“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!

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