Visions of Beauty: Lothlorien and the Power of Beauty

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[Boromir said] “And now we must enter the Golden Wood, you say.  But of that perilous land we have heard in Gondor, and it is said that few come out who once go in; and of that few none have escaped unscathed.”

“Say not unscathed, but if you say unchanged, then maybe you will speak the truth,” said Aragorn.[1]

Introduction: The Perilous Journey

Aragorn’s comment points to an understanding deeply woven in the human experience of that which we call “Beauty.”  There is something “perilous” about beauty and we are aware at some deep level of intuition or, better yet, at some vague awareness of a moral reality or “calling” that Beauty has within it the power to “change” us at some profound and ontological level of our existence. To follow a “trail’ that leads to “the Golden Wood” where one will knowingly encounter Beauty is one that requires courage and calls forth the essence of our character and reveals its flaws and weaknesses.  It is here that we begin to acknowledge, again at some level, that Beauty contains within it the potential of great power and great goodness.

The claims implicit and explicit in the previous paragraph are, in fact, very controversial in our day.  Within the philosophical conversation of the past two hundred years there are many voices that have sought to separate the notions of beauty, goodness, and power.  This has been attempted through a variety of arguments.  Some have sought to assert that beauty is solely a human construct driven by what gives pleasure and by what satisfies a socially constructed consensus of what constitutes “artistic taste.”  Others have argued that beauty makes no moral claims upon those who encounter it. In addition, the effort to assert that beauty and goodness are related is itself a victim of an ideologically defined set of assumptions that are themselves violently coercive and repressive.  Others have argued that goodness, if there be such a reality, is not capable of power but that the good is essentially weak, “sheep-like,” envious, and perverse.  The net effect of these discussions is that the traditional or classical consensus concerning the inter-relationship of beauty, goodness, and power has been fractured and splintered to such an extent that a totally subjective understanding of value and aesthetics has become the most common position among thinking people.  Beauty, it is then asserted, is always and only “in the eye of the beholder” and all assertions, drawn from classical traditions, of an objective and intentional interrelation between beauty, goodness, and power are untenable and foolish.

A response to the severing of beauty, goodness, and power[2] can be made in a variety of ways.  This study will begin with a phenomenological analysis of art and beauty in terms of play, symbol, and festival as developed by Hans-Georg Gadamer.  Gadamer’s discussion will provide a context in which elements of the interpretative field can be understood. Second, the paper will examine the way in which J. R. R. Tolkien develops his understanding of beauty through the description and events of the Company’s visit to Lorthlorien in The Fellowship of the Ring.  This examination will utilize the analysis of Gadamer as a point of departure in the effort to understand the power of beauty and the beauty of power.  In the concluding section of this paper I will return to the issue sounded above and seek to weave the various elements of this study together to demonstrate that, in fact, Tolkien’s vision is of a richer and more nuanced rendering of the nature of beauty.  Art and the experience of beauty serve as a reminder that beauty, goodness, and power are inextricably related and can serve as limited, and historically conditioned, incarnate “icons” of the “beauty of the infinite.”[3]

Gadamer: Hermeneutic of Beauty

Hans-Georg Gadamer has attempted to argue that beauty is, in fact, not only relevant but can serve as “sign,”[4] whose interpretation and understanding serves as a “bridge between the ideal and the real.”[5] The encounter with and interpretation of Beauty serves as an essential element of a hermeneutical process through which the “work of art transforms our fleeting experience into the stable and lasting form of an independent and internally coherent creation.”[6]


Gadamer argues that art, and the beauty one experiences in and through art, can be understood in light of three concepts: play, symbol, and festival or celebration.  First, Gadamer argues that the phenomenon of play can provide hermeneutical insight into the importance of art.  In Truth and Method Gadamer argues that play is an important metaphor through which the process of understanding becomes clearer. He employs the German word, Spiel.  This word means “play” as in the phrase, “one plays a game” (Man spielt ein Spiel.)[7] The same term is also used, as in English, as a synonym for “drama.”  Gadamer is intentionally “playing” off of both meanings in this analysis.  The analysis of the “mode of play”[8] reveals several characteristics of play that directly relate to the understanding process and, as such, to the appropriation of both art and beauty.

First, one loses oneself in play and to that extent play has its own kind of seriousness.  When one fails to take the game seriously then that player is a “spoilsport.”  It is in playing that the mode of being of play is revealed.

Second, subjective introspection provides no real clue to the meaning of play.  The players are “not the subjects of play, instead play merely reaches presentation through the players.”[9] Play itself is the dominate reality and not the subjective consciousness of the players. The players are not the most important aspect of the phenomenon of play.  Play is realized only as the players enter into the “game.”

Third, it is the very essence of play that it involves a “to-and-fro movement.”[10] It is the “interplay,” the to-and-fro movement, the repetition of give and take, which is central to play and not the individuals who participate.  Here Gadamer is emphasizing the dynamic character of play.  Just as the players often go “back and forth” on a designated playing field during the duration of a game so also the one who would interpret or engage art and beauty must participate in the dynamic of relation.

Fourth, play has its own structure, its own “playing field,” that is governed by a covenant of rules that sets it off from other realities and creates a “closed world.”[11] There is no particular task to be solved or purpose to be accomplished other than playing the game.  Any breech in this “closed world” ends the game, severs the relationship between the play and the player, and serves to confuse the “make-believe goals of the game”[12] with the pragmatic “world of aims.”[13] As one enters the dynamic process of interpretation of and encounter with beauty, the metaphor of play helps us understand the structure of meaning which calls us to participate, to “play along with,” in “purposive rationality.” [14]

Fifth, play as self-representation is potentially for others.  In the totality of play both the players and the audience are included.  This is particularly true in drama and religious rite or festival.[15] Neither is complete without the presence of the audience who participates in the meaning and totality of the drama or religious rite.[16]

The phenomenon of play and its range of features is the first concept explored by Gadamer as he seeks to understand the nature of the beautiful.  This concept can be very helpful in the effort to reclaim the truth value of art as a representation of historical existence in its totality, and not as a separable, ideal realm outside of the lived-world of reality.  The truth represented and disclosed in art is found only in full participation in the play of the art.


Symbol is the second concept employed by Gadamer in his effort to re-assert the essential relevance of the beautiful.  Gadamer’s analysis of symbol provides a complex tapestry of inter-woven elements.  First, he argues that the original meaning of the term refers to remembrance.[17] It is a remembrance of a “whole” now fragmented to which the “symbol” points.  He writes, “…the symbol is that other fragment that has always been sought in order to complete and make whole our own fragmentary life.”[18] This occurs in such a way that “…the experience of the beautiful, and particularly the beautiful in art, is the invocation of a potentially whole and holy order of things, wherever it may be found.”[19]

Gadamer clarifies his understanding by arguing that his position is not a re-statement of a Hegelian idealism in which the particular is lost in an abstract totality but rather: he proposes

…that the symbolic in general, and especially the symbolic in art, rests upon an intricate interplay of showing and concealing.  In its irreplaceability, the   work of art is no mere bearer of meaning – as if the meaning could be transferred to another bearer.  Rather the meaning of the work lies in the fact that it is there.  In order therefore to avoid all false connotations, we should replace the word “work” by the word “creation.[20]

It is in this sense that Gadamer can write that, “[T]he symbolic does not simply point toward a meaning, but rather allows that meaning to present itself.”[21] It is in and through the art itself, in its embodiment, that the beautiful is manifested in the dynamic of “showing and concealing” which allows art to be seen as a symbol by those who enter its “community” and “play.”


The communal reality is further emphasized by Gadamer as he speaks of festival.  Festival is “an experience of community and represents community in its most perfect form.”[22] Briefly, a festival is marked by several qualities:  “it is an intentional activity” and it has a unique temporal quality as “fulfilled” time.[23] This understanding of time is to be distinguished from the usual notion of duration or of time as “empty” and needing to be filled.  In this sense, Gadamer’s understanding of “fulfilled” or “autonomous” time is analogous to the New Testament notion of “kairos.”

The linkage between this notion of festival and the experience of art is not difficult to grasp.  A work of art has an “organic unity” that “displays autonomous temporality.”[24] Gadamer suggests that music serves as the best example of this idea.  Music has its own tempo as an art of time.  The tempo markings on a piece of music are “indications” but require interpretation in light of the whole composition.  One must enter into the music as a whole in order to understand the tempo markings and interpret the piece correctly.  This is further illustrated by rhythm.  Rhythm, as an expression of tempo, requires that we enter into the dynamic of the piece and, in fact, “introduce rhythm into it.”[25] Gadamer writes, “[E]very work of art imposes its own temporality upon us, not only the transitory arts of language, music, and dance.”[26]

In the “Relevance of the Beautiful” Gadamer points to the deeper “telos” of his analysis:

To sum up the results of these brief reflections: in the experience of art we must learn how to dwell upon the work in a specific way.  When we dwell upon the work, there is no tedium involved, for the longer we allow ourselves, the more it displays its manifold riches to us.  The essence of our temporal experience of art is in learning to tarry in this way.  And perhaps it is the only way that is granted to us finite beings to relate to what we call eternity.[27]

Tolkien: the Power of Beauty and the Beauty of Power

After the tragic events of Moria, the company enters Lothlorien, the Golden Wood.   It is winter, (both as to the season and as to the time of the elves in Middle Earth) and yet, the experience is one of almost unspeakable beauty.  As they passed, blindfolded, into Lothlorien, Frodo felt that “he had stepped over a bridge of time into a corner of the Elder Days, and was now walking in a world that was no more” for “on the land of Lorien no shadow lay.”[28]

Like pilgrims they are led, as blind men, into the cathedral dedicated to beauty – yet a beauty that even now is threatened and is destined to fade.  When the blindfolds are removed Frodo is “lost in wonder.”[29] The light illumined Cerin Amroth, in such a way, that all was seen with an immediacy and purity as if one was seeing the “mound of Amroth” in the first moment of its conception.  It is unblemished by time or deformity or stain.  It was, as Sam put it, like being “inside a song.”[30] This is like Eden, this is a symbol of heaven, this is the place of healing, and this temporal embodiment of beauty exists under a great threat and is facing great change.

When, finally, the company entered the presence of Celeborn and Galadriel at Caras Galadhon, the Lord and Lady are both described as “grave and beautiful.”[31] This is but the first of several references to the inter-play of both beauty and power.  After the story of the fellowship was recounted, Galadriel “held them with her eyes, and in silence looked searchingly at each of them in turn.”[32] In the hours that followed this first encounter between the company and Galadriel, each one acknowledged how her “look” penetrated into their very being.  This was most troubling to Boromir.  He questions Galadriel’s purposes.  Aragorn sternly responds:

You know not what you say.  There is in her and in this land no evil, unless a man bring it hither himself. Then let him beware!  But tonight I shall sleep without fear for the first time since I left Rivendell.[33]

In these encounters several of the themes or concepts indicated by Gadamer are found.  In a very real sense, the community of elves in Lothlorien, as does the company itself, symbolizes the Church. The process by which the members of the fellowship are led to their meeting with Celeborn and Galadriel is one shaped by the patterns of worship and festival.  The language used to describe the moral life and light of the elves is further evidence of the interrelationship between goodness and beauty.  The experience of the fellowship is one of “timelessness” that is shaped and sustained by song, “play” (in the sense of worship), restoration, and, as they are departing and thus beginning the most dangerous part of their journey, the reception of very important gifts.

It is, however, in the evening dialogue between Galadriel, Frodo, and Sam, before the “Mirror of Galadriel,” that the most revealing moment transpired.  The Mirror reveals desires, hidden dangers, images of the possible future, and events that are presently occurring in far-off lands.  It is as dangerous as it may be revealing. Therefore, it “is dangerous as a guide of deeds.”[34] To look into the mirror requires both “courage and wisdom.”  In the Mirror Frodo saw the “Eye” of Sauron, the Enemy.  Frodo “stepped back (from the mirror) shaking all over.”[35] The Lady says,

I know what it was that you last saw for that is also in my mind.  Do not be afraid! But do not think that only by singing amid the trees, nor even by the slender arrows of elven-bows, is this land of Lothlorien maintained and defended against its Enemy.  I say to you, Frodo, that even as I speak to you, I perceive the Dark Lord and know his mind, or all of his mind that concerns the Elves.  And he gropes ever to see me and my thought.  But still the door is closed![36]

Here we gain a glimpse of the clear perception of reality that comes with goodness and the power of character that is produced.  She knows the mind of evil and yet is strong enough to keep that mind at bay.  The combination of goodness, power, and beauty is further revealed in a moment of disclosure as Frodo offers her the Ring.  Here she is tempted with great evil power that would eventually destroy what goodness lay in her.

She lifted up her hand and from the ring that she wore there issued a great light that illumined her alone and left all else dark.  She stood before Frodo seeming now tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful.  Then she let her hand fall, and the light faded, and suddenly she laughed again, and lo! She was shrunken: a slender, elf-woman, clad in simple white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad.  “I pass the test,” she said.  “I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.”[37]

Conclusion: Toward a Moral Vision of Beauty

The three concepts of play, symbol, and festival examined earlier in the paper provide a beginning point in understanding the way in which art in particular and the experience of beauty can be interpreted.  The previous discussion of one important episode in The Fellowship of the Ring illustrates how these concepts can be useful.  But Gadamer’s hermeneutical phenomenology fails to fully grasp the inner quality of great art in general and, at best, only alludes to an understanding of beauty that will provide a way of re-uniting the now severed connection of beauty, power, and goodness.

Tolkien’s richer vision of beauty extends the meaning captured by play, symbol, and festival.  Not all of the five aspects of play emphasized by Gadamer can be found in the experience of the Fellowship in Lothlorien.  However, when all of the company agree [?] to wear the blindfolds, Gimli avoids being the “spoil-sport.”  Boromir’s reaction to the Lady reveals the extent to which his individual agenda is threatening the cohesion and mission of the Fellowship.  The dynamic movement of the action in the text also points to the comprehensive character of Tolkien’s sub-creation (in Gadamer’s terms the closed world of the playing field). The “audience” consists of many groups, both within the novel and without, including the roving “eye” of Sauron, the various groups within Middle Earth whose destinies will be shaped by the extent to which the fellowship is true to its calling, and the reader whose life is enriched by the vision of beauty, goodness, and power contained within this work of art.

The interplay of symbols of light, the sacramental nature of the gifts – especially lembas,[38] and the Eden-like beauty of the realm of the Elves all point to the concept and interpretive power of symbol.

The ceremonial character of the pilgrimage of the fellowship into Lothlorien is consistent with the nature of festival or ritual.  The blindfolds, the step-by-step progression to the city of Celeborn and Galadriel, the experience of “fulfilled” time, the inter-play of song and dialogue and rest all express the ritual character of this portion of their pilgrimage. Yet, there seems to be something more in this passage which illumines Tolkien’s vision of beauty.

Galadriel serves as the embodiment of the unifying element, perhaps implicitly present, but undeveloped in Gadamer’s treatment.  She faces great temptation.  She passes the “test.”  Test, here, is to be understood as referring to the kind of challenge that discloses the nature of one’s moral character.  It is a trial designed to determine if one is genuine and true.  The ultimate context of this term is the Biblical understanding that God tests (dokimos see James 1:12) the character of those who seek to follow Him.  Such testing serves to force out that which is not genuine in our characters and prepare us for trials and challenges that lie ahead.  Here Galadriel meets the ultimate test and passes the trial.  Her character is revealed.  The importance of this event for our study can not be overstated.  Genuine Beauty as indicated by the etymology of the Greek word kalon means both goodness and beauty.  There is, in fact, a solemnity in the experience of Beauty that challenges the ordinary, that alters our experience of time, that provides embodiment of that which provides “bridges” to the eternal.

The journey that heeds the call of beauty is indeed “perilous.”  Such a pilgrimage will change us.  It is the way which, eventually, will bring us into confrontation with goodness and will bind us in troth by its power. Galadriel enshrouded in light “beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful” can serve as an icon of beauty by which we can

learn to see the world as beauty, [learn] the measure of a love that receives all things not to hold onto, not ‘for me,’ but as beautiful in their own splendor; and in learning the measure of charity, which lets what is be in its otherness, one’s vision of the world becomes open to its beauty, and is deepened toward the infinity of beauty that comprises it.[39]

[1] Tolkien, LOTR, Vol. I, 329.

[2] Traditionally, the transcendental triad is “beauty, truth, and goodness” and does not include references to power.  What is striking about this section of Tolkien’s work is the inclusion of the language of power and the assumed understanding that where beauty, goodness, and power are found truth will also be found.  In light of this, I have chosen to alter the traditional triad by inserting the concept of power into this discussion.

[3] See Hart, David Bentley, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth

[4] Gadamer, “Aesthetic and Religious Experience,” (ARE)  152.

[5] Gadamer, “The Relevance of the Beautiful,” (RB) 15.

[6] Gadamer, RB, 53.

[7] Gadamer, Truth and Method, note 6, 510.

[8] 92.

[9] 92.

[10] 93.

[11] 96-97.

[12] 97.

[13] 96.

[14] RB 23-24.

[15] TM 98

[16] 98.

[17] RB 31.

[18] 32.

[19] 32.

[20] 33.

[21] 34.

[22] 39.

[23] 39-42.

[24] 43.

[25] 45.

[26] 45.

[27] 45.

[28] LOTR 340.

[29] 341.

[30] 341-342.

[31] 345.

[32] 348.

[33] 349.

[34] 354.

[35] 355.

[36] 355.

[37] 356-357.

[38] 360.

[39] Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite, 255-256.