Ioreth And Her Sisters: Relationships between Female Characters in Tolkien’s World

“This stone I gave to my daughter Celebrian, and she to hers, and now it comes to you as a token of hope” – Galadriel, “The Fellowship of the Ring”

Fingolfin’s wife Anaire refused to leave Aman, largely because of her friendship with Earwen wide of Arafinwe (though she was a Noldo and not one of the Teleri) – History of Middle-earth vol. 12, “The Peoples of Middle-earth”

The idea for this post came to me almost completely out of the blue during the course of a discussion about the relationships and interactions between female characters on the show “Game of Thrones” and in the “Song of Ice and Fire” series more generally. Although there are some striking examples of relationships between women in Martin’s world (the whole interaction between Sansa, Cersei, the Queen of Thorns and Margaery in King’s Landing, for example, or the relationship between Catelyn and Brienne), for the most part Martin’s female characters exist on their own, and rarely if ever interact with other women – just think of Asha, Ygritte, Melisandre, even Daenerys (with the exception of her relationships with her handmaidens and Missandei). Somewhat predictably, this got me thinking about the extent to which Tolkien’s far scarcer female characters interact with one another.

The main type of relationship we see between female characters in Tolkien’s world is between women who are closely related, and primarily between mothers and daughters. (The unusual rule by which 80% of characters must be male, and the fact that there appears to be a ceiling of one female child per family – see Galadriel, Aredhel and Elwing – means that with a couple of obscure examples such as Pippin’s three older sisters and Ioreth’s sisters to whom she likes to blather on about the wholesome properties of kingsfoil, we don’t really see any sisterly interactions). As far as the mother-daughter interactions are concerned, the one we learn the most about up close is the relationship between Erendis and her daughter Tar-Ancalime, the first ruling queen of Numenor. As we saw in Erendis’s biography and will explore in more detail when looking at Ancalime on her own, the relationship between the two women appears to have been close due to Aldarion’s absences and Erendis’s seclusion of her daughter, but also complicated and ultimately damaging to Ancalime’s character. In particular, Erendis’s jaded, embittered views on men appear to have rubbed off on her daughter, poisoning Ancalime’s relationship with her own husband Hallacar.

The relationship between Erendis and Ancalime is definitely the most developed on the page, and I’ve hardly had time to do justice to it here (hopefully I’ll dedicate a bit more time to it in my upcoming biography of Ancalime). However, the “Silmarillion” gives us glimpses of a couple of other mother-daughter pairs: Morwen and her daughter Nienor, and Melian and her daughter Luthien. With regard to the latter, what we do learn is intriguing (Melian is supportive of her daughter’s union with Beren – or at the very least perceives its crucial role in the unfolding of the First Age – and even helps the pair at certain strategic junctures, such as when she apparently aids a tongue-tied Beren as he speaks before Thingol), but the development of the relationship between the Maia and her half-Elven daughter is frustratingly scanty, and ultimately it is Galadriel rather than Luthien who emerges as the true heir to Melian in Middle-earth. Even more frustrating is the near-total lack of information about the relationship Galadriel shared with her own daughter Celebrian and granddaughter Arwen. Aside from the reference to the Elessar being passed down from mother to daughter and a couple of mentions of Arwen spending a lot of time in Lorien with her grandparents, there’s really very little evidence to hint at how Middle-earth’s most powerful woman interacted with her daughter and granddaughter, or why Arwen appears to lack her grandmother’s power and personality, despite having spent so long in her sphere of influence.

The other main type of relationship we see between female characters in Tolkien’s world involves one woman acting as a mentor towards another. As I mentioned earlier, a clear example of this is Melian and Galadriel, who is in many ways more clearly the heir of Melian than Melian’s daughter Luthien. We learn that of Melian, Galadriel “learned great lore of wisdom concerning Middle-earth”, and there is little doubt that her apprenticeship with the Maia played a crucial role in her evolution from the headstrong young woman who was inflamed by Feanor’s words and longed to rule a kingdom of her own, to the powerful, wise figure she cuts in the Third Age. (Indeed, Galadriel by the Third Age has become a kind of mini-Melian, complete with the forest kingdom and doltish Sindarin husband!) We see another example among the mortal women of the First Age: we learn in HoME 10 (“Morgoth’s Ring”) that Andreth (she of “Athrabeth” fame) learned much of her lore from Adanel of the house of Marach, who married into the House of Beor. Certainly, the title “Tale of Adanel” given to the strange and  intriguing tale of the corruption of Men by Melkor suggests that it was from Adanel that Andreth learned this particular oral tradition, while the relationship between the two, together with the references to women being particularly esteemed for their knowledge of ancient lore, is a tantalising suggestion that there may have been more relationships like that between Adanel and Andreth, that were never recorded because the women in question never lusted after Aegnor or debated the nature of mortality with Finrod Felagund.

So, we see women interacting with close family members, and on rare occasions we also see them acting as mentors to other, younger women. What we rarely see is women as friends: with the exception of Ioreth instructing her kinswoman from the country about how she deduced Aragorn’s true identity, and the fleeting reference in HoME 12 to the close friendship between Anaire and Earwen, I can’t think of any. We never see Galadriel interact with her cousin Aredhel or with Luthien, for example, even though she must have known both very well. We don’t know how Arwen and Eowyn got along (though I like to imagine they went on double-dates with Aragorn and Faramir). Did Nerdanel get along with her sisters-in-law Anaire and Earwen, or help smooth the waters with Indis? What was her relationship with Galadriel like, especially after Feanor started following his niece around and asking for bits of her hair? Did Aredhel develop a close relationship with Idril after the latter’s mother was killed crossing the Helcaraxe? Did Goldberry and Mrs Maggot ever get together for a gossip while their husbands pranced about the countryside and gathered mushrooms together? We’ll never know, but I guess that’s part of the fun.

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Half-History, Half-Legend: Nimrodel

“She was of the Silvan Elves, and regretted the incoming of the Elves from the West, who (as she said) brought wars and destroyed the peace of old” – Unfinished Tales

 As many readers have remarked before me, one of the greatest strengths of Tolkien’s work is the fully-realised world he creates, complete with its own history and mythology – something the Professor himself recognises in Letter 96 to his son Christopher when he says that “It is the untold stories that are the most moving. I think you are moved by ‘Celebrimbor’ because it conveys a sudden sense of endless untold stories: mountains seen far away, never to be climbed”. Many of these “unclimbed mountains” are glimpsed from afar in The Lord of the Rings. Some, like the tale of Queen Beruthiel and her cats, are never told, or given the briefest of outlines elsewhere. Others, like the tale of Beren and Luthien, or the story of Celebrimbor himself, are told in detail in the appendices, in The Silmarillion, or elsewhere. One story that particularly interests me because it feels like it belongs more to the realm of oral history or even mythology than to the chronicle history of the appendices is the tale of Nimrodel and her lover Amroth, king of Lorien.

 For anybody who doesn’t remember (or who might be thinking at this point “wait – why is she writing about a river?”), the story of Nimrodel – after whom the river in Lothlorien was named – is helpfully outlined for us by Legolas in chapter 6 of book 2 of The Fellowship of the Ring. Nimrodel, a generically beautiful Elf-maiden (you know, pale lissom limbs, long hair, impractical white clothing in a forest environment, all the rest of it) left Lothlorien to sail to the Undying Lands with Amroth after the Dwarves awoke evil (read: the Balrog) in the mountains, but she got lost along the way and didn’t get to the port in time. When a strong wind blew the ships out to sea, Amroth, unable to countenance the idea of leaving Nimrodel behind, jumped overboard and was presumably drowned. Nimrodel herself was never found.

 The story is fleshed out a bit more in the Unfinished Tales: here we learn, for example, that rather like Nellas in the tale of Turin Turambar, Nimrodel insisted on living alone – in her case, in a flet near the falls of the river that bears her name. We also learn that while Amroth’s love of her was reciprocated, she initially resisted his advances owing to her resentment of the “elves of the West” (in this case, presumably the refugees from drowned Beleriand rather than the Noldor per se). And we find out a bit more about her disappearance and Amroth’s drowning – though not about her eventual fate (meaning that she joins Maglor and Daeron in the camp of mysteriously-vanished Elves. I hope they are having a fun time together somewhere). Even here, however, there are numerous uncertainties surrounding her story. Did Nimrodel really originate the custom of living in flets, or is that simply a legend that has grown attached to her since her disappearance? Whatever did happen to her, and what are these “many legends” that are told about her fate, according to the account in Unfinished Tales? The tale of Nimrodel is one of the few instances I can think of in Tolkien where the speculation and apocryphal stories that have growth up around a character outweigh the few concrete facts we really know (which boil down to: she was a Silvan Elf; she loved Amroth; she eventually disappeared). And while this may have been unintentional on Tolkien’s part, I actually think that the existence of a character like Nimrodel – who certainly “existed” within his secondary world, but who survives now more in the form of a figure of legend than a flesh-and-blood woman – adds to the depth and realism of the world he has created. After all, such figures (Robin Hood, King Arthur, Boudicca) are common throughout human history.

 In addition to injecting a nice bit of unreliable oral history into Middle-earth, the tale of Nimrodel also raises a couple more interesting points about Tolkien’s world. One of these has to do with the relations between the different sub-groups of Elves. One of the areas where Tolkien’s world is comparatively underdeveloped is when it comes to exploring how the various societies work internally, so I love the glimpse we get in this story (and specifically in the Unfinished Tales version) of the tensions that apparently existed between the Silvan Elves and the refugees from Beleriand, whom Nimrodel at least apparently viewed as responsible for the strife that had begun to affect previously peaceful communities such as Lothlorien. Nimrodel’s feelings towards the “elves from the West”, and her stubborn insistence on speaking only the Silvan tongue, echo the resentment felt by Sindar such as Thingol and Eol towards the Noldor during the First Age, and offer a rare insight into the perspective of the Silvan Elves, who appear to form the majority of the population in communities such as Lothlorien and Mirkwood, but to be ruled over in both cases by Sindar (or, in the case of Lothlorien later in the Third Age, by a Sinda-Noldo combo). It also raises huge questions about how Galadriel’s rule in particular was received by the Galadhrim, and why she believed that she had the right to rule over them in the first place – do we perhaps see here an echo of her earlier desire to go to Middle-earth in order to “rule there a kingdom at her own will”?.

 Another interesting question raised by Nimrodel’s story concerns the frequency of Elven-human marriages and liaisons. According to the Unfinished Tales, one of Nimrodel’s companions (later named as Mithrellas) is supposed to have married the Numenorean Lord of Dol Amroth and borne his children, infusing the line of Dol Amroth with an Elvish strain which, judging by Legolas’s remarks to Prince Imrahil in The Return of the King, is still in evidence by the end of the Third Age. Now, Finrod Felagund himself remarked to Andreth way back in the First Age that the first- and second-born of Iluvatar could be joined in marriage only “for some high purpose of Doom”, and indeed the three Elven-human marriages that are confirmed in the legendarium fit this pattern. Beren and Luthien rescued the Silmaril from Morgoth’s crown and provided an example of hope and success against the odds that has echoed throughout the ages. Idril and Tuor produced Earendil, the hope of Elves and Men. And Arwen and Aragorn rejoined the two long-sundered branches of the half-Elven. Imrazor and Mithrellas, however, appear to have had no “high purpose of Doom”, and to have achieved little of note beyond perpetuating a minor princely line of Gondor. This raises the question of whether Elven-human marriages (or at the very least liaisons) might happen with considerably more frequency than the official histories would have us believe – maybe the three big ones get all the press because they achieved something of note (and involved famous and high-born individuals) rather than because they were truly unique . And who knows, maybe the tale of the Took who took a fairy wife wasn’t so far-fetched after all?