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 week’s installment looks at Yavanna Kementári, one of the most powerful of the Valar, known as the Lady of the Wide Earth.
Yavanna is an artist. Among the Valar, most of whom are also artists, she stands out for her compassionate representation of the voiceless, her commitment to peaceful intercession, and her willingness to keep in mind (literally, as we will see) the bodies of even the smallest and most overlooked in Arda. She is called Kementari, Queen of the Earth, and, in earlier drafts, Palurien and Bladorwen, which signifies “the wide earth” or “Mother Earth” (The Lays of Beleriand, hereafter LB, 196). Thus in the cosmology and mythology of Arda she represents the earth goddess, a role which is intimately related to her activity and artistry. She might also be described as a fertility goddess; this role similarly draws together her identities of mother and artist—she is a (pro)creator. She brings forth life.
The Silmarillion declares that “in reverence Yavanna is next to Varda among the Queens of the Valar” (15), but despite this, she never receives the kinds of invocations that are consistently offered to the Lady of the Stars. Her influence, if more widespread, is quieter; it’s intrinsic to the very makeup of Middle-earth and its peoples. It’s present without always being felt, rooted in, running deep. From her Arda receives its succor.
What was Yavanna’s role in the creation of Arda? Though she is not as powerful as (for example) Varda, Yavanna takes a more personal, vested interest in the birth of the world. All living things are under her protection; the flora of Arda comes from seeds carefully devised and long-contemplated by the Lady of the Wide Earth; flowers and birds awaited the time of their appearing in her embrace (Sil 23). She also gives Ulmo spells to “people” the waters (BLT1 113). Yavanna is a goddess who delights in life, in plenty.
She also sings the dwelling of the gods into its fruitfulness and beauty, and here we see a portion of her power revealed. The creative power of her music is profound. In that hour, “silence was over all the world […], nor was there any other sound save [her] slow chanting” (The Lost Road and Other Writings, hereafter LR, 230). The gods themselves sit silent and unmoving as Kementári sings, and from the fruitfulness of her song are born Laurelin and Telperion, the two great Trees of Valinor, from whose light Fëanor will later make the Silmarils. “Of all things which Yavanna made they have the most renown,” the narrator of The Silmarillion explains, “and about their fate all the tales of the Elder Days are woven” (26).
Yavanna is also one of the Aratar, the High Ones of Arda, equal in majesty with Manwë and Varda themselves (Sil 17). In her womanly form she is described as “tall, and robed in green,” but this is not the only body Yavanna takes up. As the Mother and as the protector of fruitfulness, Yavanna privileges embodiment as an important aspect of life. Thus “at times she takes other shapes. Some there are who have seen her standing like a tree under heaven, crowned with the Sun; and from all its branches there spilled a golden dew upon the barren earth, and it grew green with corn” (Sil 15). Her commitment to Middle-earth is a fleshy one; she does not speak for the precarity of the world without herself wearing its powerfully fruitful yet unprotected forms.
And, while the Valar hoarded light to themselves and withdrew from the pain of the world they had helped bring into Being, Yavanna was one of the few who still walked in the outer darkness, waging war against Melkor in her own way and returning to castigate the other Powers for their neglect (The Book of Lost Tales I, hereafter BLT1, 93, 104). In fact, Yavanna is responsible for rousing the Valar from their lethargy and prompting them to take action against Melkor and his destruction:
“Ye mighty of Arda, the Vision of Ilúvatar was brief and soon taken away, so that maybe we cannot guess within a narrow count of days the hour appointed. Yet be sure of this: the hour approaches, and within this age our hope shall be revealed, and the Children shall awake. Shall we then leave the lands of their dwelling desolate and full of evil? Shall they walk in darkness while we have light?” (Sil 37)
Yavanna also takes the stand as the representative of the earth during the trial of Melkor—she brings the very real, physical wounds of the earth to the attention of the absent Powers and calls them to account. Manwë himself is moved by her powerful appeal, but regardless Yavanna still finds Melkor’s sentence to be too merciful, and weeps for the mistreatment of the world she loves (BLT1 112). In this situation in particular Yavanna reveals two important aspects of her person: intercession and lament.
The tales of the Elder Days consistently reference Yavanna’s concern for the hurts of the world. She censures the Valar for forgetting Middle-earth more than once (BLT1 201), specifically calling them out for their betrayal of Ilúvatar’s commands: according to the Later Annals of Valinor, she “often reproached the Valar for their neglected stewardship” (LR 123) and was “ill-content that [Middle-earth] was forsaken” by her kindred (LR 232). Yavanna’s disappointment drives her to an even deeper devotion to the earth, and she rides out with the gods to hunt Melkor and bring him to justice for his crimes (BLT1 198). Her censure also sparks remorse in Varda, and so Elbereth first makes the stars to dispel the darkness of night over Middle-earth (LR 123).
All this is not the extent of Yavanna’s work, however. In “The Coming of the Valar” Yavanna is referred to as “the mother of magic” and is a “web-weaver” (BLT1 74). This is significant because, as we see with other weavers (Míriel is an important one), weaving is all about spells—powerful stories that are intertwined with the very fates of Arda. Yavanna is, in more ways than one, a story-teller whose tales are bodied forth as physical objects.
Another instance of that phenomenon will make this power of hers clearer. When her partner, Aulë, makes a misstep in creating the dwarves and yet wins their lives by submitting to the authority of Ilúvatar, Yavanna becomes concerned. While she respects Aulë’s craftsmanship, she fears for the lives and bodies she herself has brought forth in Middle-earth, and so brings her anxieties before Manwë, begging for intervention. Manwë hesitates, characteristically, and pushes Yavanna to defend her concern. In her response is, I think, the heart of Tolkien’s own view of the earth.
“All have their worth,” said Yavanna, “and each contributes to the worth of the others. But the kelvar can flee or defend themselves, whereas the olvar that grow cannot. And among these I hold trees dear. Long in the growing, swift shall they be in the felling, and unless they pay toll with fruit upon bough little mourned in their passing. So I see in my thought. Would that the trees might speak on behalf of all things that have roots, and punish those that wrong them!” (Sil 34)
From this conversation come two of Middle-earth’s greatest protectors: Eagles and Ents; and thus does Yavanna indirectly secure many great victories for the foes of Morgoth throughout the ages of Middle-earth. Furthermore, the Ents literally embody stories: their names are “growing all the time,” as Treebeard tells Merry and Pippin. “Real names tell you the story of the things they belong to” he explains (LotR 465). Like Yavanna’s weaving and Míriel’s tapestries, Fangorn stands in as the physical marker for the stories of the trees he represents and in that regard his significance as the offspring of Yavanna should not be overlooked.
But again, Yavanna’s influence doesn’t end there. Two great queens of elven realms, Melian and Galadriel, are directly related to the great Mother—Melian as her kin and Galadriel as her pupil (LR 241, Unfinished Tales 247). In fact, it is Yavanna who devises the original Elessar, the green stone passed down to Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings, and she sends it to Galadriel as a particular gift for the enrichment and protection of Lothlórien (UT 262). Yavanna also has a hand in the commissioning of the Istari, the wizards. Olórin (Gandalf) is the messenger who brings the Elessar to Galadriel, and Radagast (the wizard with a special relationship to the flora and fauna of the world) is sent only because of the appeals and intervention of Yavanna (UT 410).
Finally, Yavanna is, according to long tradition, responsible for the bread of queens, lembas, that provides nourishment for those in need and for those suffering hardships on a long road (The Peoples of Middle-earth, hereafter PM, 403). This bread is considered by many to be one of the great sacramental symbols in Tolkien’s creation: a representation of the Catholic Eucharist. Whether we wish to hold to that interpretation or not, it is interesting to note that the term Eucharist comes from a Greek compound meaning “good gift.” In Tolkien’s world this good gift comes from the Lady of the Earth, Yavanna, whose name is built on a root element related to the word for giving or giver (LR 356). She is, above all, a giver of good gifts.
In her roles as mother, protector, and artist “she is the lover of all things that grow in the earth, and all 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” (Sil 15). Her response to and care for the earth does not arise from an attitude of possession or a desire for dominance. Instead, it is born of her commitment to a sort of embodied ethical response to living things as worthy of love and care. “All have their worth […] and each contributes to the worth of others” is Yavanna’s moral compass, but at the same time she is particularly aware of and dedicated to the vulnerable, the forsaken, the cast down. She’s compassionate and merciful, but she’s also not afraid of taking to task those whose neglect and selfishness bring harm to the earth. I would suggest that she is the most ethically responsible and sensitive of the Valar, and for this reason holds a special place in Tolkien’s legendarium, even when she herself is overlooked by the inhabitants of the world she loves. But her work doesn’t require her to be center stage. Yavanna is content to work in the shadows, unafraid of venturing into the darkness to bring nourishment to those she loves. She is indeed a gift-giver, and as such, a beautiful example of an unselfish, active defense of life, creativity, and fruitfulness.
Originally published October 2019.
Megan N. Fontenot is a dedicated Tolkien scholar and fan who enjoys studying the women of Middle-earth. Catch her on Twitter @MeganNFontenot1 and feel free to request a favorite character in the comments!