Friday, May 23, 2014

Unlikely Unions: The Importance of Interspecies Marriage in Middle Earth

If there is any such thing as the perfect relationship in Tolkien’s legendarium, it would be the union of a Man man (male Man? Human man?) with an elven woman. Beren and Luthien are clearly the poster couple of Middle Earth, the gold standard against which all other marriages are compared. Aragorn and Arwen seem as close as the diminished Third Age can come to the perfection of their ancestors, while Tuor and Idril of Gondolin manage to give birth to one of Tolkien’s favorite half-elves, Earendil the Mariner. Clearly there was something in the coupling that Tolkien liked. The combination of the feminine grace and beauty of the elves with the militaristic prowess of warrior men is the paragon of romance in Tolkien’s world, especially in these cases, where Luthien, Arwen, and Idril are described by superlatives of beauty while their three human lovers are all great kings and lords of high birth amongst men. And these relationships are not just put on a pedestal as examples of perfect human-elf relations, they fundamentally shape the course of Middle Earth. Beren and Luthien achieve in a few months of loving and adventuring what Feanor’s sons couldn’t in thousands of years, Aragorn with Arwen reunite just about all the free people of Middle Earth, and each couple produces progeny that figure prominently in the legends of Arda.

With these three examples of perfect human-elf marriages in mind, it is easy to forget that marriages can also be unpleasant or even disastrous affairs in Tolkien’s world. And interestingly enough, it’s the wedding of like figures that ends up being dangerous, whereas marriages between members of two races, or even of two distinct lineages, are not as perilous. As we mentioned in class, Thingol and Melian, elf and Maia, make an effective couple and together maintained one of the strongest kingdoms in Middle Earth for centuries. However, unequal marriages need not always be across species, nor must the woman always be of higher status than the man. At the end of The Return of the King Faramir, a man of Westernesse and the Steward of Gondor, could safely wed Eowyn, shield maiden of the Rohirrim, a race akin but apart from the heirs of Numenor.

The dangerous relationships are those that occur when two members of close kinship become united. As a caveat, not every relationship of related peoples ends badly; however, most of the prominent courtships in The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and Unfinished Tales follow this trend.

First and foremost is the greatest marriage disaster of them all, the story of Turin Turambar and his accidental incest. Like his kinsman Beren and his cousin Tuor, Turin is at first romantically associated with an elven lady, and seems set up to be the third great Man husband of the First Age. When Turin arrived in Nargothrond with Gwindor the elf, he quickly stole the heart of the beautiful Finduilas, the daughter of Orodreth the king. Finduilas loved Turin deeply, and though this love was initially unrequited, there was a good chance that Turin’s fortunes could have been reversed had he in turn fallen in love with her (The Silmarillion, pp. 209-211). However, Finduilas was driven from Nargothrond by the malice of Glaurung, and, just like everyone else who managed to get close to Turin, fell into suffering and eventually died one of the most gruesome deaths of any of Tolkien’s women characters, speared to a tree by marauding orcs (The Silmarillion, pp. 214, 216). Overcome by grief, Turin is then susceptible to fall in love with the next available woman to cross his path, who just so happened to be his amnesia-addled sister Nienor, with disastrous consequences for them both.

In the Turin story, we see the elf-human versus human-human problem taken to two different extremes. For one, Nienor is about as different from an elf as a human could be. Elves are graceful, beautiful, and refined. They live often in the woods, but they maintain a sophisticated aesthetic that surpasses even the most kingly courts of men. Entering the groves of Caras Galadhon, the fellowship is impressed not with the wildness of the tree city, but with its carefully cultivated beauty – the paths, fountains, and flets, as well as with the kingly radiance of Celeborn and Galadriel (The Lord of the Rings, Book II Chapter 7 pp. 353-354). Nienor, on the other hand, first meets Turin in the least sophisticated way possible – running naked through the woods, completely crazy and unable to speak. She is the opposite of an elf, a wild, uncouth human lost in the woods (The Silmarillion, p. 219). Moreover, in as much as elves are defined by their memory, of the wisdom and skill acquired through long centuries of life, Nienor is defined by her lack of memory. She remembers nothing prior to her flight from Glaurung, not even how to speak.

While Niniel is definitely an extreme example of not-elvishness in contrast with Finduilas, she and her husband Turin are also the closest akin of any of Tolkien’s lovers, unwittingly sister and brother as well as wife and husband. And obviously, incest is bad. In the case of Turin and Nienor, their terrible mistake leads to their joint suicide following the defeat of Glaurung. Another example of incest ends equally poorly: the lust of Maeglin of Gondolin for Idril his cousin leads to the destruction of elfdom’s greatest stronghold, the hidden city of Turgon (The Silmarillion, pp. 241-242). However, while the story of Turin Nienor could have been just a similar story of incest and its consequences, the inclusion of the character of Finduilas makes it something more. Contrasted with the happy elf marriage that could have been, the marital failures of Turin highlight the problem of intra-species marriage, and the dangers of wedding a bride of one’s own race.

Other, less extreme marriages of human men to closely-related women seem equally doomed to failure. Aldarion and Erendis, of Unfinished Tales fame, were both humans of Numenor, he the son of the king and heir to the throne, and she a woman of high birth in Westernesse. Their union was marred by Aldarion’s love for the sea and for sailing, and her displeasure with his frequent absences led to their estrangement and bitter relationship. Similarly, Denethor, Steward of Gondor prior to the battle of Pelennor Fields, was married to a woman of Gondorian descent (from Dol Amroth) also named Finduilas. However, living with her husband in Minas Tirith led to her discontent, and she withered in the city of stone and eventually died, to the dismay of her husband (The Return of the King, Appendix A, p. 1056).

If the pattern of kinship versus marital compatibility holds through this laundry list of relationships, what does it tell us about Middle Earth? The answer may lie in Tolkien’s letter to his son Michael, in which he condemns the male tendency to put women on a pedestal, to adore their lovers as Guiding Stars rather than real people. Tolkien’s legendarium is told for the most part from a very male perspective. All the great heroes, ring bearers, and elf-friends are men, and even the stories of Luthien and Eowyn that feature strong women characters are grounded in a very masculine frame; Luthien is encountered by Beren in the woods, and it is his perception of her the reader sees, rather than hers of him, while Eowyn’s story is told from the perspective of Merry.

In this world of male protagonists, the female love interest must somehow be distinct from the man in a significant way. In most cases, the women are simply higher beings than their husbands – the lords of men marry elves, while the elf king Thingol requires a Maiar to be enchanted. Celeborn is a lordly elf among Thingol’s silvan kingdom, but is still not as noble as Galadriel, Lady of the Noldor, who had looked upon the splendor of the Valar. However, sometimes the woman is merely something distinct from her husband. Eowyn and Faramir are both courageous warriors and effective leaders; their relationship works because Eowyn, as a Rohirrim lady, is distinctly characterized from Faramir, and the two only meet and fall in love after they had both been established as strong personalities and effective leaders. The marriages that do not work out are the ones that seem the easiest to enter into. Denethor and Aldarion marry women of noble lineage within their own societies, but who are unspectacular when compared to their royal husbands.

In this sense, it seems that ordinary marriages don’t work out in Tolkien’s world. All the conventional husband and wife parings end poorly for their participants. The marriages that do succeed, however, are the unlikely matches, the unions of two distinct, unlike characters who meet and fall in love, and then must battle the fates and fortunes of Middle Earth to maintain the relationship. In this regard, Tolkien seems almost to be a bit of a pessimist: only the marriages that achieve the special status of uniting unlike people are allowed to survive. In light of the comments made in his letter to Michael about his own relationship to Edith, it makes one wonder- was she somehow distinctly non-human, an elf or Maia in his eyes? Was his Luthien a proper Eldar, and their marriage the kind of union that defied the boundaries of race and lineage? It would seem such a [pairing] is, in the world of Middle Earth, the paragon of love and the highest model of what love can achieve.

-George Townsend

APPENDIX A: See comments.


  1. The marriage pattern I’m trying to explore here only works if it holds true for almost every single example in Middle Earth; if only some homogenous marriages fail where most succeed, then there’s no basis for the assumption that heterogeneous marriages are stronger in Middle Earth. As such, I’ve tried to compile a list of all the significant marriages and analyzed their success or failure. To be considered a significant relationship, there must be at least some story of the lovers meeting or courting, as well as an actual marriage (For example, we know a bit about Elrond’s wife Celebrian, but almost entirely with regard to Arwen rather than relative to her relationship with her husband. As such, their relationship is not included). Success versus failure are a bit more ambiguous, generally referring to the lovers living out their lives in happiness after their adventures versus meeting some sort of tragic end. Feel free to bring up any examples I have missed, or to disagree with my analysis of a specific relationship.


    Beren and Luthien – Elf woman, human man. Luthien loses immortal life, but the two live many years together in happiness. Successful marriage.

    Tuor and Idril – Elf woman, human man. Give birth to Earendil the Mariner, sail off together in old age. Successful marriage.

    Aragorn and Arwen – Elf woman, human man. Arwen sacrifices immortality, but the two reign over the reunited kingdom for many long years and pass away in old age. Successful marriage.


    Finwe and Miriel – Both Noldor. After the birth of Feanor, Miriel lost joy in life and wished to die. While not directly caused by marital incompatibility, the marriage ends in sorrow and loss. Failed marriage.

    Galadriel and Celeborn – Sindar elven man and Noldori woman. Lords of Lothlorien. As a Noldor, Galadriel had been to Valinor and looked upon the light of the Trees, and was therefore significantly higher in status than Celeborn, although he was still a kinsman of Thingol and lord or Doriath. Successful marriage.

    Eol and Aredhel – A dark elf and a Noldori woman. Certainly the disparity in status is greater in these two than between Galadriel and Celeborn. However, both are elves, and their marriage ends disastrously for all the elves of Middle Earth. Failed marriage.


    Denethor and Finduilas – Steward of Gondor and woman of Dol Amroth. Ends in the sorrow and death of Finduilas. Failed marriage.

    Faramir and Eowyn – Steward of Gondor and shield maiden of Rohan. Lords of Ithilien. Successful marriage.

    Aldarion and Erendis – King of Numenor and Numenorean woman. Marriage ends in bitterness over Aldarion’s love of the sea. Failed marriage.

    Turin and Nienor – Accidentally married siblings. Both kill themselves when they find out. Worst marriage ever.


    The Valar – Most of the Valar maintain marriage-like unions in Valinor. There are no mentions of marital discontent amongst any of the Powers.

    Thingol and Melian – Sindar Elf and Maia of Valinor. Lords of Doriath for thousands of years. Successful marriage.

    Sam and Rosie Gamgee / Elanor and Fastred Fairbairn – The rule seems not to hold for hobbits. Both Sam and Elanor marry other hobbits and live in marital bliss for the rest of their lives.

    Earendil and Elwing – Both half elven, descendents of Tuor/Idril and Beren/Luthien, respectively. Both, then, have equal status. However, they are also both special cases, the offspring of the two kindreds. Therefore, while they may not fit with the pattern in the strictest sense, this is clearly not a conventional man/man or elf/elf marriage. The two end up sailing the heavens together with a Silmaril, making this a successful marriage.

    The Ents and the Entwives – Another anomaly, and I’m not sure what to make of this one. Ents and entwives are clearly both the same species. However, more than any other peoples of Middle Earth, the Ents are defined by gender roles. Whereas “Laws and Customs amongst the Eldar” assures us that elf men and women were free to defy gender norms and engage in the roles traditionally allotted to the other, all Ents conform to the way of life described by Treebeard, whereas literally all Entwives depart the forest to maintain their gardens. In this sense, Ents and Entwives seem to have much less in common with each other than do more human men and women. They don’t seem to fit with the kinship versus marriage success pattern, but then they are Ents.

    Tom Bombadil and Goldberry – I have no idea what to make of this. It doesn’t help that we don’t really know what either of them are (Goldberry is some kind of river spirit, I think? And no one knows what the heck Tom is). If anyone knows how to analyze this marriage, let me know, but I’m perfectly willing to just let this one slide.

  3. I found your blog post really interesting, and I agree with your analysis of marriages in Middle-Earth. It does appear that Tolkien promotes the interspecies marriages as the most successful ones. I also could not help thinking of one other relationship that is not a marriage, but a friendship, that also clearly supports your idea; the friendship between Legolas and Gimli. These two obviously become fast friends throughout their journey together, and as a testament to their strong relationship, Gimli is even allowed to travel with Legolas to Valinor, an honor that no other dwarf has been given. Furthermore, it is said that the Lady Galadriel may have been the one to grant Gimli a place in Valinor (The Return of the King, Appendix A). Elves and Dwarves have had tensions between them for many years, but Legolas and Gimli’s relationship goes against that rivalry, and actually becomes a very successful friendship. Gimli’s relationship to and love of the Lady Galadriel, an elf, also becomes a very successful relationship that grants Gimli a place within Valinor. Tolkien not only promotes marriages between species, but also friendships. The entire Fellowship of the Ring and its interspecies nature is a testament to that, however, I feel that Legolas and Gimli’s relationship is one of the best examples.

    -S. P.

    1. Very true, I hadn't thought of extending the pattern to friendships as well. Most of the best friendships tend to be interspecies as well - Legolas and Gimli is a fantastic example, and there's also Turin and Beleg or Tuor and Voronwe. Here again, however, hobbits are a counterexample, although Frodo and Sam at least have a well-established class distinction that underlies their relationship. Thanks for bringing this up!

  4. Wow, this is an impressive taxonomy of alliances in Middle Earth! I particularly like your analysis of Nienor as a not-elf, and the relationship of Turin and Nienor as the counter-example to the elevated alliances between men and female elves. This line in particular was lovely and rings true: “Moreover, in as much as elves are defined by their memory, of the wisdom and skill acquired through long centuries of life, Nienor is defined by her lack of memory.”

    It does seem to me that there is a leap to be made between intra-species and intra-familial-- are the options really either marry an elf or marry your sister? You give us other examples of not-quite-so-close ties between similar peoples, which are consequently no-so-disastrous. I am still left with the question, though, of how to reconcile this with the advice of Tolkien to his son-- if the most successful marriages are those with the greatest distance between spouses, what do we do with the idea of not putting women up on a pedestal and not seeing them as impossibly far above?


    1. I definitely think Tolkien's advice to Michael seems a bit out of sync with his fictional relationships. I didn't go into it as much in my post as I probably could have, but in almost every case the male figure is either more of a main character or more of a relatable character (usually human, or in the case of Thingol, closer to human than his spouse). As such, the female spouse is often put on a pedestal, something foreign and notably distinct from our human expectations.

      Also, You're definitely correct that Nienor is an extreme example. I think the more subtle examples are more telling: Denethor and Aldarion. Both married women who were of other families but the same general lineage, and in both cases the wife's quality of life rapidly declined as a direct result of the marriage. It's almost as if Tolkien is unfortunately posing the opposite of what he advised Michael: the marriages only work when the woman can be put on a pedestal. Eowyn is a great counterexample, but still notable for all the reasons we've discussed in class.

  5. I think the idea of Nienor being the opposite of an elf is really interesting, and I'm curious as to its implications. Obviously the insectous aspect or Turin and Nienor's relationship would be enough to deem it a 'failure'. It fails rather spectacularly, in fact. Is the reason it fails epically (rather than normally) because Nienor is an elf-opposite?
    If this is so, what do we make of Maeglin and Idril? This is also a spectacular failure. However Idril is hardly an elf-opposite or something comparable. The failure of this relationship seems to be incest only. Does this effect how we interpret Nienor and Turin's relationship?
    In you above comment you say that "the marriages only work when the woman can be put on a pedestal." Which I think sums things up very nicely. Eowyn is a counterexample, but because of this I'm not sure what to do with her relationship.

    Chloe B

  6. This is an incredibly fascinating post, and the comments are even better! I’d like to make a couple of points; firstly human-elf marriages are linked through one family tree (which coincidentally is the same line that consistently produces sets of male elven twins). I personally have no explanation for this, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

    Also, regarding The Children of Hurin. I love this story, and I think the relationships are endlessly fascinating and hold within them a wealth of information. I also think it is important not to forget about the context of Morgoth’s curse. Within the story, we have examples of three different types of relationships: elf-human friendship, elf-human romantic, human-human familial. None of these end well. Beleg’s loyalty to Túrin ends in his death at Túrin’s hands (and also, arguably, Túrin’s death upon Gurthang), Finduilas’ love for Túrin is for naught, and ends in her death, Túrin’s love for his sister is turned to incest. However, in the context of Morgoth’s curse, we may interpret these unhappy endings as inversions of happy ones. The friendship between Beleg and Túrin, the love Finduilas has for Túrin, and the love and loyalty Túrin feels for Nienor; all three of these should have been good things, and it is only through Morgoth’s interference that they turned foul. If we consider the types of relationships Morgoth went out of his way to corrupt, we may reveal the types of relationships that Tolkien considered most important.