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.