“Gil-galad was an Elven-king… the last whose realm was fair and free.”
So Samwise Gamgee recites in The Fellowship of the Ring, pulling from his memory a snippet of “The Fall of Gil-galad.” Bilbo Baggins translated the poem from an ancient tongue and it made such an impression on Samwise that it comes to the hobbit’s mind when Aragorn mentions Gil-galad. This despite the fact that Gil-galad fell thousands of years before Samwise’s time.
That a poem about Gil-galad persists into the Third Age says much of this pivotal character in Middle-earth’s long history. The most influential beats of the High Elven King’s story occur during the Second Age of Middle-earth, the setting of the upcoming The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. A character whose name means “Star of Radiance,” Gil-galad is a beacon of hope and action. As the Second Age begins, Middle-earth is recovering from the defeat of Morgoth, an insidious being of darkness, and the end of the War of Wrath. Weary from the battle, many in the realms of Middle-earth want to linger in respite, believing evil to be entirely vanquished.
But not Gil-galad.
Along with some of the other elves, Gil-galad, High King of the Noldor, chose to remain in Middle-earth after the First Age rather than depart for the Undying Lands. Gil-galad establishes a realm in Lindon, the young half-elf Elrond often working at his side. Though peace seems to thrive on the surface, perhaps all is not as it seems. Not one to grow complacent, Gil-galad holds a healthy skepticism about the apparent lack of evil in Middle-earth.
Benjamin Walker, who portrays Gil-galad in The Rings of Power, says he worked with showrunners JD Payne and Patrick McKay to preserve those aspects of the character in the series. Gil-galad has always been incredibly prescient. “He’s got this kind of elvish spidey sense of the impending rebirth of evil,” Walker says. “He always sees it a second before. So when we find him at the beginning of season one, he’s in a time of peace. But for Gil-galad that means something entirely different. That peace and liberty require constant vigilance. And I think he’s playing the long chess game of the preservation of Middle-earth. Also, we have to remember that these elves chose to stay. They could’ve gone to Valinor and lived on the elvish Valhalla beaches and lived happily ever after in light and love and ecstasy.”
But the elves remained, in part, to preserve hope. In spite of their immortality and that they have repeatedly suffered the deaths of everyone they know, the elves still muster hope. They rise to the challenge—Gil-galad in particular. Walker explains, “It’s almost like he can smell it in the air. And not only that. He’s got this connection with the life force of Middle-earth, almost as if he can feel the tentacles of evil slithering beneath the crust of Middle-earth. And he knows it’s there. And so, it begs the question what am I going to do about it?”
He leads his people with wisdom and with a sense of preparation for whatever comes next. And as we well know, what comes next is Morgoth’s second-in-command: Sauron.
Gil-galad tries to keep the dark at bay using his myriad skills as necessary. He’s a politician, but he’s also a warrior. That’s how audiences see Gil-galad in the prologue of The Fellowship of the Ring. In The Rings of Power, subtle touches in Gil-galad’s appearance point to those abilities. The stone and gem rings he wears form an ornate set of what are almost brass knuckles when he makes a fist. Gil-galad’s hair is long, like we traditionally see with noble elves, but it’s shaved on the sides as though he were a fighter. “We know him as a warrior. We’re going to get to see him as a warrior. But he’s a politician in the sense that we wish we had, in that he attempts to bring out the best in all of us, so that when we do need to come together, we can,” Walker says.
Gil-galad’s wisdom is earned. He’s experienced light and darkness beyond imagination in his long life. His history informs his role as the High King of the Noldor and as a respected leader in Middle-earth. Walker says, “He has all of this information and he has all this awareness, but he has enough love and consideration to know when is best to tell people. Do you go on the PA system and say, ‘There’s an asteroid coming to the earth, everyone freak out?’ No. You build an infrastructure. You allow everyone the possibility to protect themselves and start the project of splitting the asteroid in half before everyone even knows it’s coming. That’s what he’s trying to do. And that’s what a good politician does. And that’s what I like about him.”
In the Second Age, one of Gil-galad’s strongest working relationships is with Elrond. He knows the half-elf needs to prove himself. Elrond is thousands of years old, but he has some adolescent qualities. Elrond is trying to find his place in Middle-earth. And in that, Gil-galad mentors him. “Gil-galad is going to encourage him to take the first steps and the journey towards his ultimate destiny,” Walker says. “But he does it in the way a loving parent would, which is to allow them to make their own mistakes or to encourage them to do things and convince them that it was their idea in the first place.”
Gil-galad’s friendship with Elrond is one of the many relationships he builds in the Second Age. And with Sauron starting to extend his reach across Middle-earth, Gil-galad needs all the help he can get. After all, much of Gil-galad’s epic story ties into that of the Dark Lord of Mordor in the source material. From his early suspicions of a being calling himself Annatar, to becoming a guardian of two of the Elven rings of power, to the creation of the Last Alliance of Elves and Men, Gil-galad will fight against Sauron until the end. After Númenor’s tragic fall, Gil-galad works with the High King of the Dúnedain, Elendil. It is with Elendil that he creates the alliance that eventually stops Sauron, ending the Second Age. Elendil and Gil-galad are key to this story, sacrificing themselves so Isildur can separate the One Ring from Sauron.
While we know Gil-galad’s end, The Rings of Power explores the character as he grows, leads, and tries to help Middle-earth. And though we know he comes to work closely with elves and different races as the Second Age progresses, Walker tells us that Gil-galad has to develop his ability to trust others to carry the torch onward. The High King has such a sense of the inevitable that he finds it a challenge to believe in others.
“He has to let his own world have a life of its own. He has to let go, like a parent does,” Walker notes. “The ultimate last loving thing is to let them go out on their own and to trust that they will do the right thing. And that they will know what that thing is. And I think that’s why these characters that Tolkien has created continue to evolve. Otherwise, he’s just this prescient ruler who’s got a lot of experience and can kick ass when he needs to. He’s constantly evolving.”
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power premieres on Prime Video on September 2, 2022.
Amy Ratcliffe is the Managing Editor for Nerdist and the author of Star Wars: Women of the Galaxy, The Art of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, The Jedi Mind, and more Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.