“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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“Strong, and free of mind, and filled with the desire of knowledge”: Nerdanel

“While still in early youth Feanor wedded Nerdanel, a maiden of the Noldor; at which many wondered, for she was not among the fairest of her people. But she was strong, and free of mind, and filled with the desire of knowledge. In her youth she loved to wander far from the dwellings of the Noldor, either beside the long shores of the Sea or in the hills; and thus she and Feanor had met and were companions in many journeys”

                                                                                                      – Morgoth’s Ring

I hate to kick off an article about a woman by talking about the men in her life, but to me, one of the most interesting and endearing things about Feanor is his choice of Nerdanel as a wife. As the son and heir of the High King of the Noldor, he could presumably have had his pick of passive, porcelain beauties, any one of whom would have made a perfect ornament for his father’s court. Instead, he chose Nerdanel – a craftsman’s daughter remembered for her wisdom and artistic talent rather than for her beauty, who was capable of challenging him and of being, as the above quote from “Morgoth’s Ring” states, a true companion. Suffice to say that Nerdanel is for me one of the most fascinating minor characters of the “Silmarillion”, and someone about whom I long to know more. 

Like so many of Tolkien’s First Age characters – particularly the women – Nerdanel is a fleeting presence in the published “Silmarillion”, being mentioned precisely four times in the text. To some extent, her presentation in the published text stresses her traditional feminine qualities: she is presented exclusively in relation to the men in her life (as daughter to Mahtan the smith, wife to Feanor and mother of his seven sons), and described as more patient than her husband (not that that’s particularly difficult!). We also learn that she was, at least at first, capable of restraining Feanor “when the fire of his heart grew too hot”, a fact which is reminiscent of the traditional role of English medieval queens in imploring their implacable, hot-headed other halves to have mercy on this or that enemy or criminal.

However, even the few references to Nerdanel in the “Silmarillion” go beyond these stereotypes to paint a picture of a stronger, more independent-minded woman than may have been the norm within Noldorin society. At the very end of chapter 6, where were are told that she was the only person in Aman to whom Feanor ever listened, she is given the epithet “the wise”, underlining her status as one of the very few women in Tolkien’s writings to be distinguished chiefly for her wisdom and personal qualities, rather than for her appearance. And then we have her eventual decision to become estranged from Feanor rather than following him into exile, first in Formenos and then in Middle-Earth. Coming from a deeply Catholic writer with strong views on the strength of the marital bond (as texts such as the “Laws and Customs of the Eldar” and his writings on the Finwe/Miriel/Indis saga demonstrate), this is an interesting recognition that marriages don’t always work out, and that under certain circumstances separation is indeed inevitable. In Nerdanel, therefore, we have an example of a woman who chose to prioritise other values (namely her loyalty to the Valar and to peace) over her loyalty to her (admittedly batshit-crazy) husband and to her sons, and who is not judged harshly for it.

In the slightly more detailed accounts of Nerdanel in the “History of Middle-Earth” books (specifically, in volumes X and XII), both her distinctive personality and the distinctive character of her relationship with Feanor are developed in considerably more detail. In volume XII, “Peoples of Middle-Earth”, we see the unhappy couple engaged in one of the only marital spats in all of Tolkien (the only other example I can think of is the tale of Aldarion and Erendis). When Feanor snarls angrily that she is not a true wife as she’s refusing to following him into exile, Nerdanel retorts that he won’t be able to keep her children from her, and that one of them at least will never set foot on Middle-Earth. Together with the account in the same volume of their disagreement over the naming of their youngest child (Nerdanel, for reasons known only to herself, wanted to name him Umbarto, “Fated”; Feanor, for obvious reasons, disagreed), this paints a rather refreshing picture of a couple who are not star-crossed lovers a la Beren and Luthien, but rather two strong-willed people who are passionate about each other (seven sons speak for themselves!), but who occasionally get into blazing rows, and who eventually end up estranged as a result.

In volume X “Morgoth’s Ring”, meanwhile, we get the description of Nerdanel I quoted at the beginning of this article, which is possibly my favourite description of any of Tolkien’s women and which makes it clear that this was a woman of substance. Even more fascinating – and crucial to how we understand the character – is the fact that while in the published “Silmarillion” Nerdanel is simply the daughter of a prominent craftsman, in the longer passage in “Morgoth’s Ring” it is made clear that, like Feanor’s mother Miriel, she was herself a craftswoman of note, in her case a sculptress (“She made images, some of the Valar in their forms visible, and many others of men and women of the Eldar, and these were so like that their friends, if they knew not her art, would speak to them; but many things she wrought also of her own thought in shapes strong and strange but beautiful”). The question of female creativity in Tolkien – particularly amongst the famously creative Noldor – is actually going to be the topic of my next post, so I won’t say too much here. However, Nerdanel’s status as one of the few women described as being actively involved in the art of creation or subcreation, so crucial a concept in Tolkien’s legendarium, seems to me very important, and it’s a shame this aspect of her character didn’t make it into the published “Silmarillion”.

My final thought about Nerdanel concerns her fate after her husband and sons packed up all their stuff (and nine-tenths of the Noldor) and marched off to pursue new career opportunities in kinslaying. How was Nerdanel treated by the rump of the Noldor left behind in Tirion – was she shunned as the wife and mother of the dastardly Kinslayers, or given a free pass on account of her estrangement from Feanor prior to his departure? Did she learn what had become of them in Middle-Earth? Were any of her family ever released from the halls of Mandos? (I’m chiefly curious about Celebrimbor in this respect). Did she ever meet Elrond, who as the foster-son of her son Maglor is the closest thing she has to a grandson (again, aside from Celebrimbor)? So many questions!

Míriel þerindë: The Broideress

‘Then Vairë said to Mandos: “The spirit of Míriel hath dwelt with me, and I know it. It is small, but it is strong and obdurate: one of those who having said this will I do make their words an irrevocable law unto themselves.”’

–          History of Middle-Earth vol. X, “Morgoth’s Ring”

After looking at Aredhel last time, my plan was to move on to Tolkien’s villainous females – Shelob, Ungoliant, Thuringwethil and the rest of the arachnid/vampiric horde. However, my thought strayed instead to another female figure from the First Age (and indeed from the royal house of the Noldor) whose actions are the source of debate and controversy both amongst Tolkien’s readers and within the mythology itself – that is, of course, Míriel Serinde, the first wife of Finwë and mother of Fëanor.

As readers of the Silmarillion will hopefully recall, it was Míriel’s death and most of all her desire to *remain* dead (in other words, her rejection of the divinely-ordained immortality that is the lot of the Eldar) that led the grieving Finwë to seek a second marriage – which in turn created strife amongst the Noldor and set in motion the conga-line of catastrophe that was the First Age. Unsurprisingly, just as Aredhel’s reckless behaviour and the unusual circumstances of Maeglin’s birth have led readers to ask whether she was ultimately (if unintentionally) responsible for the fall of Gondolin, this has led many to wonder whether it was Míriel’s peculiar wish to die that served as the catalyst for the string of disasters that engulfed the Noldor during the First Age. (A conclusion, by the way, which Tolkien appears to have embraced himself: in Letter 212 to Rhona Beare, he says that “In the Elvish legends there is record of a strange case of an Elf (Míriel mother of Fëanor) that tried to die, which had disastrous results, leading to the ‘Fall’ of the High-elves”.)

Like much in the published “Silmarillion”, Míriel’s story as laid out there is brief, sparse and somewhat unsatisfying, at least when it comes to giving any hint of her motives for acting as she did. We learn that after Fëanor’s birth, Míriel was “consumed in spirit and body, and (…) yearned for release from the labour of living”. So, to the consternation of her husband, she passed first to the gardens of Lorien, and then her spirit passed to the Halls of Mandos, never to return. As a result, Fëanor grew up without a mum (an unusual state of affairs when you belong to an immortal race and live in an earthly paradise), while Finwë got re-married to Indis of the Vanyar and had either two, four or five further offspring, depending on which version of the legendarium you prefer. The rivalry between Fëanor and his half-siblings led to division within the ranks of the Noldor, which were exploited by Melkor, resulting in an awful lot of drama and Mandos having to work overtime for the next age or so.

In the more developed versions of the story as laid out in the “History of Middle Earth” series (in particular volume X, “Morgoth’s Ring”), the basic course of events is the same, but Míriel’s character is considerably more fleshed out, and she emerges as a character at once more flawed and more understandable. We learn more about her skill at needlework: far from being a desperate Noldorin housewife darning Finwë’s socks, Míriel appears to have been an exceptionally skilled craftswoman, exceptional even amongst the notably crafty Noldor: “For her hands were more skilled to make things fine and delicate than any other hands even among the Noldor”. Indeed, given that it is nowhere indicated that Finwë was of a crafty disposition or made anything beyond a hideous mess of managing relations between his sons, the likelihood is that Míriel was the source of Fëanor’s famous skill of hand.

Moreover, mother and son shared more than just a mutual appreciation for arts and crafts. According to the description of her personality in HoME volume XII “The Peoples of Middle-Earth”, Míriel was “of gentle disposition, though as was later discovered in matters far more grave, she could show an ultimate obstinacy that counsel or command would only make more obdurate”. The parallel with Fëanor (surely the most bloody-minded Elf in all of Arda’s history) is pretty clear, but Tolkien is careful to stress it anyway: “Fëanor loved his mother dearly, though except in obstinacy their characters were widely different”* While in Fëanor’s case his stubbornness led him to wreak havoc in Valinor and condemn the bulk of the Noldor to exile and a bloody age-long war against Morgoth, in Míriel’s case this same characteristic manifested itself in a smaller (but perhaps no less significant) way, by leading her to reject re-embodiment and insist on remaining dead despite the entreaties of the Valar and her husband. In one of the innumerable versions of the story recounted in “Morgoth’s Ring”, Ulmo says that “the fea of Míriel hath not been left in peace, and by importuning its will hath been hardened”. In the “Peoples of Middle Earth”, the connection is made even more explicit: “But Míriel was reluctant, and to all the pleas of her husband and her kin that were reported to her, and to the solemn counsel of the Valar, she would say no more than ‘not yet’. Each time that she was approached she became more fixed in her determination, until at last she would listen no more, saying only ‘I desire peace. Leave me in peace here! I will not return. That is my will’”.

A further layer to Míriel’s personality emerges later on in the account in “Morgoth’s Ring”, when we learn that after Finwë’s death and arrival in the Halls of Mandos, Míriel again felt the call of her corporeal body and of its skills, and “the will in which she had been set was released”. So her and Finwë do a bit of a swap – in order to avoid the highly improper situation of him having two living wives in Aman, he opts to remain in Mandos until the end of Arda (well, I suppose he’ll soon have pretty much his entire family to keep him company!), while Míriel is reincarnated – not to wander around Tirion at her leisure, you understand, but to go to the house of Vairë the Weaver, where she will put her sewing skills to good use and weave the deeds of the Noldor into a series of tapestries (not a pleasant job, one presumes, given the distinctly mixed track record of her descendants during the First Age). Quite aside from leading one to speculate what exactly was so wrong with Finwë that Míriel appears desperate to be anywhere other than where he happens to be at the time, this raises the question of whether Míriel is, well, a bit capricious. We’ve already seen how it was her stubborn insistence on remaining in the Halls of Mandos that led Finwë to seek a second marriage. Now, though she’s equally convinced that she in fact does want to come back, putting him in a situation where the only gentlemanly thing for him to do is to offer to stick around in Mandos for all eternity, where he presumably helps Namo keep Fëanor under control. Reading all this, I began to feel distinctly sorry for poor old Indis, who comes across as a decent if rather bland woman who somehow found herself in the middle of this high Noldorin drama.

Stubborn, wilful, capricious – Míriel as she emerges in the longer narratives of the “History of Middle-Earth” is far more relatable in her flawed complexity than the inscrutable figure who makes a cameo appearance in the pages of the published “Silmarillion”. Two questions, however, remain to be asked: to what extent was Míriel’s choice to abandon her life responsible for the eventual fall of the Noldor, and to what extent was it avoidable? The first is perhaps easier to answer: although in the published “Silmarillion” Míriel is keen to deflect the blame away from her (indicating that she may have had some premonition of what was to come) it appears clear that the death of Míriel sowed seeds among the Noldor which eventually bore fruit in the rebellion against the Valar and the Kinslaying. Although there were certainly other factors involved (not least Fëanor’s own character – not  entirely excused by his dead mum – and the lies planted by Melkor), Míriel’s actions appear at the very least to have set off a chain of events which eventually led to the Oath of Fëanor and to Alqualonde.

The second question, however, is rather more difficult – was it avoidable? The “Silmarillion” account is so sparse as to shed little or no light on this question. The expanded versions of the story, however, strongly suggest that Míriel was (as she herself claimed) so wearied by the birth of Fëanor that she had no choice but to die. As Nienna says in “Morgoth’s Ring”, “Míriel, I deem, died by necessity of body, in suffering (for) which she was blameless or indeed to be praised”. In other words, Míriel is not to be held culpable for her death, which – despite Tolkien’s use of the phrase “wished to die” in Letter 212 – appears not to have stemmed from desire so much as from necessity. As Ulmo says in response to Nienna’s statement above, her fault lay rather in her desire to divest herself of her essential nature (i.e. the immortality of the Elves) and to do what Luthien alone of the Eldar would be permitted to do – to “die indeed”. In other words, it was not Míriel’s departure for the Halls of Mandos that was the problem, but her departure “in will not to return”.

*Yes, this is the version of the story where Míriel sticks around until Fëanor is all grown up and only then departs for the Halls of Mandos, as opposed to dying when he is still a baby as in the published Silmarillion. I love this version as Idril loved Maeglin (i.e. not at all), mostly because I just don’t find it convincing from a psychological point of view – surely if Míriel had died when Fëanor was an adult at least some of his bitterness would be directed towards her, rather than towards Indis and her children? And surely part of the whole point of Fëanor is that he’s seriously messed up in large part because he grew up without his mother? In short, I dislike this almost as much as I dislike the whitewashed version of Galadriel’s past in some of Tolkien’s late writings – but that, of course, is a whole other story.

(P.S. An issue which Tolkien touches on very briefly – and which opens a whole new can of worms – is that of free will, as opposed to what is preordained as a result of the Music of the Ainur. It’s not difficult to see how Fëanor’s unique talents and difficult personality – which appear to be the product both of his inheritance from Míriel and of the energy she poured into him during pregnancy and birth – need to be in place in order to set in motion the tragedies and the ultimate triumph of the First Age. Equally, without Míriel’s death, we would not have the children of Finwë and Indis, whose line reaches their apogee in Earendil the Mariner, messenger of Elves and Men and the catalyst for the War of Wrath and the ultimate defeat of Morgoth. What is more, Earendil’s existence is clearly pre-ordained – not only is Ulmo fervently engaged in match-making between Tuor and Idril, but Mandos himself states in “Morgoth’s Ring” that his fellow Valar would understand the point of the Statute of Finwë and Míriel “when he that shall be called Earendil setteth foot upon the shores of Aman”. So – Míriel needed to die, and she desired not to return. But how much choice did she ultimately have in either of those things?)