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Megan N. Fontenot

Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Fëanor, Chief Artificer and Doomsman of the Noldor (Part 2)

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 is the second in a short series on that most infamous of Noldorin Elves: Fëanor, father of seven sons and creator of the Silmarils.

In the previous installment, we spent our time looking at the close relationships in Fëanor’s life and evaluating them in order to better understand his temperament and character. Already, we’ve seen Fëanor’s penchant for unnatural isolation, his pride, his possessiveness, and of course, his prodigious talent. His faults only increase as his skill grows.

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Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Fëanor, Chief Artificer and Doomsman of the Noldor

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 begins a short series on that most infamous of Noldorin Elves: Fëanor, father of seven sons and creator of the Silmarils.

Most great stories have characters around which the narrative itself orbits, anchored around their charisma, their compelling stories. We see this in history, as certain figures come to dominate the terrain and stand as giants, casting shadows in the stories we tell about the human journey. Something about the lives they lived—the quality that makes them larger than life, as we like to say—pulls disparate moments and events together, allowing us to see a cohesive narrative where one might not otherwise exist. Middle-earth has figures of this caliber, too: names like Lúthien, Túrin, Idril, and Frodo suggest to us not just individuals, but rather entire stories or movements in time.

Fëanor is perhaps the greatest of these figures.

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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. In place of a new installment this week, please enjoy this encore post: Following our recent two-part discussion of Galadriel, we’re looking back at the story of her friend and mentor 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: Galadriel, Mighty and Valiant (Part 2)

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 is the second of two articles taking an in-depth look at the life and lessons of Galadriel, Lady of Light.

In our last column, we followed Galadriel’s story up to her arrival on the shores of Middle-earth. We saw her walk a long and heavy road from her youth as one of the greatest of the Noldor in the glory days of Valinor to the turning point of her life, as she stands “tall and valiant among the contending princes” (Morgoth’s Ring, hereafter MR, 112-113), to the horror of the Helcaraxë. There, she, along with Fingolfin and his sons, secures the survival of her people, and with great losses and an enduring bitterness against the house of Fëanor, they emerge in Middle-earth. In defiance of despair they “[blow] their trumpets in Middle-earth at the first rising of the Moon” (Sil 82).

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Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Galadriel, Mighty and Valiant

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 is the first of two articles taking an in-depth look at the life and lessons of Galadriel, Lady of Light.

Galadriel’s first words in The Lord of the Rings position her firmly within the tradition of Tolkienian women. When the Fellowship reaches Lothlórien, and it becomes clear to the Lord and Lady that Gandalf is not with them, Celeborn is concerned. Was there a change of plans? he wonders. Or perhaps he misunderstood Elrond’s message? Galadriel, and not one of the Company, responds. “‘Nay, there was no change of counsel,” she informs her husband, speaking in a voice unusually deep. “Gandalf the Grey set out with the Company, but he did not pass the borders of this land. Now tell us where he is; for I much desired to speak with him again. But I cannot see him from afar, unless he comes within the fences of Lothlórien: a grey mist is about him, and the ways of his feet and of his mind are hidden from me” (LotR 335).

[Galadriel, we can infer here, is something of a seer…]

Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Gandalf, Kindler of Hearts

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, by special request, takes a look at some of the more obscure aspects of the beloved and mysterious wizard Gandalf.

Gandalf is, without a doubt, one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s most iconic characters. The wizard’s good-hearted, grumpy, mysterious persona has influenced more than a few modern wizards (we won’t name names), and few who have encountered him, whether in Middle-earth or in our primary world, leave the experience unchanged. While he doesn’t seem to be a common favorite among younger readers (check out Luke Shelton’s work on readers’ experiences with The Lord of the Rings for more info), Gandalf tends to make an impact on adults, who find themselves drawn to his dry wit, his gruff kindness, and his commitment to doing what needs to be done and saying what needs to be said regardless of consequences. And in the wake of Ian McKellan’s masterful portrayal of the old wizard in Peter Jackson’s adaptations…well, suffice it to say that Gandalf has quite a legacy.

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A Weapon With a Will of Its Own: How Tolkien Wrote the One Ring as a Character

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: Aulë, the Artist’s Pattern

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 takes a look at the role of the Vala Aulë in the legendarium, specifically questioning his appearance in the background of other characters’ narratives.

As I’ve written these character studies this year (since February, to be precise!), I’ve found that the Vala Aulë has been a consistent presence in many of the pieces. His influence is surprisingly pervasive, especially for a Power who has neither the might of Manwë nor the actual textual presence of, say, Varda, Morgoth, or even Ulmo. What better way to close out the year, I thought to myself, than to investigate why this is the case?

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Exploring the People of Middle-earth: The Many Faces of Finduilas

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 explores the appearances of the name “Finduilas” and tracks how Tolkien’s use of this name becomes symbolic, consigning the women who bear it to the grave as markers of another’s failures and successes.

Tolkien was no stranger to the art of recycling character names. For the most part, these characters have little to nothing in common beyond their shared monikers; rather, it seems that the linguist in the dear Professor just couldn’t bear to let a good compound go to waste. Every so often we see traces of one character in another (like the Legolas Greenleaf of Gondolin and the Legolas of the Fellowship); at other times, though these are fewer and further between, Tolkien makes an effort to adjust the timeline to allow the reused names to refer back to the same character (as in the case of Glorfindel). It’s rare, though, that either of these things happens to important or unique names. There may be multiple and varied Denethors, but there’s only one Gandalf, one Frodo. Though Aragorn’s name is repeated, that repetition is important symbolically: his genealogy is a significant part of his claim to the throne and his ability to command the respect and loyalty of his followers.

What, then, do we do with recycled names that are not only unique and significant, but that also seem to carry with them specific character traits and connotations?

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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.

[Read more]

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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