The Powers of Tolkien’s Melian and Galadriel


The Powers of Tolkien’s Melian and Galadriel

The release of the new movie, The Hobbit, breathes new life into the debate over whether or not the women of Tolkien’s world are portrayed as diminutive and minor characters.  While Tolkien does spend more time writing about Elves, Men, Hobbits and Dwarves of the male gender, the women who enter Tolkien’s Middle-earth are by no means weak or in need of protection (think of Lobelia Sackville-Baggins).  I would argue that two of Tolkien’s women in particular – Melian of the Maia and Galadriel, Lady of Lothlorien – were both powerful and highly protective creatures, keeping their realms of Doriath and Lothlorien safe from the ever-increasing evil powers of the Dark Lords.

Melian is a Maiar and servant of the Valar whose story starts at the Beginning of Days.  She first dwells in Lorien as a Spirit, taking care of the fauna in the gardens of Irmo.  She possesses the gift of music and Tolkien writes that “the nightingales sang wherever she went” (The Silmarillion, “Valaquenta”).  She leaves Valinor and takes the shape of a beautiful Elf. Thingol – the Grey-mantle Elf king of Doriath – finds her in a forest, singing and dancing in the twilight.  He first falls in love with her voice, then her beauty.

Then Melian came, the Lady grey,

And dark and long her tresses lay,

Beneath her silver girdle seat

And down under her silver feet,

(JRR Tolkien, The Lays of Beleriand)

Melian and Thingol marry and continue to live peacefully within the kingdom of Doriath.  Melian begins using her Maia powers to guide Thingol politically with her use of prophesies (Thingol does not always take Melian’s advice).  Tolkien writes in The Silmarillion:

Now Melian had much foresight, after the manner of the Maiar and when the second age of the captivity of the Melkor had passed she counseled Thingol that the Peace of Arda would not last forever.  He took thought therefore how he should make for himself a kingly dwelling and a place that should be strong, if evil were to awake in Middle-earth.

Thingol and Melian thus build Menegroth, a fortress made of 1000 caves, and Doriath’s strongest fortress deep within the ground.  They live in peace in Menegroth for some time when evil creatures of Morgoth (wolves, wolf things and Orcs) begin to appear around the kingdom of Doriath.  Melian, fearing for the safety of her family and her people, uses her Maia powers to create a Girdle of Protection around Doriath.

…and Melian put forth her power and fenced all the dominion round about with an unseen wall of shadow and bewilderment the Girdle of Melian, that no one thereafter could pass against her will or the will of King Thingol unless one should come with a greater power than that of Melian the Maia.  And this inner land was after called Doriath, the guarded Kingdom the Land of the Girdle.

Doriath becomes a safe haven, an oasis of peace in an ever increasing evil and violent world of Middle-earth.  Many of Tolkien’s heroic characters (such as Turin, Morwen and Galadriel herself) seek out Doriath for shelter and for advice from the wise Melian.

Galadriel is similar to Melian in that she was wise, beautiful and gifted with her own abilities of prophesy.  She too uses her special abilities to protect her Elven kin.  Galadriel is a royal Elf and was one of the leaders of the Noldorin rebellion against the Valar.  She was thereafter ousted from Valinor and sent to Middle Earth. She then marries Lord Celeborn, Elf of Doriath and Kinsman of Thingol. Galadriel dwells in Doriath for some time and lives with Melian “and of her learned great lore and wisdom concerning Middle-earth” (The Silmarillion, “Of the Return of the Noldor”). One can assume that the two Elven queens become great friends.  Melian perhaps was even a mentor to Galadriel.  It is after her stay with Melian that Galadriel then founds the Noldorin kingdom of Eregion.  She later has to abandon it with her family after Sauron convinces the Gwaith-i-Mirdain (People of the Jewel Smiths) to revolt against them.  Celebrimbor, the maker of the Three Rings of the Elves, luckily gives Galadriel, Nenya, the White Ring of Water before he is killed by Sauron.  It is at this point of the story that Galadriel uses all her strength, knowledge and power to create the Kingdom of Lothlorien.  Legolas speaks of Lothlorien  and Galadriel:

There lie in the woods Lothlorien.  That is the fairest of all the dwellings of my people.  It is long since any of my folk journeyed higher back to the lands whence we wandered in ages long ago., but we hear that Lorien is not yet deserted, for there is a secret power here that holds evil from the land.  Nevertheless its folk are seldom seen, and maybe they dwell now deep in the woods and far from the northern border” (LOTR, “Lothlorien”).

The Lady of Golden Wood was also able to keep Lothlorien free of evil, fear and distrust, and here too peace could still be found.  Sam states in LOTR that he felt he “was inside a song” (LOTR, “Lothlorien”).  The Lady herself was seemingly able to communicate with the company without speaking and could even read their thoughts.  She sends the company away from Lothlorien with protective gifts and sage advice.

Both Melian and Galadriel use their powers to protect their people, friends and allies from the evil influences of first Morgoth and then Sauron.  Both women create secret kingdoms to confuse and keep out their enemies.  Melian uses the enchanted Girdle of Protection, her wisdom and her power of foresight.  Galadriel uses her own magical gifts as well as the Mirror of Galadriel to see the possible future of Middle-earth.  “For it shows things that were, and things that are and things that yet may be” (LOTR, “The Mirror of Galadriel”).  Although both these women of Tolkien have a mesmerizing power of beauty and grace, it is their greater wisdom, their magical abilities to see the future, and their strong, protective urges that elevate them to the most powerful, respected, and beloved female characters of J.R.R. Tolkien.

7 thoughts on “The Powers of Tolkien’s Melian and Galadriel”

  1. Excellent article! I think that people who complain that Tolkien did not write enough about women have not looked very deeply into his legendarium. It is a facile argument, an easy way to pick on fantasy lit. Some will be displeased with the genre no matter what.

  2. They have only to read the Silmarillion and they will find quite a few formidable women. Then again, in LotR, you have Galadriel, Lobelia, and Eowyn. What is interesting is how the women, though sometimes given short thrift in terms of page count, do some of the greatest deeds.

  3. For each of us in life, thinking back to moments that we treasure, memory seems to preserve timeless realms filled with golden peace. I have always loved to visit Lothlorien, and Tolkien gave us that realm as the special gift of a Queen who wields a special enchantment. So I am glad to spend time pondering Galadriel’s past, and her connection to an earlier Queen of the Elves. Thanks for taking us there, Mellonne!

  4. Interesting points about their protective nature, thanks for a great read!
    I think Tolkien spent too little time with female characters for sure, but on the other hand, I also disagree with those that say that the female characters he did create were weak or uninteresting. That would probably indicate that they didn’t read the books very carefully or at all. I will always find his tendency to subscribe wisdom to female characters very ahead of the time of his writing.

  5. Great article. Galadriel was not only the most powerful of the female characters, she is even stated to be the equal of Feanor, even if unlike edowments and she was with Feanor together the greatest of the Eldar of Valinor and in the third age, Tolkien wrote that she was the mightiest and fairest of the Eldar living there.

  6. Don’t forget Lúthien — defeating Sauron, throwing down his tower, walking into Angband and putting Morgoth and all his court to sleep was no small deed 😉 (I would argue that Lúthien deserves inclusion on any list of powerful women in Tolkien’s writings).

    Galadriel’s powers continued to grow after Tolkien invented her for _The Lord of the Rings_ (and not always in ways wholly consistent with her portrayal in LotR), making it necessary to keep in mind always what ‘version’ of Galadriel we are looking at. For a long period, for instance, Galadriel was motivated to leave Valinor by a desire to _rule_ — she wanted, in essence, to dominate others, a theme that is generally connected with evil in Tolkien’s writings. I think that this aspect also deserves some attention.

    Finally I think that the complaint made against Tolkien’s portrayal of women is not so much that he didn’t have any strong women, but rather that there is, apart from these few very strong characters, so few women, and that those that are there are so vague (some would doubtlessly say stereotypical, but I think this is an inevitable consequence of their being out of focus — we simply do not know enough about them for them to be much other than stereotypes).

    Most of Tolkien’s strong women belong to a high mimetic or even mythic mode, and I think the complaints are rather caused by the lack of fully drawn women of a mimetic mode. Éowyn would apply, I think, but who else? Perhaps Morwen and Nienor Niniël in _The Children of Húrin_ (though these are heart-breakingly tragic). Another way to look at it is through the mediating characters. In _The Lord of the Rings_ the story and the world is mediated by all of the four travelling hobbits, and even at places by Gimli the dwarf, but again we never get a female mediating character.

    This is not to say that I find this to be a fault, but rather to say that I think it misses the point to point out these mythic females in answer to the complaint that there are no females in Tolkien’s writings — that they are somehow so far above the reader that they don’t count towards that account. I do think that the lack — or scarcity — of fully drawn females of a low mimetic mode is real, and I also think that it deserves to be discussed.

  7. Galadriel did leave Valinor to explore and seek out whatever might be in Middle Earth but I hardly think this blights her character as person as much as illustrates how Melkor’s influence triumphed over even the royal Eldars’ minds. She manages to resist her dire temptation for ultimate power when Frodo offers her the “Ring” and as a member of the White Council is able to cast out Sauron without his ruling ring with relative ease. The Simarillion does say she is the fairest and mightiest of all Elves in Middle Earth and that Melian’s girdle worked so well and that Lothlorien was never assailed by any Dark Lord are no small accomplishments. Perhaps the Witch King in the RotK, presumably more powerful than he has ever been due to Sauron’s restrengthened resolve, might be able to give Galadriel a run for her money in the power department. The trouble with trying to defeat Galadriel is that she saw the trees of Valinor, was Melian’s pupil and friend, was gifted the White Ring, AND would have Gandalf (and his Ring of Fire) by her side in any real confrontation. In the third Hobbit movie, Galadriel is portrayed as the most powerful member of the White Council: she casts out Sauron in the same form that saw him sequester and capture Gandalf. (Though it should be noted that in the book “The Hobbit” Gandalf is not captured but narrowly escapes before returning with the rest of the White Council.)

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