In Morgoth’s Ring, there is a fascinating essay on the “Laws and Customs of the Eldar,” particularly concerning marriage, childbirth, and Elvish mothers. Much of the essay discusses the ceremonies and customs around betrothals and marriages. However, there are a few paragraphs that cover a topic rarely discussed in Tolkien’s writings: the bearing of children.
The part that I find particularly interesting comes on page 213 of the Houghton-Mifflin 1993 hardcover edition:
In all such things, not concerned with the bringing for of children, the neri and nissi (that is, the men and women), of the Eldar are equal–unless it be in this (as they themselves say) that for the nissi the making of things new is for the most part shown in the forming of their children, so that invention and change is otherwise mostly brought about by the neri.
I don’t want to examine this in terms of modern Western culture (I can see this passage offending some people), but rather look at it objectively. This provides insight into the absence of Elvish women in both LotR and the Silm (to a certain degree). The nissi are taken up with actually raising the next generation and that is where they find their creative fulfillment, as opposed to shaping objects, words, or kingdoms.
The Impact of Motherhood
This dovetails with the story of Míriel, the wife of Finwë, who was so exhausted by giving birth to their son Fëanor that she chose to leave her body behind forever. He was her greatest work (and certainly not one to be ashamed of, despite the sorrow that he brought to his people).
It would seem, then, that the mother may have more influence–more of a contribution–to the child than the father does. That’s not to say that the father doesn’t have an impact on the child, of course, but rather that the mother contributes more of her physical being to the child. This is supported by another statement in the same essay, “…there was less difference in strength and speed between elven-men and elven-women that had not borne child than is seen among mortals” (Morgoth’s Ring, 213, emphasis added).
This puts a whole new spin on women of the Eldar. Let’s take Galadriel as an example. At the time of LotR, she’s thousands of years old (probably seven or eight thousand, give or take a couple of centuries). She is a member of the White Council, a gathering of arguably the most powerful individuals in Middle-earth. She rules a kingdom with her husband–and keeps it hidden from the outside world, giving even mortals a glimpse of immortality. She has done all of this even after giving birth to and raising at least one child (possibly two, if you subscribe to the Amroth theory, which I’m not sure I do). Pretty amazing.
Photo Credit: Shazeen Samad