Wrangling with Elwing, or Confronting My Own Sexism in Reading Her Story

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 was1does 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,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.

Notes

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.)

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30 Responses to “Wrangling with Elwing, or Confronting My Own Sexism in Reading Her Story”

  1. Oshun says:

    How about blaming Tolkien? He gave her a terrible story-line. He bears some responsibility for giving the character this choice and this choice only.

    It’s like someone took the novel Sophie’s Choice and, instead of allowing the protagonist to be sympathetic and circumstances heart wrenching and tragic wrote it differently. As that book was written (by a man) the readers breaks with with Sophie and the choice she is forced to make–nobody feels like arguing she was a bad mother! Or wonders why she did what she did.

    Tolkien gives Elwing what appears at first glance to be a political/moral choice–do the “right” thing and sacrifice your life and potentially that of your children–anything to keep that Silmaril out of the hands of the evil Feanorians. I do not think I have problems with the story of Elwing because I am a woman-hater unconsciously or otherwise. I just really hate the story element.

    It reminds me more than anything of Abraham being tested by god and asked to sacrifice his son for no reason except that god asked him to–a test of faith. The premise of the story is that Abraham does the right thing by being willing to kill his son. Its one of the bedrock concepts of Judeo-Christian belief that is simply not OK for me.

    I think it is a stretch to call the reader who reacts negatively to the Elwing story anti-woman.

    I suppose it is stupid of me to even mention this because, clearly the jury is in and fandom-at-large has decided this is a test. It is pushing me too far ask me to admit that one is a misogynist if one is repulsed by Elwing’s decision (or the joint decision of her and Eärendil or any other combination of characters).

    Mammals defending their young is more often than not a reflexive action. Not even a choice. I do not find the Elwing story very convincing and it annoys the hell out of me as a mother. I think Tolkien does not really understand mothers not that I am a woman-hating jerk. Everyone knows not to rush a mother grizzly bear with cubs. Humans are more complex, but in this case it’s hard to swallow that she jumps into the sea leaving her boys to the ungentle mercies of what she believes to be murderous Feanorians. It just does not feel believable or real to me.

    And I am not throwing myself under the bus on this one.

    • Dawn says:

      I definitely never made any accusations of anyone being a woman-hater or misogynist and never used either word. (The sexist = misogynist equivalency is one of my pet peeves because they are not the same thing, and reacting a particular way to a fictional character in itself, to me, cannot be construed as misogyny.)

      This post looks at my own reaction to Elwing (on which I used to write quite a bit, most often in the course of defending the Feanorians) compared to my lack of reaction to Dior and Earendil, of whom I’ve said little or nothing over the years. I’ve concluded that it is my own sexism that accounts for how readily I chose Elwing as proof that bad decisions weren’t the sole province of the Feanorians. Why didn’t I chose Dior? He threw his whole family, including his kids, and his entire people in harm’s way. Why didn’t I chose Earendil? Elwing would never have been put in the position she was in but for his selfish choices. Both would have been better examples, yet I always and easily went for Elwing. Why?

      It’s not in any way about liking or not liking Elwing’s story or finding it repulsive or finding it unbelievable. It is about my tendency to use that story as a persuasive technique over other stories that would serve equally well or better but for the fact that I knew (and I did! when I made the choice to use Elwing) that most people would react more strongly to a mother abandoning her children (against nature!) than to a man putting an entire people in harm’s way to score political points (probably not a great thing but understandable).

      I don’t see a parallel with Abraham per se. If I buy the fanon version of the story: of Elwing at the cliffside, Silmaril in hand, with her sons held at swordpoint by the Feanorians (let’s make those swords bloodied just to emphasize how reeeeally evil the Feanorians are 😉 ) and the plain decision of Silmaril vs. children … maybe. But we know very little about the actual circumstances: whether she was anywhere near Elrond and Elros at the time, whether she believed saving them would even be possible, whether she was being threatened with violence when she jumped. Any one of these reduce the element of deliberate sacrifice that fans have tended to read into the story.

      And of course I’m not a mom. I don’t have the experience of feeling protective towards one’s children. I do have too much professional experience, though, with parents who make choices to put their children in harm’s way for a lot less than a Silmaril. If one buys the argument that the attraction of the Silmaril is similar to addiction, that explains all of the bad behavior we see, including Elwing’s, which sadly does have quite a bit of believability for me in that context.

      • Oshun says:

        Sorry I was so shrill and overreacted. I know you did not call me or anyone else names. It’s just that I find this story one the most singularly disturbing ones in a book filled with disturbing stories. Frankly, I was not actually responding to your points. I was just bleeding all over the page. Although, they had for me a self-flagellating quality to them that I thought was being unfair to yourself. I have always appreciated the women in your Silmarillion stories and your treatment of them has greatly influenced mine. When I think of what you have done for interpretation of women in Tolkien’s world ranks near the top for me along with Pandemonium and Elleth and only a handful of other writers.

        I never have blamed Elwing above Eärendil for the abandonment of their children. He left her and the care of their young twins (two are definitely harder than one) to pursue his noble purpose (ha! which was not without very strong elements of personal gratification).

        “Yet Eärendil could not rest, and his voyages about the shores of the Hither Lands eased not his unquiet. Two purposes grew in his heart, blended as one in longing for the wide Sea: he sought to sail thereon, seeking after Tuor and Idril who returned not; and he thought to find perhaps the last shore, and bring ere he died the message of Elves and Men to the Valar in the West, that should move their hearts to pity for the sorrows of Middle-earth.”

        One-quarter pure and simple self-indulgence and the other 3/4 a desire to save the world! (cough, cough–I cannot buy that part of the story either! once you have kids taking care of them trumps saving the world). True, we do not know what contingency plans Eärendil and Elwing had for when–when, not if–the Feanorians came to get the Silmaril, except that it was not very good.

        In my bio of Elwing I note, “Despite all the events in which Elwing plays a role as one of the major catalysts, her character, like so many in The Silmarillion, but perhaps most notably in the case of the women, never really becomes memorable or distinct in itself.” I could recommend some sensitive stories about Elwing that I love. “One is Blood as Warm” as a Bird by Darth Fingon and a number of stories where Keiliss characterizes Elwing from a traumatized child-woman through after she re-joined Eärendil. I like Keiliss’s stories the best. She describes those around Elwing and how they molded, moved her, and pushed her story line. The buck does not stop with Elwing in her characterization.

        On a purely personal level, I have been in situations where the life of one or another of my children was threatened and, believe me, there was no rational thinking behind my impulse to sacrifice anything and everything–my marriage, career, future financial security, etc., etc.–to make them safe and well again.

        I had written (8 years ago) a stupid crack fic about Elwing, which I deleted yesterday. I was not willing to offer it up for scrutiny in light of this discussion and/or defend it. It was written carelessly in an angry reaction to the picture of Elwing that Tolkien had given us. I am sure I would write Elwing’s bio differently also if I were to write it tomorrow. I said in the bio, much of which I would still, that

        “In the case of Elwing, the one example of concrete action on her part could be interpreted as less heroic and more an incomprehensible abandonment of her children, without any explanation of why this should be accepted as a positive choice, and the apparent assumption on the part of her creator that it will be accepted as such.”

        However more problematic is the statement which follows it,

        “Conversely, the ranks of the Noldor, and by extension the peoples of Middle-earth, are punished harshly for actively seeking recompense for the murder of their King and the theft of their greatest technical achievement. Elwing, on the other hand, is rewarded for refusing to return a Silmaril to its rightful owners.”

        There you have what you referred to above–my version of defending the Feanorians over Elwing. Although, it’s not personal for me–certainly had nothing to do with the woman question. I can’t defend the choices of Thingol, Dior, much less the whole lot of the Valar. And certainly do not defend Eärendil for leaving his wife to raise their children alone and badly protected in predictably dangerous circumstances. I know many more dead-beat dads up close and personal than I know of problematic mothers!!

        But I do apologize. I should never, never have responded to this entry when I saw it. I am so sorry. I know stuff involving children is a trigger for me. Remember when you killed off a toddler in one of your original fiction Halloween horror stories? OMG! I was writhing on the floor! Please forgive me for being a jerk and not keeping my own neurotic responses to fiction to myself.

        • Dawn says:

          Aww! No apologies are needed. By now, you’d have to do a lot (A LOT) for me to be upset with you. Also, I complain to you plenty about things that I find personally riling.

          I appreciate your remarks very much about how I write the women of the Silm. I worry that I haven’t always been stellar with this: I was terribly unfair to Indis in AMC, and I’ve not made the women a priority as I sometimes should. (I know some people will jump on me for feeling that I should! I should write what interests me and not write to a cause! But the fact is that I was unwilling at times to look for interesting stories involving female characters instead of interesting cute male characters.) Anyway, I’m trying to do better. The funny thing is that, had I tried to write Elwing in fiction, I probably would have been much fairer to her than I have been using her essentially as a persuasive device in my nonfiction/meta.

          One-quarter pure and simple self-indulgence and the other 3/4 a desire to save the world! (cough, cough–I cannot buy that part of the story either! once you have kids taking care of them trumps saving the world).

          Yes, and the person who always prattles on about historical bias can’t help but notice how the bit about saving the world is a convenient afterthought to essentially wanting to go futz around with a bunch of his friends in a boat. (I remember a friend of mine once remarking how her husband only bought a boat and became obsessed with golf once their children were born because both took him out of the house for long stretches of time.) Pengolodh, of course, would not admit that Earendil wasn’t much different than those Numenorean mariners in wanting to achieve strange lands, even if they have more in common than not.

          I don’t find the quote you gave from your bio especially problematic. I mean, it IS true! I suppose that so much of this post depended on occupying my own headspace for the past ten years and knowing how easily I jumped to sexist reasoning in support of the Feanorians and how actively I resisted thinking about Elwing’s situation, despite urging people to do the same for the Feanorians.

          Of course, I can’t do that for anyone but myself! Your comparison is also on more equal footing: about the keeping of Silmarils versus having a match-up between who is worse: kinslayers or bad mothers. And it’s also evidence of the historical bias I talk so much about: how easily bad behavior can be waved away as virtuous when it is convenient to do so. In short, I would never advocate striking that line (although you know you’re always welcome to rewrite or edit your bios if you want to!)

          • Oshun says:

            Thanks! I am glad you are not mad at me for throwing a fit in your space! If I were going to deconstruct every story or piece of Meta or canon research I have written I would never be able to go forward. So most of it must remain history for me. I do reserve the right to delete on occasion if I run across something I really, really don’t wanna defend any longer. Most of my old stuff I hope shows tracks of growth instead throwing me into throes of everlasting regret! (I guess I am soft on myself!)

  2. Brooke says:

    Still need to respond on your post, but this is interesting.

    I don’t think that not being motivated by sexism necessarily means having to like Elwing/find her actions acceptable. I certainly don’t – but I also have deep and burning criticisms of Dior and Eärendil (and actually, have largely just avoided writing about the latter and Elwing in fic, but have written Dior as the idiot whose wife wants nothing to do with him in the Halls in fic). I find it utterly believable that she’d forsake her children: her own father did the same thing. Cycles of abuse and poverty and all sorts of other things how how cycles work, plus there is the weird Silmaril effect. I have great sympathy for all of that, because it would be really hard for a child who grew up with a silmaril being on par with their own life to end up being a shining example of well adjusted parenting.

    But in the end, I come back to the fact that this was a choice between something that was important, but was still at its core a shiny rock (so the Declaration being a piece of paper, or whatever other analogy one wants, in the real world) and her kids. And I’d judge the hell out of any president who chose the Declaration over their own kids.

    I do think often times there’s sexism involved in it, like you said. The deciding factor in my mind is whether male characters are judged the same. Is Dior considered the same she is? Eärendil? If the answer is no…well, stop excusing male characters for the same thing. Fathers can be and often are horrible parents. Eärendil can have done good for the world AND be judged as a horrible, shitty father. Those aren’t mutually exclusive things, but for some reason fandom wants to treat them like they are in a lot of cases – and women frequently ends up on the “she’s a horrible person!” side and men end up on the “he did good things for the world!” side, which is the sexism in action part of it all that always ends up happening. I mean, I’m done with 90% of the parents in Tolkien’s books, but they seldom get judged for it if they’re male. The majority of good parents I see in them are the ones I have had to headcanon their entire relationship with their children.

    This was a really long ramble to agree with you.

    • Dawn says:

      I don’t think that not being motivated by sexism necessarily means having to like Elwing/find her actions acceptable.

      Once I stopped thinking of Elwing as opposed to the Feanorians both in the story and in fandom (i.e., one can like/understand one of them but not both), I find myself sympathizing with Elwing. I think it was Lyra who pointed out that Elwing was probably very young when all of this happens (Earendil too) and was terribly unprepared to make the kinds of political decisions she was charged with making. I can see myself writing more about her, in part to make up for the awful story she is given, as Oshun notes. Since so little is known about her circumstances, I have to imagine myself what they might have been, which gives me enormous control to shape her storyline into something I approve of or don’t. My willingness to make it something I don’t approve of was always part of the problem.

      I appreciate the connection between cycles of addiction and bad parenting. I find that very salient to my own experiences, which involve working with kids who don’t exactly have the best parents …

      I don’t think I’ve ever seen a critical examination of the bad fathers in Tolkien. I’m sure they exist, but I’ve seen plenty on the bad mothers and what all that means.

      • Brooke says:

        Once I stopped thinking of Elwing as opposed to the Feanorians both in the story and in fandom (i.e., one can like/understand one of them but not both), I find myself sympathizing with Elwing.

        I can understand that! I think I escaped the idea that one can like/understand one or the other but not both because my favorites were always drastically opposed – on the one hand I loved the Fëanorians and allied Noldor (plus Orodreth) and on the other hand, I am an unashamed Sindar fan, particularly of Celeborn, Nimloth, and the Mirkwood elves. My favs/understood characters were always opposed (oh! Also Indis and Míriel. I am probably more unfair to Finwë, but since he’s the only parent related to all the kids…well, and that I find it drastically unfair that fandom is often all “BUT HE WANTED MORE KIDS AND IT’D BE UNFAIR OF HIM TO SACRIFICE THAT!” when single mothers (either widowed or divorced) in the real world are often expected to give up all chances of even dating, let alone having more kids. And that nobody is ever all “Why didn’t Aragorn’s mother ever remarry? What if she wanted more kids?”)

        For myself, I find myself frequently in the situation in real life where I have great deal of sympathy and understanding for why somebody has ended up doing something, but I still find it utterly rehensible in spite of that. I like the comparisons other people have given to people who end up addicted to drugs. I have the utmost sympathy for that, and there’s a lot of people I’ve met who have been addicted to those or something else, and still tried to do the best they could for their children and made them a priority, and I can like those people. But the ones who put their addiction (or in Elwing’s place the Silmaril) above their children…I still feel sympathy for them, and I find it horrifying that their circumstances led them there, but I still consider it wrong and I can’t necessarily like them.

        I guess I’m in the middle. I don’t think she’s evil, but I don’t think her kids would necessarily find her forgivable either.

        I can see myself writing more about her, in part to make up for the awful story she is given, as Oshun notes.

        I’d be interested to see what you write about her. I’m not sure how much I’ll write about her, since she occupies roughly the same position for me that say Angrod does – I love her entire family, but she is the least interesting member of it to me (which is the truth. I could write stories about Nimloth for days, but Elwing doesn’t grab me the same, probably because of the short time period she’s alive coinciding with my period of least interest).

        I appreciate the connection between cycles of addiction and bad parenting. I find that very salient to my own experiences, which involve working with kids who don’t exactly have the best parents …

        I thought it might ring bells for you. I think that Dior (or going further back, Beren and Luthien or Elu and Melian) probably contributed to it all. After all, if nobody shows you how to be a good parent (or decides to be the exact opposite of their actual parent, which I think Luthien might have done), how do you learn?

        I don’t think I’ve ever seen a critical examination of the bad fathers in Tolkien. I’m sure they exist, but I’ve seen plenty on the bad mothers and what all that means.

        I’ve seen a couple on absent/dead fathers, but not put in terms of bad. I’ve seen plenty deciding to cast certain characters as abusive fathers, though I’ve seen why those particular characters argued as related to sexism even when it’s a male character, mainly because those characters are often given stereotypical female traits, such as being ruled by their emotions, hysterical, etc. There was one article that talked about Thranduil in fanon in view of that.

  3. croc says:

    This article is really interesting, and as a huge Elwing defender it obviously made me glad to see someone who clearly has a big name on the fandom attempt to rethink their opinion on her! However, I was wondering one thing: when you consider what reasons she might possibly have for jumping, you don’t seem to consider mere suicide? Which is interesting as that’s certainly my take on the matter. As you yourself noticed, Elwing’s whole family was whiped out by the Feanorian army when she only 3. They showed absolutely no mercy, and she only escaped because she wasn’t there. So I always imagined that, once she realized the Feanorians were invading, she concluded what anyone else would conclude in her situation: that she and her whole family were as good as dead. Especially considering there was no place to run if they were caught between the sea and the invaders.

    Therefore, and also taking in account she couldn’t possibly count on surviving such a fall, my immediate take was that jumping with the Silmaril was her last act of defiance, but also the only possible one. We have no information as to where her children were, but it just seems to me that, as Elured and Elurin were not spared (and she had no way of knowing Maedhros didn’t order nor take pleasure in their deaths), she just was certain neither would she or her children. It seems to me that the Feanorians invading is something like her worst nightmare coming true? Not allowing them to kill her with their own swords or to get their hands on the Silmaril is the only pleasure she has the power of denying them, so I always assumed this was the reason for her actions. Is this very different from your current reading of the situation?

    At any rate, even if in the end you still don’t like her, I am nonetheless glad this is a reflection that happened! I think everyone is free to like and dislike whichever characters they like or dislike, but I also definitely think that the Silm allows us to see a lot of things that the characters themselves don’t see, which sometimes causes us to judge them more harshly than they deserve. I’ve fallen prey to that myself of course (and maybe still do hahaha, sometimes it’s hard to take a step back and check yourself!).

    • Croc says:

      Ugh, *wiped out, sorry for the typo!

    • Dawn says:

      That’s a really good point. Everything you say makes a lot of sense, and were I to read a story taking that approach, it would be completely believable to me.

      I’ll be perfectly honest that I have never written Elwing and so thought much about her circumstances beyond what I did here. I was content to go with the fanon tide for many, many years, accepting the prevailing view of what happened at Sirion without much question and tending to regard Elwing more as a persuasive tool in favor of my own favorite characters, the Feanorians (i.e., “Instead of looking just at their bad deeds, why not consider that Elwing abandoned her kids over the same shiny rock??”) This is not exactly a flattering admission! :) But I am trying to be more thoughtful about it now.

      I don’t dislike Elwing at all. Like Oshun, I don’t particularly like how her story is presented, but that is true of most of Tolkien’s women (and many of the guys as well). But I’ve had people gently point out details that I was missing and suggest how they might connect in ways that I wasn’t considering. (Like you did here. :) ) I have seen the argument made, for example, that Elwing was probably young when all this transpired–Earendil too–and that makes her sympathetic to me. (The Tale of Years from HoMe 11 shows 25 years between the attacks on Doriath and Sirion; we don’t know how maturity worked for the half-Elves, but that still seems to make them very young.) I’m inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt as a young woman, probably traumatized, who ended up in a terrible situation largely brought on by the actions of persons other than herself and did the best she could.

      • croc says:

        I’m glad you don’t dislike her then hahaha, I know taste is something very personal and I don’t think people should have to justify liking or disliking a character if they don’t want to, but I can’t lie it makes me happy in this case, since I like Elwing a lot! And yes, you’re right. she was very young, just like Dior as when he died >_< I always feel bad for them, they feel to me like such tragic figures, and I think their failures make them very interesting. (Although personally I don't think Elwing was a bad mother, but I might be the only one hahaha).

        Thank you for your answer! I'll just hope she keeps growing in you (and in the rest of the fandom) then :)

        • Dawn says:

          I’m reluctant to label anyone a “bad parent/mother.” As a teacher, I work with largely disadvantaged kids, and I see a lot of “bad parents” in my work, and it often requires actively reminding myself not to be judgmental and to step back and see the big picture in which particular actions are occuring. As a fiction writer, I ascribe to the view that every character has to become okay enough with her or his decisions to sleep at night, and I figure Elwing would be no different, and to hear her reasons and explanations of what happened would probably be interesting and enlightening.

  4. DrummerWench says:

    Hmmm. See, I always figured the Silmaril was basically an addictive drug. Elwing was addicted to it; she knew the Feanorians were, as well. Her first thought was to fling it into the ocean, and remove it from being a motivator for destruction, buuut, like Frodo, she just couldn’t. And so, she did the next best thing, accompanied it Gollum-like into the Fires of Doom, I mean, the waves.

    She left her children behind, but the alternative was fighting to the death (hers and theirs) for the pretty, pretty heroin.

    • Dawn says:

      I find that argument very convincing, and it certainly explains a lot. You know that I see too often the poor decisions people make where there children are concerned once addictive substances enter the picture …

      I had never considered, though, that her own jump was motivated by that attraction/addiction. This is an interesting idea.

      • Oshun says:

        Everyone seems to lose their mind when they touch a Silmaril. I tend to interpret its effect on people as more related to Tolkien’s position on science and technology than to extend it to compare it to addiction. It reminds me of the One Ring. It grabs control of characters and then they lose their ability to make rational choices. It’s not the same but the comparison can be made.

        • Dawn says:

          I’ve actually seen the addiction comparison made more for the One Ring than the Silmarils!

          I agree that both are similar, and I think that Tolkien was going to a similar message in his use of both.

          I don’t think that Tolkien wrote his Various Shiny Things intentionally to mimic substance abuse/addiction. (I have often heard that he was scornful of psychology, although I’ve never encountered anything in my own reading that would support that idea.) I think he’d probably say that they represent more the “addiction” that power represents, which of course ties more in to science/tech than to substance abuse.

          (In short, I think Tolkien would agree with you. However, the behavior of those “under the influence” of Various Shiny Things definitely resembles addictive behaviors of all sorts.)

  5. Independence1776 says:

    See… I’ve never liked Elwing, but it’s not simply that she abandoned her kids: she refused to consider the political and safety implications to her people of not giving the Silmaril to the Fëanorians. She knew what would happen if she didn’t, but waiting until Eärendil returned to decide does not strike me as a smart decision– she had no guarantee when or if he would. (The only reason that could make sense to me is that upon marriage all her belongings became his and thus she literally didn’t have the right to decide, which is not an interpretation I enjoy thinking about.)

    Eärendil, on the other hand… I’m a Navy brat and I have always, always seen Eärendil as someone who is trying is best to protect his people even though it means leaving his family for long periods of time. Faulting him for that is something I cannot wrap my head around.

    Dior I neither write nor talk about because I dislike him for much the same reasons I dislike Elwing.

    And all of that is ignoring the influence the Silmaril had– and I am convinced there is some, though I’m not sure to what extent. Given how no one seems able to give them up when asked…

    All of that said, I *do* write Elwing, specifically in an attempt to come to understand why she made the decision she did. For example, I can’t write Elrond living in Valinor and ignore her. So, as with all characters I write whom I dislike, I try to write them as though I did like them in hopes that people who read them can’t tell I dislike them. (I cannot stand character bashing, especially in fics; I refuse to perpetuate it.) It’s helped a little; I’m no longer quite so negative about her.

    On a tangent: where do we get the idea there was a cliff involved? If I’m remembering correctly, the mouths of the Sirion is a sandy river delta with marshes.

    • croc says:

      One assumes she jumped from the harbor or from a high place. If you want to go into the sea from a beach, jumping seems impossible: rather you walk into it, passing the shallows and going towards the deep water.

      I think claiming Elwing “knew” what would happen is a long stretch, as the silm says they sent her messages of demand, but also of friendship (sorry if the wording is not exact, as my copy is in Portuguese).. “Friendship” doesn’t sound like “give it to us or we will come to destroy everything you love asap”. Elwing attempted to do the wisest thing in her opinion, which was to wait.

      Now, I think it’s fair to call that stupid or dumb if you will, for not assuming the messages were a veiled threat, or for assuming Earendil would return in time, or for whatever is it one thinks Elwing should have done or been, even if I personally disagree with that reading. But I also think claiming she knew what was going to happen is an assumption that is moreover no backed up by canon when it describes the fashion of M&M’s demands, by using the word ‘friendship’ in the description. Just my opinion.

      • Independence1776 says:

        That’s why I wondered about the cliff; I lived by the ocean for years. But I’ve seen cliffs in plenty of fics and they are literal cliffs, not high places or docks. So I was and remain curious about why they’re commonplace when the description of the land in the Silm suggests something very different.

        I do not consider it a stretch for her to extrapolate from the Second Kinslaying and the Fëanorian oath to know what would happen to the Havens, especially because one of the reasons she refused to hand it over was that Dior died. I do not understand how she could ignore that her father and many from Doriath died because he refused to hand it over and then do the same thing herself.

        The English does say, “messages to the Havens of friendship and yet of stern demand.” To me, that is absolutely a veiled threat. And I think Elwing was smart enough to recognize it. I just don’t think she made the right choices.

    • Dawn says:

      I totally get the criticism against her choices! I have come around to extending some empathy to her (which I suppose reflects different experience, i.e., your example about being a Navy brat and so connecting to Earendil’s story whereas I have trouble connecting with his motives at all). For one, she was pretty young. That’s a huge responsibility to place on a young person, and young people don’t always make great decisions. (Appropriately enough, when your comment popped into my email this early afternoon, I was engaging in a loud and animated discussion with a student about why he shouldn’t deal drugs anymore. It essentially boiled down to him feeling like if he wasn’t outside all day [but just dealing for part of the day!] then he was very unlikely to be arrested/robbed/shot/stabbed/killed. Essentially, he is invincible! Like so many young men, at least in their own minds. This despite the fact that he was in the same class as my student who was killed after being shot 15 times despite the fact that he wasn’t even dealing drugs anymore and so wasn’t outside at all but paid for his past with his life. This point seemed lost on him.)

      I think there’s a middle ground as far as her decision-making with Earendil, which may have been that they did so jointly and–again, being young–hadn’t fully decided how to handle contingencies like “You’re away and the Feanorians come a’knockin’.” For a decision that significant, she may have felt that the best course was to wait for him.

      Good point about the cliff! It’s fanon as far as I can tell:

      Then such few of that people as did not perish in the assault joined themselves to Gil-galad, and went with him to Balar; and they told that Elros and Elrond were taken captive, but Elwing with the Silmaril upon her breast had cast herself into the sea.

      Thus Maedhros and Maglor gained not the jewel; but it was not lost. For Ulmo bore up Elwing out of the waves, and he gave her the likeness of a great white bird … (“Of Earendil”)

      Like Croc, I’ve always assumed a height differential. In my own mind, it is more dramatic than if she just waded out into the sea (which doesn’t quite meet the criteria that she “cast” herself unless she rather absurdly flopped face-down into the water and sort of floated away? :D) But like Croc also notes, I see no reason why it couldn’t have been a dock or something like a rocky outcropping. (Even a tower? Sometimes I imagine her leaping out of a seaside tower.)

      • Independence1776 says:

        I keep forgetting how young she was (though looking at the “Tale of Years,” she could be as old as her early 30s, which doesn’t seem young to me), and I fully blame myself and my general (and seemingly eternal) vagueness on dates in the Silm. It’s partly because I ignore the timelines in HoME, but I think it’s partly because practically everyone else in the book is old as dirt so it feels that she should be older than she actually is. And it makes me wonder about the advisors she probably had and how much she trusted and relied upon them. A settlement of Gondolin and Doriath refugees were probably not the easiest group to rule.

        For a decision that significant, she may have felt that the best course was to wait for him.

        See, I’d think that’s the second thing they would have decided on before he left. (The first being, “What if Morgoth’s armies attack?”) The whole story sometimes doesn’t make sense to me.

        I mean, it’s not like I hate her; there’s pretty much no one I hate. I just… can’t quite figure her out. On one hand, I completely understand her desire to not give the Fëanorians the Silmaril. On the other, I can’t understand why she wouldn’t to save herself, her family, and her people. AKA people are complex and we don’t have enough information to really know her motivations. Which is where fanfic comes in, because I’ve read good fics dealing with Elwing in ways that help me understand her better. And I keep trying to write her even though I feel like I’m banging my head against a brick wall.

        I assume a height differential, too. (I think pretty much everyone does, which is probably where the cliff came from and other people assuming it’s buried somewhere in HoME.) I think I have her jumping off docks in my fics. But the image of her just floating away made me laugh.

  6. Amy Fortuna says:

    I approach this from a weird angle, I think. If you asked me what I think about Elwing, my instinct would be to reply, “oh, whose perspective am I writing her from?”

    And if you then went on to say, “no, I want your own opinion on her,” I would probably look at you with a confused face, and basically say that I have no personal opinion – there’s only what appears in the Silmarillion and in HoME to go on.

    Do I think she was a good person, a bad person? I find it unhelpful to judge fictional characters in that way. Good or bad by what moral standard? I believe that she felt she was doing what she had to – because that’s the default, people aren’t generally villains in their own minds. Likewise I believe that Maedhros and Maglor felt they were doing what they had to, although we actually have a little more insight into their minds, if we believe the texts on what it indicates regarding their feelings.

    If I were writing stories about her (which in fact, I am, I have a couple of WIPs about her and her actions here), I would try to do my best to either write from a particular perspective – I prefer third person limited so for this would probably write from her own perspective – or write in the third person objective (one of my WIPs that involves this scene is in this but I’ve remixed up the details as it’s an AU) and try to avoid narrative bias (like, I wouldn’t say, ‘evil smirk’ or ‘reckless action’ and in general would try to avoid any word that would cast a moral judgement on what was happening in the story).

    Generally, I don’t have one opinion on any of the characters – I have ideas for stories, and those ideas inform the opinions that need to exist for the story to happen, but it’s all change the next time I want to write a story. By and large, I tend to try to assume the best of all characters – I do not always succeed, especially with those characters who are never portrayed as anything but evil (Morgoth is basically the Chaos Principle dressed up in a fana, I really struggle to find any sympathy for him at all), but I have been able to view characters like Eol and Sauron from their own perspectives and understand their motives. Most individuals are complex and multi-layered – part of the fun of fanfic is adding those layers, as Another Man’s Cage and so much of your fic in general so wonderfully does – and this is true of Elwing just as much as it is of Feanor.

    Now, AMC actually provides an interesting example for me, and a test for my willingness to remain unopinionated, because when I first read it I came to the way you wrote Fingolfin and just went, “Oh no.” It took quite a while before I became reconciled to him as he was portrayed in your story (I had to think of him in terms of his role in the story, not him as a character), and indeed a fair amount of what I’ve written since has been somewhat of a reaction against that version of him. But that’s part of the fun of it too – that every fic I read gets taken up into the cloud in my brain of different versions, different ways of portraying a character, and I pull down elements of those different versions, or reactions to them, and build my own versions.

    I think if anything Elwing – and this is a sad truth of so many female characters – hasn’t been written enough from enough different perspectives. There’s a willingness to assume the worst of her, and it’s that bit where the sexism comes in, and certainly that bit that is worth fixing. I think she’s really intriguing, and there are many possibilities for her, and I hope to see many stories in future that approach those possibilities and play with them!

  7. Kaz says:

    Okay, as a massive Elwing fan I really can’t resist commenting on this!

    Your post reminds me a lot of what I went through a few years ago. I’d always disliked Elwing quite strongly, then one day took a hard look at myself, that dislike, the judgements I’d made on her, and asked myself “are these opinions partially motivated by sexism?” And the conclusion I reached was “yes”. I couldn’t tell how much of my dislike had roots in sexist ideas about motherhood and acceptable sacrifice, but I knew it was somewhere between “a pretty significant portion” and “basically all”. Being not happy about this fact, I tried to make myself like her and succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.

    So, some thoughts on your analysis:

    I do hold that there’s a reading that makes Elwing into a genuinely heroic character in control of her destiny, not clouded/damaged by the Silmaril or her past (which is what many of the portrayals sympathetic to her do and which has never sat quite well with me). It’s basically jumping off your third explanation for her actions, that she knew her actions would serve the greater good – what if Elwing had some foresight, that keeping the Silmaril was necessary in order to save Middle-earth?

    It fits in with a lot of the themes in Tolkien’s work and is actually true in that Elwing jumping with the Silmaril leads directly to the Valar choosing to intervene, the War of Wrath and Middle-earth being saved. It’s one of the things that always sat weirdly with me about Elwing’s story before, that Tolkien presents it in a heroic light and it IS in fact heroic in its effects but it seems like there’s no way she could have known about the events she’d set in motion beforehand. Foresight is a thing in Tolkien… so what if she did? It puts a pretty different spin on her actions.

    I also feel as if criticism of Elwing’s choice to jump is often a little… muddled with criticism of the choices she made that led to the situation in the first place. Fact is that at the point where she jumped, the Third Kinslaying had ALREADY happened, Sirion was in flames, and she had no good options.

    So, for instance, I’d argue that throwing herself off a cliff with the Silmaril was probably the choice that would stop the fighting as soon as possible. Because doing that removes the Silmaril from contention entirely. (Also, shock value, might help.) Giving it to the Feanorians means that you’ll now most likely have citizens of Sirion trying to fight to take the Silmaril BACK, never to mention that she might be killed or taken hostage and have people try to rescue her/take revenge. It’s a Gordian knot solution – the fighting is over the Silmaril. Remove the Silmaril, remove the reason to fight.

    Similarly, Elwing abandoning her sons by jumping… well, jumping as opposed to what? Given her family’s history with Feanorians, Elwing may very well assume she’s dead no matter what she does at this point. Even if Maedhros and Maglor let her live, she’s still in the middle of the war zone and I don’t think anyone thinks of Elwing as a trained fighter. Her chances of survival are genuinely Not Good, her best chance probably ending up as a hostage of some sort which she really doesn’t want. Given the odds here, I can see Elwing choosing “okay, off the cliff we go” as her best choice for all the reasons mentioned above.

    Anyway, I will stop myself nattering on. I think you raise some interesting points, and I’m very glad you realised you were being unfair to Elwing and are now mulling her over! I always like to see people thinking about Elwing in more depth. :)

  8. Callina says:

    At least Dior had the decency to die in the Second Kinslaying. Believe me, if he had been like Elwing, and somehow escaped with the Silmaril – and nothing else, including his children – fans would be down on him, too. Dior’s death in battle does not look like parental abandonment; Elwing’s plunge into the sea, and subsequent escape, does – and the fact that she kept the precious Silmaril with her (where were her children?) just rubs it in.

    I’m not saying it’s fair; as you pointed out, we don’t have enough details to fully understand her actions. But it’s not sexism that makes people think better of the father who died fighting the armed burglars than of the mother who escaped out the bedroom window with the family silver.

    Additionally, I think her refusal to yield the Silmaril was more foolish than Dior’s. They made the same decision, but with radically different perspectives. Dior might not have known what the Fearnorians would do; Elwing must have.

    Try to imagine the historical context of Dior’s perspective. The First Kinslaying is long ago – centuries before he was born. Furthermore, it happened under Feanor’s leadership, was not a planned military assault, and did not involve gratuitous cruelty to children after the battle. True, he heard all about Celegorm and Curufin’s villainy. Still, that’s a far cry from another Kinslaying, and Dior might reasonably expect the Feanorians to collectively be better behaved, especially under Maedhros’ control. The Sons of Feanor had long warred nobly against Morgoth, and Maedhros had proved himself more moderate than his father and (half) his younger brothers.

    Elwing, meanwhile, came out of the Second Kinslaying with enormous personal loss. She knew exactly what the Sons of Feanor would do if denied the Silmaril, Dior should probably have been able to guess, but she knew.

    I don’t want to sound too hard on Elwing. Based on Tolkien’s text, all sorts of interpretations (good and bad) are possible. I’m certain she bears no responsibility for the Third Kinslaying, even if she would have been wiser to give up the Silmaril (in her defense, nobody else was ever willing to). I just think the negative treatment she receives is not due to her gender but to what is in the story – or, more likely, not in it.

    And I need to say … interesting discussion, interesting article. I enjoyed reading it.

  9. Kalinka says:

    Son of Feanor destroy the Havens, just like they destroyed Doriath. Only this time, no-one gets away. The twins are captured and Elwing decides she would rather die than give the Feanorians a Silmaril. She can’t save her family or her people. The one thing she can do is prevent the people who did all this from getting what they want, because there’s nothing else but despair.

  10. Oshun says:

    I came back here for two reasons, one to offer for future readers a recommendation of your story of Elwing written recently The Ship of Light The Ship of Light.

    Which for me at least, whether you intended it or not, transcends all of these discussions about whether one has to like her canon interpretation in order to be a good person. I love this Elwing.

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