JULY / AUG 2013: BY CHRISTY McDOUGALL
“A plague on Dwarves and their stiff necks!” This is one of the first statements by Legolas Greenleaf the Elf about Gimli son of Glóin the Dwarf we read about in The Lord of the Rings. In the history of J.R.R. Tolkien’s world, Elves and Dwarves had always had a complicated relationship. On some occasions they were close friends, as when Celebrimbor the Elf helped his friend Narvi the Dwarf create the doors of Moria. On other occasions, they turned against each other with vicious malice. Most animosity between them was caused by the love of gold and other precious things and by treachery caused by that love, on the sides of both Elves and Dwarves. Over time, mutual injustices have built up to the extent that friendships between members of the two races are decidedly improbable.
More recently, Legolas and Gimli have personal reasons for animosity. Legolas grew up in the Woodland Realm (later Mirkwood) under an Elven King for a father who was present thousands of years before when many of the worst problems between Elves and Dwarves began. In The Hobbit, King Thranduil demonstrated his prejudice against Dwarves with a callous, lighthearted cruelty, an attitude Legolas must have imbibed to a certain extent in his life in Mirkwood. Among the Dwarves mistreated by Thranduil was Glóin, Gimli’s father. So when the Fellowship of the Ring sets out on its journey from Rivendell to Mordor, the two members appointed to represent the Elves and the Dwarves have nearly as much reason to hate each other as they do to hate Sauron.
Tolkien didn’t write an allegory in The Lord of the Rings (he famously “cordially disliked” them) but his Christian worldview comes through in nearly every word he wrote. Major among the tenets of Christian faith is there’s no hatred that can’t be overcome, no racial prejudice that can’t be healed, no history of violence that can’t be wiped clean, no two people groups who can’t become brothers. Tolkien put two stiff-necked, prejudicial characters together on a quest and turned their story into one of the greatest tales of friendship in his mythology, perhaps in all British literature.
At the beginning of the Quest to help Frodo get the Ring to Mordor, Legolas and Gimli have little to do with each other. They each perform their individual functions and their minor plotlines are centered around the journey and Frodo. It’s not until after the death of Gandalf that their conflict begins, and thus their friendship.
Legolas can’t have liked the journey through the Dwarf mines of Moria, but Gimli shows even greater resistance to passing through the Elven realm of Lothlórien. He shows his ignorance and prejudice by dragging up ugly rumors about the greatest lady among Legolas’ race as if he had experienced their truth for himself. And it is largely because of his presence among the Fellowship that the prince of another Elven kingdom is not allowed to walk free in the legendary land of Lothlórien but must be blindfolded, like a common trespasser. Legolas helps worsen matters by his suggestion that only the Dwarf should be blindfolded, pointing his people out as the sole enemy among a company of five different races. They walk into Lothlórien with antagonism like a wall between them and walk out with the foundation laid for respect and deep friendship.
Gimli takes the first step, without knowing it. He looks on the Elf he had declared in ignorance to be an evil witch and finds in someone so utterly different from all he has ever known something to love, respect, and honor. His response of sheer devotion and gallantry to Galadriel starts to break down the wall he and Legolas built up between them, and Legolas rises to meet him. Recognizing a change of heart about the essential evilness of Elves, Legolas has a change of heart about the essential evilness of Dwarves and takes Gimli with him to see more of Galadriel’s realm.
From then on, they travel together wherever they go. After their first truce, they are bound together by a more personal quest than the one that sent them out from Rivendell, the quest to rescue the small beings who depended on them. They become legendary among the Rohirrim, ride the same horse for a while, fight together in a battle while holding a friendly competition, venture places no one has dared in centuries, prepare to lay down their lives together at the Black Gate, celebrate the triumph of good over evil together, and finally, at long last, sail to the Undying Lands together. Gimli is the first and only Dwarf to go to Valinor, drawn by an unlikely friendship and an unlikely love, for an Elven prince and an Elven queen.
There’s no unsavory sexual element to the relationship between Legolas and Gimli as written by Tolkien, despite the modern predilection for seeing sex in every close relationship. Tolkien understood the power of friendship, the “friend that sticks closer than a brother,” and of reconciliation between vastly different people with a long history of very good reasons to hate each other.
The Elf Haldir says of the animosity between Legolas and Gimli, “In nothing is the power of the Dark Lord more clearly shown than in the estrangement that divides all those who still oppose him.” And perhaps in nothing is Tolkien’s belief in the God who makes brothers out of enemies more clearly shown than in the friendship between Legolas and Gimli. ♥