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Megan N. Fontenot

Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Saruman, Man of Craft and Fallen Wizard

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 tracks the rise and fall of one of Middle-earth’s most enigmatic villains, Saruman: one-time head of the White Council who famously falls under the spell of Sauron, betraying the mission entrusted to him by the Valar.

The five Wizards of Middle-earth are a constant source of mystery and confusion. Little to nothing is known about the two Blue Wizards, Alatar and Pallando; Radagast remains a sylvan enigma; only Gandalf and Saruman are given the narrative space necessary to flesh out their characters, but even then the resulting sketch is frustratingly unfulfilled at best. Of Gandalf more is directly known because of his relationship with Hobbits and his central role in the resistance to Sauron, but what of Saruman? The traitorous wizard’s character and motivations are never fully developed in The Lord of the Rings, and readers are left to assume that pride and lust for power lead to his undoing. This is a fair interpretation of Saruman’s role in The Lord of the Rings, but Tolkien’s drafts and left-behind notes paint a fuller picture of his treacherous Power—one that allows us to track his fall from wisdom into folly, and hopefully understand just how it happened that an emissary sent by the Valar themselves could so radically fail in his task.

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Exploring the People of Middle-earth: The Witch-King of Angmar, Lord of the Nazgûl

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 the Witch-king of Angmar, Sauron’s secret weapon and the captain of the armies of Mordor.

The Witch-king of Angmar plays a fascinating role in the textual history of The Lord of the Rings, not least because his history develops in his wake. Unlike many of the figures from earlier ages who haunt the tale, the Witch-king arrives on the scene with nothing to his name: no past, no realm, no form, and only a vague purpose. In other words, where characters like Glorfindel, for example, are dropped in wholesale from older stories, the Witch-king develops alongside of—and in some cases after—the main narrative.

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The People of Middle-earth: Yavanna Kementári, Giver of Good Gifts

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.

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The People of Middle-earth: One Ring to Rule Them All

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 the textual history and political significance of the One Ring, Sauron’s greatest treasure.

In September 1963, Tolkien drafted yet another of a number of letters responding to questions about Frodo’s “failure” at the Cracks of Doom. It’s easy to imagine that he was rather exasperated. Few, it seemed, had really understood the impossibility of Frodo’s situation in those last, crucial moments: “the pressure of the Ring would reach its maximum,” Tolkien explained; it was “impossible, I should have said, for any one to resist, certainly after long possession, months of increasing torment, and when starved and exhausted” (Letters 326). Even had someone of unmatched power, like Gandalf, claimed the Ring, there would have been no real victory, for “the Ring and all its works would have endured. It would have been the master in the end” (332).

It would have been the master.

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Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Elrond Half-elven, Healer of Rivendell

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 Elrond Half-elven, the Lord of Rivendell and a behind-the-scenes player in many of Middle-earth’s most significant tales.

Elrond is one of those characters who just seems to have a finger in every pie. He’s the son of Eärendil, one of Middle-earth’s icons, and is thus the descendant of a Maia (Melian) and a number of legendary figures, including Beren and Lúthien. He’s ruled Imladris for many lifetimes of men; he married the daughter of Galadriel, the most powerful Eldar of the Third Age; he played foster-parent to the majority of the heirs of Elendil; his brother founded the Númenorean line; and his daughter marries the returning king of Gondor and Arnor. On the other hand, however, Elrond never lands the starring role. He’s there as a sort of sidenote in The Hobbit: a rest station along the way, a font of wisdom and guidance for a ragtag fellowship with great expectations and very little sense. Even in The Lord of the Rings he lingers on the fringes of the tale, playing gracious host and learned moderator, but largely acting behind the scenes. When telling the stories of the Last Alliance, his own presence is cast as almost incidental: he is Gil-galad’s herald and poet—his assistant, as it were. The grief, joys, trials, and triumphs of Elrond are always seen from a distance, or darkly, as through a veil.

At first glance, this might suggest that Elrond simply doesn’t cut it as a person of interest—that he’s flat, filler, a mere foil for characters whose tales and lives, in the long run, matter more. But, as might be expected given the existence of this article, that’s not the case. At least, it’s not entirely the case. Let me explain.

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Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Denethor II, Steward of Gondor

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 Denethor II, son of Ecthelion, Steward of Gondor, and father of Boromir and Faramir.

Over the years, and perhaps especially after the release of Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings, Denethor has become one of the most despised characters in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. His blatant favoritism of Boromir over Faramir seems to be at least one root of this hatred. But where did the Steward’s cruelty come from? And is there any reason we should extend an attempt at compassion to a man so twisted and broken with hate? Did Tolkien conceive of the character that way from the start?

The short answer to that last question is: no. In fact, Tolkien originally cast Denethor as a man who, while certainly stern and hardened by years of war and loss, showed flashes of compassion and tenderness that belie his later harshness. But I’m getting ahead of myself. What was he like in the beginning, and how did the Denethor we know and hate today emerge from the tangled threads of Tolkien’s relentless revisions?

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Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Idril the Far-Sighted, Wisest of Counsellors

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.

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Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Maedhros Maitimo, Foe of Morgoth and Doomed Hero

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 the development and ultimate fate of Maedhros, eldest son of Fëanor—one-time high king of the Noldor, and foe of Morgoth.

The tale of Maedhros is one of the more tragic histories that Tolkien ever penned. Tolkien repeatedly emphasizes the elf’s potential to become a great leader and a spiritual warrior, a hero of great renown fit to stand alongside Beren, Lúthien, Glorfindel, and others. And yet, time and again, Maedhros’s heroic and self-sacrificing impulses break through the gloom of the first ages of Middle-earth only to be quashed and denied by the destructive power of the infamous Oath. Maedhros is an elf doomed from the first; his heroic actions and potential are driven into the dust and ultimately come to naught. Perhaps because of the tragedy and futility of his life, Maedhros has become a favorite among fanfiction writers, many of whom have, in wrestling with the elf’s often-troubling role in many of Middle-earth’s misfortunes, mined the depths of the emotional anguish and trauma lying just beneath the character’s surface. Maedhros attracts such devotion, it seems, because he exhibits the same characteristics that mark others out as heroes—but is kept in chains and ultimately destroyed by rash words spoken in his youth and by a cruel injunction from his dying father.

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Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Legolas, a Radical Warrior

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 is the second of a two-part series dealing with Legolas Greenleaf, son of Thranduil and prince of Mirkwood. The first section looked at the evolution of the character over numerous drafts and tales; this, the second, looks at Legolas’s role in the published Lord of the Rings.

Last time we looked at the transformation of the character(s) called “Legolas Greenleaf” throughout some of Tolkien’s major drafts and stories. Here’s a quick recap: in The Fall of Gondolin, Legolas Greenleaf is a night-sighted elf of the House of Galdor who leads the refugees from the sack of Gondolin to safety through the mountains. He’s so familiar with the terrain that the text says he knew the land just as well in the dark as he did the day. His night senses are compared to those of a cat. Legolas then vanishes from the tales until somewhere around the fifth draft of “The Council of Elrond” in The Lord of the Rings, where he replaces yet another Galdor (here a messenger from Mirkwood; Galdor of the Havens doesn’t show up until later). At first, he appears to be a rather humorous addition who lightens the mood in dark places, far more akin to The Hobbit‘s Rivendell Elves than to the retiring, somewhat melancholy Legolas of the published book. Tolkien continues to play with Legolas’s role throughout the drafts, but the elf’s active role in the major developments of the plot is relentlessly pared down. Legolas, though he remains a significant member of the Fellowship, begins to seem more like a bystander, leading Christopher Tolkien to describe his father’s tinkering with the character as ultimately “irrelevant” to the integrity of the narrative.

[What are we to do with Legolas Greenleaf?]

Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Legolas, Prince of Mirkwood and Environmental Intercessor

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 is the first of a two-part series dealing with Legolas Greenleaf, son of Thranduil and prince of Mirkwood. This first section looks at the evolution of the character over numerous drafts and tales; the second will look at Legolas’s role in the published Lord of the Rings.

Legolas is one of the more popular characters to come out of The Lord of the Rings. We can, I think, attribute much of his fame to the success of Peter Jackson’s film franchise and Orlando Bloom’s performance in the role of the immortal warrior-prince. (In fact, it’s surprisingly difficult to find fan art that isn’t either based on or influenced by Bloom’s Legolas.) But for many fans, there is little enough material to work with, at least if we look only at his role in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: Legolas is often described as a flat character, one who changes little and whose impact on the narrative is slight at best. Tolkien himself wrote that of all nine members of the Fellowship of the Ring, “Legolas probably achieved the least” (Unfinished Tales, hereafter UT, 412). Christopher Tolkien, commenting on his father’s drafts of The Lord of the Rings, consistently describes the emendations and additions to Legolas’s character—and even the addition of Legolas’s character—as structurally irrelevant or insignificant.

It has long been my opinion (and in this I am undoubtedly joined by others) that Legolas is the most understated and underrated member of the Fellowship.

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Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Sauron—Craftsman, Ring-giver, and Dark Lord

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.

Sauron is one of Tolkien’s best-known and most terrifying villains. Fire and demons, darkness inescapable, and the pull of the Ring of Power surround him; he is often visualized (if incorrectly) as a great flaming Eye and, as a Lord of Middle-earth, stretches his power across the lands seeking again the One Ring. Many names are his, and yet he is the Nameless One. He is called Annatar, Zigūr, Thû, Gorthû, the Necromancer, Wizard, Magician, lieutenant of Morgoth, Lord of Wolves, King of Kings, Lord of the World. He is one of only a small handful of characters to play a significant part in tales of Arda from the creation of the universe through to the last of the tales of Middle-earth. At first he plays lackey, but with the ages his power increases and he rightly earns the title of Dark Lord from Morgoth, his master.

Sauron is unique for a number of reasons. Unlike many other of Tolkien’s creations, his conception remains relatively stable throughout the legendarium, and because of this he is also one of the few to experience complex and radical development across that same period. His journey from uncorrupted spirit to last of the great mythological evils to threaten Arda is therefore fascinating and worth a closer look.

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Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Haleth, Tolkien’s “Renowned Amazon”

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, by special request, we’re looking at Haleth, one of the great heroes of Middle-earth’s early days. She rallied her father’s people on the brink of destruction and later became one of the only recorded chieftainesses of the Edain, and a powerful advocate for the women of her people.

In the beginning, Haleth was a male character, one of the three Fathers of Men who came into Beleriand after Bëor (The Shaping of Middle-earth, hereafter SM, 211). His people were the last of the Elf-friends to remain in that area, and perhaps, Tolkien at one time suggested, were protected by the magic of Melian (SM 152). The People of Haleth were broad-shouldered and short, with light hair and eyes. They tended to be “slower but more deep [in] the movement of their thoughts” than the other of the two great Houses. Their “words were fewer, for they had joy in silence, wandering free in the greenwood, while the wonder of the world was new upon them” (The Lost Road, hereafter LR, 303). They spoke a language called Taliska, which was influenced by the speech of the Green Elves (LR 195)—and apparently, Tolkien (characteristically) went so far as to devise a grammar of this obscure tongue (LR 210), though to my knowledge it has never been published.

[Enter Haleth, reborn as the formidable chieftainess of the Haladin!]

Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Melian, Divine Enchantress and Deathless Queen

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, by special request, we’re looking at Melian, the incarnated Maia whose power, wisdom, and beauty were renowned in the First Age of Arda and who becomes the foremother of some of Middle-earth’s greatest heroes.

“In the gardens of Lórien she dwelt, and among all his fair folk none were there that surpassed her beauty, nor none more wise, nor none more skilled in magical and enchanting song. It is told that the Gods would leave their business, and the birds of Valinor their mirth, that Valmar’s bells were silent, and the fountains ceased to flow, when at the mingling of the light Melian sang in the garden of the God of Dreams” —The Shaping of Middle-earth, hereafter SM, 103.

This passage describes the Maia Melian before she passed over to the hither shore and took up her incarnate form in Middle-earth. Little is known about the divine mother of Lúthien when she dwelt in the Undying Lands. It’s said that she was kin to Yavanna (according to The Lost Road, hereafter LR, 241), the creator of flora and fauna and lover of trees, and that for a time she dwelt in and tended the gardens of the Vala Lórien and of Estë, as he is also called (Morgoth’s Ring, hereafter MR, 147). She’s also called the fairest of all the Maiar (MR 72). And from the passage above, we know that she has a talent for music—a potent power she’ll later pass on to her similarly-gifted daughter, Lúthien. Her voice is so beautiful that all of paradise leaves off its normal activities just to listen to her. She’s the Orpheus of Arda.

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Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Glorfindel, Resurrected Hero and Spiritual Warrior

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 focuses on Glorfindel, an Elf-lord with only a few appearances, who channels the divine power of the Other-world and whose presence in Middle-earth twice assures the survival of—well, basically everything.

Glorfindel has the double distinction of being, first of all, an elf whose name was so unique that Tolkien felt like it couldn’t be used again for anyone else; and second of all, an elf whose power was so great that he was specifically sent back to Middle-earth by the Valar to aid Elrond and Gandalf in the fight against Sauron. But his fame doesn’t end there: the tale of this particular character is also what drove Tolkien to almost tirelessly revise his theory of elvish reincarnation.

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Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Éowyn, Shieldmaiden of Rohan

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 walks us through the development of Éowyn, the fierce and tragic woman of Rohan who defeats the Lord of the Nazgûl in The Lord of the Rings.

Éowyn of Rohan is one of Tolkien’s most beloved characters—especially, perhaps, by women and girls, many of whom see in her something to be admired, emulated, and loved. Few can forget that stirring moment in which the stern shieldmaiden casts off her helm, her hair like fire in the dim light, and declares with a laugh in the very face of a demon: “no living man am I! You look upon a woman.” But this scene didn’t emerge without hesitation and alterations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Tolkien’s penchant for continuous and extensive revision, Éowyn’s textual history is complicated and fascinating, revealing the transformation of a woman who was, originally, an even more outspoken and vital part of her community, but who becomes the woman we know, the one who goes to war in disguise and vanquishes her army’s most fearsome enemy.

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