay, time does not tarry ever, but change and growth is not in all things and places alike. For the Elves, the world moves, and it moves both very swift and very slow. Swift, because they themselves change little, and all else fleets by: it is a grief to them. Slow, because they do not count the running years, not for themselves. The passing seasons are but ripples ever repeated in the long long stream. Yet beneath the Sun, all things must wear to an end at last." There is a joke among American Indians about running on Indian time: whenever you get there. Those cultures are rooted in the natural world and its rythms, not the precise clock time of the industrial age. Science Fiction fandom had fannish time, the medieval historical group SCA had SCAdian time, and I was born late, with an allergy to clocks. Running on Elvish time really isn't just a symptom of severe ADD, it's the way humans began, it's our natural state.



Suddenly the great bow of Lorien sang.

On the Anduin: "Legolas laid down his paddle and took up the bow that he had brought from Lorien. Then he sprang ashore and climbed a few paces up the bank.Stringing the bow and fitting an arrow he turned, peering back over the river into the darkness. Across the river there were shrill cries but nothing could be seen. " Unlike the films, he does not carry his bow strung. Tolkien knew enough about archery to get this right; keeping a bow strung all the time destroys it. Stringing a bow can be an annoying, difficult and time-consuming thing in a fight, but if you had five hundred years to practice, you could do it in a heartbeat. From these lines we learn that while Legolas sees far, unlike our D&D Elves, he cannot see in the dark. There is a line in The Fall of Gondolin (an early Tolkien tale, now found in the HoME series) about Legolas Greenleaf, whose eyes were like cats' for the dark. That is a Noldorin resident of Gondolin, not our Sindarin prince, but it is the first use of any of the names of the Fellowship in Tolkien's writings.

"Frodo looked up at the Elf, standing tall above him as he gazed into the night, seeking a mark to shoot at. His head was dark, crowned with sharp white stars that glittered in the black pools of the sky behind. But now rising and sailing up from the South the great couds advanced, sending out dark outriders into the starry fields. A sudden dread fell on the Company.

"Elbereth Gilthoniel !" sighed Legolas as he looked up." Just a really beautiful image, and one that hints at his spirituality. Elbereth is the Starkindler, the Vala Varda of the stars. Some have taken this line "His head was dark" to mean dark-haired. That would be splitting hairs: he is merely silhouetted against the sky. And again, it's a starry sky; Tolkien seems to associate his Elves with stars and the night more often than not.

One of my small beefs with the film is that Faramir gets to shoot down a Nazgul. That shot belongs to Legolas, here: "Suddenly the great bow of Lorien sang. Shrill went the arrow from the elven-string. Frodo looked up. Almost above him the winged shape swerved. There was a harsh croaking scream, as it fell out of the air, vanishing down into the gloom of the eastern shore. The sky was clean again."

"Praised be the bow of Galadriel, and the hand and eye of Legolas! That was a mighty shot in the dark my friend! " Well said, Gimli. "The great bow of Lorien sang " sets a wonderful image in my head. And inspired me to get several bows over the years, and make a few of my own quivers, though I remain somewhat archery-impaired.

Archery is an old art, one that combines the necessity of hunting and killing something to survive with the beauty of wood and feather and flight. "So long as the new moon returns in heaven a bent, beautiful bow, so long will the fascination of archery keep hold of the hearts of Men." (Maurice Thompson, The Witchery of Archery)

A Lakota (Sioux) warrior might say of a poor bow:it doesn't sing well.

The Pawnees say: The moon gave us the bow, the sun gave us the arrow.

The mooncurve of the bow is obvious...the arrow though, is the sun-ray, though its flight is a curve (hence the word ARCHery). Moon and Sun, Day and Night, Male and Female, Yin and Yang, both energies, both cosmic principles combined.

In most native legend, moon is female, sun is male...the bow has a femaleness about it, releasing, giving birth, roundness, curves...Diana the Huntress of Greek myth is often shown with a bow which is also the curve of a new moon.

In Elvish myth, the sun is female, how would this change the imagery? The mooncurve of the bow would be male. The arrow the ray of the female Sun. The arrow is also lightning. The bow itself combines plant (wood) and animal (the string of sinew or elfhair, the feathers of birds). Stillness (of the archer) and speed (of the arrow). Strength and finesse. Sight and flight.

From German philosopher Eugen Herrigal's Zen and the Art of Archery: Is it I who draw the bow, or is it the bow that draws me? Do I hit the goal or does the goal hit me? Bow, arrow, goal, ego, all melt into one another, so that I can no longer separate them. And even the need to separate has gone. For as soon as I take the bow and shoot, everything becomes so clear and straightforward and ridiculously simple. "Now, at last," the Master broke in, "the bowstring has cut right through you."

Think how good you'd be with five hundred years of practice.

The most tireless of all the Fellowship.

When the Company reaches the rapids of Sarn Gebir, they must find a portage around them. It is Legolas and Aragorn who set out, with orders to the Company to "wait for us one day. If we do not return in that time, you will know that evil has indeed befallen us." They actually return in a few hours, unscathed. Legolas, once again, has served as a sort of Faithful Indian Sidekick to the Ranger, as he often does throughout the rest of the tale. This too is an archetype; the Hero Companion, the Sidekick. And fairly often Hero and Sidekick have distinctly different qualities: think of Kirk and Spock in Classic Star Trek.The Lone Ranger and Tonto, or Daniel Boone and Mingo or a dozen other westerns. The Hero is the classic steely-eyed, square-jawed type, and the Sidekick is the slightly odd one, the one with strange and esoteric qualities the Hero doesn't have; whether it's the ability to mind-meld, or track a wind whisper across Kansas, or understand the speech of trees, the Sidekick is yin to the Hero's yang.

On the actual portage around the rapids, "it needed the strength of the two Men to lift and haul the boats over the ground the Company now had to cross...One by one, Boromir and Aragorn carried the boats, while the others toiled and scrambled after them with the baggage." This suggests that Legolas is rather like those D&D Elves I've played for years: smaller, lighter, with more points in the agility and dexterity categories than in strength. Cheetah, not lion. Whippet, not mastiff. On Caradhras too, it was Aragorn and Boromir who did the heavy job of snow removal.



Then there's this; Tolkien's wrathful comment on a too-pretty pictorial rendering of Legolas, as related by Christopher Tolkien in Lost Tales 2;

"He was tall as a young tree, lithe, immensely strong, able to swiftly draw a great warbow and shoot down a Nazgul, endowed with the tremendous vitality of Elvish bodies, so hard and resistant to hurt that he went only in light shoes over rock or through snow, the most tireless of all the Fellowship."

Something draws near, I can feel it.

"A shadow and a threat has been growing in my mind...something draws near, I can feel it." Nice line from the film, shows that Elvish precognition, that sight that goes beyond the sight of Men. In The Book, it is Aragorn who utters most of that line. Lest we forget; he was raised by Elves and has some Elvish blood.

Below the Argonath, while Frodo is on Amon Hen, the Company waits, and must decide on its course: west with Boromir, or east to the Fear and Shadow. Legolas' voice is heard here. "Grevious is our loss. Yet we must needs make up our minds without his (Gandalf) aid. Why cannot we decide and so help Frodo? Let us call him back and then vote! I should vote for Minas Tirith." Note Tolkien's exclamation point. Legolas shows a certain amount of impulsiveness and impatience here. Let's go! He reminds me a bit of my gung-ho sled dogs, or that smaller, but restive and fiery warhorse he aquires later.

Gimli says: I would choose Minas Tirith but if he (Frodo) does not, then I follow him.

Legolas agrees: And I too will go with him.

Elf and Dwarf are now fast friends, and thinking on the same track. They are solid Hero Companions, faithful friends who will ride to hell and back with the Hero. They are probably more aware of the dangers they would face than the somewhat naive Hobbits, but that does not hold them back. Good guys to have on your side.

Aragorn chooses Sam, and Gimli and himself as Frodo's potential companions, while everyone else goes to Minas Tirith.

Then all hell breaks loose as Boromir tries to take the Ring.

In the film, Legolas seems to be possessed of one of those magical quivers of never-ending arrows that my D&D characters sometimes aquire. In The Book, he is forever running out of arrows, and gleaning more. After he and Gimli find Aragorn mourning over the dead Boromir, Legolas searches through the horde of dead orcs for spent and undamaged arrows. He finds "not a few that were undamaged and longer in the shaft than such arrows as the Orcs were accustomed to use." He studies them closely, for they are strange, and Aragorn notices a difference in some of the dead orcs...this is their first look at the high-tech orcs of Saruman.

It is Legolas and Aragorn who sing Boromir's funeral song. I don't know whether they made it up right there, or modified something they already knew. It seems to be made up on the spot, and Man and Elf are enough in sync to create something beautiful spontaneously. Add poet and bard to the list of Legolas' finer qualities. Aragorn's not too shabby either, but then he was raised by Elves. And in Two Towers, where this part of the Fellowship is boiled down to the Three Hunters, the Three friends, a close friendship between Legolas and Aragorn emerges. They should have known each other before; it is Aragorn who leaves Gollum under the care of the watchful Elves of Mirkwood, so certainly he would kow Thranduil's son. But there is no sign of that recognition at the Council of Elrond. Yet much happens offscreen, even in The Book. Or perhaps Tolkien just forgot to mention it.


O.R.C.s

The Three Hunters come back to the glade where Boromir fell, looking for the orc trail "...it needed little skill to find..."

"No other folk make such a trampling. It seems their delight to slash and beat down growing things that are not even in their way." This is one of my favorite Legolas lines. It shows his deep empathy for the natural world, and for other lifeforms. I think of it when I see another bit of rampant development destroying farm or field or wood, or someone dumping garbage in a beautiful place, or off-road vehicles roaring over a path that should be trod lightly and silently.

Saw this t-shirt on a guy once: O.R.C.s

"What's that?" I asked him.

"Off Road Cycles."

Yeah. Orcs.

No other folk make such a trampling.

The Three Hunters leap away in pursuit of the orc band that has Merry and Pippin, here Aragorn assumes the role of tracker, seeing close up, like Mouse, Legolas sees like Hawk, and as they enter the wide flat plains of Rohan, his skill is needed. As they hit the green grass "Legolas took a deep breath, like one that drinks a great draught after long thirst in barren places. "Ah! the green smell! It is better than much sleep. Let us run!" I never noticed that green has a smell until I spent time on the water. Coming back from an ocean dive, thirty miles offshore, you can smell the land coming up. On the north end of the Chesapeake bay, where the great river (Susquehanna) flows down, you can paddle out till the land is a blue blur, and when you return, the green smell welcomes you back. On a small winding creek in the middle of a woodland, green breaks through the greys and browns of winter, and in the middle of the clean cool smell of water, it hits you like a heady draught of miruvor.

They find the dropped brooch of Pippin, and Legolas says: Let us hope he did not pay too dearly for his boldness, "Come! Let us go on! The thought of those merry young folk driven like cattle burns my heart." He cares deeply about his companions, and will die defending them. As nightshade falls, they discuss whether to rest or go on by night. Legolas is eager as a hound on a scent, he would run till he dropped; "My heart bids me go on. But we must hold together. I will follow your counsel." He says to Aragorn. Here again, he bows to the experience of Aragorn. There is no trace of princely arrogance. True nobility serves.

Just before dawn, Aragorn rises and sees Legolas "standing, gazing northwards into the darkness, thoughtful and silent as a young tree on a windless night." Tolkien's tree-imagery again, and a truly beautiful image, echoed by several in the films: him running catlike up those rocks, freezing in midstride to peer out at the approaching creabain...standing silent and watchful by the doors of Moria, hidden in treeshadow...standing still as a young tree, staring out at the veiled stars while the Rohirrim party inside, "time to see what the wind and sky are doing..." in many of these images there is an aloneness to him. Whether he is thoroughly comfortable in that aloneness, or whether he feels alone, the only Elf in the party, one whom no one else will totally understand...we don't know. I think these are moments when we catch him being most Elvish; meditating, being at one with the Universe.

"They are far far away, I know in my heart they have not rested this night. Only an eagle could overtake them now." That Elvish sight again, as he sadly turns to Aragorn. And it seems that he has not slept at all. A little later, as Aragorn rises from where he has lain on the ground, listening for rumor of marching feet, Legolas impatiently insists "Let us go!"

'As before, Legolas was first afoot, if indeed he had ever slept. "Awake! Awake! It is a red dawn. Strange things await us by the eaves of the forest. Good or evil, I do not know, but we are called. Awake!" Pacing, champing at the bit, raring to go. This is the side of Legolas opposite to the thoughtful and silent side. When you hitch up a team of racing sled dogs, they leap and sing and yodel at the top of their lungs. The rig, or sled, is anchored to a large immoveable object, like a tree. You point them in the general direction you want to go, then release the anchor line. Zooooom. They're gone. I think I'll name the next dog Legolas...sled dogs can run on snow too.



The strange paths of elvish dreams.

As they race across the plains of Rohan, sometimes running, sometimes striding; 'Only Legolas still stepped as lightly as ever, his feet hardly seeming to press the grass, leaving no footprints as he passed...' I love this Elvish skill more than the great stunts he did in the movie. The idea of living lightly on the land, of moving so softly over it you leave no trace, no harm to other living things. I have a vague memory of a TV documentary showing some sort of monks on the far side of the world, who at the beginning of the day give prayers for the small insects and such that they might inadvertly trample.

'...and he could sleep, if sleep it could be called by Men, resting his mind in the strange paths of Elvish dreams, even as he walked open-eyed in the light of this world.' Been there, done that. This resonated thoroughly with me. After reading the biographies of Tolkien and his letters, I think he drew this one from his own experience. No doubt his mind wandered often in random daydreams through Middle-earth, probably when he was supposed to be grading papers, or paying bills, or some other totally mundane thing. He did write the first line of The Hobbit on a blank page stuck between two homework assignments. I think most creative types walk the strange paths of Elvish dreams fairly often. I certainly do. And Elves seem able to readily and easily walk in both worlds at once; they are dreamers, and yet capable survivors in the real world.

It's not easy being green

"Let us go up onto this green hill." There is something uplifting about these words that Legolas says to his companions. The hill is a high place, above the sea of grass, a place from which they might see something to guide their path. It's green, full of life, though it has none of the trees familiar to Legolas, it is a cathedral, a temple, a mound, a sacred place raised above the rest of the round world. Legolas' name, too means green leaf. Something bright and living and hopeful in the midst of the dark.

Eomer: Do we walk in legends or on the green earth in the daylight?

Aragorn: The green earth say you? That is a mighty matter of legend, though you tread it under the light of day.

"Ah! the green smell! It is better than much sleep. Let us run!"


Elbereth.

'The night grew colder. Aragorn and Gimli slept fitfully, and whenever they awoke they saw Legolas standing beside them, or walking to and fro singing softly to himself in his own tongue, and as he sang the white stars opened in the hard black vault above.' The image of Legolas against the stars recurs several times. Tolkien connects his Elves to the stars; the People of the Great Journey, the People of the Stars as it says in the Appendix. The Elves were awakened under the stars, they sing to Elbereth, Starkindler, there is a spiritual connection here as well as a physical love of the night. Elves and stars are light in the dark. The glimmer of lights in the trees of the Galadhrim, the glow of silver lanterns of Wandering Companies in the woods. 'The light of Earendil's star...a light in dark places, when all other lights go out.'

Legolas fears for the Hobbits, but there is nothing he can do at the moment. He does not waste that moment fretting, or sleeping fitfully. He sings to the stars, to Elbereth. He is in the moment. Be here now. Tomorrow he will run again, to the edge of that round plain...

and beyond.



Tribbles and Rohirrim.

Scene: the Starship Enterprise, mid 1960s, Kirk has just discovered where all the tribbles went: into the quadrotriticale grain which has apparently been poisoned. He has opened a grain storage hatch and had about a million tribbles land on his head. It was one of the great visual jokes of the series.

Kirk utters a line like: "There must be millions of them!"

Spock replies with Vulcan precision: "One million two hundred and eighty-seven thousand, nine hundred and forty-one." (Or something like that, I had to pull that one from memory). His precise number, deadpan expression, and cocked eyebrow are the punchline to the whole joke.

Scene: the Plains of Rohan. Aragorn pastes himself to the ground, listening intently. At last he leaps up and says "Many riders on swift steeds are coming towards us!"

Legolas is standing by, 'shading his bright elven-eyes with his long slender hand: "Yes, there are one hundred and five. Yellow is their hair, and bright are their spears. Their leader is very tall."

You can almost see the cocked eyebrow and the deapan expression. The pointy ears are already there.

Aragorn smiles; "Keen are the eyes of the Elves."

"Nay, the riders are little more than five leagues distant."

continued in part four...


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