“I am your sister and not your servant, and beyond your bounds I will go as seems good to me. And if you begrudge me an escort, then I will go alone”
– The Silmarillion, “Of Maeglin”
One of the most common criticisms levelled at Tolkien’s female characters (aside, of course, from the fact that they are so thin on the ground in the first place) is that they are either perfect princesses or grotesque giant arachnids, with no room whatsoever for moral ambiguity or grey areas. I plan to take a closer look at Tolkien’s bad girls further down the line (in a fortnight or so, to be precise), but I should say for the time being that I think these criticisms are valid, at least up to a point. Tolkien’s legendarium is home to more, and more interesting, female characters than the popular perception of his work would have it, but it remains true that for the most part and with very few exceptions, his women lack the kind of flawed complexity that is a mark of his most interesting characters, such as Gollum, Denethor, Feanor and Turin. There are, of course, a couple of exceptions, and among them is Aredhel, the restless, reckless daughter of Fingolfin, whose actions set in motion a train of events which ultimately culminated in the downfall of Gondolin, last and perhaps greatest of the great Elf-kingdoms of the First Age.
The first thing we learn about Aredhel after she is introduced (in “Of Eldamar and the Princes of the Eldalie”, in case you’re interested) is that she is something of a tomboy: “And when she was grown to full stature and beauty she was tall and strong, and loved much to ride and hunt in the forests”. (We also learn that she was very chummy with her cousins the sons of Feanor – and we’ll gloss over how weird the line “but to none was her heart’s love given” is in the context of the later description of her son Maeglin’s love for his cousin Idril Celebrindal as “an evil fruit of the Kinslaying). It’s interesting to note, however, that despite the characterisation here of Aredhel as something of a free spirit, when it comes to the rebellion and exile of the Noldor she displays distinctly less wilfulness and independence than her cousin Galadriel. Whereas Galadriel actively chose to go to Middle-Earth in order to “see the wide unguarded lands and to rule there a realm at her own will”, we learn nothing of Aredhel’s reasons for leaving Valinor, and it seems safe to assume that she did so in order to follow her father and brothers, rather than out of any desire or ambition of her own.
Where Aredhel does display more of a spark is in her battle of wills with her brother Turgon over her desire to depart from Gondolin, much later on in the First Age. Her retort that “I am your sister and not your servant, and beyond your bounds I will go as seems good to me” is as spirited a denunciation of the paternalistic ideal of keeping women cooped up for our own protection as is to be found anywhere in Tolkien, with the possible exception of Eowyn’s passionate defence of her right to fight to defend Rohan in RoTK. (“All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more. But I am of the House of Eorl and not a serving-woman. I can ride and wield blade, and I do not fear either pain or death”.)
I suspect that First Age aficionados will never tire of debating whether Aredhel’s actions here are spirited or foolhardy. On the one hand, it is hard not to sympathise with her frustration at being cooped up in Gondolin and her desire to “ride again in the wide lands and walk in the forests”. We saw during the debate that preceded their departure from Valinor that many of the Noldor – among them such unequivocally good guys as Finrod Felagund – have an adventurous streak, and Aredhel, unlike Turgon, is clearly among them. (Indeed, one might ask why she ended up living with stick-in-the-mud Turgon when she could have stayed with her father or her apparently more laid-back brother Fingon).
On the other hand, of course, her decision to leave Gondolin – and later on her decisions to seek out the sons of Feanor, and after that to leave Himlad and just wander off on her own – can appear rather capricious and not at all mindful of the realities of life in Beleriand, which after all is a region beset by war and full of peril. The fact that this debate never seems to end is a reflection of the flawed complexity of Aredhel’s character as depicted in the “Silmarillion”: while I think blaming her outright for the fall of Gondolin is excessive (Maeglin and Turgon himself both had a bigger part to play in that – not to mention Morgoth himself), there is no question that the restlessness that is her defining characteristic gives rise to a degree of recklessness, and that her actions – while understandable – are also on occasion misguided.
The other big debate surrounding Aredhel of course concerns her relationship with her husband Eol, who although he doesn’t cause destruction on the same scale as Feanor and Co. is nevertheless a worthy winner of the title of “Creepiest Elf of the First Age”. In a sinister echo of the star-crossed first encounter of Thingol and Melian, Aredhel runs into Eol as she wanders lost in the dark woods of Nan Elmoth – but only because her future husband ensnares her and draws her into the depths of the forest where he lives.
Now, it’s pretty clear from Tolkien’s writings elsewhere that this is not to be interpreted as a straightforward case of rape or even forced marriage: in the “Laws and Customs of the Eldar” (in Volume X of the “History of Middle-Earth”, “Morgoth’s Ring”), he states explicitly that “the Eldar wedded once only in life, and for love or at the least by free will upon either part”, before going on to say in the notes that follow the same essay that rape is impossible amongst the Elves, as the victim would die rather than submit to such bodily and spiritual violation: “There is no record of any among the Elves that took another’s spouse by force, for this was wholly against their nature, and one so forced would have rejected bodily life and passed to Mandos”. (Now, there is an argument that this latter point refers only to the impossibility of an Elf raping another’s spouse – Aredhel, of course, was not married when she strayed into Nan Elmoth – but I think that taken together, these two statements add up to a pretty convincing denial of the possibility that Eol simply took Aredhel by force, and she later consented to be his wife).
At the same time, the ambiguous and heavily-qualified terms in which the relationship between the two is described (for there can be few descriptions of a marriage less enthusiastic than “It is not said that Aredhel was wholly unwilling, nor that her life in Nan Elmoth was hateful to her for many years”) indicate that if what happened between them in the darkness wasn’t exactly rape, then it wasn’t exactly a love match either. And the outside world appears to share the view that Eol’s behaviour in taking her to wife was rather less than acceptable, at least if we are to give much credence to Curufin (admittedly one of the least sympathetic of all the Elves of the First Age) when he rebukes Eol with the words “Those who steal the daughters of the Noldor and wed them without gift or leave do not gain kinship with their kin”. Eol’s extreme possessiveness and refusal to let his wife walk in the sunlight – let alone leave Nan Elmoth – is also a reflection of a relationship that is far from healthy, as indeed is the warped and twisted nature of their son Maeglin, whose treachery will ultimately lead to the downfall of the Noldor’s last remaining stronghold of Gondolin.