A Woman in Few Words: The Fascinating and Admirable Character of Nerdanel

By Dawn Felagund

As the wife of Fëanor in The Silmarillion, Nerdanel receives a bare three mentions in the text, with little about her in the published Silmarillion that does not concern itself with him. Yet Nerdanel remains on of the most popular characters in Silmarillion fan fiction, appearing in stories as the central character, a woman of strength and wisdom who is much more than her canonical role as Fëanor's wife and the mother of his seven sons. Why is this? A closer examination of the Silmarillion-based texts both within and without the final published material reveal an admirable, intriguing character who has more than earned the attention paid to her by fans.

Canonically, she serves chiefly as the wife of Fëanor. The oft-cited Encyclopedia of Arda contains a single sentence about her (10), and to one unfamiliar with J.R.R. Tolkien's more obscure works, that seems a fair assessment. In discussing her marriage, while it is said that Fëanor was young when they married (1), Nerdanel's relative age at that time is unknown. The pair is said to have met while wandering to the far reaches of Aman, where after, they were companions in their travels. It is further implied that Fëanor loved her for her strength, free thought, and hunger for knowledge versus beauty (2).

Many fan fiction authors make the assumption that Nerdanel and Fëanor had a close, passionate marriage. While nothing in the canon directly supports this notion, it is stated that she was the only one from whom he took counsel--implying that her judgment was given special regard by him--and the couple had seven sons (1), the most of any couple in the recorded history of the Eldar (2, 3). When Fëanor was exiled for his threats against Fingolfin in Tirion, Nerdanel was grieved by her husband's deeds, and they became estranged (1).

A rather intriguing early version of these events survives where Nerdanel--against Fëanor's wishes--goes to live with Indis following the couple's estrangement (4). This fact, however, did not survive into the published Silmarillion, and a second version exists in "The Shibboleth of Fëanor" where Nerdanel returns to her father's house upon Fëanor's exile (6).

No discussion of Nerdanel is complete without mentioning her rather extraordinary role as the mother of seven sons. In fact--while concrete evidence as to the meaning of the name Nerdanel is lacking--a common and popular hypothesis is that Nerdanel means "man maker" (7). Furthermore, Nerdanel is said to have influenced her children both in terms of their appearances (6) and their temperaments (1), though the latter clearly was not to a degree sufficient to save even one of them from following their father to their respective awful fates.

Outside of her husband Fëanor and their seven sons, the only further detail about Nerdanel's family is her father Mahtan, said to be a smith who worked in stone and metal (1) and who was especially loyal to Aulë (2, 5, 6). In fact, much that exists in auxiliary canon sources as well as "fanon" (trends common--and accepted--in fan-based works) derives from her father Mahtan's character.

In notes found in The Peoples of Middle-earth in The History of Middle-earth series, two key facts about Mahtan are made plain and seem to have influenced J.R.R. Tolkien's development of Nerdanel's character as well as fan fiction authors' perception of her. The former is Mahtan's skill with metal and stone and his loyalty to Aulë: These do exist to a limited degree in the published Silmarillion (1, 5). However, in early drafts of The Silmarillion, Nerdanel explicitly shares these traits with her father. She is said to have quested for new knowledge and to have learned from her father how to work in metal and stone, crafts that were atypical for women among the Eldar. Her talents in these arts were not only extraordinary but also innovative:

She made images, some of the Valar in their forms visible, and many others of men and women of the Eldar, and these were so like that their friends, if they knew not her art, would speak to them; but many things she wrought also of her own thought in shapes strong and strange but beautiful. (2)

In J.R.R. Tolkien's early conception of Nerdanel, she also shares her father's loyalty to Aulë. While the published Silmarillion is vague as to which of Fëanor's "later deeds grieved her" (1) the "Legend of the Fate of Amrod" makes this a bit clearer. Here, it is said that "Feanor became more and more fell and violent, and rebelled against the Valar" prior to their estrangement. Elucidation occurs in the next sentence as to which of these flaws served as the breaking point for Nerdanel. Here, it is said that Mahtan was warned not to take part in the Noldorin rebellion against the Valar; that Fëanor and "all [Mahtan]'s children" (which, presumably, includes Nerdanel as well as his grandsons) would go to their deaths in Beleriand. In the next sentence, Nerdanel leaves Fëanor to return to her father's house and, later, in the confrontation between Nerdanel and Fëanor prior to the latter's departure for Araman, Fëanor accuses Nerdanel of being "cozened by Aulë" and deceived into deserting her husband and children (6). It is notable that, at no point in this document, is the pair's estrangement made contingent upon Fëanor's behavior towards Fingolfin in Tirion but rather focuses on their differing loyalties to and relationships with the Valar.

Nerdanel is also tied to her father Mahtan--at least in fanon lore--in terms of her appearance; in this regard, she is also compared to her sons Maedhros and her twin sons Amrod and Amras. Mahtan, Maedhros, and the twins were all notable in the coloration of their hair. The hair colors of these four characters is described as being reddish in color: red-brown, red-haired, copper-colored, or "brown [with] glints of coppery-red"; all are used synonymously in the source. This particular coloration among the Eldar is said to be exceptionally rare (6).

This information from "The Shibboleth of Fëanor" about Nerdanel's father and three of her children, however, has often been extended to include her as well in fan fiction stories and, indeed, even credible reference materials that are often used and cited by Silmarillion fan fiction writers (7, 8). It is important to note, though, that at no point in the published source material is Nerdanel's hair color named as reddish (or any of the other synonyms); in fact, J.R.R. Tolkien seemed to be quite careful to exclude Nerdanel entirely from the discussion of the noteworthy coloration of her kinsmen. When referring to the rare reddish hair, it is always only attributed to "Nerdanel's kin" (6); in the essay "The Problem of Ros," the reddish-colored hair of three of Nerdanel's sons is identified as "descending to them from their maternal grandfather." Nerdanel is skipped entirely (8).

What does this mean for Nerdanel? Certainly, it is logical and fan fiction authors are not amiss to assume that Mahtan's reddish-colored hair passed to his daughter before being handed down to three of his grandsons. However, to make a claim that this idea is directly supported by the words of J.R.R. Tolkien--or even Christopher Tolkien--is misleading and incorrect.

However, there are additional details about Nerdanel's appearance that appear in the published source material. It is remarked in an early version of The Silmarillion that Fëanor's choice of Nerdanel for a wife was somewhat remarkable, as "she was not among the fairest of her people" (2). And while there may be no canonical support for Nerdanel's typical portrayal as a redhead, it is said of Caranthir that "he was dark (brown) haired, but had the ruddy complexion of his mother" (6). Indeed, therein lies perhaps the greatest evidence for portraying Nerdanel as red-haired, as this note clearly states that--despite being dark-haired--then Caranthir was ruddy-faced like Nerdanel. It is possible to argue that this implies that Nerdanel was not dark-haired since mother and son explicitly share only complexion here and Caranthir alone is named as being dark-haired. However, as evidence, this is still not forthright and is tenuous at best.

But what is most notable about Nerdanel is her strength and independence, a fact that quite possibly endears her to fan fiction writers, despite a lack of attention to her character in The Silmarillion. Alone of any among the Valar and Eldar, Nerdanel could calm and influence her tempestuous husband. She bears the epithet "the wise" and is said to be not only strong but patient, seeking to understand rather than master others (1). The unpublished draft of The Silmarillion carries this idea even further in claiming that Nerdanel was apt to listen to and observe others, understanding much of them from their gestures and facial expressions, again adding that she sought understanding rather than control (2).

The "Legend of the Fate of Amrod" once again offers further evidence regarding Nerdanel's character for speculation. In this particularly dark version of the tale of the Burning at Losgar, Nerdanel is said to have given her twin sons the identical mother-name of Ambarussa at their births. When Fëanor protested this anomaly, she allowed one to bear the name Umbarto, meaning "the fated," claiming that time would decide which son would deserve this ominous title. Nor is this the only mention of Nerdanel displaying prophetic wisdom in the naming of her sons: Maglor's Quenya mother-name Macalaurë, meaning "forging gold," was said to be prophetic of his later skill upon the harp (6).

In the case of the twins, Nerdanel's prophecy does not come into fruition for many years yet. In this version of the tale, she is said to have approached Fëanor before he began his northward march, begging him to leave one or both of the twins with her in Valinor. When he refused, she foretold that one would not set foot on Middle-earth, a fact that proved true when Fëanor set fire to the ships while one twin remained on board, thus killing him before he set foot on Middle-earth (6).

Although this particular legend never made it into the published Silmarillion and although Amrod's awful fate is subject to a strong love-hate dichotomy in the Silmarillion fan fiction community, it does serve to underscore several key details about Nerdanel's character. First is her wisdom and ability to see the consequences of the Noldorin rebellion, particularly as compared to her precocious husband Fëanor, who marches heedlessly into Middle-earth and is among the first of his people to die. Secondly, her strength and her independence are apparent here, namely her willingness to confront Fëanor when few other dared. Though she was not successful in saving her children from his influence, that she herself did not become ensnared in his fate is notable and commendable.

The degree of attention paid to Nerdanel in the fan fiction community seems defiant of the fact that she is mentioned only three times in the published Silmarillion. However, even as fans can't help but wonder about the woman strong enough to subdue the brilliant and destructive Fëanor, it seems fairly clear that J.R.R. Tolkien dabbled with the same and painted a far more detailed portrait of Nerdanel than appeared in his published Silmarillion. Drawing upon not only what made it to publication in The Silmarillion but also J.R.R. Tolkien's notes on this extraordinary woman, it becomes easier to understand Nerdanel's allure of a character of strength, wisdom, and independence quite unlike any other in The Silmarillion.

Works Cited
  1. Tolkien, J.R.R. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. The Silmarillion. The Quenta Silmarillion. "Of Fëanor and the Unchaining of Melkor."
  2. Tolkien, J.R.R. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. The History of Middle-earth: Volume 10: Morgoth's Ring. The Later Quenta Silmarillion: The Second Phase. "Of Fëanor and the Unchaining of Melkor."
  3. Tolkien, J.R.R. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. The History of Middle-earth: Volume 10: Morgoth's Ring. The Later Quenta Silmarillion: The Second Phase. "Laws and Customs among the Eldar: Ælfwine's Preamble."
  4. Tolkien, J.R.R. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. The History of Middle-earth: Volume 10: Morgoth's Ring. The Later Quenta Silmarillion: The Second Phase. "Of the Silmarils and the Unrest of the Noldor."
  5. Tolkien, J.R.R. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. The Silmarillion. The Quenta Silmarillion. "Of the Silmarils and the Unrest of the Noldor"
  6. Tolkien, J.R.R. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. The History of Middle-earth: Volume 12: The Peoples of Middle-earth. "The Shibboleth of Fëanor: The Names of the Sons of Fëanor with the Legend of the Fate of Amrod."
  7. Henneth-Annûn Story Archive. Resources Section: Character Bios. "Nerdanel". Accessed 27 March 2007.
  8. Luchau, Laura. "The Eldar Hair Color Genome: Or Hair Color for Tolkien's Elves". Accessed 27 March 2007.
  9. Tolkien, J.R.R. Edited by Christopher Tolkien. The History of Middle-earth: Volume 12: The Peoples of Middle-earth. "The Problem of Ros."
  10. The Encyclopedia of Arda. "Nerdanel". Accessed 27 March 2007.

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