Off-topic – Women in Westeros

Don´t worry, I´m not abandoning Tolkien – in fact, I have a new post (about women´s limited involvement with subcreation in Tolkien´s works) on the way. However, the new series of “Game of Thrones” has featured some really fantastic scenes involving women (Dany´s Dracarys moment was a meme-spawning instant classic, but I´m loving Diana Rigg´s Queen of Thorns as well), and has sparked some interesting discussion about women in the world of Martin (and HBO).

For book readers, there´s the Boiled Leather Audio Hour podcast, hosted by Sean T. Collins and Stefan Sasse. They have so far done four episodes focussing on different pairs (or, in the last episode, a trio) of female characters. The discussions are invariably insightful and make me think about the characters in new ways (I particularly enjoyed their observations on Daenerys), but are definitely for book readers only, with spoilers right up to the very end of “A Dance with Dragons”!

Episode 1 was on Sansa and Cersei.

Episode 2 moved on to warrior women: Asha and Brienne

Episode 3 was on a pair that involved a bit more lateral thinking, but makes sense when you think about their identity as mother-figures: Catelyn and Daenerys.

Episode 4, which came out very recently, was on the trio of Margaery, Melisandre and Lysa,.

I don´t know what their schedule is or if they plan to do any more, but I would hope so – after all, we have yet to hear them talk about Arya, Ygritte, Arianne or the Queen of Thorns (just off the top of my head!)

BLAH´s discussions are definitely the most in-depth and thought-provoking I´ve come across so far. However, I´ve also enjoyed Wine, Women and Westeros´s recent discussion of interactions between female characters (unfortunately limited to the show, but still a topic I haven´t really seen discussed in depth before, and something I now plan to look at with regard to Tolkien). And finally, also in show-verse, Alyssa Rosenberg is doing a weekly power ranking for the ladies of Westeros (and Essos – sorry Dany. Please don´t Dracarys me). Poor Gilly.

“Strong, and free of mind, and filled with the desire of knowledge”: Nerdanel

“While still in early youth Feanor wedded Nerdanel, a maiden of the Noldor; at which many wondered, for she was not among the fairest of her people. But she was strong, and free of mind, and filled with the desire of knowledge. In her youth she loved to wander far from the dwellings of the Noldor, either beside the long shores of the Sea or in the hills; and thus she and Feanor had met and were companions in many journeys”

                                                                                                      – Morgoth’s Ring

I hate to kick off an article about a woman by talking about the men in her life, but to me, one of the most interesting and endearing things about Feanor is his choice of Nerdanel as a wife. As the son and heir of the High King of the Noldor, he could presumably have had his pick of passive, porcelain beauties, any one of whom would have made a perfect ornament for his father’s court. Instead, he chose Nerdanel – a craftsman’s daughter remembered for her wisdom and artistic talent rather than for her beauty, who was capable of challenging him and of being, as the above quote from “Morgoth’s Ring” states, a true companion. Suffice to say that Nerdanel is for me one of the most fascinating minor characters of the “Silmarillion”, and someone about whom I long to know more. 

Like so many of Tolkien’s First Age characters – particularly the women – Nerdanel is a fleeting presence in the published “Silmarillion”, being mentioned precisely four times in the text. To some extent, her presentation in the published text stresses her traditional feminine qualities: she is presented exclusively in relation to the men in her life (as daughter to Mahtan the smith, wife to Feanor and mother of his seven sons), and described as more patient than her husband (not that that’s particularly difficult!). We also learn that she was, at least at first, capable of restraining Feanor “when the fire of his heart grew too hot”, a fact which is reminiscent of the traditional role of English medieval queens in imploring their implacable, hot-headed other halves to have mercy on this or that enemy or criminal.

However, even the few references to Nerdanel in the “Silmarillion” go beyond these stereotypes to paint a picture of a stronger, more independent-minded woman than may have been the norm within Noldorin society. At the very end of chapter 6, where were are told that she was the only person in Aman to whom Feanor ever listened, she is given the epithet “the wise”, underlining her status as one of the very few women in Tolkien’s writings to be distinguished chiefly for her wisdom and personal qualities, rather than for her appearance. And then we have her eventual decision to become estranged from Feanor rather than following him into exile, first in Formenos and then in Middle-Earth. Coming from a deeply Catholic writer with strong views on the strength of the marital bond (as texts such as the “Laws and Customs of the Eldar” and his writings on the Finwe/Miriel/Indis saga demonstrate), this is an interesting recognition that marriages don’t always work out, and that under certain circumstances separation is indeed inevitable. In Nerdanel, therefore, we have an example of a woman who chose to prioritise other values (namely her loyalty to the Valar and to peace) over her loyalty to her (admittedly batshit-crazy) husband and to her sons, and who is not judged harshly for it.

In the slightly more detailed accounts of Nerdanel in the “History of Middle-Earth” books (specifically, in volumes X and XII), both her distinctive personality and the distinctive character of her relationship with Feanor are developed in considerably more detail. In volume XII, “Peoples of Middle-Earth”, we see the unhappy couple engaged in one of the only marital spats in all of Tolkien (the only other example I can think of is the tale of Aldarion and Erendis). When Feanor snarls angrily that she is not a true wife as she’s refusing to following him into exile, Nerdanel retorts that he won’t be able to keep her children from her, and that one of them at least will never set foot on Middle-Earth. Together with the account in the same volume of their disagreement over the naming of their youngest child (Nerdanel, for reasons known only to herself, wanted to name him Umbarto, “Fated”; Feanor, for obvious reasons, disagreed), this paints a rather refreshing picture of a couple who are not star-crossed lovers a la Beren and Luthien, but rather two strong-willed people who are passionate about each other (seven sons speak for themselves!), but who occasionally get into blazing rows, and who eventually end up estranged as a result.

In volume X “Morgoth’s Ring”, meanwhile, we get the description of Nerdanel I quoted at the beginning of this article, which is possibly my favourite description of any of Tolkien’s women and which makes it clear that this was a woman of substance. Even more fascinating – and crucial to how we understand the character – is the fact that while in the published “Silmarillion” Nerdanel is simply the daughter of a prominent craftsman, in the longer passage in “Morgoth’s Ring” it is made clear that, like Feanor’s mother Miriel, she was herself a craftswoman of note, in her case a sculptress (“She made images, some of the Valar in their forms visible, and many others of men and women of the Eldar, and these were so like that their friends, if they knew not her art, would speak to them; but many things she wrought also of her own thought in shapes strong and strange but beautiful”). The question of female creativity in Tolkien – particularly amongst the famously creative Noldor – is actually going to be the topic of my next post, so I won’t say too much here. However, Nerdanel’s status as one of the few women described as being actively involved in the art of creation or subcreation, so crucial a concept in Tolkien’s legendarium, seems to me very important, and it’s a shame this aspect of her character didn’t make it into the published “Silmarillion”.

My final thought about Nerdanel concerns her fate after her husband and sons packed up all their stuff (and nine-tenths of the Noldor) and marched off to pursue new career opportunities in kinslaying. How was Nerdanel treated by the rump of the Noldor left behind in Tirion – was she shunned as the wife and mother of the dastardly Kinslayers, or given a free pass on account of her estrangement from Feanor prior to his departure? Did she learn what had become of them in Middle-Earth? Were any of her family ever released from the halls of Mandos? (I’m chiefly curious about Celebrimbor in this respect). Did she ever meet Elrond, who as the foster-son of her son Maglor is the closest thing she has to a grandson (again, aside from Celebrimbor)? So many questions!

Wise-heart: Andreth of the House of Beor

Apologies for my long absence – this was partly to do with the unwelcome intrusion of real life, but really more to do with the fact that the post I was trying to write (on the giant arachnids and mysterious bat-creature who are Tolkien’s female villains) just wasn’t coming together the way I wanted it to. So, in order to get back into the swing of things, I thought I’d leave Ungoliant and company to one side for one bit and allow myself to write about one of my favourite female characters in all of Tolkien: Andreth, the wise-woman of the House of Beor. (For the record, Andreth – together with her verbal sparring-partner Finrod Felagund – would most likely make my fantasy Arda dinner-party guest list).

Probably some of you out there are wondering at this point who the heck I’m talking about – and that’s scarcely surprising. Andreth doesn’t appear in the Lord of the Rings, or the Silmarillion, or even the Unfinished Tales. Her presence in Tolkien’s published works is confined to a single story (well, more of a philosophical dialogue really) called the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, which can be found in Volume X of the History of Middle-Earth (Morgoth’s Ring). Andreth is a mortal, a wise-woman of the House of Beor, and the dialogue basically sees her go head-to-head with the First Age’s Mr Perfect himself, Finrod Felagund, about death, mortality and the differing natures of the First and Second Children of Iluvatar.

As you might be gathering by now, the “Athrabeth” is a very complex piece of writing, rich with philosophical and theological speculation, which I don’t have the time to discuss here. Another distinguishing characteristic of the essay, however, is how very intimate it is, particularly by the standards of Tolkien’s writings about the First Age. By allowing the characters to speak for themselves, Tolkien allows them to really come to life – and what really stands out about Andreth is her bitterness and anger about the lot of her people and their perceived neglect by the Valar, and her willingness to challenge Finrod (whom she addresses, with not a little sarcasm, as “Finrod of the House of Finarphin (sic) of the high and puissant Elves”) for his complacent acceptance of the idea that death is truly a “gift” granted to Men. For example, she calls the Elves out on the condescension they display towards mortals, saying that “We may be ‘Children of Eru’, as ye see in your lore; but we are children to you also: to be loved a little maybe, and yet creatures of less worth, upon whom ye may look down from the height of your power and knowledge, with a smile, or with pity, or with a shaking of heads”. The Valar’s conduct towards mortals, too, does not go unnoticed or uncriticised: ‘Andreth looked up and her eyes darkened. “The Valar?” she said. “How should I know, or any Man? Your Valar do not trouble us either with care or with instruction. They sent no summons to us”.

Andreth might not get the better of Finrod during their argument – to my mind at least, it is clear that Men are indeed mortal by nature (“doomed to die”, as the Ring-verse has it) and that the tales of a “Fall” from immortality told by the Wise among Men are just that / tales intended to explain away their mortal nature and to ease somewhat the pain of death. However, the lively debate between elf-man and mortal woman is a fascinating read, and Andreth gives voice to the sense of injustice at the “gulf between the kindreds” which Finrod tries to minimise, but which turns out to be a major theme in the history of Arda (most spectacularly, as the catalyst for the downfall of Numenor). And the story becomes more personal and moving when Finrod reveals the reason behind much of Andreth’s bitterness: it turns out that as a young woman, this wise-woman loved Finrod’s warrior brother Aegnor. In a tragic variation on Tolkien’s usual triumphant elf-mortal romances, however, this sole example of a relationship between mortal woman and immortal man never really got off the ground. Though Andreth continues to love Aegnor and he her (we are told that he will choose to remain for eternity in the Halls of Mandos rather than endure immortal life without her), in this particular case the gulf between their two kindreds proved too wide, and made them essentially incompatible, as the following touching exchange makes clear:

“For one year, one day, of the flame I would have given all: kin, youth and hope itself: adaneth I am”, said Andreth.

“That he knew”, said Finrod; “and he withdrew and did not grasp what lay to his hand: elda he is”.

No wonder she’s so bitter.

One final thing which I find notable about Andreth as a character is her status as one of the Wise among her people, a repository of lore and tradition in what I presume is a semi-literate, if not a pre-literate society (certainly, I don’t see the Men of Beleriand having an established canon of widely-distributed texts, as might have been the case in Numenor, or in Tirion before the Exile). According to Tolkien, this was not unusual in mortal societies during that time: “of the Wise some were women, and they were greatly esteemed among men”, we learn in the introduction to the Athrabeth. We have already seen how Tolkien’s mortal women are capable of being warriors and inspirational leaders, in the style of Eowyn or Haleth. Now, we see how they can also play an important role as the guardians of the history, lore and traditions of their people.