In this 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 second of a two-part exploration of the Noldorin weaver and historian, Míriel. Feel free to request characters in the comments below!
It would be nice if the story ended where we left it last time. There’s resolution of sorts, and the threads appear to be neatly tied together. Míriel gets her corporeal form back; Finwë is reunited (more or less) with his first love; Míriel graciously accepts Finwë’s choice of Indis and even praises her and her sons for the ways in which they’ll eventually redress Fëanor’s wrongs. Míriel then becomes a sort of family historian whose tapestries are so intricate and vibrant that they look alive. She’s able to recognize that her decision, even if it was an error of judgment on her part, did not lead exclusively to evil ends. But, predictably, Tolkien couldn’t leave it alone. It apparently bothered him that Míriel was in some sense at fault for Fëanor’s later actions because she chose to abandon her family so abruptly. Indeed, her own words, “I erred in leaving thee and our son” (X 248), condemn her.
But what could be done? We’ve seen already the various manipulations of reason the Valar go through to untangle this particularly messy situation. None of them work; there’s always another objection to be made. The text itself, “Of the Statute of Finwë and Míriel,” never actually comes to a conclusion about its most belabored question: Was Míriel at fault? Would things have gone down differently if she had stuck around or reincarnated?
It’s clear from the changes made that when Tolkien rewrote the story later in life (at a point long after even the publication of The Lord of the Rings), he had at least changed his mind, if not made it up.
In The Peoples of Middle-earth (XII), we get a vastly different story. In “The Shibboleth of Fëanor,” we’re given a condensed version of Fëanor’s history, and this time, Míriel features prominently. She’s described as having “a gentle disposition, though […] she could show an ultimate obstinacy that counsel or command would only make more obdurate” (333). In this version of the story, Míriel and Fëanor are quite close, though they are different in some respects. For one, “opposition to his [Fëanor’s] will he met not with the quite steadfastness of his mother but with fierce resentment,” which we can easily see is true from his later actions. But, significantly, Míriel here battles her weariness until Fëanor is full-grown, and “she did much with gentle counsel to soften and restrain him. Her death was a lasting grief to Fëanor, and both directly and by its further consequences a main cause of his later disastrous influence on the history of the Noldor” (333). After Miriel’s death, which we’re assured was a matter of free will, the story continues on as it did before.
Now, this assertion is rather complicated. It does exculpate Míriel to a certain extent (she at least sticks around until Fëanor is full-grown), but on the other hand, her death is put forth as a more direct influence on Fëanor’s distemper than in the earlier versions. We might ask: “Does this really shift the blame?” Perhaps not entirely, but it does suggest that Míriel did her best to direct Fëanor away from the destructive path that seemed, in the earlier version, to be his destiny or doom.
Before this significant change to the narrative, you’ll remember, Fëanor never knew his mother, which removes her presence and death from him so that his constant anger over it and bitterness over his father’s remarriage appears ill-founded and violently selfish. The later draft attempts to remedy this. It makes more sense, after all, that he would be bitter over his father’s marriage to Indis if he’d had a close relationship with Míriel throughout his entire childhood, only to suddenly lose her, and then to have her replaced by a woman who wasn’t a Noldor and was unlike Míriel in every way possible. This draft is thus, perhaps, less dramatic and overwrought, paying more attention to motivations, broken relationships, and the like. But it also severely downplays the force of the fact that Míriel’s strength was lessened because her spirit went out into her son. This element still exists, but it is relegated to a background comment, and in that regard it appears to be less significant here than in earlier versions of the story.
Instead, Míriel lives to “soften and restrain” her son, much like Nerdanel will later do as his wife. She also names him “in recognition of his impetuous character” (333). Gone is any indication of the dark events to come. She no longer asks to be held blameless for what will follow. Fëanor’s name is not now solely a prophecy, but rather a recognition of who he already is.
Here, too, the debate of the Valar reaches a slightly different conclusion: “It was judged that Finwë’s bereavement was unjust, and by persisting in her refusal to return Míriel had forfeited all rights that she had in the case.” Furthermore, Míriel “will never again be permitted to take bodily shape. Her present body will swiftly wither and pass away, and the Valar will not restore it” (335). This doom is darker than the one presented in the earlier “Statute of Finwë and Míriel.” Here there is no implication that Míriel is given a choice after the initial pronouncement of the Valar, as she is in the earlier texts. She is approached multiple times before the Debate takes place; but afterwards, and once Manwë pronounces a verdict, she is not consulted, nor is she allowed to reconsider her options in the face of forever losing the freedom of corporeality. Instead, her rights over her own body are forfeit, and she is condemned to eternal incorporeality, with no exceptions. It is this that sparks Fëanor’s anger:
When the matter of Finwë and Indis arose he was disturbed, and filled with anger and resentment; though it is not recorded that he attended the Debate or paid heed to the reasons given for the judgement, or to its terms except in one point: that Míriel was condemned to remain for ever disincarnate, so that he could never visit her or speak with her again, unless he himself should die. This grieved him. (335)
A footnote here further explains that “Death by free will, such as Míriel’s, was beyond his thought” (357). What we see from this passage is an explicit unwillingness on the part of Fëanor to understand the situation. Rather than gathering information, attending the Debate, or attempting to respect his mother’s weariness—rather than accepting her free choice—he shuts himself off and only pays heed to the fact that he will never see her again unless he dies. Even now, after an entire childhood of Míriel’s “gentle” influence, Fëanor remains self-centered and obstinate.
I don’t want to downplay the trauma Fëanor experienced in the loss of a parent. Clearly, he and his mother enjoyed a close relationship founded on more even than their shared temperaments. But it is repeatedly Fëanor’s self-centeredness and possessiveness that turns this experience, and others, into a disaster that cannot be healed. Indeed, we read here that “Finwë had little comfort from Fëanor” during this time of great sorrow. The son “had also kept vigil by his mother’s body, but soon he became wholly absorbed again in his own works and devices” (335, emphasis mine). We can hardly fault Fëanor for turning to his craft as a method of healing and escape (who among us has not done so at one time or another?), but even in this sentence a single word condemns him: again.
That little word reveals that the problem is not that Fëanor was talented, passionate, driven—solitary, even. The texts never suggest that he was wrong to be devastated by his mother’s death and pained by his father’s remarriage. Instead, they remind us again and again that Fëanor’s fault lies in his lack of generosity and his rejection of appropriate relationships of mutual self-giving. He is contrasted in this respect with his mother, who, though she also takes, gives of herself without reservation until she is used up in body and soul. Tolkien does not fault Míriel for desiring peace and rest, the healing of a spirit stretched thin. He does fault Fëanor for demanding that all those around him give without hope of any return, something that he appears to get from his father, whose fault, if you remember, was “a failing in full love” of his wife (X 243). A failure to think of someone else first.
Thus, although we might complain that Míriel is simply filling the stereotypical “woman as giver” role, it’s important for us to recognize that Tolkien has complicated and troubled that role in a variety of ways. First of all, Míriel gives freely to those around her, but she also wisely recognizes when she needs to put her own health (physical, mental, and spiritual) first; and when that time comes, she stands her ground and doesn’t back down, even when the men in her life demand that she return for their benefit. Secondly, Míriel’s generosity is directly associated with that of the Valar, Yavanna in particular, and thus by extension directly opposed to the selfish hoarding of Morgoth and those that take after him, including, unfortunately, her own son. In other words, Míriel is aligned with the original impulse that created Arda in the first place: a spirit of mutual giving, of harmony, of working together to create wonders that exceed that which one might produce alone, but tempered with a clear recognition of one’s own place in the greater picture and a sensitivity to one’s own limits. Fëanor blatantly violates each of these ethical tenets.
In the end, the question of Míriel’s guilt or innocence seems far less important than the fact that her story gives us a first-hand account of the ways in which selfishness, greed, and possessive pride can poison relationships and even life itself. I don’t think Tolkien is passing judgement on Míriel’s death, though it’s clear that he was troubled by it, as a type of suicide that shouldn’t be rewarded and that ultimately brings lasting pain to her family (and by extension all of Middle-earth).
Even trying to answer the question we started with—would things have been different if Míriel hadn’t chosen death?—produces more tangles. It’s pretty clear that Fëanor would be Fëanor with or without his mother’s influence. The fact that so little changes even when Míriel stays with her family through his childhood could be read as a painful admission of what little influence a single person actually wields over the world. But, given Tolkien’s finished works, The Lord of the Rings in particular, I don’t think we could claim that with any confidence. Rather, I think Míriel’s life and death force all of us, Tolkien included, to come face-to-face with the painful realities of regret, loss, and our own confusion in the face of death. It forces us to look fear in the eyes, to acknowledge our own world-weariness, giving space and credence and consideration to those moments in which we feel we can’t go on.
But Míriel’s story, especially in the earlier drafts, is also a subtle celebration of a life generously lived, poured out, used up in the service of something greater. Is Míriel a martyr? Perhaps. She certainly fits the various specifications, even in her willing embrace of death. But more importantly, Míriel is a strong woman whose presence touched those around her. She is flawed, to be sure, but strong in her own convictions, generous with her resources, talented, outspoken, not afraid to come up against her own limits and then seek rest. In the end, I think we should remember her in the House of Vairë, devoting her remaining days to the telling of stories, tracking the lives of her husband, son, grandsons, and those with whom their lives intertwined: celebrating and sorrowing in a way that is uniquely hers.
Top image: Miriel, by Faehwin
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!