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.

Unfinished Tales, Unanswered Questions

“‘Mercy!’ cried Gandalf. ‘If the giving of information is to be the cure of your inquisitiveness, I shall spend all the rest of my days in answering you. What more do you want to know?

‘The names of all the stars, and of all living things, and the whole history of Middle-earth and Over-heaven and of the Sundering Seas’, laughed Pippin. ‘Of course! What less?'”

– “The Two Towers”

Before I get on to the main topic of tonight’s post, I’m sure it’s not got unnoticed that JK Rowling’s seismic revelations regarding Ron and Hermione produced a small aftershock in Middle-earth, when it emerged that WH Auden criticised the Aragorn-Arwen romance (such as it is) in “The Return of the King”. (If anybody hasn’t seen it, the Guardian covers the story here: Incidentally, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many Silmarillion references on the comments page of an article published by a major mainstream newspaper!)

I’ve made no secret of the fact that Arwen is far from my favourite female character in Tolkien, and that in many ways I think Jackson and company did the right thing in bringing her more into the foreground (though I could have done without the whole “Arwen’s life force is now tied to the ring” complication. What was that about, anyway?) In the books, the fact that she’s such a fleeting, barely-registered presence in the Rivendell chapters only to show up again at the end can make the story of her and Aragorn feel rather like an afterthought, particularly for anybody whose copy of the books doesn’t include the Appendices (or who doesn’t read them). However, I think that quite aside from the merits of the “Tale of Aragorn and Arwen” itself (which I personally think is quite poignant), the inclusion of his marriage to Arwen provides us with a degree of certainty that the succession is assured, and that Aragorn won’t be hailed as the returning king only to fail to reproduce and then become the last king. But that’s just my opinion. What does anybody else think?

Now for something completely different! Spending a fair bit of my free time delving into a mythology as deep and complex as that created by Tolkien gives me a great deal to think about, and raises as many questions as it answers. Thanks to the expansive and incomplete nature of the legendarium, quite a few of these can’t be answered. Leaving aside questions about the wingedness of Balrogs (they aren’t) and the identity of Mr. T. Bombadil Esq. (I don’t care), here are a few questions I’ve been mulling over lately. (Looking back over them, it really stands out to me how Silmarillion/First Age-centric I’ve become of late! Oh well…)

1) If Orcs originate from captured and corrupted Elves, are they immortal? Do they go to the Halls of Mandos? If yes and yes, do they stand a chance of being redeemed and released from the Halls? (Okay, that’s multiple questions. But as cans of worms go, the whole issue of the Orcs, their origins, their relationship to the Elves and their potential redeemability fascinates me)

2) We know from the cases of Glorfindel and Finrod Felagund that Elves can be released from the Halls of Mandos into Valinor. What about those Moriquendi who die – are they also compelled to remain in Valinor? How do they feel about that, given their attachment to Middle-earth and their reluctance to go to Valinor in the first place? (I can’t see Eol, for example, taking it lying down – though he’s surely pretty low down the list of people slated for release).

3) What was the political situation amongst the Noldor once the Exiles started to return (and others began to be released from the Halls)? Having Finarfin in charge of the rump of the Noldor when there were only a handful of them left in Valinor made sense – but by the end of the Third Age, I’m assuming that more of the Exiles were starting to reappear one way or the other. In addition to that, you have Sindarin and Silvan elves making an appearance, who were not previously present in Valinor but would presumably be reluctant to live under the authority of any of the existing rulers. Does each group therefore go off on its own to live as it sees fit, under the auspices of the Valar (and probably of Ingwe, snore…)?

How this would work, and how the different cultures would relate to one another (in addition to the differences between Noldor, Sindar, Silvan etc. you also have the distinctions between different groups of Noldor after so long apart – I always felt that the Gondolindhrim, for example, had quite a distinctive culture) is really fascinating to me. If somebody wants to write a hugely ambitious fanfiction exploring all these issues – maybe with Galadriel seeking to find her place once she returns – then I promise I will be your most attentive reader!

4) Sort of related to the last two questions – how did the Sindar and the rest of the Moriquendi feel about the Noldor dividing up the continent of Beleriand amongst themselves, and later about people like Galadriel setting up realms in Middle-earth proper? We get hints of this with characters like Thingol, Eol and Nimrodel, but more information would be great.

5) Dior Halfelven (son of Beren and Luthien) and his children – are they mortal or not? Elwing obviously chooses to be immortal once she’s given the choice later on, but to my mind it makes no sense for Dior to have been born immortal given that his parents were both mortal at the time of his birth. Obviously this is a fairly minor question, but for some reason it’s always bugged me!

6) I’ve mentioned this one on the blog before – why was the Numenorean tradition of the eldest child of the previous monarch inheriting the sceptre regardless of gender not carried across to Gondor and Arnor? The custom doesn’t appear to have been particularly controversial in Numenor, and the line of Elendil traced its claim to the throne back to a woman (Silmarien). It seems extremely odd for them not only to have abandoned the rule of succession by the eldest child, but also to have apparently adopted a form of Salic law whereby women are forbidden to succeed to the throne outright (there was not a single ruling Queen of Gondor or Arnor, after all).

So, those are my questions. Does anybody have any more?

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”.



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.

Invention and Change: Tolkien’s Women and their Creative Capabilities

“In all such things, not concerned with the bringing forth of children, the neri and nissi (that is, the men and women) of the Eldar are equal – unless it be in this (as they themselves say) that for the nissi the making of things new is for the most part shown in the forming of their children, so that invention and change is otherwise mostly brought about by the neri

–          Morgoth’s Ring (HoME X)

Tolkien himself said that primary theme of his work (or at least of “The Lord of the Rings”) was death and immortality. It seems to me, however, that creativity is another of his principal themes: from the creation of Arda through the music of the Ainur to the Two Trees, the Silmarils, and the Rings of Power, creativity and the creator play a significant role in the legendarium.  A lot has been written about this theme over the years – see, for example, the essay “The Tolkienian War on Science” by Dr. Joan Bushwell for an original and iconoclastic take on Tolkien’s approach to what we might call “science and technology”. What interests me here, unsurprisingly, is how female characters fit into this theme, given that the characters we most readily associate with creativity (Aule, Feanor, Sauron, Celebrimbor, various Dwarves) are without exception male.

 Of course, this doesn’t mean that female characters aren’t associated with creation at all. While the powers granted to some of the female Valar lead me to wonder whether Tolkien wasn’t running out of suitably feminine attributes for the number of females required to ensure that as many of the male Valar as possible were in stable heterosexual relationships, two of their senior colleagues make rather more tangible contributions to the shaping of the world. Varda (the “Elbereth Gilthoniel” of “Lord of the Rings” fame) made the stars. Her colleague Yavanna, meanwhile, is associated with one of the most emblematic acts of creation in the whole legendarium: the creation of the Trees of Valinor, which go on to play a crucial role in the events of the First Age.

 Among the famously crafty Noldor, we also come across a couple of women remembered for their creativity: namely, Feanor’s mother Miriel (whose hands were “more skilled to fineness than any hands even of the Noldor”) and his wife Nerdanel, a sculptress who “learned much of crafts that the women of the Noldor seldom used: the making of things of metal and stone”.

However, these two are the only two examples I can think of of female characters who are expressly singled out for their creativity, even amongst those races (such as the Noldor and the Naugrim) which are most closely associated with their creative impulses. Nerdanel’s vocation as a sculptress is considered anomalous even amongst the notoriously crafty Noldor, whose women rarely involve themselves with “the making of things of metal and stone” – and indeed, aside from Nerdanel and her mother-in-law, none of the other Noldorin women we meet (Aredhel, Idril, even Galadriel) is ever referred to as making anything.

The same appears to be true of the Dwarves. While we learn in Appendix A of “The Lord of the Rings” (and in a memorable scene in Jackson’s “The Two Towers”) that dwarf-women are virtually indistinguishable from their male counterparts (“They are in voice and appearance, and in garb if they must go on a journey, so like to the dwarf-men that the eyes and ears of other peoples cannot tell them apart”), there is no indication that the similarity extends to their activities. When discussing the slow pace of dwarven population growth (which appears to be roughly analogous to that of the giant panda), Tolkien writes that a significant minority of both male and female Dwarves do not desire marriage; however, while in the case of the men this is described as being because they are too “engrossed in their crafts” to take much notice of the other sex, no such explanation is given for the women’s choice. While the very indistinguishableness of male and female Dwarves leaves the door open for us to speculate that some Dwarven craftsmen might in fact be craftswomen, the way in which male dwarves are so specifically identified with their crafts would seem to indicate that this is a trait which the women do not share.

With the exception of a rather objectionable letter written to his son Michael in 1941*, Tolkien addresses the topic of women and their capabilities (creative and otherwise) most fully in an essay called “Laws and Customs Among the Eldar”, to be found in Volume X of the “History of Middle-Earth” (“Morgoth’s Ring”). The depiction of women (well, female Elves to be exact) in this essay is a beguiling mixture of progressiveness (perhaps surprising given the Professor’s reputation as a bit of a fuddy-duddy!) and, in the end, a frustrating biological determinism. On the one hand, we learn that in principle at least, male and female Elves share the same capabilities – there are, apparently, “no matters which among the Eldar only a ner (male) can think or do, or others with which only a nis (female) is concerned. What is more, there don’t seem to be too many societal restrictions placed on men and women in terms of what they can do: after reeling off a long list of activities, Tolkien (or AElfwine) says that “all these things, and other matters of labour and play, or of deeper knowledge concerning being and the life of the World, may at different times be pursued by any among the Noldor, be they neri or nissi”.

So, it’s not as though women among the Noldor are forbidden to become hunters, or metalworkers, or poets, and indeed we have the odd exception that proves the rule – just think of Nerdanel with her sculptures, or Aredhel with her wanderlust and love of hunting. However, we learn shortly afterwards that while they possess these abilities, most female Elves choose not to exercise them, opting instead to devote their creative energies towards the bearing and raising of offspring: “For the nissi the making of things is for the most part shown in their  children, so that invention and change is otherwise mostly brought about by the neri”.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I don’t think having and raising children is in any way a “lesser” pursuit than ruling kingdoms or making lifelike statues of the Valar, and in fact I think Tolkien’s belief that being a parent is worthy of mention as a significant act of creation is rather laudable. I just find it disappointing that when sitting down to create his “ideal” race, Tolkien was open-minded enough to give the women the same basic abilities as the men – only to shut down the possibility of real social equality by having the women choose to focus on having babies instead. This is multiplied approximately a thousandfold by the fact that we are not dealing here with mortal women, of whom we could plausibly argue that they spent the prime years of their lives either pregnant or running around after children, and so never got around to that sculpture of Varda/poem about the awakening at Cuivienen they were planning. We are dealing with an immortal race, who have literally all the time in the world to dedicate themselves both to raising a family and to perfecting any number of crafts on the side – as the example of Nerdanel, mum of seven and kick-ass sculptress, clearly shows. (And while the sons of Feanor and Nerdanel weren’t the most stable bunch, I like to think this was the result of their dad’s crazy genes/emotional blackmail, rather than having anything to do with Nerdanel being Valinor’s most famous working mum).

I also think that this passage in “Laws and Customs Among the Eldar”, backed up by examples of women’s behaviour from throughout the legendarium and by Tolkien’s comments on women in his letters, brings us as close as we can get to Tolkien’s views on women and their abilities. He wasn’t anything so simple as a classic sexist who believed women were inferior to men, and that was that. On the contrary, he often displays a lot of respect for women and their capabilities, whether through praising the abilities of female students in the “Letters”, or through the creation of female characters who are capable leaders (Haleth; Galadriel), fierce warriors (Eowyn) or renowned for their wisdom (Andreth; Nerdanel). In Numenor, he created a political system in which the first-born child of the monarch succeeded to the throne regardless of their gender – something the United Kingdom is only now getting around to introducing. In fleshing out the details of how society worked amongst the Eldar, he went to the trouble of thinking about the relative capabilities of men and women and deciding that they were basically equal, both physically and mentally. I suspect a lot of male writers (certainly in Tolkien’s day, and maybe even now) wouldn’t think to do the same.

However, these relatively progressive views only extend so far. The relative invisibility of female characters in his works suggests that whatever their inherent capabilities, the primary role of women in Tolkien’s world is to be wives and mothers and to take less of an active role in society – something which the “Laws and Customs of the Eldar” makes official (as it were) by stating that while the male Eldar engage in creative pursuits of all kinds, their womenfolk tend to direct their creative energy exclusively towards the production of children. Tolkien is far from alone in this view – the past year alone has seen the publication of a flurry of editorials claiming that while yes, women can be rocket scientists and film directors and prime ministers, they choose instead to step back from their careers and devote themselves exclusively to family, neatly sidestepping any discussion of the social pressures that tell women that having both a career and a family constitutes “having it all”, while for a man it is simply called “life”. And it’s not at all hard to see why Tolkien came to this conclusion – after all, in the society he knew, the majority of women did choose a husband and family. Those who opted for a career (including some of his academic colleagues at Oxford) were definitely in the minority, and had abandoned hope of a traditional family life along the way. In other words, it’s not surprising that Tolkien’s writings would display this kind of biological determinism. To a modern, feminist reader, it’s just a bit disappointing, given how progressive he seems in some other respects.

*He states in this letter that “it is their (women’s) gift to be receptive, stimulated, fertilised (in many other manners than the physical) by the male. Every teacher knows that. How quickly an intelligent woman can be taught, grasp his ideas, see his point – and how (with rare exceptions) they can go no further, when they leave his hand, or when they cease to take a personal interest in him.

“The Female Attitude to Wild Things”: The Entwives

“I longed to devise a setting in which the trees might really march to war. And into this has crept a mere piece of experience, the difference of the ‘male’ and ‘female’ attitude to wild things, the difference between unpossessive love and gardening”

–          Letter 163 (to W.H. Auden)

 For me, one of the things that really makes Tolkien stand out from other authors is the fact that although I first read “The Lord of the Rings” thirteen years ago and have returned (in full or in part) countless times since, I never fail to spot something I’ve never noticed before, or to suddenly see a familiar passage in a new light. (And yes, I am fully aware that there are people out there who’ve been reading the book for sixty years who could say much the same thing!) On my most recent re-read over the Christmas holidays, the fact that I’ve been writing this blog meant that I found myself thinking consciously about the roles played by the various female characters for the first time, and one of the things that most struck me was the fundamental distinction that Tolkien draws between the Ents and the Entwives when it comes to their attitude towards nature.

 Ents (at least according to Treebeard in Chapter 4 of “The Two Towers”) appreciate nature for itself, and have no desire to control it or force it into a mould: “The Ents loved the great trees, and the wild woods, and the slope of the high hills; and they drank of the mountain-streams, and ate only such fruit as the trees let fall in their path; and they learned of the Elves and spoke with the Trees”. This laissez-faire attitude towards wild things is in stark contrast to the approach favoured by the Entwives, who are not content to leave nature to its own devices but rather seek to control it in order to serve their own ends, an attitude more reminiscent of modern agriculture than of the Ents’ uncomplicated love of the wild. According to Treebeard (perhaps not the most objective of sources, but there’s no reason to believe he’s lying) “They did not desire to speak with these things (the lesser trees and grasses which the Entwives favoured above the tall trees of the forest); but they wished them to hear and obey what was said to them. The Entwives ordered them to grow according to their wishes, and bear leaf and fruit to their liking; for the Entwives desired order, and plenty and peace (by which they meant that things should remain where they had set them)”,

 This could be taken as a distinction unique to this particular race, distinguishing Ent from Entwife in the same way that the peacock’s plumage distinguishes him from the dull peahen, and not as a broader comment on the respective attitudes of men and women towards nature – were it not for that fact that Tolkien himself, in a letter to W.H. Auden, explicitly identifies the difference in philosophies between the Ents and Entwives as a reflection of one he has observed in real life. In a footnote describing the origin of the idea of the Ents, he finishes by saying that “into this has crept a mere piece of experience, the difference between the “male” and “female” attitude to wild things, the difference between unpossessive love and gardening”. Furthermore, the same distinction pops up elsewhere in Tolkien’s work: in the “Laws and Customs Among the Eldar” essay in “Morgoth’s Ring”, we learn that the women among the Eldar tend to be interested in “the tending of fields and gardens”, while the males “delight in forestry and in the lore of the wild, seeking the friendship of all things that grow or live there in freedom”.

 What Tolkien is saying here is pretty clear – while both men and women appreciate nature in their own ways, in his view the “female” attitude is to seek to control it and check its wildness, the “male” approach is to love it for what it is. What’s less clear is why he thought this way, as this is not a distinction I’ve come across elsewhere, either in real life or elsewhere in literature. (Indeed, the equally reductive stereotype we have today is that women are the natural, intuitive ones, while men are always seeking to control and improve on what they see around them!) The best explanation I can think of is that this stems from his own observations of people he knew. We know that Tolkien was fond of nature and of walking (including in my own beloved Malvern Hills!). Maybe Edith and other women in his close circle were more drawn to formal gardens and to flowers in a vase rather than beside a forest path, leading Tolkien to interpret this as a universal distinction? Really, of course, we’ll never know – though as a woman who loves a good walk in the woods but hates gardening, I would be fascinated to find out!

“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!