1. Who is this Gil-galad, of Whom You Speak?
The history that continues to move and shape events at the end of the Third Age separates LOTR from other fantasy novels. Tolkien most certainly understood this, and thus did Elrond evolve from a householder in The Hobbit to an elf-lord of great power - he was given a history that foretold his role in LOTR. In this vein, we have to wonder what great stories lie behind the bare skeleton of Gil-galad's fall.
Given what we know of the Noldor in the First Age, he arises as a great King - arguably, the greatest of those who led the exiled Noldor. Forgotten in his defeat is his victory - though Isildur delivered the final blow, his father and Gil-galad first felled Sauron in hand-to-hand combat. At very least, the last High King deserves more than an unfinished poem and horrible death. The various half-completed manuscripts do not offer much more. What, if anything, can be said of his character, his rule and his failure to leave an heir?
We have a few clues. In Gil-galad's own words, we have only the letter written to Tar Meneldur: (2)
At this time I ask your pardon, if I have detained him overlong in your service; for I had great need of the knowledge of Men and their tongues, which he alone possesses. He has dared many perils to bring me counsel.These lines tell us that Gil-galad was not too proud to seek the counsel of Men, and that he held the Valar in high regard. We know that, unlike the Noldor of the Third Age, soothed into inaction by Saruman, Gil-galad began to act at once when Sauron's re-emergence was first felt by the Elves. (3)
A new shadow arises in the East. ...Not far off is the day, I judge, when it will become too great for the Eldar unaided to withstand.
Manwë keep you under the One, and send fair wind to your sails.
We also have a curious note in the midst of Tolkien's essay on Glorfindel. (4)
For in 1200, though he was filled with anxiety, Gil-galad still felt strong and able to treat Sauron with contempt.Here, we see that he was not the supremely confident and unflinching warrior many have perceived. He had doubts.
In 1600 it became clear to all the leaders of Elves and Men (and Dwarves) that war was inevitable against Sauron... . They therefore began to prepare for his assault, and no doubt urgent messages and prayers asking for help were received in Númenor (and in Valinor).Again, we see evidence of his faith. Most of the Noldor of the First Age believed they could defeat Morgoth without any aid at all from the rest of the Valar, whereas the Noldor of the Third Age saw Valinor only as an escape clause, not to be depended upon for aid.
A sense of active engagement, rather than passive regret, prevails. For a good part of the First Age, the Noldor were content to build their realms, confident that Morgoth was penned up and would not assail them. In the Third Age, the most powerful among the Noldor became characters in legends scarcely believed by Men. One would suppose that had he survived, Gil-galad, too, would have faded into obscurity during the Third Age. Indeed, that might be why he felt no compulsion to produce an heir - his reliance on Men indicates that he accepted the Doom of the Noldor, and expected that, like Finrod, nothing of his realm [would] endure that a son should inherit. In the Second Age, however, Gil-galad was defined by action, rather than acceptance. (5)
He was not without faults. He evidently lacked sufficient authority to force Annatar from Eregion. He kept the Rings secret until the Last Alliance was formed, allowing the Seven and the Nine to be distributed among his allies without their knowledge, and he did not destroy the Three, which surely posed greater threat than promise to the Elves. He also failed to repair divisions among the Eldar, most significantly in his relations with Oropher, whom he never persuaded to trust him. (6)
The Second Age was a period of transition from the dominance of Elves to the ascendancy of Men. Such times make heroes or goats - one either clings to the past or negotiates the future. Gil-galad must have understood early on that the King of Númenor was his equal in the politics of the new Age. Had he chosen isolation, Sauron would have easily swept the Elves into the sea in the War of the Elves and Sauron. Like many of his forebears, he asked Men to sacrifice their lives for Elves. Unlike his forebears, he chose the right Men with whom to ally himself.
Yet, in the end, he realised the Elves' responsibility to the second-born: Sauron would ultimately be Men's problem to solve, but Gil-galad was not content to hold his lands, secure in the Elves' ability to escape by the straight road at the last peril. Whether or not he foresaw his own death in the assault on Mordor, he must have known that the Elves acted not in their own interest - for their fading was preordained - but in the interest of Men. The watersheds of history cry out for such a leader, one with the vision to make sacrifices because the future demands it. In The Silmarillion, we have many tales of kings who failed at such moments - other hands must tell the tales of the king who chose to lead.
(1) (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No 96 pp 110-111 pub Houghton Mifflin)
(2) (Unfinished Tales, 'Aldarion and Erendis' pp 209-210 pub Ballantine/Del Rey)
(3) It should be noted that in the letter to Tar Meneldur, Christopher Tolkien changed Gil-galad's title from Finellach Gil-galad of the House of Finarfin to Ereinion Gil-galad son of Fingon. At that time, he thought the former was a brief change of mind and only later discovered that Gil-galad as Fingon's son was a momentary fancy. Unfortunately, the latter was printed in The Silmarillion, giving it far more credence than it deserved. (The Peoples of Middle-earth, 'The Shibboleth of Fëanor' p 351 pub Houghton Mifflin)
(4) (The Peoples of Middle-earth, 'Last Writings' p 382 pub Houghton Mifflin)
(5) (The Silmarillion, 'Of the Noldor in Beleriand' p 151 pub Ballantine/Del Rey)
(6) I do not think Ar-Pharazôn knew anything about the One Ring. The Elves kept the matter of the Rings very secret, as long as they could. (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No. 211 p 279 pub Houghton Mifflin)
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