Tolkien and Female Characters: Part III
Continuing with our look at Silmarillion women:
(5) The Willful: Aredhel and Galadriel
Here we find the characters who are straight-out defiant of authority, male or otherwise. Aredhel joins in the Noldorin Rebellion, but despite being left to cross the Helcaraxë with her father and her brothers, she retains a fondness the company of the Sons of Fëanor, or at least Celegorm (likely due to a shared interest in hunting) – in some ways mirroring her eldest brother’s friendship with Maedhros. She also takes a dim view of Turgon’s efforts to constrain her movement, delivering this memorable quote:
“I am your sister and not your servant, and beyond your bounds I will go as seems good to me.”
After being seduced by Eöl (the actual nature of the seduction goes from rape in the earliest version, to a more willing relationship in later texts), she gives birth to Maeglin, and then, finally tiring of her husband’s restrictions, decides to return to Gondolin with her son. The result, of course, is tragedy – she steps in the way of Eöl’s javelin, thus dooming herself (and, taking the longer view, dooming the city by saving Maeglin’s life).
Is Tolkien punishing Aredhel for being defiant of her brother and husband? That would be a strained reading, I think – Lúthien defies her father on a much greater scale without negative consequence, while Nerdanel is clearly in the right in defying her crazy husband. Neither Turgon nor Eöl are admirable figures, both exhibiting an unhealthy degree of control freakery, never mind the latter as sexual abductor. More likely, I think, is the reading that this tragic episode is the Doom of the Noldor in action, with the Elves bringing about their own demise: Aredhel inadvertently sets in motion events that will eventually lead to the Fall of Gondolin. Her willfulness is neither a character flaw nor a positive attribute; it is simply who she is, though the modern reader will likely see her in a more favourable light than the men in her life. In any case, merely writing a strong woman does not necessitate that she be given a happy ending.
First Age Galadriel (not to be confused with the Third Age version) may be considered another rebel. While Tolkien tinkered substantially with her backstory, and towards the end of his life basically tried to whitewash her, the material that is consistent with his published work has Galadriel refusing pardon after the War of Wrath:
‘After the overthrow of Morgoth at the end of the First Age a ban was set upon her return, and she had replied proudly that she had no wish to do so.’ (The Road Goes Ever On)
Uniquely, then, Galadriel continues to defy the Valar long after everyone else has stopped (or died). She is clearly still full of pride at this point, having no great wish to demean herself by seeking to make restitution. This, of course, means that she is around to see the War of the Ring – by which point her attitude has changed. Galadriel rejects the chance to set herself up as the Dark Queen of Middle-earth, instead deciding to let her realm perish in the cause of defeating Sauron. And thus she finds herself able to return to Aman: character development in action, though the restitution is less about abandoning willfulness as such, and more about the rejection of power over others. There is nothing about “strong woman is tamed” to be found here.
(6) The Warriors: Haleth and Idril
Éowyn is not a one-off occurrence in Tolkien – omitting her unique psychological issues, it is clear that Tolkien envisaged women being effective fighters at need (Letter 244: “Though not a ‘dry nurse’ in temper, [Éowyn] was also not really a soldier or ‘amazon’, but like many brave women was capable of great military gallantry at a crisis“). Laws and Customs of the Eldar further supports this view:
Indeed in dire straits or desperate defence, the nissi fought valiantly, and there was less difference in strength and speed between elven-men and elven-women that had not borne child than is seen among mortals. (Morgoth’s Ring)
The House of Haleth (the Second House of the Edain), however, takes things a step further, and has an outright Amazonian tradition:
One of the strange practices spoken of was that many of their warriors were women, though few of these went abroad to fight in the great battles. This custom was evidently ancient; for their chieftainess Haleth was a renowned Amazon with a picked bodyguard of women. (Unfinished Tales)
The impression here is that Éowyn in The Lord of the Rings is not being put back in her box – Tolkienian women can clearly fight, or in the case of the House of Haleth, actually pursue fighting outside emergencies. Éowyn is rather working through her own psychological issues, of which desire to participate in warfare is just a symptom.
All well and good, but what about individual examples? Well, there is obviously Haleth herself. When her father and brother are murdered in an Orc raid, Haleth (now Chieftain) and the survivors hold the enemy off for seven days, before Caranthir turns up in support. Haleth then refuses Caranthir’s offer of protection out of pride, and forces her people to relocate westward. She leads them through Nan Dungortheb (which you may recall from Beren’s story – he never spoke of its horrors), through her own strength of will. Finally, when they arrive at their new intended home, Thingol of Doriath tries to ensure they won’t cooperate with Orcs. Haleth’s reply?
“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.”
To cap it all off, the Warrior Chieftainess dies peacefully of old age. This is a strong and impressive matriarch whose leadership is so effective that her people retain a unique gender equality in day-to-day military matters. Hence the notion that The Silmarillion provides a more expansive role for female characters than The Lord of the Rings.
Despite the passage in Laws and Customs, there are, however, comparatively few examples of Elven (as opposed to human) women in combat. In one version of Galadriel’s story, she fights at Alqualondë in defence of her Telerin kin, but the only actual explicit example of a woman wearing armour in a battle situation is Idril, in the early version of the Fall of Gondolin. Whether Idril counts as a warrior for our purposes is a bit debatable, but the true problem is that Tolkien never got around to revising that particular story: the image of a mail-clad woman, defending her son from her wicked cousin, is literally the first and last version of the tale Tolkien ever wrote. It is perhaps worth mentioning though that Idril was not only responsible for the secret escape route out of Gondolin, but was also tough enough to survive the passage of the Helcaraxë in her youth.
(7) The Victims: Nienor and Finduilas
Thus far we have looked at strong women: Melian, Nerdanel, Galadriel, and Haleth. These are not the only types in The Silmarillion, however: one also encounters women in a victim capacity. More specifically, women whose fates were unfortunate enough to be intertwined with the tragedy of Túrin son of Húrin.
The obvious example here is Nienor, Túrin’s sister. She was born after her brother left, and grew to adulthood never knowing him. Staying in Doriath with her mother, she learns that Túrin may be alive, so follows Mablung and company in search of him – whereupon Glaurung the Dragon intervenes and wipes her memory. Nienor runs naked through the woods, until she collapses. Túrin finds her, not knowing her for who she is, and cares for her. The two are wedded, and conceive a child. Glaurung subsequently reveals their identities, whereupon they commit suicide in horror at their unknowing incest.
Certainly tragic, but what to make of Nienor as a character? Not much: this story is Túrin’s tragedy – just as the story that influenced it so strongly (Kullervo from Kalevala) is about the man and the doom that follows his every action, so it is here. Nienor is simply swept along by events beyond her control – first by the overarching curse on her family, then the malice of Glaurung. Literally the only agency she is given, the only mistake she makes, is in choosing to join Mablung in the search for her brother. Apart from that? She is a plot-device to add the final nail in Túrin’s coffin, thereby driving him to suicide.
Finduilas is a similar female victim of this story, but of less significance – she falls in love with Túrin in Nargothrond (despite being betrothed to Gwindor), but he does not return her feelings. When Nargothrond is sacked by Glaurung, which is Túrin’s own fault, Finduilas is taken prisoner and subsequently killed by Orcs. Apart from being an example of an Elf in a love-triangle (which does not gel particularly well with the view of Elven sexuality expressed in Laws and Customs), she is essentially collateral damage. The man she has feelings for gets her killed (and cannot hear her screams as she is led away), but really, that’s it. This is Túrin’s tragedy, and she is yet another reason for his (justified) self-loathing.
This look at Silmarillion women is again turning into something much longer than I expected, so I will finish it off next time, together with a look at women in the other Middle-earth writings.