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: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/feb/11/jrr-tolkien-advised-wh-auden-lord-of-the-rings. 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?

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.

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?

Tolkien’s Women Speak

I’m currently ploughing through the “Letters” to see what Tolkien has to say about women, both in real life and in his work. In the meantime, I thought I’d post a few quotes from the women of Middle-Earth which, while not feminist exactly, display a considerable amount of respect for women’s abilities and (in some cases) sympathy with the limitations under which they are placed by society. For all that Tolkien doesn’t seem to have dedicated a great deal of time to thinking about how women fit into his fictional world, these quotes show that when he did give them a moment in the spotlight, he was far from an anti-woman author.

“You must choose, Beren, between these two: to relinquish the quest and your oath and seek a life of wandering upon the face of the earth; or to hold to your word and challenge the power of darknesss upon its throne. But on either road I shall go with you, and our doom shall be alike”.

–          Luthien, “The Silmarillion”

I’m not the biggest Luthien fan (I know, I know – I just don’t find her appealing and complex as a lot of the other First Age ladies. For the record, Idril is by far my favourite of the three elven women who married mortals). However, I have to say that while it would have been easy for Tolkien to write yet another story about a man who braved endless perils to win the hand of a fair maiden sat at home, Tolkien goes beyond that and gives us instead a story about the importance of teamwork and playing to your strengths, decades before Princess Leia took charge of her own rescue mission and promptly led the gang into the Death Star garbage compactor.

“They (men) would be craftsmen and loremasters and heroes all at once; and women to them are all 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”.

–          Erendis, “Unfinished Tales”

Erendis, whom I hope to do a full entry on very soon, isn’t a happy woman. Her anger at her husband Aldarion has morphed into a general bitterness against all men, and leads her to mar both her own life and that of her daughter, Ancalime, later queen of Numenor. However, her observations about women being essentially the playthings of men ring very true as a description – even a condemnation – of the status of women in a patriarchal society – something you might expect from George R.R. Martin, but not from Tolkien.

“I am your sister and not your servant, and beyond your bounds I will go as seems good to me. And if you begrudge me an escort, then I will go alone”

–          Aredhel “The Silmarillion”

I’ve discussed Aredhel’s behaviour in depth in my biography of her, and yes – I agree that her behaviour can be seen as a bit capricious given the context (war-torn continent swarming with orcs and all the rest of it). At the same time, there’s no getting around the fact that her angry retort to Turgon here points up the essential paternalism of Elven society despite what Tolkien says in the “Laws and Customs Among the Eldar”. If neri and nissi are so equal, then why is Aredhel’s brother allowed to boss her around like this?

“All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more. But I am of the House of Eorl and not a serving-woman. I can ride and wield blade, and I do not fear either pain or death”.

–          Eowyn, “The Return of the King”.

Obviously.

 

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!

The LoTR Project

A friend of mine just alerted me to the existence of the LoTR Project, a spectacularly nerdy site that catalogues Tolkien´s world in fantastic detail – including a timeline of major events right the way from the Years of the Trees to the Fourth Age, an interactive map showing the journeys of the Fellowship during LoTR – and best of all, the mother of all Middle Earth family trees. Check it out here.

(One tiny quibble – I can´t find Andreth on the tree. Am I looking in the wrong place, or is she missing? I know she only appears in HoME, but a bunch of characters from the HoME version of the “Fall of Gondolin” make it in – as do characters created specifically for the movies or for games, so she definitely deserves to be included).

The site also includes a number of interesting statistical analyses of aspects of Middle Earth. These include – you´ve guessed it – a breakdown of characters according to gender! Turns out Tolkien´s works are just as much of a sausage-fest as we´d all suspected – 81% of named characters are male, compared with 19% who are female. The Valar and Maiar are at the top of the tree when it comes to equal representation, while the hobbits are doing best when it comes to the races of Middle-Earth. Dwarves are hopelessly underperforming, with just the one named woman (Dís, mother of Fili and Kili, and apparently noteworthy only for that fact).

See the full chart here.

(On a side note, this got me thinking – are there any characters in Tolkien whose gender is not explicitly stated? I can´t think of any. Even monsters such as Balrogs, dragons and giant arachnids have an ascribed gender, and (with the exception of Ungoliant, Shelob and Thuringwethil) they too are usually males. Come to think of it, even the mysterious anthropomorphic fox at the beginning of FoTR is male, as is Old Man Willow (unless Bombadil is talking bollocks, which I suspect he does quite often). How about the Watcher in the Water? The Barrow-wights? Are some of the Orcs we meet actually female? Hmm).