Tolkien’s Mother-less Heroes

by Oct 12, 2003Essays

Middle-earth, the world created and populated by Professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, C.B.E, has colored and tempered my life in a way that exceedingly few pieces of literature have. That does not make me extraordinary. In fact, perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the writings of JRR Tolkien is that there are so many people of all ages, cultures and nationalities who might make a similar testimonial to the influence of Middle-Earth on their lives.

With that in mind, my humble intention in writing this article is to honor, albeit in a small way, Professor Tolkien, his literary creations and those who have been enchanted or simply entertained by them.

I, for one, have never settled long on a `favorite’ character as Tolkien created heroes and heroines in large number to populate his world, all of them marvelous. Rather than focus on a single hero or heroine, I would like to discuss what I’ll term ‘the mother-less hero’ commonality of heroic characters within Tolkien’s opus.

This discussion will not immediately plunge into Tolkien’s personal life. As important as that topic is for the understanding of the man and author, it is tangential, I feel, to the heart of this discussion. For, while the seeds of Tolkien’s art lie in his personal experiences – he and his brother were orphaned, after all – the fruit-bearing tree of his literature, as with all Art and Literature, transcends its origins. Each heroic character might contain an idealized germ of Tolkien personality, but each have their own ego-consciousness and functionality within the myth which is not dictated by the author’s personal history.

What I mean by the term `mother-less’ is the state of separation from the essential societal support, guidance and protection provided initially by one’s mother and subsequently augmented by other members of one’s family, tribe, caste, community and nation. This state of orphan-hood therefore is not meant to exclude the loss of a character’s father or guardian of either gender nor should the inference of this term be restricted to mean a separation only of a physical nature.

That’s called `covering the bases’.

First, let us consider Frodo Baggins, the principle heroic character of “The Lord of the Rings”. Being that Drogo, his father, fell in love with a Brandybuck lass and so, took to risking his neck cavorting about in boats, Frodo was orphaned as at very young age. He lived with his Buckland relatives until he was officially adopted by Bilbo and invited by the famous Hobbit adventurer to live with him at his Underhill digs. When Bilbo `disappears’ from his eleventy-first birthday party and sets off on his last adventurous traipse through Eriador, Frodo is, once again, left on his own.

Aragorn is of a similar plight. In this kingly hero’s tale, Aragorn is raised fatherless amongst the Elves of Imladris, the Last Homely House, his young mother grieving the death of her husband, Arathorn, who is killed by orcs when the boy was two years old. Elrond Halfelven, assumes the role of foster-father to the young heir of Isildur. Aragorn’s orphan-hood is under-scored by the fact, that for his safe-keeping from the minions of Sauron, his lineage and his true name are hidden from him.

The children of Elrond, the twins, Elrohir and Elledan, and the transcendently beautiful, Arwen Evenstar, were left mother-less when Celebrian, their mother, passed over the sea to the `Blessed Realm’ after suffering a grievous wound when attacked and tortured by orcs while traveling through Redhorn Pass on her way to Lothlorien to visit her parents, Celeborn and Galadriel. Celebrian is not dead but she has `passed over’ to the West and is removed from her children’s lives.

Bilbo, of course has a long and quite engrossing genealogy, as all hobbits do, complete with father and mother. However, as “The Hobbit” begins after the death of his parents, we first meet Bilbo living alone at Bag End. (Much to the annoyance of the Sackville branch of the family.) Thus, within the framework of Tolkien’s narrative, Bilbo, although an adult hobbit, had been an orphan (i.e. without father or mother) for seven years before Gandalf came to disrupt his ordered, domestic West Farthing life.

This example, you might think, is stretching it, a bit. So, are there other `mother-less’ characters portrayed in Tolkien’s work to be considered? I’m glad I asked that question.

Another mother-less member of the Fellowship of the Ring was the tragically tainted hero, Boromir of Gondor. Finduilas, a noble woman of Dol Amroth, daughter of Prince Adrahil, died very young leaving both Boromir and his brother Faramir, the Last Steward of Gondor, without a mother. Faramir would become a full-fledged orphan when his father, Denethor II, succumbed to the black despair brought on him by Sauron.

Of the other six members of the Company of the Ring, the Hobbits are the only ones of whose mothers Tolkien told us something – Hobbits are very much into their genealogy, as we know. Of the maternal parents of Legolas Greenleaf and Gimli, son of Gloin, we know little except by inference. They had to have had mothers, after all, but there is no record of even their names. In effect, then, by default, both Legolas and Gimli Elf-friend could be ostensibly ranked as `Mother-less Heroes’, as well. However, there are many more poignant examples to be cited.

The royal family of the Riddermark is rife with orphans in the last days of the Third Age. At the fringes of the narrative, Theoden’s queen, Elfhild, dies in childbirth leaving Theodred, their only son and heir to the throne, motherless. More central to the story, the heroic siblings, Eomer and Eowyn, their father, Eomund, killed by orcs, their mother, Theodwyn, taken by sickness soon after Eowyn’ birth, are left in the care of their uncle, Theoden King. This valiant pair were, in effect, orphaned a second time while Theoden was in the thrall of Grima Wormtongue and then, in fact when Theoden falls in the Battle of the Pelennore Fields.

One would be hard pressed to find a more tragic hero in Tolkien’s work than Feanor. And, of course, he, too, was mother-less. The central character of “The Tales of the Silmarils”, Feanor lost his mother to the great, wearying toll exacted by his own birth. His father, Finwe, lamenting that an Elf of such wondrous power should be raised mother-less, devoted most of his efforts to his first born son. (Just between you and me, I think the Noldorin King spoiled his gifted son.)

Feanor’s story also resonates with the `wicked step-mother’ theme when Finwe takes a new wife, Indis. Feanor’s step-mother is not wicked. Perish the thought. But she is a member of a distinctly different caste of High Elves, the Valyar. This intimate presence of someone from another tribe of Eldar in his father’s house, intensifies the drama of Feanor’s forth-coming estrangement and separation from Manwe, the Valar and most of the Elvish population in Aman. For just as bad goes to worse, Finwe is murdered by Melkor during the theft of the Silmarils. Feanor then, by his own sanguinary oath of revenge, becomes an out-cast king, and kin-slayer upon whom Mandos pronounces the Doom of the Noldor.

If one were to carry the notion of `mother-less hero’ from an individual to a community of characters, the entire population of those Telerin Elves remaining in Middle-Earth after the Great Journey of their kins-men to Valinor have been abandoned and dispossessed. Most of the Teleri under the leadership of Elwe Singollo, were left waiting at the wharf, as it were, by Ulmo, Lord of Waters, who after nearly two centuries of waiting, suddenly got impatient and upped anchor with only a fraction of the Teleri on board. Bye-bye, so long and write when you find work.

Needless to say, this recurring motif of orphan-hood can in no way to be regarded as the result of a lack of imagination or inventiveness on the part of the author. (No sense preaching to the choir. Tolkien Rules!)

Why, then, this emphasis on abandonment, separation, estrangement precipitated by the loss of one or both parents? Why is this aspect so common to so many of Tolkien’s characters’ profiles and so often further emphasized by a secondary desertion of the character by a parental figure?

One can only speculate. And so, I will.

In my humble opinion, (ahem) Tolkien used the commonality of the `mother-less hero’ as the stage-setting, the prerequisite personal background necessary for his characters to embark upon their heroic quest. In “The Hero With A Thousand Faces”, Joseph Campbell, reasons that the universal hero enters the first stage of the adventure by a “separation or departure”.

I would like to contend that this separation is not simply the result of physical movement as on a journey. The severance of a child (of any age) from his parents, especially by violent death, is a more deeply rooted form of disassociation from the social fabric than a temporary departure from hearth and home. As Mr. Campbell explains “the mythological journey -…the `call to adventure’ – signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown.”

The destiny which summons Tolkien’s `mother-less hero’ decentralizes the hero’s society by the removal of mother and/or father. The hero’s basic societal unit is traumatically dis-integrated. The most direct blood-ties have been severed. He is dispossessed within his community. This traumatic emotional separation serves to prepare the hero for the actual physical departure from home in answer to the `call to adventure’.

In a compassionate society, like the Shire or Rivendell, the orphan is adopted into an extended family, as is the case for Frodo and Aragorn. Nevertheless, in literature and myth, the orphan assumes the role of perennial `outsider’. Tolkien’s heroes and heroines begin their mythological journey from the social fringe, disassociated from the community, with one foot in the `zone unknown’ before ever there is a rap on the door summoning the hero to his or her destined doom.


Submit a Comment

Found in Home 5 Reading Room 5 Essays 5 Tolkien’s Mother-less Heroes

You may also like…

Tolkien’s Shades of Gray

A paper I wrote for a class on Tolkien at Portland State University, which I thought other fans may like to read, dealing with the perception some people have of The Lord of the Rings as a simplistic tale of good triumphing over evil, and why I think that perception fails to take in the nuances and complexities of Tolkien’s created world.

read more