Galadriel is a fascinating, complex character, though Tolkien wrote so many versions of her story that it's difficult to sort out what's canon and what's not. Here's a summary of her history and experiences, as best as I can summarize them.
Galadriel is the youngest of the grandchildren of Finwë, king of the Noldorin Elves. Her parents are Finarfin, the third son of Finwë, and Eärwen, daughter of Olwë, king of the Teleri. According to Tolkien's final version of the Noldorin family tree, never integrated into the published Silmarillion
, she has three elder brothers, Finrod, Angrod, and Aegnor. In Middle-earth, she marries Celeborn of Doriath, and during the Second Age she has a daughter, Celebrían. At the beginning of the Third Age, Celebrían marries Elrond and has three children, Elladan, Elrohir, and Arwen.
Galadriel means "shining garland" and refers to her remarkable golden hair. According to Tolkien's later writings, the name is an epessë, or after-name, given to her by Celeborn. In letter 348, he explains the name was "given to her in her youth in the far past because she had long hair which glistened like gold but was also shot with silver. She was then of Amazon disposition and bound up her hair as a crown when taking part in athletic feats."
Her original names were Artanis and Nerwen. Artanis, her father-name, means "noble woman," while Nerwen, her mother-name, means "man-maiden" and seems to refers to her exceptional height and strength. Nerwen is also written as Nerwende.
Galadriel's appearance is quite remarkable. She is tall even for an Elvish woman, around 6'4" according to Unfinished Tales
, and was quite athletic in her youth. Her hair, described as "deep gold" in The Lord of the Rings
, "was held a marvel unmatched. It was golden like the hair of her father and of her foremother Indis, but richer and more radiant, for its gold was touched by some memory of the starlike silver of her mother" (UT). By the time of LotR
, she and Celeborn also have unusual gazes, "keen as lances in the starlight, and yet profound, the wells of deep memory." The Silmarillion
says that she is "the most beautiful of all the house of Finwë," which is pretty impressive considering the competition.
By the end of the Third Age, she seems to have taken to wearing only white, and wears her hair in braids, since she "unbraid[s] one of her long tresses" in order to give Gimli his gift of three golden hairs. On one finger she wears Nenya, "the ring wrought of mithril
, that bore a single white stone flickering like a frosty star," and on the index finger of her right hand she probably wears a golden wedding ring, as described in Laws and Customs Among the Eldar
Galadriel is born in Aman beneath the light of the Two Trees. Even in her earliest days she is a noteworthy person; according to UT "she was strong of body, mind, and will, a match for both the loremasters and the athletes of the Eldar in the days of their youth." A pupil of Aulë and Yavanna, she has a great reverence for the Valar and spends her youth at odds with Fëanor, even refusing his request for a strand of her beautiful hair (a gift she grants freely to Gimli three Ages later).
After the Destruction of the Trees, her dislike for Fëanor is overcome by her "dreams of far lands and dominions that might be her own to order as she would without tutelage" (UT). Even as Fëanor moves the Noldor to rebellion against the Valar, "Galadriel, the only woman of the Noldor to stand that day tall and valiant among the contending princes, was eager to be gone. 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" (Silm).
Galadriel doesn't fight against the Teleri in the Kinslaying, and according to UT, she even takes up arms to defend them, for her mother Eärwen is a Teler. But she refuses to turn back after the exile of the Noldor is pronounced and helps lead the followers of Fingolfin across the Helcaraxë. For a time she dwells in Mithrim with the rest of Fingolfin's host, but soon she and her brothers are invited to visit her mother's kin in Doriath. She becomes close to Queen Melian and takes up residence with her, "and of her learned great lore and wisdom concerning Middle-earth" (Silm). Around the same time, she falls in love with Celeborn, grand-nephew of Thingol, whom she marries at some point during the Age.
The First Age does not treat Galadriel well; rather than ruling wide unguarded lands, she remains in Doriath while her three brothers and other kin perish one by one in the war against Morgoth. Aegnor and Angrod die in the Dagor Bragollach, and Finrod is killed while aiding Beren in his quest. Eventually Doriath falls, and according to one isolated source Celeborn (and presumably Galadriel) is present and escapes. Their whereabouts after this are unknown, but they survive the cataclysmic last years of the First Age, granting Galadriel the dubious honor of being the only surviving Finwëan Exile. Because of her leadership in the Noldorin rebellion, "After the overthrow of Morgoth at the end of the First Age a ban was set upon her return, and she had replied proudly that she had no wish to do so" (The Road Goes Ever On
In the Second Age, Celeborn and Galadriel live in Lindon south of Lune under Gil-galad, Celeborn ruling the largely Sindarin fief of Harlindon. Later, she and Celeborn are among those who found Eregion, and in one story are said to rule that land until a rebellion by the Gwaith-i-Mírdain, encouraged by Sauron, overthrows them.
According to a second story, it is during their reign in Eregion that Celebrimbor makes the Elessar for Galadriel, the first one having passed into the West with Elwing. The stone is intended to heal and preserve Middle-earth. When Galadriel receives Nenya, she gives the Elessar to her daughter, and Celebrían gives it to Arwen, so that it eventually comes to Aragorn in the last years of the Third Age. Celebrimbor's gift to Galadriel has romantic overtones; he has apparently loved her for a long time, although she has chosen Celeborn as her spouse. Nowhere else is this aspect of their relationship present, although in "Of Dwarves and Men" Tolkien notes that Celebrimbor was good friends with Celeborn and Galadriel.
After the fall of Eregion, Celeborn accompanies its refugees into Lórien, an independent Silvan land. He fortifies the land against Sauron. Galadriel either accompanies him or goes to Lindon. If the former is the case, they remain in Lórien "for many years; if the latter is true, Celeborn goes to Lindon and is reunited with Galadriel once Sauron withdraws to Mordor.
Their whereabouts after this are uncertain at best. It is said in one place that between the fall of Eregion and the end of the Second Age they return to Lórien twice. The rest of their time is quite possibly spent in Imladris, giving Elrond and their daughter Celebrían an opportunity to become acquainted.
Elrond and Celebrían marry at the beginning of the Third Age. Things are peaceful until Sauron returns to power in the middle of the Third Age, at which point Galadriel and Celeborn return to Lórien and travel through Rhovanion in order to investigate the shadow that Dol Guldur has cast over the east. Once they are satisfied with their investigations, they go to live in Imladris.
In 1981 of the Third Age, Amroth, the king of Lórien, perishes in his attempt to leave Middle-earth with his lover Nimrodel. Lórien is still in chaos after the fall of Khazad-dûm, so Galadriel and Celeborn return to Lórien and, with the welcome of its Silvan people, take up rule of the land (but never taking the title of monarchs). There they dwell together until the end of the Third Age. Galadriel uses the power of Nenya to turn Lórien into an unchanging land that preserves the memory of the West.
In Lórien, Galadriel and Celeborn apparently receive periodic visits from their daughter. In 2509, however, Celebrían is captured and tortured by Orcs on her way to Lórien, and a year later, she sails West, having recovered in body but not in spirit. Nevertheless, Arwen continues to visit Lórien from time to time until the War of the Ring approaches, at which point Elrond deems it too dangerous for her to remain in Lórien.
During the Third Age, Galadriel participates in the White Council, a meeting of the Wise of Middle-earth to discuss how to fight the growing Shadow. By the time we meet her in The Lord of the Rings
, however, she is disinclined to give counsel and seems primarily concerned with giving others respite and the tools to help themselves.
During the War of the Ring, Lórien successfully fends off three assaults by Sauron's forces, and once Sauron is defeated, they destroy Dol Guldur. At this point, Galadriel's ban is lifted because of her role in the long war against Sauron and her refusal of the One Ring. Thus, a few years later, Galadriel departs with the other Ringbearers into the West. Celeborn remains in Lórien for a few more years, and then goes to dwell in Imladris with his grandsons. Sometime in the Fourth Age, he finally departs to the West.
Galadriel is consistently portrayed as one of the wisest, most talented, and capable of the Eldar, rivaled only by Fëanor. She is multifaceted in her abilities, a capable ruler, leader, athlete, thinker, and even musician. One of her most notable gifts is her ability to understand others; Unfinished Tales
tells us that "from her earliest years she had a marvellous gift of insight into the minds of others, but judged them with mercy and understanding." For this reason, she mistrusts Fëanor in her youth, seeing the destructive pride beneath his clever, talented exterior, and refusing him the gift of her hair which, three Ages later, she grants to a good-hearted Dwarf. In the same way, she detects the evildoers of Middle-earth before anyone else. In the case of Sauron, she distrusts him in his role of Annatar long before the rest of Eregion catches on. Saruman feels he's been mistrusted in the same way; he says of Galadriel, "And as for the Lady here, I do not trust her: she always hated me...." Although his paranoia exaggerates his claims, Galadriel indeed wanted Gandalf, not Saruman, to lead the White Council in the early days of Sauron's return, and only Gandalf's deference to Saruman's authority landed Saruman the position. And, of course, there's her apprehension of Boromir's intentions toward the Ring.
Galadriel's ability to understand others operates not only as a warning signal in regards to evil, it also allows her to aid good-hearted characters. In the case of the Fellowship, through her understanding of Frodo and Sam's uncertainties and fears, she is able to give them the tools to deal with the danger ahead and the resolve to continue on their quest.
Of course, Galadriel is a character defined by her faults as much as her strengths. Although she maintains "a reverence for the Valar that she could not forget," in her youth she is still a Finwëan, "proud, strong, and selfwilled," and desires to have a land of her own to rule and shape, away from the well-meaning but limiting rule of the Valar (UT). Her pride is such that, despite her dislike of Fëanor, she persists on the journey to Middle-earth even after the Kinslaying and the Prophecy of the North, acting as one of the chief leaders of Fingolfin's host. And although the First Age shows her only suffering and defeat, when she learns that she is yet exiled at the end of the Age, "she had replied proudly that she had no wish" to return (RGEO).
Clearly the gracious Lady of Lórien is not the same headstrong young woman who left the shores of Aman. One positive influence might have been her friendship with Melian, whose queenship in Doriath seems to have a lot in common with Galadriel's later rule; although Melian is the most powerful person in Doriath, she keeps her own counsel and often lets her husband make his own decisions, aware that imposing one's good judgment on others is not always effective. Tolkien's suggestion that Galadriel and Celeborn ruled Eregion until a revolt of the Gwaith-i-Mírdain put them out of power might also have had a sobering effect; that their first kingdom-ruling stint ended in rebellion might have changed her understanding of her own actions in Aman.
By the time we meet her in The Lord of the Rings
, Galadriel's abilities have been diverted to aiding the fight against Sauron, to which end she meets with the White Council and uses Nenya's power to protect Lórien against the power of Mordor and Dol Guldur. On one hand, she has gotten exactly what she wanted, using her ring's power to create a Elvish paradise untouched by the sorrows of time. But by this time, Galadriel's desire to rule has been overcome by the realization that war-plagued and time-ridden Middle-earth is no place for an Elf to spend eternity, and that not even Nenya can wholly halt time. She gives Lórien names that recall places and sights in Aman of old, all the while believing that she will never be permitted to return to her ancient home, with a regret poignantly expressed in the laments she sings on the last day of the Fellowship's stay in Lórien. And while she continues to fight the war against Sauron, she declares to the Fellowship that "I will not give you counsel, saying do this, or do that"; rather than using her power to command others, she has resolved to work behind the scenes. In Unfinished Tales
, Tolkien explains "in her scale she had become like Manwë with regard to the greater total action"; although she is not "a mere observer," she is no longer involved in the war on a conventional level.
Thus it is that she refuses the Ring - although she is seemingly being offered the power to defeat Sauron and restore the Elves to their full power, she is too clear-sighted to even desire a victory on such terms, or to bring her ancient dreams of power to such a distorted end. Even though it might mean defeat, rather than become a "beautiful and terrible" despot, she will "diminish, and go into the West and remain Galadriel."
- alternate versions