The Rings of Power Episode 1’s beautiful final shots of Galadriel jumping off the ship and into the water were undoubtedly earth-shattering. As the light enveloped her and her companions, she caught sight of her brother’s knife, and the choice laid out before her was clear to the viewers—either continue seeking revenge alone or return to Valinor and live out the rest of her days. The sequence is visually stunning, but the choice itself is the most stunning and emotional moment of the series so far, and not necessarily for the reasons you would think.
Is it noble and intrinsically elf-like to choose to continue her search for revenge? In some ways. It certainly embodies the idea instilled by other iterations of Tolkien elves that they are not moved from their goals easily. Nobody holds a grudge like an elf in Tolkien’s universe, so in that way, Galadriel’s decision aligns with that quality. Throughout the first episode, she is stubborn and single-minded in her goal, refusing to listen to her companions. It’s fair to see her decision to continue to pursue Sauron as noble, too, because she does seem to feel a desire to protect Middle Earth from him. Everyone, including dwarves, men, and even Harfoots, benefit from that.
But something uniquely beautiful about Galadriel’s decision is that it really can’t be categorized as selfish. Normally, a revenge-driven goal for a character would be considered, at least in part, selfish. Revenge is, after all, linked to the feeling of triumph and resolution for the character who obtains it. I don’t think Galadriel is seeking that same resolution.
A lot of the reasoning behind that idea has to do with both the mystery regarding what sailing into the west really means, along with the way her brother’s relationship was emphasized.
What is Valinor?
First, let’s do a little digging about the implications of returning to Valinor. As this Nerdist article notes, making this journey is not akin to dying, although casual enjoyers of older Tolkien content may have interpreted that it seemed to be connected to dying. (I say that as someone who thoroughly thought it was a metaphor for dying the first time I saw Return of the King.) That being said, Valinor does seem to be linked to the idea of heaven since it is the realm of the Valar (gods).
More clues about what Valinor is like can be drawn from what is thought to have inspired it. Hobbit lore refers to it as Faerie, indicating that it may be based on the idea of such a realm in mythology or that it may draw its origins from other similar mythical places—for example, Avalon in Arthurian legend or the Elysian Fields. All of that is to say, it is a place the vast majority of humans cannot go—a place where things are blissful, and there is no suffering. Her companion’s reactions to the golden light show that it is a desirable place to be and an honor to be able to return there. So why does she spurn that honor?
In The Rings of Power Episode 1, I think she jumps into the water for two reasons, both connected to her family.
First, as the viewer is shown, the physical reminder of her brother in the form of his knife is too much for Galadriel to bear. The viewer was shown in flashback how important her relationship with her brother is to her. He teaches her a lesson in the flashback sequence about making decisions and how to know which decisions are the right ones. It’s safe to say she adopts this lesson as somewhat of a life’s philosophy. It is intrinsically part of her, as is her relationship with her brother, and it has played an enormous role in forming who she has become. Without seeking revenge for her brother, who is she? How can she exist in her grief without having made absolutely certain that she did what she promised and eradicated the entity responsible for his death?
The other reason she jumps, I think, is related to something present in Valinor and related to Mandos, the god responsible for Elven spirits upon death. In Valinor, the Halls of Mandos are where elves’ spirits return when their bodies are killed, but crucially, elves can be reincarnated there after a period of time (assuming they hadn’t done anything to offend the Valar). How could Galadriel return to a land where her brother could be reincarnated—in an identical body, no less—without proof that she had eradicated Sauron completely? While it is supposed to be a great honor to be given a chance to live in a place like Valinor, and Galadriel clearly seems to miss it since it is her homeland, it offends her honor to think of showing herself there without completing her task. She can’t stand the thought of disappointing her brother this way, even though she is the one holding herself to this task, not her brother.
To love her brother so much that she can’t stand to face him without avenging him, I think, is selflessness. She knows the path ahead of her is incredibly difficult, especially since she is well aware of the fact that her king does not support her search for whatever is left of Sauron. In truth, he tried to send her to Valinor to get her out of the way, and I think she knows that. She will not have an easy time trying to complete her task, and she will not have the help of other elves, as is made clear to her by Elrond. But to jump from the ship and commit herself to doing it alone anyway is a huge testament to her love for her brother.
Galadriel is sticking to the path she feels is right in The Rings of Power Episode 1, as she was taught many years ago, despite the fact that it will not be as easy as living out her days in Valinor would be. She chose the difficult journey instead of taking the opportunity to see her brother again, knowing she could not endure the shame of being without proof that he was avenged. And honestly, that’s an incredible amount of love and sacrifice (not to mention a beautiful narrative circle, from the lesson her brother teaches her to her own physically following the advice).
It’s really moving when you think about it—just as moving as we have come to expect from elves when love is involved.