Sunday, November 21, 2010

She Says Whip It--Whip It Good!

If asked to name a character in the Lord of the Rings who could be called "sexy," most readers would likely reply: "Galadriel." Long before Kate Blanchet flared her nostrils for Peter Jackson, illustrators knew intuitively that the Lady of the Golden Wood was Tolkien's "It Girl," and were having a field-day trying to depict her Itness. The calendars produced by the Brothers Hildebrandt are infamous for their Disney-esque silliness; their renderings of clouds, for example, are visual analogs of purple prose. And their Galadriels make this war-veteran refugee from the First Age look barely past puberty, not elf-queen but prom-queen.

Yet the Hildebrandts' illustrations do capture something of her sexual nature, a smouldering Something we know is hiding in there somewhere beneath the virginal white bridesmaid dress. And after exposure to the imposingly lovely Ms. Blanchet, some film-goers might be tempted to think of Galadriel as a kind of Swedish porn-star: she is, afterall, beautiful, statuesque, pale-skinned, regal . . . and appealing to anyone with a blonde fetish. With dark hair instead of light and a whip instead of a Ring of Power, the Lady of the Golden Wood might make a good dominatrix. She even talks like one: "All shall love me and despair!"
     (The above illustration is a detail from the Tolkien Calendar for 1976, published by Random House. She's Ms. May, incidentally.)
     But when you read about Galadriel (vs watching the movies) the picture gets more complicated. For the fact is, LotR tells us almost nothing about what she looks like. We're told she's tall, blonde, "fair" . . . and that's about it. Critics take issue with Tolkien's lack of character description, but it seems to me this "lack" is really a cagey way of accomplishing his real goal. And that is NOT the goal of the good novelist--namely, to get you to identify with the characters. Rather, his goal is that of the teller of fairy-tales: the get you to project your unconscious. Galadriel is beautiful because Tolkien allows you to attach your own notions of beauty onto the meager scaffold of his description. Her sexiness is almost entirely in your head--which is where nine-tenths of all sexiness is, anyway.
     Tolkien's frequent use of the adjective "fair" is also part of his program. "Fair" translates the High Elven word vanya. This word's original meaning was "beautiful," and was applied in particular to the First House of the Eldar, who came to be called the Vanyar (the "-r" is a plural marker). As the Vanyar were all pale-skinned and blond, vanya eventually came to have the secondary meaning of "having a fair complexion." Unlike English-speakers, who believe beautiful people are blond, the High Elves believe blond people are beautiful--but so are brunettes. Aragorn calls raven-haired Arwen vanima (another form of vanya), and Tolkien's wife, Edith, had dark hair and dark eyes. The Master of Middle-earth can hardly be accused of having a blonde-fetish . . . yet he was well-aware than many of his readers did and do.
     Galadriel as a symbol or image is clearly intended to attract a certain amount of physical interest, curiosity . . . even longing. She's supposed to be pretty, though how much of "pretty" overlaps with "sexy" is up to the reader. The context in which she is placed, however, reinforces the notion that "sexy" is definitely part of the picture. For as a character in a fairy-tale---and that's what LotR is, albeit a very long one--Galadriel is the central figure in a literary scenario easily recognized in a thousand fairy-tales from all over the world. This is the scenario we may call "Young Man Seeks His Fortune." And the fortune our young man is seeking? In the immortal words of George Carlin: you don't gotta be Fellini to figure this one out!
(to be continued)

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