In this Prancing Pony Pondering, I want to take a look at just one example of how deep and rich Tolkien’s backstories often were. As he pointed out in On Fairy-Stories, when an author can do this well,
[T]he story maker proves a successful ‘sub-creator’. He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is ‘true’: it accords with the laws of that world.
In Chapter 8 of Book Two of The Lord of the Rings, “Farewell to Lórien,” the Fellowship are finally (and reluctantly) getting ready to depart Lothlórien after their time of renewal and mourning — and they have just drunk the cup of parting with Galadriel and Celeborn. Galadriel then commences her generous gift-giving, beginning with a beautiful sheath that she gives to Aragorn for Andúril. After this, she asks if there is anything else he would desire from her.
And Aragorn answered: ‘Lady, you know all my desire, and long held in keeping the only treasure that I seek. Yet it is not yours to give me, even if you would; and only through darkness shall I come to it.’
‘Yet maybe this will lighten your heart,’ said Galadriel; ‘for it was left in my care to be given to you, should you pass through this land.’ Then she lifted from her lap a great stone of a clear green, set in a silver brooch that was wrought in the likeness of an eagle with outspread wings; and as she held it up the gem flashed like the sun shining through the leaves of spring. ‘This stone I gave to Celebrían my daughter, and she to hers; and now it comes to you as a token of hope. In this hour take the name that was foretold for you, Elessar, the Elfstone of the House of Elendil!’
Then Aragorn took the stone and pinned the brooch upon his breast, and those who saw him wondered; for they had not marked before how tall and kingly he stood, and it seemed to them that many years of toil had fallen from his shoulders. ‘For the gifts that you have given me I thank you,’ he said, ‘O Lady of Lórien of whom were sprung Celebrían and Arwen Evenstar. What praise could I say more?
This is a richly beautiful passage and stands on its own as a reminder of who Aragorn is, and who he shall become. We learn of the name prophesied for Aragorn — Elessar or Elf-Stone — and we are reminded again of his royal heritage and kingly bearing. The text is also a helpful reminder that Galadriel is the mother of Celebrían (Elrond’s late wife) and, thus, the grandmother of Arwen Undómiel. But this passage truly comes to life when we consider two other passages from other works…
First, in Unfinished Tales, we are given a backstory of the Elessar:
A jewel-smith in Gondolin, named Enerdhil, who was the greatest jewel-smith of the Noldor after Fëanor’s death, crafted the Elessar: “it came into his heart to make a jewel within which the clear light of the sun should be imprisoned, but the jewel should be green as leaves.” This gem gave power to heal: “the hands of one who held it brought to all that they touched healing from hurt.” Enerdhil gave it to Idril who, in turn, gave it to Eärendil who healed many at Sirion’s Haven and then took it with him when he left Middle-earth.
It is a powerful symbol and artifact —
and, just as crucially, a wonderful example
of the richly-detailed backstories
that Professor Tolkien often created,
even without intending for us to read.
Then, “in ages after there was again an Elessar,” and we are told that there are two possible origins of this second stone, “though which is true only those Wise could say who now are gone.”
In another of Tolkien’s “some say that” moments, we learn that it could be that the second Elessar was actually the first — returned, “by the grace of the Valar” and carried back to Middle-earth by Olórin (whom you all know better as Gandalf). In their “long speech together”, we see this:
And when Olórin had told her many tidings she sighed, and said: ‘I grieve in Middle-earth, for leaves fall and flowers fade; and my heart yearns, remembering trees and grass that do not die. I would have these in my home.’ Then Olórin said: ‘Would you then have the Elessar?’
And Galadriel said: ‘Where now is the Stone of Eärendil? And Enerdhil is gone who made it.’ ‘Who knows?’ said Olórin. ‘Surely,’ said Galadriel, ‘they have passed over Sea, as almost all fair things beside. And must Middle-earth then fade and perish for ever?’ ‘That is its fate,’ said Olórin. ‘Yet for a little while that might be amended, if the Elessar should return. For a little, until the Days of Men are come.’ ‘If – and yet how could that be,’ said Galadriel. ‘For surely the Valar are now removed and Middle-earth is far from their thought, and all who cling to it are under a shadow.”
‘It is not so,’ said Olórin. ‘Their eyes are not dimmed nor their hearts hardened. In token of which look upon this!’ And he held before her the Elessar, and she looked on it and wondered. And Olórin said: ‘This I bring to you from Yavanna. Use it as you may, and for a while you shall make the land of your dwelling the fairest place in Middle-earth. But it is not for you to possess. You shall hand it on when the time comes. For before you grow weary, and at last forsake Middle-earth one shall come who is to receive it, and his name shall be that of the stone: Elessar he shall be called.’
The other origin is that Celebrimbor (who, in this version of the story, was from Gondolin and not a grandson of Fëanor) made it for Galadriel in Eregion and that it was almost as good as the original: “more subtle and clear was the green gem that he made than that of Enerdhil, but yet its light had less power…. Radiant nonetheless was the Elessar of Celebrimbor; and he set it within a great brooch of silver in the likeness of an eagle rising upon outspread wings.” When she wore it, all things grew fair — but after she received Nenya, she gave it to her daughter Celebrían (who married Elrond). From her it went to Arwen and then to Aragorn.
I vastly prefer the first version, but whether the Elessar that Aragorn received here was the original one made in Gondolin, worn by Eärendil and returned from Valinor by Mithrandir, or whether it’s a copy made by the same smith who crafted the Three Rings, it is a powerful symbol and artifact — and, just as crucially, a wonderful example of the richly-detailed backstories that Professor Tolkien often created, even without intending for us to read.
Ah, but can I find something in another obscure source to make it even better? Yes?? Great!
In Morgoth’s Ring (The History of Middle-earth, Volume X), there is an essay called “Laws and Customs Among the Eldar” that makes for some truly fascinating reading. In fact, Shawn and I have had to review this essay a number of times for podcast episodes in recent months. During this research, I came across this bit about Elven traditions when it comes to wedding gifts:
Among the Noldor also it was a custom that the bride’s mother should give to the bridegroom a jewel upon a chain or collar… these gifts were sometimes given before the feast. (Thus the gift of Galadriel to Aragorn, since she was in place of Arwen’s mother, was in part a bridal gift and earnest of the wedding that was later accomplished.)
Can we all just have a collective “woah” moment? This is the sort of richness of detail, the interweaving of customs and traditions, histories and legends, that make Tolkien’s world come alive. Yes, it’s a beautiful gift when it’s given in the text of Book 2 — and it’s very satisfying to see, later on in The Houses of Healing, the fulfillment of prophecy: “they named him Elfstone, because of the green stone that he wore, and so the name which it was foretold at his birth that he should bear was chosen for him by his own people.” But it’s when we read the other works and learn the backstory that Tolkien created, that we continue to be amazed at Tolkien’s ability to create a world with “the inner consistency of reality”.