“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.