“Letters” and an apology

I’ve recently been filling in one of the biggest gaps in my Tolkien education by reading through the “Letters” from start to finish. In addition to making me desperately wish the Professor were still alive so I could bombard him with questions about some of the mysteries which continue to puzzle me (the mortality status of Dior, Elured and Elurin; whether or not orcs go to Mandos; what happened to Radagast post-LoTR; Celebrimbor’s story in between his repudiation of his father in Nargothrond and his sudden re-appearance in the Second Age. And more, more, more on Sauron! And Thuringwethil, and…well, I’ll stop there), it has given me a few good ideas for later topics to discuss on this blog.

One of the phrases which most jumped out at me came in the middle of the famous letter to Milton Waldman (letter 131 in my edition) in which he basically provides a precis of the entire “Silmarillion”. Discussing the respective roles of Elves and mortal Men in the events of the First Age, Tolkien explains that “It is Beren the outlawed mortal who succeeds (with the help of Luthien, a mere maiden even if an elf of royalty) where all the armies and warriors have failed: he penetrates the stronghold of the Enemy and wrests one of the Silmarilli from the Iron Crown”. The emphasis in the above is obviously mine, because – really, Tolkien? I seem to recall that “mere maiden” playing at least as active a role in the recovery of the Silmaril as the outlawed mortal she supposedly “helped”. For that matter, it’s difficult to see how Beren would have ended up anywhere except inside a wolf’s belly if it wasn’t for Luthien’s frequent timely interventions. This will definitely come up, either in the Luthien post I am dreading having to put together at some point, or even in a separate post of its own – but if you’re impatient, I am not the first person to spot this somewhat incendiary (to Tolkien-loving feminists at least) quote. Dawn Felagund discussed it at the Heretic Loremaster site back in 2010 – see here.

The second thing I spotted relates not to a hypothetical future post, but to an existing one. When I wrote the entry on Smeagol’s grandmother and hobbit women, I hadn’t yet read Tolkien’s draft letter to A.C.Nunn (letter 214 in my edition), which deals with precisely this topic and indeed with some of the issues I speculated about in my post, vindicating some of my conclusions and debunking others.

First of all, I was right to suggest that it was Smeagol’s grandmother’s strong character that had led her to become such a dominant figure within her little community (and indeed in the life of her unfortunate grandson): Tolkien explicitly states that her headship of Smeagol’s family occurred “no doubt because she had outlived her husband, and was a woman of dominant character”. However, it turns out that I was wrong to speculate – however vaguely – about whether the Anduin Stoor community was in any way a true matriarchy. Not only does Tolkien dismiss this (“There is no reason to suppose that the Stoors of Wilderland had developed a strictly ‘matriarchal’ system”), but he also goes so far as to suggest that such a thing would be a by-product of Sauron or some other evil influence: “It is not (I think) to be supposed that any fundamental change in their marriage-customs had taken place, or any sort of matriarchal or polyandrous society developed (even though this might explain the absence of any reference whatsoever to Smeagol-Gollum’s father). ‘Monogamy’ was at this period in the West universally practised, and other systems were regarded with repugnance, as things only done ‘under the Shadow'”.

Well, that’s me told. And wow – I really can’t wait to get on to discussing the “Laws and Customs of the Eldar” and Tolkien’s views on marriage. Some of that will inevitably come up in my next post (on Miriel Serinde), but a full treatment is definitely necessary – and I may need to enlist a Catholic to help me work out how the sexual morality and marriage customs Tolkien ascribed to his various races maps onto official Catholic doctrine – my guess would be fairly closely, but I don’t know enough to be sure.

Oh, and finally – also in Letter 214, I loved the story of Lalia Took! She will definitely be getting an entry of her own, albeit probably a short one!

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The Dowager Countess of Bag End: Lobelia Sackville-Baggins

‘ “I’ll give you Sharkey, you dirty thieving ruffians!” says she, and ups with her umberella and goes for the leader, near twice her size. So they took her. Dragged her off to the Lockholes, at her age too. They’ve took others we miss more, but there’s no denying she showed more spirit than most’. – Young Tom Cotton, “The Return of the King”

Eowyn, the Shieldmaiden of Rohan. Galadriel, Lady of Light. Shelob. Luthien. Elbereth. There are so many memorable, in some cases even iconic female characters in Tolkien’s world, whose influence reverberates well beyond the actual space they occupy within the text. So why on earth have I decided to start this blog by looking at a decidedly minor character, whose known deeds are confined to making off with Bilbo’s silverware and attacking Saruman’s lackeys with her umbrella during the scouring of the Shire? First of all, because chronologically speaking, she’s the first female character to make an appearance in any of Tolkien’s published works on Middle-Earth when she shows up at the auction at the end of “The Hobbit” (well, unless you count the fleeting references to Bilbo’s mother Belladonna Took, which I don’t). And secondly and more importantly, because in spite of her many unsympathetic characteristics, I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for the old battleaxe.

Now, I’m not denying that during her fleeting appearance at the end of The Hobbit and her more substantial cameo in the opening chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring, Lobelia comes across as a pretty unsympathetic character. With her repeated attempts to snatch Bag End from under the noses of both Bilbo and Frodo and her snobbery (“You’re no Baggins – you – you’re a Brandybuck!”, she says to Frodo shortly after Bilbo’s disappearance), not to mention the dominance she obviously exerts over her less strong-willed but equally unpleasant husband and son, the matriarch of the Sackville-Baggins clan is an embodiment of a particular sort of woman Tolkien probably knew in real life – and heartily disliked. Worse, she’s a thief, and a repeat offender at that – not only did she infamously swipe Bilbo’s best spoons while he was off at the Lonely Mountain, but after Bilbo finally leaves the Shire his nephew Frodo is forced to divest her of “several small (but rather valuable) items that had somehow fallen inside her umbrella”.

If Tolkien had left it at that, I doubt Lobelia would be getting her own entry here – and I very much doubt I’d have chosen “Lobelia” as my username when I first signed up to a Lord of the Rings discussion board at the age of fifteen. (Come on. It’s better than “IluvLegolas2000”, or whatever). But when put to the test during the scouring of the Shire, Lobelia shows what she’s really made of. She unfurls, like that anachronistic umbrella of hers, and in the process becomes far less of a caricature and much more sympathetic. For all her snobbery, she has a spine of steel and a strong sense of right and wrong (spoon-swiping aside). Taking on Sharkey’s goons with her trusty umbrella is as brave, in the smaller arena of the Shire, as Eowyn facing down the Witch-King on the field of Pelennor, or Arwen fearlessly embroidering Aragorn’s banner in her comfy chambers at Rivendell*.

And she shows spirit right to the end. In the penultimate chapter of “The Return of the King”, we see her hobbling out of the Lockholes on her own two feet, still clutching her umbrella, despite being over a hundred years old. In the end, Tolkien even allows her a bit of pathos. In her final appearance in the story, as she drives off after being freed from prison, Lobelia is in tears – not just because of the grisly death of her son Lotho (of whom she was clearly very fond), but also because she had never in her life been popular before. And when she dies shortly afterwards, she leaves all of her money to her once-detested nephew Frodo, to help our poor hobbits left homeless by the troubles.

In the end, Lobelia reminds me of no-one so much as the Dowager Countess of “Downton Abbey” fame, splendidly played by Maggie Smith. Prickly for sure, and a horrendous snob in thrall to a set of values in which I have no sympathy at all – in short, not somebody I would ever want to sit down to dinner (or afternoon tea) with. But in a tight spot, it’s clear that that underneath that unsympathetic exterior there’s a core of firmness and decency – in short, she’s someone you could count on in a pinch.

*Obviously a joke.