It’s easy to find screenshots of Orlando Bloom making strange facial expressions in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. In fact, it’s practically a meme. And even if you strip out all the examples that are fleeting mid-movement expressions, or that are actually from Orlando Bloom goofing around on set in behind-the-scenes footage, you still wind up with a lot of very strange expressions from our blonde elf friend.
2021 marks The Lord of the Rings movies’ 20th anniversary, and we couldn’t imagine exploring the trilogy in just one story. So each Wednesday throughout the year, we’ll go there and back again, examining how and why the films have endured as modern classics. This is Polygon’s Year of the Ring.
Then there are the line-reads. Sentences like “A red sun rises. Blood has been spilled this night,” delivered with intensity and a straight face. The Legolas of Peter Jackson’s trilogy gives off vibes of That One Weird Kid, someone who seems perpetually surprised by whatever is going on around him — but also with a layer of curiosity, perhaps even amusement. He projects a sense that he’s aloof from whatever is going on, and also that he has absolutely no idea what is going on.
Many would argue that this was just Bloom’s natural bewilderedness, from being cast in his first major film production two days after graduating from drama school. That read might be true, but it’s also a perfect read on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Legolas, who is paradoxically very old and very young, and has never been anywhere or met anyone in his life.
Legolas is a nice country boy
This is Legolas as we first see him, looking around Rivendell like he’s never seen fancy elves before. This is because he hasn’t. He’s from a society of, in a nutshell, the least fancy elves on Middle-earth.
This might sound strange because of how Peter Jackson’s Hobbit movies showed us that Legolas’ dad wears gold brocade and rides a fully pointed elk into battle, but the elves of Mirkwood are the least ethereal variety you can find in the time period of the Lord of the Rings story. Elrond and Galadriel’s people have lived a life much closer to Middle-earth’s gods than Legolas’, and it shows in their manner, dress, and architecture.
On top of that, Legolas’ father Thranduil is an isolationist ruler. His people are sequestered in a dangerous forest, and they simply do not get out much or welcome many visitors. Legolas is the elven equivalent of a kid who grew up without cable TV, pop music, or meeting anyone his parents didn’t know by name. Like the rest of the Fellowship, he joined the ring quest mostly because he was a capable person who happened to be in Rivendell when the group was being assembled, not because he was already a great hero.
Legolas is baby
Another of Legolas’ most-memed lines is when he walks into the obviously very old forest and says with confidence and relish that … it’s old. Contrast this moment with the full line from Tolkien’s The Two Towers: “[Fangorn] is old, very old. […] So old that almost I feel young again, as I have not felt since I journeyed with you children.”
Legolas, you see, is accustomed to being the youngest guy in the room. Tolkien was never specific on his age, but since Legolas has never been to Lothlorien before the Fellowship visits, we can say he was probably born after the shadow in Mirkwood grew so dangerous that travel was cut off between Thranduil and Galadriel’s kingdoms. That was about two thousand years ago. For context, Legolas’ dad was alive during the First Age, which makes him over six hundred thousand years old.
This is the dichotomy of Legolas: To humans, he is unfathomably old. But for an elf, he is a teeny tiny baby with no life experience who has never left home before. And he is always going to be a teeny tiny baby — a prince who will never be a king — because elves don’t die.
Legolas cannot be killed in a way that matters
Orlando Bloom’s line reads for Legolas might make you feel like everyone around him should be looking at each other with the international facial expression for “Is this guy for real?” But when the tomb in which his friends’ bones are buried is rendered to sand by the elements, Legolas will still be sitting on that beach, drinking wine.
In a very real way, almost nothing that occurs around Legolas carries any weight for him. Elves can be killed, but they cannot truly die. Without going into a full explanation of the workings of elven immortality, death neither cuts an elf off from their loved ones forever, nor prevents them from returning to Middle-earth.
Legolas has absolutely no personal experience with death, and this arena is where the choices Bloom made for Legolas become pitch perfect. When the Fellowship exits Moria and, to a man, collapse in tears, weeping for Gandalf, their fallen leader, this is what Legolas looks like:
This is a man who has literally never known someone who died before. He has no idea what the people around him are doing, much less whether he should be doing it too.
Here he is reacting to Aragorn and Boromir’s touching final moments together:
The most emotion Legolas shows in the whole trilogy might be when he argues with Aragorn about the wisdom of retreating to Helm’s Deep. It bothers him deeply that all these already short-lived people — including his closest friends — have accepted their mortality. It’s as if he wants to grab Aragorn by the collar and go “Don’t you know that if you die in real life, you’ll die in real life?????”
From sheer confusion over Gandalf’s demise to Helm’s Deep to the moment in The Return of the King when he smiles at the idea of dying side-by-side with a dwarf, Legolas’ education on the nature of mortality might be the closest thing he has to a not-Gimli-related story arc.
Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Fran Walsh didn’t have time to unpack any of this — the workings of elven immortality, Legolas’ upbringing, his age — in the script of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. There’s too much to do, and Legolas is too minor a character. (Even Tolkien himself admitted that the elf “probably achieved the least” of the nine members of the Fellowship. A devastating burn.)
But they didn’t leave it on the cutting-room floor, either. Peter Jackson depends almost entirely on Bloom’s acting — his disoriented facial expressions and earnest intonation — to communicate all of these ideas. Bloom’s face conveys a paradoxical attachment and detachment. He’s attached to the mortals he’s grown close to, but fundamentally detached from the mortal world as they understand it. Sometimes, the best way to play an aloof, ethereal being is to just look like a total weirdo.