In this new biweekly series, we’ll be exploring the evolution of both major and minor figures in Tolkien’s legendarium, tracing the transformations of these characters through drafts and early manuscripts through to the finished work. In this first installment, we’ll focus on Nerdanel, the Noldorin sculptor, wife of Fëanor, and mother of seven strapping sons.
In the published Silmarillion, Nerdanel exists as little more than a background figure. We’re told that she is “the daughter of a great smith named Mahtan,” and that she, like her husband Fëanor, is “firm of will.” For a while, Fëanor is content to seek her counsel, though he isolates himself in all other respects (58), but as she is “more patient than Fëanor, desiring to understand minds rather than to control them,” they soon become estranged. Fëanor’s “later deeds grieved her.” Though she gives him seven sons, and some of them apparently have her temperament, she is left out of any further mention of the family thereafter, except in one instance, when Fëanor is referred to as “the husband of Nerdanel” because the text is specifically interested in that moment with the relationship between Mahtan and Fëanor (61). Nerdanel herself is given no voice.
But who is this Nerdanel? What were her motivations and passions, and why (and how!) does she not fall under the spell of Fëanor’s compelling voice and charismatic spirit? Tolkien does not mention her in his letters, but he does give her quite a bit more attention than we’d originally suspect, if we relied only on the published Silmarillion.
Nerdanel appears in three of the History of Middle-earth volumes: The Shaping of Middle-earth (IV), Morgoth’s Ring (X), and The Peoples of Middle-earth (XII). I’ll start here with IV and XII, leaving the best for last.
In The Shaping of Middle-earth, the only additional information we find is that some of the kinsfolk of Nerdanel are gingers: they have “rare red-brown hair” (260). Of the seven sons of Fëanor and Nerdanel, only Maedhros and the twins inherit this unusual trait, but it’s unique enough to deserve a mention, not least because this becomes one of Maedhros’s defining features. We aren’t told here whether Nerdanel herself inherited the red hair, but according to a previously unpublished bit of marginalia revealed in the journal Vinyar Tengwar (No. 41), her hair was brown and her complexion “ruddy.”
We’re given a little more information in The Peoples of Middle-earth. There we learn that there is already some tension between Fëanor and Nerdanel when the twins Amras and Amrod, the last of their children, are born. Elves are generally given two names, a “father-name,” which is usually some variation on the name of the father, and a “mother-name.” The mother-names were considered prophetic, as it was believed, and indeed rightly so, that in naming their children mothers were expressing some aspect of the child’s future. So Nerdanel cryptically gives the twins the exact same name, Ambarussa, “for they were much alike and remained so while they lived.” When Fëanor objects, “Nerdanel looked strange,” but concedes that one should be called “Umbarto,” which means “fated.” But she doesn’t say which, claiming that “time will decide” which one earns that name. Fëanor, characteristically, assumes that she meant to say “Ambarto,” or “exalted, lofty,” but rather than attempting to change his mind, Nerdanel shrugs him off with a remarkably sassy rejoinder. “Umbarto I spoke; yet do as you wish. It will make no difference” (XII 354). Shortly thereafter they become estranged, as “Fëanor became more and more fell and violent, and rebelled against the Valar.”
Tolkien included an interesting note at the heading of the manuscript dealing with the names of the Sons of Fëanor, however, that gives us some insight into just how complex family relations became in the house of Fëanor: “All the sons save Curufin preferred their mother-names and were ever afterwards remembered by them” (XII 355). The ultimate renunciation of their father-names tells us a lot about the Sons of Fëanor, but it also says something important about the relationships between Nerdanel and her sons.
The rejection of Fëanor and his deeds that is implicit in the rejection of his name marks the brothers as more aligned with their mother than anyone might have guessed from their actions and their haste to swear the blasphemous Oath. The retention of the mother-name reinforces rather a legacy of wisdom and patience—a strong will also, it is true, but a steady thoughtfulness that is entirely absent from Fëanor’s characterization. And in the list of father-names in that same manuscript lies our answer to the apparent contradiction. Curufin, or “Kurufinwë[:] Fëanor’s own name; given to this, his favourite son, because he alone showed in some degree the same temper and talents. He also resembled Fëanor very much in face” (352, second emphasis mine). So we find that the one son who leaves behind his mother-name (which, ironically, was Atarinkë, or “little father”) bears the same name as his father and alone of all his brothers is like Fëanor in temperament. So it seems that Nerdanel gave her sons more than we might have suspected.
The Peoples of Middle-earth gives us one more scene in which Nerdanel is an actor, and it is a significant one.
[Nerdanel] retired to her father’s house; but when it became clear that Fëanor and his sons would leave Valinor for ever, she came to him before the host started on its northward march, and begged that Fëanor should leave her the two youngest, the twins, or at least one of them. He replied: “Were you a true wife, as you had been till cozened by Aulë, you would keep all of them, for you would come with us. If you desert me, you desert all of our children. For they are determined to go with their father.” Then Nerdanel was angry, and she answered: “You will not keep all of them. One at least will never set foot on Middle-earth.” “Take your evil omens to the Valar who will delight in them,” said Fëanor. “I defy them.” So they parted. (354)
This heartbreaking passage juxtaposes Nerdanel’s desperation and her foresight with Fëanor’s selfishness and rash passion. His accusation, that she is not “a true wife,” is meant to punish her, to cow her into submission, but we know from what has already passed that Nerdanel is to be trusted and respected far above Fëanor. Indeed, his attempt to manipulate her into following him by claiming she would get to keep all her sons reveals that he neither understands his wife nor comprehends a nature that doesn’t desire dominance. Behind his biting words rings a mockery of his arrogance, greed, and foolishness.
It’s even significant that he claims she was deceived by Aulë. In The Silmarillion, Aulë serves as a counterpoint to Melkor/Morgoth. Like Melkor, he desires to create on his own, and even does so; but where Melkor desires dominion over creation, Aulë offers to destroy the work of his hands rather than even appear to undermine Ilúvatar’s authority. In the texts, we’re given clues that Fëanor has the option of following the example either of Aulë (the teacher of his teacher Mahtan) or of Melkor (more on this when I write about Fëanor). He consistently chooses to follow the path of Melkor. Thus, when Fëanor attributes Nerdanel’s supposed false wife-hood to Aulë’s influence, the text is implicitly insisting that she is in the right, primarily because she does not act from an attitude of possessiveness: she desires “to understand minds rather than to control them.”
Notice, then, that her prophecy hits Fëanor precisely where it hurts: his fanatical possessiveness. He turned the conversation into a competition over their sons, but Nerdanel does not take the bait. Instead, she warns him that his attitude will lead to disaster, just as it did with the Silmarils. He doesn’t listen, of course. Nerdanel’s plea and her dark prediction hang in the air, and later we learn that this “evil omen” is one and the same with her naming of Umbarto (“fated”): the younger of the twins is, in some drafts, inadvertently burned alive by Fëanor as he slept in one of the ships at Losgar.
Where does Nerdanel get her remarkable strength and discernment? In Morgoth’s Ring we are given an introductory passage that is packed with fascinating detail from beginning to end. We learn here that Fëanor doesn’t marry her for her beauty (apparently she isn’t much to look at, at least as Elves go), but for her intelligence and talent. Nerdanel was “strong, and free of mind, and filled with the desire of knowledge.” She often journeyed alone through the hills or by the Sea, and eventually “she and Fëanor were companions in many journeys.”
Even more significant, Nerdanel was herself an accomplished sculptor and artist. In fact, she made images so lifelike that many, “if they knew not her art, would speak to them”! She was also something of an inventor: “many things she wrought also of her own thought in shapes strong and strange but beautiful.” This is especially significant because for a while, as I’ve mentioned, Fëanor is willing to learn from his wife and to seek her counsel. But gradually, we see that Nerdanel’s talent, her desire to create and her skill in the craft, is uniquely set against that of Fëanor. Where Fëanor’s great creations, the Silmarils, imprison light and beauty and in a manner that allows their glory to be locked away and hoarded, Nerdanel’s sculptures, even those of the Valar, appear to be scattered about Valinor for the free enjoyment of all. She does not hide them away. They reflect and thus increase the beauty of their surroundings rather than encasing it, denying it to others, and cutting it off from the common good—convincing us once again that she does indeed take after Aulë rather than Melkor.
After the description above, we encounter a paragraph that elaborates on the passage in the published Silmarillion. Here we learn what it means when Tolkien writes that she desired “to understand minds rather than to master them.” He explains, “When in company with others she would often sit still listening to their words, and watching their gestures and the movements of their faces. […] With her wisdom at first she restrained Fëanor when the fire of his heart burned too hot; but his later deeds grieved her” (X 272-3). Nerdanel is thus different because she is thoughtful, a listener. While Fëanor is known for his powerful voice and his ability to ensnare others with his words, Nerdanel is silent and seeks understanding. This divides them. When Nerdanel the Wise realizes that Fëanor the foolhardy will go his own way despite her counsel, she does not try to control him or force him into submission, as he does to her (remember the “were you a true wife” conversation?). Instead, she attempts to save her sons. When even this fails, because they are already spellbound by their father’s words, she returns in mourning to Valinor and lives with Indis, who also has lost her husband to Fëanor’s folly.
I wish we knew what ultimately became of Nerdanel. We’re given a picture of a woman who knows that strength is not found in tyranny and domination, but in a quiet confidence in her own intelligence, foresight, and generosity. She is a woman who refuses to own or try to control the people and things that she loves. She isn’t a dazzling heroine like Lúthien, perhaps, and she doesn’t face the Dark Lord himself; and yet she confronts the very attitudes that corrupted Melkor in the faces of those she loves best in the world. Maybe she should have fought for them, and for her sons especially. But the fact that, through all their torments, six of her sons remembered her and her legacy and chose to identify with their mother’s example, rather than the anger and passion of their father, says a lot. Maybe she saved them after all.
This is the last we hear of Nerdanel, though, except for a heartbreaking suggestion that the youngest son, the one burned alive in the ships, was intending to sail back to his mother upon witnessing his father’s violence. I’d like to think that when the world was broken and remade, she was reunited with her sons and learned that they—all but one—chose to carry her names with them to their deaths and beyond…
But we don’t know. All we have are these brief sketches, and one final, intriguing detail to consider: Tolkien originally named Nerdanel Istarnië, a name which shares a root with Istari—“Wise Men,” or, as we know them, wizards.
Megan N. Fontenot is a hopelessly infatuated Tolkien fan and scholar, but she also studies Catholicism, eco-paganism, and ethno-nationalism in the long nineteenth century. And did she mention Tolkien?