“‘Now, now!’ said Gimli. ‘We are beginning the story in the middle. I should like a tale in the right order…” (“Flotsam and Jetsam,” The Two Towers)
When Galadriel is first introduced in The Silmarillion, attention is drawn especially to her hair, “lit with gold as though it had caught in a mesh the radiance of Laurelin,” one of the Two Trees of Valinor. This parallel between Galadriel’s hair on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the Silmaril jewels in which Fëanor literally captures the light of the Two Trees, is quite striking, and yet, according to an idea entertained at one point by Tolkien, may not be wholly coincidental. In The Silmarillion, the reason given for Fëanor’s fashioning of the Silmarils is his premonition of the coming destruction of the Two Trees and the loss of their light. In a passage found in Unfinished Tales (230), however, Tolkien considered adding a back-story in which Fëanor, having thrice asked and been thrice denied by Galadriel for a “tress” of her beautiful hair, found a substitute in the making of the Silmarils.
This Fëanor-Galadriel back-story, of course, and its alternative account of the origin of the Silmarils, lends a great deal of significance to Gimli’s own, much later request of Galadriel for a strand of her hair. It is interesting, for example, to read in the astonishment of the Lorien Elves, besides their general annoyance at Gimli’s seeming impertinence, a particular recollection of the terrible consequences resulting from the last time someone asked Galadriel for a strand of her hair. At the same time, Galadriel does say that no one has ever made a request of her quite like Gimli’s, which, if taken together with the Fëanor-Galadriel back-story, might be taken to imply that Gimli’s request is, in another respect, not at all like Fëanor’s.
In some ways, rather, his request may be compared to the making of the Dwarves by Aulë, who, we may recall, was also the patron Vala of the Noldor and possibly one of the master craftsman under whom Fëanor apprenticed. When Ilúvatar asks Aulë if his desire was for creatures whom he could dominate and command, Aulë penitently responds, “I did not desire such lordship,” and explains instead that “the making of things is in my heart from my own making by thee; and the child of little understanding that makes a play of the deeds of his father may do so without thought of mocerky, but because he is the son of his father.” Imitating his own “father,” Gimli may be heard echoing Aulë’s words when he responds to Galadriel’s insistence that he ask of her a gift: “ ‘There is nothing, Lady Galadriel,’ said Gimli, bowing low and stammering. ‘Nothing, unless it might be – unless it is permitted to ask, nay, to name a single strand of your hair, which surpasses the gold of the earth as the stars surpass the gems of the mine. I do not ask for such a gift. But you commanded me to name my desire” (emphasis added). Understanding the dismay of her onlookers, Galadriel’s characterization of Gimli’s request could almost equally describe the simultaneous audacity and yet humility of Aulë: “For none have ever made to me a request so bold and yet so courteous.” Her reply also exhibits something of the mercy and understanding that Aulë receives from Ilúvatar: “And how shall I refuse, since I commanded him to speak?”
And it is well that she does, for Galadriel herself has just been the beneficiary of the kind of mercy Aulë had received from Ilúvatar. In a letter that invites us to see the exchange between Galadriel and Gimli against the back-drop of the earlier encounter between Galadriel and Frodo, Tolkien indicates that until Frodo’s arrival in Lothlórien, Galadriel had actually believed her own exile from Valinor to be not temporary but “perennial, as long as the Earth endured.” It was only after her intercessory prayer on Frodo’s behalf—that he should be allowed the grace Galadriel believed to be forever denied to herself, namely of returning to the West—as well as a reward for her refusal of the Ring and her part in the war against Sauron, that Galadriel discovered the ban placed upon her return to the West to be eucatastrophically and miraculously lifted (Unfinished Tales 229). Thus, with Yavanna Galadriel can say that Eru is not only “merciful,” but even “bountiful.” Having been the recipient of bounty in her dealings with Frodo, it is fitting that she be the bestower of great bounty in her dealings with Gimli. Freely she has received, freely she gives.
When Galadriel asks Gimli what he would do with such a gift, “ ‘Treasure it, Lady,’ he answered, ‘in memory of your words to me at our first meeting. And if ever I return to the smithies of my home, it shall be set in imperishable crystal to be an heirloom of my house, and a pledge of good will between the Mountain and the Wood until the end of days.” Significantly, the last time the word imperishable appeared in Tolkien’s legendarium—with the exception of the “song of Lúthien,” which is said still to be sung “unchanged” in Valinor—occurs in the story of Fëanor’s attempt to “preserve imperishable” the light of the Two Trees. With this word, then, Gimli unwittingly yet expressly links his request to that of Fëanor’s (and beyond that, perhaps to Melkor’s own original quest for the Flame Imperishable). Gimli’s purpose, in a word, is to make for himself a new Silmaril.
Yet in marked contrast to Fëanor (and Melkor), Gimli’s purpose is not to make the proposed Silmaril “for himself” at all, but to consecrate it as a public sign and symbol of the newfound fellowship between Dwarf and Elf. In this gesture of Gimli’s, enshrining the “good will between the Mountain and the Wood,” we see something of a gospel-resolution to the strife Ilúvatar predicts to Aulë will obtain “between thine and mine, the children of my adoption and the children of my choice,” and thus a foreshadowing of the eschatological role the Dwarves themselves are appointed to play in the final consummation of all things when “Ilúvatar will hallow them and give them a place among the Children in the End. Then their part shall be to serve Aulë and to aid him in the remaking of Arda after the Last Battle.”
Again, it is tempting to read into Galadriel’s response to Gimli’s intentions an Ilúvatar-like awareness and anticipation of these things, and so with her gift—not of one but three strands—of her golden hair, she also imparts a word of blessing: “if hope should not fail, then I say to you, Gimli son of Glóin, that your hands shall flow with gold, and yet over you gold shall have no dominion.” In Gimli, therefore, we are to see embodied the reversal and redemption of his own people’s tragically greedy history. More than this, however, Galadriel’s words point to Gimli (paradoxically) as the reversal and redemption of her own people’s tragic history (much as in Galadriel’s dealings with Gimli, as I have suggested, we see the outworking of the eucatastrophe in her own personal history). In her prediction of Gimli’s future, after all, we also see a return to the original, prelapsarian generosity of the Noldor before Fëanor’s making of the Silmarils, when they first “devised tools for the cutting of gems, and carved them in many forms,” and they “hoarded them not, but gave them freely, and by their labour enriched all Valinor.” Gimli has made Fëanor’s request of Galadriel, but he is not just a another Fëanor, but a new Fëanor, what Fëanor, should have been or possibly even once was.
Another perspective on Galadriel’s words, however, suggests itself, which is that not only will Gimli make a new Silmaril (or possibly three), but he himself will be a Silmaril. The Silmarils’ symbolism of the harmony of the sub-creative body and soul is made plain when they are first introduced in The Silmarillion. Of the substance of which the Silmarils were made it is said “that crystal was to the Silmarils but as is the body to the Children of Ilúvatar: the house of its inner fire, that is within it and yet in all parts of it, and is its life,” and the Silmarils as a whole are described as “living things [which] rejoiced in light and received it and gave it back in hues more marvellous than before,” an account evidently intended to depict what Tolkien represents in his poem “Mythopoeia” as the prism-like activity of the human sub-creator: “Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light / through whom is splintered from a single White / to many hues, and endlessly combined / in living shapes that move from mind to mind.” Thus, for Gimli’s hands to “flow with gold” without gold thereby having “dominion” over him, is for him to be or become a Silmaril, for him, that is, to take in the “light” that is the goodness and beauty of creation, not to hoard it, but to “refract” it by adorning and enriching it and so passing it on to others. Like Fëanor, Gimli too will be a “spirit of fire,” yet one who will not be “consumed” by the fire of his desire (as Fëanor figuratively was in his life and literally was in his death), but who will put his sub-creative fire to the service of others, and resulting in (what Tolkien describes in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” as) the “effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation.”