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).

Invention and Change: Tolkien’s Women and their Creative Capabilities

“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 – unless it be in this (as they themselves say) that for the nissi the making of things new is for the most part shown in the forming of their children, so that invention and change is otherwise mostly brought about by the neri

–          Morgoth’s Ring (HoME X)

Tolkien himself said that primary theme of his work (or at least of “The Lord of the Rings”) was death and immortality. It seems to me, however, that creativity is another of his principal themes: from the creation of Arda through the music of the Ainur to the Two Trees, the Silmarils, and the Rings of Power, creativity and the creator play a significant role in the legendarium.  A lot has been written about this theme over the years – see, for example, the essay “The Tolkienian War on Science” by Dr. Joan Bushwell for an original and iconoclastic take on Tolkien’s approach to what we might call “science and technology”. What interests me here, unsurprisingly, is how female characters fit into this theme, given that the characters we most readily associate with creativity (Aule, Feanor, Sauron, Celebrimbor, various Dwarves) are without exception male.

 Of course, this doesn’t mean that female characters aren’t associated with creation at all. While the powers granted to some of the female Valar lead me to wonder whether Tolkien wasn’t running out of suitably feminine attributes for the number of females required to ensure that as many of the male Valar as possible were in stable heterosexual relationships, two of their senior colleagues make rather more tangible contributions to the shaping of the world. Varda (the “Elbereth Gilthoniel” of “Lord of the Rings” fame) made the stars. Her colleague Yavanna, meanwhile, is associated with one of the most emblematic acts of creation in the whole legendarium: the creation of the Trees of Valinor, which go on to play a crucial role in the events of the First Age.

 Among the famously crafty Noldor, we also come across a couple of women remembered for their creativity: namely, Feanor’s mother Miriel (whose hands were “more skilled to fineness than any hands even of the Noldor”) and his wife Nerdanel, a sculptress who “learned much of crafts that the women of the Noldor seldom used: the making of things of metal and stone”.

However, these two are the only two examples I can think of of female characters who are expressly singled out for their creativity, even amongst those races (such as the Noldor and the Naugrim) which are most closely associated with their creative impulses. Nerdanel’s vocation as a sculptress is considered anomalous even amongst the notoriously crafty Noldor, whose women rarely involve themselves with “the making of things of metal and stone” – and indeed, aside from Nerdanel and her mother-in-law, none of the other Noldorin women we meet (Aredhel, Idril, even Galadriel) is ever referred to as making anything.

The same appears to be true of the Dwarves. While we learn in Appendix A of “The Lord of the Rings” (and in a memorable scene in Jackson’s “The Two Towers”) that dwarf-women are virtually indistinguishable from their male counterparts (“They are in voice and appearance, and in garb if they must go on a journey, so like to the dwarf-men that the eyes and ears of other peoples cannot tell them apart”), there is no indication that the similarity extends to their activities. When discussing the slow pace of dwarven population growth (which appears to be roughly analogous to that of the giant panda), Tolkien writes that a significant minority of both male and female Dwarves do not desire marriage; however, while in the case of the men this is described as being because they are too “engrossed in their crafts” to take much notice of the other sex, no such explanation is given for the women’s choice. While the very indistinguishableness of male and female Dwarves leaves the door open for us to speculate that some Dwarven craftsmen might in fact be craftswomen, the way in which male dwarves are so specifically identified with their crafts would seem to indicate that this is a trait which the women do not share.

With the exception of a rather objectionable letter written to his son Michael in 1941*, Tolkien addresses the topic of women and their capabilities (creative and otherwise) most fully in an essay called “Laws and Customs Among the Eldar”, to be found in Volume X of the “History of Middle-Earth” (“Morgoth’s Ring”). The depiction of women (well, female Elves to be exact) in this essay is a beguiling mixture of progressiveness (perhaps surprising given the Professor’s reputation as a bit of a fuddy-duddy!) and, in the end, a frustrating biological determinism. On the one hand, we learn that in principle at least, male and female Elves share the same capabilities – there are, apparently, “no matters which among the Eldar only a ner (male) can think or do, or others with which only a nis (female) is concerned. What is more, there don’t seem to be too many societal restrictions placed on men and women in terms of what they can do: after reeling off a long list of activities, Tolkien (or AElfwine) says that “all these things, and other matters of labour and play, or of deeper knowledge concerning being and the life of the World, may at different times be pursued by any among the Noldor, be they neri or nissi”.

So, it’s not as though women among the Noldor are forbidden to become hunters, or metalworkers, or poets, and indeed we have the odd exception that proves the rule – just think of Nerdanel with her sculptures, or Aredhel with her wanderlust and love of hunting. However, we learn shortly afterwards that while they possess these abilities, most female Elves choose not to exercise them, opting instead to devote their creative energies towards the bearing and raising of offspring: “For the nissi the making of things is for the most part shown in their  children, so that invention and change is otherwise mostly brought about by the neri”.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I don’t think having and raising children is in any way a “lesser” pursuit than ruling kingdoms or making lifelike statues of the Valar, and in fact I think Tolkien’s belief that being a parent is worthy of mention as a significant act of creation is rather laudable. I just find it disappointing that when sitting down to create his “ideal” race, Tolkien was open-minded enough to give the women the same basic abilities as the men – only to shut down the possibility of real social equality by having the women choose to focus on having babies instead. This is multiplied approximately a thousandfold by the fact that we are not dealing here with mortal women, of whom we could plausibly argue that they spent the prime years of their lives either pregnant or running around after children, and so never got around to that sculpture of Varda/poem about the awakening at Cuivienen they were planning. We are dealing with an immortal race, who have literally all the time in the world to dedicate themselves both to raising a family and to perfecting any number of crafts on the side – as the example of Nerdanel, mum of seven and kick-ass sculptress, clearly shows. (And while the sons of Feanor and Nerdanel weren’t the most stable bunch, I like to think this was the result of their dad’s crazy genes/emotional blackmail, rather than having anything to do with Nerdanel being Valinor’s most famous working mum).

I also think that this passage in “Laws and Customs Among the Eldar”, backed up by examples of women’s behaviour from throughout the legendarium and by Tolkien’s comments on women in his letters, brings us as close as we can get to Tolkien’s views on women and their abilities. He wasn’t anything so simple as a classic sexist who believed women were inferior to men, and that was that. On the contrary, he often displays a lot of respect for women and their capabilities, whether through praising the abilities of female students in the “Letters”, or through the creation of female characters who are capable leaders (Haleth; Galadriel), fierce warriors (Eowyn) or renowned for their wisdom (Andreth; Nerdanel). In Numenor, he created a political system in which the first-born child of the monarch succeeded to the throne regardless of their gender – something the United Kingdom is only now getting around to introducing. In fleshing out the details of how society worked amongst the Eldar, he went to the trouble of thinking about the relative capabilities of men and women and deciding that they were basically equal, both physically and mentally. I suspect a lot of male writers (certainly in Tolkien’s day, and maybe even now) wouldn’t think to do the same.

However, these relatively progressive views only extend so far. The relative invisibility of female characters in his works suggests that whatever their inherent capabilities, the primary role of women in Tolkien’s world is to be wives and mothers and to take less of an active role in society – something which the “Laws and Customs of the Eldar” makes official (as it were) by stating that while the male Eldar engage in creative pursuits of all kinds, their womenfolk tend to direct their creative energy exclusively towards the production of children. Tolkien is far from alone in this view – the past year alone has seen the publication of a flurry of editorials claiming that while yes, women can be rocket scientists and film directors and prime ministers, they choose instead to step back from their careers and devote themselves exclusively to family, neatly sidestepping any discussion of the social pressures that tell women that having both a career and a family constitutes “having it all”, while for a man it is simply called “life”. And it’s not at all hard to see why Tolkien came to this conclusion – after all, in the society he knew, the majority of women did choose a husband and family. Those who opted for a career (including some of his academic colleagues at Oxford) were definitely in the minority, and had abandoned hope of a traditional family life along the way. In other words, it’s not surprising that Tolkien’s writings would display this kind of biological determinism. To a modern, feminist reader, it’s just a bit disappointing, given how progressive he seems in some other respects.

*He states in this letter that “it is their (women’s) gift to be receptive, stimulated, fertilised (in many other manners than the physical) by the male. Every teacher knows that. How quickly an intelligent woman can be taught, grasp his ideas, see his point – and how (with rare exceptions) they can go no further, when they leave his hand, or when they cease to take a personal interest in him.

“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?)

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.

Haleth: Warrior Princess

‘To this Haleth answered: “Where are Haldad my father, and Haldar my brother? If the king of Doriath fears a friendship between Haleth and those who have devoured her kin, then the thoughts of the Eldar are strange to men”’

                                 –          The Silmarillion, “Of the Coming of Men into the West”

When we think of warrior women (or, as TV Tropes would call them, “Action Girls”) in Tolkien’s world, the thoughts of most readers probably rush straight to Eowyn facing down the Lord of the Nazgul on the field of Pelennor. However, while Eowyn is very much an outlier in The Lord of the Rings – I can’t think of a single other female character who I’d classify as a warrior per se – that’s not the case when it comes to Tolkien’s mythology as a whole. We learn in the Silmarillion that the Shieldmaiden of Rohan is just one in a long line of sword-swinging mortal women, including Beren’s redoubtable mother Emeldir the Manhearted, who led her people into the Forest ofBrethil following the Dagor Bragollach.

The most memorable example of a female warrior from the First Age, however, is that of Haleth, the legendary leader of the Haladin (who later became known as the People of Haleth). Rather than coming from a strong matriarchal tradition (something we never see in Tolkien’s world, with the possible semi-exception of Smeagol’s people by the river). Rather, she assumes leadership out of necessary during a time of crisis. After her father and twin brother are killed during an orc-raid, Haleth – now the only remaining member of her family – is left to take the reins, and she does so. To be sure, she doesn’t engineer a miraculous victory against overwhelming odds – but she does manage to hold the Haladin together until Caranthir son of Feanor (in an uncharacteristic moment of chivalry) shows up with the cavalry and slaughters the Orcs for them. After that, Haleth remains the leader of the Haladin for the rest of her life. She never marries, like some Middle-Earth equivalent of the Virgin Queen, but she nevertheless becomes a talismanic figure amongst the Haladin, commemorated in the mound erected over her grave when she dies (known as the Tur Haretha or the Ladybarrow) and in the name of her people, who were referred to ever after as the People of Haleth.

Despite her reputation as something of an Amazon, we don’t hear an awful lot about Haleth’s fighting prowess: all we know is that she was “a woman of great heart and strength”, and that she valiantly defended the Haladin against the Orcs alongside her father and brother. Her main characteristics as a leader, however, appear to have been an iron will and a powerful charisma, which enabled her time and again to spur her people on when all seemed lost and hopeless. Indeed, part of what makes her character interesting is that while her valour and leadership skills cannot be called into question, there is room for doubt about the wisdom of some of the decisions she makes, all of which seem to be aimed at allowing the Haladin to defend their hard-won and much-prized independence, but several of which cause them a great deal of hardship.

The first of these – her decision to lead her people west to Estolad rather than accepting Caranthir’s offer of land and protection – is actually quite understandable, and not just in a fiercely independent, “don’t tread on me” kind of way. Tolkien points out that neither Haleth nor most of the other Haladin were particularly keen to find themselves dependent on the Eldar for their lands and protection – and however decent it was of Caranthir to come to their aid in the first place, it’s probable he would have expected Haleth and her people to repay him in kind in the event of future Orc raids or another offensive against Morgoth, a demand which could well have had catastrophic consequences for this small and scattered people.

Less understandable is her later decision to move even further west, bringing her people through sheer force of will through the ominously-named, spider-haunted Nan Dungortheb (“Valley of Dreadful Death”, the name given to the valley between the Mountains of Terror and the Girdle of Melian). The narrative at this point is so sparse that it’s extremely difficult to judge Haleth’s decision here. All we are told in the text is how dangerous the journey was (the route through Nan Dungortheb being “no road for mortal Men to take without aid”), and that the Haladin suffered both heavy losses and bitter regrets as a result. What we don’t hear is anything from Haleth herself about why she decided to make such a drastic move. It’s more than likely that she had her reasons, and they may have been good or bad – but without them, it’s hard to say whether or not she was justified in uprooting her people yet again and subjecting them to such perils and hardships. What can’t be denied, however, is her valour and charisma, which allowed her to transform herself from a chieftain’s plucky daughter to an inspirational leader destined to go down in legend.

The final characteristic of Haleth which comes across in the Silmarillion  is tied closely to that fierce desire for independence which appears to have lain behind all her deeds as leader of the Haladin and which remains a characteristic of the Haladin throughout the documented history of the First Age – that is, her willingness to stand up to the Eldar, who have staked a claim over the whole of Beleriand and are gaining the allegiance of other leaders of Men (Beor, Marach) left, right and centre. We have already seen how she rejected Caranthir’s offer of land and protection in favour of going it alone. Later on, we are told of a more pointed confrontation with the sainted Finrod Felagund himself, the most mortal-friendly of all the Elves of the First Age. Offered the chance to live in Brethil provided her people do not allow Orcs to enter the land, Haleth snaps “Where are Haldad my father, and Haldar my brother? If the King of Doriath fears a friendship between Haleth and those who have devoured her kin, then the thoughts of the Eldar are strange to Men.” A lady of uncommon spirit, then, and one worthy of remembrance by both Elves and Men.