Sunday, June 24, 2007

Tolkien's Women: Marian Imagery in The Silmarillion

I have been re-visiting the Silmarillion. It has been awhile since my last reading of it.

One of the things that has always stood out to me is the beauty and strength of his female characters. I have always suspected that reverence for the Blessed Virgin Mary had something to do with it. This time, I have been reading more carefully, and I'm finding little bits of her scattered among the various Queens of the Valar, who contain attributes or bear titles resembling those of Mary. This may be old news to some people, but as I am newly appreciating it, I thought I'd share some of the juicier bits.

I include relevant passages here with commentary (emphasis mine):

Varda is the closest equivalent in Middle Earth to the Queen of Heaven (sound familiar?).

With Manwë dwells Varda, Lady of the Stars, who knows all the region of Eä. Too great is her beauty to be declared in the words of Men or of Elves; for the light of Illúvatar lives still in her face. In light is her power and her joy. Out of the deeps of Eä she came to the aid of Manwë; for Melkor she knew from before the making of the Music and rejected him, and he hated her, and feared her more than all the others whom Eru made. Manwë and Varda are seldom parted, and they remain in Valinor... Of all the Great Ones who dwell in the world the Elves hold Varda most in reverence and love. Elbereth they name her, and they call upon her name out of the shadows of Middle Earth and uplift it in song at the rising of the stars.

To Yavanna, one might also apply the Marian titles "Lady of the Woods" and "Ever Green and Fruitful". There are also other titles which include tree references such as Forthbringer of the Tree of Life, God's Olive Tree, and Olive Tree of the Father's Compassion. The first of these may not apply in quite the same way to Yavanna, though she does literally bring forth two very important trees in Middle Earth mythology. The last two are especially interesting in light of the following passage from the Valaquenta:

The spouse of Aulë is Yavanna, the Giver of Fruits. ... Some there are who have seen her standing like a tree under heaven, crowned with the Sun, and from all its branches there spilled a golden dew upon the barren earth, and it grew green with corn, but the roots of the tree were in the waters of Ulmo, and the winds of Manwë spoke in its leaves.

Both Yavanna and the Blessed Virgin are given tree-like attributes. The former in her description and behavior, the latter in her Titles.

In Nienna we have a "Lady of Sorrows" and a "Lady of Tears", to whom sufferers can look for an example of wisdom in the midst of hardship:

Mightier than Estë is Nienna... She is acquainted with grief, and mourns for every wound that Arda has suffered in the marring of Melkor. ... But she does not weep for herself; and those who hearken to her learn pity, and endurance in hope. ...and all those who wait in Mandos cry to her, for she brings strength to the spirit and turns sorrow to wisdom.

While Mary is sometimes dubbed "Star of the Sea, among the Maiar there is Uinen, "Lady of the Seas" whose intercession is powerful for those traveling on ships. Her spouse is Ossë, whose realm is the waters along the shore, and whose chief delight is in storms and the chaos of the waves. In the Valaquenta it says, " her mariners cry, for she can lay calm upon the waves, restraining the wildness of Ossë"

Some critics complain that there are not enough female protagonists in Tolkien to balance out the large number of males. Tend to disagree. The women in Tolkien's work are often given some of the most important work in the history of middle earth, and usually without them, the work of the male heroes would becoem extra difficult or even impossible. When Manwë has Varda by his side, he can see more clearly (Also an interesting commentary on marriage, but I'll save that for another post). Ossë needs Uinen to restrain his wild personality. Melian protected Thingol's kingdom of Doriath with her power. Beren needed Luthien to capture the Silmaril, and entire armies needed Eowyn of Rohan to slay the Witch King of Angmar. The strength and heroism of the great female characters in Middle Earth demonstrates that he recognizes how important women can be in the course of history, whether they are known or nameless. Among women, there is no better example of this in the primary world than that of a young girl saying "yes" when an angel tells her her she will bear God's Son, and who stands by him even as he is nailed to a Cross for the sins of the world.

Things like this are why I can read Tolkien's works over and over again and never tire of them. Each time is an opportunity to re-examine a facet of his sub-created world, and to discover in that process another aspect of the beauty of the primary world, and the great works that God has done in it.

For an extensive list of Marian titles, click here.
For more information on the Tolkien universe, see the Encyclopedia of Arda

No comments: