Legolas of Mirkwood: Prince Among Equals
Legolas Greenleaf, Son of King Thranduil
This is a rewrite of my old "Legolas of Mirkwood: Prince Among Equals" article, an in-depth biography and character analysis of Legolas in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.
If you're looking for Legolas' age, skim down to the How Old Is Legolas? section. Otherwise, pull up a chair! This page will tell you all there is to know about Legolas Greenleaf.
"There was also a strange Elf clad in green and brown, Legolas, a messenger from his father, Thranduil, the King of the Elves of Northern Mirkwood." (Council of Elrond, FOTR)
"I am one of the Nine Companions who set out with Mithrandir from Imladris," said Legolas, "and with this Dwarf, my friend, I came with Lord Aragorn." (The Last Debate, ROTK)
Glorfindel and other Elves of great renown attended the Council of Elrond, yet of all the Elves left in Middle-Earth, Legolas Greenleaf is appointed by Elrond to represent their race in the Fellowship of the Ring. Who is Legolas, and what is his history? If he is from a noble family, then why does he identify himself not by his lineage, but by his friends? Why, in a list of all the Elves who came to the Council of Elrond, does Tolkien call him "strange"? There may be something unusual about him that has nothing to do with blue contact lenses.
Maybe so, but tracking a stealthy elf's footprints is going to take some skilled woodcraft!
Legolas, Scout of Mirkwood
Royalty or Errand-Boy?
'Alas! alas!' cried Legolas, and in his fair elvish face there was great distress. 'The tidings that I was sent to bring must now be told. They are not good, but only here have I learned how evil they may seem to this company. Sméagol, who is now called Gollum, has escaped.'
'Escaped?' cried Aragorn. 'That is ill news indeed. We shall all rue it bitterly, I fear. How came the folk of Thranduil to fail in their trust?'
'Not through lack of watchfulness,' said Legolas, 'but perhaps through over-kindliness. And we fear that the prisoner had aid from others, and that more is known of our doings than we could wish. We guarded this creature day and night, at Gandalf's bidding...' (The Council of Elrond, FOTR)
Our first glimpse of Legolas is in Rivendell, where he has been sent as a messenger to report to Gandalf about Gollum's escape. It is only at the Council that he learns the full significance of this event. Evidently Gandalf had not risked telling him (or his father) the secret of Gollum's Ring.
Legolas gives a lengthy account of Gollum's imprisonment, his tricks and habits during captivity, the raid by orcs, and the Elves' attempts to track the escapee. While Legolas might be referring to his people collectively as "we," his report contains firsthand details that suggest he himself was not only one of Gollum's trackers after the battle, but also one of his jailors. It's easy to understand why an assault on the king's realm would warrant the son's attention, but why was he on prisoner duty, if Gandalf had not told the king why Gollum was so important?
The Eyes of the Fellowship
More of a Forester Than a Warrior
"Legolas whose eyes were keen was the rearguard." (The Ring Goes South, FOTR)
Legolas' duty in the Fellowship is chief lookout, a role in which even the best of the Rangers cannot surpass him; Aragorn relies on his eyes for the hunt across Rohan. Then and on many other occasions, Legolas demonstrates the uncanny sight, hearing, and nimbleness of his race. At LÃ³rien's eaves, Legolas briefly becomes the Fellowship's guide, but otherwise he remains largely in the background following orders and assisting his comrades, serving as backup not leader.
While his wilderness skills are excellent, Legolas is not well-versed in lore or history, even that of the Elves. He says he knows little about Eregion, and seems to have only a hazy idea about Lórien, Mirkwood's neighbor and onetime ally, whose people are close kin. It is telling that he does not name Celeborn and Galadriel during his brief stint as tour guide:
'We hear that Lórien is not yet deserted, for there is a secret power here that holds evil from the land. Nevertheless its folk are seldom seen, and maybe they dwell now deep in the woods and far from the northern border.' (Lothlórien, FOTR)
Perhaps Legolas is only being cautious; Elves are very careful not to betray one another's secrets (although Legolas may not have known the source of that "secret power"; even among Elves the Three were a tightly-kept secret). But he sounds as if he is not even sure whether Galadriel and Celeborn are there -- if indeed he knows of them; he speaks only of Lórien's last king, Amroth. The thought of seeking aid from the Galadhrim does not seem to cross his mind. Instead, he seeks information, shelter and healing from trees and streams, as he elsewhere seeks clues from birds and the very rocks.
Nor does Legolas present himself as a warrior. While Gimli wears ringmail and carries a battle-axe, Legolas wears no armor and carries only a bow and knife. This is hunter's gear. Elven kings, princes, and warriors of old had spears, swords, even axes. There were a couple of famous bowmen of the Sindar (see below) who went to war in the First Age, but they were the exception rather than the rule. And like Legolas, their primary goal was defending home and friends, rather than waging an aggressive campaign against the enemy as the Noldor did (cf: the sons of Elrond, who seem to have picked up their High-elven ancestors' obsession with revenge).
In every way, Legolas is a scout, a hunter, a woodland elf, with deep personal connections to the natural world, but disinclined towards the lore, warcraft, history and problems of the nobles and leaders of his race.
Legolas: Prince Who?
Not One to Boast
Apart from the first mention of him at the Council, Legolas is never referred to or treated as a king's son. Indeed, Celeborn is the only person who even calls him "son of Thranduil." No one else seems aware of his family or status. Aragorn introduces him to Éomer as, "Legolas from the Woodland Realm in distant Mirkwood." Gandalf declares him "Legolas the Elf" to the door-warden of Edoras, where the wizard takes pains to reveal Aragorn's identity in order to impress Théoden. Gimli himself refers to Legolas' father as "your King," as if he isn't aware that his best friend is more than a subject!
Small wonder, though, since Legolas never mentions it. When Prince Imrahil marvels to see one of the "fair folk" in Gondor, Legolas merely names himself as one of the Nine Companions, identifying himself by his friends rather than by his blood. He never calls himself a king's son or Thranduil's heir, and in fact, his words do a good job of concealing his lineage. At the Fields of Cormallen, Legolas states he will bring Elves to Ithilien "if my Elven-lord allows." Not all sons of Elf-lords are so circumspect about mentioning their parents; Elrohir brought a message "from my father" to Aragorn.
Perhaps Legolas is a younger son, although we never hear of brothers? Perhaps it has something to do with the unusual politics of Mirkwood (see below)? Perhaps as a member of an immortal race, an Elf doesn't want or expect to inherit his father's kingdom? Perhaps the divisions between leaders and subjects are not particularly important to Elves, or at least to him? It seems likely, at any rate, that if Legolas were to meet his modern-day fans, he would be quite baffled to hear himself called "Prince of Mirkwood", the more so since the term "prince" normally shows up in Tolkien's stories only as a title for some noble lord who rules over a small domain.
The Races of Elves in Middle-Earth: A Crash Course on the History of the Elves
To understand who Legolas is, you need to know his family history. This means getting to know the different races of Elves in Middle-Earth, and why they ended up where they did. Don't worry about remembering details; this is just to help you see how Legolas' outlook and habits are partly a product of his family's past.
There are three main divisions races of Elves in Middle-Earth:
- Noldor, High-Elves or Exiles who had lived in the Undying Lands and come back to Middle-Earth
- Sindar, or Grey-Elves, who settled Beleriand, a vast area that sank at the end of the First Age
- Wood-Elves or Silvan Elves, who settled Lórien and Mirkwood east of the Misty Mountains
By the time of The Lord of the Rings, the great Sindar and Noldor kingdoms of ancient Beleriand, which had been a continent-sized extension of Middle-Earth to the west, are only a memory. After Beleriand sank, they relocated to Lindon, where the Grey Havens are, and midway through the Second Age founded Rivendell. Some few moved east to Lórien and (only Sindar) to Mirkwood. Before these refugees arrived, the Elves east of the Misty Mountains were all "Silvan" or Wood-elves, a primitive and rustic race.
(Eregion on the map was a High-elf stronghold of the Second Age, where Sauron came in disguise to trick their smiths into making the Rings of Power. Then he attacked and destroyed it, taking most of their Rings. They saved and hid the three Elven Rings from him, which were thus "unsullied" by his hand though still subject to the greater power of his One Ring. The rest were Rings he had "tainted" by helping in their making, and these he gave to Dwarves and Men.)
Legolas' family were Sindar refugees from Beleriand; specifically, from the Sindarin forest kingdom of Doriath, home of the famous elf-maid Lúthien who married a mortal man. Legolas' grandfather (and father?), remembering Doriath, eventually settled among the Wood-Elves east of the Misty Mountains, founding a forest realm inspired by the one they had lost.
The Wood-elves were a rustic and unlearned group of Elves who had never crossed the Misty Mountains and had little knowledge of the great kingdoms and wars of Beleriand during the First Age. They lived in the forests and the wild, and were most known for their singing; they did not even posess the art of writing. They had no cities nor much in the way of technology, and seldom bothered about the troubles of the world. Metaphorically speaking, the Wood-elves were the "country hicks." The High-elves and Sindar were the nobility.
Legolas the Wood-Elf?
Wait, Isn't He Sindar?
Yet as we have seen, Legolas downplays his heritage. Strangely, he always talks as if he were a Wood-elf:
'There is a wholesome air about Hollin. Much evil must befall a country before it wholly forgets the Elves, if once they dwelt there.'
'That is true,' said Legolas. 'But the Elves of this land were of a race strange to us of the silvan folk.' (The Ring Goes South, FOTR)
'Here is Nimrodel!' said Legolas. 'Of this stream the Silvan Elves made many songs long ago, and still we sing them in the North.'
'I will sing you a song of the maiden Nimrodel, who bore the same name as the stream beside which she lived long ago. It is a fair song in our woodland tongue.' (Lothlórien, FOTR)
'I could have been happy here [in Fangorn], if I had come in days of peace.'
'I dare say you could,' snorted Gimli. 'You are a Wood-elf, anyway, though Elves of any kind are strange folk.' (The White Rider, TTT)
One could interpret these passages generally, since Legolas says "we" not "I." A foreign king and his family often identify with their subjects. However, if you remember the manners and habits of the happy-go-lucky Wood-elves in The Hobbit, even taking into account the change in writing style, the character of Legolas in LOTR sounds much more a Wood-elf in temperament than he does the wise, grave, and sorrow-laden lords and loremasters of the Sindar and High-elves 'fighting the long defeat.' He is a Wood-elf in more ways than just by association. He thinks like one, too. Here's two out of many examples:
'Alas for the folly of these days!' said Legolas. 'Here all are enemies of the one Enemy, and yet I must walk blind, while the sun is merry in the woodland under leaves of gold!' (Lothlórien, FOTR)
The heart of Legolas was running under the stars of a summer night in some northern glade amid the beech-woods. (The Great River, FOTR)
He is a singer of songs, undaunted and usually cheerful (although not immune to emotional outbursts and distress, as seen at the Council of Elrond and when the Balrog appears). His "I go to find the Sun!" joke on Caradhras is an excellent summary of his lighthearted character and personality. The ghosts of Men in the Haunted Mountain of Dunharrow hold no fear for him. Nor does battle dismay him in the least; he makes a playful game of it with Gimli at Helm's Deep. M. Martinez argues in his excellent "Speaking of Legolas" article that no other Elves we've met would play such a game, and that Legolas' sudden impulse to ride into the Huorn-forest to get a closer look at the strange trees (The Road to Isengard, TTT) is typical of his innocent curiosity, a child of the forest untempered by worldly knowledge and caution.
So Why IS Legolas a Wood-Elf?
He's Gone Native!
As explained above, Legolas' family is Sindar, survivors from the forest kingdom of Doriath that was destroyed in a bloody feud with the High-Elves near the end of the First Age. Legolas' grandfather moved east and established a kingdom among the Wood-elves, initially settling in southern Mirkwood. He was on friendly terms with his close neighbor Amdir, the first King of Lórien, who followed the a similar path.
Tolkien says this about Oropher the grandfather of Legolas:
Compared with the Elves of Doriath, his Silvan folk were rude and rustic. Oropher had come among them with only a handful of Sindar, and they were soon merged with the Silvan Elves, adopting their language and taking names of Silvan form and style. This they did deliberately; for they (and other similar adventurers forgotten in the legends or only briefly named) came from Doriath after its ruin and had no desire to leave Middle-earth, nor to be merged with the other Sindar of Beleriand, dominated by the Noldorin [High-elven] Exiles for whom the folk of Doriath had no great love. They wished indeed to become Silvan folk and to return, as they said, to the simple life natural to the Elves before the invitation of the Valar had disturbed it. (The History of Galadriel and Celeborn, UT)
Tolkien's postumously-published writings reveal a startling political divide between Lórien and Mirkwood, almost as great as that between Elves and Dwarves.
Galadriel was an exile of the High-Elves, but had settled in Doriath where she married Celeborn, a kinsman of the king. In the Second Age they moved to Eregion for a while and visited Lórien often, when it was ruled by King Amdir. While the Silvan folk of Lórien welcomed Galadriel and Celeborn, Oropher and his people did not. Apparently, Oropher was disillusioned by the devastating wars against Morgoth and his lieutenant Sauron, and even more traumatized by the feud between the High-Elves and Sindar that resulted in Doriath's destruction. So he wanted as little as possible to do with anyone who had been a part of those years -- even though Galadriel had always been a good friend to her husband's people and a loyal subject of the King and Queen of Doriath.
I have a hunch that Oropher grew suspicious when Galadriel, who was never free of her cravings for dominion until her showdown with Frodo, started wearing one of the Three Ruling Rings in Second Age 1590. I suspect this was when Oropher decided to make tracks:
The Elvish folk of this realm had migrated from the south, being the kin and neighbors of the Elves of Lórien; but they had dwelt in Greenwood the Great east of Anduin. In the Second Age their king, Oropher [the father of Thranduil, father of Legolas], had withdrawn northward beyond the Gladden Fields. This he did to be free from the power and encroachments of the Dwarves of Moria, which had grown to be the greatest of the mansions of the Dwarves recorded in history; and also he resented the intrusions of Celeborn and Galadriel into Lórien. (The History of Galadriel and Celeborn, UT)
Apparently Legolas was not raised with any particular family prejudice against Galadriel and Celeborn; he simply does not know much about them, probably because his family had isolated itself so much. He considers himself a Wood-Elf, not Sindar, because that's how he was raised.
What Language Does Legolas Speak?
(Yes, There Are Several Elven Languages)
Wait! Back up a moment! What did Tolkien say back there about Legolas' family? "They were soon merged with the Silvan Elves, adopting their language..." Does that mean Legolas was born speaking Silvan Elvish, and only learned Sindarin (which had become the universal spoken language for the Elves) later?
Frodo could understand little of what was said, for the speech that the Silvan folk east of the mountains used among themselves was unlike that of the West. Legolas looked up and answered in the same language. (Lothlórien, FOTR)
"Yrch!" said Legolas, falling into his own tongue. (The Great River, FOTR)
Yrch is Sindarin for "orcs." The Silvan word is spelled yrc. So while Legolas speaks with a Silvan accent, I think his birth-tongue is Sindarin. Evidently the House of Thranduil had adopted some Silvan words or styles of phrasing, but to say they had completely "adopted their language" as their native tongue would be an exaggeration. Keep in mind that quotes from Unfinished Tales are bits and pieces Tolkien had not expected to be published; he hadn't reviewed and revised them for consistency.
Thranduil father of Legolas of the Nine Walkers was Sindarin, and that tongue was used in his house, though not by all his folk. (The History of Galadrield and Celeborn, UT)
At the end of this section Tolkien adds:
By the end of the Third Age the Silvan tongues had probably ceased to be spoken in the two regions that had importance at the time of the War of the Ring: Lórien and the realm of Thranduil in northern Mirkwood. All that survived of them in the records was a few words and several names of persons or places. (The History of Galadriel and Celeborn, UT)
In short, Silvan used to be spoken in Mirkwood and Lórien, but by the time of The Return of the King, all that's left of is a thick regional accent. Frodo can't understand the Sindarin spoken by some of Haldir's scouts because of this accent. The question is whether Legolas is old enough to remember Silvan.
What Is Legolas' Age?
My Guess: Almost Certainly Less Than 2000
Tolkien never answers this question. That hasn't stopped fans—including me!—from guessing.
'Many long lives of men it is since the golden hall was built.'
'Five hundred times have the red leaves fallen in Mirkwood my home since then,' said Legolas, 'and but a little while does that seem to us.' (The King of the Golden Hall, TTT)
'It [Fangorn] is very, very old,' said the Elf. 'So old that I almost feel young again, as I have not felt since I journeyed with you children. It is old and full of memory.' (The White Rider, TTT)
The first of these two quotes again has the generalizing "we" problem; is Legolas simply speaking as a member of a long-lived race which is used to seeing time in this fashion, or is he speaking from personal experience? If the latter, he can't be younger than five hundred years old. On the other hand, the second quote may imply that he felt young before he started traveling with the Fellowship, making him old by human standards (500+) but young compared to other Elves.
Fans of Peter Jackson's films have an answer to the age question, but it's not from anything Tolkien wrote:
"As for Legolas," adds Orlando Bloom," he has seen the world. He is incredibly experienced in many ways. Mind you, he should be—after all, he is 2,931 years old!" (p. 44, LOTR Official Movie Guide by Brian Sibley)
FergoBaggins of the Council of Elrond forum shrewdly pointed out that this figure matches the year in which Aragorn was born. But in the writings of Tolkien himself, we've found no explicit references to Legolas' age or personal history prior to the War of the Ring.
To answer this question more fully, we must turn to Legolas' recollections and his family history. This approach is problematic, since we can't tell when he's speaking about incidents that happened far away while he was alive, or when he's speaking about events he only knows through the songs and legends of his people.
(Note: S.A. = Second Age, which began with Morgoth's defeat and the sinking of Beleriand, and ended with the Last Alliance of Men and Elves about 3000 years later. T.A. = Third Age, which began when Isildur cut the Ring from Sauron's finger. Frodo's quest begins in T.A. 3018.)
When the Fellowship is crossing the Misty Mountains, Gandalf and Legolas discuss the Elves of Hollin (Eregion), who lived outside the Gates of Moria in the Second Age:
'There is a wholesome air about Hollin. Much evil must befall a country before it wholly forgets the Elves, if once they dwelt there.'
'That is true,' said Legolas. 'But the Elves of this land were of a race strange to us of the silvan folk, and the trees and the grass do not now remember them: Only I hear the stones lament them: 'deep they delved us, fair they wrought us, high they built us; but they are gone.' They are gone. They sought the Havens long ago.' (The Ring Goes South, FOTR)
Legolas' family passed over the Misty Mountains to join the Silvan elves "before the building of Barad-dûr" (Tale of Years, Appendix B, ROTK) which was begun in S.A. 1000 and finished in S.A. 1600. Eregion (Hollin) was founded S.A. 750. So depending on whether "the building of Barad-dûr" refers to the start of construction or its completion, it is possible that Oropher left before Eregion was founded. If so, anyone who had gone with him would know little of Eregion, and Legolas' ignorance of Eregion might be explained that way.
However, had Legolas been dwelling with his grandfather prior to his removal across the Misty Mountains, he would have been in the mixed Noldor/Sindar settlement in Lindon. In that case, why would he consider the High-Elves (Noldor) a "strange race," if he had once lived among them? Also, he's drawing a distinction between the "strange" Elves of Eregion and we of the silvan folk. My guess is that means he was born after Oropher moved to Mirkwood. He certainly never mentions that migration, and his consistent attiude that he is a Wood-elf seems to postdate it. So I think we can be fairly certain that Legolas was born after his noble family settled among the Wood-elves and "went native", sometime in the early part of the Second Age. In other words, he almost has to be less than 6400 years old. Can we narrow it down more than that?
Our next milestone is Oropher's move from the vicinity of Lórien to the northern half of Mirkwood. What does Legolas know about this migration?
'It is long since any of my own folk journeyed hither back to the land whence we wandered in ages long ago,' said Legolas, 'but we hear that Lórien is not yet deserted, for there is a secret power here that holds evil from the land. Nevertheless its folk are seldom seen, and maybe they dwell now deep in the woods and far from the northern border.' (Lothlórien, FOTR)
It sounds as if Legolas was not alive when his folk still "journeyed hither back to the land whence we came," but it's hard to tell. The fact that Legolas never shows any suspicion or hostility towards Galadriel and Celeborn suggests that he was born after the doubts and resentments that led his family to move north in the middle of the Second Age had died down, or at least, they had stopped talking about it. That pushes Legolas' birthdate up to the latter part of the Second Age at the earliest.
Now we get to a sticky problem.
'It is told that she [Nimrodel] had a house built in the branches of a tree that grew near the falls; for that was the custom of the Elves of Lórien, to dwell in the trees, and maybe it is so still. Therefore they were called the Galadhrim, the Tree-people. Deep in their forest the trees are very great. The people of the woods did not delve in the ground like Dwarves, nor build strong places of stone before the Shadow came.' (Lothlórien, FOTR)
Here we have a quote with a firm date: the Balrog arose in Moria in T.A. 1980, and Amroth and Nimrodel were both lost during the resulting chaos in 1981. However, Legolas seems to have made a mistake. He's forgotten the Elvenking's mighty hall of stone. When was it actually built, and why? When the shadow of Dol Guldur fell upon Mirkwood around T.A. 1000, the Silvan Elves...
retreated before it as it spread ever northward, until at last Thranduil established his realm in the north-east of the forest and delved there a fortress and great halls underground. Oropher was of Sindarin origin, and no doubt Thranduil his son was following the example of King Thingol long before. (The History of Galadriel and Celeborn, UT)
Legolas' home is the main "strong place of stone...delved in the ground like Dwarves" among all the Silvan folk; we don't see any such place in Lórien. So he has to have his father's hall in mind. But the event that he says inspired its construction is a thousand years too late.
EIther Legolas was born long after the deaths of Amroth and Nimrodel, by which time the Balrog was blamed even for things that had nothing to do with it -- or this is just a case where Tolkien's private jottings don't synch up perfectly with the published books. There's no way to know. However, his use of the past tense makes it sound like he's retelling legends of things that happened before he was born -- maybe. If that's so, he cannot be older than about a thousand years.
Another clue is the fact that Legolas seems never have visited Lothlórien before. If he were older than two thousand, he'd predate Dol Guldur, and would have spent time with his familiy living in south Mirkwood on the opposite side of the river from Lórien. If so, you would think he'd have visited his closest kin and neighbors at least once, to deliver messages or pay his respects to King Amroth, an old family friend! After all, Legolas left Mirkwood with (he thought) a distressing but minor matter: the escape of a prisoner whose importance was not understood. I simply cannot believe he would never have visited Lórien before it became dangerous to go that way. So I'm putting his birth after the establishment of Dol Guldur, and feel pretty confident that it's necessary to do so.
That pushes his birthdate past T.A. 1000, almost certainly less than two thousand years old: younger than any other elf named in the story, even Arwen.
Legolas' Age: More Speculation
As Young as Seven Hundred, Perhaps?
Are there any more clues that can help us narrow down Legolas' age?
Well, we have Tolkien's habit of making parallel generations in closely-allied families: Tuor and Huor, Túrin and Húrin for example. The pattern here is less obvious, but King Amdir of Lórien and King Oropher of Mirkwood are both Sindarin princes of Silvan Elves who moved east at the same time, died in the same war, and were succeeded by sons of the same age. If Amroth and Nimrodel had not died during the mess following the Dwarves' discovery of a Balrog in Moria, their children would have been born less than a thousand years before ROTK, and Legolas would be the same generation. So there's a fourth clue pointing in the same general direction, albeit a fairly flimsy one.
I also can't help but wonder about Bilbo's mithril coat, made for a half-grown elven prince. The dwarves who settled the Lonely Mountain were fleeing Moria after the Balrog disaster. There was only one Elf-king left in Middle-Earth by that time. For whom was the coat made? Unless Legolas has siblings we never hear about (which is of course possible), then that was supposed to be his! So there's a fifth clue, albeit a rather forced one, since I don't think Tolkien had come up with the character of Legolas son of the Elvenking when he was writing The Hobbit.
However, that does fit the fact that Legolas' recounting of the story of Amroth and Nimrodel makes it sound like they had been glamorized into legend before he was born. That makes him less than eight or nine hundred years old. Say seven hundred, since he elsewhere seems to imply he's seen five hundred years. He would certainly be old compared to the rest of the Fellowship, but as an Elf he's still in his "tweens", as the Hobbits would say, or in human terms, he's a young man just coming into the prime of his life.
After sifting through all of this, I discovered that Michael Martinez, the author of Visualizing Middle Earth, had concluded that Legolas was not much past five hundred years old. See his "Speaking of Legolas" article; he follows an entirely different line of reasoning.
Legolas' Family Tragedy
Doomed to Follow His Father's Footsteps—and Beyond
There is one major event in the history of Mirkwood which Legolas apparently did not witness, but which again sheds light upon his heritage, and why he seems almost sheltered from the rest of the Elven world.
Appendix B of the "Galadriel and Celeborn" chapter of Unfinished Tales summarize the part his family played in the Last Alliance of Men and Elves (end of the Second Age):
Despite the desire of the Silvan Elves to meddle as little as might be in the affairs of the Noldor and Sindar, or of any other peoples, Dwarves, Men, or Orcs, Oropher had the wisdom to foresee that peace would not return unless Sauron was overcome. He therefore assembled a great army of his now numerous people, and joining with the lesser army of Malgalad of Lórien* he led the host of the Silvan Elves to battle. The Silvan Elves were hardy and valiant, but ill-equipped with armour or weapons in comparison with the Eldar of the West; also they were independent, and not disposed to place themselves under the supreme command of Gil-galad. Their losses were thus more grievous than they need have been, even in that terrible war. Malgalad and more than half his following perished in the great battle of the Dagorlad, being cut off from the main host and driven into the Dead Marshes. Oropher was slain in the first assault upon Mordor, rushing forward at the head of his most doughty warriors before Gil-galad had given the signal for the advance. Thranduil his son survived, but when the war ended and Sauron was slain (as it seemed) he led back home barely a third of the army that had marched to war.
So those Elves in the Dead Marshes should not have been wearing metal armor, Mr. Jackson: they were Wood-Elves like Legolas!
*You will note that the king of Lórien is here named Magalad. In Tolkien's unpublished notes and early drafts of The Lord of the Rings, we often find him trying out different names for the same character, sometimes revising the character's history dramatically in the process. In fact, at one point, Tolkien floated the that Amroth of Lórien was not the son of King Amdir/Malgalad, but of Galadriel and Celeborn's son, Celebrían's brother! There's even a hint of this in Treebeard's farewell to them in Return of the King, when he hails Celeborn and Galadriel (in Elvish) as the parents of beautiful children. Luckily, Tolkien is less prone to fiddle with Legolas' family -- he never says much, but what he says is fairly consistent.
But enough on the confused history of Lórien. Just look at what Tolkien has said here! In spite of all his misgivings about the wars of the First Age, in spite of not having warm feelings about the remaining High-Elves, who after all had destroyed his home in Doriath, King Oropher reluctantly joins the Last Alliance against Sauron lest Sauron wipe out his peaceful world. But he and his folk are slaughtered. The innocence of the Wood-elves of Lórien and Mirkwood is forever lost, along with both kings. When Oropher's son leads the survivors back to Mirkwood...
there was in Thranduil's heart a still deeper shadow. He had seen the horror of Mordor and could not forget it. If ever he looked south its memory dimmed the light of the Sun... fear spoke in his heart that it was not conquered forever; it would rise again. (Appendix B, The History of Galadriel and Celeborn, UT)
We begin to see why the Elvenking seems ill-tempered and reclusive, and yet is compassionate to those who have suffered great losses (the Lake-men), in The Hobbit.
My guess is that Thranduil did not tell Legolas much about this terrible tragedy, for the son does not seem shadowed by dread as his father and grandfather were -- yet another reason to make Legolas a child of the Third Age, incidentally. But just think of the irony. At the end of Return of the King, Legolas lovingly follows Aragorn to the Gates of Mordor, the place where two-thirds of his people died, to the exact spot where his grandfather Oropher and his household perished in a reckless charge, and where Legolas' own father barely escaped alive. Legolas joins in another Last Alliance before Sauron's gates, knowing full well that none of them may live to see a new Age.
Did Legolas realize he was following in his father's footsteps? I don't think so. But I wonder what was going through Elrond's mind when he appointed Legolas to the Fellowship, and how much he foresaw: as Gil-galad's herald, he surely had seen Oropher's fall.
What Does Legolas Look Like?
Blond, Dark-Haired, Pretty?
Enough about tragic irony: Here's what fans really want to know. What does Tolkien have to say about Legolas' appearance?
Sadly, not much. Tolkien can natter on for paragraphs about the layout of Helm's Deep, but he never even bothers to mention Legolas' hair color. I guess the book would have been a thousand pages longer if he had described every character! All Tolkien says in LOTR is that he is tall, fair and beautiful like all his race.
We have one other tiny clue from The Hobbit, in which Legolas' father is described as "a woodland king with a crown of leaves on his golden hair." This is a bit problematic, since Sindar are usually described as having silver or dark hair, but The Hobbit was written before Tolkien had fully develped his canon. Moreover, we don't know for certain what hair color Silvan Elves have. The nitpicker in me notes the one almost-certain Wood-elf we see is blond:
'There is one of my people yonder across the stream,' he [Haldir] said, 'though you may not see him.' He gave a call like the low whistle of a bird, and out of a thicket of young trees an Elf stepped, clad in grey, but with his hood thrown back; his hair glinted like gold in the morning sun. (Lothlórien, FOTR)
Could Legolas have Wood-Elf blood? We don't know anything about his mother- nor Thranduil's, for that matter, although in Thranduil's case I think Tolkien truly meant for him to be Sindar, mourning and keenly mindful of old injuries to his people in Doriath from both Dwarf and High-Elves. We just don't know.
Back to the hair. Wood-Elf or no, Legolas' father was blond, so any rule of thumb about Sindar being dark-haired or silver-haired has already been broken in his closest kin.
Some readers have objected to a blond Legolas because of this passage:
Frodo looked up at the Elf standing tall above him, as he gazed into the night, seeking a mark to shoot at. His head was dark, crowned with sharp white stars that glittered in the black pools of the sky behind. (The Great River, FOTR.)
However, it was pitch-black at the time; Legolas could not even see what it was he shot, and his eyes are better than Frodo's. The darkness there has nothing to do with his hair.
Legolas' grace, his singing, his emotional and poetic language, Tolkien's early conceptions of Elves as fairies, and popular impressions about elves in general have given many readers the impression that he is a bit of a lightweight. Tolkien later had to set the record straight, as his son noted:
Long afterwards my father would write, in a wrathful comment on a 'pretty' or 'ladylike' pictoral rendering of Legolas:
'He was tall as a young tree, lithe, immensely strong, able swiftly to draw a great war-bow and shoot down a Nazgûl, endowed with the tremendous vitality of Elvish bodies, so hard and resistant to hurt that he went only in light shoes over rock or through snow, the most tireless of all the Fellowship.' (Book of Lost Tales 2, p. 333.)
Perhaps "pretty" is the wrong adjective, but "fair of face beyond the measure of Men" is a typical description. Looks notwithstanding, Tolkien's point is that Legolas is a formidable fellow, not simply a pretty face.
What's in a Name?
The Meaning of the Name "Legolas"
Legolas is translated Greenleaf (II 106, 154) a suitable name for a Woodland Elf, though one of royal and originally Sindarin line.[...]Technically, Legolas is a compound (according to rules) of S[indarin] laeg 'viridis' fresh and green, and go-lass 'collection of leaves, folliage'. (Letters of J.R.R.T. 297)
Legolas means 'green-leaves', a woodland name -- dialectal form of pure Sindarin laegolas: *lassë (High-elven lasse, S. las(s) 'leaf'; *gwa-lassa/*gwa-lassië 'collection of leaves, folliage' (H.E. laica, S. laeg (seldom used, usually replaced by calen), woodland leg-). (Letters 211)
Legolas, like a few other Elves, gets an epithet or second name that's actually a translation of his first name: Thingol Greycloak, Arwen Evenstar (in this case a translation of Undómiel).
There's a puzzle with Legolas' name, however. Laeg is not only extremely archaic, but the only other example we have for it is Laegel, "Green-elf". The Green-elves, a splinter branch of Silvan Elves, were a rural, backward people compared to the High-elves and Sindar. On top of this, they were considered cowards, since after an early massacre in the First Age they refused to join the wars or fight openly against the Enemy. Only to a member of Thranduil's family would they seem worthy of respect.
It is a strange thing to name his son. Mirkwood's original name uses the later word for "green" : Emyn Galen. At the end of ROTK, Thranduil renames it Greenleaves. Does he use his son's name? No! He calls it Emyn Lasgalen. What's going on here?
In spite of Tolkien's comment about the Sindar of Mirkwood adopting Silvan language, Legolas' name is the only example we know of where a Sindarin word has been "Silvanized." It's normally the other way around: Silvan elves adopt Sindarin (even in Mirkwood), and Silvan names are "Sindarinized" (Caras, Lórien). Mirkwood's various Elvish names are all purely Sindarin. Legolas' name is unique. I probably shouldn't push the "Green-Elf" idea as far as I did in the first version of this article, where I speculated that his mother might be Laegel, a Green-Elf! Nonetheless, I do think it probable that Legolas' name is more than a nod to Thranduil's adopted people, the Wood-Elves.
I think Tolkien, fond of repeated patterns, meant for Thranduil son of Oropher to have married a Wood-Elf, just as Amroth son of Amdír of Lórien intended to do. Their families follow similar paths. And again, it would help explain why Legolas, descended from an "originally Sindarin line," so consistently calls himself Wood-Elf or Silvan.
Not a Super Elf, Just a Good Egg
One thing is clear. Far from being a royal and noble prince, Legolas of the Nine Walkers is simply a formidable and loyal friend, who would rather be known for the company he keeps than for his noble father. That sort of loyalty is what they needed most for the Fellowship. And it is his loyalty to Gimli, not just the call of the Sea, that sends this "Wood-elf" on the last ship west to the Undying Lands. There he is to this day, presumably following the hunting-horn of OromÃ«.
Thanks to: Sir J'ohn, my former co-moderator on Mystcommunity and patient consultant in matters of Tolkien lore, and to all the thoughtful members of the Council of Elrond site, who provided invaluable critique for an early draft of this article.
Addendum: Legolas of Gondolin
Almost Certainly Not the Same Elf
In The Book of Lost Tales 2, there are several references to one "Legolas Greenleaf of the House of the Tree" who helped the refugees of Gondolin escape. There are two obvious reasons why this can't be the son of Thranduil. First, as noted above, Tolkien decided "Legolas" was a Silvanized spelling of a Sindarin name, and that makes no sense for a resident of Gondolin, whose Elves were Noldor.
Second, in FOTR, Legolas tells the Fellowship that the elves of Eregion are a race that is strange to him. Those elves were Noldor, many of them refugees from Gondolin. Christopher Tolkien therefore identifies "Legolas Greenleaf of the House of the Tree" and "Legolas Greenleaf son of Thranduil" as two different people.
Legolas of Gondolin only appears in Tolkien's very early writings, long before he began to write LOTR, when he was still calling Noldor "Gnomes". Tolkien's story, characters, and world evolved and changed significantly after that. Legolas' name is one of several that appear in Tolkien's earliest writings and are later recycled and given to someone entirely different.
Legolas Bibliography: Sources I Used for This Article
Do NOT trust "facts" printed in sourcebooks for the movies, which include many made-up details (such as Legolas' age) invented to flesh out their video games, merchandising, and collectible card game. Instead, read what Tolkien actually said.
Obviously, this is where you learn the most about Legolas—in the story! Less obviously, there are some obscure notes about his family history tucked away in Appendix B and F of Return of the King.
Legolas does not appear in this story, because he hadn't yet been invented, but his father shows up several times in the later chapters.
What do you think? I hope I've given you a deeper insight into a minor but appealling character in Tolkien's trilogy.