The Mirror of Galadriel is one of my favorite parts in The Lord of the Rings story. The first time I read the book I was too young to understand its true meaning and hidden symbolism. I simply assumed it was an elven-made crystal ball of sorts, i.e., a mystical device that can pierce through time and space, and show the person controlling it the past, present, or future of any place he or she wishes to see.
At some point later I understood this wasn’t at all the case, and that the mirror represents something far deeper and more complex – a reflection of the consciousness of the person looking at it. Tolkien was not the first one to come up with this concept of course, and it can be found in the customs and rituals of many cultures in our world – starting with trans meditation and vision quests, and all the way to psychedelic drugs and near-death experiences. A more simplistic classic example of this can be found in Star Wars when Luke asks Master Yoda what’s in the cave on Dagobah and he replies: “only what you take with you”.
When Sam looks in the Mirror of Galadriel and sees Frodo unconscious and the destruction of The Shire, it’s meant to reflect his love and care for them. When Frodo looks in the mirror and first sees Gandalf and Bilbo, it’s because they are on the top of his mind. The vision he has afterward of the sea, the ships, the storm, and the battle, is vague because these are all concepts unfamiliar to him. Finally, when he sees The Eye it’s because no matter how much he will try to suppress it, eventually he will have to contend with Sauron and The Ring’s will.
Approaching the Mirror
A mirror can also be used to represent two different approaches to read and interpret The Lord of the Rings, or any other piece of literature of course. The first approach views the reader and his or her consciousness as a mirror which is meant to reflect the story and the ideas of its author, while according to the second approach it is the literary work itself which is meant to serve as the mirror and reflect the readers and their consciousness.
These two concepts sound very similar, so I think the best way to explain then is through concrete examples.
The Reflection Approach
One of my best friends once told me that reading The Lord of the Rings was one of things that helped him come out of the closet. Even though there is not even a single word about homosexuality in the book, and even though I am not gay myself, it didn’t take much effort for me to understand what he meant by that. I could totally see how Frodo’s journey, the heavy burden he carried for so long, that lonely feeling of being both invisible and naked in the dark, all reflected in his mind as a life of evasive denial, and how he equated the dangerous act of destroying the ring, along with all the challenges and hardships it entailed, with the brave act of coming out as gay (in Israel of over 15 years ago).
And you know what? Maybe it wasn’t even Frodo, but Aragorn who made him realize he should stop living in exile, take his destiny into his own hands and become the man he was born to be. Or perhaps it was Smeagol-Gollum who had spent most of his life in the dark with the One Ring until it drove him mad that convinced my friend it was better to do it sooner than later. Wait a minute – what about Galadriel? Maybe he sensed that the secret, safe, flourishing kingdom he had built for himself started to wither away around him, and that it was time to sail to the west because his power was waning. Actually, scratch that – it might have been Sam that taught him that only when your heart is true, can you nurture a meaningful relationship and take care of the people dear to you.
These were all examples of how the first approach works, and as you probably figured out by now – that is the way I like to approach The Lord of the Rings or any other book, movie and TV show. Every time I read The Lord of the Rings, I let all the characters reflect themselves in me, and if you ask me there’s no greater privilege than that. I am not a three-feet tall hobbit, and no Númenorean blood flows in my veins. I can’t ride a horse or swing a sword, and the last time I checked I also couldn’t ignite pinecones using the power of my mind only.
But this doesn’t stop me from asking which parts of me are more Bilbo, and which parts reflect Gollum, where I can be more like Faramir and less like Boromir, or when it’s Gandalf and Galadriel who are speaking to me, and when the voices of Saruman and Grima are whispering in my ears. Frodo and Sam, Merry and Pippin, Legolas and Gimli, Éowyn and Éomer, Théoden and Denethor, Sauron and the Witch-king of Angmar – I allow them all to reflect themselves in my consciousness regardless of their appearance, race, sex or creed.
The Projection Approach
The second approach has always been somewhat of a mystery to me. Whether it be skin color, sexual orientation, or gender identity – I never understood some people’s need to turn the story itself into a mirror and to see the characters as their own reflection. Because once you cast your own image into something you are no longer reflecting – you are actually projecting, and there’s probably a good reason why the word ‘reflect’ also means to think deeply while ‘project’ does not.
The satisfaction someone gets from seeing a their own skin color on screen, or from “proving” this character or another was actually queer has always been beyond me. My gut tells me it is less about looking for deeper meanings in the text and more about scoring an easy feel-good hit or a quick self-validation fix.
It reminds me how some Israelis are filled with pride when they learn that some famous rich person thousands of miles away is also Jewish. Don’t get me wrong because it’s a nice anecdote, and I do get how tribalism is engrained in all of us to some degree, but I really don’t see what it has to do with you, or how it actually benefits you in life to know this fact.
Let’s leave Middle-earth for a second and step into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There’s no question one of the cultural phenomena that contributed the most to the fight for gay rights in the US was the comic series X-Men which was first published in the 1960s. Did it accomplish that through creating LGBTQ+ characters and pushing them to center stage? No. It simply told stories about the complex struggles certain people go through when around puberty they discover there’s something different about them that doesn’t fit the norm, and made those stories to reflect and echo in the collective mind of the American society.
Today Marvel’s creators, like most of Hollywood, adopt the second approach. They see their creations as mirrors that need to reflect the reader or the viewer, all while trying to promote the values they themselves believe in, and build the world they wish to create. The result is they have antagonized a significant portion of their fan base and are now sustaining a major drop in sales.
Is it because one day Marvel’s audience suddenly turned to bigots? Of course not, they all just feel that instead of telling good compelling stories, Marvel writers not only spoon-feed them incredibly simplistic narratives, but they also take that spoon and keep banging it on their heads while asking – do you get it now? Do you get what we are trying to tell you?
The Matrix Reflected
Speaking of spoons, let’s also talk about another successful trilogy that hit the screens about the same time as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings – The Matrix. The scene in the first movie which corresponds to meeting Galadriel in LOTR is Neo’s visit to the Oracle. Before he enters the kitchen to see her, Neo has a short interaction with one of the kids in the living room, and he explains to Neo how to bend the spoon:
One can certainly argue that this moment is far more pivotal for Neo than meeting the oracle herself. It is no coincidence Neo sees his reflection on the surface of the spoon – the spoon is exactly like Galadriel’s Mirror. By the way, the Oracle does the same thing Galadriel does and looks into his mind. Then she also acts as a mirror and reflecting to Neo his own disbelief in himself. After that she gives him some chocolate chip lembas bread…
I honestly couldn’t have thought of a better way to get my point across than what the kid says to Neo. The statement “there is no spoon” applies to every single character in The Lord of the Rings, and once we realize that all the characters are like the spoon, we also realize it is not them who go through all those hardships, but us. It is us who try to climb over Caradhras and it is us who fall to the abyss of Moria; It is us who live in The Shire blissfully ignorant, but we’re also supposed to watch carefully over its borders; It’s us who sail to The West from the Gray Havens but we’re also the ones who melt in the boiling lava of Mount Doom. All we have to do is try to figure out how it reflects in us even when we are not plugged into the Matrix of Middle-earth.
Retrofitting the Mirror
Any attempt to bend and fit the characters to our will, or to reshape the mirror of the story and force it to show us what we want to see, is doomed to fail. Even if you somehow manage not to break the glass in the process, the end result can only be a distorted and distorting mirror usually found in carnivals and amusement parks. This is exactly the impression I get from seeing The Rings of Power – that someone took Tolkien’s work, placed it in front of a funhouse mirror and now all I can see is a mockery which barely resemble the source. Especially when it comes to Galadriel’s portrayal in the show.
I honestly believe this is what’s at the core of the heated arguments revolving The Rings of Power lately. After you peel of all the layers of politics, identity, representation, and equality, you see that it isn’t an ideological battle between “the enlightened” and “the bigoted”, but just an on-the-surface manifestation of the differences between the two approaches and the question of who is supposed to reflect whom. My opinion is as follow:
Do not ask how The Lord of the Rings can better reflect you, instead ask how you can better reflect it in you for yourself.
Bending Spoons in Hebrew
The Hebrew word for spoon in is כַּף (pronounced: Kaf) and it can also refer to the palm of the hand or an animal’s paw. It stems from the shoresh כ-פ-פ (Kaf-Peh-Peh) which actually means to bend. For instance, the verb כּוֹפֵף (kofef) means to bend (something) and its passive form כָּפוּף (kafuf) means to be bent or to be someone’s subordinate. The word כִּפָּה (kippa) which means both dome and yarmulka, is a close relative of the word כַּף (spoon) as they both refer to similar shapes which require the bending of the material they are made of. Sit-ups in Hebrew are called כְּפִיפוֹת בֶּטֶן (kfifot beten) which literally means bending or flexions (כְּפִיפוֹת) of the abdomen (בֶּטֶן).
Did you notice the name of the letter Kaf itself means spoon? It is probably not a coincidence, especially when you take a look at its Arabic counterpart كـ and its Latin counterpart k. The names of the Hebrew letters reflect the ancient pictographs they were based on, and the letter Kaf may very well was based on a spoon, or a palm of the hand bent to form a spoon-like shape. Speaking of palms, in Hebrew the palm of the hand is called כַּף יָד (kaf yad), feet are called כַּפּוֹת רַגְלַיִים (kapot ragla’im), and the branches of a palm tree are called כַּפּוֹת תְּמָרִים (kapot tmarim).
The Hebrew word כַּף (kaf) is also the translation for the English word ‘cape’ in the geographical sense, like in Cape of Good Hope or Cape Canaveral. When I was little, I really thought they are called like this because the area is shaped like a spoon, but the word is actually related to the word ‘cap’ and the shape of the head. In that sense it closer to the word כִּפָּה (kippa) which is something you wear on your head.