3. Physical Descriptions:
The good Professor gave us little to go on in the way of physical description for many of his characters, and Legolas was no exception. Most references to his appearance consist of vague comments including the term "fair" which Tolkien apparently used to convey both the meaning ‘of light complexion’ and ‘good looking’. " 'Alas! alas!' cried Legolas, and in his fair elvish face there was great distress." (The Council of Elrond, FotR) "Together the Elf and the Dwarf entered Minas Tirith, and folk that saw them pass marveled to see such companions; for Legolas was fair of face beyond the measure of Men …" (The Last Debate, RotK)
The most complete description he gave is not found within the pages of LOTR, but was penned in one of his letters. Those remarks were recorded in Christopher Tolkien’s commentary in The Book of Lost Tales II: "He was tall as a young tree, lithe, immensely strong, able swiftly to draw a great war-bow and shoot down a Nazgul, endowed with the tremendous vitality of Elvish bodies, so hard and resistant to hurt that he went only in light shoes over rock or through snow, the most tireless of all the Fellowship." ( The Book of Lost Tales, II, The History of Eriol or Ælfwine, p. 333, 1992 Del Rey edition)
In general Tolkien described Elves as "...tall, fair of skin and grey-eyed, though their locks were dark, save in the golden house of Finarfin; and their voices had more melodies than any mortal voice that now is heard." (LOTR, Appendix F) And of the Sindar in particular he says: "Elwë himself had indeed long and beautiful hair of silver hue, but this does not seem to have been a common feature of the Sindar, though it was found among them occasionally, especially in the nearer or remoter kin of Elwë (as in the case of Cirdan). In general the Sindar appear to have very closely resembled the Exiles, being dark-haired, strong and tall, but lithe. Indeed they could hardly be told apart except by their eyes; for the eyes of all the Elves that had dwelt in Aman impressed those of Middle-earth by their piercing brightness. For which reason the Sindar often called them Lachend, pl. Lechind ‘flame- eyed’." (Quendi and Eldar, War of the Jewels, p384)
Though the statement characterizing most Elves as having dark hair, being from LOTR, is considered canon, it should be noted that in the drafts of the LoTR appendices, as well as in Tolkien’s earlier mythology, Elves were predominantly blond, and only the Noldor were dark haired. Christopher Tolkien wrote, “I pointed out that the words “’They were tall, fair of skin and grey-eyed, though their locks were dark, save in the golden house of Finrod [Finarfin]’ were originally written of the Noldor only, and not of all the Eldar…” (HoME XII, The Appendix on Languages, p. 77)
The color of Legolas’ hair has been an oft-debated subject. As Tolkien stated that most Sindarin Elves had dark hair, that would appear to be the obvious assumption, and by far the option with the most evidence to back it. But then, there is the paradoxical description of Legolas’ father, Thranduil, the Elvenking of The Hobbit: "...and at the head of a long line of feasters sat a woodland king with a crown of leaves upon his golden hair..." (Flies and Spiders, The Hobbit) Of course, the Elves of The Hobbit are from a much earlier and somewhat different mythology, and many details cannot be correlated directly to LOTR. (For instance, Glorfindel’s name and golden hair are relics of Tolkien’s earlier writings.) And even if one accepts that Thranduil had golden hair (though it cannot be conveniently explained in light of Tolkien’s later statements) it does not guarantee that his son did also. However, it does make it at least a slight possibility. Silver hair also seems less than likely, even given the somewhat nebulous possibility that Thranduil may have been somehow akin to Celeborn.
In Fellowship of the Ring we find this passage: "Frodo looked up at the Elf standing tall above him, as he gazed into the night, seeking a mark to shoot at. His head was dark, crowned with sharp white stars that glittered in the black pools of the sky behind." (The Great River, FotR) Keep in mind that in this instance it was very dark and Legolas was silhouetted against the night sky. Even light hair could have appeared dark under those circumstances. Again the evidence is inconclusive and the statement is open to interpretation.
Hair color among Silvan Elves is not specified by Tolkien; though it is described in The Hobbit as ‘gleaming’. And consider the following excerpt from FotR, giving the description of an Elf of Lórien. The speaker here is Haldir: "’There is one of my people yonder across the stream,’ he said; ‘though you may not see him.’ He gave a call like the low whistle of a bird, and out of a thicket of young trees an Elf stepped, clad in grey, but with his hood thrown back; his hair glinted like gold in the morning sun." (Lothlórien, FotR) This Elf could have been a member of Lórien’s Silvan population, or a Noldor with Vanyarin heritage, or even a silver-haired Sinda in golden morning light... So, though far from conclusive, there may still remain a possibility that for whatever reason, JRRT envisioned some Elves – Elves without and clear Vanyarin heritage – having golden hair.
Within the text of Lord of the Rings, Tolkien made several references to the sharp eyesight of the elves: " ‘You have the keen eyes of your fair kindred, Legolas,’ he said; ‘and they can tell a sparrow from a finch a league off.’ " (Gandalf to Legolas, Helm’s Deep, The Two Towers) And though the Elves who had dwelt in Aman were said to possess extraordinarily piercing bright eyes, that description would, of course not apply to Legolas. Even so, Legolas' eyes are often described as 'bright'. "But Legolas stood beside him, shading his bright elven eyes with his long slender hand." (The Riders of Rohan, TTT) and "Legolas turning to speak to Gimli looked back and the Dwarf saw before his face the glitter in the Elf’s bright eyes." (The Passing of the Grey Company, RotK)
In HoME XI (Quendi and Eldar, author’s note 34, p. 416) Tolkien points out that Elves had an elaborate system of gestures, “In genuine independent use mainly employed between persons out of earshot: the Elves had astonishingly acute eyesight at a distance.”
In LOTR, Legolas sighted and counted the Rohirrim at a distance of about 5 leagues (approximately 15 miles). He could even tell that there were three empty saddles. “’Yes,’ said Legolas, ‘there are one hundred and five. Yellow is their hair and bright are their spears. Their leader is very tall.’” Yet, the Elf did not seem to consider this unusual at all. “Aragorn smiled. ‘Keen are the eyes of the Elves, “’ he said.”
“’Nay! The riders are little more than five leagues distant,’ said Legolas.” (The Riders of Rohan, TTT)
I think there had to be something about elven eyes that made them an identifying feature for Elves. The brightness, the light, the piercing gaze – whatever it was I think it was distinctly non-human – enough so that it was unnerving to many mortals. When someone looked into elvish eyes they knew that Elves were different.
As with humans, I believe the Elves’ eyes often revealed their emotions, even when they were successfully concealed otherwise, from the perpetual elven sadness to their exuberant joy of living. Legolas certainly displayed a playful sense of humor and I’m sure the sparkle of merriment would often be seen in his eyes. His abiding curiosity would also be reflected in his expression. The sea-longing would have added a soul-deep, ever-present wistful element to his gaze.
But I think the most remarkable feature of elvish eyes would be that only there the impression of just how old they were would be revealed. The store of knowledge and wisdom possessed by some would have been enormous and that would contribute to the effect, but the sheer weight of years, the phenomenon of having lived for hundreds (or thousands) of years – it had to show in their eyes – for the eyes are the window to the soul…
In LOTR there are at least a couple of instances where characters were, at least in part, recognized as being Elves by their distinctive voices: "Together the Elf and the Dwarf entered Minas Tirith, and folk that saw them pass marveled to see such companions; for Legolas was fair of face beyond the measure of Men, and he sang an elven-song in a clear voice as he walked in the morning…" (The Last Debate, RotK) And there was Glorfindel’s greeting to Aragorn: "When he saw Strider, he dismounted and ran to meet him calling out: Ai na vedui Dúnadan! Mae govannen! His speech and clear, ringing voice left no doubt in their hearts: the rider was of the Elven-folk." (Flight to the Ford, FotR)
In Lórien, when the Hobbits hear Haldir and company in the tree above them, Merry inquires who they could be: “ ‘Who are they and what do they say?’ asked Merry.
‘They’re Elves,’ said Sam. ‘Can’t you hear their voices?’ ” (Lothlórien, FotR)
I would imagine their vocal range being greater than that of mortals and the timbre of their voices I would imagine being richer and fuller also. The Elves' beautiful clear voices, their Sindarin speech and the ethereal quality of their songs added up to a sound that was uniquely elvish. Glorfindel only called out a greeting, yet it was characteristic enough to establish his Elven identity. Legolas’ song as he approached Minas Tirith that morning may have contributed to Imrahil’s ability to recognize him as an Elf.
Apparel & weapons
We are introduced to Legolas at the Council of Elrond where Frodo meets him for the first time. "There was also a strange Elf clad in green and brown, Legolas, a messenger from his father, Thranduil, the King of the Elves of Northern Mirkwood." (The Council of Elrond, FotR) His attire clearly resembled that of his people, the Wood-elves, described in The Hobbit: “There were many people there, elvish looking folk, all dressed in green and brown...” (Flies and Spiders, The Hobbit) Though the dress of the people of Mirkwood was further embellished as “green and white gems glinted on their collars and their belts” (Flies and Spiders, The Hobbit) there is no mention of gems on Legolas’ clothing.
While battling the snow upon Caradhras Frodo also noted the Elf’s footwear: "...(Legolas) had no boots, but wore only light shoes, as he always did, and his feet made little imprint on the snow." (The Ring Goes South, FotR) This was corroborated by Tolkien’s comment in BoLT II: “...so hard and resistant to hurt that he went only in light shoes over rock or through snow, the most tireless of all the Fellowship." (The Book of Lost Tales, II, The History of Eriol or Aelfwine)
His weapons consisted of “ a bow and quiver, and at his belt a long white knife.” (The ring Goes South, FotR) The knife was described as “ silver hafted” in The King of the Golden Hall, TTT. And Galadriel’s gifts to him were: “... a bow such as the Galadhrim used, longer and stouter than the bows of Mirkwood, and strung with a string of elf-hair. With it went a quiver of arrows.” (Farewell to Lórien, FotR)
Many thanks to the members of Mellonath Legolas for their invaluable help in compiling these articles! Hannon lîn, mellyn nîn!