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. This installment is the first of a two-part look at the Noldorin weaver and historian, Míriel.
Míriel is probably best known as the mother of that most infamous of the Noldor—Fëanor, whose rash mistakes pretty much ruined Middle-earth for… well, everyone. But who was she? What role did she play in the fashioning of Arda and the troubled history of the First Age?
The Silmarillion records only the barest details about Míriel. One early mention casts her as simply “the mother of Fëanor” (60). A few pages later, the narrator points out in passing that “Fëanor” was the mother-name (63), the name Míriel gave him, before we even get a proper introduction.
She’s called Serindë (or more accurately, þerindë “because of her surpassing skill in weaving and needlework,” and “her hands were more skilled to fineness than any hands even among the Noldor” (63). This is all we are told about her talents, and we’re left in the dark about her personality or physical characteristics. The texts says that she and her husband Finwë were happy, but directly after this assertion, Míriel gives birth to Fëanor and in the process is “consumed in spirit and body.” She “yearns for release from the labour of living, and tells her husband that they will never have another child together because Fëanor took all her strength. Finwë becomes depressed by this announcement, poor fellow, because he apparently wanted a great many children. But Míriel refuses, and Finwë eventually gets Manwë to send her to Lórien (not to be confused with Middle-earth’s Lothlórien) in the care of the Vala Irmo. She goes, but leaves her grieving husband with a strangely prophetic request: “‘I would weep, if I were not so weary. But hold me blameless in this, and in all that may come after’” (64). Directly after this ominous leave-taking she goes to sleep in the gardens of Irmo and her spirit leaves her body, “[passing] in silence to the Halls of Mandos.” Míriel’s body remains “unwithered,” and there Finwë often visits her, but nothing will bring her back, not even “[calling] her by her names.”
That’s all. Nothing more is said about Míriel in the published Silmarillion, except for a single passing reference: Fëanor is called “the son of Míriel” (69). Thus, in this text, Míriel’s story is framed completely by Fëanor and her relationship to him: it opens and closes with her role as his mother. She speaks only a few sentences, and what appears to be most important about her is that she gave birth to this charismatic, fiery, terrifyingly-awesome (but ultimately terrible) guy. Which is an impressive feat, to be sure, despite the fact that she really doesn’t get much credit for it. (In fact, before I became acquainted with The History of Middle-earth (HoMe) volumes, I found Míriel confusing and annoying. It appeared, from what information I had, that she had simply given up hope and went off pouting to Lórien, where she died in her sleep but her body miraculously lived on. I didn’t quite know what to do with that information.)
Naturally, though, HoMe paints a much more complicated picture of Míriel, and we aren’t forced to see her simply as the mother of Fëanor—though his birth is still an important event in her life. Just as we discovered with Nerdanel, Míriel had another, creative side that included crafting art of surpassing beauty. But the drafts of Míriel’s story, though not many, are complex. They often double back on each other; sometimes information is redacted in one draft only to be brought back in and even expounded upon in another. The final existing draft of the tale “Of Finwë and Míriel,” for example, is flatly contradicted by “The Shibboleth of Fëanor,” and we can only guess which version should be considered authoritative based on when it was written. But, knowing that Tolkien often returned to and re-integrated previous drafts, it’s difficult to say which one we should trust. In the following analysis, I’ll explore both versions and discuss the merits and faults of each, though given the volume of material we have to sift through, it’ll be split into two posts.
Míriel shows up in four HoMe volumes: The Shaping of Middle-earth (IV), Morgoth’s Ring (X), The War of the Jewels (XI), and The Peoples of Middle-earth (XII). Volumes IV and XI turn out to be incidental; they don’t offer us any information about Míriel that isn’t found in the other two. The Shaping of Middle-earth contains only a passing reference, while The War of the Jewels features her in a genealogy and includes two brief comments on the etymology of her names. So, let’s begin instead with Morgoth’s Ring.
This volume carries us through several revisions of the story “Of Finwë and Míriel.” Most of the changes that were made are minor, so we won’t obsess over them here, and the general plot is the same as the truncated version in The Silmarillion. However, it’s interesting to note that originally, Fëanor’s mother was to be the elf-woman Indis (yes, just like Finwë’s second wife, and long before she entered the picture), who plummeted to her death “from a great height” (87) as the Noldor were returning to Valinor. Tolkien apparently had it out for Fëanor’s mom, no matter who she was! But the early business about this Indis was dropped relatively quickly, which is when Míriel entered the scene, and here I’m going to skip over three mostly similar drafts to one that gives us a fuller picture of this woman and who she was.
In this draft, which Christopher Tolkien designates FM4, we learn that Míriel had hair “like silver; and she was slender as a white flower in the grass.” The text continues:
Soft and sweet was her voice, and she sang as she worked, like rippling water, in music without words. For her hands were more skilled to make things fine and delicate than any other hands even among the Noldor. By her the craft of needles was devised; and if but one fragment of the broideries of Míriel were seen in Middle-earth it would be held dearer than a king’s realm; for the richness of her devices and the fire of their colours were as manifold and bright as the wealth of leaf and flower and wing in the fields of Yavanna. Therefore she was called Serinde [embroiderer or weaver]. (257)
The opening of this description is delightfully Goldberry-esque, but I’d like to focus on other significant details. First, like Nerdanel, Míriel is renowned for her craft and an inventor of new things: in this case, of needlework (so we have her to thank for all those stellar garments envisioned by artists and films alike). More importantly, however, Míriel is so talented that a single fragment of her work would surpass the riches of a kingdom, and is compared to the work of the Vala Yavanna: Yavanna, who sang birds and flowers and trees and all growing things into Being when the world was young.
In other words, the beauty and vibrancy of Míriel’s work rivals creation! I find this fascinating, especially given the fact that, as we have already seen, Nerdanel’s sculptures were similarly mistaken for living people—even the Valar themselves. The craft of Míriel thus reinforces and elaborates on the lessons about sub-creation that Nerdanel’s story teaches. Míriel’s relationship to creativity and art is healthy and, though ambitious, it celebrates and amplifies the beauty already present in the world around her. Her art doesn’t hoard light and beauty, and there is no indication that she held jealously to her own work, even though in Middle-earth the items she produced would have been considered treasures.
And, significantly, she’s directly associated with Yavanna, much like Nerdanel is with Aulë . Why Yavanna? Tolkien never says explicitly, of course, but I think we can come to several conclusions. First, The Silmarillion describes Yavanna as “a lover of all things that grow in the earth” (27). “[A]ll their countless forms she holds in her mind, from the trees like towers in forests long ago to the moss upon stones or the small and secret things in the mould.” Yavanna loves and protects the living earth (even stones by this estimation are alive), from the greatest to the smallest. It was Yavanna who requested the presence of the shepherds of the trees, the Ents, to protect her beloved forests from the ravishing activities of her spouse’s creation (dwarves). Yavanna is a figure of growth and fertility, also: she’s once seen in the form of a great tree, the dew from whose branches nourishes a barren earth (28). Perhaps most importantly, however, Yavanna is the creator of Telperion and Laurelin, the two Trees of Valinor that light the entire world. “Of all things of which Yavanna made they have the most renown,” the narrator explains, “and about their fate all the tales of the Elder Days are woven” (38). (These are the Trees from which Fëanor will take the Light to ensnare in the Silmarils.) This comparison suggests that Míriel, like Yavanna, is caring, kind, and powerful, desiring to see things flourish and bring forth a natural beauty that can be enjoyed by all. And just as “all the tales of the Elder Days are woven” about Yavanna’s Trees, so Míriel’s weaving and needlework will form the pages on which the a living Noldorin history is recorded. It’s no accident, I think, that Yavanna’s great creation is the Trees and Míriel’s is Fëanor—and that Fëanor’s, in turn, is the Silmarils.
Though Míriel’s creative spirit doesn’t appear to be covetous, she does share quite a few things in common with her wayward son, including, apparently, their skills and personalities. In FM4, we learn that Fëanor “began to show forth skills in hand and mind of both Finwë and Míriel. As he grew from childhood he became ever more like Finwë in stature and countenance, but in mood he resembled Míriel rather.” How so? “His will was strong and determined and he pursued all his purposes both eagerly and steadfastly. Few ever changed his courses by counsel, none by force” (261). This passage is similar to a description of Míriel we receive a few paragraphs earlier: the Vala Vairë, called the Weaver, who has been host to Míriel’s spirit after she left Lórien, tells Mandos, the Doomsman of the Valar, “I know [the spirit of Míriel]. It is small, but it is strong and obdurate: one of those who having said this will I do make their words a law irrevocable unto themselves” (260).
An earlier draft had a slightly different connotation, however: Vairë describes Míriel’s spirit as “proud and obdurate. It is of that sort who having said: this will I do, make their words a doom irrevocable unto themselves” (244, some emphasis mine). The change is interesting. Here in the earlier form, the description more clearly echoes Fëanor’s blasphemous Oath and the terrible doom that followed it. Here Míriel, like Fëanor, is proud. We can only speculate on why Tolkien changed the language. The later draft carries fewer dark implications and doesn’t in any way implicate doom or fate. It also reveals that Tolkien was struggling with his own reaction to Míriel’s choice to die and leave her family. Was it proud and foolish? Could she be to blame, in some regard, for what followed? Was it every bit as rash and selfish as Fëanor’s choice to leave Valinor? Her own last words to Finwë— “‘hold me blameless in this, and in all that may come after'”—suggests an anxiety on Tolkien’s part, a desire to hold her innocent and a fear that it would prove otherwise. The plea is as much to the readers as to Finwë, in other words.
It’s not a question to be lightly answered. Tolkien never did. But, we can see some of his thought process—including his anxiety over who might shoulder the blame and how the situation was to be reconciled with the fact that Elves can reincarnate—working out in a document exploring how the so-called “Statute of Finwë and Míriel” came to be issued. It essentially follows the council-session of the Valar as they attempt to come to a consensus on Finwë’s plight. Míriel is dead, isn’t she? Can Finwë marry again, despite the mandate that says they are married for all time since elvish spirits remain in Arda? What if Míriel eventually wishes to return one day, to take up her former life? (Among Elves, apparently, polygamy is strictly not an option.) The text brims with tension and unanswered questions, and refuses to come to a consensus, although the Valar are forced to eventually pronounce a judgment. But importantly for us, it addresses the question of guilt head-on: Who is at fault in this unprecedented situation? There are several answers given.
Manwë, predictably, blames Melkor. It’s Melkor’s fault for introducing darkness into Arda: even though the Elves are living in Valinor, it’s still an integral part of “Arda Marred,” and thus “unnatural and fraught with death” (240). It’s Melkor’s fault. Obviously.
Aulë, eager to protect his favorite, Fëanor, from any hint of taint (how’s that working out for you, Aulë?), argues that it’s no one’s fault, that they shouldn’t even be talking about fault in the first place. Eru obviously must have willed it, or, frankly, Fëanor wouldn’t be so awesome (240). Problem solved.
Ulmo then interrupts and gives his opinion. Clearly, Fëanor’s greatness comes from Eru, but Míriel’s death came from the Shadow (240-1). His viewpoint neatly combines those of Manwë and Aulë. (I imagine him brushing his hands together and leaning back in his watery throne, satisfied.)
Yavanna, never shy, decides it’s time to add her two cents’ worth, and even though Aulë is her husband, she calls him out in front of everyone and tells him that he’s dead wrong (241). She agrees with Ulmo: Míriel’s body fails because of the Shadow.
Then Nienna chimes in, and thoughtfully requests her peers remember that “‘In the use of Justice there must by Pity, which is the consideration of the singleness of each that comes under Justice'” (241). She insists that the spirits of the Children of Ilúvatar are as strong as those of the Valar themselves, and yet their bodies have not the same might. “Have ye known the weariness of Míriel, or felt the bereavement of Finwë?'” she asks (242). Death does indeed come from Melkor, she says, but more importantly, Míriel and Finwë are both blameless.
Ulmo reacts vehemently to this, and says that Nienna is wrong: they must judge Míriel and Finwë, and they must find them at fault. Míriel, he argues, is at fault for “failure in hope […], acceptance of the weariness and weakness of the body, as a thing beyond healing” (242-3). She abandoned her family, and her “justification which she urged is insufficient” (243). But Finwë is also at fault, first of all for entertaining hopelessness, much like his wife, but furthermore because “he founded his claim mainly upon his desire for children, considering his own self and his loss more than the griefs that had befallen his wife: that was a failing in full love.” What is more, “the impatience of Finwë will close the door of life upon the fëa [spirit] of his spouse. This is the greater fault” (243).
At this point Vairë, with whom Míriel’s spirit has been dwelling, finally speaks. She insists, like Nienna, that neither Míriel nor Finwë can properly be judged by the Valar, who have not shared their experiences. But she also calls out Ulmo for implying that Míriel is completely subject to her husband’s whims and desires: as Vairë knows full well, Míriel has a stubborn and unyielding mind of her own (244). In other words, Vairë insists that Míriel ultimately gets to decide what happens to her body—literally. (Remember that at this point, her body is still lying like a shell in Lórien.)
After a long moment of silence, appropriately taken in order to process Vairë’s words, Manwë articulates his position. His speech is long, but he ultimately thinks that Aulë and Nienna both err, and that Ulmo is correct. Míriel should be forced to reincarnate, he argues, or “the evil of the death of Míriel will continue to have power, and bear fruit in sorrow” (245). His words come with an implicit rejection of all that Vairë has just argued. Manwë’s position requires that Míriel not be given control over her own body, because there is a single correct way for it to exist.
The matter is then turned over to Mandos, or Námo, the Doomsman, who has yet to speak. He believes that they “cannot compel any free creature to walk upon” Arda, for “that leadeth to tyranny, which disfigureth good and maketh it seem hateful” (246). The judgment he pronounces is thus that Míriel should make her choice, whether to go or to stay. But before the Statute is officially proclaimed, Mandos is struck with foresight, and he predicts that from the line of Indis and Finwë “shall spring things so fair that no tears shall dim their beauty” (247). He closes by admonishing the Valar for their own lack of hope, and warns them that “when he that shall be called Eärendil setteth foot upon the shores of Aman, ye shall remember my words” (247).
The “Statute of Finwë and Míriel” is thus pronounced, Míriel is consulted, and she flatly refuses to return. And yet, “Mandos adjudged her innocent, deeming that she had died under a necessity too great for her to withstand” (237). Eventually, through the pleas of Nienna, her spirit is taken into the service of Vairë (248).
The conclusion of this text, “Of the Statute of Finwë and Míriel,” gives us a fascinating glimpse into the fate of Míriel, however. We’re told that when Finwë is slain by Melkor, their spirits meet again in the Halls of Mandos, and they are glad. When Finwë tells her all that has passed since her departure, she is saddened, and admits, “‘I erred in leaving thee and our son, or at least in not returning after brief repose; for had I done so he might have grown wiser. But the children of Indis shall redress his errors and therefore I am glad that they should have being, and Indis hath my love” (248). Míriel’s acceptance of Indis and her children is a powerful moment in the text, not least because we know full well that Fëanor has no love for either, and that much of the ensuing disasters occur because he is embittered by his father’s remarriage.
Eventually, though, Míriel takes up her body again on the condition that Finwë will himself never reincarnate (doing so would mean he had two living wives). Instead of rejoining her people, however, Míriel returns to the service of Vairë, where “none of the Living dwelt nor have others ever entered it in the body” (250). It is here that Míriel takes up the mantle of historian. The text says that “all tidings of the Noldor down the years from their beginning were brought to her, and she wove them in webs historial, so fair and skilled that they seemed to live, imperishable, shining with a light of many hues fairer than are known in Middle-earth” (250). I can’t help but imagine her sorrow as she watched her son and grandsons repeatedly make horrible choices: when she saw the Kinslayings, the burning of the ships at Losgar. She’s still working at this task, the narrator informs us, but “her name has been changed. For now she is named Fíriel, which to the Eldar signifies ‘She that died'” (250).
(To be continued…)
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. Give her a shoutout on Twitter @MeganNFontenot1!