‘Then Vairë said to Mandos: “The spirit of Míriel hath dwelt with me, and I know it. It is small, but it is strong and obdurate: one of those who having said this will I do make their words an irrevocable law unto themselves.”’
– History of Middle-Earth vol. X, “Morgoth’s Ring”
After looking at Aredhel last time, my plan was to move on to Tolkien’s villainous females – Shelob, Ungoliant, Thuringwethil and the rest of the arachnid/vampiric horde. However, my thought strayed instead to another female figure from the First Age (and indeed from the royal house of the Noldor) whose actions are the source of debate and controversy both amongst Tolkien’s readers and within the mythology itself – that is, of course, Míriel Serinde, the first wife of Finwë and mother of Fëanor.
As readers of the Silmarillion will hopefully recall, it was Míriel’s death and most of all her desire to *remain* dead (in other words, her rejection of the divinely-ordained immortality that is the lot of the Eldar) that led the grieving Finwë to seek a second marriage – which in turn created strife amongst the Noldor and set in motion the conga-line of catastrophe that was the First Age. Unsurprisingly, just as Aredhel’s reckless behaviour and the unusual circumstances of Maeglin’s birth have led readers to ask whether she was ultimately (if unintentionally) responsible for the fall of Gondolin, this has led many to wonder whether it was Míriel’s peculiar wish to die that served as the catalyst for the string of disasters that engulfed the Noldor during the First Age. (A conclusion, by the way, which Tolkien appears to have embraced himself: in Letter 212 to Rhona Beare, he says that “In the Elvish legends there is record of a strange case of an Elf (Míriel mother of Fëanor) that tried to die, which had disastrous results, leading to the ‘Fall’ of the High-elves”.)
Like much in the published “Silmarillion”, Míriel’s story as laid out there is brief, sparse and somewhat unsatisfying, at least when it comes to giving any hint of her motives for acting as she did. We learn that after Fëanor’s birth, Míriel was “consumed in spirit and body, and (…) yearned for release from the labour of living”. So, to the consternation of her husband, she passed first to the gardens of Lorien, and then her spirit passed to the Halls of Mandos, never to return. As a result, Fëanor grew up without a mum (an unusual state of affairs when you belong to an immortal race and live in an earthly paradise), while Finwë got re-married to Indis of the Vanyar and had either two, four or five further offspring, depending on which version of the legendarium you prefer. The rivalry between Fëanor and his half-siblings led to division within the ranks of the Noldor, which were exploited by Melkor, resulting in an awful lot of drama and Mandos having to work overtime for the next age or so.
In the more developed versions of the story as laid out in the “History of Middle Earth” series (in particular volume X, “Morgoth’s Ring”), the basic course of events is the same, but Míriel’s character is considerably more fleshed out, and she emerges as a character at once more flawed and more understandable. We learn more about her skill at needlework: far from being a desperate Noldorin housewife darning Finwë’s socks, Míriel appears to have been an exceptionally skilled craftswoman, exceptional even amongst the notably crafty Noldor: “For her hands were more skilled to make things fine and delicate than any other hands even among the Noldor”. Indeed, given that it is nowhere indicated that Finwë was of a crafty disposition or made anything beyond a hideous mess of managing relations between his sons, the likelihood is that Míriel was the source of Fëanor’s famous skill of hand.
Moreover, mother and son shared more than just a mutual appreciation for arts and crafts. According to the description of her personality in HoME volume XII “The Peoples of Middle-Earth”, Míriel was “of gentle disposition, though as was later discovered in matters far more grave, she could show an ultimate obstinacy that counsel or command would only make more obdurate”. The parallel with Fëanor (surely the most bloody-minded Elf in all of Arda’s history) is pretty clear, but Tolkien is careful to stress it anyway: “Fëanor loved his mother dearly, though except in obstinacy their characters were widely different”* While in Fëanor’s case his stubbornness led him to wreak havoc in Valinor and condemn the bulk of the Noldor to exile and a bloody age-long war against Morgoth, in Míriel’s case this same characteristic manifested itself in a smaller (but perhaps no less significant) way, by leading her to reject re-embodiment and insist on remaining dead despite the entreaties of the Valar and her husband. In one of the innumerable versions of the story recounted in “Morgoth’s Ring”, Ulmo says that “the fea of Míriel hath not been left in peace, and by importuning its will hath been hardened”. In the “Peoples of Middle Earth”, the connection is made even more explicit: “But Míriel was reluctant, and to all the pleas of her husband and her kin that were reported to her, and to the solemn counsel of the Valar, she would say no more than ‘not yet’. Each time that she was approached she became more fixed in her determination, until at last she would listen no more, saying only ‘I desire peace. Leave me in peace here! I will not return. That is my will’”.
A further layer to Míriel’s personality emerges later on in the account in “Morgoth’s Ring”, when we learn that after Finwë’s death and arrival in the Halls of Mandos, Míriel again felt the call of her corporeal body and of its skills, and “the will in which she had been set was released”. So her and Finwë do a bit of a swap – in order to avoid the highly improper situation of him having two living wives in Aman, he opts to remain in Mandos until the end of Arda (well, I suppose he’ll soon have pretty much his entire family to keep him company!), while Míriel is reincarnated – not to wander around Tirion at her leisure, you understand, but to go to the house of Vairë the Weaver, where she will put her sewing skills to good use and weave the deeds of the Noldor into a series of tapestries (not a pleasant job, one presumes, given the distinctly mixed track record of her descendants during the First Age). Quite aside from leading one to speculate what exactly was so wrong with Finwë that Míriel appears desperate to be anywhere other than where he happens to be at the time, this raises the question of whether Míriel is, well, a bit capricious. We’ve already seen how it was her stubborn insistence on remaining in the Halls of Mandos that led Finwë to seek a second marriage. Now, though she’s equally convinced that she in fact does want to come back, putting him in a situation where the only gentlemanly thing for him to do is to offer to stick around in Mandos for all eternity, where he presumably helps Namo keep Fëanor under control. Reading all this, I began to feel distinctly sorry for poor old Indis, who comes across as a decent if rather bland woman who somehow found herself in the middle of this high Noldorin drama.
Stubborn, wilful, capricious – Míriel as she emerges in the longer narratives of the “History of Middle-Earth” is far more relatable in her flawed complexity than the inscrutable figure who makes a cameo appearance in the pages of the published “Silmarillion”. Two questions, however, remain to be asked: to what extent was Míriel’s choice to abandon her life responsible for the eventual fall of the Noldor, and to what extent was it avoidable? The first is perhaps easier to answer: although in the published “Silmarillion” Míriel is keen to deflect the blame away from her (indicating that she may have had some premonition of what was to come) it appears clear that the death of Míriel sowed seeds among the Noldor which eventually bore fruit in the rebellion against the Valar and the Kinslaying. Although there were certainly other factors involved (not least Fëanor’s own character – not entirely excused by his dead mum – and the lies planted by Melkor), Míriel’s actions appear at the very least to have set off a chain of events which eventually led to the Oath of Fëanor and to Alqualonde.
The second question, however, is rather more difficult – was it avoidable? The “Silmarillion” account is so sparse as to shed little or no light on this question. The expanded versions of the story, however, strongly suggest that Míriel was (as she herself claimed) so wearied by the birth of Fëanor that she had no choice but to die. As Nienna says in “Morgoth’s Ring”, “Míriel, I deem, died by necessity of body, in suffering (for) which she was blameless or indeed to be praised”. In other words, Míriel is not to be held culpable for her death, which – despite Tolkien’s use of the phrase “wished to die” in Letter 212 – appears not to have stemmed from desire so much as from necessity. As Ulmo says in response to Nienna’s statement above, her fault lay rather in her desire to divest herself of her essential nature (i.e. the immortality of the Elves) and to do what Luthien alone of the Eldar would be permitted to do – to “die indeed”. In other words, it was not Míriel’s departure for the Halls of Mandos that was the problem, but her departure “in will not to return”.
*Yes, this is the version of the story where Míriel sticks around until Fëanor is all grown up and only then departs for the Halls of Mandos, as opposed to dying when he is still a baby as in the published Silmarillion. I love this version as Idril loved Maeglin (i.e. not at all), mostly because I just don’t find it convincing from a psychological point of view – surely if Míriel had died when Fëanor was an adult at least some of his bitterness would be directed towards her, rather than towards Indis and her children? And surely part of the whole point of Fëanor is that he’s seriously messed up in large part because he grew up without his mother? In short, I dislike this almost as much as I dislike the whitewashed version of Galadriel’s past in some of Tolkien’s late writings – but that, of course, is a whole other story.
(P.S. An issue which Tolkien touches on very briefly – and which opens a whole new can of worms – is that of free will, as opposed to what is preordained as a result of the Music of the Ainur. It’s not difficult to see how Fëanor’s unique talents and difficult personality – which appear to be the product both of his inheritance from Míriel and of the energy she poured into him during pregnancy and birth – need to be in place in order to set in motion the tragedies and the ultimate triumph of the First Age. Equally, without Míriel’s death, we would not have the children of Finwë and Indis, whose line reaches their apogee in Earendil the Mariner, messenger of Elves and Men and the catalyst for the War of Wrath and the ultimate defeat of Morgoth. What is more, Earendil’s existence is clearly pre-ordained – not only is Ulmo fervently engaged in match-making between Tuor and Idril, but Mandos himself states in “Morgoth’s Ring” that his fellow Valar would understand the point of the Statute of Finwë and Míriel “when he that shall be called Earendil setteth foot upon the shores of Aman”. So – Míriel needed to die, and she desired not to return. But how much choice did she ultimately have in either of those things?)