Tolkien and Female Characters: Part II
Last time we took a look at the female characters in The Lord of the Rings. They are admittedly sparse – by my count, there are eleven such characters who have both a name and screen-time in the narrative proper. And that includes a giant spider and some obvious placeholders like Arwen. Fortunately, what they lack in quantity, they often make up for in quality.
However, even the matriarchs in The Lord of the Rings find themselves circumvented by boundaries – Lobelia has no influence beyond The Shire, Shelob no influence beyond Cirith Ungol, and even Galadriel little beyond Lothlórien. Only one female character in the book truly seeks to break into a field other than her own, and even then she does it for all the wrong reasons.
The Silmarillion’s treatment of women is much more expansive and diverse, to the point where it actually becomes difficult to make generalised statements about it. The women in question have their share of the wise, the rash, the good, the evil, the meek, and the warlike. They are arguably less constricted by the sort of boundaries (geographical or social) we see in The Lord of the Rings.
Whereas in the previous article, one could divide the female characters into nonentities, minor figures, matriarchs, and the Exception, here I have had to divide the Silmarillion women into eleven(!) categories.
(1) The Valar
Seven of the fourteen Valar are female, as are three of the eight Aratar (the greatest of the Valar) – Varda, Yavanna, and Nienna. Respectively, they are associated with light and stars, the natural world, and pity and mercy. Varda is better known in Middle-earth as Elbereth, to the point where her very name becomes a weapon against the forces of darkness. As Manwë’s wife, she is another Virgin Mary-style figure (like Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings, but more so), being a figure of veneration for Elves. In fact, we know her best through this veneration – in terms of the story, she is more symbol than character.
Yavanna and Nienna are less Virgins Mary, and more foils to Aulë and Mandos respectively. The former’s relationship with her husband reflects a rivalry between the natural and the artificial (a distinction that literally becomes the Ents vs. the Dwarves). The latter tempers the unyielding Judgements of Mandos with mercy.
One might quibble that “pity” and “associations with nature” are stereotypical feminine attributes – the notion of soft-hearted women being closer to Earth. Except that time and again, Tolkien does not portray pity and mercy as matters of soft feminine weakness, but rather of strength, decency, and emotional maturity, regardless of gender or consequences. In the case of The Silmarillion the consequences tend to be negative, but they are positive when it matters – the redemption-seeking pilgrimage of Eärendil to Aman is rooted in this very point.
Similarly, love of nature is only ever positive in Tolkien, in contrast to seeking to control or destroy it. While it is less explicit in The Silmarillion than The Lord of the Rings, one finds the example of Morgoth turning the beautiful Ard-galen into Anfauglith, the Gasping Dust – and also the example of grass growing on the burial mound of the slain, a patch of green in a grim desert.
Beneath the Valar are a trio of female Maiar who may be categorised here for their mythological attributes – Arien (Maia of the Sun), Uinen (Lady of the Sea), and Ilmarë (handmaiden to Varda). The last is a nonentity, but the former two are notable for being eminently more sensible and less rash than their male counterparts – Tilion (Maia of the Moon), and Ossë respectively.
(2) The Powerful: Lúthien and Melian
With a sub-heading like that, I obviously had to boot the Valar into a separate category. But among the actual inhabitants of Middle-earth, Lúthien Tinúviel stands out – and small wonder, because her story is Tolkien’s love-letter to Edith. Lúthien defies her father to help the upstart mortal she has fallen in love with, defeats Sauron (with help from Huan) and destroys his Tower afterwards (perhaps the model for Galadriel’s destruction of Dol Guldur). Then she confronts Morgoth himself, glamours the Dark Lord and all his court to sleep, to the point where Morgoth falls off his throne. Still later, having died of grief after the death of Beren, she does the impossible and moves Mandos himself to pity – thereby leading to Eru literally changing cosmological rules to permit her to reunite with Beren. Then she dies a second time, the first of the Firstborn to receive the Gift of Men.
In one sense, Lúthien is probably the closest Tolkien comes to creating a Canon Sue – the world literally shifts to accommodate her, she has a unique half-Elven/Maiar ancestry, is incredibly beautiful, and achieves the impossible again and again. But it doesn’t matter, because the narrative throughout is gloriously mythic – and, more importantly, is tempered by an underlying melancholy moral. Lúthien may move Heaven and Earth to be with her love, but the only way she can spend eternity with him is through sacrificing her own immortal life. The story of Beren and Lúthien is a story of Death – it is an exploration of loss and sacrifice as much as it is of love. Arwen, of course, is a weak facsimile.
If Lúthien transcends boundaries more than any other character in Tolkien’s mythos, her mother Melian is, famously, a setter of boundaries – the Girdle of Melian enables Doriath to survive as long as it does. Melian is also in some respects a First Age prototype for Third Age Galadriel, being the co-ruler of a hidden Elven realm, and being wiser and more innately powerful than her husband.
The comparison is not perfect though – Thingol may be rash and arrogant, but he is far more awe-inspiring than Celeborn (not just in intelligence, but in physical presence – Thingol is the tallest Elf in history), and as such, Melian and Thingol is a more balanced match than Galadriel and Celeborn. Galadriel calls the shots in Lothlórien – Celeborn vainly complains about Gimli, and his wife even leaves him behind to sail over the Sea. Melian can really only advise Thingol, and try to mitigate his hasty decisions. So while an indisputably powerful character, I would hesitate to describe Melian as a true matriarch figure in the way Galadriel later becomes – Haleth is the much better candidate.
In addition to being Queen of Doriath, Melian is also notable for being an example of a Maia who has offspring, thereby being an enormous stone in the shoe of some of Tolkien’s later ideas.
(3) The Evil: Thuringwethil and Ungoliant
There are two female villains in The Silmarillion (three, if you count Morgoth’s ogress consort, back in the early writings, when Gothmog was the son of the Dark Lord instead of a follower), but one of those – Thuringwethil – is an enigma. She is Sauron’s First Age messenger, a vampire with fingered wings and iron claws, who probably died during the destruction of Sauron’s Tower on Tol-in-Gaurhoth. Later, Lúthien disguises herself as Thuringwethil:
‘Thuringwethil I am, who cast
a shadow o’er the face aghast
of the sallow moon in the doomed land
of shivering Beleriand.’
What to make of this? Very little – we only know her name, her job, and her physical form. But it is the physical form that is of interest here. It would be wrong to label her a nonentity after the manner of certain other obscure characters in The Silmarillion, because Thuringwethil (along with the form Sauron takes when fleeing) are the only evidence of vampires in Tolkien’s mythos. Like a sort of Silmarillion Tom Bombadil, she hovers on the edge of the story, posing unanswered questions about the world. In any case, she is the only example of a flying evil creature until Ancalagon the Black.
The major female villain of The Silmarillion is, however, that most giant of giant spiders, Ungoliant. A vast primordial thing – in the early versions she is literally the personification of the Ancient Night, though later Tolkien seems to have moved towards a Maia classification. She also appears responsible for Shelob and the other greater arachnids of Middle-earth – her legacy of evil as a dark hunger endures, though once she devours himself (a literal embodiment of the self-defeating nature of evil), that flavour of evil becomes a good deal less threatening. Sauron and even Morgoth can cooperate with others in pursuit of their goals beyond the short term, but a Dark Glutton like Ungoliant is by necessity a solitary creature, like the spider-form she takes.
In considering Ungoliant as a female character, it is noteworthy that she achieves what Shelob cannot – she actually exerts influence outside her lair. Indeed, Melkor could not have destroyed the Two Trees and stolen the Silmarils without her (the Unlight being his protection in Valinor), so she is necessary to The Silmarillion in a way that even Sauron himself is not. Also, in contrast to Shelob, who is merely Sauron’s “cat” – an accidental guard on the way into his land, to whom he feeds prisoners – Ungoliant turns on the Dark Lord himself, to the point where Melkor actually needs rescued. Just for a moment, The Silmarillion becomes a fight between Angels, Devils, and Squid, where the Satanic figure finds himself under attack from a different, and altogether more Lovecraftian evil.
(4) The Wise – Nerdanel and Andreth
Ioreth in The Lord of the Rings keeps alive wisdom that would otherwise have been forgotten. It turns out that Tolkien uses the idea that women are wiser in The Silmarillion too, through a couple of minor but interesting characters.
Nerdanel is, of course, best known as Fëanor’s wife, who bears him seven sons and for a long time provides him with the only counsel that he would actually listen to. She subsequently becomes estranged from him, and refuses to take part in his Rebellion. That’s it. A grand total of four mentions in the published Silmarillion. But as pointed out here, Nerdanel is the most written-about Silmarillion woman in the fandom – even more so than Lúthien herself. Clearly, something is up with this character.
The linked-to essay goes into some detail about why this might be the case, ultimately concluding (correctly, I think) that the fascination comes from her implied role as a woman strong and wise enough to tell her husband “no”:
The degree of attention paid to Nerdanel in the fan fiction community seems defiant of the fact that she is mentioned only four times in the published Silmarillion. However, even as fans can’t help but wonder about the woman strong enough to subdue the brilliant and destructive Fëanor, it seems fairly clear that J.R.R. Tolkien dabbled with the same and painted a far more detailed portrait of Nerdanel than appeared in his published and much-trimmed Silmarillion. Drawing upon not only what made it to publication in The Silmarillion but also J.R.R. Tolkien’s notes on this extraordinary woman, it becomes easier to understand Nerdanel’s allure of a character of strength, wisdom, and independence quite unlike any other in The Silmarillion.
Tolkien’s more detailed portrait of Nerdanel the Wise is interesting because it shows the character as being more than just her crazy husband’s better half, the provider of the “sensible” DNA for her seven sons. Nerdanel clearly has an element of foresight, as seen with the naming of the doomed twin, and she retains a close personal bond with her father (from whom she learns metal and stone-work). Her skill in sculpting and statue-construction is a vanishingly rare example of a Tolkien female character having a genuine hobby in their day-to-day life – there is the sense, on reading Nerdanel’s backstory, that the character has a fulfilling existence of her own.
Another minor female character who typifies First Age wisdom is Andreth. Only appearing in the History of Middle-earth, Andreth is the follower of what appears to be an important tradition among the Edain, that of the wisewoman – the repository of knowledge and custom among her people. She learns from her aunt, Adanel, the story of Man’s earliest days. She is also, incidentally, the representative of Man in her lengthy debate with Finrod Felagund on the respective fates of the Children of Ilúvatar, perhaps making her the most learned human character in the entire First Age.
In addition to being an illustration of the “women are wiser” trope, Andreth further constitutes a unique case of a female human involved in a romance with a male elf (the four other examples of interspecies romance in Tolkien involve a male human and a female elf). In Andreth’s case, she is deeply in love with Finrod’s brother, Aegnor, and while they do not take the relationship further due to wartime circumstances, Andreth and Aegnor remain unmarried for the rest of their lives.
Again, for length reasons, I will continue this look at Silmarillion female characters next time.