Of course, everybody knows what Galadriel looks like. She is Cate Blanchett if you take your Tolkien visuals from the Jackson films, and if you base your imagination on Tolkien’s writing, it is most likely informed by this passage from The Fellowship of the Ring:
Very tall they [Galadriel and Celeborn] were, and the Lady no less tall than the Lord; and they were grave and beautiful. They were clad wholly in white; and the hair of the Lady was of deep gold… but no sign of age was upon them, unless it were in the depths of their eyes; for these were keen as lances in the starlight, and yet profound, the wells of deep memory.
(The Fellowship of the Ring, The Mirror of Galadriel)
And indeed, no matter who your favourite Tolkien artist is, what you are most likely to see is a tall, slim, picture-book kind of flawlessly beautiful woman. Just look at the List of Images of Galadriel at the Tolkien Gateway. While we could argue that many don’t put on the ‘grave’ and ‘depth of their eyes’ too heavily, and instead garnish with the more common ‘pleasing’ and some variation of ‘doe eyes’, they are still fair interpretations of that passage. And do not all speak of how beautiful she is, most memorably Gimli, who sweet-talks his way out of what sounds like a restraining order coming his way?
My gripe with the majority of depictions of Galadriel is not that they aren’t fair interpretations, it’s that they are lazy. A superficial reading of The Lord of the Rings easily leads one to the image of a fair-skinned, fair-haired, conventionally-beautiful, 100% feminine, flawless photo model lookalike. Even the perceptive (and magnificent) Donato Giancola made his Galadriel look like Kate Moss
It’s indeed a minority of depictions that take into account other aspects of the character, such as this one by Thomas Rouillard. While Galadriel’s appearance is aptly expressed in the quote above, it is not a complete description.
Short version of the most common thread: Galadriel was born in the earliest history of Arda, in the paradisiac West, to a prince of the (black haired, proud, legendary craftspeople) Noldor elves and a princess of the (golden blonde, sea-loving) Falmari elves. Early on, she was called nerwen (man-maiden), for her unusually tall and strong physique, easily surpassing other women and being not only a match in wits for the learned, but also a physical match for the athletic men. Her mind was strongly independent, dreaming of a kingdom of her own, to reign after her will.
So it came that when Melkor (Sauron’s boss) stole the Noldor’s most precious artefacts, she used her father’s half-brother Fëanor’s cause, an elven crusade to Middle-Earth, to there take her own realm. Because her mother’s people were unwilling to give the warlike host boats for their journey, the Noldor killed many and took what they needed. One of the gods appeared to the party, warning them to turn around or never be allowed a return to the elven paradise in the uttermost West. Galadriel was among those who wasn’t deterred.
Even when Fëanor decided to set over to Middle-Earth with half of the host – because that’s all the boats could carry – and burn the boats on the other side, she wasn’t dissuaded. Instead, they travelled to Middle-Earth on foot, through the polar ice. Many of the travellers died on the way. After Fëanor’s war was over, she refused a pardon out of pride and remained exiled in Middle-Earth. After a string of relocations, she and her husband Celeborn eventually took over reign of the wood-elven realm of Lórinand, later called Lothlórien.
Only after passing the temptation of ultimate power, when Frodo offers her the One Ring, is she freed to return back home over the sea. I’m sure you remember when she goes from ‘I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!’ to the humble ‘I pass the test, I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.’ Only after long years of growing from a hot-headed, rebellious, and domineering into a more gentle, measured, and wise person, is she redeemed of her partaking in the Kinslaying by denying the epitome of what she lusted for when setting out.
All of that, to me, deserves more than being depicted just as a conventionally beautiful, ‘pretty’ woman with no need for clearasil, and mysteriously trapped between the best parts of her late teens and her early thirties.
To me, Galadriel should still look physically imposing, maybe even have hints of an ex-athlete. Still be someone who could grab a sword and hold her own against the best. She deserves to have traces of sadness and bitterness from all she witnessed: watching elf strike down fellow elf, watching loved ones die and leave them in the eternal ice, living thousands of years in her own realm, possibly fashioned as much as she could after the uttermost West, but never to return home.
All that shouldn’t detract from her beauty and the mesmerising effect she has on people. Being beautiful isn’t just being eligible for a fashion catalogue, it can be so many things more than that. There is not only the beauty of the pleasant-looking, there is also the beauty of the athlete, the beauty of harmony, the beauty of contrast. The beauty of hardness and the beauty of softness. The beauty of burning with passion for a cause, the beauty of the wise, the beauty of the sad, and the beauty of the tragic. And many many more.
All of these can captivate people so much that they start stammering around like Gimli, and they are way better at it than just an easy-on-the-eyes body with a sweet face on top. That’s the easy way out. That’s lazy.
The character deserves more than just ‘pretty’.
To me, Galadriel looks like The Boss from Metal Gear Solid 3, a similarly tragic and melancholic character, similarly beautiful (modelled somewhat after Charlotte Rampling, no less!) and at the same time tough as nails: