In this biweekly series, we’re 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 looks at Tolkien’s “first lady,” Idril: the central female character in his first tale from Middle-earth, a wise counselor, and mother of Eärendil the Mariner.
Idril is perhaps most commonly known as the mother of Eärendil, but her life’s story represents a significant milestone in Tolkien’s storytelling career. Idril Celebrindal, daughter of King Turgon of Gondolin, is not only a prototype of Galadriel, but is also a key player in The Fall of Gondolin, one of Tolkien’s earliest attempts (circa 1914) to capture the mythology stirring to life in his mind. As such, Idril is a unique character, but she also functions as a sort of foremother of many of Tolkien’s later female characters: that is, many of her defining features reappear in some form or another in women of the later legendarium. She is both a respected counselor and a sort of Cassandra; a powerful influence in the governing of Gondolin and as often ignored by those closest to her. And yet, Idril was a character of such importance in Tolkien’s mind that even as late as 1964 he described The Fall of Gondolin as “the story of Idril and Earendel” (Letters 344). In order to give her the recognition she deserves, we’ll move through her life in chronological order, noting significant changes as Tolkien conceived of them.
Idril was born to Turgon and his wife Elenwë in Valinor, before the rebellion of the Noldor. It’s said that “her hair was as the gold of Laurelin before the coming of Melkor” (Silmarillion 121), and that she was tall even for an elf-woman, “well nigh of a warrior’s stature” (The Shaping of Middle-earth, hereafter SM, 237). This characteristic marks her out in Tolkien’s world as someone of great dignity and strength; she is also said to be “fairer than all the wonders of Gondolin” (Sil 121). Furthermore, she’s specifically described as “brave” by Tolkien, and in disregard for her royal status goes ever barefoot and with her hair uncovered, save during great ceremonies of the Ainur (presumably before the Elves left Valinor) (The Book of Lost Tales 2, hereafter BLT2, 166). Thus she earns the epithet “Idril of the Silver Feet,” or Celebrindal, and she dances on the white streets and greens lawns of the city.
Like many of Tolkien’s characters, Idril grows up without a mother. Elenwë is lost in the crossing of the Helcaraxë after her people are abandoned and betrayed by Fëanor. It is said in “The Shibboleth of Fëanor” that Turgon himself nearly perishes in the attempt to rescue both wife and daughter, but ultimately only Idril is saved, and thereafter Turgon “was unappeasable in his enmity for Fëanor and his sons” (The Peoples of Middle-earth, hereafter PM, 345). The young girl is, understandably, cherished by her father, and as she comes to maturity earns a place of prominence and respect in Gondolin.
It is clear in all versions of Idril’s story that she is gifted with second sight, which in Arda is an important ability to have, probably because it suggests some kind of special connection to the Music of the Ainur, in which history is shaped (note that many of Tolkien’s foreseeing characters are marked out by their beautiful voices, or their dancing, or their storytelling). In the earliest drafts of The Fall of Gondolin, written and revised between 1914 and 1920, Tolkien explains that “Idril had a great power of piercing with her thought the darkness of the hearts of Elves and Men, and the glooms of the future thereto—further even than is the common power of the kindreds of the Eldalië” (BLT2 168). The published Silmarillion describes her as “wise and far-seeing” (249) and those traits in particular secure the escape of the refugees of Gondolin.
But even before this, she is respected and loved in the kingdom of her father. Both The Silmarillion and the original Fall of Gondolin indicate that when Turgon sat at judgment in his hall, Idril Celebrindal was upon his left—in direct opposition to her traitorous cousin, Maeglin, who until Tuor’s ascension to power, stood on the king’s right (Sil 246; BLT2 59). In fact, the earliest “Silmarillion” explicitly identifies Idril as “the wiser of [her father Turgon’s] counsellors” (SM 41). Here another of Tolkien’s common tropes emerges: that of a woman of surpassing wisdom whose counsel is repeatedly either rejected (at worst) or grudgingly followed (at best) by men in power. Nerdanel, Míriel, and Melian also play this part to various extents.
Even before the coming of Tuor, Idril mistrusts her cousin, Maeglin. Because of her powers of sight and her ability to probe the thoughts of those around her, she knows that Maeglin harbors a violent desire for her despite the fact that they are close kin (this lust is later identified as an effect of the curse of Mandos). In private she rejects him as either lover or friend, and avoids him as far as possible; and when able, she encourages her father not to follow Maeglin’s counsels. And yet she is not merciless. According to The Silmarillion, when Ëol, Maeglin’s father, arrives in Gondolin to reclaim his wife, Aredhel (Turgon’s sister), and son, both Aredhel and Idril beg Turgon to have mercy on him despite his disrespect and violence (133). Earlier that day he had attempted to kill Maeglin, but the latter was saved when Aredhel leapt in front of the poisoned javelin. When Aredhel continues to sicken and then dies, Turgon reneges on his promise of mercy and has Ëol cast to his death over a sheer wall of the city—but not before Ëol prophesies that his son will come to the same end. Maeglin remains silent and watches his father’s execution. Significantly, we’re told in the early drafts of “Maeglin” that Idril alone disapproved of the execution—an important detail given her wisdom—and that Maeglin’s silence disturbed her all the more (The War of the Jewels, hereafter WJ, 324).
When the mortal Tuor at last arrives in Gondolin, commissioned by Ulmo and guided by the faithful Voronwë, Idril is the one to trust and promote his case to the king. This is almost certainly a result of her foresight. The earliest Fall of Gondolin notes that “the strands of her fate were woven with his even from that day” (BLT2 166), and she stands up for Tuor when he comes before Turgon as a supplicant (SM 41). The second draft of the Quenta Silmarillion explains that “Turgon rejected the bidding of Ulmo [proclaimed through Tuor]; though some there were of his wisest counsellors who were filled with disquiet. Wise-hearted even beyond the measure of the daughters of Elfinesse was the daughter of the king, and she spoke ever for Tuor, though it did not avail, and her heart was heavy” (SM 177).
Though Turgon originally rejects Tuor’s message in spite of his daughter’s advice, the Man lives on in Gondolin, gradually gaining the respect and love of all—much to the chagrin of Maeglin. Eventually, Tuor even wins the heart of Idril. The drafts are unclear exactly when this happens. In some cases, the two wed after only three years; in others, it is after an unnamed but significant amount of time; in still others, Tuor is accepted by Turgon after seven years of service (WJ 346). Regardless of time, Tuor’s suit is welcomed with great joy by Turgon—an unexpected twist for those who recall the later hesitancy of Thingol and, even later, of Elrond. But this union stokes Maeglin’s hatred and bitterness, and we learn that he had often entreated Turgon for the hand of Idril, only to be refused for two clear reasons: Idril was unwilling, and Turgon suspected Maeglin of desiring only the power of the throne of Gondolin (BLT2 166).
Idril and Tuor are married, and here the text contains an interesting detail: their marriage and Eärendil’s subsequent birth is “the fulfilment of the time of the desire of the Valar and the hope of [the] Eldalië” (BLT2 167). Christopher Tolkien points out that this is a unique claim: “no hint or suggestion of such an idea [exists] elsewhere”; and he hypothesizes that “the Valar foresaw it, or hoped for it, as the fulfilment of a design of Ilúvatar from which great good should come” (BLT2 221). This certainly seems to me the most likely explanation. We know from The Silmarillion that Mandos early on foretold the coming of “the mightiest mariner of song” (94); and in the later Quenta Silmarillion, he prophesies the greatness of the line of Indis and Finwë, declaring that “‘[w]hen he that shall be called Eärendil setteth foot upon the shores of Aman, ye shall remember my words’” (Morgoth’s Ring, hereafter MR, 247). Given Ulmo’s special desire to send Tuor to Gondolin, it seems to me that at least some of the Valar were aware of exactly what the marriage would lead to—and thus that it was the fulfilment of a great hope (indeed, the only hope) of Middle-earth.
But all of this would have come to nothing were it not for the strength of Idril. At least in the beginning, her marriage does not lessen her influence in Gondolin. She remains a wise counselor and it is through her watchfulness and wisdom that a remnant of Gondolin is saved from annihilation; but slowly, her counsel is less appreciated, until at the last it is heeded only as a way of placating her worsening anxiety.
Many of The Fall of Gondolin’s significant details do not survive in the radically condensed version of the published Silmarillion. One of these is the full significance of Idril’s role in preparing against the future sack of Gondolin. She is visited early on by a dream of Maeglin casting Eärendil, and later herself, into a great fire (BLT2 168-9). When she shares her concerns with Tuor, he acknowledges that he, too, is suspicious of Maeglin, but that little can be done against the nephew of the king without proof. Idril then offers her advice, saying: “‘I counsel thee to set the great part of those in whose secrecy thou canst confide at a hidden delving, and to devise with their aid—howsoever cautious and slow that labour be—a secret way from thy house here beneath the rocks of this hill unto the vale below. Now this way must not lead toward the Way of Escape, for my heart bids me trust it not, but even to that far distant pass, the Cleft of Eagles’” (BLT2 169). Tuor protests that the rocks are too hard for easy progress, but Idril insists, explaining that as yet they have time for work, and as much should be done as possible in the time allowed. Tuor responds a bit tartly by saying that he doesn’t see the point of all of it, but, since “any plan [is better] than a lack of counsel,” he will follow her bidding.
Gradually, as the months pass, both Tuor and Turgon grow laxer and more optimistic even as Idril’s depression and foreboding increases. Turgon repeatedly lessens the number of watchmen on the walls; the city revels in harvest time and winter feasts; and Tuor attempts to comfort Idril, in vain. She continues to prepare for the worst by convincing her father to assign to Tuor his own band of warriors, secretly spreading word of impending doom to those she trusts, and keeping abreast of the progress made on her secret way. But all the while people laugh at her even as they give in to her demands (BLT2 172).
Of course, Idril was right all along. Indeed, at this point Maeglin had already betrayed the city to Melkor on the condition that he would be given the throne of Gondolin—and his cousin, Idril—when all was done. As the city falls under siege, Idril takes it upon herself to protect her son. Knowing that Gondolin will soon fall, she arrays herself and her young son in mail that she had prepared ahead of time (BLT2 175). However, despite all her precautions, Maeglin breaks his way into the house and assaults the mother and son, attempting to throw the latter over the wall of the house into the flames below. Even then, Idril doesn’t succumb: “she fought, alone as she was, like a tigress” (BLT 179), thus delaying Maeglin’s cruelty until the arrival of Tuor and his men, who waste no time in casting the traitor over the wall of the city to his death, as Ëol had predicted many years before.
Tuor and his men then return to the primary battle, leaving the loyal Voronwë behind to aid Idril. She takes charge of the situation and sets her plain in motion:
At length [Idril] had sped the most part of her guard down the secret way with Eärendel, constraining them to depart with imperious words, yet was her grief great at that sundering. She herself would bide, said she, nor seek to live after her lord; and then she fared about gathering womenfolk and wanderers and speeding them down the tunnel, and smiting marauders with her small band; nor might they dissuade her from bearing a sword.
At length they had fallen in with a band somewhat too numerous, and Voronwë had dragged her thence but by the luck of the Gods. (BLT2 188)
Thus Idril’s forethought and valor saves a great number of the people of Gondolin that otherwise would have perished. And yet, for all that, a number of them refuse to take her counsel, and choose to travel the very Way of Escape that Idril feared would be known by the enemy. And again, she’s right: the lords who choose to walk that path are slaughtered by “a monster who by the guile of Melko[r] at [Maeglin’s] rede sat at the outer issue” (BLT2 190).
The rest of Idril’s tale is swiftly told. Issuing from the wreck of Gondolin the refugees, led by both Idril and Tuor, ultimately join with the remnant of Dior’s people, including Elwing, the half-elven woman Eärendil will eventually marry. Shortly after said marriage, Tuor wrestles both with age and with the sea-call of Ulmo, which has only grown stronger in the years since he encountered that Vala in his youth. Eventually, he accepts the call and prepares to sail West, accompanied by Idril and the ever-faithful Voronwë. Before her departure, however, Idril turns over the green elf-stone, the Elessar, to her son Eärendil, charging him to use it to heal the hurts of Middle-earth. She then enters the ship with her husband and Voronwë. They are never heard from again, though Eärendil cherished always the hope that he might find them in his journeying (Unfinished Tales 260).
Idril’s story fascinates me because I see in it so many echoes of the women of Middle-earth. In her wisdom I see Galadriel, Melian, Míriel, and others. In her strength I see Éowyn and Haleth. In her gentle yet fiercely protective motherhood, only touched on here, I see her stepping up for all those, including her husband and herself (not to mention her author!), who grew up without a mother. In her undying loyalty I see Lúthien. And I admire her quiet resolution in the face of condescension and belittling laughter.
Tolkien’s first lady, the mother of the character who birthed his mythology, confronts her trials with the power of a tigress; she insists on being heard even when speaking up brings ridicule from those who know no better; and by her wisdom and forbearance she secures the hope of Middle-earth. Could there be a greater pattern for the women of Middle-earth to follow?
Megan N. Fontenot is a dedicated Tolkien scholar and fan who finds much to love, admire, and emulate in the women of Middle-earth. Catch her on Twitter @MeganNFontenot1 and feel free to request a favorite character in the comments!