Rape in Tolkien’s Middle-earth (Part II)
Following on from my previous post on this topic, we continue our look at portrayals of rape in Tolkien’s Middle-earth.
(5) Elmar and Buldar
This one is comfortably the most obscure example on the list, and is found in Tolkien’s unfinished “perspective-flip” story, Tal-Elmar (H.O.M.E. XII), where the native people of Middle-earth confront Númenórean imperialism.
During the Second Age, the locals of Agar defeat another people (who look Númenórean, without actually being so). Elmar, one of the defeated folk, is forcibly married to Buldar, a local; her youngest (and most loved) child is one Hazad Longbeard, who in turn has seventeen sons. The youngest (and most loved) of Hazad’s sons, Tal-Elmar looks very much like his grandmother, and is the protagonist – until the story cuts off. I have seen suggestions that Tal-Elmar is, in fact, an origin story for the Witch-King, but we shall never know.
So, basically, what we have here is another example of forcible marriage (i.e. rape) arising from a battle situation. Unlike Aerin and Brodda, however, the non-consenting relationship between Elmar and Buldar leads to children, and then grandchildren: Tal-Elmar himself being the product of this. Also, in contrast to Aerin and Brodda, there is no narrative punishment for the marital rapist – Buldar comes home with “a wound, a sword, and a woman,” and that is that. Very amoral and grimdark, with a gritty flavour of the sort associated with the darker moments in The Children of Húrin. The sole exception is that Elmar curses the people of Agar to weaken and die out – as the story cuts off when Tal-Elmar meets the evil Númenóreans, we never see the circumstances under which the rape-victim’s curse manifests itself.
(6) Ar-Pharazôn and Míriel
In yet another case of marital rape, we encounter the case of Ar-Pharazôn taking Míriel in order to usurp the throne of Númenor. Míriel, if you recall, is the heir to the throne, but her cousin essentially launches a coup, reducing her to the status of helpless by-stander.
Tolkien generally devotes little time to Míriel: his focus is much more on Pharazôn, and we really do not know the level of agency the Queen has in this situation. However, I would note two things:
(i) Their marriage is childless. This is interesting (and rarely noted) – the only other childless monarch of Númenor is Tar-Telperiën, the Second Ruling Queen. But Telperiën has an heir in the form of her nephew. Who is Pharazôn’s heir, other than Míriel herself? We do not know. There is the thematic element that Ar-Pharazôn is the King who wants to live forever, so of course he does not care about such issues – but in terms of in-universe rationalisation, it is potentially an indication that Ar-Pharazôn has little interest in his wife’s reproductive potential (cue fanfiction with a homosexual Pharazôn…). His interest in Míriel is as a pathway to power, not as a woman – which potentially suggests that after an initial unwilling consummation, he largely lets her be.
(ii) Tolkien wrote an alternative version where Míriel is head-over-heels in love with the charismatic charmer Pharazôn, and yields the throne willingly. This, of course, would completely nullify the notion that this is a case of marital rape – though it means the lack of children likely has to be explained via lack of fertility on Míriel or Pharazôn’s part (or perhaps the King really does prefer men?). Regardless of the storyline, I do wonder about the extent to which the wave sweeping her away as she climbs Meneltarma is a comment on Míriel’s culpability in her husband’s activities.
(7) Saruman’s Orcs and the Dunlendings
The origin of the orcs is both murky and unpleasant – having initially floated the idea that Melkor captured Elves and then subjected them to prolonged and unspeakable acts, Tolkien never came to a fixed conclusion.
We can, however, make some reasonable (if nightmarish) inferences about how Saruman created the Uruk-hai, the peculiar strain of large, sun-resistant orcs:
“It is a mark of evil things that came in the Great Darkness that they cannot abide the Sun; but Saruman’s Orcs can endure it, even if they hate it. I wonder what he has done? Are they Men he has ruined, or has he blended the races of Orcs and Men? That would be black evil!“
Yes, Treebeard, it is – and the manner in which he does the blending is an even blacker evil. Saruman has access to both a pool of orcs (those of the Misty Mountains), and a pool of men (the Dunlendings). Consensual sex between orcs and humans seems far-fetched, but one does not need to stretch one’s imagination to concoct a scenario whereby Saruman disappears Dunlending women, and has them raped by his orcs in the dungeons beneath Isengard. Rinse and repeat, until he has his genetically modified servant race – and if Isengard suddenly resembles a giant concentration camp, you would not be far wrong. Not that the Dunlendings themselves seem to have noticed or cared – Saruman was promising to give them their land back, and sticking it to the Forgoil was more important than a few of their women disappearing in the night.
Note that Peter Jackson’s solution of making the Uruk-hai into pod-people is significantly less dark than the implication of the source material. This is perfectly understandable: showing what Tolkien was implying would have destroyed the movies’ PG-13 rating.
I have now looked at several examples of rape, or potential rape, in Tolkien’s stories. But the matter does not end there: there are several additional examples where Tolkien characters are quite clearly countenancing it, but (thankfully) do not have the opportunity to act on it.
(1) Morgoth and Lúthien
At the culmination of the Quest for the Silmaril, Beren and Lúthien come face-to-face with Morgoth himself, in the very depths of Angband. Lúthien seeks to beguile him through song and dance, whereupon:
“Then Morgoth looking upon her beauty conceived in his thought an evil lust, and a design more dark than any that had yet come into his heart since he fled from Valinor.”
In earlier versions:
“Nay,” saith Melko, “such things are little to my mind; but as thou hast come thus far to dance, dance, and after we will see,” and with that he leered horribly, for his dark mind pondered some evil.” (H.O.M.E. II)
“Then Morgoth laughed, but he was moved with suspicion, and said that her accursed race would get no soft words or favour in Angband. What could she do to give him pleasure, and save herself from the lowest dungeons? He reached out his mighty brazen hand but she shrank away. He is angry but she offers to dance.” (H.O.M.E. III, Commentary).
“And she beguiled Morgoth, even as his heart plotted foul evil within him; and she danced before him.” (H.O.M.E. IV).
In contrast to Aredhel’s story, this appears to be a case of Tolkien ramping up the unpleasantness over time. Tolkien never goes into specifics, but by the time we reach the “evil lust” line of the published Silmarillion, I cannot read this as anything other than Morgoth thinking about raping Lúthien. Morgoth has done terrible things since he arrived back in Angband, and has done horrific things to captives – what could he do to Lúthien that he has not already done to, say, Maedhros? Along the lines of the Arien story, I would also suggest that his motivation here was not a “taking to wife” or the begetting of offspring, but to pervert and taint this most beautiful of Elves, to ruin her as he would ruin the world itself. Morgoth does not create, remember. Morgoth pollutes, corrupts, and destroys.
(2) The Sons of Feanor and Lúthien
Morgoth is not the only one with designs upon Lúthien. While Beren and Finrod are held prisoner in Sauron’s dungeons, Lúthien comes to the rescue. But first she runs into the Sons of Feanor:
“[Huan] brought her to Celegorm, and Lúthien, learning that he was a prince of the Noldor and a foe of Morgoth, was glad; and she declared herself, casting aside her cloak. So great was her sudden beauty revealed beneath the sun that Celegorm became enamoured of her; but he spoke her fair, and promised that she would find help in her need, if she returned with him now to Nargothrond. By no sign did he reveal that he knew already of Beren and the quest, of which she told, nor that it was a matter which touched him near.
Thus they broke off the hunt and returned to Nargothrond, and Lúthien was betrayed; for they held her fast, and took away her cloak, and she was not permitted to pass the gates or to speak with any save the brothers, Celegorm and Curufin. For now, believing that Beren and Felagund were prisoners beyond hope of aid, they purposed to let the King perish, and to keep Lúthien, and force Thingol to give her the mightiest of princes of the Noldor.“
In short, Celegorm becomes enamoured by Lúthien’s beauty. He lies to her, and once he gets her in a position of vulnerability, strips her of any protection, either physical or emotional. Celegorm and Curufin then try to force Thingol to give up his daughter’s hand in marriage.
Sex = marriage in Tolkien (save for Morgoth…), so Celegorm forcing Lúthien into marriage means he intends to rape her. That he and his brother are so hung up on forcing Thingol to sign off on the arrangement is almost darkly comic – Curufin is upset when Eöl takes his cousin without permission, yet is perfectly fine with presenting Lúthien’s family with a fait accompli. Neither know Thingol very well if they think he will meekly approve, and neither could care less about Lúthien’s own feelings.
I would further note a couple of things:
(i) Celegorm and Curufin’s actions cause real headaches for Laws and Customs. One could imagine Morgoth not knowing or caring that raping Lúthien would cause her death, but the Sons of Feanor – who are lusting after both Lúthien’s bodily form, and the power she represents – certainly would know and care. Yet they go ahead with their plan regardless – which either implies they think they can persuade Lúthien to go willingly (and even these two are not that stupid), or Laws and Customs does not apply. Lúthien is unmarried, but a Law that only applies to married Elves is so offensively specific that it carries no moral weight. Hence my continued preference to discard it altogether.
(ii) There is a significant contrast between the lust of Morgoth and Celegorm/Curufin, and the love expressed by Beren and Huan. That is not to say that Beren is not sexually attracted to Lúthien – he is – but in his case, there is a genuine emotional connection with another being. Morgoth and Celegorm are, by contrast, merely trying to possess Lúthien as an object – the former because destruction is what he does, the latter so he can fulfil his own selfish desires. It is a case of what Terry Pratchett would later write: evil begins when one starts treating others as things.
(Huan meanwhile is pursuing courtly love, a la Gimli and Galadriel: love as a pure emotion, devoid of any sexual element. The Tale of Beren and Lúthien really does represent an extended thematic discussion of Love).
(4) Forweg and Andróg
In what might be the most stereotypical grimdark moment in The Children of Húrin, Túrin interrupts a pair of men chasing a desperate woman. He kills one, only to see it is Forweg, the leader of his own outlaw band – the other is Andróg, a fellow outlaw. Túrin quips sarcastically that perhaps they were just protecting the woman from orcs. Andróg, who does not grasp Túrin’s sarcasm, defends himself by saying “outlaws know no law but their needs”. Túrin then takes the woman off him, which Andróg wrongly interprets as Túrin wanting the woman for himself. As for the victim:
Then the woman rose to her feet and laid her hand on Túrin’s arm. She looked at the blood and she looked at Túrin, and there was delight in her eyes. ‘Kill him, lord!’ she said. ‘Kill him too! And then come with me. If you bring their heads, Larnach my father will not be displeased. For two “wolf-heads” he has rewarded men well.’
There is more than a hint of the sexual about what she is offering Túrin, and Andróg certainly takes it this way. Cue his utter confusion when Túrin rejects her. Andróg cannot comprehend someone who, having already killed one man, would decline to kill the other if it means money and sex. He concludes that Túrin must have held a personal grudge against Forweg.
Apart from serving up some black comedy in the form of Andróg’s stupidity, the scene shows an interesting discrepancy between Túrin’s innate nobility and the altogether grittier and more cynical setting in which he finds himself – a setting where everyone takes what they want, and cater only to their own animal desires. Túrin, of course, is himself deeply flawed as a person – he is quick-tempered, arrogant, and extremely judgemental – but his flaws exist on a more glamorous and legendary plane than Andróg’s: someone like Túrin exists in a fantasy world where dragons and Dark Lords roam the earth, whereas Andróg, Forweg, and the woman (who sees sex as a means of reward) may have walked out of any grimdark novel you care to name. The cynical assumptions of dark mundanity are contrasted with something more noble and fantastical; the only comparison I can think of in Tolkien is The Scouring of the Shire.
Because this scene was written by J.R.R. Tolkien (pessimistic idealist), and not George R.R. Martin (pessimistic cynic), it is Túrin’s view which carries the day. Martin’s version (perhaps with Sandor Clegane?) would have had the main character rejecting the offer, not out of a moral code, but because he would be too jaded even for this.
My long-ago rant about lazy use of rape in fantasy literature made several caveats: while I still dislike it as a character motivation device, it can be handled appropriately. I suggested three scenarios:
- Stories where the author takes the time to explore the psychology of all involved.
- Black comedy.
- Stories where the characters exist on a moral plane divorced from our own.
What can we say about Tolkien’s portrayal of rape here?
I would suggest that Aredhel/Eöl, and Maeglin/Idril fall into the first category: these stories do actually have a degree of psychological depth, even in a work as terse as The Silmarillion.
Túrin’s outlaw story does contain black comedy – but not about the rape itself. Nor does it really exist to explore psychology. Instead it exists to explore theme. As such, I think my earlier criteria needs modification to add a fourth category – situations where rape does not exist to drive the plot or characterisation, but where it forms part of a wider thematic whole. Aerin and Brodda, I think, also fits into this new fourth category, though there is the caveat that it motivates Túrin to do something destructive. Morgoth/Lúthien, insofar as it features in a story that it is very much about exploring Love, fits here too.
Saruman’s treatment of the Dunlendings rather exists in a different vein to the other examples, since we are dealing with a system, rather than characters. Had Tolkien explicitly described it, I think the story would suffer, but fortunately Tolkien has a good enough grasp of horror to let our minds connect the dots.
Tal-Elmar cuts off before we can say much about it.
Of the more problematic examples:
Morgoth/Arien tries and fails to fit into the third category. Morgoth, as Tolkien’s Satan, may think he operates by a different set of rules, but he is not Zeus or Odin: his attempt on Arien is not amoral but immoral. Without the amoral mythological basis one sees with the Greek gods, and without any sort of psychological or thematic depth to the story, I think this idea was not one of Tolkien’s finer moments. Luckily, Christopher preserved the Tale of the Sun and Moon for us instead.
Celebrían’s story, I think, is the most clichéd of the portrayals. Regardless of whether or not this was actually rape, inventing a character whose only role is suffering, and whose suffering exists solely to explain why another character is single, is something I would expect from lesser authors. Never mind the “motivation bonus” for the Sons of Elrond.
Ar-Pharazôn and Míriel has the makings of an interesting psychological study, but unfortunately Tolkien does not develop it fully enough. He, like Pharazôn himself, is much more interested in what the King does on the throne than what he does in the bedroom.
Celegorm/Lúthien is not badly written, and to be fair, it does exist as part of a story thematically focused on Love. However, I feel it is more problematic than Morgoth/Lúthien (which achieves much the same thing, in terms of portraying animal lust), because it makes Celegorm and Curufin look like complete idiots. I could buy this with Celegorm, who is short-tempered and a bit thick generally, but Curufin is supposed to be crafty and devious. Meanwhile, I dislike how the episode turns Lúthien into a hapless female victim straight out of a pulpy E.R. Burroughs novel – at least with Morgoth she actually has agency. Nothing against E.R. Burroughs, of course, but Tolkien is a better author than that.