Colour Symbolism

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Duiel 16/May/2006 at 08:12 AM
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One of the main places to find symbolism in story or even any piece of artwork (other than music) is through colour. And colour is definitely given a place within Tolkien’s world.

Blue was [Luthien’s] rainment as the unclouded heaven, but her eyes were grey as the starlit evening; her mantle was sewn with golden flowers, but her hair was dark as the shadows of twilight. (The Silmarillion, Of Beren and Lúthien, describing Beren’s first sight of her in Doriath)

The first to come was one of noble mien and bearing, with raven hair, and a fair voice, and he was claad in white; great skill he had in works of hand, and he was regarded by well-nigh all, even by the Eldar, as the head of the Order. Others there were also: two clad in sea-blue, and one in earthen brown; and at last came one who seemed the least, less tall than the others, and in looks more aged, grey-haired and grey-clad, and leaning on a staff. (UT, The Istari)

Here are two examples where colour is described, and there are many more (feel free to post them), but I was wondering, could we assume that some of the colours in Tolkien’s books have a symbolic value, and if so, what is it?
Bearamir 16/May/2006 at 12:38 PM
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Duiel:  This thread has great Ad Lore potential. With your premission, I’d like to move it to Ad Lore to see if we can get it to develop into the kind of discussion it has the potential of becoming.  Will this be acceptable to you?

NOTE:  For everyone else who may wish to contribute:  a small reminder is in order:  once this thread moves to Ad Lore, there will be some expectations as to the quality of the posts.  So, moving forward, please remember that Ad Lore is for the in depth discussion of topics pertaining to the Lord of the Rings, and try to avoid extraneous chat.   From this point on, I *will* be deleting posts that do no serve to advance the topic, or add materially to the discussion.

Best of Luck (and congratulations once again).

halfir 16/May/2006 at 02:45 PM
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I would point out that I have dealt very comprehensively with the color symbolism inherent in the writings of Tolkien that relate to Tom Bombadil- especially in the LOTR chapters. They can be accessed at my thread Tom Bombadil: Peeling the Onion.

As I have dealt with the subject -as it regards Tom and Goldberry  -exclusively there- I will not repeat my comments here.

I would also point out that interpreting color symbolism can be a primrose path and one needs to pay close attention to text and textual context in order not to walk in that direction!

<Nessa Edit:  Yes you did address this particular facet of the question in the thread you refer to.  I very much appreciate your sharing that information in this thread, as well as posting the link here>


Ragnelle 16/May/2006 at 03:26 PM
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A good question, Duiel. I was imidiatly reminded of how Tolkien seems to conect the colour grey to the Elves. ’Elven-grey’ is used at times. The cloakes given to the fellowship in Lorien are grey.

"’But who are these that follow at your tail? Three ragged wanderes in grey, and you yourself the most beggar-like of the four!’

’The courtesy of your hall is somewhat lessened of late, Théoden son of Thengel,’ said Gandalf. ’Has not the messenger from your gate reported the names of my companions? Seldom has any lord of Rohan received three such guests. Weapons they have laid at your doors that are worth many a mortal man, even the mightiest. Grey is their raiment, for the Elves clad them, and thus they have passed though the shaddow of great perils to your hall.’" TTT, The King of the Golden Hall. My emphasis.

Now, the quote does show that ’grey’ is ambious; Wormtongue is certainly not complementing Gandalf and the others, but Gandalf refuse the insult. He conects the grey with the Elves’ gift, and it sounds almost as if grey is the most commonly worn colour among the Elves.

Even Gandalf is ’the Grey’, and the name mostly used of and by him, means ’Wand-elf’ (Gand-alf). Again a conection between ’grey’ and elf.

Aragorn has grey eyes, as have Elrond and Arwen, and , indeed, Luthien. Boromir and Faramir and several other Gondorians share the same eyecolour, so it might be a family-trait that has been passed down with the Numenoreans.

What it means, I am not sure about, but grey is the colour of twilight, which again is a conection to the Elves.

Gerontian 17/May/2006 at 09:07 AM
March Warden of the Shire Points: 5533 Posts: 3986 Joined: 27/Aug/2002

Ragnelle, I believe you touch on an interesting or ideosyncratic use of the color grey by Tolkien (taking into account Halfir’s warning about primose paths).  On a whim, after reading this thread, I looked up the definition of "colors" in the Dictionary of Symbolism written by Hans Biedermann.  The entry is very interesting. it begins by looking at two studies on how colors might affect the psyche directly, then turns its focus to the historical  associations and interpretations made by different civilaztions regarding specific colors and their meanings. The last portion of the symbolic definitions for "colors" given by the entry is comprised of the uses and meanings of colors in Heraldry.  In this entry, however, no mention is made of the color grey, at all, nor is there an individual entry for the color grey, unlike the enntries for the colors green, blue, brown, red, violet, white, black and yellow. 

The omission of the color grey in the Dictionary Of Symbolism might be an oversight, and may mean nothing, at all. However, I wonder if Tolkien’s association of the color grey with the Elves was purposeful, in the sense that grey is not a color heavily laden with other symbolic meanings.  Grey, like the twilight, is especially associated with the Elves in Tolkien, and it is tantalizing to say that it is symbolically linked to them.  It would be interesting to perform a content analysis and see how often the color grey is mentioned in Tolkien in reference to the Elves.    

Aredhriel 18/May/2006 at 07:31 AM
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One thought that I might add to the discussion of thecolor grey and as it relates to the Elves--Tolkien wrote about thr Elves "fading" during the Third Age, as more and more left Middle-Earth and made for Valinor. My thoughts on this association is that grey, often not even recognized as a color, could be viewed this way as well. Grey is associated with the fading of another color (not clearly black, or white, but a mixture of the two). This could be symbolic of the departure of the Elves.

Also, if you take into account that grey is the peculiar eye-color of Aragorn, Boromir, Faramir, etc. the theory fits in there as well as these were some of the last "pure" descendants of the Numenorian race...a fading line of Kings and Stewards. Any thoughts?

Aure 18/May/2006 at 10:17 AM
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It seems to me that I have seen another thread with mentions of gold and greay and such but not so comprehensive as this, even with so few posts in it already, so I cannot help but post here to see if I cannot further the discussion.

It has always seemed to me, if you will abandon the colour grey for a moment, that the meaning of a colour depends greatly on -what- was what colour. take black for example, the orcs are black of skin, while Luthien has black hair. One is evil, the other good. Gold is another good example which is associated with hair. Galadriel’s, to be specific. In her it was seen as beautiful and glorious... but then you have Smaug who was golden and the dwarven lords with their rings and thier gold lust, far less pretty a thing. So why hair? Why that of all things to take and turn what is generally a negative colour [especially black and its age-old association with evil] into a good thing?

<Nessa Edit:  Excellent observation!  >

geordie 18/May/2006 at 01:19 PM
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Luthien had raven hair and grey eyes because Edith Tolkien - on whom Luthien was modelled - had eyes and hair of those colours.

As for good and evil - yes, black and white are traditionally used to represent these concepts; but in Tolkien’s story, the ’field’ of the standard which Arwen made for Aragorn is black; and as the emblems could not be seen in the gloom, it looked as if Aragorn was flying a black flag when he and the Dunedain turned up at Pelargir.

And Saruman’s original colour was White. The orcs of Isengard fought under the banner of the White hand.

It seems to me that it may or may not be profitable to delve into colour symbolism in Tolkien’s writings - I think he uses colour as he uses say, writing styles - that is, to suit his mood while composing at any one time.
Dunadar 19/May/2006 at 01:07 AM
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Interesting you brought up Saruman Geordie. Because once Saruman’s true affiliation was known, he changed from his white robe to a robe of many colors. I don’t know what to make of it but, among the Istari at least, color played a major role at least the color white did. He who wore the white robe was the head of the order: Saruman first then Gandalf after him. I thought Radgast’s garb  was interesting because he seemed more earthly (he was friends with the Birds and Beasts of the world) and his robe was Brown, an earthy color. If we pursue the color grey and the elf connection deeper we find that it fits with Gandalf too. Gandalf loved the elves (UT, Istari don’t have copy with me so I can’t give and exact page) and spent much of his time with them so it would only make sense that his raiment would be the color that relates to them. The two blue wizards I don’t know enough about besides the fact that one was sent from Orome (or were they both...I can’t remember right now) and soon disapeared into the mysterious east. It seems that, at least with the three known Istari, color discribes their personality: Saruman the multi-colored shows that he was treachorous and one couldn’t always tell who’s side he was on, if anyone’s at all. I don’t know how this relates to anything outside the Istari order, but I just thought I’d mention it 
Bearamir 19/May/2006 at 11:46 AM
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Actually, if I were to make any assessment of Tokien’s use of color, I would say that he tended to be iconoclastic (and a bit counter intuitive actually).  In his world, black isn’t necessarily bad, and white isn’t necessarily good...and from what I can see he tended to use color both as a plot device, or as a vehicle to communicate a subtle nuances of character or situation.  
Ollyorin Dagda 19/May/2006 at 02:38 PM
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I agree Baelmyrrdn, mainly by what you say about white not necessarily bein good. I will refer back to Saruman. If you heard "The White Hand of Saruman" You would immediately think of Saruman as being a healer or a "good guy" basically. But the this term has become fearful to the people of Middle Earth. Proving your statement on Tolkein’s conrasting colour uses.
Kirinki54 19/May/2006 at 03:15 PM
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The example of Saruman is indeed pertinent.


’ "White! " he sneered. "It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken."

’ "In which case it is no longer white," said I. "And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom." (my bold)


I perceive Tolkien by the dialogue shows the great difference between Gandalf the un-fallen Istari who prefers distinct colours as a ‘natural order’, and Saruman who has succumbed to his own ambitions and left that path. The ‘broken light’ implies the use of a prism and thus alludes to Saruman fallen pray to the Machine.

Aredhriel 23/May/2006 at 10:26 AM
Scribe of Minas Tirith Points: 2724 Posts: 1593 Joined: 31/May/2005
Kirinki, you made an interesting point (great quote by the way) in regard to color within the Istari. As you said, Gandalf desires colours of distinct hue, as it relates to the order and once Saruman must have valued this as well. However, as he delved into the arts of the enemy, he began to compromise on the things he knew to be true--that by joining with Sauron, he would be in fact taking part in an act of evil merely as a means to an end, in which he hoped to wrest power from the Dark Lord himself. As the lines of black and white were blurred, he was willing to allow his counsel to be blended with the purposes of the Dark Lord and thus no longer favored white, but many colors mingled together, symbolizing his compromise of will and wisdom.
Lintesiriel 29/May/2006 at 09:10 AM
Hasty Ent of Fangorn Points: 2749 Posts: 3328 Joined: 16/Apr/2005
I have a question that would relate with this.  In many novels I have read t hrough, the color white symbolizes purity and cleanliness.  Would this hold true with Saruman’s robes becoming many colors mixed together and Gandalf becomes white as he is the one who is now the pure one.  I know its kind of a strech, but it could work.
Eollyn 29/May/2006 at 03:12 PM
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I’d have to agree with is usually bad and white is [I[usually good, but not always.
halfir 01/Jun/2006 at 10:44 PM
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In an earlier post I referred to my treatment of color symbolism with regard to Tom and Goldberry and gave a url link to my Peeling the Onion Thread - a reference that was kindly acknowledged by Bael. Having now re-looked at that thread- (as I am about to restart after an imposed RL absence) I realize that my post here was not particularly user-friendly as the Tom B thread is a massive exercise and the Color Symbolism section only a part- albeit an important one- of it. I have, therefore, excerpted the relevant section and reposted it here as I think it adds value to the discussion currently taking place on Tolklen’s use of color- and the very important fact that color symbolism- as I noted in my first post- is not a straightfroward ’black and white’ story!

The ‘Color Coding’; of Tom and Goldberry

In an earlier post and thread I made the following observations regarding Tom and Color.

A Little Color Speculation

From the “Bonhedig fragment’; through the doll referred to by John Tolkien, through the 1934 Adventures to LOTR, Tom’;s primary colors remained – Blue and Yellow – with the addition of a brown beard and a red face in LOTR.

In The House of Tom Bombadil {FOTR} Frodo’; poses Tom a question:

Did you hear me calling, Master, or was it just chance that brought you at that moment?’;

and, at The Council of Elrond {ibid}, Elrond says :

‘You have come and are here met, in this very nick of time, by chance as it may seem. Yet it is not so. Believe rather that it is so ordered…..’;

It is fascinating to speculate was it by ‘chance’; that the colors of the doll named Tom Bombadil were blue and yellow, or was it, in some way ‘ so ordered’; that the colors of the character whom Tolkien saw in 1937 – Letter # 19 as :

‘the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxfordshire and Berkshire countryside’;

were blue and yellow – colors that when mixed make –up the color green- a color also closely associated with Tom in LOTR – one of the primary colors of Nature? And even the ‘peacock’; s feather’; which somewhat surprisingly adorns Tom’;s hat in the 1934 poem but disappears by LOTR might be glossed as being a ‘peacock blue’; which is , of course, a greenish blue!

Of course, the logical part of one’;s mind tell us that this is mere coincidence, and the literary analytical side tells us that this is part of the Master’;s creative genius- taking the everyday as it sometimes affected him and his family and transmuting it into something ‘rich and strange’; while still keeping some of that earlier resonance. But, nonetheless –it is fun to indulge in a little fanciful supposition from time to time!

In commenting on Tom and Goldberry and the ‘symbolism’; of the color that both clothes them and surrounds them, we are entering uncharted waters, and I would be the first to admit that a good deal of what I say here is subjective. However, I have based all my comments soundly on a textual base- although others might query or disagree the interpretation that I have placed on that base.

We have already clearly established that one aspect of Tom – a very strong one- is closely associated with Nature, and, in LOTR Goldberry too gains a much stronger association in that sphere than she does in either the 1934 or 1962 Adventures. Indeed- as we shall see later in dealing with her- as Hammond and Scull comment in their Companion (p.132):

Goldberry in The Lord of the Rings has stature, and powers, not even hinted at in the 1934 poem’;

They could equally have observed that the same comment holds good for the later 1962 poem too.

Tom’;s Appearance- Clothing and Physical Colors

a. The Bonhedig Fragment

A hat with a blue feather, blue jacket, yellow boots.

b. The Germ Poem

No physical or clothing description

c.1934 Adventures

Blue jacket, yellow boots, peacock’;s feather in his hat i.e. greenish blue

d. Letter # 19

No physical or clothing description

e.LOTR-The Old Forest

Yellow boots, a blue coat, blue eyes, ‘face as red as a ripe apple’; ‘long brown beard’;, blue feather in his hat band.

f. In The House of Tom Bombadil

Thick brown hair crowned with autumn leaves. Clean blue , blue as rain-washed forget—me-nots. Green stockings.

g.Fog on the Barrow Downs

Blue jacket, yellow boots. And Tom chooses for Goldberry- from the Barrow-hoard: ‘a brooch set with blue stones, many-shaded, like flax flowers or the wings of blue butterflies’;.

h.1962 Adventures

Blue jacket, yellow boots, green girdle, leather breeches, swan wing feather changed to Kingfisher blue in Bombadil Goes Boating

Tom’;s Appearance Brown hair, Blue eyes, Red face,Brown beard

Tom’;s Clothes: Blue feather;Blue jacket,Blue coat, Blue clothing,Green girdle,Green stockings,Leather breeches color unspecified, Yellow boots

Choice of adornment:  Blue brooch

Tom’;s Primary Colors






Color Symbolism and its possible application to Tom


‘The blue of sky and sea, the green of earth’; according to Tennnyson are the two great colors of the surface of things.

Because it is the color of the sky, blue is traditionally the color of heaven, of hope, of purity, of truth, of the ideal.Blue disembodies whatever becomes caught in it. It is the road to infinity on which the real is changed to the imaginary. It is the color of dreams.

‘Indifferent and unafraid, centred solely upon itself, blue is not of this world: it evokes the idea of eternity, calm, lofty , superhuman, inhuman even.” {The Penguin Dictionary of Symbolism- entry under Blue}

cf. FOTR- In The House of Tom Bombadil- ‘Tom Bombadil is the Master…He has no fear…Tom Bombadil is Master, and FOTR-The Council of Elrond ‘he would not understand the need. And if he were given the Ring, he would soon forget it , or most likely throw it away. Such things have no hold on his mind.”

Letter # !9: ‘..Tom Bombadil, the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside…’;

1961 Fettes Letter: Bombadil is ’;fatherless’;, he has no historical origin in the world described in LOTR."

(Interestingly enough, for those who see Celtic symbolism rife in Tolkien there is no specific word in Celtic languages for blue (glas in Breton, Welsh, and Irish Gaelic means ‘blue’; or ‘green’; or even ‘grey’; according to context).


Green is a color combination of blue and yellow.

‘’;The Greek word translated as ‘green’; or ‘yellow green’;, chloros (whence English ‘chlorophyl’;) , had a broader range of meanings than the color, just as our ‘green’; can mean ‘unripe’; or ‘nave’; without a color reference. ….the primary sense of Greek chloros may have been ‘sappy’; or ‘having sap’; and hence ‘vital’; or ‘’;vigorous’;.” { A Dictionary of Literary Symbols- Michael Ferber entry under Green.}

Given Tolkien’;s philological knowledge, and Tom’;s character, this would be a very appropriate color with which to associate him, with the ‘sap’; meaning being well to the fore!


‘The Latin word for ‘green’; viridis (whence English ‘verdant) , could also mean ‘youthful’; or ‘vigorous’;…its likely kinship to other Latin words suggests an older sense like ‘sappy’; or ‘juicy’; : vir, man or male (whence English ‘virile’;’; and ‘virtue’;)…{ ibid}

English ‘green’; itself is related to ‘grow’; and ‘grass’;. {ibid}

Green is also the color of springtime and young vegetation – of renewal and hope, the beginning of the life/death/life cycle. It is also associated with longevity :

Cf. ‘Eldest, that’;s what I am’;.{FOTR-In The House Of Tom Bombadil}

The primary association of the color green, of course, is with herbage and foliage of nature, especially in spring and summer – again associations that underwrite that aspect of Tom. Green comforts and refreshes – and its manifestation in Spring, after Winter, has caused that season to be named the ‘nurse of the human race’;. It is a time of hope and renewal- again aspects which can be seen in Tom’;s relationship with the Hobbbits, and his role as anithesis to Sauron and the ‘machine’;.

Green is the color of the awakening of life- the color of plant life rising afresh from the regenerating and cleansing waters- and here we can see a linkage between that concept and the relationship between Tom and Golddberry- Tom being of the earth and Goldberry of the waters. But, as ever, there is nothing enforcing in the way that Tolkien portrays this and we should savor the resonance of the symbolism and not press it too hard less we descend into the grossness of allegory.


In literary symbolism yelllow is the color of autumn and the harvest. It also has asscociations with age – both associations being relevant to Tom! Yellow is also related to the mystery of renewal – which again aligns itself with the nature aspect of Tom. And of course yellow too, is the color of the Sun, whose rays, in positive symbology warm the earth and help things grow.


Brown is the color of earth, of ploughed land, of soil. Cf .Letter # 19:

‘..Tom Bombadil, the spirit of the (vanishing) Oxford and Berkshire countryside…’;

It is the color of autumn, and Tom’;s beard was brown as was his hair which was:

‘crowned with autumn leaves’; {FOTR- In The House Of Tom Bombadil}


Red is only mentioned once in connection with Tom:

’;face as red as a ripe apple’; {FOTR – The Old Forest}and we must be careful not to over-egg any symbolic significance. In its positive aspect red is the color of maleness, strength; it heartens and stimulates.

In the instance of the quote about Tom I think we do have this element, but also – because of the ‘apple’; qualifier, we have the conenction with russset, and autumn, and country and nature. Tolkien’;s symbolism –as has been observed before- is painted with the finesse of a fine-haired paint-brush- not laid on with a trowel!

.In another thread dealing with symbolism I referred to what I called ‘sub-text’; the conscious or unconscious use of symbol- by both author and reader- and pointed out how difficult it was at times to discern between the two.In attempting to give a reasonable assesment of how I believe Tolkien- a deeply read Medievalist- dealt with symbolism- I have tried to keep myself exclusively focused on the text that he has given us Only the reader will be able to judge if I have succeeded.

But the color symbology is not just limited – with regard to Tom – to his appearance and his clothing- it also surrounds him in other ways in LOTR and it is to these we must now turn.

The ’Color Coding’ of Tom and Goldberry -2

Everything about Tom bespeaks ‘Nature’;. He is homo naturalis. We first meet him in a forest, near a river, with willows, and he speaks and sings of weather wind, feathered starling, hill, sunlight, yellow berry, roots, yellow cream, honeycomb, white bread, and butter, mist, rain, cloudy weather, budding leaf, dew, feather, winds, heather, reeds, shady pool, lilies.{cf. FOTR- The Old Forest}

And while he lives in a house it is ‘up, down, underhill’; not one of Pete Seager’;s ‘little boxes, all made of ticky tack’; -Tom is not an urban animal- indeed his self-set boundaries ensure that this is impossible.

And in his house, which is filled with a golden {atumnal, sun, warmth} light he has ‘rush-seated chairs’;, and he is ‘crowned’; with autumn leaves. And he serves yellow cream and honeycomb, white bread, and butter, milk, cheese, green beans, and ripe berries.

And the penthouse in which the hobbits freshen themselves and latterly sleep, has a floor strewn with fresh green rushes, and the wall hangings are green hanging mats and yellow curtains. By each bed are soft green slippers. The drink at table looks like water but acts like wine, the fire smells of apple-wood. And in his song Tom talks of water-lilies, green leaves, winter, summer’;s end, spring, rushes.

The fruits of the earth, their colors, and the seasons are repeated again and again in varying form.

And OMW’;s strength is ‘green’;. And Tom talks of green mounds and rivers and trees and raindrops and acorns, and of earth and clay when he speaks approvingly of Farmer Maggott.

But at the end of all this, he makes one interesting observation:

‘I am no weather-master’;, nor is aught that goes on two legs’;

Lest we get too carried away and forget the multi-faceted character of Tom, Tolkien brings us down to earth. Redolent of Nature maybe- but still that is only one aspect of his nature- for he can’;t tell the weather!

And Tom cautions the Hobbits when they travel the Barrow-Downs to keep to the green grass almost as if it were the same as the ‘Straight Road’; – the true path, leading to ultimate safety. {FOTR- In The House of Tom Bombadil}

And in his dreams on the last night in Tom’;s house Frodo dreams of a ‘far green country’; – a country in which- although he does not yet know it- he will be renewed. Tom is whistling like a tree-full of birds, and outside everything is green and pale gold. And Goldberry (whose colors we will deal with in detail in the next post) says her farewells wearing silver green. And as the Hobbits take their leave the air ‘grew warmer between the green walls of hillside and hillside,and their final view of her is from the bottom of a ‘green hollow.’;

Of course much that is mentioned in these chapters is by its very nature ‘green’;, but Tolkien, for whom :

‘Hardly a word in its 600,00 or more has been unconsdiered’;

was well aware of why he was repetitively using green.

As we saw in the previous post:

The primary association of the color green, of course, is with herbage and foliage of nature, especially in spring and summer – again associations that underwrite that aspect of Tom. Green comforts and refreshes – and its manifestation in Spring, after Winter, has caused that season to be named the ‘nurse of the human race’;. It is a time of hope and renewal- again aspects which can be seen in Tom’;s relationship with the Hobbbits, and his role as anithesis to Sauron and the ‘machine’;.

Green is the color of the awakening of life- the color of plant life rising afresh from the regenerating and cleansing waters- and here we can see a linkage between that concept and the relationship between Tom and Golddberry- Tom being of the earth and Goldberry of the waters.

And it is to Goldberry and her colors that we must now turn.

The ‘Color Coding’; of Tom and Goldberry –3

Both in the 1934 Adventures, and in those of 1962 Goldberry is not given any particular characterization. Indeed, it is not until her importation into LOTR and ME that she achieves any overt significant status, or, as Hammond & Scull put it in their Companion {p.132}:

‘Goldberry in The Lord of the Rings has stature and powers, not even hinted at in the 1934 poem.’;

Why this is so we will deal with later when we come to look more closely at Goldberry’;s role and function, but for current purposes we are concerned with what color symbolism might inhere in her.

As well as not giving her any real character in the 1934 and 1962 poems, Tolkien doesn’;t give us too many clues about her either, other than the obvious connection with water.

The 1934 poem - which is simply repeated as far as the colors are concerned in the 1962 version, sees her wearing a green gown, and for her wedding-day having forgetmenots {blue} and flaglilies {deep blue} as her flower garland or ‘crown’; , and a gown of silver green. Her hair is of ‘yellow tresses’; in both poems.

In FOTR -The Old Forest she is associated with white water lilies. We really first get to see her with any degree of definition in FOTR- In The House of Tom Bombadil. Her hair is yellow, her gown green as young reeds {notice the relation to water -‘reeds’;}, shot with silver like beads of dew, a gold belt shaped like flag-lilies and set with the pale-blue eyes of forget-me-nots. In bowls of green and brown earthenware at her feet were white water lilies. And later, at supper on the following day she is dressed in silver with a white girdle, and her shoes were like fishes’; mail. {Notice the relation to water-fishes’; mail}

And on the morning of the Hobbits’; departure she is once more clad in silver green. {FOTR-Fog On The Barrow Downs}.

The Nature aspect of Goldberry and her connection with water is not simply reinforced in the colors that she wears but also in Tom’;s and Frodo’;s songs/verse about her. Frodo – FOTR –ITHOTB – mentions spring-time, and summertime, and spring again after the times of birth and growth. He does not mention atumn and winter- decline and death.

In Letter # 210 Tolkien states that :

‘We are not in ‘fairy-land’;, but in realriver lands in autumn. Goldberry represents the actual seasonal changes in such lands.’;

In reality, textually, she is only really associated with Spring and Summer- with birth and growth. Tom gathers water lilies each summer’;s end to please her and ‘to keep them from the winter’; – not going into the Old Forest again until the ‘merry spring, when the River-daughter dances down the withy –path to bathe in the water’;. {FOTR-ITHOTB} Autumn and Winter are also realities of their existence, but Goldberry is firmly asociated wth birth and growth and renewal- Spring and Summer.

And so to her colors:

Silver Green

I am not going to revisit the color symbolism already dealt with in the previous post , which is applicable- in general -to both Tom and Goldberry, but I am going to look at two particular aspects- her relationship with water and her feminine aspect.

In classical symbolism green is the color of water as red is the color of fire. Therefore green is doubly appropriate for Goldberry, both for the reasons explained in the previous post’;s analysis of the symbolism of green, and because it is the color of the element- water- with which she is most closely associated.

Silver relates to the Moon- which in turn relates to water and the feminine principle- so the color again reinforces Goldberry’;s femininity and her association with water.

I have use the term ‘femininity’; for I do not think we should press too strongly the association of Goldberry with the “Mother’; – if anyone’;s that is Yavanna’;s role. But there is an aspect of the ‘Mother’; inherent in Goldberry and one that we should acknowledge but not over-stress- because I do not believe that Tolkien wanted to express her so strongly that way. I will expand on this later when I come to deal more fully with Goldberry.

Silver green gives us a double emphasis as it were – on water and the feminine.

Water is a life giver and a renewer – as is the feminine ‘Mother’; aspect of Goldberry.

White is the color of silver- symbolically. White is also the color of ‘passage’; as in ‘rites of passage’;- initiation, representing death and rebirth – the seasons-

Goldberry represents the actual seasonal changes in such lands.’;

White of course, is also the color of purity, and innocence an antithetical color to the black of Sauron. But there is also a parallel symbolism which sees the white lily

‘a small pile of white water lilies ‘

‘white water lilies were floating’;

as a symbol of procreation- which in turn ties in with the green of rebirth and renewal, and of water- the giver of life- and of the feminine ‘the Mother’;.

I am not sure how far we should press this point or how far Tolkien intended it- but I am certain, given his knowledge of Medieval literature and its overtly symbolic aspect, that he was aware of all the implications of the white lily.

Gold is a symbol of light , but, as with the ‘red’; reference to Tom, it is a singular reference and I do not think we should place too much emphasis on it, other than to see it as a reinforcing symbol for purity, and the sun and summer- represented in the renewal and growth aspects associated with Goldberry.

We should not leave this section on colors and Goldberry without some comment on the flowers which she uses as a garland- forgetmenots (blue) and flag lilies (dark blue). The former – as a color -she shares with Tom who was:

‘all in clean blue, blue as rain-washed forget-me-nots’;

the latterflag lilies (dark blue) she has alone.

The forget-me –not symbolically refers to memories and true love. The flag lily is the old word for the Iris- the Fleur de Lys of the French Kings. It is also known as ‘Mary’;s flower’; –representing fidelity, valor, wisdom and faith, and the ‘Flower of Light’;. Mary too, of course is the Christianized version of ‘the Mother’;.

I would not wish to hazard a guess at what the overall Tolkienian symbolic ‘sub-text’; might be telling us here- I suspect as complex a message as the one he sent us with the creation of Tom Bombadil.

But Goldberry –in her color and floral imagery supports and underwrites what Tom stands for in his.

EDIT NOTE: As a result of further information I think my reference to the Blue Flag Iris and thus a possible resonance of the Virgin Mary is incorrect . Please see my later post on the subject of Friday 27 January 2006 @ 17.04

The ’;Color Coding’; of Tom and Goldberry - An Amendment

I have a comment to make on the interpretation I have given to flaglilies- which in itself demonstrates the difficulties and dangers of symbolic interpretation. While this comment does not invalidate the overall comments I have made about Goldberry, it invalidates any resonance to the Virgin Mary that is inherent in ’;Mary’;s Flower’; the blue flag lily or iris.

In UT Disaster of the Gladden Fields Tolkien states in a note (13) :

’;The lake had become a great marsh, through which the river wandered in a wilderness of islets, and wide beds of reed and rush, and armies of yellow iris that grew taller than a man and gave their name to all the region and to the river from the Mountains about whose lower course they grew most thickly’;.

In their authoritative Companion to LOTR Hammond and Scull say (p.131):

’;Flag-lily-or yellow-flag is another name for the iris that gave its name to the Gladden Fields(see note for p.52). It is a perennial , native to Britain, growing in marshes and in wet grounds by rivers.’;

So they clearly see the iris in question as being the yellow iris, not the blue one. And in the Nomenclature (p.771) Tolkien himself says that the Gladden ’;is here the name for the ’;flag’;or iris’;. Unfortunately he does not use the term ’;yellow-flag’; .

However, in HOME 6 The Return of the Shadow VI Tom Bombadil Tolkien writes:

’Description of Goldberry, with her hair as yellow as the flag lilies, her green gown and light feet.’

Clearly  the belt worn by Goldberry and ’;shaped like a chain of flag lilies’; refers to the yellow iris, and  the combination is not of blue and dark blue, but blue and yellow, which in itself combines to make  green - a color motif emphasized again and again with Tom .

I had overlooked that quote and  my earlier suggestion that the belt  related to the blue flag lily is incorrect. It is indeed the yellow iris.



Ghostlore 02/Jun/2006 at 06:12 AM
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On the subject of Grey, several people have noted its relation to the Elves. I was especially taken aback to read that Gerontian had found no reference to this color in the Dictionary Of Symbolism ! Yet in a way, this is understandable when applied to what I will attempt to detail.

Grey, in my opinion, has long been representative of neutrality. Neither black nor white, it shows no preference, while simultaneously encompassing all preference. Grey is the proverbial middle road, the state of non-action, the zen. With this in mind, there is no wonder Grey as an ill defined symbol. How can we define something that is all and yet nothing?

With respect to the Elves, I agree with Aredhriel’s notion that it could be symbolic of their "fading" as well as his brilliant transition to eye color, and the owners of those eyes, fading blood lines. I would like to add to this though, by looking a little bit at the history of the nature of the Elves, and their age old desire to effect change in their environment, that the Elves were not always grey.

I am not sure if this is directly representative of their being in a state of fading, or if their fading represents the grey that their actions have forged within them. Much akin to the warnings of both Galadriel, and Gandalf the Grey, in reference to the effect that weilding the One Ring would have on them, the Elves sought to create and preserve goodness from a "white" approach, and much of this yielded "black" results. In a way, so much had gone awry, and so many hard lessons had they learned over the millenia, that they had beaten themselves into a subdued state of grey neutrality, for fear of the consequences that might stem from any further endeavors they might dream up!

geordie - You got me thinking here as you so often do. You mention "the ’field’ of the standard which Arwen made for Aragorn is black; and as the emblems could not be seen in the gloom, it looked as if Aragorn was flying a black flag when he and the Dunedain turned up at Pelargir. " and my mind immediately jumped to a different conversation (Celebrimbor the Cuckold? Sigh, never live that one down) and Phil had mentioned that Elrond says to Aragorn "but dark are the paths pointed to thee." I think this example not only serves to further your idea that perhaps color is simply symbolic of Tolkien’s mood at the time of his writing certain pasages, but presents two other possibilities. We could look at it from the perspective that the "black" represents the dark path he must journey. We could also view it as symbolic of all the death that is soon to be laid upon his hands. Or perhaps those two examples are one in the same?

On the subject of givens and norms, Baelmyrrdn notes, and  Eollyn echoes an intruiging factor in all this. "black is usually bad and white is [I[usually good, but not always" The wolf in sheeps clothing? With this in mind, can there be any universal truth to color symbolism? It is difficult to know with any real certainty what color symbolism means unless we first discover so many factors leading up to its usage that we can understand the context itself in which it is used. What are the related story elements preceeding the illustration? What was the authors mood? What are the universal truths? What mythology is the concept borrowed from? Different colors mean different things to different cultures... who is the audience?

Kudos for personal perception and individual interpretation I say!


Duiel 02/Jun/2006 at 08:51 AM
Fletcher of Lothlorien Points: 1507 Posts: 596 Joined: 30/Apr/2004
Thank you, Halfir, for bringing your Tom-Goldberry colour analysis to this thread, or I might have done it for you. Note also that when Tom is first seen, he is described with the 3 primary colours, and neutral brown. Not quite sure what that means though. Also remember that although the moon is traditionally symbolically feminine, in Tolkien’s book the moon is male and the sun female, both in Elf lore and Hobbit-song.

I’m still very curious about grey’s so ambiguous!
halfir 02/Jun/2006 at 11:39 PM
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in Tolkien’s book the moon is male and the sun female, both in Elf lore and Hobbit-song.

I fully accept that, though I wonder how far Tolkien would, or could go in altering basic color symbolism? One has to accept- as I observed in the Naming of Sauron thread - that Tolkien does not always fit exactly into the continuum overarching RL myths he seeks to emulate in order for his own story to have mythic significance. Conversely I don’t think the fact that he made a masculine figure of the moon necessarilly excludes the color symbolism remaining the same as in the overarching RL mythology.

As to grey in the Penguin Dictionary of Symbols grey is seen as being composed equaly of black and white and is used in Christian symbolism as relating to the resurrection of the dead, medieval artists depicting Christ with a grey cloak at the Last Judgement.

In colour genetics grey is the first colour to be perceived and it remains at the centre of the human colour-sphere.

In Hebrew tradition it is linked with the wisdom of age.

However, I’m not sure how much further all this takes us!X(

CirthErebor 08/Jun/2006 at 02:42 PM
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I believe Tolkien uses many colors to describe the Valar, especially with Ulmo in this passage...    

"Ulmo went thence on foot, robed to the middle in mail like the scales of blue and silver fishes; but his hair was a bluish silver, and his beard to the feet was the same hue, and he bore neither helm nor crown. Beneath his shirt fell the skirts of his kirtle of shimmering greens, and of what substance these were woven of is unknown; but whoso looked into the depths of their subtle colors seemed to behold the faint movements of deep waters shot with stealthy lights of phosphorescent fish that lived within the abyss." BoLT, p. 156-157.

The Valar, of course, are gods, so they deserve these colorful descriptions. Ragnelle, I believe perhaps those characters have that grey eye color perhaps to show a grim, perhaps even tired character--we know that Aragorn had that trait.

Ragnelle 08/Jun/2006 at 03:34 PM
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CirthErebor: Perhaps you are right, but I not convinced. Aragorn may be grim and tired at times, but not constantly, and I hardly asosiate Arwen or Tinuviel with a grim and tired charater

halfir: Thank you for the information on the colour grey, though I am not sure, either, that it will lead us very far. I find Tolkien’s use of grey in asosiation with the Elves to be of a more private charater. By that I mean that it seems to hold some significance to him, and in his books there seem to be some sigificance to the assosiation of the Elves with grey (isn’t Thingol ’greymantle’ btw?), but I think it is something unique to him. And I am not sure that we will find ot what the sigificance is.

halfir 08/Jun/2006 at 04:25 PM
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(isn’t Thingol ’greymantle’ btw?),

Indeed he is. I wonder if anyone else-geordie-perhaps can throw more light on Tolkien’s use of grey and its significance? Currently I agree with you that it ceratinly is more like a ’private chapter’ of Tolkien’s. The closes I think the symbolic explanations come is the Hebraic one of grey equaliing wisdom. Gandalf’s cloak was grey and the elves are certainly wise. We can perhaps, also link-back to Aredhriels idea that grey is also the color of fading- as the elves in LOTR are indeed fading and grey- associated with age and wisdom can also be associated with age and fading- though this I feel would be more appropriate to LOTR than say The Silmarillion.

I looked briefly through Hammond&Scull’s Tolkien:Artist and Illustrator to see if they made any particular comment about his use of grey but could find none.

In David Salo’s A Gateway to Sindarin- App 4 English-Sindarin Glossary grey -meaning pale- is mentioned. This could also possibly be a clue to Tolkien’s thinking- or not!X(

Alanna Elessar 08/Jun/2006 at 06:11 PM
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Besides being the color of purity and good, white can also symbolize ghostliness;  in some Eastern cultures  white is the color of death and mourning and is worn at funerals.  Perhaps this is more what Tokein was going for with Saruman the White.   To bring up another point that could be discussed, the colors of the various flags in ME may show symbolism, as RL flags almost always do.  For example, Rohan’s green flag may symbolize their earthiness and Gondor blue might symbolize stability.   

Ragnelle 09/Jun/2006 at 12:49 AM
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Alanna Elessar: I thought the colour of Gondor was black and silver (white). The Stewards use a plain white banner, and the banner of the king is black, while the Tower Gards wear black and silver (white). The prince of Dol Amroth have a blue banner with a white ship on and the blue there represent water.

halfir: Yes, the Hebraic explanation is the one that fit best of the ’outside’ explanations. I also seem to recall from somewhere that the elfs in the Irish tradition were dressed in grey (or even were grey), but I will have to check that to be certain. If so, Tolkien could have been following that tradition, but even then I would say that he uses it in his own unique way - as artists often do.

Duiel 09/Jun/2006 at 07:37 AM
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More on Saruman the White:

"White!" he sneered. "It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken."
(FotR, The Council of Elrond)

Here Saruman explains his own opinions concerning a colour symbolism. But what else can this quote offer us?

Otherwise, good posts!

<Nessa Edit:  Yes, I agree >

Menelvir 11/Jun/2006 at 02:56 AM
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Duiel, perhaps that quote shows us how besmirched and tainted Saruman’s mind has become. As aforementioned, white symbolises purity and good. From that viewpoint, a dyed cloth ceases to be pure. Likewise, Saruman’s name, besmirched when he turned away from being ’white’, and his mind, when he turned to the Dark Side.
Duiel 11/Jun/2006 at 09:04 AM
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I have now become aware that I was not the first person to mention that quote (I should read my own threads more carefully) but Kirinki54 made a quite different analysis (and no less valueble) than the one I perceived.

Menelvir mentions the concept of purity in relation to the quote. So if white = purity, and by Saruman’s analysis, purity is a thing easily broken, what else can we build on beyond the concept of Saruman’s transition to "the Dark Side?"

1) What characters also lost their "whiteness?" that did not go as far as Saruman? Can we say that Frodo lost his whiteness? It seems to me that by losing his whiteness to the darkness of the Ring, he, in the end, became grey, the Elvish colour. Thus he could no longer fully enjoy the Shire, and went in the end to the Havens to depart over the Sea.

2) And what of Gandalf? Saruman was White to begin with, and became currupted. Gandalf, on the other hand, was Grey to begin with, and only with hard work became White. And in that sense, his white was stronger than Saruman’s, as it had been earned. It was not

Kirinki mentions that it shows a difference between Gandalf and Saruman. How does this allude to Gandalf’s perception of the Shire? I am short on time, so I cannot offer direct quotes right now, but he seems to believe in the preservation of the innocence of the Shire, of keeping it "white."

And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom."

Does this quote have something to offer on the matter?
Duiel 11/Jun/2006 at 09:06 AM
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It was not (from my last post) = typo.
Padmé Amidala 17/Jun/2006 at 03:22 AM
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First of all, kudos to Duiel for bringing up such a great topic. I find the use of colours in literature really interesting, and recently knocked myself out with the use of colours (and the meaning of names) in The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald). Anyway - now for Tolkien!

Since Tolkien has such descriptive narratives the frequent use of colours is inevitable, but (as I think Geordie mentioned), when colours are used so often in someone’s work it’s impossible for all of them to have a deeper meaning. I think that more often than not - in Tolkien’s works - colours are used to be descriptive, and not as symbols. However, as you all have shown, sometimes colours are significant beyond just being descriptions of how something looks.

With that, I want to go into the significance of Saruman’s robe (the one of many colours). I was thinking that, since Saruman’s robe’s colour changes depending on what light you see it from, how he turns, moves et cetera - it might be an image of how his personality seems to change depending on what people he is around and how he wants to "use" them. He has, so to speak, many "faces" that are supposed to fool those he wants to manipulate into believing something about him that is not true. Colours are often used to show someone’s personality (if you’re clad in black you’re "evil", when in white you’re "good" and so on), so the fact that Saruman doesn’t only wear one colour shows how his personality changes.

That leads me to Gandalf, who’s robe is now white. If you look upon white as the colour of something true and pure it shows how Gandalf never changes his "face" or attitude depending on who he is around -  he’s always "true" about who he is and it is clear who’s side he is on.

Well, I’m afraid this only brushes upon what I wanted to say about the colours of Gandalf and Saruman’s robes, but I want to know what other people think about it, because I often over analyse. There’s no point in spending time on walking down the wrong path if you could just go back to your starting point and try to find someplace new.
Duiel 20/Jun/2006 at 11:53 PM
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Padmé Amidala, thank you for your contribution. You are right that we should not delve too deeply and try to find symbolism where there isn’t any.

As for your quote, That leads me to Gandalf, who’s robe is now white. If you look upon white as the colour of something true and pure it shows how Gandalf never changes his "face" or attitude depending on who he is around - he’s always "true" about who he is and it is clear who’s side he is on. , do remember that he covers himself in grey, and does not reveal the white right away to most of the characters. He is always true in his mind, but he often hides this behind deceipt as well.

Think, for example of when he enters King Théoden’s hall. He is hidden behind his grey robes, and asks to bring in his staff as a prop for walking. It is only after he enters the hall, and after Théoden and Wormtongue acknowledge him as beggarlike, that he reveals himself in his true rainment and his purpose.
Arvellas 22/Jun/2006 at 05:21 PM
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I saw someone mention in another thread that one of the things that makes the characters so wonderful is that none of them are wholly good or bad.  They all have pros and cons, and the colors seem to work the same way.  They can be good, evil, or anything in between, depending on how they are used.

The best example I can come up with is black.  It is the color of darkness, of the sky on the very darkest of nights.  It represents a time when you cannot see well and can get lost or be attacked.  Black can scare us.  But on the other hand, the night is when we sleep, and therefore the time when we rest, a peaceful time, so that we wake regenerated and renewed the next day.  In that respect, black is a good thing.

Red is another good example.  It is the color of fire and of destruction.  It is also the color of blood, which could be good or bad.  If you take it in the sense of battle and bloodshed, it is bad.  If you take it in the sense that it is constantly flowing through you, keeping you alive, it is good.  When we are happy, we sometimes get rosy-cheeked.  Speaking of roses, red is associated with love.

Finally, gold.  Some other people have mentioned that it is the color of both Galadriel’s hair and of Smaug.  It is also the color and substance the Ring, and we are told in FOTR that the Ring can change its appearance, size, and weight to a certain extent.  When it wants to be sinister and imposing, it gets dark and heavy.  When it is trying to seem pretty and innocent, it gets light and cheery.  It shows us the color gold being used as a sign of both good and bad.

Krisse 28/Jun/2006 at 12:28 PM
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Colours are often used as symbols in books, also in the Lord of the Rings books, I assume. Like the colour of the Tower in Mordor was black. Black is the colour of evil and darkness, and it gives us a special feeling. And the red eye, the colour of fire and destruction as Arvellas said so nicely, also fit remarkable good in since the eye entails just this. Colours gives us a feeling of what’s good and evil, peaceful and holy, and deadly.
Zurgha 28/Jun/2006 at 09:08 PM
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Ooh, intriguing thread.

I always found the role of the color grey in LOTR very interesting, as grey’s often used to convey gloom or sadness, but not so in LOTR. Its ties to the Elves might well be part of their status as a "fading race". However the Elves’ fading didn’t strike me as something meant to be mourned or dwelled on, rather something unfortunate but inevitable. To me Tolkien’s use of grey seemed to associate it with wisdom more than anything.

As for Saruman and the color white, I think it may also serve to highlight Saruman’s corruption in that he no longer understood its significance or purpose. When Gandalf returns, he is Gandalf the White, "Saruman as he should have been". For Saruman, that role is no longer desirable. He sees white as a blank canvas rather than a freedom from impurity. His many-coloured robe seems fitting considering how he selfishly changes his purposes for his own gain, while Gandalf had one purpose and stuck to it.
Dragons Malice 09/Jul/2006 at 08:46 AM
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More on the colour Grey : Cirdan is described as grey and old, and he saw further and deeper than any other in ME, and so he gave Narya to the Grey Pilgrim at the Grey Havens. As he does this he says that his heart is with the Sea and he will dwell by the grey shores.

In addition I believe that Shadowfax is described as grey in colour when the Hobbits arrive at the Grey Havens and Sam looks out over the grey sea, and that Legolas builds a grey ship to sail into the west.

All these grey references fit with the theory that the colour grey symbolises either Wisdom and/or Fading.

Nieriel Eleniel 13/Jul/2006 at 08:46 AM
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Great thread! I’d like to add some possible symbolism form the Silmarillion, concerning the three even “races”. The Noldor have dark hair, the Vanyar have fair hair and for the Teleri, no hair colour is given.

The lack of description for the Teleri could symbolize their division, some departing for Valinor and some remaining in Middle-Earth.

 The Noldor’s dark hair could represent their fiery tempers and the troubles they would go through after their exile, although it must be noted that Finarfin and his children, being part Vanyar, were all golden haired.

I’d like your opinions, don’t hesitate to tell me if I’m talking nonsense, since I’m no expert on symbolism. I just thought it strange that the Noldor and Vanyar should be described, but not the Teleri.


Arvellas 23/Jul/2006 at 04:35 PM
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Nieriel Eleniel-Galadriel’s husband, Celeborn, is one of the Teleri, and he is said to have silver hair.  They are the Sea-Elves, and I think that the silvery color fits their connection with water very well.

Zurgha-I really like your point about Gandalf and Saruman, and escpecially Saruman’s changing colors going hand in hand with his fickle behavior.  I hadn’t looked at it that way before.

Like so many others here, I too have been giving more and more thought to the color gray.  It is both black and white, and yet neither black nor white.  It simply is without having to be understood, and the same could be said of the Elves, and Gandalf, and of many themes in LOTR.  It is hazy and mysterious, perhaps not meant to be ever fully understood.  The grey ships on the grey sea take the Elves to Aman, and so grey also represents the path to the unknown, the place where myth becomes reality and reality becomes myth.

Fëanaro 14/Sep/2006 at 08:06 AM
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Perhaps Tolkien used colours as symbols. I don’t know. Only I know is that he writed LOTR using skills taken from british medieval and premedieval stories, such as the Beowulf. Those stories ere full of symbolism and symbols, so is very probably that your theory is true. I canonly say that in ancient english texts, dexcriptions were very detailed and important.
Magradhaid 14/Sep/2006 at 02:21 PM
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I certainly agree with the connection between grey and ’fading’ and wisdom, though it also reminds me of the ambiguity of the Elves when giving counsel; ’Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both yes and no,’ Three is Company, FotR. That line, in turn, makes me think of how the Quenya word meant ’yes’ at one time and ’no’ at another.