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.