“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?