Galadriel and I are both wrestling with the way of Middle-earth. In The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, the hero is torn between returning to the West with the rest of her company and living out her days in total peace, and continuing to hunt Sauron, who she knows is alive. For me, well, I am kept up at night thinking about the elf maidens.
On the boat to the Undying Lands (aka Elf Heaven), as the elves granted passage are standing upright on the deck of the ship with swords in hand, there’s a line of elf maidens who file out and start to prepare them for the completion of their voyage. They take their weapons and their cloaks, oozing ceremony with every motion. And then they just… throw them on the ground. What’s more, once the ship itself (minus Galadriel) heads to the Undying Lands, the maidens are just still on the ship?
I brought the question up to Polygon’s resident Tolkien expert, Susana Polo, casually, expecting (as there often is) some deeper lore at play in the scene. She told me “I don’t know; Tolkien wasn’t very specific about these things.” I pushed a little harder, expecting there was surely some explanation behind the graceful visuals: Why were they all women? What happened to them once the ship went to Elf Heaven? Why did they take the weapons only to discard them just a few feet from the people they took them from?
Susana had no answers for me. As she put it, Tolkien doesn’t really dig into how elves “decide what to do with their lives.” We have the broad strokes of the major families or ruling parties. But beyond that Tolkien (who, Susana notes, was very Catholic) went long on marriage, aging, children, linguistics… but not jobs.
What that means for the elf maidens, I am not sure. They could just be a lower level of elf servant, and there could be more to what they do than we are seeing in Rings of Power. But before your brain goes too deep down this rabbit hole, let me assure you, mine already has. Being on the boat to Valinor is supposedly the highest honor an elf can obtain, the chance to return to Valinor, a pardon from their previous expulsion. Were these servants also invited in? Is this akin to the (inflated) notion of pharaohs being buried with their servants? Or were the handmaidens simply heavenly flight attendants, doing the circuit between Lindon and the Undying Lands and only paid when the ship’s doors were locked?
These are thoughts that will, if you let them, fuck you all the way up, and will likely make several people leave the room as you continue to yell about the implications of the Rings of Power elf ascension scene. They are not the point of this divine moment at all, and yet they feel representative to me of the cracks in Rings of Power.
The scene itself is meant to ground us in Galadriel’s struggle, turning away from the afterlife so many of her kind seek in order to put herself (presumably) through much more conflict and pain in order to ensure a better world and make good on her promise to her brother. Amid it all are the ship’s celestial deckhands, helping (I guess?) the weary soldiers on their way. They’re the sort of thing that feels in the moment cool and in keeping with the elves’ elegantly stoic aesthetic.
But scratch at it for even a moment and it all comes apart; these maidens seem to exist purely to further dramatize Galadriel’s reluctance, something already fairly well established throughout the first hour. Rings of Power is, reportedly, a billion-dollar series, and a world as rich as Tolkien’s deserves more than visuals that feel so thinly drawn. Middle-earth is a realm filled with many mysteries, but the fate of the elf servants/choir/shiphands on the way to Elf Heaven shouldn’t be one of them.