Rape in Tolkien’s Middle-earth (Part I)
In the early days of this blog, I had a series of posts on tropes I disliked. One of those posts, written back in May, 2016, expressed my distaste for rape as a plot device. My opinion on that still stands, but today I thought I would look at how the subject is treated in Tolkien – because, notwithstanding accusations of Tolkien shying away from such material, it is in there. It’s just that Tolkien doesn’t rub the reader’s nose in it. This essay will consider an often-quoted “rule”, followed by actual examples from the texts.
[Warning: unsavory subject matter].
(0) Laws and Customs
As a preamble, there is a passage from Tolkien’s essay, Laws and Customs of the Eldar (Morgoth’s Ring):
“There is no record of any among the Elves that took another’s spouse by force, for this was wholly against their nature, and one so forced would have rejected bodily life and passed to Mandos.”
This would appear to be straightforward. However, there are three problems with it:
(i) This reflects Tolkien’s views on the matter at the time he wrote the essay – but only that. Trying to actually apply the Laws and Customs essay to anything else runs into problems: there are numerous discrepancies between the essay and the rest of Tolkien’s material.
(ii) As we shall see, the passage is technically true – no Elf in Tolkien rapes another’s spouse – but in a broader sense, it is highly misleading in practice. I have mentioned before that there is the occasional discrepancy between Tolkien’s devout Catholic beliefs and the demands of story, and I feel this is one of them: the idea that Elves die, rather than submit to rape, is much more questionable. At least in the case of Eöl, we have an Elf acting like something out of folklore, rather than out of Laws and Customs. A nastier version of Tam Lin, perhaps.
(iii) That old bugbear of “show, don’t tell.” There are no examples of what the essay describes in any of Tolkien’s stories.
Now let us consider the examples (or potential examples) of rape in Middle-earth:
(1) Aredhel and Eöl
Aredhel, sister of Turgon, becomes lost in the forest of Nan Elmoth… whereupon Eöl the Dark Elf finds her. He uses magic to force her ever deeper into the forest, until she arrives at his home. Once there, he renders her completely dependent on him. He forbids her from contacting her family, or even going out in sunlight. As for rape… in the earliest version of the story, the matter is quite explicit:
“[Eöl] took her to wife by force: a very wicked deed in the eyes of the Eldar.”
As sex = marriage in Tolkien, forcibly taking to wife is a euphemism for rape. Later, the story is amended to read:
“It is not said that Aredhel was wholly unwilling, nor that her life in Nan Elmoth was hateful to her for many years.”
In both cases, Aredhel stays with Eöl, bears a child (Maeglin), then subsequently flees back to Gondolin while the Dark Elf is otherwise distracted. It ends badly for all involved – there is even a touch of the Freudian, with Aredhel getting impaled on Eöl’s poisoned javelin.
There is the sense that Tolkien rewrote this scene to better fit with his own moral sensibilities. Aren’t the Elves so noble in their commitment to consent? Hooray for Laws and Customs! Well, no. There remains so much implied coercion that any modern reader would consider Aredhel’s consent rather moot. The degree to which Eöl is an abusive bastard may not break the letter of Laws and Customs, but it certainly defies the spirit – a race for whom “forcing another’s spouse” is “contrary to their nature”, yet who remain perfectly capable of magically entrapping the unmarried into sex, seems have a peculiarly specific nature. It is (scarily) reminiscent of real-world rapists who do not believe their actions morally constitute rape because they did not jump out of the bushes with a knife. Never mind the question of why this “nature” only applies to married Elves, and not singles like Aredhel.
To be fair to Tolkien, I do not think he represents Eöl’s actions as anything other than “very wicked,” even in the revised version, and, if I may offer an alternative hypothesis, the amendment also allows for better characterisation of Aredhel. Having Eöl simply take her by physical force begs the question of what on earth kept Aredhel in Nan Elmoth without dying (a la Laws and Customs) or at least attempting to run off earlier (this is a woman who defied the King of Gondolin himself in asserting her freedom to leave). A more psychological rape, taking the form of implied threats and mind manipulation, is every bit as disturbing, but permits Aredhel to (falsely) believe in her own consent, at least at first – and hence why her attempt at freedom is so delayed. The fact that Aredhel did, eventually, flee, and did it behind Eöl’s back (even the Feanor/Nerdanel estrangement had face-to-face negotiation), testifies to how inherently rotten and unnatural the relationship was: so much for cosy eternity between a married Elven couple.
As an interesting note to this story, when Eöl chases after Aredhel, he encounters Curufin, her cousin. Neither likes the other very much, but when Eöl invokes his wife’s status, Curufin responds with:
“Those who steal the daughters of the Noldor and wed them without gift or leave do not gain kinship with their kin.”
This is a very tribal, very ancient, and very pagan view: consent is a matter that pertains to the group. Eöl’s actions against Aredhel are against her as an individual, as far as the reader is concerned, but for Curufin, this Dark Elf has wronged the Noldor as a whole. I would suggest that this creates yet another discrepancy between the Catholicism of Laws and Customs (where marriage is a unique and eternal bond, created by two Elves having sex), and the Germanic nature of the story Tolkien is telling.
Celebrían is the daughter of Galadriel, and the wife of Elrond. As per the appendices of The Lord of the Rings, orcs capture her during a crossing of the Misty Mountains, and she is taken prisoner. Until rescue, she is subjected to torments (rape is certainly possible, if not outright stated), and after rescue, she is afflicted with a poisoned wound. She subsequently goes over the Sea.
Now, the nature of what the orcs did to Celebrían is left unspecified, but that has not stopped readers from guessing. Invariably, when the subject is raised, people will argue that the rule of Laws and Customs implies she cannot have been raped – though if we are making exceptions for Aredhel on the (bizarre) basis that she was unmarried, one could (just as bizarrely) make exceptions for Celebrían, on the basis that this was at the hands of orcs, not a fellow Elf. More realistically, one could concoct the explanation that the reason she does not die is because she is determined to be reunited with her family again – though once this is achieved, she realises, like Frodo Baggins, that greater healing is needed, hence her decision to depart for Aman. This explanation (which I tend to subscribe to myself) would void Laws and Customs – but as I have said above, I take that essay with a significant grain of salt.
I would mention that if ever there were an opportunity for Tolkien to demonstrate the rule of Laws and Customs, this would be it. In contrast to Aredhel, who must remain alive for the sake of story, Celebrían is a mere entry in the appendices. She has no story outside this episode of victimhood, and only exists to explain what happened to Elrond’s wife. Nor does Celebrían have to be raped on-screen, or anything disgusting of that nature – having her sons kill the orcs, only to find her dead on rescue, would have been enough. As it is, Tolkien has Celebrían afflicted with a mysterious wound, then take ship. While there is certainly the symbolism of death present in her departure from Middle-earth, just as there is with Frodo, Tolkien stops at symbolism. There is no passage to Mandos.
Against this, it has been noted that possible rape is an issue for Celebrían and only Celebrían. After all, multiple Tolkien characters are taken prisoner by orcs – Frodo, Maedhros, Gwindor, Húrin, et cetera – and the readership (outside some of the more risque Maedhros-Fingon fanfiction) never raises the possibility that any of them were sexually violated. Given that Celebrían is the only female prisoner on this list, is there not a degree of sexist reader assumptions about this? That rape only becomes an issue because she is female? Perhaps. One could argue that Tolkien would have been even less likely to countenance homosexual rape than heterosexual rape in these stories, but as he never details specifics, this is a matter for reader, not author. What I would point out is how unusual Celebrían’s behaviour is afterwards. With the sole exception of Frodo (who might well be termed a case of psychological rape by the Ring), none of the other prisoners are as broken in spirit as she: almost as though she has suffered something they have not. But that, ultimately, is a matter of interpretation.
(3) Melkor and Arien
In later ideas for his mythos, ones that never made it into the published Silmarillion of 1977, Tolkien floated the idea that the Sun had existed from the beginning of Arda (essentially scrapping the old mythological Tale of the Sun and Moon). This naturally caused merry hell with the Silmarillion stories, which is why Christopher Tolkien omitted it, but one idea that Tolkien Senior had when envisaging this alternate storyline was that Melkor/Morgoth attempted to rape Arien, the Maia of the Sun.
The story goes thus: Melkor wants Arien for a wife, she refuses him, so he attempts to rape her. In the closest we actually see to a Laws and Customs scenario (though Arien is neither married nor an Elf), Arien then departs the Sun as a spirit, leaving it without a guide – a mythological explanation for seasons. Suffice to say, I prefer the older story, and not just because it fits better with the rest of the mythos: the story of the Sun as a fruit is simply aesthetically better. Divine rape is incredibly common in real-world myths (especially Greek), but here it feels out of place.
Even with this revised story, Tolkien ran into problems. If sex = marriage, and marriage in this setting revolves around reproduction (Catholicism), how does that gel with his notion that Melkor cannot reproduce? Tolkien’s own note about this read:
“Melkor could not ‘beget’, or have any spouse (though he attempted to ravish Arien, this was to destroy and ‘distain’ her, not to beget fiery offspring.)”
There is resonance here, both in terms of Morgoth’s destructive motivations, and in terms of his corruption entering creation itself. In terms of sexual violation, however, this is a bit different from the Tolkienian standard. Eöl’s actions are motivated by creepy lust. Celebrían’s fate at the hands of the orcs is, of course, kept deliberately vague. Melkor’s treatment of Arien is an explicit example of what might have happened implicitly to Celebrían – rape is portrayed as an act of cruelty in and of itself, rather than an attempt to hijack reproductive potential. As such, for all that “taking to wife” is a common sexual euphemism in Tolkien, this is one explicit circumstance where it would be falsely applied, even in forcible circumstances. Which is presumably why he uses the descriptive term “ravish.”
(4) Brodda and Aerin
The circumstances of Aerin provide yet another variant in the portrayal of rape in Tolkien. In this case, Aerin, a woman of the House of Hador, is forcibly married to Brodda the Easterling in the aftermath of the Nirnaeth Arnoediad. In contrast to Eöl, there is not even the pretence of seduction here: Aerin and her womb are basically the spoils of war for Brodda, property to be taken along with lands and hall. This is also the first example we have seen in Tolkien of serial marital rape. Whereas Aredhel in the revision was “not unwilling,” once Eöl had ensnared her, Aerin presumably suffers Brodda every night.
Note that there was no such thing as marital rape in English law during Tolkien’s lifetime – the official legal position until 1991 was that marriage implied conjugal rights. Tolkien writes several marriages where the partners became estranged (at which point the sexual intercourse stops), and he never writes a consenting marriage followed by non-consenting sexual activity (Erendis complains Aldarion is not performing his bedroom duties, but she never forces him). But Aerin is not in a consenting marriage – she is in a forced marriage via rape. Did Tolkien (whose view already differed from the law in that he considered sex = marriage) regard the on-going abuse of Aerin as rape? We don’t know, though he does have Túrin kill Brodda (Aerin objects, not because she feels any loyalty to her husband, but because she fears for how the Easterlings will react). We also have Curufin’s earlier criticism of Eöl. From this, one can safely conclude that Tolkien thought of Aerin as a victim in the story – though as for what he would have called the on-going marital rape, we get into very murky waters.