“All shall love me and despair.” The line from Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring is the apex of Cate Blanchett’s striking turn as the elven sorceress Galadriel. In an instant, all hell seems to break loose. “In place of a Dark Lord you would have a queen!” she cries, as the colors of the film seem to invert, her clothes billow around her, and she shakes as if possessed by a force beyond mortal reckoning. But a moment later all is well, leaving millions of movie viewers to wonder, “What the heck was that all about?”
There’s a story behind Galadriel’s triumph over temptation, and her journey to this pivotal moment in Frodo’s journey to Mordor. Morfydd Clark, the 33-year-old Welsh actress who most recently soldiered through the supernatural gauntlet of A24’s horror drama Saint Maud, was eager to explore the rich potential of the character in Amazon Studios’ The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. Before stepping into Galadriel’s shoes for the production, Clark told Polygon earlier this month, she knew Galadriel “as the very serene and wise lady of Lothlórien.” But now?
“The elves of [The Lord of the Rings], they’ve gone through a lot to achieve that serenity and wisdom, it’s been hard-earned. They’ve been very messy throughout many of the ages of Middle-earth,” Clark said, putting it mildly.
“She’s a rich and iconic character, but a flawed one,” showrunner Patrick McKay agreed.
To Frodo, Galadriel is a helping hand. But in Tolkien’s legendarium, Galadriel had a life of ambition and adventure, in which she spurned the gifts of the gods to seek power, justice, and a realm of her own to rule. To Tolkien, the elf was among the most exemplary figures of his opus — and she may be the only character he ever wrote who nakedly desired power but didn’t turn evil. He also never finished writing her story.
But through often contradictory notes and his son’s recollections, some published posthumously in volumes like The Silmarillion, those deep in the weeds of Tolkien lore know more about the woman than movie-watchers or even dedicated book purists. But any way you slice it, Tolkien had intended to make Galadriel superlatively wise and skilled. In the version of The Silmarillion he didn’t live to write, she was a ruler of elves, a rider in great hosts of war, a survivor of immense hardships, a scion of virtue, and a legendary beauty. And she was a character who walked the most difficult of mythological tightropes: defying the gods and living to tell the tale.
‘Dreams of far lands and dominions that might be her own’
To put it simply: Galadriel was born in paradise. Her home town of Valinor, the capital city of Middle-earth’s far realm of Aman, was crafted by the gods as the elven promised land. But even for a woman raised in elven Valhalla, she was exceptional. Years before she actually left Valinor, she considered the place too small for her ambitions.
As Christopher Tolkien summarized in Unfinished Tales, based on one of his father’s “partially illegible” notes, Galadriel “did indeed wish to depart from Valinor and to go into the wide world of Middle-earth for the exercise of her talents; for ‘being brilliant in mind and swift in action she had early absorbed all of what she was capable of the teaching which the Valar thought fit to give the Eldar,’ and she felt confined in the tutelage of Aman.”
Tolkien also wrote about Galadriel in an essay that was otherwise about Middle-earth linguistics, saying “Galadriel was the greatest of the Noldor, except Fëanor maybe, though she was wiser than he, and her wisdom increased with the long years.” That is: Galadriel is the greatest of her tribe, which contained many, many heroes of the war against the dark god Morgoth, except perhaps for her kinsman Fëanor, the greatest craftsman and worst elf in history, the guy who started that war in the first place. Anyone who assumed a warrior Galadriel was an invention of modern, “liberal” sensibilities might be surprised, or disappointed, but hopefully well pleased, that Tolkien got there first.
The war against Morgoth offered Galadriel her chance to leave Valinor and journey to Middle-earth to find her own dominion. When Fëanor swore vengeance against Morgoth and rallied the Noldor to sail from Aman to destroy him, Galadriel joined him. Tolkien wrote (as compiled from his drafts and notes by his son in The Silmarillion) that she was “the only woman of the Noldor to stand that day tall and valiant among the contending princes. [...] No oaths she swore, but the words of Fëanor concerning Middle-earth had kindled in her heart, for she yearned to see the wide unguarded lands and to rule there a realm at her own will.”
Galadriel and her older brother Finrod joined up with the Noldor but opposed and abstained from the historically significant crimes the rest of their tribe committed to leave Aman. In response, Fëanor gave them a pretty tough time of it, stranding them and their people in the arctic without ships. They survived and made it to Middle-earth’s main continent via a grueling overland march that Tolkien described in superlative terms. “Few of the deeds of the Noldor thereafter surpassed that desperate crossing in hardihood or woe,” he wrote.
In some of his notes, Tolkien showed intention to establish that Galadriel had never been very impressed by Fëanor in the first place, but in all versions of her story, she arrived in Middle-earth with very little desire to rejoin his forces — but also no desire to return to Valinor. In the aforementioned philological essay, Tolkien chalks this up to pride (not wanting to beg the gods for forgiveness) and revenge. “She burned with desire to follow Fëanor with her anger to whatever lands he might come, and to thwart him in all ways that she could.”
And so, while Galadriel stood against Morgoth, she also very much distanced herself from what I’m going to call Several Centuries of Awful Fëanorian Drama. Her brother was not so lucky, perishing in the dungeons of Sauron, even as he killed his opponent (a werewolf) with his bare hands. (The Silmarillion is… rawer than most folks realize). Still, the gods banned Galadriel from returning to Aman along with all the other Noldor who’d followed Fëanor, and when that ban was lifted for all who helped defeat Morgoth, Galadriel declined to return home. From his notes, it seems Tolkien explored several reasons for this over time, including her own pride, her desire to remain with her husband, or that she was handed a specific ban from returning to Aman for reasons unrelated to Fëanor.
In the age after Morgoth’s defeat, where The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power picks up, Galadriel finally got her dominion. After befriending the dwarves of Khazad-dûm (Moria), she and her followers settled in the forest near its eastern entrance, which became known as Lothlórien. And following Sauron’s betrayal, she was given possession of one of the three Elven Rings for safekeeping, in recognition of her incorruptibility. In the Third Age, she was instrumental in the formation of the White Council, which united the wisest elves, Gandalf, and Saruman, against the growing threat of Mordor, and during the events of The Hobbit, she assisted when the members of the council drove Sauron himself from southern Mirkwood. As Aragorn et al. battled orc armies at Minas Tirith in The Return of the King, Galadriel’s power drove several waves of Sauron’s forces from Lothlórien, and upon his final defeat she tore the dark fortress of Dol Guldur to the ground with her magic.
But none of those dangers compared to the Fellowship’s visit to her realm. Not knowing anything about her story, but in awe of how immensely her power and wisdom overshadowed his own, Frodo offered Galadriel the One Ring. All she had to do was ask, and she could make all of Middle-earth into a dominion that might be her own. The proposal provokes her darkest (and to some, bewildering) moment. Depending on which scraps of Tolkien’s notes you look at, this was either the final test she had to pass for her pardon, or the moment she realized that she had finally faced every challenge worthy of her might, and had no reason not to return to Aman.
‘I pass the test, and remain Galadriel’
Galadriel walked out of heaven because she was tired of being a baby and wanted power. She is the only character Tolkien ever created for Middle-earth who desired power simply for the sake of enacting her own will, and yet never became corrupted. According to Morfydd Clark, accessing that unbruised self-confidence was the hardest part of the job.
“The elves in particular,” she told Polygon, “are so physically powerful. A big part of me [...] is that I feel quite physically weak, no matter how fit I become. And so shaking off what that would mean, to be a being that has never felt that they are weak, never felt that they could be overcome. That was a big journey, which at times is quite emotional to imagine, What if I’d never felt any of those things? What comes with that is a fearlessness and a type of arrogance.”
And Clark doesn’t just mean a physical confidence, the kind that makes it to the screen in graceful fight scenes and feats of endurance — although she says that her favorite physical challenge of the production was getting to ride horses for the first time. The actress says she puzzled over how to portray a younger version of an immortal. An elf could be “young” and still centuries upon centuries old — they wouldn’t exactly be more naive than their older selves.
The answer Clark found was: “If they were going to be naive, it would be arrogance. That’s how it would manifest. At some point [Galadriel] talks about how with gaining wisdom, there’s a loss of innocence. So there’s an innocence to her arrogance, which I don’t think is particularly something that I associate with women in our world.”
In Tolkien’s lore, Galadriel has plenty of reason for innocent arrogance. The writer often underscored that she clocked the secret dark hearts of some of Middle-earth’s greatest betrayers — like Fëanor and Saruman — years before their betrayals. And one of the only things we know about the extremely secretive production of Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is that Galadriel’s penchant for being right all along is powering her characterization. Rings of Power begins with Galadriel zealously hunting the scattered remnants of Morgoth’s armies, her brother’s death still in the forefront of her mind. She believes that despite the end of the war, there’s still evil lurking out in the world.
But is Galadriel’s hunch correct? Or has she been blinded by centuries of war? Morgoth’s most powerful servant, Sauron, is alive and scheming — most viewers will know that that’s the narrative backbone of the Second Age, and instrumental to Sauron being around for The Lord of the Rings. And when I posed this quandary to showrunners J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay, they knew exactly what I was getting after. She might be right about Sauron, but this younger Galadriel still has lessons to learn.
“I think she’s incredibly heroic. I love her. I admire her. She’s also making a mistake, left and right [laughs],” said McKay. “And we reckon it’s good to pack a character with that level of fragility and vulnerability and pride.”
“One thing that we like to try to do in storytelling, especially in Middle-earth, is that a lot of times people are collectively right. You have dyads where people are both right and both wrong, and they will sort of share a truth between them,” said Payne. “Both of them are speaking a truth, but they’re speaking one facet of a truth. And by listening to each other, and by working together, they’re going to be able to get to the whole truth. So Galadriel can be both right, but also not perfect. And still be flawed and still have things within her that are incomplete. And by single-mindedly pursuing a goal and tuning out the warnings of, you know, her colleagues and her friends and her king, there may be mistakes that she might make. We’re interested in exploring both her rightness and the things that she has yet to learn.”
Clark had her own take. “I think that Galadriel is not in tune with a community, not just her community of the elves, but community in general. What I love about Tolkien is his obsession and respect for how nobody is an island, and actually any character that is going solo in The Lord of the Rings — there’s a tragedy to it. [Galadriel is] inflicting that on herself at this point. So she’s not going to be getting things right, because everybody’s part of a web in Middle-earth. And she’s trying to extract yourself from it in a way — she’s behaving unnaturally. And I think that that’s when you’re most likely to make mistakes, is when you’re losing yourself.”
But the actress also stubbornly defended her character. “What [other characters have] got wrong is you can’t ever sit back on your laurels with peace, and you can’t ever think that you’ve achieved it.” She referred to a quote from activist Mariame Kaba, “Hope is a discipline,” by way of explaining. “I think Galadriel senses that everyone’s sitting back and relaxing, and even if Sauron wasn’t coming, you have to protect peace constantly. And hope. They’re not things that survive through being inert.”
When readers and viewers meet Galadriel for the first time, it’s in a story where the burden of practicing hope and protecting peace lies most heavily on the shoulders of others, an era when the wise lady of Lothlórien’s role is to maintain her bright borders against encroaching darkness, not to take the fight to darkness itself. For some, the first photos from the set of Rings of Power, featuring Galadriel in full armor and carrying a sword nearly as long as she is tall, surely seemed like a misapprehension of her character.
But as Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel put it in the opening scene of The Fellowship of the Ring, “The world is changed [...] and some things that should not have been forgotten were lost.” The Galadriel of Tolkien’s heart, pieced together by his son and others, was a fair and terrible adventurer, a reader of mortal souls, a prideful and learned leader who considered the gods no more or less fallible than her. And a woman who knew exactly who she was, even in the face of the ultimate evil.
“I was playing someone that if they chose a path of evil, the destruction they could cause would be so immense,” Clark mused. “And I think about that a lot. I think that lots of female pop stars, for example, with huge followings. I’m a bit like, Yeah, and you’re lucky that they’re nice, because they literally have an army behind them. And I think there’s something so wonderful about Galadriel that she rejects a type of power that most — well, we know that all the human men of Middle-earth would grab and use to destroy instead of build.”
“Morfydd is the real deal,” McKay told Polygon, with plain confidence. And knowing I’ve only seen the first two episodes, added, “Just wait, she’s just getting started.”
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power will premiere on Amazon Prime with two episodes on Sept. 1 at 9 p.m. EDT/ 6 p.m. PDT. New episodes release each week at 12 a.m. EDT on Fridays/9 p.m. PDT on Thursdays.