Galadriel and Ayesha
Tolkienian Inspiration?

Essay by
William H. Stoddard

July 2003


I've remarked in Horatius at Khazad-dum on similarities between certain scenes in The Lord of the Rings and scenes in Thomas Babington Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome, and on the possibility that Tolkien was taking Macaulay as a model, consciously or subconsciously. In more recent reading I came across another possible model: She by H. Rider Haggard. I haven't seen any documentation of Tolkien's having read the latter book; but it was published in the 19th Century, it was extremely popular and indeed is still in print, and it was a novel of adventure and of the fantastic which might well have appealed to Tolkien.

The fantastic lands of Twentieth Century fiction are mostly situated on other planets, or in other solar systems or distant galaxies, or in wholly invented realms. But in an older tradition, the fantastic could be found on Earth, simply by travelling to foreign lands, especially uncivilized lands. L. Frank Baum has the Witch of the North tell Dorothy that Oz is not a civilized country; Edgar Rice Burroughs places Tarzan's adventures in the uncivilized continent of Africa, big enough to hold any number of lost cities and variant human races. Burroughs in fact was a transitional figure, almost as well known for the Mars of the John Carter series as for the Africa of the Tarzan series. But one of the inspirations for John Carter's adventures was the fiction of H. Rider Haggard, very definitely a writer in the older tradition. Haggard's novel She, in particular, goes far into fantastic fiction (not clearly defined as either science fiction or fantasy), with its immortal queen of a hidden African city waiting for the reincarnation of her dead love to come back to her.

Chapter XIII of She, "Ayesha Unveils", offers a striking series of events. The narrator of the story speaks with Ayesha in a hidden chamber, and learns of her agelessness. She shows him a "font-like vessel" in which she summons up images of his own journey to her country, telling him she learned of him through such images; and when he calls it magic, she tells him

It is no magic — that is a dream of ignorance. There is no such thing as magic, though there is such a thing as knowledge of the hidden ways of Nature. This water is my glass; in it I see what passes when at times it is my will to summon it ...

After this, he asks her to allow him to look on her face, and she unveils herself, revealing beauty that he compares to that of a celestial being, which he says lies "in a visible majesty, in an imperial grace, in a godlike stamp of softened power" — and he covers his eyes and goes away shaken, reflecting that it is not safe to look on such beauty.

Note how many details can be compared with Frodo's visit to the mirror of Galadriel in The Fellowship of the Ring. Lothlorien, like Kor, is an ancient city holding the memory of a distant past, and ruled by an undying queen. Both accounts include a pool of water that shows visions, partly out of the mind and memory of the viewer, and partly of distant places. And Galadriel not only is overwhelmingly beautiful, like Ayesha, but, when she considers accepting the One Ring from Frodo, takes on the same quality of visible majesty. Her climactic line "All shall love me and despair!" would sound entirely natural in Ayesha's voice.

The one great difference is that Haggard makes Ayesha fundamentally evil, though capable of occasional softer feelings; but Tolkien makes Galadriel ultimately good, despite her being capable of pride, ambition, and rebellion. In the end, Galadriel is redeemed, whereas Ayesha is destroyed by those same qualities, which she is unable to renounce.

It takes more than parallelism to demonstrate influence — even multiple parallelism such as this. From the information I have, I feel justified in saying only that the parallels really are striking, and I wonder if Tolkien was alluding to a story he had read, reshaping it to a happier conclusion — or at any rate a nobler one.


© 2003 William H. Stoddard

Note, November 2004:

In The World of the Rings, recently published by Open Court, Jared Lobdell confirms my speculation that Tolkien had read H. Rider Haggard's fiction. According to Lobdell, Tolkien said in a telephone interview that in his boyhood Haggard's She was the single book that most interested him. Lobdell also speculates about Haggard as one of Tolkien's literary models, though his comparison is not the same as mine: he suggests that the scene of Ayesha's death was a prototype for the scene of Saruman's death. — WHS


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