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.

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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.