“Letters” and an apology

I’ve recently been filling in one of the biggest gaps in my Tolkien education by reading through the “Letters” from start to finish. In addition to making me desperately wish the Professor were still alive so I could bombard him with questions about some of the mysteries which continue to puzzle me (the mortality status of Dior, Elured and Elurin; whether or not orcs go to Mandos; what happened to Radagast post-LoTR; Celebrimbor’s story in between his repudiation of his father in Nargothrond and his sudden re-appearance in the Second Age. And more, more, more on Sauron! And Thuringwethil, and…well, I’ll stop there), it has given me a few good ideas for later topics to discuss on this blog.

One of the phrases which most jumped out at me came in the middle of the famous letter to Milton Waldman (letter 131 in my edition) in which he basically provides a precis of the entire “Silmarillion”. Discussing the respective roles of Elves and mortal Men in the events of the First Age, Tolkien explains that “It is Beren the outlawed mortal who succeeds (with the help of Luthien, a mere maiden even if an elf of royalty) where all the armies and warriors have failed: he penetrates the stronghold of the Enemy and wrests one of the Silmarilli from the Iron Crown”. The emphasis in the above is obviously mine, because – really, Tolkien? I seem to recall that “mere maiden” playing at least as active a role in the recovery of the Silmaril as the outlawed mortal she supposedly “helped”. For that matter, it’s difficult to see how Beren would have ended up anywhere except inside a wolf’s belly if it wasn’t for Luthien’s frequent timely interventions. This will definitely come up, either in the Luthien post I am dreading having to put together at some point, or even in a separate post of its own – but if you’re impatient, I am not the first person to spot this somewhat incendiary (to Tolkien-loving feminists at least) quote. Dawn Felagund discussed it at the Heretic Loremaster site back in 2010 – see here.

The second thing I spotted relates not to a hypothetical future post, but to an existing one. When I wrote the entry on Smeagol’s grandmother and hobbit women, I hadn’t yet read Tolkien’s draft letter to A.C.Nunn (letter 214 in my edition), which deals with precisely this topic and indeed with some of the issues I speculated about in my post, vindicating some of my conclusions and debunking others.

First of all, I was right to suggest that it was Smeagol’s grandmother’s strong character that had led her to become such a dominant figure within her little community (and indeed in the life of her unfortunate grandson): Tolkien explicitly states that her headship of Smeagol’s family occurred “no doubt because she had outlived her husband, and was a woman of dominant character”. However, it turns out that I was wrong to speculate – however vaguely – about whether the Anduin Stoor community was in any way a true matriarchy. Not only does Tolkien dismiss this (“There is no reason to suppose that the Stoors of Wilderland had developed a strictly ‘matriarchal’ system”), but he also goes so far as to suggest that such a thing would be a by-product of Sauron or some other evil influence: “It is not (I think) to be supposed that any fundamental change in their marriage-customs had taken place, or any sort of matriarchal or polyandrous society developed (even though this might explain the absence of any reference whatsoever to Smeagol-Gollum’s father). ‘Monogamy’ was at this period in the West universally practised, and other systems were regarded with repugnance, as things only done ‘under the Shadow'”.

Well, that’s me told. And wow – I really can’t wait to get on to discussing the “Laws and Customs of the Eldar” and Tolkien’s views on marriage. Some of that will inevitably come up in my next post (on Miriel Serinde), but a full treatment is definitely necessary – and I may need to enlist a Catholic to help me work out how the sexual morality and marriage customs Tolkien ascribed to his various races maps onto official Catholic doctrine – my guess would be fairly closely, but I don’t know enough to be sure.

Oh, and finally – also in Letter 214, I loved the story of Lalia Took! She will definitely be getting an entry of her own, albeit probably a short one!


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