Tolkien and Female Characters: Part IV
Continuing our look at Silmarillion women:
(8) The Endurers: Morwen, Aerin, and Emeldir
Morwen, mother of Túrin, is also caught up in the wider tragedy, but in a different way from Nienor and Finduilas. Rather than a one-off event caused by her son, Morwen meets endless trials throughout her life with stoic endurance. Morwen is too grim and proud to be a victim.
She loses her first daughter (Morwen “met her grief in silence and coldness of heart”), then her husband fails to return from the Nirnaeth Arnoediad. Her people are conquered, Hithlum occupied. Morwen remains, feared by the Easterlings as a witch, though she sends her son to Doriath for his own safety. After giving birth to Nienor, she refuses to travel to Doriath herself, and remains in Hithlum. Finally, after twenty years, she decides to leave, and take Nienor to Melian and Thingol… which leads to Nienor’s disastrous attempt to find her brother.
Morwen reappears two years later, at her son’s grave, when she again meets her long-lost husband:
Grey she was, sharp-nosed with broken teeth, … though [her eyes] were wild now and full of fear, a light still gleamed in them hard to endure: the elven-light that long ago had earned her name, Edhelwen, proudest of mortal women in the days of old.
She dies the following morning.
There are no bright points in Morwen’s story, no eucatastrophe, only catastrophe. But this “proudest of mortal women” never breaks under strain. She endures occupation, poverty, and the loss of her family without the expectation of better things to come, surviving through sheer stubbornness and amazing strength of character. While she is not around to see the defeat of Morgoth – nor does she expect to see it, for like the Norse heroes, Morwen endures suffering without hope – there is one strange and unique tribute paid to her in the aftermath of the War of Wrath. The Stone of the Hapless does not sink beneath the sea during the final destruction of Beleriand, but rather becomes the island of Tol Morwen: a surviving memorial to the tragedy of this remarkable woman and her ill-fated family.
Morwen’s courage may be distinguished from the more martial strength of Haleth in that she is less about overcoming obstacles, and more about withstanding them. But this sort of character is not unique among the women of the Edain, who find themselves enduring so much more than their Elven counterparts.
Another such character is Aerin, kinswoman of Húrin. Aerin is forcibly married (i.e. raped) by Brodda the Easterling, but continues to help Morwen – which earns her beatings. Aerin also turns her house into a shelter for the destitute, thereby preserving decency in the face of darkness.
After Túrin slays Brodda, Aerin refuses to come with him, citing her age. Túrin is told:
“Many a man of arms misreads patience and quiet. She did much good among us at much cost. Her heart was not faint, and patience will break at last.”
She subsequently sets Brodda’s hall on fire, as an act of defiance against Easterling retribution.
Aerin is kindlier than Morwen, and less proud, but she does more good for those suffering under Easterling occupation. While she lacks the personal element of tragedy that marks the other woman, hers is a lone voice of humanity in circumstances where such humanity comes at a significant personal cost. Less grand, perhaps, but more practical, and possibly Tolkien setting up a contrast between a grim “Norse pagan” mindset (Morwen) and a more charitable “Christian-flavoured” mindset (Aerin).
A third courageous woman we can find is Beren’s mother Emeldir. After the Dagor Bragollach, Dorthonion is overrun by Morgoth, and Barahir and Beren are reduced to outlaws. Emeldir takes it upon herself to lead her vulnerable people to the safety of Brethil. Bravery in a crisis, without the glory that comes with physically fighting, but completely necessary to the well-being of others.
(9) The Loving: Elwing
Elwing’s story sadly falls into the category of material Tolkien could have developed more thoroughly. As it is, she is primarily notable for one of the more mythological elements in the latter part of The Silmarillion, where she escapes the Third Kinslaying by being turned into a bird, and then flying to Eärendil’s ship with the silmaril. But her commitment in staying with her husband through his voyage to Aman – a voyage that had been previously attempted, but never achieved – and then joining him as he pleads to the Valar for aid, speaks of a loving and deeply loyal woman. In the words of Manwë himself, she “entered into peril for love of him.”
(10) The Ghosts: Míriel, Elenwë, and Eilinel
There are some characters in The Silmarillion whose deaths, or at least the gap they leave behind among the living, are of greater significance than their actual lives. They are not quite true non-entities in that they still end up influencing the plot, though they are minor in the overall scheme of things.
Chief among these is Míriel, first wife of Finwë, and mother of Fëanor. While we know her appearance (silver hair) and her skill (embroidery), she is primarily notable for dying after the birth of her son. Finwë’s desire for another wife results in a special exception to the rule that Elves only marry once.* It also leads to intense paranoia and jealousy on the part of Fëanor himself, to the point where he considers a language change of ‘th’ to ‘s’ to be an insult to his mother’s memory (hence the joke in fandom that Fëanor and his sons spoke with deliberate lisps). This division was ultimately exploited by Melkor, to sow seeds of animosity between Fëanor and others.
*In fact, Finwë is one of only three characters in the entirety of Tolkien’s mythos to remarry, the others being Túrin I, Steward of Gondor, and Eriol, the Mariner, who first hears the Book of Lost Tales at the very dawn of Tolkien’s writings.
While it can be argued that the ultimate downfall of the Noldor was sparked by Finwë’s desire for a second wife after Míriel’s death, I feel that this places too much blame on Finwë – who would have been doomed to a lonely existence, despite his desire for more children – and not enough on Fëanor, whose extreme selfishness and hostility towards his stepmother and half-brothers betray a truly toxic personality.
Speaking of Fëanor, another of these “ghost” women is the face of what he puts Fingolfin through. Elenwë, wife of Turgon, is known to be a blond-haired Vanya (the only one to take part in the Rebellion), but she is remembered chiefly for dying while crossing the Helcaraxë after Fëanor’s betrayal. In fact, she is one of just many to perish while crossing the Ice, but is the only one with a name. Her death accordingly aggravates the relationship between the Fëanorians and the rest of the House of Finwë, a tension that is only resolved when Maedhros (the most competently diplomatic of Fëanor’s sons) yields leadership of the Noldorin Exiles to Fingolfin. It also makes Aredhel’s fondness for the Sons of Fëanor all the more startling, given that Elenwë was her sister-in-law.
A third ghost woman (literally in this case) is Eilinel, wife of Gorlim. Her role in the story is in dying, with Sauron then using a phantom in her form to trick Gorlim into betraying Barahir and the other outlaws. She is literally a corpse turned plot device to deprive Beren of his father and companions.
(11) The Nonentity Wives: Indis, Anairë, Eärwen, et al.
The residual female characters in The Silmarillion really are complete nonentities, about whom we know little besides the name. Indis, for example, is an even more obscure character than Míriel, and we know basically nothing about her other than that she was a blond Vanya, that her stepson hated her, and that she returned to her family when her husband died. Anairë (Fingolfin’s wife) and Eärwen (Finarfin’s wife) are essentially placeholders that enable their respective husbands to have children; in some cases, like Curufin, father of Celebrimbor, we’re even lacking a placeholder wife. Findis and Írimë/Lalwen, sisters of Fingolfin and Finarfin, who only appear in the History of Middle-earth, also fall into this category. Possibly less as a placeholders though, and more because Tolkien likely wanted to put some gender balance into a Noldorin family tree that otherwise looks a veritable sausage-fest.
That concludes the look at women in The Silmarillion. As you can no doubt see, there is a far greater diversity of personality and role among female characters than in The Lord of the Rings, whether they be Ainur, Elves, humans, or monsters. Considering that the Silmarillion – at least the 1977 published version – is also a good deal shorter than than Rings, this greater inclusiveness is achieved pretty economically. I would suggest that this should put to rest the assertion that Tolkien ignored women – they most certainly feature in his work, and constitute some of his bravest and most memorable characters.
If one mines the Rings appendices, one finds further examples of female characters – Dís, the only named dwarf woman; Fíriel, who exists to create a dynastic dispute between Gondor and Arthedain; Gilraen, Aragorn’s mother; Ivorwen, his foresighted grandmother; Morwen, Thengel’s wife, et cetera. There are also referenced women in the narrative of Rings proper, whom I’ve neglected to mention on the basis that they do not make on-screen appearances: Primula Brandybuck, Frodo’s drowned mother; various female relatives Bilbo leaves gifts to, like Dora Baggins the letter-writer; Fimbrethil, the only named Ent-wife; Widow Rumble, who cares for the Gaffer. There are plenty of minor references there for the completist. However, there remain some relatively interesting Tolkienian woman whom I haven’t discussed yet, those featured in Unfinished Tales. So in rounding off this series, I thought I would give them their due.
Queen Berúthiel is another example of a female Tolkien villain, and the only human one. Berúthiel is best known as a throw-away line from Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, where he references her cats’ ability to find their way home. At the time, it was literally a throw-away line, but Tolkien decided to elaborate more on the story, both in note form (which appears in Unfinished Tales), and in a 1966 interview.
From what we can gather, Berúthiel is the wife of Tarannon Falastur, King of Gondor. She engages in animal cruelty, but finds the cats useful as a means of collecting information (the nine black cats are her spies, and the white cat spies on the black ones). Falastur ends up banishing her from the Kingdom, but her memory as a figure of fear lives on.
There is little to add in analysis, beyond the notion that Tolkienian villains rarely treat their slaves well: Berúthiel enslaves these cats to do her bidding. She appears an utterly miserable woman, determined to make others’ lives miserable, to the point where one really wonders why Falastur married her in the first place (it is probably one of the most unhappy portrayals of marriage in Tolkien’s work, even including Ar-Pharazôn’s).
As far as disastrous marriages go, Erendis’ must rank fairly high too. Her relationship with Aldarion is the most detailed study Tolkien ever gives of a relationship gone sour: she wants children and a home life, whereas he wants to spend all his time at Sea. Matters deteriorate further, aggravated by the lifespan discrepancy between the two (Erendis is not of the royal line, so her biological clock starts ticking), and by the fact that this is the royal succession at stake. Eventually, the two of them become estranged, and the laws of the Kingdom are rewritten to allow their only child (a daughter) to ascend to the throne. For her part, Erendis – while initially more sympathetic than her absent husband – grows to hate men, and encourages her daughter to think likewise:
“They (men) would be craftsmen and loremasters and heroes all at once; and women to them are all fires on the hearth – for others to tend, until they are tired of play in the evening. All things were made for their service: hills are for quarries, rivers to furnish water or to turn wheels, trees for boards, women for their body’s need, or if fair to adorn their table and hearth”.
Erendis may have suffered neglect, but instilling such ideas into your child to get revenge on your spouse is terrible parenting. The degree of bitterness from the character is understandable, however. This is not a straw-feminist, inserted into the story to rant about women being treated as objects, but rather a reflection of Erendis’ mental state, arising from a marriage with a truly terrible husband. Aldarion is not the worst husband in Tolkien’s work (that would be Ar-Pharazôn, Brodda, or Eöl), but he is potentially the most realistic of the bad ones: an affable man who neglects his wife and family entirely in order to pursue his own hobby. Erendis, sadly, appears to remain consumed in her bitterness until her death.
Ancalimë, the first Ruling Queen of Númenor, comes across as product of her parents. On reaching adulthood, and having been raised to hate men – her only companion is Zamîn, an old woman – she spurns suitors, and goes into hiding as a shepherdess. There she grows close to a man she thinks is a shepherd, but is actually another noble suitor, Hallacar. She is angry about the deception, but eventually marries Hallacar, just to have a child and thereby secure the throne against her cousin – once a son is born, she and her husband live apart.
There is something genuinely sad about someone who only has a child in order to spite someone else. It is also worth noting that whereas Erendis really did have cause for complaint about her partner, her daughter does not: Hallacar is presented as decent and caring, and his subversion of Ancalimë’s ban on her serving women marrying is actually played for (good-hearted) laughs. As this essay points out, it is a genuinely sex-positive scene, with Ancalimë coming across as a sourpuss who wants to deny everyone else their enjoyment of relationships.
Of the other Queens of Númenor, we encounter a mixed bag: Tar-Telperiën refuses to wed at all, and is an isolationist as far as Middle-earth goes. Tar-Vanimeldë is a hedonist who lets her husband run everything – to the point where he temporarily usurps the throne when she dies. Míriel, who would be the Fourth Ruling Queen but for her cousin’s actions, is either politically out-manoeuvred by the charismatic and popular Pharazôn (and has her throne stolen), or else she is deeply in love with him, even though she is betrothed to another. Both versions of the story exist. In either case, she clearly has very little influence on policy – though one wonders if the wave sweeping her away as she climbs Meneltarma is a comment on her culpability.
The very last notable female characters we encounter in Unfinished Tales are Nimrodel and Mithrellas. There is a touch of a (tragic) fairy tale about these two.
The former is a lover of Amroth (though she refuses to marry him). Concerned about the impending turmoils of Middle-earth, she agrees to sail to Aman with Amroth. It ends with them being separated, her lover’s ship being blown out to sea by a storm, and Amroth drowning trying to swim back. Mithrellas, who is accompanying Nimrodel, gets lost in the forest, where she is found by Imrazôr. The two marry, and give birth to the line of Dol Amroth (eventually leading to Imrahil), but after the birth of their children, Mithrellas runs away, never to be seen again.
Nimrodel in particular is treated as being much closer to nature than the other Elven women discussed thus far – in fact, she arguably resembles Goldberry in her attachment to river and forest. She also appears somewhat meek and timid, fearing the encroachment of the outside, but there is an elusiveness about her that, as mentioned before, evokes a fairy tale.
Mithrellas’ actions are especially curious – while the notion of a mortal man wedding a fairy figure (with her running off later), feels like something out of folklore, it is strange given Tolkienian cosmology. This is literally the only case of Elf/Human marriage where the two do not end up together for an eternity (either mortal like Beren and Lúthien, or Aragorn and Arwen, or seemingly immortal like Tuor and Idril). Not only that, but they do not even stay together for a lifetime. Mithrellas, like Finduilas, suggests that Elven sexuality is a more human and less idealised thing than the Laws and Customs essay would suggest. It is almost as though Tolkien is trying to square his folklore and mythic source material with his religious beliefs, and not managing to keep things consistent…
This completes our look at the Unfinished Tales women. In contrast to their Silmarillion sisters, they are an altogether darker bunch: one out-and-out villain, plenty of grey characters loaded with bitterness (either justified or not), Queens who are just as problematic as Kings, and a pair of tragic lovers. Note also that in contrast to The Silmarillion women, the setting in Unfinished Tales is much less epic: Aldarion and Erendis is a domestic tragedy (with political consequences) – there is no great evil to fight against, just each other.