“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.

“The Female Attitude to Wild Things”: The Entwives

“I longed to devise a setting in which the trees might really march to war. And into this has crept a mere piece of experience, the difference of the ‘male’ and ‘female’ attitude to wild things, the difference between unpossessive love and gardening”

–          Letter 163 (to W.H. Auden)

 For me, one of the things that really makes Tolkien stand out from other authors is the fact that although I first read “The Lord of the Rings” thirteen years ago and have returned (in full or in part) countless times since, I never fail to spot something I’ve never noticed before, or to suddenly see a familiar passage in a new light. (And yes, I am fully aware that there are people out there who’ve been reading the book for sixty years who could say much the same thing!) On my most recent re-read over the Christmas holidays, the fact that I’ve been writing this blog meant that I found myself thinking consciously about the roles played by the various female characters for the first time, and one of the things that most struck me was the fundamental distinction that Tolkien draws between the Ents and the Entwives when it comes to their attitude towards nature.

 Ents (at least according to Treebeard in Chapter 4 of “The Two Towers”) appreciate nature for itself, and have no desire to control it or force it into a mould: “The Ents loved the great trees, and the wild woods, and the slope of the high hills; and they drank of the mountain-streams, and ate only such fruit as the trees let fall in their path; and they learned of the Elves and spoke with the Trees”. This laissez-faire attitude towards wild things is in stark contrast to the approach favoured by the Entwives, who are not content to leave nature to its own devices but rather seek to control it in order to serve their own ends, an attitude more reminiscent of modern agriculture than of the Ents’ uncomplicated love of the wild. According to Treebeard (perhaps not the most objective of sources, but there’s no reason to believe he’s lying) “They did not desire to speak with these things (the lesser trees and grasses which the Entwives favoured above the tall trees of the forest); but they wished them to hear and obey what was said to them. The Entwives ordered them to grow according to their wishes, and bear leaf and fruit to their liking; for the Entwives desired order, and plenty and peace (by which they meant that things should remain where they had set them)”,

 This could be taken as a distinction unique to this particular race, distinguishing Ent from Entwife in the same way that the peacock’s plumage distinguishes him from the dull peahen, and not as a broader comment on the respective attitudes of men and women towards nature – were it not for that fact that Tolkien himself, in a letter to W.H. Auden, explicitly identifies the difference in philosophies between the Ents and Entwives as a reflection of one he has observed in real life. In a footnote describing the origin of the idea of the Ents, he finishes by saying that “into this has crept a mere piece of experience, the difference between the “male” and “female” attitude to wild things, the difference between unpossessive love and gardening”. Furthermore, the same distinction pops up elsewhere in Tolkien’s work: in the “Laws and Customs Among the Eldar” essay in “Morgoth’s Ring”, we learn that the women among the Eldar tend to be interested in “the tending of fields and gardens”, while the males “delight in forestry and in the lore of the wild, seeking the friendship of all things that grow or live there in freedom”.

 What Tolkien is saying here is pretty clear – while both men and women appreciate nature in their own ways, in his view the “female” attitude is to seek to control it and check its wildness, the “male” approach is to love it for what it is. What’s less clear is why he thought this way, as this is not a distinction I’ve come across elsewhere, either in real life or elsewhere in literature. (Indeed, the equally reductive stereotype we have today is that women are the natural, intuitive ones, while men are always seeking to control and improve on what they see around them!) The best explanation I can think of is that this stems from his own observations of people he knew. We know that Tolkien was fond of nature and of walking (including in my own beloved Malvern Hills!). Maybe Edith and other women in his close circle were more drawn to formal gardens and to flowers in a vase rather than beside a forest path, leading Tolkien to interpret this as a universal distinction? Really, of course, we’ll never know – though as a woman who loves a good walk in the woods but hates gardening, I would be fascinated to find out!

Aredhel: White Lady of the Noldor

“I am your sister and not your servant, and beyond your bounds I will go as seems good to me. And if you begrudge me an escort, then I will go alone”

–          The Silmarillion, “Of Maeglin”

One of the most common criticisms levelled at Tolkien’s female characters (aside, of course, from the fact that they are so thin on the ground in the first place) is that they are either perfect princesses or grotesque giant arachnids, with no room whatsoever for moral ambiguity or grey areas. I plan to take a closer look at Tolkien’s bad girls further down the line (in a fortnight or so, to be precise), but I should say for the time being that I think these criticisms are valid, at least up to a point. Tolkien’s legendarium is home to more, and more interesting, female characters than the popular perception of his work would have it, but it remains true that for the most part and with very few exceptions, his women lack the kind of flawed complexity that is a mark of his most interesting characters, such as Gollum, Denethor, Feanor and Turin. There are, of course, a couple of exceptions, and among them is Aredhel, the restless, reckless daughter of Fingolfin, whose actions set in motion a train of events which ultimately culminated in the downfall of Gondolin, last and perhaps greatest of the great Elf-kingdoms of the First Age.

The first thing we learn about Aredhel after she is introduced (in “Of Eldamar and the Princes of the Eldalie”, in case you’re interested) is that she is something of a tomboy: “And when she was grown to full stature and beauty she was tall and strong, and loved much to ride and hunt in the forests”. (We also learn that she was very chummy with her cousins the sons of Feanor – and we’ll gloss over how weird the line “but to none was her heart’s love given” is in the context of the later description of her son Maeglin’s love for his cousin Idril Celebrindal as “an evil fruit of the Kinslaying). It’s interesting to note, however, that despite the characterisation here of Aredhel as something of a free spirit, when it comes to the rebellion and exile of the Noldor she displays distinctly less wilfulness and independence than her cousin Galadriel. Whereas Galadriel actively chose to go to Middle-Earth in order to “see the wide unguarded lands and to rule there a realm at her own will”, we learn nothing of Aredhel’s reasons for leaving Valinor, and it seems safe to assume that she did so in order to follow her father and brothers, rather than out of any desire or ambition of her own.

Where Aredhel does display more of a spark is in her battle of wills with her brother Turgon over her desire to depart from Gondolin, much later on in the First Age. Her retort that “I am your sister and not your servant, and beyond your bounds I will go as seems good to me” is as spirited a denunciation of the paternalistic ideal of keeping women cooped up for our own protection as is to be found anywhere in Tolkien, with the possible exception of Eowyn’s passionate defence of her right to fight to defend Rohan in RoTK. (“All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more. But I am of the House of Eorl and not a serving-woman. I can ride and wield blade, and I do not fear either pain or death”.)

I suspect that First Age aficionados will never tire of debating whether Aredhel’s actions here are spirited or foolhardy. On the one hand, it is hard not to sympathise with her frustration at being cooped up in Gondolin and her desire to “ride again in the wide lands and walk in the forests”. We saw during the debate that preceded their departure from Valinor that many of the Noldor – among them such unequivocally good guys as Finrod Felagund – have an adventurous streak, and Aredhel, unlike Turgon, is clearly among them. (Indeed, one might ask why she ended up living with stick-in-the-mud Turgon when she could have stayed with her father or her apparently more laid-back brother Fingon).

On the other hand, of course, her decision to leave Gondolin – and later on her decisions to seek out the sons of Feanor, and after that to leave Himlad and just wander off on her own – can appear rather capricious  and not at all mindful of the realities of life in Beleriand, which after all is a region beset by war and full of peril. The fact that this debate never seems to end is a reflection of the flawed complexity of Aredhel’s character as depicted in the “Silmarillion”: while I think blaming her outright for the fall of Gondolin is excessive (Maeglin and Turgon himself both had a bigger part to play in that – not to mention Morgoth himself), there is no question that the restlessness that is her defining characteristic gives rise to a degree of recklessness, and that her actions – while understandable – are also on occasion misguided.

The other big debate surrounding Aredhel of course concerns her relationship with her husband Eol, who although he doesn’t cause destruction on the same scale as Feanor and Co. is nevertheless a worthy winner of the title of “Creepiest Elf of the First Age”. In a sinister echo of the star-crossed first encounter of Thingol and Melian, Aredhel runs into Eol as she wanders lost in the dark woods of Nan Elmoth – but only because her future husband ensnares her and draws her into the depths of the forest where he lives.

Now, it’s pretty clear from Tolkien’s writings elsewhere that this is not to be interpreted as a straightforward case of rape or even forced marriage: in the “Laws and Customs of the Eldar” (in Volume X of the “History of Middle-Earth”, “Morgoth’s Ring”), he states explicitly that “the Eldar wedded once only in life, and for love or at the least by free will upon either part”, before going on to say in the notes that follow the same essay that rape is impossible amongst the Elves, as the victim would die rather than submit to such bodily and spiritual violation: “There is no record of any among the Elves that took another’s spouse by force, for this was wholly against their nature, and one so forced would have rejected bodily life and passed to Mandos”. (Now, there is an argument that this latter point refers only to the impossibility of an Elf raping another’s spouse – Aredhel, of course, was not married when she strayed into Nan Elmoth – but I think that taken together, these two statements add up to a pretty convincing denial of the possibility that Eol simply took Aredhel by force, and she later consented to be his wife).

At the same time, the ambiguous and heavily-qualified terms in which the relationship between the two is described (for there can be few descriptions of a marriage less enthusiastic than “It is not said that Aredhel was wholly unwilling, nor that her life in Nan Elmoth was hateful to her for many years”) indicate that if what happened between them in the darkness wasn’t exactly rape, then it wasn’t exactly a love match either. And the outside world appears to share the view that Eol’s behaviour in taking her to wife was rather less than acceptable, at least if we are to give much credence to Curufin (admittedly one of the least sympathetic of all the Elves of the First Age) when he rebukes Eol with the words “Those who steal the daughters of the Noldor and wed them without gift or leave do not gain kinship with their kin”. Eol’s extreme possessiveness and refusal to let his wife walk in the sunlight – let alone leave Nan Elmoth – is also a reflection of a relationship that is far from healthy, as indeed is the warped and twisted nature of their son Maeglin, whose treachery will ultimately lead to the downfall of the Noldor’s last remaining stronghold of Gondolin.