Idril Celebrindal

“All these things he laid to heart, but most of all that which he heard of Turgon, and that he had no heir; for Elenwe his wife perished in the crossing of the Helcaraxe, and his daughter Idril Celebrindal was his only child”  – “The Silmarillion”

“She fought, alone as she was, like a tigress for all her beauty and slenderness” – “The Book of Lost Tales”

For someone who routinely interrogates her Tolkien-loving friends and acquaintances about the identity of their favourite female characters (for the record, it’s mostly Eowyns and Galadriels, with the odd Yavanna and one Amarie – seriously, don’t ask) I have a lot of trouble answering that particular question myself. My overall favourite is probably Nerdanel – I admire her wisdom, independence, and creativity. I also like Eowyn, Galadriel (particularly her First Age incarnation), Andreth, and Lobelia Sackville-Baggins. I think Erendis is a sympathetic and well-written character, though I doubt I’d particularly enjoy going out for cocktails with her. And I have a definite soft spot for Idril Celebrindal.

Idril was born in Valinor, the daughter of Turgon (second son of Fingolfin, and later king of Gondolin) and his wife Elenwe. She crossed the Helcaraxe together with the majority of the Noldor and at one point actually fell into the water along with her mother, but was rescued by Turgon (Elenwe, however, was lost). Like many of Tolkien’s heroines she was ethereally beautiful (in this case of the blonde rather than the raven-haired variety) and had some decidedly impractical tastes when it came to fashion – her nickname Celebrindal (“Silver-foot”) stemmed from the fact that she always went barefoot. I only hope she had some sturdy footwear on hand for the escape from Gondolin, because that would have been seriously painful otherwise.

Idril’s beauty and position as only child of the King of Gondolin made her an object of lust for her creepy cousin Maeglin, but she chose instead to marry the mortal Tuor (with a minimum of drama, it must be said). Along with Tuor and their son Earendil (of celestial-being fame) she escaped Gondolin during its fall and settled at the mouths of Sirion, where many escapees from Doriath were already living. Ultimately, she sailed into the West with Tuor, and their fate is officially unknown, though there are legends that Tuor was granted immortality, probably as some sort of “compensation” for the granting of the Gift of Iluvatar to Luthien a few years previously.

So, what is it about Idril that appeals to me? First and foremost, I think it’s the fact that she comes across as a smart cookie. We learn in the “Silmarillion” that she was the only person in Gondolin to see Maeglin for what he was. This is explained in more detail in the “Book of Lost Tales” version of the Fall of Gondolin story, where we learn that like her cousin Galadriel, Idril possessed “a great power of piercing with her thought the darkness of the hearts of Elves and Men, and the glooms of the future thereto – further even than is the common power of the kindreds of the Eldalie”. What is more, Idril isn’t just a better judge of character than her father and pretty much everybody else in Gondolin. She’s also level-headed and practical. She doesn’t just pronounce her foreboding in an ethereal voice and be done with it – instead, she takes action, ordering the construction of a secret passage out of Gondolin (and indeed going behind the backs of her father and Maeglin in order to do so). Her actions were what allowed a remnant of the people of Gondolin to escape the sack of the city. (In the “Book of Lost Tales” version of the story, she actually saves them a second time, too. Once the refugees are on the secret way she ordered built, some wanted to make their way onto the Way of Escape, the traditional escape route from the city. Idril counselled against this, warning that whatever magic was in place to protect the route would not have survived the city’s fall. She turned out to be right, of course – Maeglin had told Morgoth of the Way of Escape, and a “monster” (presumably a dragon) was conveniently stationed along the route to take care of any escapees).

During the fall of Gondolin and the escape of the remaining Gondolindrim from their city, Idril proves herself a practical and prescient leader. She also shows herself to be, if not a warrior, then at least capable of being tough in a pinch. In his discussion of Elven gender roles in “Morgoth’s Ring”, Tolkien says that although under normal circumstances war is the preserve of men, “in dire straits or desperate defence, the nissi (Elven women) fought valiantly”. Idril exemplifies this perfectly, particularly in the version of the story told in the “Book of Lost Tales”. When she and Earendil are captured by Maeglin, we are told that she “fought, alone as she was, like a tigress for all her beauty and slenderness”, fending off Maeglin for long enough to allow Tuor to get to them and throw him off the battlements. She proved indomitable too when it came to rounding up survivors and shepherding them into the secret tunnel she had ordered built: “She fared about gathering womenfolk and wanderers and speeding them down the tunnel, and smiting marauders with her small band; nor might they dissuade her from bearing a sword”.

The final thing I enjoy about Idril is the warmth and comparative lack of drama in her relationship with Tuor. When trying to console Andreth for the failure of her relationship with Aegnor in the “Athrabeth Finrod a Andreth”, Finrod Felagund tells her that in his view, marriages between Elves and Men would take place only “for some high purpose of Doom. Brief it will be, and hard at the end. Yea, the least cruel fate that could befall would be that death should soon end it”. Of course, the birth of Earendil undoubtedly qualifies as a “high purpose of Doom”. However, the relationship between Idril and Tuor (or at least what we see of it) seems to be completely devoid of the angst Finrod identifies as an inevitable component of such mixed marriages. They clearly care deeply for one another, and for Earendil. What is more, it’s a good partnership. Unlike some of Tolkien’s male characters who happen to be married to a woman blessed with greater wisdom and foresight than their own (Thingol, I’m looking at you), Tuor is respectful of Idril and heeds her advice, even when he doesn’t quite understand the reasoning behind it. In the end, of course, it’s her advice combined with his willingness to heed it that saves them and their son, along with a portion of the rest of the population.

That’s all I really want to say about Idril herself for now. However, the story of Idril and the Fall of Gondolin does raise one further question which I think is important. Idril’s status as Turgon’s only child (but not his heir) raises the question of female succession and leadership amongst the Noldor. I won’t talk about this too much, as I’m planning to look into the question of female leadership (more generally, not just amongst the Noldor or the Eldar) for my next post. We learn in the “Laws and Customs of the Eldar” that male and female Elves are more or less equal in terms of their mental and physical abilities, even though Tolkien (ever the man of his time!) was quite to reassure us that they nevertheless choose to engage in different pursuits reflecting traditional views of what was appropriate for men and women. What is more, it’s pretty clear from the Fall of Gondolin story that Idril possesses many of the necessary qualities for leadership. However, Aredhel’s tales of Gondolin to Maeglin in Nan Elmoth stress the fact that Turgon has “no heir”. It seems clear from this that women among the Noldor do not occupy leadership positions and are not viewed as potential heirs, even when the king has no sons. The question is – why? After all, male and female Elves are acknowledged to be equal, and the “Laws and Customs” states explicitly that although there are certain customs and traditions regarding the roles assigned to each gender, these are by no means hard-and-fast rules. It’s a bit of a conundrum.

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Queen of the Lonely Isle: Meril-i-Turinqi

“Fellowship is possible, maybe, but kinship not so, for Man is Man and Elda Elda, and what Iluvatar has made unalike may not become alike while the world remains”

– Meril-i-Turinqi, “The Book of Lost Tales”

A few months ago, I moved back from South America to the UK – and a few weeks ago, I finally received my shipment of household goods, including my Tolkien books (which spent a couple of months sitting in a Colombian warehouse, making it rather difficult for me to do the research necessary to keep up with the blog!) To celebrate having them back, I decided to do an entry on a character from one of the obscurer reaches of the legendarium – Meril-i-Turinqi, Queen of the Elves of Tol Eressea in the “Book of Lost Tales”. Unlike the other characters I’ve looked at so far as part of the blog – including characters such as Andreth who similarly appear only in the “History of Middle-earth” series – Meril is one character who we can’t say for sure even exists in Tolkien’s final conception of the story. When Gandalf, Galadriel, Frodo et al disembark on the shores of the Lonely Isle post-RoTK, are they arriving on an island ruled by this teller of tales and dispenser of limpe? On the one hand, there’s nothing anywhere to contradict it. On the other, so much else from the Lost Tales era fell by the wayside, and the tales themselves ended up so fundamentally altered, that there’s absolutely no guarantee that Meril was still envisaged as part of the scene.

All that said (phew!), who exactly is this mysterious character? She’s described by others in the Book of Lost Tales as the Queen of the Lonely Isle – and although it’s not made clear exactly what degree of authority she wields or how, this is enough to mark her out as one of the few female authority figures to make an appearance in Tolkien’s works. No king or other male authority figure is mentioned in conjunction with her, meaning that whatever authority she wields, she does so entirely by her own right (something which can’t be said for, say, Galadriel or Melian). Indeed, from the few references in the text to who she is and why she holds the position she does, it seems clear that she derives her authority from her lofty ancestry. She is first mentioned in the text as a descendant of “Inwe” (presumably a forerunner of Ingwe, High King of the Noldor and licker of the Valar’s boots – er, sorry, let out my inner Feanorian for a moment there!) and later informs Eriol (the mortal mariner whose experiences on Tol Eressea are the framework for the telling of the Lost Tales) that she is also related to the Shore-pipers – the Solosimpi, who would later evolve into the Teleri. If, as seems very likely, this ancestry is the reason why she occupies the position of Queen, then it’s the sole example I can think of where an Elven woman is a hereditary monarch.

As far as her actual purpose within the text is concerned, Meril is a dispenser both of healing and of wisdom. Her home, set amid flowers and elm-trees, is described in idyllic terms and provides a respite from the cares of this world (and for Eriol, a respite even from the sea-longing, that most Tolkienian of afflictions). The drink she provides (limpe), meanwhile, appears to be possessed of restorative properties far beyond the miruvor of Rivendell: it is through the drinking of limpe, we learn, that the “hearts (of the Eldar) keep youth”. However, her dwelling is not merely a place of escapism: Meril is also a dispenser of wisdom and a teller of hard truths. Her refusal to allow Eriol to drink limpe, and her assertion of the fundamental differences between Men and Elves (“Man is Man, and Elda Elda, and what Iluvatar has made unalike may not become alike while the world remains”) could have come from the mouth of Finrod Felagund himself in the “Athrabeth Finrod a Andreth”.

As I mentioned further up, it’s not at all clear whether or not Meril survived into Tolkien’s later conception of the legendarium. What is clear, however, is that something of her survives in later, more fully-realised characters such as Melian and, in particular, Galadriel. I’m not the first person to point this out. John Garth, in his wonderful book “Tolkien and the Great War” (seriously, if you haven’t read it, check it out!) points out the similarities in their dwelling-places (“She (Meril) lives among her maidens in a ceremonial circle of trees in Kortirion, like Galadriel in her city of trees in Lothlorien”) and in their functions (“Both elf-queens are repositories of ancient knowledge, but each also is the source of a supernaturally enduring vitality: Meril through the marvellous drink limpe that she dispenses, Galadriel through the power to arrest decay in her realm”). The two women even share a similar ancestry: Galadriel, like Meril, is descended from the Vanyar (Meril through “Inwe”, Galadriel through Indis, second wife of Finwe), and both are also related to the Solosimpi/Teleri (Galadriel’s mother Earwen is the daughter of the king of Alqualonde). So even if Meril (as seems likely) did not survive into Tolkien’s final conception of the political configuration of Tol Eressea, the idea of the great queen of illustrious ancestry who is simultaneously a dispenser of healing and wisdom did survive, and gave rise to one of the most memorable characters and sequences of “The Lord of the Rings”.

 

 

Ruling Queens of Numenor

“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)?

Ruling Queen of Numenor: Tar-Ancalime

“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”

“She was clever, and malicious, and saw promise of sport as the prize for which her mother and her father did battle”

“Unfinished Tales”

Given that Tolkien has often faced criticism for his idealised depiction of romantic love (and indeed his less-than-realistic character development in general) his works contain a surprising number of dysfunctional families – just think of Denethor and his sons; Eol, Maeglin and Aredhel; Finwe with his two wives and warring sons; even the family of Hurin, though that was hardly their fault. However, no character better embodies Philip Larkin’s maxim that “They fuck you up, your mum and dad” better than Tar-Ancalime, sole child of the matrimonial disaster that was Aldarion and Erendis, and first ruling queen of Numenor.

After Aldarion’s departure and the effective breakdown of his marriage to Erendis, Ancalime (then aged four) was taken by her mother to an isolated farm in the middle of the island, where her mother tried her very best to imbue her with her own bitterness and disappointment: “She (Erendis) sought even to mould her daughter to her own mind, and to feed her upon her own bitterness against men”. As I mentioned in my previous discussion of Erendis, the account in Unfinished Tales also gives us a taste of Erendis’s teachings: apparently she taught her daughter that men were “children in mind, until age finds them” and that they “would be craftsmen and loremasters and heroes all at once, and women to them are but fires on the hearth for others to tend, until they are tired of play in the evening”. Ancalime therefore grew up completely unaccustomed to the society of men, in a house that was devoid of laughter and seems to have had little love either.

This dysfunctional upbringing, and Ancalime’s status as a prize in the struggle between her warring parents, contributed to flaws in her personality as an adult, and ultimately helped to poison her relationships with her husband, son and grandchildren. Her character apparently owed something to both parents: she combined her father’s obstinacy (both were inclined to take “the opposite course to any that was counselled”) with her mother’s “coldness and sense of personal injury”. This rather complicated personality, moreover, was combined with an inclination towards spitefulness and malice that was likely the result of being caught between her parents in their battle of wills. Finally, being a spectator to the implosion of her parents’ marriage and the protracted war between them that ensued, combined with her mother’s teachings against men, made Ancalime hostile towards the idea of marriage in general. We learn, for example, that she “had a profound dislike of obligatory marriage, and in marriage of any constraint upon her will”. Later on, she tells her suitor (and eventual husband) Hallacar that she wishes to marry “Uner (which is ‘Noman’), whom I prefer above all others”.

Later in her life, Ancalime’s difficult personality and disdain for the institution of marriage led her, in her position as ruling Queen of Numenor and effective matriarch of the island’s royal family, to poison her relationship with her husband Hallacar (whom she was obliged to marry in order to secure the crown), with her son, and with her grandchildren. Not wishing to marry at all, she resented Hallacar from the outset, and acted accordingly. She forbade him to live on his own ancestral land (saying that she would not have a farm-steward for a husband), while he (to spite her) arranged for her serving-women – whom she had forbidden to marry – to be married behind her back. From what little we see of their relationship, Ancalime and Hallacar seem to have behaved with more malice and caused more outright harm to one another than Ancalime’s parents ever did. We don’t really learn anything about her relationship with her son Anarion aside from the fact that Ancalime did not wish for a son and held his existence as yet another reason to resent Hallacar, which hardly seem like preconditions for an ideal mother-son relationship. Finally, her relationship with her granddaughters was certainly highly dysfunctional: Ancalime refused to allow either of her granddaughters to marry, leading them in turn to refuse the heirship although they were Anarion’s oldest children, as a result of which the crown passed to their younger brother Surion.

Aside from her difficult upbringing and troubled relationships with virtually her entire family, the main reason why Ancalime stands out is for her status as Numenor’s first ruling queen. Wanting to ensure that his only child would succeed him to the throne (and to spite Erendis into the bargain), Aldarion formulated a new law that was contradictory to previous Numenorean (and from what we see in the Silmarillion, Elvish) custom, stating either that a king’s daughter could succeed him if he had no son (according to Unfinished Tales) or that the eldest child would succeed him, whether male or female (according to Appendix A of The Lord of the Rings)*. As a result, Ancalime became the first of Numenor’s four Ruling Queens, who represent a kind of overt female leadership rarely seen in Tolkien’s legendarium. (While there are other examples of women in leadership roles – think of Galadriel, Melian and Haleth – for the most part, when we see monarchies in action, women don’t get a look in. Neither the kings of Gondor nor the holders of the High Kingship of the Noldor, for example, included a single woman. What is more, with the exception of Haleth, those women who do clearly exercise a degree of leadership do so in a strictly unofficial capacity, as the consorts of husbands who may be less wise and powerful than their wives, but who are nevertheless more acceptable as figureheads – Thingol being the classic example. Only in Numenor do we see women’s right to exercise leadership in their own right explicitly recognised in this way).

As for what kind of Queen Ancalime was – well, we don’t know a great deal about that. We know that her rule was long (in fact, at 205 years, the second-longest after that of Elros himself!) and that she abandoned her father’s policies towards Middle-earth and gave no further help to Gil-galad, a decision that would come back to haunt Numenor in the end. Her personality, too (combining her father’s stubbornness, her mother’s aloofness, and a capriciousness and malice all her own) hardly seems likely to have made her a great ruler. All in all, she was probably no worse or better than average – no Elros, to be sure, but no Ar-Pharazon either. What was really extraordinary about her was the fact that she was there at all.

*I prefer the latter version – partly because it’s impressively progressive (after all, we’ve only just changed the laws of succession in the UK to allow the first child to succeed regardless of gender), but also because it’s better supported elsewhere in the text, for example when it is stated that Anarion’s two daughters refused the sceptre before it finally passed to their younger brother Surion.

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?

The Mariner’s Wife: Erendis

“They (men) would be craftsmen and loremasters and heroes all at once; and women to them are but fires on the hearth – for others to tend, until they are tired of play in the evening. All things were made for their service: hills are for quarries, rivers to furnish water or to turn wheels, women for their body’s need, or if fair to adorn their table and hearth”

–          Erendis, “The Tale of Aldarion and Erendis”

 As I hope I’ve gone some way towards proving with this blog so far, Tolkien’s women – from wise Nerdanel to stubborn Miriel and wilful Aredhel – are far from the one-dimensional passive princesses they are sometimes painted as by the Professor’s detractors. To my mind, however, one of the most vibrant and fully-realised female characters in the legendarium is the protagonist of an unfinished, rather obscure story in the volume “Unfinished Tales”. As the above quote suggests, Erendis is a bitter and resentful woman, with a jaded perspective on men that would not be out of place coming from Cersei Lannister. Unlike, say, Nerdanel or Andreth, she’s not somebody I’d like to meet. Nevertheless, the story that bears her name is a fascinating and curious one, raising questions about the nature of the marital bond and about how patriarchal societies affect women that are not addressed anywhere else in Tolkien’s writings and show him to be far more aware of gender issues than many of his detractors would suggest.

Even for Tolkien fans, Erendis is probably an obscure enough figure that I can provide a brief summary of her story here without appearing overly patronising. Erendis (also known as Tar-Elestirne, or the Lady of the Star-brow) lived in Numenor during the Second Age, and married the sailor-king Tar-Aldarion. Following a lengthy and often rocky betrothal owing to Aldarion’s frequent absences at sea or in Middle-Earth, the early years of their marriage were happy – but Aldarion soon began to hear the call of the sea, and Erendis became resentful of having to share her husband with the “Lady Uinen”*. The two ended up becoming completely estranged, and Erendis took refuge in the centre of the island, far from the sea, where she brooded on Aldarion’s perceived mistreatment of her and taught their daughter Ancalime to be mistrustful towards men. Although the story is unfinished, we learn from Tolkien’s notes that he planned for both Aldarion and Erendis to realise in old age that their happiest years were those they spent together, and that Erendis was to have ultimately drowned off the coast of Numenor (whether by accident or in an act of suicide, we are never told).

Erendis’s story is fascinating in part because it is a portrait of a marriage gone bad – a bracing antidote to the star-crossed love of Beren and Luthien, or the lightning-fast courtship of Faramir and Eowyn. Here as nowhere else in his work, Tolkien explores how difficult it can be for two individuals to join their lives together. In Erendis’s jealousy of her “rival” the sea, and in her mother Nuneth’s admonition that “a woman must share her husband’s love with his work and the fire of his spirit”, we can see an echo of Tolkien’s warning to his son Michael about “the glass of beer, the pipe, the non-writing of letters, the other friend etc. etc.” that could cause strife between a man (with his life and interests outside the home) and his wife (who, in both Tolkien’s Oxford and Erendis’s Numenor, was supposed to confine herself to the domestic sphere). Like (one presumes) many a housewife of Tolkien’s day, Erendis has invested all her energy and hope of happiness into her marriage, leading her to become resentful of the other interests which take him from her.

As I mentioned in the introduction, Erendis is by no means an entirely sympathetic character, Her steadfast refusal to share her husband with the “Lady Uinen” and her refusal to even countenance the idea of sailing with him come across as petulant, and her later removal of her daughter to a life of seclusion away from all men clearly blighted Ancalime’s life. But Aldarion, too, must shoulder some of the blame: His long voyages took him away from Erendis for years at a time, making them a rather more significant imposition on his wife than a 9-5 job, or indeed the odd pint and pipe with CS Lewis at the Bird and Baby. Worse, he undertook frequent long voyages during their engagement and the early years of their marriage, in the full knowledge that Erendis (who did not come from the line of Elros) was likely to be significantly less long-lived than him. In short, he effectively ensured that the best years of his wife’s youth – not to mention her optimal years for childbearing – were spent alone (as Erendis says herself, “The years are unrelenting, and you will not bring them back with you. And mine are briefer than yours. My youth runs away: and where are my children, and where is your heir? Too long and often of late is my bed cold”).

While Aldarion’s unwillingness or inability to remain long on land is explained by Tolkien as the product of the “sea-longing” (the same thing that afflicts Legolas part-way through “The Return of the King”), his willingness throughout his engagement and marriage to indulge this yearning with little thought for his wife’s needs and wellbeing can also seem immature and selfish – something that Erendis herself clearly sees when she says that the men of Numenor  “dally in the world, childish in mind, until age finds them (…) They would be craftsmen and loremasters and heroes all at once; and women to them are but fires on the hearth – for others to tend, until they are tired of play in the evening”. Aldarion’s likening of his wife to “a nurse anxious only about the tearing of clothes and the due time of meals” also leaves a bad taste in the mouth, reminiscent as it is of so many portrayals (both historical and contemporary) of women as uptight nags with limited imagination, anxious only to keep the men from their fun. It’s true that Erendis’s all-or-nothing attitude likely doomed the marriage from the start, and that life with her can hardly have been pleasant – but that doesn’t change the fact that what she is asking for (a present husband, and a chance at a family life) is far from unreasonable.

Erendis is also the mouthpiece for some fairly pointed criticism of men’s treatment of women (and indeed of men in general( which although it’s a reflection of her bitterness at her treatment by Aldarion, is nevertheless interesting as the one place in Tolkien’s writings where the patriarchal order of things is openly questioned. Her thoughts, expressed to her daughter Ancalime (later the first ruling queen of Numenor) are worth quoting in full:

 “Men in Numenor are half-Elves (said Erendis), especially the high men; they are neither the one nor the other. The long life that they were granted deceives them, and they dally in the world, children in mind, until age finds them – and then many only forsake play out of doors for play in their houses. They turn their play into great matters and great matters into play. They would be craftsmen and loremasters and heroes all at once; and women to them are but fires on the hearth – for others to tend, until they are tired of play in the evening. All things were made for their service: hills are for quarries, rivers to furnish water or to turn wheels, trees for boards, women for their body’s need, or if fair to adorn their table and hearth; and children are to be teased when nothing else is to do – but they would as soon play with their hounds’ whelps. To all they are gracious and kind, merry as larks in the morning (if the sun shines); for they are never wrathful if they can avoid it. Men should be gay, they hold, generous as the rich, giving away what they do not need. Anger they show only when they become aware, suddenly, that there are other wills in the world beside their own. Then they will be as ruthless as the seawind if anything dare to withstand them.

 Thus it is, Ancalime, and we cannot alter it. For men fashioned Numenor: men, those heroes of old that they sing of – of their women we hear less, save that they wept when their men were slain. But if they weary of rest and the plays of peace, soon they will go back to their great play, manslaying and war. Thus it is; and we are set here among them. But we need not assent. If we love Numenor also, let us enjoy it before they ruin it. We also are daughters of the great, and we have wills and courage of our own. Therefore do not bend, Ancalime. Once bend a little, and they will bend you further until you are bowed down. Sink your roots into the rock, and face the rock, though it blow away all your leaves”.

 In the end, of course, the battle of the sexes between Aldarion and Erendis does neither of them much good – and it has a terrible effect on Ancalime their daughter, who is a definite topic for a future post here. Erendis stews for years in bitterness and dies in regret: hers is fundamentally a tragic story. However, the story’s unflinching depiction of a marriage gone horribly wrong is a challenge to the critics who would claim that Tolkien only deals in star-crossed lovers. Erendis’s plight, meanwhile, shows that while the society Tolkien created is male-dominated both structurally and demographically, the author was nevertheless not blind to the effects such a society could have on the lives of individual women.

*Named for Uinen, together with Osse one of the two Maiar of the sea.

“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!