“Let Her Be As Lord”: Women as Leaders in Tolkien’s Works

“All these things he laid to heart, but most of all that which he heard of Turgon, and that he had no heir; for Elenwe his wife perished in the crossing of the Helcaraxe, and his daughter Idril Celebrindal was his only child”  – “The Silmarillion”

 “’I said not Eomer’, answered Hama. ‘And he is not the last. There is Eowyn, daughter of Eomund, his sister. She is fearless and high-hearted. All love her. Let her be as lord to the Eorlingas, while you are gone’” – The Two Towers.

 The title of this blog – “Tolkien’s Women” – might seem to suggest that the role of women in Arda is fixed and unchanging, and does not vary at all despite the wide range of times, places and cultures depicted in Tolkien’s works. In fact, this is very far from being the case – really, we see considerable variation between the different races and cultures in terms of the roles women play. For example, mortal women seem most inclined to become warriors, although they still only appear to do so in moments of great need (just think of Eowyn, and Haleth, and Emeldir the Manhearted). Among the people of Beor, women are also renowned as keepers of wisdom and lore (as Andreth is, and Adanel before her), but it’s not clear whether this is the case across the various kindreds of the Edain. Noldorin women are generally inclined towards traditionally “feminine” pursuits such as healing, though some are athletic (Galadriel was an athlete in her youth, while her cousin Aredhel loved hunting) and others (such as Nerdanel and Miriel) display the love of crafts that is such a hallmark of Noldorin males. Hobbit women sometimes rule their families with iron fists, as Smeagol’s grandmother evidently did – but for every Lalia Took, you have a Mrs Maggot, who just bustles in and out with dishes of mushrooms and bacon while her husband engages in a man-to-man chat with Frodo and company. There’s a great deal of variation there – but all these cultures have one thing in common. With the exception of Numenor (whose ruling queens I have looked at here and here), and to an extent the People of Haleth, women do not normally occupy formal leadership positions in Tolkien’s works.

 The exclusion of women from positions of leadership is most glaring amongst the Eldar. In the “Laws and Customs Among the Eldar”, Tolkien firmly establishes both that male and female Elves are equal (“In all such things, not concerned with the bringing forth of children, the neri and nissi (that is, the men and women) of the Eldar are equal” and that while there are certain customs regarding which gender does what, there are no hard-and-fast rules (“There are (…) no matters which among the Eldar only a ner can think or do, or others with which only a nis is concerned”). Galadriel even shows an early inclination towards leadership, participating in the rebellion against the Valar largely because she “yearned to see the wide unguarded lands and to rule there (in Middle-earth) a realm at her own will”.

 So, Galadriel has the desire to lead men, and there is little question that she has the ability to do so. When we meet her again in the “Fellowship of the Ring”, however, she is not ruling a realm at her own will – or at the very least, not in her own name. Like her mentor Melian before her, she’s acting as consort to a male ruler whose abilities clearly don’t hold a candle to her own. Now, it’s pretty clear that Galadriel is the real power in Lothlorien – unlike his kinsman Thingol, Celeborn the Wise has the good sense to recognise that his wife is something special, and actually listen to her. However, this isn’t medieval England, where strictly-enforced gender roles dictated that able women could influence affairs through or on behalf or a male relative, but could not rule in their own right. The “Laws and Customs of the Eldar” indicate no reason why a woman should not be able to rule a realm at her own will – yet Galadriel doesn’t.

 Now, an argument could be made here that Celeborn is the nominal leader of the Galadhrim because he is a Sinda, whereas Galadriel’s Noldorin origins and kinship to the dreaded Sons of Feanor make her distinctly suspect. This is not a bad argument – though it doesn’t explain why Galadriel, along with Aredhel, is the only grandchild of Finwe not to get her own realm in the initial carving-up of Beleriand after their return from exile. All the male members of the House of Finwe get their share, even though some of the more obvious nonentities (such as Angrod and Aegnor and Amrod and Amras) have to share with one another. The two women, however, have to pick a brother to live with. Furthermore, later on in the “Silmarillion” we have the case of Idril Celebrindal. As I discussed in my previous blog post on her, Idril is Turgon’s only child, but apparently that does not make her his heir. In other words, it seems that at least as far as Aredhel is aware (and it seems a safe bet that she would be well acquainted with Noldorin inheritance customs) a daughter cannot succeed her father as ruler, even in the event that he has no other child. In this matter, then, it seems that neri and nissi are in reality far from equal.

 Among the Edain, the rules appear to be a bit less hard-and-fast, although the norm still appears to be for men to rise to leadership positions in preference to women. When we do see women take on leadership roles (be it formally or informally) this generally happens under extreme circumstances and as a last resort. So, in the “Silmarillion”, Haleth steps into the breach after her father and brother are killed and leads her people in a desperate last stand against the Orcs. Later, they take her as their chief, and become known to posterity as the “People of Haleth”. However, it’s clear that Haleth was an extraordinary woman facing extraordinary circumstances. Had things gone otherwise, her father would have remained the leader of their people, and he would most likely have been succeeded by Haleth’s twin brother regardless of whether or not he shared his sister’s charisma and leadership ability.

 In the “Lord of the Rings”, meanwhile, Theoden leaves Eowyn in charge of Edoras when he and his men depart for Helm’s Deep (and if it hadn’t been for the whole Dernhelm thing, she would have remained in charge while they rode to the aid of Minas Tirith). However, it takes Theoden a bit of prodding to even consider Eowyn as a potential leader (his initial response, when told that his people will trust only in a leader from the House of Eorl, is to say that “Eomer I cannot spare, nor would he stay (…) and he is the last of that House”.) Although we should probably cut the old king some slack given that he’s just woken up from his Wormtongue-induced stupor, this still suggests that the idea of leaving a woman in charge is something very much out of the ordinary in Rohan, and that Eowyn has not previously crossed his mind as a potential ruler. This begs the question of what would have happened had Theoden and Eomer both been killed at the Battle of Pelennor Fields. Would Eowyn’s temporary role as caretaker-leader have been made permanent (at least until she had a son to succeed her), or would they have gone back up the family tree looking for the nearest male heir?

 Even if Eowyn would in the end have been deemed capable of ruling the Rohirrin (either permanently or on a temporary basis until she had an of-age son to succeed her), she would have been very much an exception as a female ruler amongst the Edain. As I’ve discussed before on a couple of occasions, Numenor was a rare exception – there, women were not only permitted to succeed to the throne, but did so ahead of their younger brothers if they happened to be the oldest child. However, this custom was nor maintained in Numenor’s successor kingdoms of Gondor and Arnor. There is not a single female name among the rulers of either kingdom listed in the Appendices, nor indeed among the stewards of Gondor. If we ignore the precedent set by Numenor, the lack of female rulers amongst the Edain looks less surprising than it does among the Elves. After all, Mannish societies are based pretty clearly on those of medieval Europe, and it’s a matter of historical fact that those societies did not allow women to exercise leadership in their own right. In addition, Tolkien does not state (as he does with the Elves) that females have all the same abilities and are free to participate in the same activities as the males. However, the existence of Numenor definitely throws a spanner in the works, and there is still no real explanation for why the Numenoreans dropped the custom of allowing females to inherit the sceptre as soon as they made landfall back on Middle-earth.

 Finally, we have the Hobbits (it’s been a while since I wrote about them!) They are an interesting case owing to their very hands-off form of government and the appearance of a couple of distinctly larger-than-life females amongst their ranks. Tolkien made it clear in his letters that female hobbits acted as co-heads (and on occasion as sole heads) of families – which is clearly important, given that hobbit society is essentially structured around families. We also have a couple of examples of how this worked in practice – Smeagol’s grandmother was obviously the authority figure within her little clan, while Lobelia Sackville-Baggins and Lalia Took also loom large within their respective families. At the same time, however, the few formal authority figures who do appear to exist in the Shire (the Took, the Mayor of Michel Delving, the Master of Buckland) are all male, and there’s no evidence that it’s ever been otherwise. Furthermore, it’s not at all clear that all hobbit women exercise a great deal of power within their families – for every Smeagol’s grandmother or Lobelia, it seems there’s a Mrs Maggot (confined to domestic duty while her husband deals with weighty matters such as Black Riders and mushroom thieves) or a Mrs Cotton, who has nothing to say as her husband and sons debate how to take back the Shire from Sharkey’s men. In short, what we have here is a variation of the old idea that while men are in charge of the outside world, women are the bosses at home. (Though it’s possible that this translates into more real power in the Shire – where government is limited and authority within the family carries real weight – than it does in our world, where the ability to nag one’s husband over dinner is a poor substitute for real political and economic power).

 *In some versions of the mythology, we also have the figure of Findis. While she didn’t make it into the final version of the “Silmarillion”, Findis was (as her rather unimaginative portmanteau name would suggest) the daughter of Finwe and Indis. In fact, she was the eldest child of the controversial pair – so, she was younger than Feanor, but older than Fingolfin, and a lot older than Finarfin. When the Noldor depart Valinor en masse leaving Findis and Finarfin as the only members of the royal family to stay put (another sister, Lalwen, left with the exiles), the crown goes straight to Finarfin. There is no indication of any debate, or of Findis refusing what was after all something of a poisoned chalice. The crown just passed to the younger male sibling by default.

Haleth: Warrior Princess

‘To this Haleth answered: “Where are Haldad my father, and Haldar my brother? If the king of Doriath fears a friendship between Haleth and those who have devoured her kin, then the thoughts of the Eldar are strange to men”’

                                 -          The Silmarillion, “Of the Coming of Men into the West”

When we think of warrior women (or, as TV Tropes would call them, “Action Girls”) in Tolkien’s world, the thoughts of most readers probably rush straight to Eowyn facing down the Lord of the Nazgul on the field of Pelennor. However, while Eowyn is very much an outlier in The Lord of the Rings – I can’t think of a single other female character who I’d classify as a warrior per se – that’s not the case when it comes to Tolkien’s mythology as a whole. We learn in the Silmarillion that the Shieldmaiden of Rohan is just one in a long line of sword-swinging mortal women, including Beren’s redoubtable mother Emeldir the Manhearted, who led her people into the Forest ofBrethil following the Dagor Bragollach.

The most memorable example of a female warrior from the First Age, however, is that of Haleth, the legendary leader of the Haladin (who later became known as the People of Haleth). Rather than coming from a strong matriarchal tradition (something we never see in Tolkien’s world, with the possible semi-exception of Smeagol’s people by the river). Rather, she assumes leadership out of necessary during a time of crisis. After her father and twin brother are killed during an orc-raid, Haleth – now the only remaining member of her family – is left to take the reins, and she does so. To be sure, she doesn’t engineer a miraculous victory against overwhelming odds – but she does manage to hold the Haladin together until Caranthir son of Feanor (in an uncharacteristic moment of chivalry) shows up with the cavalry and slaughters the Orcs for them. After that, Haleth remains the leader of the Haladin for the rest of her life. She never marries, like some Middle-Earth equivalent of the Virgin Queen, but she nevertheless becomes a talismanic figure amongst the Haladin, commemorated in the mound erected over her grave when she dies (known as the Tur Haretha or the Ladybarrow) and in the name of her people, who were referred to ever after as the People of Haleth.

Despite her reputation as something of an Amazon, we don’t hear an awful lot about Haleth’s fighting prowess: all we know is that she was “a woman of great heart and strength”, and that she valiantly defended the Haladin against the Orcs alongside her father and brother. Her main characteristics as a leader, however, appear to have been an iron will and a powerful charisma, which enabled her time and again to spur her people on when all seemed lost and hopeless. Indeed, part of what makes her character interesting is that while her valour and leadership skills cannot be called into question, there is room for doubt about the wisdom of some of the decisions she makes, all of which seem to be aimed at allowing the Haladin to defend their hard-won and much-prized independence, but several of which cause them a great deal of hardship.

The first of these – her decision to lead her people west to Estolad rather than accepting Caranthir’s offer of land and protection – is actually quite understandable, and not just in a fiercely independent, “don’t tread on me” kind of way. Tolkien points out that neither Haleth nor most of the other Haladin were particularly keen to find themselves dependent on the Eldar for their lands and protection – and however decent it was of Caranthir to come to their aid in the first place, it’s probable he would have expected Haleth and her people to repay him in kind in the event of future Orc raids or another offensive against Morgoth, a demand which could well have had catastrophic consequences for this small and scattered people.

Less understandable is her later decision to move even further west, bringing her people through sheer force of will through the ominously-named, spider-haunted Nan Dungortheb (“Valley of Dreadful Death”, the name given to the valley between the Mountains of Terror and the Girdle of Melian). The narrative at this point is so sparse that it’s extremely difficult to judge Haleth’s decision here. All we are told in the text is how dangerous the journey was (the route through Nan Dungortheb being “no road for mortal Men to take without aid”), and that the Haladin suffered both heavy losses and bitter regrets as a result. What we don’t hear is anything from Haleth herself about why she decided to make such a drastic move. It’s more than likely that she had her reasons, and they may have been good or bad – but without them, it’s hard to say whether or not she was justified in uprooting her people yet again and subjecting them to such perils and hardships. What can’t be denied, however, is her valour and charisma, which allowed her to transform herself from a chieftain’s plucky daughter to an inspirational leader destined to go down in legend.

The final characteristic of Haleth which comes across in the Silmarillion  is tied closely to that fierce desire for independence which appears to have lain behind all her deeds as leader of the Haladin and which remains a characteristic of the Haladin throughout the documented history of the First Age – that is, her willingness to stand up to the Eldar, who have staked a claim over the whole of Beleriand and are gaining the allegiance of other leaders of Men (Beor, Marach) left, right and centre. We have already seen how she rejected Caranthir’s offer of land and protection in favour of going it alone. Later on, we are told of a more pointed confrontation with the sainted Finrod Felagund himself, the most mortal-friendly of all the Elves of the First Age. Offered the chance to live in Brethil provided her people do not allow Orcs to enter the land, Haleth snaps “Where are Haldad my father, and Haldar my brother? If the King of Doriath fears a friendship between Haleth and those who have devoured her kin, then the thoughts of the Eldar are strange to Men.” A lady of uncommon spirit, then, and one worthy of remembrance by both Elves and Men.