Half-History, Half-Legend: Nimrodel

“She was of the Silvan Elves, and regretted the incoming of the Elves from the West, who (as she said) brought wars and destroyed the peace of old” – Unfinished Tales

 As many readers have remarked before me, one of the greatest strengths of Tolkien’s work is the fully-realised world he creates, complete with its own history and mythology – something the Professor himself recognises in Letter 96 to his son Christopher when he says that “It is the untold stories that are the most moving. I think you are moved by ‘Celebrimbor’ because it conveys a sudden sense of endless untold stories: mountains seen far away, never to be climbed”. Many of these “unclimbed mountains” are glimpsed from afar in The Lord of the Rings. Some, like the tale of Queen Beruthiel and her cats, are never told, or given the briefest of outlines elsewhere. Others, like the tale of Beren and Luthien, or the story of Celebrimbor himself, are told in detail in the appendices, in The Silmarillion, or elsewhere. One story that particularly interests me because it feels like it belongs more to the realm of oral history or even mythology than to the chronicle history of the appendices is the tale of Nimrodel and her lover Amroth, king of Lorien.

 For anybody who doesn’t remember (or who might be thinking at this point “wait – why is she writing about a river?”), the story of Nimrodel – after whom the river in Lothlorien was named – is helpfully outlined for us by Legolas in chapter 6 of book 2 of The Fellowship of the Ring. Nimrodel, a generically beautiful Elf-maiden (you know, pale lissom limbs, long hair, impractical white clothing in a forest environment, all the rest of it) left Lothlorien to sail to the Undying Lands with Amroth after the Dwarves awoke evil (read: the Balrog) in the mountains, but she got lost along the way and didn’t get to the port in time. When a strong wind blew the ships out to sea, Amroth, unable to countenance the idea of leaving Nimrodel behind, jumped overboard and was presumably drowned. Nimrodel herself was never found.

 The story is fleshed out a bit more in the Unfinished Tales: here we learn, for example, that rather like Nellas in the tale of Turin Turambar, Nimrodel insisted on living alone – in her case, in a flet near the falls of the river that bears her name. We also learn that while Amroth’s love of her was reciprocated, she initially resisted his advances owing to her resentment of the “elves of the West” (in this case, presumably the refugees from drowned Beleriand rather than the Noldor per se). And we find out a bit more about her disappearance and Amroth’s drowning – though not about her eventual fate (meaning that she joins Maglor and Daeron in the camp of mysteriously-vanished Elves. I hope they are having a fun time together somewhere). Even here, however, there are numerous uncertainties surrounding her story. Did Nimrodel really originate the custom of living in flets, or is that simply a legend that has grown attached to her since her disappearance? Whatever did happen to her, and what are these “many legends” that are told about her fate, according to the account in Unfinished Tales? The tale of Nimrodel is one of the few instances I can think of in Tolkien where the speculation and apocryphal stories that have growth up around a character outweigh the few concrete facts we really know (which boil down to: she was a Silvan Elf; she loved Amroth; she eventually disappeared). And while this may have been unintentional on Tolkien’s part, I actually think that the existence of a character like Nimrodel – who certainly “existed” within his secondary world, but who survives now more in the form of a figure of legend than a flesh-and-blood woman – adds to the depth and realism of the world he has created. After all, such figures (Robin Hood, King Arthur, Boudicca) are common throughout human history.

 In addition to injecting a nice bit of unreliable oral history into Middle-earth, the tale of Nimrodel also raises a couple more interesting points about Tolkien’s world. One of these has to do with the relations between the different sub-groups of Elves. One of the areas where Tolkien’s world is comparatively underdeveloped is when it comes to exploring how the various societies work internally, so I love the glimpse we get in this story (and specifically in the Unfinished Tales version) of the tensions that apparently existed between the Silvan Elves and the refugees from Beleriand, whom Nimrodel at least apparently viewed as responsible for the strife that had begun to affect previously peaceful communities such as Lothlorien. Nimrodel’s feelings towards the “elves from the West”, and her stubborn insistence on speaking only the Silvan tongue, echo the resentment felt by Sindar such as Thingol and Eol towards the Noldor during the First Age, and offer a rare insight into the perspective of the Silvan Elves, who appear to form the majority of the population in communities such as Lothlorien and Mirkwood, but to be ruled over in both cases by Sindar (or, in the case of Lothlorien later in the Third Age, by a Sinda-Noldo combo). It also raises huge questions about how Galadriel’s rule in particular was received by the Galadhrim, and why she believed that she had the right to rule over them in the first place – do we perhaps see here an echo of her earlier desire to go to Middle-earth in order to “rule there a kingdom at her own will”?.

 Another interesting question raised by Nimrodel’s story concerns the frequency of Elven-human marriages and liaisons. According to the Unfinished Tales, one of Nimrodel’s companions (later named as Mithrellas) is supposed to have married the Numenorean Lord of Dol Amroth and borne his children, infusing the line of Dol Amroth with an Elvish strain which, judging by Legolas’s remarks to Prince Imrahil in The Return of the King, is still in evidence by the end of the Third Age. Now, Finrod Felagund himself remarked to Andreth way back in the First Age that the first- and second-born of Iluvatar could be joined in marriage only “for some high purpose of Doom”, and indeed the three Elven-human marriages that are confirmed in the legendarium fit this pattern. Beren and Luthien rescued the Silmaril from Morgoth’s crown and provided an example of hope and success against the odds that has echoed throughout the ages. Idril and Tuor produced Earendil, the hope of Elves and Men. And Arwen and Aragorn rejoined the two long-sundered branches of the half-Elven. Imrazor and Mithrellas, however, appear to have had no “high purpose of Doom”, and to have achieved little of note beyond perpetuating a minor princely line of Gondor. This raises the question of whether Elven-human marriages (or at the very least liaisons) might happen with considerably more frequency than the official histories would have us believe – maybe the three big ones get all the press because they achieved something of note (and involved famous and high-born individuals) rather than because they were truly unique . And who knows, maybe the tale of the Took who took a fairy wife wasn’t so far-fetched after all?

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‘I have no doubt that Smeagol’s grandmother was a matriarch, a great person in her way”

 –          Gandalf, “The Fellowship of the Ring”

A couple of months ago, I kicked off this blog with a biography of Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, the most prominent female hobbit in the series, and a firm favourite of mine despite the fact that she’s such a cantankerous old bat. However, on reflection I felt that I hadn’t really explored how women fit into hobbit society more widely.

In contrast to some of the other races of Middle-Earth, we don’t have a lot of formal information about how hobbit society works or how women fit into it: Tolkien never wrote the Shire equivalent of the “Laws and Customs of the Eldar”, or even anything along the lines of the brief paragraph on Dwarf women in Appendix A of “The Return of the King”. Most of what we do learn is anecdotal – and aside from Lobelia, probably the most intriguing female hobbit we learn about is Smeagol’s grandmother, the redoubtable if long-dead matriarch of a clan of Anduin Stoors.

Smeagol’s grandmother has her origins in what I presume were initially a couple of throwaway lines in chapter 5 of “The Hobbit”. As Gollum casts around for the answer to Bilbo’s second riddle, we learn that in his long-ago youth he lived with his grandmother in a hole by the river. A page later, just as it looks as though he is going to fail to answer Bilbo’s second riddle, he suddenly remembers “thieving from nests long ago, and sitting under the river-bank teaching his grandmother, teaching his grandmother to suck…” – eggs, as it turns out, the answer to the riddle. Like the earlier reference in chapter 1 to the goblin-chieftain Golfimbul whose demise led to the invention of the game of golf, this was almost certainly something Tolkien threw in for comedy effect – an amusing use of a rather silly colloquial expression, and nothing more.

Come “The Lord of the Rings”, however, we find Tolkien fleshing out the story of Smeagol’s youthful riverbank adventures as part of the overall attempt to develop Gollum into a more complex, tragic character than the fleeting villainous presence of “The Hobbit”. This is where we learn that this redoubtable woman, described by Gandalf as “stern and wise in old lore, such as (her people) had”, ruled over a family which, while no doubt rather modest in the big scheme of things, was nevertheless “large and wealthier than most” among the Anduin Stoors. Her position as head of the family is underlined by the fact that it was she who ejected Smeagol from her hole and exiled him from the family, setting off the chain of events that would culminate in a certain riddle-game under the Misty Mountains several centuries later.

What is more, hundreds of years after his exile and the disappearance of his whole community, this formidable woman continues to loom large in her grandson’s memory. Not only do his memories of carefree days of childhood egg-sucking surface during his conversation with Bilbo, but we learn that during his interrogation with Gandalf, he repeatedly tried to cover up the true story of how he obtained the Ring by claiming that it was a gift from his grandmother, who owned many such things – a claim rightly dismissed by Gandalf as “ridiculous”, but which nevertheless reflects the stature she had within her community and in her grandson’s early life.

So, Smeagol’s grandmother clearly played an important role as the matriarch and main authority figure of her little clan. The question is – how typical is this of hobbit society? Do hobbit women typically exercise this degree of independence, or was it a characteristic of the now-defunct Anduin Stoor community to which Smeagol and his grandmother belonged, or was his grandmother simply propelled into that position by the absence of any male authority figures or by her own forceful personality? From the little evidence we have, both the first and the last would appear to be the case. While (as in other Middle-Earth societies, and indeed in Britain in Tolkien’s day) men appear to be the default heads of hobbit families, women nevertheless enjoyed a significant amount of influence, particularly in the event of their partner’s death. As Tolkien wrote in a letter to A.S.Nunn:

“The government of a ‘family’, as of the real unit: the ‘household’ was not a monarchy…It was a ‘dyarchy’, in which master and mistress had equal status, if different functions. Either as held to be the proper representative of the other in the case of absence (including death). There were no ‘dowagers’. If the master died first, his place was taken by his wife, and this included (if he had held that position) the titular headship of a large family or clan. This title thus did not descend to the son, or another heir, while she lived, unless she voluntarily resigned”.

 Presumably, then, this was the position Smeagol’s  grandmother found herself in: with her partner dead, this redoubtable widow was able to take over, in her case assuming not only the titular headship of the family but also the authority to make decisions affecting the whole clan (such as the decision to cast Smeagol out from the family)

Smeagol´s Grandmother, or women in hobbit society