So, I called my brother in a literary panic the other day.
Let me explain. I have realized that I read books differently than most people. Even, possibly, differently than most authors – though I don’t personally know enough authors yet to confirm this.
I like to read in order to hone and perfect my own writing. So I read masters.
I tend to avoid anything that is subpar in every way.
If something is popular, I will read it to study why. And if something is a classic, I read it for the same reason. I love and enjoy many books this way, and I don’t really look at it as an academic exercise, but that’s why and how I read.
So I often revisit books that I have read before – especially books that are similar to my own stories. And while I was dwelling on The Lord of the Rings the other day, I had my panic moment.
All of a sudden, I was very much afraid that Tolkien made a grave error in his story. I suddenly wondered if Legolas was a superfluous character.
I called my brother, and the first words I spoke were: “Is Legolas a necessary character? Or is he only a convenient one?”
“I don’t know,” he answered, after laughing at my panic. “What does it mean for him to be a convenient character, and what is a necessary one?”
So I explained. An unnecessary character is one that could be removed from the story, and everything would still happen the exact same way. For example, if Sam were taken out of the Lord of the Rings, the ring would never of been destroyed, Frodo would never have made it to Mount Doom, and Gollum would’ve had a very different role in the story. Not to mention the fact that, as a reader, it’s important for us to connect with Sam in order to see Frodo from a distance, instead of being trapped inside his ring-obsessed head.
Frodo is the hero, but Sam provides a foil – a perspective – in which to view him. It’s a necessary point of view, especially the way that Tolkien told the tale. I suppose he could’ve left Sam out completely, but I’m sure we can all agree that the books would’ve been very different.
So I was suddenly worried that taking Legolas out would not fundamentally change the story. Now, there are some arguments against that. For one, Legolas, as an elf and kinsman, seems to be the key that allows the fellowship access to Lothlorien. For another, Legolas tells them the way off of Caradhras and gives them hope with his light heart. And lastly, he is one of the three companions traveling at the beginning of The Two Towers, alone, through the wild, and the reader can latch on to him emotionally through that journey.
But the more I explored these arguments, the more I was confirmed in the opinion that these are merely conveniences. If Legolas had not been with the group in the Fellowship of the Ring, when they enter Lothlorien, there is very little reason to doubt that they would still have been brought before Galadriel. Galadriel had a vision about them, apparently, and sends a message to her warden elves telling them to let the fellowship come to her. She has this vision apart from anything that Legolas does. Also, we learn in the appendixes that Aragorn was very familiar with Lothlorien, and could probably have gained almost as easy access to it as Legolas himself.
“2980: Aragorn enters Lorien, and there meets Arwen Undomiel.” – The Return of the King, Appendix B
For the second argument, Boromir and Aragorn head off to find the way off the mountain with Legolas, and Tolkien had only to change a few sentences to make them the ones who brought back the hope of going down. And this scene is so small that I’m willing to bet that some of you reading this article don’t even remember it. It’s pretty short. I had forgotten it myself.
“‘Well,’ cried Legolas as he ran up…. ‘There is the greatest wind-drift of all just beyond the turn, and there our Strong Men were almost buried. They despaired, until I returned and told them that the drift was little wider than a wall.'” – The Fellowship of the Ring, “The Ring Goes South”
Finally, we are given very little chance to emotionally bond with Legolas in the early scenes of The Two Towers. As I talked with my brother, the most emotional of a connection that I could recall was the moment when he is not sure whether the wizard approaching them is Saruman or not. When he realizes that it is Gandolf, and cries out Mithrandir! we feel elation and bond with him. But it is brief, and passes very quickly. After that, we are shown much more of Gimli and Aragorn’s emotions than Legolas.
“Legolas gave a great shout and shot an arrow high into the air: it vanished in a flash of flame. ‘Mithrandir!’ he cried. ‘Mithrandir!'” – The Two Towers, “The White Rider”
There seems to be no necessity for Legolas as a character, and I was crushed. Especially as my brother kept agreeing with all my arguments. I wanted him to talk me out of them!
I was crushed because I like Legolas. Because I want him to have a reason to exist. Not because Tolkien would be lowered in my estimation: every author has flaws. But I felt like Legolas should exist, and I wasn’t sure why. It bothered me.
Is that OK?
But then I asked the next question. Is it OK to have a character who exists only out of convenience? Who is not well developed, and doesn’t fundamentally contribute to the plot line?
We explored that question next, and after a lot of discussion, we decided that it was. We allowed Legolas to remain. We realized that the biggest flaw was just that Tolkien had underdeveloped him. Not that he should not exist, but that he has so much more potential than he was given in the story. You could say it was the fault of Tolkien, but it doesn’t seem to be a problem with the story or the world. Legolas very much belongs in Middle Earth. Our understanding of Middle Earth is enriched simply by his being there, and that alone is enough of a reason for him to remain. But even more than that, he does not intrude into the story. His presence is not abrasive, or misleading, or distracting. It fits. And if a character fits, even if they are not as perfect as they could be, they should exist.
We started naming off some of our favorite classics that have underdeveloped characters. Even as main characters. The Chronicles of Narnia, for example, does not give us an adequate understanding of the Pevensie children – especially in Prince Caspian. They have no character arcs, no faults, and no struggles in that story. They simply exist as a convenience to place Caspian on the throne. Does that mean CS Lewis should not have written Prince Caspian? No! It simply means he did not elaborate as much as he could have.
We also talked about the Lord of the Rings films, and how Orlando Bloom was given the opportunity, because Legolas exists, to elaborate on the character presented in the books. My understanding of the Lord of the Rings is intrinsically tied up with the films themselves. I saw the films before reading the books, and have very little desire to separate the actors’ portrayals from the book characters. And Legolas does have a little bit more presence in the films. As my brother said, ‘He kills Wormtongue!’ (He said that sarcastically though – our family is not a fan of that moment in the films! Why would Legolas kill Wormtongue? It makes no sense!) His presence in The Hobbit films is unfortunate, only because of the way that the films themselves turned out. I think his presence in the Middle Earth world could have been further illustrated, but that entire project was handled indelicately – which is a great disappointment!
So what do you think? Is it OK to have a character who is less developed than they might be? Should all the characters be thoroughly worked out, and always present a foil to those who are more central? Or do you think it’s OK for someone to slip in through the cracks, present more world building, and enrich our experience? Love to hear from you!
Who is your favorite Lord of the Rings character? And which do you like better, the films or books?