I’ve been thinking a lot lately about death of the author w/r/t Tolkien, and how much I deeply, if unconsciously, rely on the concept in the creation of my own stories. Because I do strive, still, to create fic that is (mostly) canon-compliant, even if in many respects I’m going in with the specific agenda to subvert and undermine said canon. And I love the freedom to do that within the Tolkien legendarium, because all the texts we have are established in-universe as being secondary sources of a sort. And as any seasoned history major will tell you, secondary sources are imperfect, and fallible, and thus any inherent “rules” of this mythology are open to vast interpretation.
I find this incredibly freeing. I love the notion of wiggling through the cracks Tolkien left and wedging out a more powerful, fulfilling world in which the women of Middle-Earth are named, powerful, and diverse beings. ALL women, ordinary women, not just the queens and the warriors and the ‘man-hearted.’
But then, of course, no matter howe we choose to interpret the texts, it remains an entire legendarium created by a conservative old man, and the texts reflect that in so many cases that you couldn’t list them on two, much less twenty hands. So I’m also reluctant to fully declare death of the author, because it’s too easy. It lets Tolkien off the hook, and that’s not something that I want to do. He was sexist, he was racist, and that needs to be acknowledged when grappling with the grosser aspects of his legendarium. I don’t want to ignore or discount that even as I’m striving to undermine it and wedge myself between the cracks.
So, I suppose, take both of those contradicting thoughts I’m having into account as I roll out this Dúnedain Matriarchy Manifesto. I recognize that this is hardly the first time these conversations have been had, and I owe a great debt to the fabulous people who have discussed these issues in many forums before me. At the same time, I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen it discussed with regard to the women of the Dúnedain specifically, and I do want to bring that front and center here.
Considering how much he clearly loved his kingly protagonist, Tolkien gives us astonishingly little information about the culture into which Aragorn was born, and of course, even less about the women of that culture. We know that the kingdom of Arnor fell in the middle of the Third Age, and by the time the events of the trilogy take place, the Dúnedain have scattered and diminished to a few small communities in the wilds of Eriador, located mostly at the joining of the Hoarwell and Loudwater rivers (a few days’ journey south from Rivendell). The Appendices give us the names of the Chieftains that continued to rule the Dúnedain after Arnor fell (a veritable and unbroken line of names starting with ‘Ar’), though of course none of their wives/mothers/etc. are mentioned at all. The default assumption (to quote the Ask Middle-Earth tumblr) seems to be that “it was a patriarchal society, but women were pretty well respected.”
I want to challenge that here. We are told so little about Aragorn’s people, which is frustrating in some ways, but it also provides plenty of freedom to read between the lines and come to a variety of conclusions. There’s plenty of evidence within what text we are given—both in the Appendices and in various passages from Unfinished Tales/HoMe—for the distinct lack of patriarchy within Dúnedain culture, and therefore room to imagine that the women of the Dúnedain may well have taken on roles of leadership, or at the very least fulfilled the same position as the Wise-women of the House of Bëor in the First Age.
Chieftains aside, the two most important Dúnedain characters mentioned in the Appendices and in The Peoples of Middle Earth are women: Aragorn’s mother, Gilraen, and her mother, Ivorwen. Both of them have important parts to play in The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen, the only text where we get a real glimpse we get of Dúnedain culture, and in it, each of them occupy more important positions in the story than any named Dúnedain man. Gilraen’s marriage is the central question of the first part of the tale, and it is Ivorwen’s foresight that allows for the marriage to take place at all.
When Arathorn seeks Gilraen’s hand in marriage, Gilraen is only 21, still underage by Dúnedain standards. Her age, not her gender, is the reason stated in the text for her parents having a say in her decision, and there’s obviously an important conversation to be had regarding Arathorn’s proposal (helloooooo thirty-year age difference :/). Dírhael does not approve of the marriage, but Ivorwen persuades him that the union ought to take place. It’s important to note that here it’s not a question of Dirhael rejecting Arathorn’s proposal outright and Ivorwen struggling to bring him around—Tolkien states in The Peoples of Middle-Earth that it is Gilraen sought both of her parents’ advice (as opposed to Arathorn asking Dirhael for his daughter’s hand in marriage), and it is that conversation where Dirhael’s reluctance comes through. While the specific context of the conversation doesn’t make it into the final version of the Appendices, the final passage can still be interpreted as such. Dírhael is “opposed” to the marriage but does not reject it outright, and it is Ivorwen’s advice that wins the day: “if these two wed now, hope may be born for our people.”
This is one simple conversation about one single marriage among the Dúnedain, but it’s reflective of the respected position that the women of this world can hold. Gilraen makes her own choice here, following her mother’s advice, and agrees to marry Arathorn. Ivorwen foresees the potential good that will come from her daughter’s marriage (even as it may have tragic consequences), and her prophecy frames the remainder of the story. Indeed, her foresight regarding Aragorn takes on an even more specific significance in a deleted passage from the Appendices that, thanks to Christopher Tolkien (how often will I say that eh?), we have preserved in the Foreword to The Peoples of Middle-Earth:
"Preserved with other difficult and disjointed notes, [a brief but remarkable text… [from] Marquette] is very roughly written on a slip of paper torn from a rejected manuscript. That manuscript can be identified as the close predecessor of the Appendix A text…. The writing on the verso reads:
and his father gave him the name Aragorn, a name used in the House of the Chieftains. But Ivorwen at his naming stood by, and said ‘Kingly Valour’ (for so that name is interpreted): ‘that he shall have, but I see on his breast a green stone, and from that his true name shall come and his chief renown: for he shall be a healer and a renewer.’
Above this is written: ‘and they did not know what she meant, for there was no green stone to be seen by other eyes’ (followed by illegible words); and beneath it: ‘for the green Elfstone was given to him by Galadriel’. A large X is also written, but it is not clear whether this relates to the whole page or only to a part of it.”
Ironically, of course, Christopher Tolkien takes this passage and the only thing he gets out of it was “oh hey here’s the only place where we’ve got confirmation on the meaning of Aragorn’s name!” Meanwhile, I’m sitting here thinking dude, did you miss the part where Aragorn’s special destiny and role as king is foretold and prescribed by his grandmother. Ivorwen literally lays out his hero’s journey, and while she’s relegated to the Appendices along with the rest of the Dúnedain, it can’t be discounted when it comes to considering Aragorn’s position as the Heir of Isildur who finally becomes king and reunites Gondor and Arnor.
These are the only two mentions of Dúnedain women that Tolkien gives to us, and while I can rage against the so-called “textual ghosts” that are left behind by the dozens of wives, mothers and sisters of the Chieftains, not to mention the family members of the common Rangers, we can also take these two instances and assume that the women of the Dúnedain held far more power than fandom typically believes. It gives us space to re-imagine their roles, to give them positions of leadership (for example, PERFECTLY PLAUSIBLE to assume that it’s Aragorn’s paternal grandmother, Arador’s widow, who takes the role of acting-Chieftain while he’s being raised in Rivendell).
But then we return to the end of Gilraen’s tale. Oh, Gilraen. For all intents and purposes, Tolkien gives us a decent character out of Gilraen in the three pages she’s mentioned in The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen. She raises her son in Rivendell after her husband’s death, and it’s clear she and Aragorn have a pretty great relationship. She knows him well enough that he doesn’t even have to say anything to her before she figures out what’s going down between him and Arwen (laughing forever about that tbh), and she’s inherited enough of her mother’s foresight that she foresees the hard road ahead for him.
But the difficulties of Aragorn’s life and life of the Dúnedain consume her, eventually, and only ten years before the events of the War of the Ring (ten years before goddamn everything to hell), she says goodbye to Aragorn, telling him that she cannot face the darkness that’s coming to Middle-earth. And when he tries to persuade her otherwise, begs her to find the strength to wait for light beyond the darkness, she answers with this:
“Ónen i-Estel Edain, ú-chebin Estel anim.”
“I gave hope to the Dúnedain, I have kept no hope for myself.”
And again, I’m of two minds with this tale. On the one hand, I can completely empathize with Gilraen’s loss of hope in this situation. Tolkien makes it pretty clear that, unlike her mother, the only foresight she has regarding Aragorn is hardship and grief. She’s suffered an enormous amount of losses in her life—the death of her husband, living apart from her people while raising Aragorn in Rivendell, returning to the Dúnedain and experiencing the hardships of their lives day in and day out. There’s something quite poignant about her actions in focusing her energies on giving hope to the Dúnedain—she is willing to sacrifice her happiness and optimism for the sake of her people, in the hopes that through her efforts and her son’s efforts they might endure. It’s less of an individualized grief that brings her to her death and more of a generalized despair, and after living amongst people who give everything at the expense of their own lives (for what purpose do the Rangers serve beyond protecting the rest of Eriador?), it’s not surprising at all that she would be unwilling to face the great wars that would decide her son’s and people’s fate once and for all.
ON THE OTHER HAND, she joins a seemingly endless line of Tolkenian mothers who die of grief, and it’s fucking maddening. She of ALL people deserves to see that her son’s road ends in triumph, that everything she sacrificed was worth it in the end. And while she’s not dying out of grief for a specific family member, like most of the other Bereft Wives/Mothers, she’s still giving up on life out of a despair and depression that we never see the men of Middle-earth succumb to. Sigridhr made the excellent point that there are some men who go out in very fatalistic fights of despair—Denethor, Fingolfin, etc.—but even that gives those characters power that Tolkien’s mothers are never afforded. The men go out in blazes of glory, and in Fingolfin’s case, with a chance that they could potentially emerge from their fatalistic battles unscathed. Gilraen doesn’t even get that.
(Unless, on the third note, we completely re-write the end of her tale and claim for it to still be canon. AND I’M ABSOLUTELY GOING DOWN THAT ROUTE.)
So I guess I’ve answered my own question at the end of this, at least regarding death of the author. There’s only so much of that we can eliminate the author’s presence when it comes to Gilraen specifically and the women of the Dúnedain more generally. Her narrative can be construed as poignantly tragic if we view it in a vacuum, solely within the context of the Tale of Aragorn and Arwen. But stories never exist in vacuums, and we have to take into account a) Tolkien’s gross views on women and b) the countless other times he does this to the wives and mothers in his tales. They exist to further the narratives of their husbands and sons, and when the tales of their husbands and sons end, so do theirs. Even Ivorwen’s foresight, powerful as it is, positions her as a character with importance only in relation to Aragorn.
But I’m still bound and determined to give these women better endings and having them liveon their own terms, within the bounds of canon. Gilraen going out in a fatalistic fight against orcs still isn’t perfect, but it reverts the choice back to her and allows her to take a more active role in her own story. Ivorwen’s advice to her daughter and foresight might be inextricably tied to Aragorn’s journey, but it gives her power within her world. And if they’re analyzed while one is sweetly chanting “fuck you Tolkien” in the back of her mind, the narratives of these women allow us to seize the hundreds of textual ghosts that were left behind in Middle-earth and envision lives for them that might break free of their creator’s limitations.
WHATEVER MOM, I AM CONTRADICTORY AND CONTAIN MULTITUDES.