One of the most profound and immediate changes in a character in The Lord of the Rings is the transformation of Gimli the dwarf. This development doesn’t occur because of an encounter with the One Ring or during any of the many battles in which Gimli fights. Instead, Gimli experiences a dramatic change of heart upon meeting the Lady of Lothlorien, Galadriel.
Gimli son of Gloin is a brave and faithful dwarf who is firmly on the side of good and never wavers throughout the fellowship’s journey. But he is still a dwarf, a race with a long history of animosity with elves. This enmity nearly brings disaster on the ring bearer’s quest when the elves of Lothlorien require Gimli to wear a blindfold before he enters their land. After much bickering and name calling on the part of both Gimli and Legolas, the whole company agrees to go forth blindfolded. Still, this unsatisfactory compromise doesn’t assuage the deep-seated hatred between elves and dwarfs. Gimli remains unimpressed by elves and distrustful of the Lady Galadriel.
But this all changes when Gimli meets Galadriel. The Lady of the Galadhrim speaks kindly to the dwarf and he sees in her a light that moves him greatly. Tolkien describes the change like this:
“She looked upon Gimli, who sat glowering and sad, and she smiled. And the Dwarf, hearing the names given in his own ancient tongue, looked up and met her eyes, and it seemed to him that he looked suddenly into the heart of an enemy and saw there love and understanding. Wonder came into his face, and then he smiled in answer.” (Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, “The Mirror of Galadriel”)
The change isn’t limited to Gimli’s opinion of one elf lady. He suddenly looks on all elves differently. He develops a new appreciation for the land of Lorien and its forests. He wanders often with Legolas, an elf he almost came to blows with only days earlier. This particular elf and dwarf have more than the usual antagonism common to their races; their feud is personal. Gimli’s father was once wrongfully imprisoned by Legolas’ father in the dungeons of his Mirkwood stronghold. So their new friendship is peculiar to say the least. Tolkien says all the other companions wondered greatly at the change.
But the change in Gimli isn’t fully evident until the departure of the company from Lothlorien. At this parting, as Galadriel presents gifts to each of the companions, she asks Gimli what he desires. At first, Gimli demures, “‘It is enough for me to have seen the Lady of the Galadhrim, and to have heard her gentle words.’” But as the Lady presses him again, he responds:
“‘There is nothing, Lady Galadriel,’ said Gimli, bowing low and stammering. ‘Nothing unless it might be – unless it is permitted to ask, nay, to name a single strand of your hair, which surpasses the gold of the earth as the stars surpass the gems of the mine. I do not ask for such a gift. But you commanded me to name my desire.” (Fellowship, “Farewell to Lorien”)
Galadriel’s hair was not, of course, something plain or common. Tolkien calls her hair “a marvel unmatched.” The elves told that the light of the trees Laurelin and Telperien (which preceded the sun and moon) was caught in her hair and that her tresses were coveted by Fëanor (Unfinished Tales, “The History of Galadriel and Celeborn”). So the elves who hear Gimli’s request are shocked and murmur amongst themselves. But the lady fulfills the desire, giving him three (not a meaningless number) hairs with the words, “none have ever made to me a request so bold and yet so courteous.’” Gimli treasures the small lock of hair and carries the three strands as a sign of his devotion to the Lady of the Wood, Queen Galadriel.
Without the right lens, Gimli’s change upon meeting Galadriel is a bit odd. Indeed, Peter Jackson turns the event into something a bit silly, almost hinting at a strange interspecies crush. But what is the alternative? There are elements here of a chivalric relationship between a knight and lady. And while Tolkien certainly had chivalry in mind, that concept doesn’t fully explain Gimli’s dramatic transformation and deep devotion.
The key to understanding Galadriel and her affect on Gimli is in the Lady of the Galadhrim’s Marian roots. Tolkien clearly meant her as a figure of the Virgin Mary. Galadriel is beautiful and majestic. She reflects the light of the stars. She is perceptive and gracious. She gives gifts and help and comfort. Many of these qualities don’t quite reflect Mary as the poor and lowly handmaid of the Lord. So, without a Catholic perspective, the allusions could be easy to miss. But Tolkien possessed not just a devotion to his Catholic faith but a devotion to Our Lady as well. So he surely viewed Mary as she truly is, Queen of Heaven and source of perpetual help.
Interestingly, the character of Galadriel changed over the course of the years as Tolkien developed his world’s history. At first, he wrote that she, along with many of the other elves of her kind, was culpable in the rebellion in Valinor (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, don’t worry. Just nerd stuff). But, later, he changed his mind on this and wrote that she was innocent of any wrongdoing. Actually, the word he used was “unstained,” clearly an allusion to Mary’s Immaculate Conception. Apparently, Tolkien’s vision of Galadriel became clearer even to himself. In a letter to a priest friend, Robert Murray, Tolkien wrote:
“I think I know exactly what you mean by the order of Grace; and of course by your references to Our Lady, upon which all my own small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity is founded. The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. ”
Letter to Robert Murray, S.J., 2 December 1953
In light of Galadriel’s Marian qualities, it is little wonder Gimli responds to her in the way he does. Gimli doesn’t develop a strange crush or even merely adopt a chivalric dedication, as noble as that might be. Instead, he discovers a devotion to Our Lady. A devotion reminiscent of consecration as he goes on to carry her hair around his neck (part relic, part scapular) and defend her honor in distant lands.
As I read this passage recently – the first time since becoming Catholic – I couldn’t help but think of Galadriel in terms of Marian apparitions. One interesting element of most apparitions is that Mary usually appears as someone “local.” At Guadalupe, she was an Aztec maiden. At Lourdes, a French woman. At Kibeho, she appeared to the Rwandan girls as, well, a Rwandan girl. So why doesn’t Mary just appear as she was 2,000 years ago when she gave birth to the Christ?
It’s possible Mary takes on the appearance of different peoples to make those she appears to more comfortable. But Our Lady isn’t a sorceress or a shape shifter. I think the familiarity of her physical appearance is actually indicative of a deeper reality about her apparitions. Mary is recognizable when she appears not because of her skin color or her clothes but because of something deeper. She is Our Lady. She is our mother. Those who know her can easily look past external characteristics and perceive her as she really is.
And this is what happens to Gimli when he hears Galadriel’s voice. He hears not just words he understands. He hears words he knows deeply. And when he looks to her eyes he sees “love and understanding.” In this way, Galadriel is once again like Our Lady and Gimli’s love for her is not only understandable but completely natural. It may seem like hyperbole when Gimli says, “the Lady Galadriel is above all the jewels that lie beneath the earth!” But, if Galadriel is a figure of Mary, then these words are perfectly reasonable. In fact, Gimli’s description of the Lady of the Wood is similar to the words of Saint Proclus of Constantinople who said of the Virgin Mary:
“O man, run through all creation with your thought, and see if there exists anything comparable to or greater than the holy Virgin, Mother of God. Circle the whole world, explore all the oceans, survey the air, question the skies, consider all the unseen powers, and see if there exists any other similar wonder in the whole creation!”
Indeed, the Mother of God does possess such worth and beauty. She has inspired devotion in countless saints and servants of God. She continues to be a vessel of grace and a source of help for all her children. And love for her ought to flow naturally with the Christian’s love for Jesus. Gimli’s love for his Lady cut a channel in his heart deep and wide. When he is forced to part from her, he grieves mightily and, to his curious new elf friend, openly laments:
“‘Tell me, Legolas, why did I come on this Quest? Little did I know where the chief peril lay! Truly Elrond spoke, saying that we could not foresee what we might meet upon our road. Torment in the dark was the danger that 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, even if I were to go this night straight to the Dark Lord. Alas for Gimli son of Gloin!’” (Fellowship, “Farewell to Lorien”)
Oh! that my love for the Blessed Virgin Mary were like that of Gimli for Galadriel! That I would perceive her as she really is; as the Ark of the new covenant, the Mother of God. That I would accept her constant help. That I would hear her voice and let her lead me to her Son, the light of the world. That would be a dangerous encounter indeed. An encounter filled with light and joy!