‘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.