“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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Idril Celebrindal

“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”

“She fought, alone as she was, like a tigress for all her beauty and slenderness” – “The Book of Lost Tales”

For someone who routinely interrogates her Tolkien-loving friends and acquaintances about the identity of their favourite female characters (for the record, it’s mostly Eowyns and Galadriels, with the odd Yavanna and one Amarie – seriously, don’t ask) I have a lot of trouble answering that particular question myself. My overall favourite is probably Nerdanel – I admire her wisdom, independence, and creativity. I also like Eowyn, Galadriel (particularly her First Age incarnation), Andreth, and Lobelia Sackville-Baggins. I think Erendis is a sympathetic and well-written character, though I doubt I’d particularly enjoy going out for cocktails with her. And I have a definite soft spot for Idril Celebrindal.

Idril was born in Valinor, the daughter of Turgon (second son of Fingolfin, and later king of Gondolin) and his wife Elenwe. She crossed the Helcaraxe together with the majority of the Noldor and at one point actually fell into the water along with her mother, but was rescued by Turgon (Elenwe, however, was lost). Like many of Tolkien’s heroines she was ethereally beautiful (in this case of the blonde rather than the raven-haired variety) and had some decidedly impractical tastes when it came to fashion – her nickname Celebrindal (“Silver-foot”) stemmed from the fact that she always went barefoot. I only hope she had some sturdy footwear on hand for the escape from Gondolin, because that would have been seriously painful otherwise.

Idril’s beauty and position as only child of the King of Gondolin made her an object of lust for her creepy cousin Maeglin, but she chose instead to marry the mortal Tuor (with a minimum of drama, it must be said). Along with Tuor and their son Earendil (of celestial-being fame) she escaped Gondolin during its fall and settled at the mouths of Sirion, where many escapees from Doriath were already living. Ultimately, she sailed into the West with Tuor, and their fate is officially unknown, though there are legends that Tuor was granted immortality, probably as some sort of “compensation” for the granting of the Gift of Iluvatar to Luthien a few years previously.

So, what is it about Idril that appeals to me? First and foremost, I think it’s the fact that she comes across as a smart cookie. We learn in the “Silmarillion” that she was the only person in Gondolin to see Maeglin for what he was. This is explained in more detail in the “Book of Lost Tales” version of the Fall of Gondolin story, where we learn that like her cousin Galadriel, Idril possessed “a great power of piercing with her thought the darkness of the hearts of Elves and Men, and the glooms of the future thereto – further even than is the common power of the kindreds of the Eldalie”. What is more, Idril isn’t just a better judge of character than her father and pretty much everybody else in Gondolin. She’s also level-headed and practical. She doesn’t just pronounce her foreboding in an ethereal voice and be done with it – instead, she takes action, ordering the construction of a secret passage out of Gondolin (and indeed going behind the backs of her father and Maeglin in order to do so). Her actions were what allowed a remnant of the people of Gondolin to escape the sack of the city. (In the “Book of Lost Tales” version of the story, she actually saves them a second time, too. Once the refugees are on the secret way she ordered built, some wanted to make their way onto the Way of Escape, the traditional escape route from the city. Idril counselled against this, warning that whatever magic was in place to protect the route would not have survived the city’s fall. She turned out to be right, of course – Maeglin had told Morgoth of the Way of Escape, and a “monster” (presumably a dragon) was conveniently stationed along the route to take care of any escapees).

During the fall of Gondolin and the escape of the remaining Gondolindrim from their city, Idril proves herself a practical and prescient leader. She also shows herself to be, if not a warrior, then at least capable of being tough in a pinch. In his discussion of Elven gender roles in “Morgoth’s Ring”, Tolkien says that although under normal circumstances war is the preserve of men, “in dire straits or desperate defence, the nissi (Elven women) fought valiantly”. Idril exemplifies this perfectly, particularly in the version of the story told in the “Book of Lost Tales”. When she and Earendil are captured by Maeglin, we are told that she “fought, alone as she was, like a tigress for all her beauty and slenderness”, fending off Maeglin for long enough to allow Tuor to get to them and throw him off the battlements. She proved indomitable too when it came to rounding up survivors and shepherding them into the secret tunnel she had ordered built: “She fared about gathering womenfolk and wanderers and speeding them down the tunnel, and smiting marauders with her small band; nor might they dissuade her from bearing a sword”.

The final thing I enjoy about Idril is the warmth and comparative lack of drama in her relationship with Tuor. When trying to console Andreth for the failure of her relationship with Aegnor in the “Athrabeth Finrod a Andreth”, Finrod Felagund tells her that in his view, marriages between Elves and Men would take place only “for some high purpose of Doom. Brief it will be, and hard at the end. Yea, the least cruel fate that could befall would be that death should soon end it”. Of course, the birth of Earendil undoubtedly qualifies as a “high purpose of Doom”. However, the relationship between Idril and Tuor (or at least what we see of it) seems to be completely devoid of the angst Finrod identifies as an inevitable component of such mixed marriages. They clearly care deeply for one another, and for Earendil. What is more, it’s a good partnership. Unlike some of Tolkien’s male characters who happen to be married to a woman blessed with greater wisdom and foresight than their own (Thingol, I’m looking at you), Tuor is respectful of Idril and heeds her advice, even when he doesn’t quite understand the reasoning behind it. In the end, of course, it’s her advice combined with his willingness to heed it that saves them and their son, along with a portion of the rest of the population.

That’s all I really want to say about Idril herself for now. However, the story of Idril and the Fall of Gondolin does raise one further question which I think is important. Idril’s status as Turgon’s only child (but not his heir) raises the question of female succession and leadership amongst the Noldor. I won’t talk about this too much, as I’m planning to look into the question of female leadership (more generally, not just amongst the Noldor or the Eldar) for my next post. We learn in the “Laws and Customs of the Eldar” that male and female Elves are more or less equal in terms of their mental and physical abilities, even though Tolkien (ever the man of his time!) was quite to reassure us that they nevertheless choose to engage in different pursuits reflecting traditional views of what was appropriate for men and women. What is more, it’s pretty clear from the Fall of Gondolin story that Idril possesses many of the necessary qualities for leadership. However, Aredhel’s tales of Gondolin to Maeglin in Nan Elmoth stress the fact that Turgon has “no heir”. It seems clear from this that women among the Noldor do not occupy leadership positions and are not viewed as potential heirs, even when the king has no sons. The question is – why? After all, male and female Elves are acknowledged to be equal, and the “Laws and Customs” states explicitly that although there are certain customs and traditions regarding the roles assigned to each gender, these are by no means hard-and-fast rules. It’s a bit of a conundrum.

Wednesday Fanart

I finally received my copy of the “JRR Tolkien Encyclopedia” the other day, and it has a whole entry devoted to fan art, which I think counts as an endorsement. Which is a good thing, as there are a lot of wonderful artists out there producing beautiful works of art inspired by Tolkien’s works. In honour of that fact – well, really because there’s such a lot of great art out there and I want to make sure everybody sees it – I’m going to be highlighting a piece of fanart I particularly like every Wednesday. (And yes, I know that “Friday Fanart” would work better for the alliteration, but on Fridays I’m far more likely to go to the cinema or get drunk and completely forget to do this than I am on a Wednesday, so Wednesday it is!)

The first piece of art I’m going to recommend is one I’ve already highlighted on the blog – it’s “Family” by liga-marta from DeviantArt: Family. The picture depicts Idril, Tuor and Earendil escaping from Gondolin – Tuor carries a sleeping Earendil in his arms, while Idril has stopped momentarily, presumably for one last look back at Gondolin. I chose this picture in large part because I just love how all three characters are depicted in it – Idril’s sadness and Tuor’s quiet strength really shine through here, and Earendil is adorable. The other reason is that I’m in the middle of writing what is turning out to be something of a love letter to Idril Celebrindal, so it seemed appropriate!

Finally, I just have to mention how much Tuor and Idril’s no-nonsense parenting style in the “Book of Lost Tales” version of the Fall of Gondolin amuses me. They clearly don’t believe in sugar-coating the truth as far as Earendil is concerned, which gives us scenes like this:

EARENDIL: Mum, Dad, where is Salgant? He’s funny.

TUOR: Salgant’s dead. Now shut up, we have a long way to go.

EARENDIL: (cries).

(Ten minutes later)

EARENDIL: Mum, Dad, where is Ecthelion? I want him to play with me.

IDRIL: He’s dead too, sweetie. A Balrog drowned him in a fountain.

EARENDIL: (crying) I hate Balrogs! I hate Gondolin! I never want to go back there, ever!

TUOR: Well, today’s your lucky day, because the whole place was destroyed along with all your toys, and your grandad got crushed underneath his own tower.

EARENDIL: (wails).

(N.B. I’m sure there is a way to actually insert images into the text of my blog – I just can’t for the life of me work out what it is! So the link will have to do for now).

Art recommendation

A year or so ago, I discovered this fantastic gallery by liga-marta on deviantART – some really beautiful drawings of various characters and scenes from the Silmarillion, including (you’ve guessed it) quite a lot of the women!

This one of Idril, Tuor and Earendil escaping Gondolin is probably my favourite (I love the haunted, sad expression on Idril’s face), while this is the best attempt to capture Luthien I’ve ever seen.