Great Female Characters in Tolkien's Middle-earth
Strong Women in Tolkien
J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit is justly infamous for having not one single female character, apart from a couple passing references to Bilbo's mum, Belladonna. The Lord of the Rings is a little better, with Galadriel, Éowyn, and Arwen, although the latter is relegated mostly to the appendices.
Tolkien was born in the Victorian age, fought in World War I, and spent his life as an Oxford scholar and professor. Women tended to move in different spheres from those where he exercised his military and professional duties. So he wrote about men as the active movers and shakers. When he mentioned them at all, he portrayed women outside of domestic roles as rare exceptions to the rule.
Nevertheless, there are some fascinating and inspiring female characters in Tolkien's Middle-earth. Most of them come from his writings about the First Age, published posthumously by his son Christopher in The Silmarillion and the History of Middle-earth series. Let's take a look at some of these strong women in the man's world of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings:
- Lady Haleth
- Idril Celebrindal
- Lobelia Sackville-Baggins
- Melian the Maia
- Lúthien Tinúviel
- Morwen Eledhwen (Elfsheen)
- Yavanna and Varda (Elbereth)
- Elanor Gamgee
This is not an exhaustive list. I'm skipping Galadriel, Éowyn, and Arwen, whom you know, and concentrating on other, less well-known characters. I've also omitted Aredhel, Nerdanel, and others for whom we just don't have much information.
Haleth is that most rare of Tolkien characters: a strong human woman who doesn't take guff from anybody. She stems from the First Age of Middle-earth, ancient history to The Lord of the Rings.
After her father and brother were killed in an orc siege, Haleth defended their rugged band of woodmen until the Elven cavalry arrived, politely refused the Elf-lord's offer of protection in exchange for fealty, led her people on an epic journey through a deadly wilderness prowled by giant spiders, and founded a new refuge for them in the forest of Brethil on the outskirts of the great Elven kingdom of Doriath.
When the king granted the People of Haleth permission to settle on the condition that they swore to bar orcs from entering Brethil, their feisty leader retorted:
'Where are Haldad my father, and Haldar my brother? 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.' (The Silmarillion)
Aragorn's distant forebears included the People of Haleth, although the lady herself never wed.
Idril Celebrindal is my personal favorite, a wise woman, a prophetess, daughter of King Turgon and grandmother of Elrond. She was the first of three Elves to wed a mortal man, Tuor, and the only one of the three not to die for it. Their son, Eärendil, became a symbol of hope.
The story of Idril and Tuor appears in brief in The Silmarillion and more fully in "The Fall of Gondolin" chapter of The Book of Lost Tales 2. Gondolin was one of the greatest Elf-kingdoms of the First Age, but it was betrayed to the enemy by the king's nephew (who lusted after Idril, his own cousin) and utterly destroyed by dragons, balrogs and orcs.
Foreseeing the coming disaster, Idril had a secret escape tunnel delved from her own house out under the city walls, its exit concealed far out in the valley where the Hidden City was built. She spread word of this refuge to trusted friends, and she and Tuor led a portion of Gondolin's people from the city's sack, rescuing them from death or enslavement.
Idril and Tuor gathered together the surviving exiles of Gondolin and of Doriath, after it also fell. They at last sailed west to Valinor and never returned, petitioning the Valar to save the Free Peoples of Middle-earth from the forces of evil threatening to overwhelm them. Idril left behind her magical green gem the Elessar, which had healing properties. It eventually passed down Aragorn, who wore it and took it as his king-name.
(Note: while Tolkien mentions Idril arming herself in mail, Arwen's sword Hadhafang, supposedly an heirloom of her great-grandmother, was actually an invention of the films' prop department.)
- "Idril's Foreboding"
Beautiful pencil portrait of Idril; includes some good Idril quotes from Tolkien's writing.
I have to give a shout-out for Lobelia, wife of Bilbo's cousin Otho. Forever trying to get her hands on Bag-end, Lobelia was not well pleased when Frodo was adopted as Bilbo's heir.
Yes, Lobelia was a greedy and conniving old bat who pilfered Bilbo's silver spoons, yes, she was rude to both him and Frodo, but the old lady had spirit. When Saruman fled Isengard and took over the Shire (a chapter dropped from the films), Lobelia took an umbrella to the leader of his "ruffians" and got herself hauled off to jail.
When she died, she left her fortune to Frodo to be used for assisting hobbits left homeless or destitute by the pillaging of Saruman's thugs.
- Lobelia Sackville-Baggins
Quick portrait sketch by Larry MacDougall.
Melian the Maia
While we're making the survey of Middle-earth's races, we must mention Queen Melian, who owes something (I think) to Spencer's Fairie Queene. Melian was a Maia, the same kind of immortal being as Gandalf, a semi-divine species akin to angels.
At the dawn of Middle-earth she fell in love with (or seduced?) the great Elven King Thingol. Together they founded Doriath, a forest realm of which Lórien and the Woodland Realm of Mirkwood are tiny echoes founded by survivors of Doriath's fall.
Melian had great powers of foresight, healing, and sorcery, enclosing Doriath in "the Girdle of Melian" which mazed and confused intruders so that they usually could not penetrate the forest. Her handmaiden was Galadriel, who learned her mistress' arts (including the making of lembas) and used them when she came to rule Lórien.
Queen Melian appears as a background figure in The Book of Lost Tales 2, in The Silmarillion, the Children of Húrin, and in practically all of Tolkien's writings that were not turned into films.
Lúthien is a name you know, even if you've seen the films: daughter of Thingol and Melian, she was the "fairest elf-maid who ever lived," inheriting her father's nobility and her mother's magical powers. Arwen is supposed to resemble her.
More than six thousand years before The Lord of the Rings, Lúthien fell in love with the mortal man Beren. Thingol, appalled by his daughter's choice, mockingly promised Lúthien's to Beren for the bride-price of a Silmaril. These magical gems had been stolen and bound into the crown of Morgoth, the great Enemy of the First Age to whom Sauron was a mere servant.
It was therefore a death sentence, and against Melian's counsel. Thingol never dreamed that his own daughter would break herself out of house arrest and use all her magical powers to aid Beren, healing him and disguising their appearance with illusions, allowing them to sneak into Morgoth's throne room where Lúthien hypnotized Morgoth and his guards so that Beren could liberate a jewel from the Dark Lord's crown.
Thingol relented when they returned, but their newlywed joy was short-lived. Beren died fighting a supernatural giant wolf of Morgoth that penetrated Doriath's defenses. Lúthien died of heartbreak, sang before the thrones of the Valar (the gods), and persuaded them to let Beren return to life for a time in exchange for her own immortality.
Trivia: The grave of Tolkien and his wife Edith bears the epithets "Beren" and "Lúthien."
- Lúthien | Ted Nasmith
This is perhaps the most famous portrait of Lúthien. It's by Ted Nasmith, a well-known Tolkien illustrator who was hired as concept artist for the Lord of the Rings films.
Morwen Eledhwen (Elfsheen)
Morwen, cousin of Beren, was a stern noblewoman who lived during the disastrous final years of the First Age when Morgoth's forces were overunning Middle-earth. There are many versions of her story, but the most readable is The Children of Húrin.
After her husband Húrin was captured by orcs in the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, their lands were seized by the Easterlings, barbarian Men under Morgoth's sway. However, the chief of the Easterlings was terrified her and would not harass her household.
Shrewd and strong-willed as she was, Morwen could not avert the dreadful curse of Morgoth from dooming her and Húrin's children. The travails of the children, Túrin and Niënor, are an epic-length tragedy, but in short: tormented by dragons, unwitting incest, mutual suicide when they learned the truth. During the epilogue, Morwen and her aged husband are reunited at their children's tomb.
Yes, Tolkien can be pretty danged depressing.
- Morwen and Túrin
Great portrait by Marya Filatova, capturing Morwen's personality and steely gaze for which she gained the nickname "Elfsheen."
Yavanna and Varda (Elbereth)
Unlike the races of Middle-earth, the Valar of the Undying Lands are almost equally divided between male and female. These immortal beings are like the gods of ancient mythology, except that Tolkien makes clear that Eru, God, is their creator as well as the world's.
Valië/Valier are the feminine forms of Vala/Valar (singular/plural). The two Valier about whom we know most are Yavanna, the Earth-goddess, and Varda / Elbereth, the "star queen" and wife of Manwë, king of the Valar.
Middle-earth is Yavanna's garden, and she asked for the creation of Ents to protect the forests. The Two Trees of Light were brought to fruition through Yavanna's magic, and when Morgoth killed them, she saved two fruits from them to become the Sun and Moon.
Varda placed the Sun and Moon in magical vessels and set them to sail in the sky so that light would not pass from the world. (The Silmarils, also, preserved a remnant of the Light of the Trees.)
The Elves, who had been born and dwelt for long ages under the stars, prayed to Varda for guidance and aid, and you can occasionally hear the Elves singing to her in the movies (A Elbereth Gilthoniel = "O lady of the stars, star-kindler.")
Did you know that The Lord of the Rings did not originally end with Sam's simple, "Well, I'm back?" Originally, there was an epilogue set about 15 years later on the birthday of Sam and Rosie's daughter Elanor.
Elanor was not only an unusually beautiful hobbit, blessed by Galadriel's gift of magic from her garden to Sam. She was also, from what we see of her, a sharp-witted young lady:
Elanor stood up, and passed her hand lightly through Sam's curling brown hair, already flecked with gray. 'Goodnight, Sam-dad. But—'
'I don't want good night but,' said Sam.
'But won't you show it me first? I was going to say.'
'Show you what, dear?'
'The King's letter, of course. You have had it now more than a week.'
Sam sat up. 'Good gracious!' he said. 'How stories do repeat themselves! And you get paid back in your own coin and all. How we spied on poor Mr. Frodo! And now our own spy on us, meaning no more harm than we did, I hope. But how do you know about it?'
Alas, we only get the one scene with Elanor, but we know that she became Queen Arwen's maid, and inherited the Red Book after Rosie died and Sam took another ship West from the Gray Havens.
Tolkien's friends were right to tell him to drop the Epilogue, which was dragging the story out too much, but I'm sorry to lose the glimpse of Elanor, one of the smartest female characters in Middle-earth, as well as the original ending of the book, with Sam and Rose standing in the door of Bag-end.
- Elanor Gamgee
It's hard to find good portraits of Elanor, but here's a cute one!
Where to Read More About These Characters
I've given you extremely condensed versions of the stories of these female characters. Most appear in multiple versions of Tolkien's writings published in a series of books after his death by his son Christopher. You can skip over the footnotes and just read the good stuff: