The Sorrowful Goddess of Death and Some Other Guys (Silmarillion Slow Cooker, p28)

The parade of Valar continues in still another post about the Valaquenta! Today we’ll get a bit dark (not Morgoth dark or anything, but still, dark) with the Fëanturi, their spouses and sister! It’s a family affair on today’s edition of the Silmarillion Slow Cooker! Let’s go!

The Fëanturi
We’ll start off easy with Námo and Irmo (aka Mandos and Lórien). Námo the elder lives in Mandos, which is in the far West regions of Valinor. We’re told some pretty incredible things about him, like that he summons the spirits of the slain to the Houses of the Dead. Since he forgets nothing and knows everything in the future (except whatever Ilúvatar doesn’t want him to know), he is the one who pronounces the judgments upon the deceased (at the bidding of Manwë).

This is an incredibly important job, and since Irmo/Lórien is the only other Fëanturi, it would make sense that he has an occupation that’s nearly as interesting. Maybe he does, who knows! In the Valaquenta, all we’re told is that Irmo has gardens. Now, granted, it’s some pretty fine greenery, but still.

Throughout Tolkien’s life, Mandos and Lórien were always counted among the Valar. They were there from the beginning, and though Lórien wasn’t always mentioned in the various drafts containing the Valaquenta material, both were carried on through to the end almost unchanged. Even in 1919’s Book of Lost Tales version, both are grouped together as brothers, the Fánturi. Mandos was the Fantur of Death, and Lórien was the Fantur of Dreams.

The Mandos of the Lost Tales was married to Nienna (more on her soon), while Lórien was unwed, though he loved Silmo, an Ainu who probably became Estë.1 And speaking of spouses….

Mrs. Fëanturi
Mandos’ spouse is Vairë the Weaver, “who weaves all things that have ever been in Time into her storied webs….” This is some pretty spiderific imagery, but relax, she’s not the mirror of Ungoliant. She is, as we’re told, a weaver. The word “web,” is from the Old English “webb”. It meant “something that is woven.” Weave and webb have the same origin. So while Mandos knows everything that’s happening, Vairë makes tapestries of this knowledge to decorate the ever-expanding halls of Mandos.

Estë is Lórien’s spouse, and we learn much more about her than him (though not really all that much). She is a “healer of hurts and weariness.” She and Irmo run the Valinorian equivalent of a spa. The other Valar come to their fountains “and there find repose and easing of the burden of Arda.”

Vairë and Estë don’t show up in Tolkien’s writings until mid-1930s’ Annals of Valinor, though to whom they were married wasn’t stated.2 That came in 1937’s Quenta Silmarillion, where their descriptions are fairly close to that of the published version.3

A strange shift, however, happened to Estë in the 1950s. In both the Annals of Aman (1950) and the Quenta Silmarillion (1951), Estë was demoted to “chief of the Maiar.” She did not go “to the councils of the Valar” and wasn’t counted among their number. By the time the Valaquenta was first drafted in 1959, she had again regained her rightful status.4

Camera: Argus C3 Film: Orwo UN54 100iso (motion picture film)

Camera: Argus C3
Film: Orwo UN54 100iso (motion picture film)

And then there’s Nienna.
Nienna is easily my favorite of the Valar. Though she’s the sister of Namo and Irmo, she, like Ulmo, does not have a spouse and lives alone. “She is acquainted with grief, and mourns for every wound that Arda has suffered in the marring of Melkor.”

It’s not enough to say that she is sad. We’re told that those who hear her “learn pity, and endurance in hope.” She’s not Valinor’s answer to a goth girl, though she does seem rather mopey. Still, she “brings strength to the spirit and turns sorrow to wisdom.” She doesn’t go to Valimar, the city in Valinor, but instead chooses to hang around the halls of Mandos, near where she lives.

A while back I mentioned that I had a suspicion about which of the Valar was Ilúvatar’s instrument in the Third Theme (Manwë played that role in the Second). I think a good argument might be made that it was Nienna. The Third Theme had two components. One was the creation of the Children of Ilúvatar. The Valar had no idea about them, and so that was fully Ilúvatar’s doing. But the second was the theme itself. It was “slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came.” This sounds suspiciously like Nienna.

But there is, of course, a problem. While the published Silmarillion tells us very little about Nienna, the previous drafts went on about her quite a bit. Specifically, in 1950’s Annals of Aman, Tolkien wrote:

“For it is said that even in the Music Nienna took little part, but listened intent to all that she heard. Therefore she was rich in memory, and farsighted, perceiving how the themes should unfold in the Tale of Arda. […] So great was her ruth, it is said, that she could not endure to the end of the Music.”5

Nienna deserves a few posts unto herself, really. And maybe I’ll do one at some point. But briefly, she started out as the wife of Mandos, “mistress of death.” It was she, and not Mandos, who judged the human dead.6

But this couldn’t last. When Tolkien decided that Men had a fate unknown to the Elves, Nienna lost her job. Instead, by the early-1930’s Quenta Noldorinwa, she took on her familiar and sorrowful role. However, she wasn’t quite finished growing. In that early Quenta, she was unwed, but was also made the sister of Manwë and Melkor.

This change allowed for the creation of Vairë and Estë. Additionally, we’re told that the Elves cry to her, and not Varda/Elbereth (that would come a bit later). Finally, in the Quenta Silmarillion from 1951, Nienna was made, as she remained, the sister of the Fëanturi.

There’s, of course, a lot more going on with Nienna. Like I said, she should get a couple of posts on her own.

Some Notes:

  • In describing Mandos’ job, Tolkien uses the word “doom,” which basically means decision – as opposed to the death and destruction variety of doom. So basically, it’s Mandos: The Halls of Fate. Thank you! I’ll be here all week!
  • I can’t recommend enough the essay “The Power of Pity and Tears” by Kristine Larson, which appears in Perilous and Fair; Women in the Works and Life of J.R.R. Tolkien. You can get it here for pretty cheap, and I suggest that you do.

______________________

Footnotes

1. Book of Lost Tales, Vol. 1, p66-67, 74.
2. The Annals of Valinor can be found in The Shaping of Middle-earth, starting on page 262.
3. The Lost Road, p205. There’s also a mention in the second draft of the Annals of Valinor from around that same time, on page 110.
4. Morgoth’s Ring, p49, 145-146; 201..
5. Morgoth’s Ring, p68. “Ruth” is the noun version of the verb “rue.” It means “pity”. It’s the opposite of “ruthless” (or in this case, “ruthlessness”).
6. Book of Lost Tales, p77.

Pages & Text

  • Page 28
  • Chapter: Valaquenta, Paragraphs 6-9
  • Starting with:
    “The Fëanturi, masters of spirits…”
  • Ending with:
    “…from the walls of the world.”
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13 thoughts on “The Sorrowful Goddess of Death and Some Other Guys (Silmarillion Slow Cooker, p28)

  1. Good call on Nienna being the instrument of the Third Theme. I hadn’t thought of her. And actually, had forgotten about her until now. She reminds me a little of Death in The Sandman, but yeah, not as gothy.

  2. Quick nit-picky comment: ‘Ainur’ is a plural (“Music of the Ainur”). The index says the singular is ‘Ainu’. So Este is an Ainu, not an Ainur.

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