“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.

“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!