“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.

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‘I have no doubt that Smeagol’s grandmother was a matriarch, a great person in her way”

 –          Gandalf, “The Fellowship of the Ring”

A couple of months ago, I kicked off this blog with a biography of Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, the most prominent female hobbit in the series, and a firm favourite of mine despite the fact that she’s such a cantankerous old bat. However, on reflection I felt that I hadn’t really explored how women fit into hobbit society more widely.

In contrast to some of the other races of Middle-Earth, we don’t have a lot of formal information about how hobbit society works or how women fit into it: Tolkien never wrote the Shire equivalent of the “Laws and Customs of the Eldar”, or even anything along the lines of the brief paragraph on Dwarf women in Appendix A of “The Return of the King”. Most of what we do learn is anecdotal – and aside from Lobelia, probably the most intriguing female hobbit we learn about is Smeagol’s grandmother, the redoubtable if long-dead matriarch of a clan of Anduin Stoors.

Smeagol’s grandmother has her origins in what I presume were initially a couple of throwaway lines in chapter 5 of “The Hobbit”. As Gollum casts around for the answer to Bilbo’s second riddle, we learn that in his long-ago youth he lived with his grandmother in a hole by the river. A page later, just as it looks as though he is going to fail to answer Bilbo’s second riddle, he suddenly remembers “thieving from nests long ago, and sitting under the river-bank teaching his grandmother, teaching his grandmother to suck…” – eggs, as it turns out, the answer to the riddle. Like the earlier reference in chapter 1 to the goblin-chieftain Golfimbul whose demise led to the invention of the game of golf, this was almost certainly something Tolkien threw in for comedy effect – an amusing use of a rather silly colloquial expression, and nothing more.

Come “The Lord of the Rings”, however, we find Tolkien fleshing out the story of Smeagol’s youthful riverbank adventures as part of the overall attempt to develop Gollum into a more complex, tragic character than the fleeting villainous presence of “The Hobbit”. This is where we learn that this redoubtable woman, described by Gandalf as “stern and wise in old lore, such as (her people) had”, ruled over a family which, while no doubt rather modest in the big scheme of things, was nevertheless “large and wealthier than most” among the Anduin Stoors. Her position as head of the family is underlined by the fact that it was she who ejected Smeagol from her hole and exiled him from the family, setting off the chain of events that would culminate in a certain riddle-game under the Misty Mountains several centuries later.

What is more, hundreds of years after his exile and the disappearance of his whole community, this formidable woman continues to loom large in her grandson’s memory. Not only do his memories of carefree days of childhood egg-sucking surface during his conversation with Bilbo, but we learn that during his interrogation with Gandalf, he repeatedly tried to cover up the true story of how he obtained the Ring by claiming that it was a gift from his grandmother, who owned many such things – a claim rightly dismissed by Gandalf as “ridiculous”, but which nevertheless reflects the stature she had within her community and in her grandson’s early life.

So, Smeagol’s grandmother clearly played an important role as the matriarch and main authority figure of her little clan. The question is – how typical is this of hobbit society? Do hobbit women typically exercise this degree of independence, or was it a characteristic of the now-defunct Anduin Stoor community to which Smeagol and his grandmother belonged, or was his grandmother simply propelled into that position by the absence of any male authority figures or by her own forceful personality? From the little evidence we have, both the first and the last would appear to be the case. While (as in other Middle-Earth societies, and indeed in Britain in Tolkien’s day) men appear to be the default heads of hobbit families, women nevertheless enjoyed a significant amount of influence, particularly in the event of their partner’s death. As Tolkien wrote in a letter to A.S.Nunn:

“The government of a ‘family’, as of the real unit: the ‘household’ was not a monarchy…It was a ‘dyarchy’, in which master and mistress had equal status, if different functions. Either as held to be the proper representative of the other in the case of absence (including death). There were no ‘dowagers’. If the master died first, his place was taken by his wife, and this included (if he had held that position) the titular headship of a large family or clan. This title thus did not descend to the son, or another heir, while she lived, unless she voluntarily resigned”.

 Presumably, then, this was the position Smeagol’s  grandmother found herself in: with her partner dead, this redoubtable widow was able to take over, in her case assuming not only the titular headship of the family but also the authority to make decisions affecting the whole clan (such as the decision to cast Smeagol out from the family)

Smeagol´s Grandmother, or women in hobbit society