The Ruling Family of Mirkwood
In Unfinished Tales and in his letters, Tolkien recorded specific reasons for mistrust between Thranduil and Galadriel/Celeborn, and it shows that Mirkwood’s a very odd place in more than just its gloom. I cite exact quotes or summarize relevant passages in my article, but here I will simply give a coherent summary of my findings.
The Woodland Realm was founded as a political asylum, so to speak, for Sindar trying to get back to their roots.
The political problems stem from the First Age, when the Exiles of Valinor, the Noldor (including Galadriel) brought weapons, arcane lore, jewels, and war. The war with Morgoth wasn’t their fault, but it was devastating. But the sons of Fëanor, leaders of the Noldor, wound up murdering Lúthien’s son Dior, destroying the realm of the Sindar, and later chasing the survivors to the Havens and slaughtering a good deal of Earendil’s people. Not all the Noldor were to blame for this, and Galadriel most certainly was not one of the kinslayers, but by the end of the First Age just about nobody’s hands were clean.
Legolas’ family was originally Sindar. Inhabitants of the Kingdom of Doriath in the First Age, they were the most advanced of a group of elves who came west but never sailed to Valinor. The Green-elves (laegil had broken off from them and settled on the eastern fringes of Beleriand, while the Wood-elves (Silvan), never made it past the Misty Mountains. Wood-elves and Green-elves had no written language, no metal-smithing, and had been far away from or hid from the wars of the First Age. They were not as noble, wise, and powerful as the Noldor exiles from the Blessed Lands, or as the Sindar who had grown great under the blessing of Thingol’s queen Melian. However, after the kinslayings, a few Sindar nobles had decided that they should never have gotten mixed up with the Exiles or even Melian, and they went east with what was left of the Green-elves to join the Wood-elves. They wanted to return to the natural and innocent way Elves lived before the Vala and Maia changed them.
We know of two Sindar that did this early on during the Second Age. One was King Amdir who established Lórien; his son with Amroth. The other was the family of Legolas. His grandfather Oropher and his father Thranduil apparently settled on the eastern shore of the Anduin across from Lórien, in southern Mirkwood; they claimed the Gladden Fields as well. Oropher became king, and seems to have been on good relations with Amdir. Meanwhile, the remaining Noldor and mainstream Sindar settled on the west coast of Middle Earth: the Gray Havens west of the Shire, at Balar under Gil-galad, and in Hollin/Eregion, outside the west gates of Moria. The Noldor or High-elves of Hollin, a race Legolas calls strange, were smiths and craftsmen and loremasters, good at making weapons, and, unfortunately, Rings of Power.
Tolkien altered their timeline and story in his notes over the years, but for part of the Second Age, Galadriel and Celeborn lived in Hollin (or sometimes just Galadriel; Celeborn himself was less happy with the dwarves and Noldor being a Sindar), and they often visited Lórien. These visits, Tolkien says, were resented by King Oropher, and they were half the reason why he abandoned the boundaries of Lórien and moved north of the Gladden Fields. (The other half was the dwarves, but Tolkien’s quick to note that he kept good trade relations with them, just didn’t want to be neighbors). Reading between the lines, the timing of Oropher’s exodus seems to coincide with the time when Galadriel acquired a Ring of Power. She did stay behind at the end of the First Age, after all, seeking a realm of her own. Oropher’s reasons for wanting to get all of Mirkwood between him and her make a certain amount of sense.
Yet Amdir was still King in Lórien, and he was friendly with Galadriel and Celeborn, recognizing they’d had no part in the bloody feuds of the First Age. He was glad to receive help and advice from Celeborn after Sauron revealed himself and things went badly for Eregion. So during the Second Age Lórien and Mirkwood started to diverge. The Silvan Elves of Lórien remained friendly to Sindar and Noldor, but their northern cousins did not. There were many more Sindar and some Noldor in Lórien, and lots of commerce back and forth through Moria, whereas Oropher took only a small Sindarin contingent north with him, and his subjects were purely rustic Wood-elves, untutored, uncultured, and backward compared to all the rest.
At the end of the Second Age, Oropher put aside his misgivings about the Noldor and Noldor-friendly Sindar, recognizing the need to join the fight against Sauron. However, it seems he refused to recognize Gil-Galad as High King. Oropher and Amdir marched together, leading a large host of Silvan Elves to the Alliance. Amdir’s whole army was massacred in the Dead Marshes, suffering the same disadvantage as their Green-elf predecessors in the First Age: without metal armor or swords, they were vulnerable. And when the Last Alliance reached the gates of Mordor, King Oropher would not wait for the command to advance, but led his household and champions on a personal charge of the Black Gates. Thranduil was one of the few to survive.
The Wood-elves suffered unusually high casualties during the war, and Thranduil led only a third of his father’s folk back to Mirkwood, where, Tolkien states, he brooded and always had a deep shadow on his heart (and no wonder). Since his father’s household was butchered before the Black Gate, and there were very few Sindar among them to start with, Legolas would have had minimal Sindarin upbringing even if his family had not embraced the Wood-elves on ideological grounds. He was not in the Last Alliance, or surely Tolkien would’ve mentioned it. In fact, Legolas himself had good reason to mention the fall of his house before the Black Gate, when he stood at Aragorn’s side facing much the same prospects.
So that’s the close of the Second Age, after which Amroth and Thranduil took up the kingships of their respective realms. In about T.A. (Third Age) 1000, Dol Guldur started going nasty, but nobody at the time knew why: all they knew is it was turning Greenwood (as it used to be called) into Mirkwood. In defense, Thranduil hired the dwarves to delve a stone fortress for himself on the far corner of the woods.
In T.A. 1980, the dwarves of Moria woke up the Balrog. The events here are fuzzy, but it seems to have gotten loose from the mines, because several people say it cast a shadow over Lórien. The folk of Lórien fled, many were killed, and King Amroth himself died in T.A. 1981 during the chaos and misery that followed. Legolas, speaking about this, says something very interesting: the Woodland Elves did not live in caves or build halls of stone until the shadow of the Balrog came. Which is incorrect: his father built it against the threat of Dol Guldur long before. I take this as the strongest clue as to Legolas’ age: he must be less than a thousand years old, or he would know the reason and timing for his father’s hall. Also, if that had been the reason, then why did Thranduil hire dwarves (as Gimli mentions while describing the Glittering Caves) to build it?
It is only after King Amroth died, barely more than a thousand years before Lord of the Rings, that Celeborn and Galadriel came east from the Misty Mountains and set up permanent residence in Lórien, where, significantly, they preferred to call themselves stewards and guardians only, NOT king and queen. They seem to be aware of the political problems.
In 2941, the White Council drove out Sauron from Dol Guldur, and the Elvenking took his people out to fight the Battle of the Five Armies at the Lonely Mountain. This was almost certainly Legolas’ first taste of war. The Elvenking may have had something to do with the White Council’s struggles against Dol Guldur, since he is sitting with Gandalf at the end of The Hobbit.
Which brings us up to LOTR and T.A. 3017, when Gandalf wound up leaving Gollum with the Wood-elves. Apparently Gandalf did not explain the significance of the prisoner, for Legolas expresses shock and dismay when he learns about Gollum at the council. Either Gandalf didn’t tell Thranduil what was really going on, or Thranduil was concealing the matter and possibly trying to keep his son from getting mixed up in the affairs of High Elves and wizards. But Thranduil also knew that when push came to shove, as in the Last Alliance, they’d have to help each other. Therefore, after orcs attacked Mirkwood and freed Gollum, Thranduil sent his son to Rivendell to get word to Mithrandir of what had happened. Interestingly, Legolas’ report of Gollum’s imprisonment and escape is very first-person, as if he was posted as a mere sentry over the creature: strange job for a prince! And had Gollum not been dropped off in Mirkwood, Legolas might never have gone out in the world and made a name for himself.
Legolas’ father is called the Elvenking in The Hobbit, but the very peculiar thing is that Legolas only refers to him as “my Elven-lord”, almost as if concealing the fact that he’s any relation to Thranduil. I can find not one case in the entire Lord of the Rings where anyone acknowledges his father is a king. All his friends simply say he’s a Woodland Elf (i.e. a Wood-elf), which by blood he shouldn’t be, and even when Prince Imrahil asks him about himself, all he’ll say is, “I’m a friend of Mithrandir.” The only person in the entire saga who knows he’s anyone in particular is Celeborn, who calls him “son of Thranduil,” as if trying to smooth over the old Lórien/Mirkwood hostility with some respectful name-dropping.
There’s no telling whether Legolas was a younger son, whether immortals don’t put as much emphasis on inheritance, or whether Thranduil was trying to shelter his rather innocent offspring from the horrors of the world he’d seen, but to the world of Middle Earth he was a nobody. Legolas is probably about 600-800 years old, and seems very innocent compared to the other elves, as if he’d spent his whole life in Mirkwood and never really faced the death of someone close to him before. Instead of lore or power, he is distinguished mostly by his formidable hunting skills of hand, foot, and eye, something one would need to survive the peril-fraught darkness of Mirkwood.
Tolkien doesn’t say much about his upbringing except that he was raised as a Wood-elf, and that (quite uniquely) his name is a Wood-elf spelling of a Sindarin name, Laegolas. Not only that, but it’s the only recorded example where the archaic word laeg for green was used other than laegil, “Green-elf”. Everywhere else calen is used, even for the many names of Mirkwood. It’s only a wild guess, but perhaps Thranduil deliberately used the ancient word laeg because it sounded like laegel, “green-elf”. It’s bizarre that Tolkien says Legolas is of “royal and originally Sindarin blood” in one breath and a “Woodland Elf” the next. Startling though it would be for any other Sindar to marry a Wood-elf let alone a Green-elf, much would be explained if Thranduil had married one of the Green-elves who fled east with his father from Beleriand. And his analogous neighbor, King Amroth, did indeed court a Wood-elf.
Following the War of the Ring, it’s clear Galadriel’s preparing to leave, and Celeborn and Thranduil split Mirkwood between them. Thranduil ceded to Lórien exactly those areas he did not have the resources to protect! But Celeborn didn’t stay much longer: Lórien had faded and Galadriel was gone. So by a strange quirk of fate, after all the great Elf-kings of legend were dead— Fingon, Finrod Felagund, Turgon of Gondolin and Thingol Greycloak himself— it’s Legolas’ father who is the last Elvenking on Middle Earth. And he is the ruler of a backward, rustic kingdom of uncultured elves know more about the wines of Dorwinion and singing and feasting than they do arcane lore, wisdom, or war.
Yet in the end Thranduil failed to shelter his son from the influence of the Exiles, and in so doing lost him forever. Legolas was not as well-known, respected, or powerful as any of the other elves at the Council of Elrond. But he was a pure elf because he was culturally (and perhaps even by blood, on his mother’s side) not Sindar or Noldor. He was too young to remember any of the other sorrows of the elves; Nimrodel and Amroth are just a legend to him. So he was relatively innocent. Among the many other wonders and horrors he experienced on his unexpected journey, Legolas awoke to the majesty of the High-elves in their fading years, met his own people the Sindar away from his father’s philosophical differences with them, and heard the sound of the Sea. There was no returning to what he had been, and at last, he left it behind.
His father’s people slowly faded into the mists and legends, dwindling into the sprites and leprechauns of fairy tales. But Legolas, perhaps alone among the Silvan Elves, is in Valinor to this day, probably following the hunting horns of Oromë.