“Let Her Be As Lord”: Women as Leaders in Tolkien’s Works

“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”

 “’I said not Eomer’, answered Hama. ‘And he is not the last. There is Eowyn, daughter of Eomund, his sister. She is fearless and high-hearted. All love her. Let her be as lord to the Eorlingas, while you are gone’” – The Two Towers.

 The title of this blog – “Tolkien’s Women” – might seem to suggest that the role of women in Arda is fixed and unchanging, and does not vary at all despite the wide range of times, places and cultures depicted in Tolkien’s works. In fact, this is very far from being the case – really, we see considerable variation between the different races and cultures in terms of the roles women play. For example, mortal women seem most inclined to become warriors, although they still only appear to do so in moments of great need (just think of Eowyn, and Haleth, and Emeldir the Manhearted). Among the people of Beor, women are also renowned as keepers of wisdom and lore (as Andreth is, and Adanel before her), but it’s not clear whether this is the case across the various kindreds of the Edain. Noldorin women are generally inclined towards traditionally “feminine” pursuits such as healing, though some are athletic (Galadriel was an athlete in her youth, while her cousin Aredhel loved hunting) and others (such as Nerdanel and Miriel) display the love of crafts that is such a hallmark of Noldorin males. Hobbit women sometimes rule their families with iron fists, as Smeagol’s grandmother evidently did – but for every Lalia Took, you have a Mrs Maggot, who just bustles in and out with dishes of mushrooms and bacon while her husband engages in a man-to-man chat with Frodo and company. There’s a great deal of variation there – but all these cultures have one thing in common. With the exception of Numenor (whose ruling queens I have looked at here and here), and to an extent the People of Haleth, women do not normally occupy formal leadership positions in Tolkien’s works.

 The exclusion of women from positions of leadership is most glaring amongst the Eldar. In the “Laws and Customs Among the Eldar”, Tolkien firmly establishes both that male and female Elves are equal (“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” and that while there are certain customs regarding which gender does what, there are no hard-and-fast rules (“There are (…) no matters which among the Eldar only a ner can think or do, or others with which only a nis is concerned”). Galadriel even shows an early inclination towards leadership, participating in the rebellion against the Valar largely because she “yearned to see the wide unguarded lands and to rule there (in Middle-earth) a realm at her own will”.

 So, Galadriel has the desire to lead men, and there is little question that she has the ability to do so. When we meet her again in the “Fellowship of the Ring”, however, she is not ruling a realm at her own will – or at the very least, not in her own name. Like her mentor Melian before her, she’s acting as consort to a male ruler whose abilities clearly don’t hold a candle to her own. Now, it’s pretty clear that Galadriel is the real power in Lothlorien – unlike his kinsman Thingol, Celeborn the Wise has the good sense to recognise that his wife is something special, and actually listen to her. However, this isn’t medieval England, where strictly-enforced gender roles dictated that able women could influence affairs through or on behalf or a male relative, but could not rule in their own right. The “Laws and Customs of the Eldar” indicate no reason why a woman should not be able to rule a realm at her own will – yet Galadriel doesn’t.

 Now, an argument could be made here that Celeborn is the nominal leader of the Galadhrim because he is a Sinda, whereas Galadriel’s Noldorin origins and kinship to the dreaded Sons of Feanor make her distinctly suspect. This is not a bad argument – though it doesn’t explain why Galadriel, along with Aredhel, is the only grandchild of Finwe not to get her own realm in the initial carving-up of Beleriand after their return from exile. All the male members of the House of Finwe get their share, even though some of the more obvious nonentities (such as Angrod and Aegnor and Amrod and Amras) have to share with one another. The two women, however, have to pick a brother to live with. Furthermore, later on in the “Silmarillion” we have the case of Idril Celebrindal. As I discussed in my previous blog post on her, Idril is Turgon’s only child, but apparently that does not make her his heir. In other words, it seems that at least as far as Aredhel is aware (and it seems a safe bet that she would be well acquainted with Noldorin inheritance customs) a daughter cannot succeed her father as ruler, even in the event that he has no other child. In this matter, then, it seems that neri and nissi are in reality far from equal.

 Among the Edain, the rules appear to be a bit less hard-and-fast, although the norm still appears to be for men to rise to leadership positions in preference to women. When we do see women take on leadership roles (be it formally or informally) this generally happens under extreme circumstances and as a last resort. So, in the “Silmarillion”, Haleth steps into the breach after her father and brother are killed and leads her people in a desperate last stand against the Orcs. Later, they take her as their chief, and become known to posterity as the “People of Haleth”. However, it’s clear that Haleth was an extraordinary woman facing extraordinary circumstances. Had things gone otherwise, her father would have remained the leader of their people, and he would most likely have been succeeded by Haleth’s twin brother regardless of whether or not he shared his sister’s charisma and leadership ability.

 In the “Lord of the Rings”, meanwhile, Theoden leaves Eowyn in charge of Edoras when he and his men depart for Helm’s Deep (and if it hadn’t been for the whole Dernhelm thing, she would have remained in charge while they rode to the aid of Minas Tirith). However, it takes Theoden a bit of prodding to even consider Eowyn as a potential leader (his initial response, when told that his people will trust only in a leader from the House of Eorl, is to say that “Eomer I cannot spare, nor would he stay (…) and he is the last of that House”.) Although we should probably cut the old king some slack given that he’s just woken up from his Wormtongue-induced stupor, this still suggests that the idea of leaving a woman in charge is something very much out of the ordinary in Rohan, and that Eowyn has not previously crossed his mind as a potential ruler. This begs the question of what would have happened had Theoden and Eomer both been killed at the Battle of Pelennor Fields. Would Eowyn’s temporary role as caretaker-leader have been made permanent (at least until she had a son to succeed her), or would they have gone back up the family tree looking for the nearest male heir?

 Even if Eowyn would in the end have been deemed capable of ruling the Rohirrin (either permanently or on a temporary basis until she had an of-age son to succeed her), she would have been very much an exception as a female ruler amongst the Edain. As I’ve discussed before on a couple of occasions, Numenor was a rare exception – there, women were not only permitted to succeed to the throne, but did so ahead of their younger brothers if they happened to be the oldest child. However, this custom was nor maintained in Numenor’s successor kingdoms of Gondor and Arnor. There is not a single female name among the rulers of either kingdom listed in the Appendices, nor indeed among the stewards of Gondor. If we ignore the precedent set by Numenor, the lack of female rulers amongst the Edain looks less surprising than it does among the Elves. After all, Mannish societies are based pretty clearly on those of medieval Europe, and it’s a matter of historical fact that those societies did not allow women to exercise leadership in their own right. In addition, Tolkien does not state (as he does with the Elves) that females have all the same abilities and are free to participate in the same activities as the males. However, the existence of Numenor definitely throws a spanner in the works, and there is still no real explanation for why the Numenoreans dropped the custom of allowing females to inherit the sceptre as soon as they made landfall back on Middle-earth.

 Finally, we have the Hobbits (it’s been a while since I wrote about them!) They are an interesting case owing to their very hands-off form of government and the appearance of a couple of distinctly larger-than-life females amongst their ranks. Tolkien made it clear in his letters that female hobbits acted as co-heads (and on occasion as sole heads) of families – which is clearly important, given that hobbit society is essentially structured around families. We also have a couple of examples of how this worked in practice – Smeagol’s grandmother was obviously the authority figure within her little clan, while Lobelia Sackville-Baggins and Lalia Took also loom large within their respective families. At the same time, however, the few formal authority figures who do appear to exist in the Shire (the Took, the Mayor of Michel Delving, the Master of Buckland) are all male, and there’s no evidence that it’s ever been otherwise. Furthermore, it’s not at all clear that all hobbit women exercise a great deal of power within their families – for every Smeagol’s grandmother or Lobelia, it seems there’s a Mrs Maggot (confined to domestic duty while her husband deals with weighty matters such as Black Riders and mushroom thieves) or a Mrs Cotton, who has nothing to say as her husband and sons debate how to take back the Shire from Sharkey’s men. In short, what we have here is a variation of the old idea that while men are in charge of the outside world, women are the bosses at home. (Though it’s possible that this translates into more real power in the Shire – where government is limited and authority within the family carries real weight – than it does in our world, where the ability to nag one’s husband over dinner is a poor substitute for real political and economic power).

 *In some versions of the mythology, we also have the figure of Findis. While she didn’t make it into the final version of the “Silmarillion”, Findis was (as her rather unimaginative portmanteau name would suggest) the daughter of Finwe and Indis. In fact, she was the eldest child of the controversial pair – so, she was younger than Feanor, but older than Fingolfin, and a lot older than Finarfin. When the Noldor depart Valinor en masse leaving Findis and Finarfin as the only members of the royal family to stay put (another sister, Lalwen, left with the exiles), the crown goes straight to Finarfin. There is no indication of any debate, or of Findis refusing what was after all something of a poisoned chalice. The crown just passed to the younger male sibling by default.

Queen of the Lonely Isle: Meril-i-Turinqi

“Fellowship is possible, maybe, but kinship not so, for Man is Man and Elda Elda, and what Iluvatar has made unalike may not become alike while the world remains”

– Meril-i-Turinqi, “The Book of Lost Tales”

A few months ago, I moved back from South America to the UK – and a few weeks ago, I finally received my shipment of household goods, including my Tolkien books (which spent a couple of months sitting in a Colombian warehouse, making it rather difficult for me to do the research necessary to keep up with the blog!) To celebrate having them back, I decided to do an entry on a character from one of the obscurer reaches of the legendarium – Meril-i-Turinqi, Queen of the Elves of Tol Eressea in the “Book of Lost Tales”. Unlike the other characters I’ve looked at so far as part of the blog – including characters such as Andreth who similarly appear only in the “History of Middle-earth” series – Meril is one character who we can’t say for sure even exists in Tolkien’s final conception of the story. When Gandalf, Galadriel, Frodo et al disembark on the shores of the Lonely Isle post-RoTK, are they arriving on an island ruled by this teller of tales and dispenser of limpe? On the one hand, there’s nothing anywhere to contradict it. On the other, so much else from the Lost Tales era fell by the wayside, and the tales themselves ended up so fundamentally altered, that there’s absolutely no guarantee that Meril was still envisaged as part of the scene.

All that said (phew!), who exactly is this mysterious character? She’s described by others in the Book of Lost Tales as the Queen of the Lonely Isle – and although it’s not made clear exactly what degree of authority she wields or how, this is enough to mark her out as one of the few female authority figures to make an appearance in Tolkien’s works. No king or other male authority figure is mentioned in conjunction with her, meaning that whatever authority she wields, she does so entirely by her own right (something which can’t be said for, say, Galadriel or Melian). Indeed, from the few references in the text to who she is and why she holds the position she does, it seems clear that she derives her authority from her lofty ancestry. She is first mentioned in the text as a descendant of “Inwe” (presumably a forerunner of Ingwe, High King of the Noldor and licker of the Valar’s boots – er, sorry, let out my inner Feanorian for a moment there!) and later informs Eriol (the mortal mariner whose experiences on Tol Eressea are the framework for the telling of the Lost Tales) that she is also related to the Shore-pipers – the Solosimpi, who would later evolve into the Teleri. If, as seems very likely, this ancestry is the reason why she occupies the position of Queen, then it’s the sole example I can think of where an Elven woman is a hereditary monarch.

As far as her actual purpose within the text is concerned, Meril is a dispenser both of healing and of wisdom. Her home, set amid flowers and elm-trees, is described in idyllic terms and provides a respite from the cares of this world (and for Eriol, a respite even from the sea-longing, that most Tolkienian of afflictions). The drink she provides (limpe), meanwhile, appears to be possessed of restorative properties far beyond the miruvor of Rivendell: it is through the drinking of limpe, we learn, that the “hearts (of the Eldar) keep youth”. However, her dwelling is not merely a place of escapism: Meril is also a dispenser of wisdom and a teller of hard truths. Her refusal to allow Eriol to drink limpe, and her assertion of the fundamental differences between Men and Elves (“Man is Man, and Elda Elda, and what Iluvatar has made unalike may not become alike while the world remains”) could have come from the mouth of Finrod Felagund himself in the “Athrabeth Finrod a Andreth”.

As I mentioned further up, it’s not at all clear whether or not Meril survived into Tolkien’s later conception of the legendarium. What is clear, however, is that something of her survives in later, more fully-realised characters such as Melian and, in particular, Galadriel. I’m not the first person to point this out. John Garth, in his wonderful book “Tolkien and the Great War” (seriously, if you haven’t read it, check it out!) points out the similarities in their dwelling-places (“She (Meril) lives among her maidens in a ceremonial circle of trees in Kortirion, like Galadriel in her city of trees in Lothlorien”) and in their functions (“Both elf-queens are repositories of ancient knowledge, but each also is the source of a supernaturally enduring vitality: Meril through the marvellous drink limpe that she dispenses, Galadriel through the power to arrest decay in her realm”). The two women even share a similar ancestry: Galadriel, like Meril, is descended from the Vanyar (Meril through “Inwe”, Galadriel through Indis, second wife of Finwe), and both are also related to the Solosimpi/Teleri (Galadriel’s mother Earwen is the daughter of the king of Alqualonde). So even if Meril (as seems likely) did not survive into Tolkien’s final conception of the political configuration of Tol Eressea, the idea of the great queen of illustrious ancestry who is simultaneously a dispenser of healing and wisdom did survive, and gave rise to one of the most memorable characters and sequences of “The Lord of the Rings”.