The realm's Sindarin minority, who should have been more noble and wise than the Silvan Elves, went "native" at the end of the First Age. After Melkor was defeated and all of the grand Elf-kingdoms of Beleriand were destroyed, the Sindar returned to "a simpler time" in their culture. The realm of Lothlórien was similar to the Woodland Realm in that a community of Silvan Elves was ruled by a small non-Silvan group, i.e. Galadriel and Celeborn.
Legolas was introduced in The Fellowship of the Ring, at the council of Elrond of Rivendell, where he came as a messenger from his father to discuss the escape of Gollum from their guard. Legolas was chosen to be a member of the Fellowship that intended to destroy the One Ring. He accompanied the other members in their travels from Rivendell to Amon Hen.
When the Fellowship was trapped by a snowstorm while crossing the mountain Caradhras, Legolas provides a bit of comic relief as he scouts ahead , claiming he is "off to find the Sun"; at the same time his scouting efforts prove invaluable to both Aragorn and Boromir, who are disheartened by a seemingly impassable wall of snow until Legolas informs them that they are nearly through.
Since the attempt to cross Caradhras failed, Gandalf took the Fellowship on an underground journey through Moria, an ancient Dwarf-kingdom, though some (including Legolas) did not wish to travel there. Before they reached Moria, however, Legolas helped fend off an attack by Sauron's wolves in Hollin. Once in Moria, he helped fight off Orcs and recognized "Durin's Bane" as a Balrog of Morgoth.
After Gandalf was lost while facing the Balrog, Aragorn took charge of the Fellowship and led them to the Elven realm of Lothlórien, the Golden Wood. Legolas served as the initial spokesperson for the company, speaking with the inhabitants, the Galadhrim, whom he considered close kin.
Within the Fellowship, there was friction between Legolas and the Dwarf Gimli, because of the ancient quarrel between Elves and Dwarves after the destruction of Doriath in the First Age; and also because Thranduil once threw Gimli's father, Glóin, in prison (as described in The Hobbit) in addition Thranduil had been disliked by dwarves ever since he refused to pay them for crafting his raw metals (also in the Hobbit). Legolas and Gimli became friends, however, when Gimli greeted the Elven queen Galadriel with gentle words.
The Fellowship left Lothlórien after receiving several gifts. Legolas was given a new longbow, along with other gifts that Galadriel and Celeborn gave him and the rest of the Fellowship, such as Elven cloaks and lembas bread. Legolas later received a warning from Galadriel (through Gandalf, who had returned from death):
After Boromir was killed and Meriadoc Brandybuck and Peregrin Took were captured by Orcs in The Two Towers, Legolas, Aragorn, and Gimli set forth in pursuit of the two hobbits. (Frodo Baggins, the Ring-bearer, and Samwise Gamgee, on the other hand, had left the group and gone ahead on the road to Mordor). Legolas and his companions met the resurrected Gandalf and the Rohirrim, fought in the Battle of the Hornburg, and witnessed Saruman's downfall at Isengard, where they were reunited with Merry and Pippin. In the Battle of the Hornburg, Legolas and Gimli engaged in an Orc-slaying contest (Gimli won by one, killing forty-two to Legolas's forty-one, but the real result was stronger mutual respect).
In The Return of the King, Legolas and Gimli accompanied Aragorn on the Paths of the Dead, along with the Grey Company. After Aragorn summoned the Dead Men of Dunharrow to fight for him, Legolas saw them frighten away the Corsairs of Umbar from their ships at Pelargir. Galadriel's prophecy was fulfilled: as Legolas heard the cries of seagulls, he began to experience the Sea-longing — the desire to sail west to Valinor the "Blessed Realm" which was latent among the Sindar. He fought in the Battles of the Pelennor Fields in and the Morannon and watched as Sauron was defeated and Barad-dûr collapsed.
After the destruction of the One Ring, Legolas remained in Minas Tirith for Aragorn's crowning and marriage to Arwen. Later, Legolas and Gimli went travelling together through Fangorn forest and to visit the Glittering Caves of Helm's Deep, as Legolas had promised Gimli. Eventually, Legolas founded an Elf-colony in Ithilien and spent his remaining time in Middle-earth, helping to restore the devastated forests of that war-ravaged land. It was told in the Red Book of Westmarch (first written by Bilbo Baggins, continued by Frodo Baggins and supposedly finished by Samwise Gamgee), that after Aragorn's death in the year 120 of the Fourth Age Legolas built a grey ship and left Middle-earth to go over the Sea to Valinor, and that Gimli went with him.
Legolas was voiced by Anthony Daniels (who had played the droid C-3PO of Star Wars fame) in Ralph Bakshi's 1978 animated version of The Lord of the Rings. In the film, he takes Glorfindel's place in the "Flight to the Ford" sequence; he meets Aragorn and the hobbits on their way to Rivendell, and sets Frodo on his horse before he is chased by the Nazgûl to the ford of Bruinen. Here, he answers to Elrond and is not explicitly identified as a Wood-elf.
Legolas was voiced by David Collings in the 1981 BBC Radio 4 adaptation. In Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings movie trilogy (2001–2003), Legolas was portrayed by Orlando Bloom. He is presented as an unstoppable fighter, performing various feats or stunts in battle scenes. For example, in the Orc attack on Amon Hen, he stabs one in the eye with an arrow, then pulls it out and shoots another. He also shoots two more (the arrow going through the first Orc and into another) with the same arrow. In the Battle of the Hornburg, he slides down a staircase on a shield, shooting arrows all the while, and as he reaches the bottom of the staircase he shoots the shield out from under him into an Orc neck. In the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, he takes down an Oliphaunt all by himself (to Gimli's surprise and displeasure, saying "That still only counts as one"). He is also shown to wield twin long knives, which he uses with lightning fast precision several times during close combat. The knives, when not in use are placed into two sheaths strapped to his back in front of his arrow quiver. However, in the books Legolas' exploits in battle are not presented in great detail. Aside from shooting the fell beast, he undertakes no major actions other than to make peace with Gimli, overcoming their long-standing mutual racial animosity — he and Gimli are followers, rather than leaders. The film-makers later stated that the entire scene of Legolas killing the Oliphaunt was filmed during pick-ups (months after original filming) to insert a major action scene showcasing him, because at that point they realized that he simply does not get to do much in the third part of the trilogy, and also because of some positive response to the shield-staircase scene.
Due to technical mishaps involving Bloom's contact lenses, in the films Legolas's eye colour sometimes changes between brown, purple, and blue.
Legolas is absent from the 1980 animated version of The Return of the King.
While the Fellowship attempted to cross Caradhras, Legolas alone remained light-hearted. He was little affected by the blowing winds and snow; he did not even wear boots, only light shoes, and his feet scarcely made imprints on the snow - illustrating the Elves' otherworldliness.
Among Tolkien fans, Legolas' hair colour is a matter of dispute. In The Hobbit his father Thranduil was described as having "golden" hair, so many assume that Legolas must have been blond also. However, others assume he was dark-haired (as was the norm for the Sindar; blond hair was mostly exclusive to the Vanyar) based on a passage in The Fellowship of the Ring where he shoots down a Ringwraith's fell beast:
Frodo looked up at the Elf standing tall above him, as he gazed into the night, seeking a mark to shoot at. His head was dark, crowned with sharp white stars that glittered in the black pools of the sky behind.
Some interpret this to mean that Legolas' hair must be either dark brown or black, as was the norm for the Sindar. Others have argued that since the above takes place at night, his head may have appeared "dark" due to shadows or the darkness itself, rather than due to his actual hair colour. Tolkien, however, makes references to the night being curiously bright:
The stars were strangely bright.
...in the star glimmer they must have offered their cunning foes some mark.
There is no clearer evidence for either possibility of hair color.
Both Ralph Bakshi and Peter Jackson make him blond in their respective film adaptations. In a musical version of The Lord of the Rings, Legolas' hair is "dark" (or black). In the real-time strategy game The Lord of the Rings: War of the Ring, his hair is white or silver.
"The forest is old, very old," said the Elf. "So old that almost I feel young again, as I have not felt since I journeyed with you children. It is old and full of memory. I could have been happy here, if I had come in days of peace."
"These are the strangest trees that I ever saw," Legolas said; "and I have seen many an oak grow from acorn to ruinous age. I wish that there were leisure now to walk among them: they have voices, and in time I might come to understand their thought."
"Five hundred times have the red leaves fallen in Mirkwood my home since [the building of Edoras]," said Legolas, "and but a little while does that seem to us.
Legolas is thus older than Gimli and Aragorn, who are 139 and 87 respectively at the time of the War of the Ring according to their birth-dates in the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings. Oak trees live several centuries.
Merchandise for the live-action film trilogy includes two non-canonical figures for the character's age. In one of the official film guidebooks, a birthdate for Legolas is set to 87 of the Third Age. This would make him 2931 years old at the time of the War of the Ring. Coincidentally or not, the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings give Aragorn's year of birth as T.A. 2931. Another invented figure appears in Top Trumps cards for The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, with the card for Legolas stating his age at 7000.
Though his father and his kingdom appear in The Hobbit, Legolas does not appear himself, as his character had yet not been created (though his name had). However, since he is at least 139 years old (he is older than Gimli or Aragorn), he must have been alive during the events of The Hobbit, which take place less than a century before the Quest of Mount Doom.
There might, however, be a certain meaning to his name: laeg is a very rare, archaic word for green, which is normally replaced by calen (cf. Calenhad, mutated Parth Galen and plural Pinnath Gelin) and is otherwise almost only preserved in Laegrim, Laegel(d)rim (Sindarin form of Quenya Laiquendi), the Green Elves of the First Age. It may be that Thranduil named his son Legolas to at least in part refer to this people, who were remote kin and ancestors of the later Silvan Elves, the people Thranduil ruled and to whom — very likely — Thranduil's wife belonged.
The only peoples whom Tolkien uses surnames for are Hobbits and the Men of Bree. For other Men and Elves, Tolkien used the patronymic (son of) formula. In English, therefore, a fuller name would be "Legolas son of Thranduil" or "Legolas Thranduil's son". In Sindarin, that would be Legolas Thranduilion, -ion meaning "son of." The latter is used in the extended edition of Peter Jackson's film adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring; Haldir addresses Legolas as such when the Fellowship enters Lothlórien, seeking refuge.
But the others, led by one Legolas Greenleaf of the house of the Tree, who knew all that plain by day or by dark, and was night-sighted, made much speed over the vale for all their weariness, and halted only after a great march.
The Legolas of Gondolin, whom Tolkien would likely have renamed, has a different etymology. His name (Laiqalassë in its pure form) comes from the primitive Quenya (Qenya) words laica, green, and lassë, leaf. The names are very similar, but the characters were different: Legolas of Gondolin was possibly a Noldorin Exile, of the House (kindred) of the Tree. However, the published Silmarillion, in describing Turgon's founding of Gondolin, states that Turgon took with him up to a third of the people under Fingolfin, but an even larger number of the Sindar. Thus, whether Legolas of Gondolin was of Noldorin or Sindarin descent is debatable.