Wednesday Fanart (plus one)

So, it’s more of a Thursday fanart this week as I had to work late yesterday. Anyway, this week I’ve chosen something that departs a bit from the theme of the blog in not having any women in it, but which I really love nonetheless. It’s Catherine Karina Chmiel’s painting of Maedhros, Maglor, and a very young Elrond and Elros at the Third Kinslaying:

Image

(Although the scene it depicts is hardly a laughing matter, I always chuckle at the fact that one of the twins is so much smaller than the other in this picture! OK, so the artist must have been operating under the assumption that Elrond and Elros are not twins. In my head, however, I always imagine that Elrond is the undersized one, probably because he’s the more Elvish of the two in spirit, and they grow up slower than human children. I hope that he thrived a bit more under the care of the Feanorians – well, once they’d stopped killing his family…)

Actually, Chmiel’s gallery is absolutely chock-full of lovely artwork. Here is her Feanorian gallery, which also has one of my favourite depictions of Feanor (in which he looks more than a little deranged, as he should!) She also has a lot on Gondolin and on Gondor (particularly Boromir, with some Faramir and the rest of the family).

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“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!

Wise-heart: Andreth of the House of Beor

Apologies for my long absence – this was partly to do with the unwelcome intrusion of real life, but really more to do with the fact that the post I was trying to write (on the giant arachnids and mysterious bat-creature who are Tolkien’s female villains) just wasn’t coming together the way I wanted it to. So, in order to get back into the swing of things, I thought I’d leave Ungoliant and company to one side for one bit and allow myself to write about one of my favourite female characters in all of Tolkien: Andreth, the wise-woman of the House of Beor. (For the record, Andreth – together with her verbal sparring-partner Finrod Felagund – would most likely make my fantasy Arda dinner-party guest list).

Probably some of you out there are wondering at this point who the heck I’m talking about – and that’s scarcely surprising. Andreth doesn’t appear in the Lord of the Rings, or the Silmarillion, or even the Unfinished Tales. Her presence in Tolkien’s published works is confined to a single story (well, more of a philosophical dialogue really) called the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, which can be found in Volume X of the History of Middle-Earth (Morgoth’s Ring). Andreth is a mortal, a wise-woman of the House of Beor, and the dialogue basically sees her go head-to-head with the First Age’s Mr Perfect himself, Finrod Felagund, about death, mortality and the differing natures of the First and Second Children of Iluvatar.

As you might be gathering by now, the “Athrabeth” is a very complex piece of writing, rich with philosophical and theological speculation, which I don’t have the time to discuss here. Another distinguishing characteristic of the essay, however, is how very intimate it is, particularly by the standards of Tolkien’s writings about the First Age. By allowing the characters to speak for themselves, Tolkien allows them to really come to life – and what really stands out about Andreth is her bitterness and anger about the lot of her people and their perceived neglect by the Valar, and her willingness to challenge Finrod (whom she addresses, with not a little sarcasm, as “Finrod of the House of Finarphin (sic) of the high and puissant Elves”) for his complacent acceptance of the idea that death is truly a “gift” granted to Men. For example, she calls the Elves out on the condescension they display towards mortals, saying that “We may be ‘Children of Eru’, as ye see in your lore; but we are children to you also: to be loved a little maybe, and yet creatures of less worth, upon whom ye may look down from the height of your power and knowledge, with a smile, or with pity, or with a shaking of heads”. The Valar’s conduct towards mortals, too, does not go unnoticed or uncriticised: ‘Andreth looked up and her eyes darkened. “The Valar?” she said. “How should I know, or any Man? Your Valar do not trouble us either with care or with instruction. They sent no summons to us”.

Andreth might not get the better of Finrod during their argument – to my mind at least, it is clear that Men are indeed mortal by nature (“doomed to die”, as the Ring-verse has it) and that the tales of a “Fall” from immortality told by the Wise among Men are just that / tales intended to explain away their mortal nature and to ease somewhat the pain of death. However, the lively debate between elf-man and mortal woman is a fascinating read, and Andreth gives voice to the sense of injustice at the “gulf between the kindreds” which Finrod tries to minimise, but which turns out to be a major theme in the history of Arda (most spectacularly, as the catalyst for the downfall of Numenor). And the story becomes more personal and moving when Finrod reveals the reason behind much of Andreth’s bitterness: it turns out that as a young woman, this wise-woman loved Finrod’s warrior brother Aegnor. In a tragic variation on Tolkien’s usual triumphant elf-mortal romances, however, this sole example of a relationship between mortal woman and immortal man never really got off the ground. Though Andreth continues to love Aegnor and he her (we are told that he will choose to remain for eternity in the Halls of Mandos rather than endure immortal life without her), in this particular case the gulf between their two kindreds proved too wide, and made them essentially incompatible, as the following touching exchange makes clear:

“For one year, one day, of the flame I would have given all: kin, youth and hope itself: adaneth I am”, said Andreth.

“That he knew”, said Finrod; “and he withdrew and did not grasp what lay to his hand: elda he is”.

No wonder she’s so bitter.

One final thing which I find notable about Andreth as a character is her status as one of the Wise among her people, a repository of lore and tradition in what I presume is a semi-literate, if not a pre-literate society (certainly, I don’t see the Men of Beleriand having an established canon of widely-distributed texts, as might have been the case in Numenor, or in Tirion before the Exile). According to Tolkien, this was not unusual in mortal societies during that time: “of the Wise some were women, and they were greatly esteemed among men”, we learn in the introduction to the Athrabeth. We have already seen how Tolkien’s mortal women are capable of being warriors and inspirational leaders, in the style of Eowyn or Haleth. Now, we see how they can also play an important role as the guardians of the history, lore and traditions of their people.

Míriel þerindë: The Broideress

‘Then Vairë said to Mandos: “The spirit of Míriel hath dwelt with me, and I know it. It is small, but it is strong and obdurate: one of those who having said this will I do make their words an irrevocable law unto themselves.”’

–          History of Middle-Earth vol. X, “Morgoth’s Ring”

After looking at Aredhel last time, my plan was to move on to Tolkien’s villainous females – Shelob, Ungoliant, Thuringwethil and the rest of the arachnid/vampiric horde. However, my thought strayed instead to another female figure from the First Age (and indeed from the royal house of the Noldor) whose actions are the source of debate and controversy both amongst Tolkien’s readers and within the mythology itself – that is, of course, Míriel Serinde, the first wife of Finwë and mother of Fëanor.

As readers of the Silmarillion will hopefully recall, it was Míriel’s death and most of all her desire to *remain* dead (in other words, her rejection of the divinely-ordained immortality that is the lot of the Eldar) that led the grieving Finwë to seek a second marriage – which in turn created strife amongst the Noldor and set in motion the conga-line of catastrophe that was the First Age. Unsurprisingly, just as Aredhel’s reckless behaviour and the unusual circumstances of Maeglin’s birth have led readers to ask whether she was ultimately (if unintentionally) responsible for the fall of Gondolin, this has led many to wonder whether it was Míriel’s peculiar wish to die that served as the catalyst for the string of disasters that engulfed the Noldor during the First Age. (A conclusion, by the way, which Tolkien appears to have embraced himself: in Letter 212 to Rhona Beare, he says that “In the Elvish legends there is record of a strange case of an Elf (Míriel mother of Fëanor) that tried to die, which had disastrous results, leading to the ‘Fall’ of the High-elves”.)

Like much in the published “Silmarillion”, Míriel’s story as laid out there is brief, sparse and somewhat unsatisfying, at least when it comes to giving any hint of her motives for acting as she did. We learn that after Fëanor’s birth, Míriel was “consumed in spirit and body, and (…) yearned for release from the labour of living”. So, to the consternation of her husband, she passed first to the gardens of Lorien, and then her spirit passed to the Halls of Mandos, never to return. As a result, Fëanor grew up without a mum (an unusual state of affairs when you belong to an immortal race and live in an earthly paradise), while Finwë got re-married to Indis of the Vanyar and had either two, four or five further offspring, depending on which version of the legendarium you prefer. The rivalry between Fëanor and his half-siblings led to division within the ranks of the Noldor, which were exploited by Melkor, resulting in an awful lot of drama and Mandos having to work overtime for the next age or so.

In the more developed versions of the story as laid out in the “History of Middle Earth” series (in particular volume X, “Morgoth’s Ring”), the basic course of events is the same, but Míriel’s character is considerably more fleshed out, and she emerges as a character at once more flawed and more understandable. We learn more about her skill at needlework: far from being a desperate Noldorin housewife darning Finwë’s socks, Míriel appears to have been an exceptionally skilled craftswoman, exceptional even amongst the notably crafty Noldor: “For her hands were more skilled to make things fine and delicate than any other hands even among the Noldor”. Indeed, given that it is nowhere indicated that Finwë was of a crafty disposition or made anything beyond a hideous mess of managing relations between his sons, the likelihood is that Míriel was the source of Fëanor’s famous skill of hand.

Moreover, mother and son shared more than just a mutual appreciation for arts and crafts. According to the description of her personality in HoME volume XII “The Peoples of Middle-Earth”, Míriel was “of gentle disposition, though as was later discovered in matters far more grave, she could show an ultimate obstinacy that counsel or command would only make more obdurate”. The parallel with Fëanor (surely the most bloody-minded Elf in all of Arda’s history) is pretty clear, but Tolkien is careful to stress it anyway: “Fëanor loved his mother dearly, though except in obstinacy their characters were widely different”* While in Fëanor’s case his stubbornness led him to wreak havoc in Valinor and condemn the bulk of the Noldor to exile and a bloody age-long war against Morgoth, in Míriel’s case this same characteristic manifested itself in a smaller (but perhaps no less significant) way, by leading her to reject re-embodiment and insist on remaining dead despite the entreaties of the Valar and her husband. In one of the innumerable versions of the story recounted in “Morgoth’s Ring”, Ulmo says that “the fea of Míriel hath not been left in peace, and by importuning its will hath been hardened”. In the “Peoples of Middle Earth”, the connection is made even more explicit: “But Míriel was reluctant, and to all the pleas of her husband and her kin that were reported to her, and to the solemn counsel of the Valar, she would say no more than ‘not yet’. Each time that she was approached she became more fixed in her determination, until at last she would listen no more, saying only ‘I desire peace. Leave me in peace here! I will not return. That is my will’”.

A further layer to Míriel’s personality emerges later on in the account in “Morgoth’s Ring”, when we learn that after Finwë’s death and arrival in the Halls of Mandos, Míriel again felt the call of her corporeal body and of its skills, and “the will in which she had been set was released”. So her and Finwë do a bit of a swap – in order to avoid the highly improper situation of him having two living wives in Aman, he opts to remain in Mandos until the end of Arda (well, I suppose he’ll soon have pretty much his entire family to keep him company!), while Míriel is reincarnated – not to wander around Tirion at her leisure, you understand, but to go to the house of Vairë the Weaver, where she will put her sewing skills to good use and weave the deeds of the Noldor into a series of tapestries (not a pleasant job, one presumes, given the distinctly mixed track record of her descendants during the First Age). Quite aside from leading one to speculate what exactly was so wrong with Finwë that Míriel appears desperate to be anywhere other than where he happens to be at the time, this raises the question of whether Míriel is, well, a bit capricious. We’ve already seen how it was her stubborn insistence on remaining in the Halls of Mandos that led Finwë to seek a second marriage. Now, though she’s equally convinced that she in fact does want to come back, putting him in a situation where the only gentlemanly thing for him to do is to offer to stick around in Mandos for all eternity, where he presumably helps Namo keep Fëanor under control. Reading all this, I began to feel distinctly sorry for poor old Indis, who comes across as a decent if rather bland woman who somehow found herself in the middle of this high Noldorin drama.

Stubborn, wilful, capricious – Míriel as she emerges in the longer narratives of the “History of Middle-Earth” is far more relatable in her flawed complexity than the inscrutable figure who makes a cameo appearance in the pages of the published “Silmarillion”. Two questions, however, remain to be asked: to what extent was Míriel’s choice to abandon her life responsible for the eventual fall of the Noldor, and to what extent was it avoidable? The first is perhaps easier to answer: although in the published “Silmarillion” Míriel is keen to deflect the blame away from her (indicating that she may have had some premonition of what was to come) it appears clear that the death of Míriel sowed seeds among the Noldor which eventually bore fruit in the rebellion against the Valar and the Kinslaying. Although there were certainly other factors involved (not least Fëanor’s own character – not  entirely excused by his dead mum – and the lies planted by Melkor), Míriel’s actions appear at the very least to have set off a chain of events which eventually led to the Oath of Fëanor and to Alqualonde.

The second question, however, is rather more difficult – was it avoidable? The “Silmarillion” account is so sparse as to shed little or no light on this question. The expanded versions of the story, however, strongly suggest that Míriel was (as she herself claimed) so wearied by the birth of Fëanor that she had no choice but to die. As Nienna says in “Morgoth’s Ring”, “Míriel, I deem, died by necessity of body, in suffering (for) which she was blameless or indeed to be praised”. In other words, Míriel is not to be held culpable for her death, which – despite Tolkien’s use of the phrase “wished to die” in Letter 212 – appears not to have stemmed from desire so much as from necessity. As Ulmo says in response to Nienna’s statement above, her fault lay rather in her desire to divest herself of her essential nature (i.e. the immortality of the Elves) and to do what Luthien alone of the Eldar would be permitted to do – to “die indeed”. In other words, it was not Míriel’s departure for the Halls of Mandos that was the problem, but her departure “in will not to return”.

*Yes, this is the version of the story where Míriel sticks around until Fëanor is all grown up and only then departs for the Halls of Mandos, as opposed to dying when he is still a baby as in the published Silmarillion. I love this version as Idril loved Maeglin (i.e. not at all), mostly because I just don’t find it convincing from a psychological point of view – surely if Míriel had died when Fëanor was an adult at least some of his bitterness would be directed towards her, rather than towards Indis and her children? And surely part of the whole point of Fëanor is that he’s seriously messed up in large part because he grew up without his mother? In short, I dislike this almost as much as I dislike the whitewashed version of Galadriel’s past in some of Tolkien’s late writings – but that, of course, is a whole other story.

(P.S. An issue which Tolkien touches on very briefly – and which opens a whole new can of worms – is that of free will, as opposed to what is preordained as a result of the Music of the Ainur. It’s not difficult to see how Fëanor’s unique talents and difficult personality – which appear to be the product both of his inheritance from Míriel and of the energy she poured into him during pregnancy and birth – need to be in place in order to set in motion the tragedies and the ultimate triumph of the First Age. Equally, without Míriel’s death, we would not have the children of Finwë and Indis, whose line reaches their apogee in Earendil the Mariner, messenger of Elves and Men and the catalyst for the War of Wrath and the ultimate defeat of Morgoth. What is more, Earendil’s existence is clearly pre-ordained – not only is Ulmo fervently engaged in match-making between Tuor and Idril, but Mandos himself states in “Morgoth’s Ring” that his fellow Valar would understand the point of the Statute of Finwë and Míriel “when he that shall be called Earendil setteth foot upon the shores of Aman”. So – Míriel needed to die, and she desired not to return. But how much choice did she ultimately have in either of those things?)

Aredhel: White Lady of the Noldor

“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”

–          The Silmarillion, “Of Maeglin”

One of the most common criticisms levelled at Tolkien’s female characters (aside, of course, from the fact that they are so thin on the ground in the first place) is that they are either perfect princesses or grotesque giant arachnids, with no room whatsoever for moral ambiguity or grey areas. I plan to take a closer look at Tolkien’s bad girls further down the line (in a fortnight or so, to be precise), but I should say for the time being that I think these criticisms are valid, at least up to a point. Tolkien’s legendarium is home to more, and more interesting, female characters than the popular perception of his work would have it, but it remains true that for the most part and with very few exceptions, his women lack the kind of flawed complexity that is a mark of his most interesting characters, such as Gollum, Denethor, Feanor and Turin. There are, of course, a couple of exceptions, and among them is Aredhel, the restless, reckless daughter of Fingolfin, whose actions set in motion a train of events which ultimately culminated in the downfall of Gondolin, last and perhaps greatest of the great Elf-kingdoms of the First Age.

The first thing we learn about Aredhel after she is introduced (in “Of Eldamar and the Princes of the Eldalie”, in case you’re interested) is that she is something of a tomboy: “And when she was grown to full stature and beauty she was tall and strong, and loved much to ride and hunt in the forests”. (We also learn that she was very chummy with her cousins the sons of Feanor – and we’ll gloss over how weird the line “but to none was her heart’s love given” is in the context of the later description of her son Maeglin’s love for his cousin Idril Celebrindal as “an evil fruit of the Kinslaying). It’s interesting to note, however, that despite the characterisation here of Aredhel as something of a free spirit, when it comes to the rebellion and exile of the Noldor she displays distinctly less wilfulness and independence than her cousin Galadriel. Whereas Galadriel actively chose to go to Middle-Earth in order to “see the wide unguarded lands and to rule there a realm at her own will”, we learn nothing of Aredhel’s reasons for leaving Valinor, and it seems safe to assume that she did so in order to follow her father and brothers, rather than out of any desire or ambition of her own.

Where Aredhel does display more of a spark is in her battle of wills with her brother Turgon over her desire to depart from Gondolin, much later on in the First Age. Her retort that “I am your sister and not your servant, and beyond your bounds I will go as seems good to me” is as spirited a denunciation of the paternalistic ideal of keeping women cooped up for our own protection as is to be found anywhere in Tolkien, with the possible exception of Eowyn’s passionate defence of her right to fight to defend Rohan in RoTK. (“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”.)

I suspect that First Age aficionados will never tire of debating whether Aredhel’s actions here are spirited or foolhardy. On the one hand, it is hard not to sympathise with her frustration at being cooped up in Gondolin and her desire to “ride again in the wide lands and walk in the forests”. We saw during the debate that preceded their departure from Valinor that many of the Noldor – among them such unequivocally good guys as Finrod Felagund – have an adventurous streak, and Aredhel, unlike Turgon, is clearly among them. (Indeed, one might ask why she ended up living with stick-in-the-mud Turgon when she could have stayed with her father or her apparently more laid-back brother Fingon).

On the other hand, of course, her decision to leave Gondolin – and later on her decisions to seek out the sons of Feanor, and after that to leave Himlad and just wander off on her own – can appear rather capricious  and not at all mindful of the realities of life in Beleriand, which after all is a region beset by war and full of peril. The fact that this debate never seems to end is a reflection of the flawed complexity of Aredhel’s character as depicted in the “Silmarillion”: while I think blaming her outright for the fall of Gondolin is excessive (Maeglin and Turgon himself both had a bigger part to play in that – not to mention Morgoth himself), there is no question that the restlessness that is her defining characteristic gives rise to a degree of recklessness, and that her actions – while understandable – are also on occasion misguided.

The other big debate surrounding Aredhel of course concerns her relationship with her husband Eol, who although he doesn’t cause destruction on the same scale as Feanor and Co. is nevertheless a worthy winner of the title of “Creepiest Elf of the First Age”. In a sinister echo of the star-crossed first encounter of Thingol and Melian, Aredhel runs into Eol as she wanders lost in the dark woods of Nan Elmoth – but only because her future husband ensnares her and draws her into the depths of the forest where he lives.

Now, it’s pretty clear from Tolkien’s writings elsewhere that this is not to be interpreted as a straightforward case of rape or even forced marriage: in the “Laws and Customs of the Eldar” (in Volume X of the “History of Middle-Earth”, “Morgoth’s Ring”), he states explicitly that “the Eldar wedded once only in life, and for love or at the least by free will upon either part”, before going on to say in the notes that follow the same essay that rape is impossible amongst the Elves, as the victim would die rather than submit to such bodily and spiritual violation: “There is no record of any among the Elves that took another’s spouse by force, for this was wholly against their nature, and one so forced would have rejected bodily life and passed to Mandos”. (Now, there is an argument that this latter point refers only to the impossibility of an Elf raping another’s spouse – Aredhel, of course, was not married when she strayed into Nan Elmoth – but I think that taken together, these two statements add up to a pretty convincing denial of the possibility that Eol simply took Aredhel by force, and she later consented to be his wife).

At the same time, the ambiguous and heavily-qualified terms in which the relationship between the two is described (for there can be few descriptions of a marriage less enthusiastic than “It is not said that Aredhel was wholly unwilling, nor that her life in Nan Elmoth was hateful to her for many years”) indicate that if what happened between them in the darkness wasn’t exactly rape, then it wasn’t exactly a love match either. And the outside world appears to share the view that Eol’s behaviour in taking her to wife was rather less than acceptable, at least if we are to give much credence to Curufin (admittedly one of the least sympathetic of all the Elves of the First Age) when he rebukes Eol with the words “Those who steal the daughters of the Noldor and wed them without gift or leave do not gain kinship with their kin”. Eol’s extreme possessiveness and refusal to let his wife walk in the sunlight – let alone leave Nan Elmoth – is also a reflection of a relationship that is far from healthy, as indeed is the warped and twisted nature of their son Maeglin, whose treachery will ultimately lead to the downfall of the Noldor’s last remaining stronghold of Gondolin.

Haleth: Warrior Princess

‘To this Haleth answered: “Where are Haldad my father, and Haldar my brother? If the king of Doriath fears a friendship between Haleth and those who have devoured her kin, then the thoughts of the Eldar are strange to men”’

                                 –          The Silmarillion, “Of the Coming of Men into the West”

When we think of warrior women (or, as TV Tropes would call them, “Action Girls”) in Tolkien’s world, the thoughts of most readers probably rush straight to Eowyn facing down the Lord of the Nazgul on the field of Pelennor. However, while Eowyn is very much an outlier in The Lord of the Rings – I can’t think of a single other female character who I’d classify as a warrior per se – that’s not the case when it comes to Tolkien’s mythology as a whole. We learn in the Silmarillion that the Shieldmaiden of Rohan is just one in a long line of sword-swinging mortal women, including Beren’s redoubtable mother Emeldir the Manhearted, who led her people into the Forest ofBrethil following the Dagor Bragollach.

The most memorable example of a female warrior from the First Age, however, is that of Haleth, the legendary leader of the Haladin (who later became known as the People of Haleth). Rather than coming from a strong matriarchal tradition (something we never see in Tolkien’s world, with the possible semi-exception of Smeagol’s people by the river). Rather, she assumes leadership out of necessary during a time of crisis. After her father and twin brother are killed during an orc-raid, Haleth – now the only remaining member of her family – is left to take the reins, and she does so. To be sure, she doesn’t engineer a miraculous victory against overwhelming odds – but she does manage to hold the Haladin together until Caranthir son of Feanor (in an uncharacteristic moment of chivalry) shows up with the cavalry and slaughters the Orcs for them. After that, Haleth remains the leader of the Haladin for the rest of her life. She never marries, like some Middle-Earth equivalent of the Virgin Queen, but she nevertheless becomes a talismanic figure amongst the Haladin, commemorated in the mound erected over her grave when she dies (known as the Tur Haretha or the Ladybarrow) and in the name of her people, who were referred to ever after as the People of Haleth.

Despite her reputation as something of an Amazon, we don’t hear an awful lot about Haleth’s fighting prowess: all we know is that she was “a woman of great heart and strength”, and that she valiantly defended the Haladin against the Orcs alongside her father and brother. Her main characteristics as a leader, however, appear to have been an iron will and a powerful charisma, which enabled her time and again to spur her people on when all seemed lost and hopeless. Indeed, part of what makes her character interesting is that while her valour and leadership skills cannot be called into question, there is room for doubt about the wisdom of some of the decisions she makes, all of which seem to be aimed at allowing the Haladin to defend their hard-won and much-prized independence, but several of which cause them a great deal of hardship.

The first of these – her decision to lead her people west to Estolad rather than accepting Caranthir’s offer of land and protection – is actually quite understandable, and not just in a fiercely independent, “don’t tread on me” kind of way. Tolkien points out that neither Haleth nor most of the other Haladin were particularly keen to find themselves dependent on the Eldar for their lands and protection – and however decent it was of Caranthir to come to their aid in the first place, it’s probable he would have expected Haleth and her people to repay him in kind in the event of future Orc raids or another offensive against Morgoth, a demand which could well have had catastrophic consequences for this small and scattered people.

Less understandable is her later decision to move even further west, bringing her people through sheer force of will through the ominously-named, spider-haunted Nan Dungortheb (“Valley of Dreadful Death”, the name given to the valley between the Mountains of Terror and the Girdle of Melian). The narrative at this point is so sparse that it’s extremely difficult to judge Haleth’s decision here. All we are told in the text is how dangerous the journey was (the route through Nan Dungortheb being “no road for mortal Men to take without aid”), and that the Haladin suffered both heavy losses and bitter regrets as a result. What we don’t hear is anything from Haleth herself about why she decided to make such a drastic move. It’s more than likely that she had her reasons, and they may have been good or bad – but without them, it’s hard to say whether or not she was justified in uprooting her people yet again and subjecting them to such perils and hardships. What can’t be denied, however, is her valour and charisma, which allowed her to transform herself from a chieftain’s plucky daughter to an inspirational leader destined to go down in legend.

The final characteristic of Haleth which comes across in the Silmarillion  is tied closely to that fierce desire for independence which appears to have lain behind all her deeds as leader of the Haladin and which remains a characteristic of the Haladin throughout the documented history of the First Age – that is, her willingness to stand up to the Eldar, who have staked a claim over the whole of Beleriand and are gaining the allegiance of other leaders of Men (Beor, Marach) left, right and centre. We have already seen how she rejected Caranthir’s offer of land and protection in favour of going it alone. Later on, we are told of a more pointed confrontation with the sainted Finrod Felagund himself, the most mortal-friendly of all the Elves of the First Age. Offered the chance to live in Brethil provided her people do not allow Orcs to enter the land, Haleth snaps “Where are Haldad my father, and Haldar my brother? If the King of Doriath fears a friendship between Haleth and those who have devoured her kin, then the thoughts of the Eldar are strange to Men.” A lady of uncommon spirit, then, and one worthy of remembrance by both Elves and Men.