This post is in honor of Mother’s Day. Yes, I know … Mother’s Day was on Sunday. But since I debuted my Tolkien fan fiction survey data on Sunday with two posts, I did not want to inundate my blog with three posts in one day, two of them lengthy. So this post comes with much belated appreciation to all the moms out there making the kinds of tough decisions I don’t think I could make. <3
Let me confess right off the bat: I have not been kind to Elwing over the years. I have been highly critical of her decision to abscond with the Silmaril, deserting her helpless young sons in the process. I have often levied that criticism in the context of defending the Fëanorians using “yes but” rhetoric: Yes, the Fëanorians did wrong in assaulting Sirion, but Elwing also did wrong–perhaps more so–in abandoning her sons, knowing full well that they might be killed by the assailants. And, yes, the lack of scrutiny given to Elwing’s actions (and Eärendil’s) is indicative of the historical bias that I have spent the last decade trying to show, but my own ensuing scrutiny of Elwing (again, more so than Eärendil) hasn’t exactly been a good look.
So after ten years of subjecting Elwing to the third degree, I want to unpack why I did, how my thoughts are coming to evolve, and what all of this shows about how even feminist readers can fall into the trap of sexist reasoning, especially when that reasoning comes conveniently to hand.
Elwing follows the same path blazed by the holders of the Silmaril who came before her: She made a stupid, potentially deadly decision in the interest of retaining the stone. (It worked out okay for her in the end, but generally, flinging oneself off a cliff to protect a shiny gemstone isn’t exactly a prudent course of action. We don’t know what she expected to happen, but I’d wager that turning into a bird and flying into the West wasn’t high on the list.) What makes Elwing’s case uniquely perilous to me as a feminist reader was the circumstances of that foolish decision: In the course of it, she left her two young sons in the hands of the same family who deserted her brothers in the forest. It is Elwing’s perceived failure as a mother that draws so much scrutiny.
Look at Dior in comparison. Dior receives almost no criticism for blowing off the diplomatic request of the sons of Fëanor for the Silmaril: “… now hearing of the renewal of Doriath and of Dior’s pride the seven gathered again from wandering, and they sent to him to claim their own. But Dior returned no answer to the sons of Fëanor” (Silmarillion, “Of the Ruin of Doriath”).
Unlike Elwing, Dior’s lack of action–and he was in a position of greater authority than she was1—does result in the deaths of his sons, as well as his own death and that of his wife and many of his people. The attack on Doriath was ostensibly the worst of the three kinslayings, wiping out the entire royal family save Elwing and collapsing the realm of Doriath. And like Elwing, Dior was a father who knowingly put his family in harm’s way. The hatred of Thingol, Dior’s grandfather, for the Fëanorians was entirely predicated on the kinslaying at Alqualondë, so Dior surely realized the peril of his inaction.
So why does Elwing catch a lot of heat for absconding with the Silmarils and leaving her sons behind while Dior receives little critique and, when he does, his particular role as the father of the boys who were killed is never mentioned? To me, it seems that our understanding of Elwing, as a woman, is that she should put her children and their well-being above all else. For Dior, as a man, his role as a father is secondary to many other things, including his pride in not wanting to relinquish the stone his parents recovered from Morgoth. Likewise, Eärendil, as a man, is assumed to have more important things to attend to than the well-being of his family or even his realm.
When I look at this scenario outside the context of using it to understand the Fëanorian response, it immediately strikes me as grossly sexist and unfair. As a feminist and child-free woman, I understandably see myself as much more than my reproductive capacity, and one of the best ways to get four-letter words of Anglo-Saxon origin flung at you is to imply that my decision not to be a parent somehow defines me beyond all else of my life and accomplishments. (Note to trolls: This doesn’t work online, so don’t even try.) Yet I have on multiple occasions clutched my pearls and exclaimed of Elwing, “Oh but how could she!” Why?
I typed a couple of sentences with high-flown rhetoric about the insidiousness of sexism and deleted them because what it comes down to: I’m human. I’ve grown up in a sexist society, inundated by messages that motherhood is a woman’s most important role and that a woman should put her children before all else. Mothers who make significant sacrifices for their children are hailed as heroes; those who make choices with factors in mind other than their children endure criticism and scorn. When I point to Elwing as an example of the moral complexity of The Silmarillion, I know that her situation carries cultural and emotional resonance. I know that people will react to the desertion of her sons with a strength that they perhaps don’t even feel for the Fëanorian attack on Sirion. That’s why I turn to her rather than Dior or Eärendil when trying to show that the only mistakes weren’t committed on the Fëanorian side. It’s a convenient, cheap argument.
Because, in actuality, once we cast aside the sexist baggage on Elwing’s case, Dior and Eärendil actually become the better arguments for the moral complexity surrounding the Fëanorian pursuit of the Silmaril at the end of the Quenta. Let’s begin with the assumption that Dior, Eärendil, and Elwing all made poor decisions regarding the Silmaril. Dior, as noted above, ignored the diplomatic attempt by the Fëanorians to regain the Silmaril. His motives for doing so are not directly stated but can be inferred from this passage from The Silmarillion:
Long did Dior gaze upon the Silmaril, which his father and mother had brought beyond hope out of the terror of Morgoth; and his grief was great that death had come upon them so soon. But the wise have said that the Silmaril hastened their end; for the flame of the beauty of Lúthien as she wore it was too bright for mortal lands.
Then Dior arose, and about his neck he clasped the Nauglamír; and now he appeared as the fairest of all the children of the world, of threefold race: of the Edain, and of the Eldar, and of the Maiar of the Blessed Realm. (“Of the Ruin of Doriath”)
This suggests that Dior was motivated by his grief for his parents’ death, combined with his belief that the hardships they endured to recover the stone entitled them to keep it. It also suggests that he was motivated by the beauty of the stone and the way it enhanced his own beauty, perhaps believing that it reinforced his descent from Lúthien and his right to rule. Earlier in the chapter, it is also said that “Dior Eluchíl set himself to raise anew the glory of the kingdom of Doriath,” and it is very possible that he believed the Silmaril would help him accomplish this. Later, the Elves at Sirion–many of whom are refugees of Doriath–credit the Silmaril for their fortune.2
Of Eärendil, we know that he is the lord of Sirion, that he is restless and so sails constantly to find respite and also with the stated goals of finding Idril and Tuor or delivering a message to the Valar to hopefully bring their aid to Middle-earth. We also know that “Elwing was not with him, and she sat in sorrow by the mouths of Sirion” (The Silmarillion, “Of Eärendil”). In short, Eärendil abandons his family and his people for long stretches of time under a variety of pretenses, only one of which–bringing help from the Valar–could be said to be selflessly motivated. Soothing his restlessness and finding his parents hardly seem worth abandoning his family and people while they hold an item that is dangerously coveted by a group of Elves who have already proven themselves capable of horrific acts.
What of Elwing? As noted above, we know that she withheld making a decision concerning the Silmaril (we do not know if she replied to Maedhros’s letters or not) out of a desire to wait for Eärendil’s return. It’s hard for me to be as critical of this as of Dior’s entitlement and love of the Silmaril’s beauty and Eärendil’s wanderlust. When the Fëanorians attack, she flings herself into the sea, clutching the Silmaril. This is the act for which she bears the most criticism, yet we know nothing of her motive, being simply told, “Elwing with the Silmaril upon her breast had cast herself into the sea” (The Silmarillion, “Of Eärendil”). In a textbook example of Tolkien’s concept of eucatastrophe, she does not die but is turned into a bird and flies the Silmaril–and herself–to Eärendil’s ship.
A couple of possibilities arise here as to her motive for jumping:
- In a childish fit of “if I can’t have it, you can’t either!” she decides to evade the Silmaril’s almost certain recovery by destroying it and herself simultaneously.
- She decides she has a better chance of surviving the sea than the Fëanorian army. It’s worth remembering that we don’t actually know the context of her leap and whether she was under direct threat of violence when it happened.
- She knew–or she hoped–that she would be spared and that her act would serve the greater good. This certainly nods to the theme of estel, also prevalent in Tolkien’s writings.
- The Silmaril drove her to an irrational, heedless act. There is certainly ample evidence to suggest that the Silmarils didn’t enhance the reason and prudence of their bearers along with their beauty. The actions of Fëanor, his sons, Thingol, the Dwarves, Dior, and even Beren (even Melkor and the Valar?) suggest an insidious, addictive, and corrupting influence on the minds of those who hold the Silmaril. In this case, all negative acts–those of Elwing, of Dior, of the Fëanorians–are equally absolved, just as someone cannot be held accountable for crimes committed if psychiatric illness has destroyed their grasp of reality and morality.
With the exception of the first option (which I think the least likely of the four), none of these demonstrate any particular self-interest. I have to conclude that Elwing’s poor decisions regarding the Silmaril are actually fairly understandable, especially compared to Dior and Eärendil.
Therefore, I also have to conclude that my own animus toward Elwing has been misplaced and largely motivated by sexism.
As a feminist, it’s hard to admit this. I’ve spent more than a decade in this fandom writing about–and often defending–female characters. As a fanfic writer, I’ve tried to expand the roles of many of Tolkien’s female characters beyond their roles as wives and mothers. It has taken me ten years to be able to admit out loud that I’ve been unfair to Elwing, and I’m holding myself up now as a cautionary tale of how easy it is to fall back upon sexist reasoning once I stop thinking in feminist terms.
1: The Silmarillion (“Of Eärendil”) says that Elwing was reluctant to cede the Silmaril “least of all while Eärendil their lord was on the sea.” Eärendil’s lengthy absence, which caused Elwing’s inertia–one almost wonders if the young couple didn’t settle how decisions should be made in his absence–is rarely noted by fans. I am again among the guilty.
2: “Then Elwing and the people of Sirion would not yield the jewel … for it seemed to them that in the Silmaril lay the healing and the blessing that had come upon their houses and their ships” (“Of Eärendil”).
(I undoubtedly owe many thanks over the years to people who have gently reshaped my thinking on Elwing, but I remember Lyra in particular–in some long-ago-far-away LJ comment–causing me to really rethink how I was interpreting her story.)