“The sixth King left only one child, a daughter. She became the first Queen; for it was then made a law of the royal house that the eldest child of the King, whether man or woman, should receive the sceptre”
– Appendix A, “The Lord of the Rings”
I recently read George RR Martin’s novella “The Princess and the Queen” (review to come separately, hopefully!) and one thing that struck me was the extent to which opposition to the idea of female rulers is very deeply ingrained in Westerosi society. (Wielding power behind the scenes, like Queen Alicent, is fine. Desiring it openly for yourself, like Queen Rhaenyra, isn’t). Although Tolkien doesn’t address these issues as explicitly as Martin, the situation in Middle-earth (or rather, in Arda) appears to be very much the same. Under normal circumstances, women don’t feature in the line of succession or assume leadership roles, even among races where the genders are nominally equal (such as the Eldar). On the few occasions when we do see women actively take charge, it’s usually exceptional characters doing so under exceptional circumstances (such as Haleth).
That is, with one curious exception – Numenor. Not only did Numenor’s sixth king Tar-Aldarion change the law of succession so that the king’s oldest child inherited the sceptre regardless of gender. He also did so while stirring up what seems to have been a minimal amount of fuss (we really only hear about Soronto complaining, and he had a vested interest in keeping things the way they were). And not only that, but Tar-Aldarion’s law was followed faithfully by subsequent generations of Numenoreans, right down to the last ruling Queen Tar-Miriel (whose throne was promptly usurped by her cousin Ar-Pharazon, and…well, the rest is Akallabeth).
(The circumstances surrounding Numenor’s trailblazing introduction of the idea of ruling queens, and its impact on broader society, are one of the many, many areas where I really wish Tolkien had fleshed things out a little more. I would love to know, for example, whether the common people of Numenor objected to the idea of a female monarch, or whether the Elvish strain in the line of Elros was seen as putting them sufficiently above other people that normal gender roles didn’t apply. For that matter, what were normal gender roles in Numenor? Were they less rigid, and did that smooth the way for Tar-Ancalime and her successors? Or, working the other way, did the very visible presence of women as ruling queens (two of whom, Tar-Ancalime and Tar-Telperien, were among Numenor’s longest-reigning monarchs) lead women to take on more visible roles in other spheres?)
Obviously, we’ll never know the answer to these questions. However, I thought that given the unique nature of Numenor’s ruling queens and the fact that only Tar-Ancalime and maybe Tar-Miriel are likely to get their own entries here, I would dedicate a bit of time to looking at each of these four women in turn, seeing what (if anything) they have in common, and what (if anything) they can tell us about Tolkien’s views on female leadership.
Tar-Ancalime (SA 1075-1280)
Daughter of Aldarion and Erendis, Tar-Ancalime was the first ruling queen of Numenor, and is by far the most fleshed-out in the text. I’ve also already dedicated an entire entry to her, so I won’t say too much more here. Strong-willed, stubborn, capricious and deeply damaged, she – like her mother Erendis – emerges as one of the most complex and multifaceted of Tolkien’s female characters. As a ruler, she appears to have been broadly competent and capable of inspiring loyalty in her subjects (we certainly don’t hear that her ability to rule ever came into question, despite her status as the first female ruler, well, ever really!) However, she was less far-sighted than her father Tar-Aldarion, and her failure to continue offering aid to Gil-galad would go on to have serious ramifications further down the line.
Tar-Telperien (SA 1556-1731)
The second ruling queen, Tar-Telperien was the granddaughter of Tar-Ancalime (and incidentally, the fact that she was succeeded by her younger brother proves that the Numenorean system was one of firstborn succession regardless of gender, rather than simply allowing women to inherit provided they had no brothers). The “Unfinished Tales” have little to say about her aside from the fact that she was long-lived (ruling for a whopping 175 years) and never married.
Tar-Vanimelde (SA 2526-2637)
The third ruling queen, Tar-Vanimelde, was really queen in name only. She had little interest in ruling and seems to have been perfectly content to leave things in the hands of her husband. (Interestingly, this is to some extent an inversion of the classic trope of the weak king whose strong-willed wife is the power behind the throne – think Isabella of France, or Margaret of Anjou). While we see a little bit of her personality through Tolkien’s mention of her love of music and dance, we learn nothing at all of her policies (or her husband’s).
Tar-Miriel (SA 3255)
Tar-Miriel was the most tragic of Numenor’s four ruling queens. She never got the chance to rule in her own right, as her sceptre was usurped by her cousin (and husband) Ar-Pharazon, who would later lead Numenor to its downfall.
My first thought on getting to the end of this list was that the line of Elros must be affected by some peculiar genetic quirk, given that out of all 25 rulers, only 4 had a daughter as their first-born child (well, 6 if you count Tar-Elendil whose daughter Silmarien was the ancestress of the line of Elendil, and Tar-Anarion whose daughters refused the sceptre). My second, more serious thought was that these four women don’t seem to have had a lot in common besides having been the first-born children of a king of Numenor. None of them seem to have really excelled as rulers, though to be fair the same could be said of most of Numenor’s rulers, who frankly come across as rather an undistinguished lot. They were, in other words, just rulers like any others, not distinguished from the others on the grounds of their sex.
With that in mind, I have one final unanswerable question. Why, when the remnants of the Faithful (whose link to the line of Elros itself came from a woman, Silmarien) arrived on the shores of Middle-earth, do they appear to have completely abandoned this system of succession in favour of allowing only men to inherit (a rule which continued after the extinction of the kings and throughout the rule of the Stewards)?