Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.
Chip off the old block or misunderstood bad boy? That’s the question that the character of Maeglin brings up in Tolkien’s universe of Middle-earth and also what I will explore in this article.
Maeglin was the only son of Eol and Aredhel, a mixed-Elven lineage. While both parents were nobles by birth, Eol was a noble of the local Sindar Elves of Beleriand and also a relative to their High King, Thingol himself. Aredhel, however, was a Noldor princess and born across the western sea in Valinor. Because Valinor was where the ruling Valar dwelled, all Elves who had both migrated and were born there were considered of higher stock than their Middle-earth kindred, often referred to as the Eldar or High Elves. More than a few on either side of the cultural fence held grudges against the other for that, though both were supposed to be allies against their enemy to the north, Morgoth.
Eol was one Sindar who held a strong prejudice against the High Elves, stronger than most in fact. Thus he never interacted with them, though as a gifted and talented smith, he was one of the armorers for the Sindar. He blamed the Noldor for not only the long series of intermittent wars but, more importantly, for the newborn sunlight that now periodically chased away the beloved night sky that all Sindar loved.
So it was unusual and highly unlikely that by chance, he came across Aredhel when she had become lost in Eol’s home of the dark forest of Nan Emroth. Like many of her people, Aredhel was bold, adventurous, and independent. Coming from the hidden city of Gondolin, she long had a reputation for stubbornness and rebellion that even for a Noldor was unusual.
Under strange and highly suspicious circumstances, Eol soon married the Noldor princess and bound her never to leave Nan Emroth and to live under the dark trees that blotted out almost all sunlight. For whatever reason, Aredhel found herself consenting to this, and thus, Maeglin was eventually conceived and born.
From the beginning, Maeglin’s relationship with his controlling father was strained, with Eol not having named him until he was around twelve years old. Though he was allowed to travel with his father on business trips to the eastern Dwarven cities of Belegost and Nogrod in the Blue Mountains, Maeglin was always kept on a tight leash. And though he learned much of their craft like his father did, Maeglin was forbidden from learning about his Noldor heritage. Clearly, marrying into the Eldar clan had not softened Maeglin’s prejudice in the slightest.
However, Aredhel secretly broke the patriarch’s rule, often recounting the tales of the Noldor to her young son, which had, in turn, fascinated Maeglin. After one particularly bad argument with his father, Maeglin persisted with his mother relentlessly to leave Nan Emroth with him and go to Gondolin. Perhaps seeing her son’s rebellious streak re-awakened Aredhel’s own because she finally agreed, and both left the forest while Eol was away.
The two eventually arrive at Gondolin, and Maeglin is in awe, being struck by the majesty and skill of his mother’s High-Kin. His uncle, King Turgon, not only welcomes Maeglin but makes him one of the honored people of Gondolin, being a prince by his mother.
Yet his past follows him even here as Eol had tracked them, unwilling to let go of at least his son, whom he regarded more as a possession than family. Brought before King Turgon, Eol essentially ‘divorces’ his wife but demands his son, which his brother-in-law not only refuses but also binds the Sindar noble himself to remain in Gondolin, never to return to Nan Emroth.
Having been humiliated three times now by the Noldor, Eol snaps and tries to kill his son with a spear, but Aredhel intercepts the throw and is mortally wounded. Succumbing to her wounds, an angered and grief-stricken Turgon executes Eol by tossing him from the high walls of the city. Maeglin witnesses all of this tragedy, even as his father curses him that he should die the same way he does.
We pick up with his story later when the army of Gondolin joins the last alliance against Morgoth by the Noldor, some Sindar, Dwarven, and Human armies in the Nirnaeth Arnoediad War. It’s total annihilation as the alliance is separated and destroyed almost utterly. The Gondolindrim and the remnants of the House of Hador are among the last standing.
Maeglin participated in this and was nearby when one of the leaders of Hador and long-time friend of his uncle, Huor, tells Turgon that their own forces will hold the line until they’re all dead, but that a star from him and Turgon should prove to be the deliverance of Beleriand. Maeglin remembers this, perhaps interpreting it as the child of Turgon’s daughter, Idril, whom the Sindar has long greatly obsessed over.
Yet after the war, Gondolin swears to never again interfere in the affairs of the outside world. Eventually, it is the final remaining stronghold of all Beleriand but has not been discovered by Morgoth. This changes, however, when Maeglin, quarrying beyond the boundaries set by Turgon, is captured and taken to Morgoth himself. There Morgoth threatens such a horrible fate that Maeglin eventually chooses to voluntarily surrender the exact location of the city. Morgoth promises Maeglin marriage to Idril as a reward and returns him so as to not raise suspicion.
When the attack finally does come, Maeglin seizes the opportunity in the chaos to seize Idril and her child with Tuor, Earndil. Tuor arrives to stop this, and whether by fate or chance, their battle goes to the same place as Maeglin’s father’s place of execution long ago. There the treacherous elf dies the same way, being thrown down like Eol before him.
"But as the years passed still Maeglin watched Idril, and waited, and his love turned to darkness in his heart. And he sought the more to have his will in other matters, shirking no toil or burden, if he might thereby have power."
— J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion
Maeglin comes off as a very introverted elf but also quietly intense as well. In Nan Emroth, he learned to keep his feelings to himself, making him near impossible to read, even to powerful Elf-lords like his parents and uncle. What those feelings seem to be are primarily ambition and, I suspect, a desire to be loved. Being constantly denied any way of advancing his position or growing beyond his father’s cold control, Eol wanted more out of life but oftentimes found very few ways of getting there. In this way, I can see the Noldor in him. This made him patient, able to bide his time to an opportunity presented itself.
His patience, paired with his excellent cold reading ability, allowed Maeglin to often speak things that subtly played to other’s bias, yet making it seem like he himself had no real say in the matter. He also becomes aware of things faster than others and, because he’s patient, doesn’t reveal that information quickly. Perhaps a fair comparison is with the character of Petyr Baelish in the Game of Thrones franchise. He often does this because he has no real power over his circumstances other than playing off them and others.
However, I don’t believe he always did this out of deception. His relationship with Aredhel is a strong one and perhaps the only real relationship he had. It’s telling to me that he could have left anytime he wanted but waited to persuade his mother to come along with him before acting on it. She was his only source of affection and anything about the Noldor-side of his heritage. Though he may have played on a moment of weakness to finally convince her to leave with him, I think this was out of concern for her as he didn’t like the effect Eol was having on her.
Indeed, Eol was in many ways similar to Aredhel before she wandered into Nan Emroth.
In the Father’s Shadow
Yet despite Maeglin’s best efforts, Eol still projected a strong influence into Maeglin’s mindset. He learned to be secretive from his father. His ambition only grew because his father continued to try to cap it. Maeglin isn’t trying to be like Eol, but it comes out in his darkest moments. The darkest concerning his cousin, Idril. Since there isn’t anything of Maeglin trying to move on her before the assault on Gondolin, I presume that he hadn’t bothered beforehand because marriage that close in the bloodline was taboo for the Noldor. I think that because no one else appeared to have come after her that Maeglin may have just thought of her as a treasure on a pedestal: always desired but can never touch.
And when he finally does try to force himself on her, it's a release of all that pent up energy, ambition, and desire he’s had since he was a child. Indeed it must have been painfully infuriating to see Idril married off to someone else. And a Human no less with no real claim other than he was the son of the king’s deceased friend. Earndil must have even multiplied that agony tenfold.
In this, we can see similarities with his father’s possessiveness and later tendency to see a partner more like a possession than an individual. Maeglin wasn’t as impulsive as Eol, but the end result still came out near the same with him seeing Idril as someone to be attained rather than choosing him of her own free will. Something that thanks to Tuor and Earndil was never going to happen.
The Rival Little Cousin
I also believe Tuor plays just as important a factor in Maeglin’s thinking as the elf’s own family. And this goes beyond being the person that killed him.
Remember that Maeglin is an only child. He may have been under an overbearing father, but he also had no real competition for affection. His mother only had him, and before Tuor, Turgon may have seemed like the father that Maeglin secretly wished Eol had been. I think initially, the other secret ambition that Maeglin hid from others was a desire to be loved. To have the affection of those supposed to be close to him. Idril takes this desire for the first time into a romantic context.
So Tuor is not only Maeglin’s cousin by marriage but also his rival and a usurper. This is something I don’t think the elf knew how to deal with since his only real example of any ‘romantic’ relationship was his parents. And look how that turned out. Tuor took not only Idril’s love but Turgon’s as well: a would-be-lover and his only true father figure. If Morgoth played off this, then it's no wonder that he turned and surprising that he didn’t turn sooner.
It's not that Maeglin was always disloyal or a seedy person overall. He was loyal as long as the status quo was preserved and only considered turning after the threat of torture from a Valar and trying to live with the deep wound of having to see the object of his desire with somebody else day in and day out. Even the marriage of Idril and Tuor itself didn’t turn Maeglin but wounded him deep enough that something else would if pushed. Maeglin’s introversion would turn to isolation, and that made him vulnerable.
The Hand That Is Dealt
So this brings us back to the question at the beginning of the profile. Was Maeglin a chip off the old block of his father? Or was he just an emo elf that was misunderstood and never given a chance?
I don’t like the idea of the hand of fate forcing characters into their choices, especially when there are multiple chances for the person to be the opposite. Turin, for example, is considered doomed by Morgoth’s curse upon his own father, Hurin. Yet every step to his downfall happens from choices he’s making himself. No one is making him choose not to listen to others or take another way. And I believe the same applies to Maeglin as well.
For certain, Maeglin was dealt a bad hand from the day he was born. He was never given the example of how a relationship should work that did not involve controlling the other’s choices. He was stifled in his development because his father wouldn’t allow him full access to what made up his heritage. And the figures that he looks up to to make up for those failings end up unknowingly failing him in the end. It does all seem rather unfair (like most things in the Silmarillion).
Yet even despite these, Maeglin had choices. The simplest one being that he could have obeyed Turgon’s command and not gone mining outside of Gondolin’s protected boundaries. Had he obeyed that, he would never have been captured and be threatened by a divine being. And though the threat of torture from a Valar is nothing to take likely, Hurin did it: and he’s mortal.
Other people also had tough breaks and worse. Tuor himself came from arguably a much harder life than an immortal prince like Maeglin could grasp. They still made choices, however, that were morally right, even if it sometimes cost them their own lives.
Old habits can be hard to break, but Maeglin still could have opened up to Turgon about his struggles. The king was certainly receptive to him. It wasn’t like he was being ignored, but that he never told anyone about his needs and struggles with his feelings.
The shadows that parents’ cast over their children is a powerful yet subtle theme in the Silmarillion. Their influence can either make their children's’ later choices easier or more difficult. Just look at Maedhros and even his own father, Feanor, for example.
Despite this, from what I see, the children are still in control of whatever fate they end up with. Even if the odds are stacked against them for one over the other.
© 2021 Jamal Smith