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Megan N. Fontenot

Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Arwen Undómiel, Evenstar of Her People

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 story of Arwen Undómiel, specifically addressing her special connection to Lúthien Tinúviel.

Arwen Undómiel is well known as the Evenstar of her people and the wife of Aragorn, but for all her significance as a symbol, her role in The Lord of the Rings is shockingly small. Today, we’re going to take a look at the development of her character throughout the drafts of the tale, and we’ll supplement those sources with some of Tolkien’s letters, in trying to finally make sense of Arwen’s place in Middle-earth.

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Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Boromir the Brave

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 tragic tale of Boromir of Gondor, the bold son of Denethor who meets his end protecting Merry and Pippin from the Orcs of Saruman.

When faced with critics who accused The Lord of the Rings of being morally “simple-minded,” lacking in ethical complexity, Tolkien would point to Boromir as proof against such claims (Letters 197). Boromir, he argued, illustrates that even fundamentally good people have faults, make mistakes, and sometimes, are capable of great moral failings. But if this is true, then Boromir is also proof that those failings can be overcome, forgiven, and (in the heroic code of Middle-earth) paid for by self-sacrificial courage. The temptation of Boromir, his fall, and his redemption through his heroics and a sort of sacramental confession to Aragorn make for a powerful story, one that readers find hard to forget.

It is hardly surprising that Tolkien did not arrive at such a powerful narrative arc right away. The story of Boromir, like that of many other characters, was one that grew in the telling.

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The Complex Evolution of Sauron — Craftsman, Ring-giver, and Dark Lord

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: Pippin, the Fool of a Took!

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 Peregrin Took, the beloved Pippin whose clueless wonder lightens the heart in many dark places.

Pippin always seems to be an obvious choice for favorite among the hobbits, especially for young readers of The Lord of the Rings. He’s funny, naïve, endlessly loyal: rash with a dash of Tookish bravery (or foolishness) that often lands him in unfortunate situations. His endearing relationship with Gandalf is another point in his favor, for though the wizard only grudgingly accepts Pippin’s energetic, youthful failures, he also slowly comes to bond with the young hobbit in a grouchy, grandfatherly sort of way. Pippin plagues the ancient wizard, and they both know it. But it’s not as if Pippin remains a stagnant character who experiences no growth or maturity over the course of the narrative.

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Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Théoden the Renewed

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 Théoden, son of Thengel, King of Rohan and a champion in the fight against Sauron.

King Théoden of Rohan is undoubtedly one of the most influential figures of the Third Age, despite the fact that his greatest deeds were accomplished in the last few weeks of his life. Without his stout courage and compelling leadership, Gondor and the West would surely have fallen into Shadow. Théoden’s career is brief but brilliant: one that, in the end, proves to be nothing short of glorious.

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Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Meriadoc Brandybuck, the Quiet One

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 Meriadoc Brandybuck, hobbit of the Shire and squire of Rohan.

I don’t remember Merry Brandybuck leaving much of an impression the first few times I read The Lord of the Rings. He’s quiet, unobtrusive, and does nothing quite as eye-catching or memorable as many of the other characters. Apart from his (relatively) accidental heroism at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, Merry tends to recede into the background. But, the more I read The Lord of the Rings, the more I am struck by Merry’s quiet constancy, his willing to do the task at hand. Merry is, if anything, competent. Merry is prepared.

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Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Ulmo, Lord of Waters (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 mini-series exploring the Vala Ulmo, Lord and Wielder of Waters, Dweller of the Deep, the Pourer: the god at whose prompting Gondolin was founded and through whose protection Eärendil made his renowned journey to the Undying Lands.

In our last installment, we explored Ulmo’s character and personality, specifically looking at his close connection with Ilúvatar’s music and with water. In that article, I wanted to make especially clear that fact that Ulmo is unique among the Valar. He sees further, for one thing, and this allows him to approach difficult situations with a sense of grace, justice, and good that are on a cosmic scale. His judgments are therefore often wiser than those of his fellow Powers of Arda; Ulmo plays the long game. I think this also means that Ulmo, more than any other Valar, knows precisely what is at stake in the war against Morgoth. He isn’t deceived: he knows the threat Morgoth poses, as well as the fact that Ilúvatar is more than capable of handling any weapon or machination the Enemy has in his wheelhouse.

Today, we’re going to continue our examination of Ulmo by taking a look at the role he plays in the historical narrative of Arda.

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Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Ulmo, Lord of Waters (Part 1)

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 in a mini-series exploring the Vala Ulmo, Lord and Wielder of Waters, Dweller of the Deep, the Pourer: the god at whose prompting Gondolin was founded and through whose protection Eärendil made his renowned journey to the Undying Lands.

Despite playing little more than a supporting role in Middle-earth’s great dramas, Ulmo casts a long shadow—even for a god. Read through The Silmarillion and The History of Middle-earth and you’ll get the distinct impression that the Lord of Waters is a force to be reckoned with. And not because he’s constantly showing off his power; rather, it’s because he sees far more clearly than his peers and sets his pieces in motion before anyone else realizes there’s a game to be played.

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Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Sam Gamgee, Hero and Servant

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 role of Samwise Gamgee, one of the celebrated heroes of The Lord of the Rings.

Sam Gamgee is, without a doubt, one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s most beloved characters. The simple hobbit’s journey from wide-eyed gardener with an inexplicable fascination with Elves to a hero hardened—but not crushed—by toil and suffering moves readers to both fondness and awe. Few can forget that stirring moment when Sam, bowed by exhaustion, thirst, and despair, lifts the incapacitated Frodo to his shoulders and hikes the winding road up Mount Doom. Tolkien himself, in a parenthetical remark, called Samwise the “chief hero” of The Lord of the Rings (Letters 161). In another place, Tolkien wrote that Sam was, of the five major hobbit-characters, the most representative of his race despite the education he received from Bilbo; this, Tolkien admitted, made him “lovable and laughable” if also infuriating and irritating (Letters 329).

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Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Faramir, Captain 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 week’s installment explores the creation of Faramir, one of the quiet heroes of The Lord of the Rings.

In a 1944 letter to his son Christopher, J.R.R Tolkien wrote:

A new character has come on the scene (I am sure I did not invent him, I did not even want him, though I like him, but there he came walking into the woods of Ithilien): Faramir, the brother of Boromir—and he is holding up the ‘catastrophe’ by lots of stuff about the history of Gondor and Rohan (with some very sound reflections no doubt on martial glory and true glory): but if he goes on much more a lot of him will have to be removed to the appendices. (79)

Tolkien’s words are tinged with self-deprecation: The Lord of the Rings was taking quite some time to write, in part because the plot was being interrupted by long and sometimes rambling discourses on the histories of languages, pipe weed, and other such distractions. Many of these passages—and Tolkien was well aware of this even as he wrote them—would ultimately be removed from the main text and either stowed away in various appendices and prologues or relegated to obscure drafts that were only discovered as Christopher arranged the History of Middle-earth series. Tolkien was “holding up the ‘catastrophe,’” and he knew it.

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Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Fëanor, Chief Artificer and Doomsman of the Noldor (Part 4)

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 final one in a short series looking at Fëanor, one of the greatest Noldor, father of seven mighty sons, and creator of the Silmarils.

We’ve come now to the end of Fëanor’s story: to the infamous Oath and the havoc it wreaks on Valinor, Middle-earth, and especially the Noldor. In the title of this series of articles, I’ve called Fëanor the “Doomsman of the Noldor” for this reason. Mandos is known as the Doomsman of the Valar because he is the one who pronounces fates, sees the future, and is especially good at seeing through difficult situations to their cores. I’ve named Fëanor similarly because it is his Oath, his set of ritualized words, that bind the Noldor in a doom they can’t escape.

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Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Fëanor, Chief Artificer and Doomsman of the Noldor (Part 3)

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 third in a short series on that most infamous of Noldorin Elves: Fëanor, father of seven sons and creator of the Silmarils. Next time, we’ll look at Fëanor’s Oath and the turmoil it inspires.

The last two installments of this series on Fëanor explored the Elf himself and his close personal relationships. We saw that his relationships with others were marked by selfishness and pride: he only kept close those who were useful to him, but in time, he pushed even these away. He listened to no one’s advice or counsel after finally rejecting Nerdanel, abandoned his father after the loss of Míriel, and estranged his other kinsmen by becoming secretive and covetous. As a craftsman he was superbly talented, and he was greater than any other of the Noldor apart from Galadriel. But his selfishness and arrogance only grew after he created the Silmarils: he hoarded their light from all eyes save those of his father and sons, and began to forget that in making the jewels, he used materials that were created by someone else. He began to claim Light as his own. Last time, we concluded with the observation that Fëanor followed nearly step-for-step in Morgoth’s pattern even as he became the Enemy’s most outspoken critic. He fell prey to the seduction of Morgoth’s lies, internalizing them, becoming their mouthpiece…

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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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