Middle-earth Profile: Melian
Melian the Maiar often times feels like a background character when compared to her husband , the legendary High King, Thingol. Yes, she provides the Girdle of Doriath to protect it and is the mother of Luthien and so on, but not much is said of her beyond that, or outside of her husband and the larger context of Beleriand. So I thought I give a profile on her a shot since I was not really sure how her personality would come off to me.
Eye of the Storm
Melian was one of the Maiar, lesser-ranked spirits that were charged with watching and caring for Middle-earth. Specifically, she served the higher ranking Vala, Vana and Este and was taught in the region of Valinor known as lorien. She also had a power in her voice to entrance, even the ruling Valar themselves, who would often come to hear her sing.
Because of this station, she was well educated and learned a love for nature and all things in Middle-earth. She took a proactive role and left the bliss of Valinor for the darkness of the outer world to care for it, in preparation for the race of Elves. Her work eventually took her to the great forests on the western end of Middle-earth and it was where she met Thingol. One of three elf-lords who had been to Valinor previously, he was leading his people back there from the east. Now however, they fell in love and stayed there for a long period of time, with many of Thingol's people eventually leaving without him. The two eventually were accepted as High King and Queen of Beleriand and ruled from the capital of Menegroth, in the region of Doriath. Their initial rule was peaceful until, Morgoth, the renegade Valar, returned to the north of the world.
It was the beginning of a long series of wars in Beleriand, and Melian would serve as the protector of Doriath, using her powers to form a protective barrier. She also served as advisor to her husband, giving him impressions into the far-reaching futures of events and their actions. Things change for her however when her daughter, Luthien, starts a forbidden relationship with Beren.
Beren is a mortal survivor from the northern wars who meets and falls in love with Luthien. Melian is calm, having foreseen that someone would eventually breakthrough her barriers. Thingol though is not. She tries to advise her husband, but Thingol largely ignores it, deciding to send Beren on a suicide mission to retrieve one of the Silmarils stolen by Morgoth before he came back to Middle-earth. When Luthien runs away from Doriath to follow Beren, Melian then refuses to give Thingol any counsel in the matter.
Time passes and the couple eventually return: successful but without the jewel, because Beren lost it to the werewolf, Carcharoth, along with his hand that held it. Impressed, Thingol accepts him as his son-in-law. However, because of the Silmaril in its gut, Carcharoth also breaks the Girdle and causes chaos through Doriath. He is eventually killed, but at the cost of Beren’s life, who is then very soon followed into death by Luthien.
Once again, they return, being resurrected by the Valar for their deeds, but Luthien is now mortal and no longer immortal. For the first time, Melian shows despair because she knows that once Luthien dies again (which to her is a little while), she will never see her daughter again. Despite this, she now opens the borders to mortals to seeking refuge.
Eventually, Beren and Luthien die a final time and the Silmaril is brought back to Doriath, where Thingol now obsesses over it. While commissioning the dwarves to combine the jewel with another treasure, the Nauglamir, Thingol is is killed when he discovers them trying to swindle him and loses his temper.
Though the High King is avenged, Melian can no longer bear the weight of her losses. She warns her trustworthy soldier, Malblung, of the retaliation coming from the dwarves before leaving Middle-earth forever, returning to Lorien in Valinor to grieve.
Personality wise, Melian is very extroverted in her care for Middle-earth during her early years. Indeed she is one of the few in Valinor besides Ulmo, Yavanna, and Orome, who did not forget about the outer world amidst the bliss of Valinor. Yet, she is the only one who stays there. Besides her dedication, Melian was also very aware, even beyond her natural foresight, and not suffering from the tunnel vision that many other rulers do. It was her open-mindedness that led her into a physical relationship with Thingol and to have children: something no valar or Maiar has ever done. It is what allowed her to be in touch with both the larger picture and what was going on the ground. She is also accepting of others races, though she may not have understood them. To be fair though, being open-minded may also be what led her into leaving Middle- earth after her husband's death, being unable to handle the full ramifications of death and mortality.
Melian was also a very centered woman, not one to be easily dissuaded by distractions or letting her emotions overwhelm her situational awareness. She used this gift to the benefit of Thingol, especially given his rash temper. And it was only personal tragedy that seem to truly shake her. However, she could also be at times just as suspicious as the High King when there was a clear lack of knowledge that could help them, though this did not reflect on the individuals. Being a low-key player, if Melian was rattled by something, she was very subtle about how she handled it, such as refusing to talk to her husband after Luthien’s flight.
She was a capable ruler in her own right, but was comfortable letting Thingol be in charge. Still, she would at times speak up when she felt it was necessary, such as when the former-captive, Hurin insulted them because of the loss of his family while under their care. Even then though, it was motivated by compassion rather than ego or anger.
Melian is an interesting blend of passivity (as many Valinor residents were prone to do), and assertiveness (like the residents of Middle-earth), which is what makes the next part of this profile extremely interesting.
"...Melian wore many more hats than typical Middle-earth spirits."
One of the most surprising elements I found about Melian is that she was arguably the most powerful being in Middle-earth during the Beleriand wars, and was one of the stronger Maiar spirits of Valinor in terms of influence. Yet given how she used her power as well as her own nature, you wouldn’t think so. Bear with me here: while living in Valinor, Melian’s voice and song were so potent that all who heard become entranced by it.
Though Morgoth is a Valar and was considered the strongest of them, he had divested much of his being into the corruption of the world to subdue it, thus making him weaker. Once the Girdle was erected, not once does Morgoth try to make a serious attempt to breach it by force, as he did with Gondolin or the Nirnaeth Arnoediad War. It is hinted at that Morgoth has at times tried to mentally peer into Doriath, but was blocked by Melian. Plus, She is also able to hold off the onslaught of Ungoliant, another powerful, but evil Maiar spirit who became a rival of Morgoth's and nearly subdued him were he not rescued. Melian had no direct contest with Sauron, who himself was also one of the strongest Maiar and Morgoth's lead general. Yet, given that Luthien, Melian's daughter, bested him and later subdued Morgoth himself, along with his entire court, I see it as more of the same had he actually met Luthien’s mother.
Finally, Melian personally tutored the Nolderian elf-lord, Galadriel, whom herself became one of the most powerful beings in Middle-earth during the Second and Third Ages. Despite her passive appearance, Melian was no weakling and the only reason it was not as prominent was because she was not an aggressor.
"Not once is there a recorded demand or pulling of rank made by Thingol towards Melian."
A Maiar of Many Skills
When it comes to administration, Melian wore many more hats than typical Middle-earth spirits. Starting out initially as a tender and scholar, she becomes a custodian and creator when she first moves to the east. When she meets up with Thingol, she all at once takes on the role of both wife, mother, and High Queen, then followed by being an adviser and diplomat in their dealings with other Elven tribes and races. Finally, during wars, she was the protector of Doriath, while simultaneously doing the aforementioned roles. That's a lot for anybody, regardless of race!
I think this is more attributed to her personality rather than being a Maiar though, since others of her race had much more difficulty. Feanor once implied when rebuffing the Valar, Mandos during his judgement of the Noldor, that Eru Iluvatar, the creator, may have given certain individuals greater abilities than what was normal for their kind. And if this was true, then I think Melian more than likely definitely falls into this category.
The relationship of Melian and Thingol is multi-layered. At its foundation, is a love that either person almost cannot help. The reasons why are anybody’s guess but regardless, it sets up everything else that happens afterwards in Beleriand. Thingol seems to understand and accept that Melian knows more than he does, which given his own powers of perception and requirements of respect, is quite humble of him. Melian’s powers, foresight, and being give her a larger perspective that Thingol knows he lacks, hence why he also looks to her as an adviser and most times, listens to her counsel.
Likewise, Melian seems to understand Thingol is more assertive and aggressive than herself. Not that she can’t be herself when circumstances dictate, but it's not her default. Therefore the work of ruling large numbers of people and the issues that it presents is easier for her husband to deal with.
Not once is there a recorded demand or pulling of rank made by Thingol towards Melian. The only real ruffle between them occurs when Luthien flees Doriath and Melian then chooses to withhold any counsel from Thingol regarding what's going to happen. To me, this sounds like her expressing her anger and disapproval of Thingol’s actions that set those events into motion. It certainly would fit her blend of a passive and firm nature.
The marriage creates a synergy between the two that is not seen elsewhere between the Elves and the divine spirits of Valinor. Both respect each other’s strengths and weakness, and allow each other to play to them. For the most part, this is perfect and in a ideal family. They would have had the perfect life, sustained through all eternity, had the mortality of the world not caught up with them.
Regarding her daughter, it seems implied that Melian shared a very tight bond with Luthien, as one would expect of a mother and daughter. Theirs however, was made vastly different by their natural immortality and Melian’s bond to Middle-earth overall. I suspect that it's because of the latter element that the relationship was much tighter for Melian than it was for Luthien, because her daughter was born into the world, where as Melian existed before it was ever made. Through Luthien ran Melian’s bonds to Middle-earth, Thingol, and what the immortal world was and could have been.
So when she returns from the dead, Melian experiences an extremely deep severing of those bonds, because now mortality has weakened and put a finality to it. When Luthien dies, that relationship and everything it was and represented is gone forever. For someone tied to the elements of existence itself since before the beginning, there would be no words to describe that level of loss: even for the Elves.
Thorn in the Side
Despite her multiple disciplines, Melian seems to be still a scholar at heart. She had an amazing talent for foresight and this made her wise, but also had little understanding of the full weight of what she saw. No where else was this more apparent than in her handling of mortality and its consequences. Melian had never experienced death and limited lifespans up close because Doriath was a well protected and fortified safe haven. While there was battle on its outer borders, no blood was ever shed within it until the rampage of Carcharoth and later on, after her departure. She knew of mortality in the larger scheme of things, but did not understand the gravitas of what it entailed personally. None of her kind did. They perceived the gift of mortality from a legalistic and outside point of view.
In this, Melian shares a common trait with the first High King of the Noldor, Finwe, when his first wife died in Valinor. Both were the first of their kind to deal with an aspect of life completely new to their immortal race. So both had no real manuals on how to handle it. Though there was much death to go around during that era, all of it was distant for her: that is until Beren arrived.
Beren was a survivor from the fallen, human kingdom of Dorthonion during the Dagor Bragollach War. It is Melian's first, direct encounter with a human: first real contact with mortality, yet even then it is not personal. She probably knew of the mystery that humans represented since they first entered Beleriand, but Thingol had banned any of them from entering Doriath. What made mortality so strange wasn’t the aspect of death, but it’s shortness and where mortal spirits go afterward. It was something even the Valar didn’t know, except that they pass beyond the “circles of the world”.
It’s an eyebrow-raiser when even God doesn’t know what’s going to happen to you when you die.
Only when Beren and Luthien return from the dead does the true gravitas of mortality and its connection to death truly hit Melian. Then she begins to actually understand the knowledge, and she has to look away because she cannot bear to see that truth in her daughter. That the ties to the world, and even Valinor, are severed forever once her body dies and spirit leaves it, where as the Elves and Valar simply go back to Valinor: holy, but still within and bound to the world. Ultimately, Melian handles it well enough to continue on, even Luthien’s eventual death. Its Thingol's murder that finally pushes her over the edge so to speak.
Experiencing the loss of a long-term partner that she had known intimately, in flesh and in spirit, through centuries worth of experiences, was something immortal Melian wasn't prepared for and couldn't bear in her nature. No surprise since they were both naturally immortals. For Elves with their perception of time and reality, this is bad enough (which is why they usually stay away from relationships with humans), but the chasm of experience is even greater for someone who has existed since before anything was ever made. Given why she went to Middle-earth in the beginning, it's no small irony that Melian gained a greater understanding of Middle-earth’s existence than the rest of her kin: even Ulmo.
Melian’s life experience hints at just how complex the bonds are between spirit and flesh for the eternal spirits in that universe. There is a cost for entering fully into the flesh, which subjects it to the rules of the world and it’s mortality. And love is the greatest bond of flesh: therefore also making it its greatest burden. The Valar already struggle enough with the limited experience they have with it, as also hinted at much later on when they send messengers to the island empire of Numenor to dissuade them from going west. The Numenoreans, humans descended from the mortal heroes of the First Age, want immortality and regard mortality as a curse. But the messengers imply the weight that immortality actually bears down on immortals over time, and that mortality actually releases humans from that burden that immortals must still endure.
Melian is the only one of her kind to fully understand both sides of this.
Girdle of the First Age
Melian’s legacy is more than just being the ancestor of the divine strain in the world. I would say she was the glue that held much of the First Age together, creating a environment to foster events to happen and seeds to develop that would blossom out in the following Ages. Her power protected the heart of Beleriand, even before the Noldor laid siege to Morgoth in the north, and when their kingdoms later fell. For all his might, Morgoth could not gain access nor spy upon Doriath while the High Queen sat in Menegroth. Because of her power and foresight, Melian made Doriath a calm eye in the center of the storm that was the Beleriand wars, and was a foundation of hope while it lasted. It is only when she left that things began to truly nose dive into such desperate straits that there was no more hope left in Middle-earth where evil could not destroy it. This is what drove Earndil's journey to Valinor to finally seek aid from the Valar. But had the elements that led to his journey not been sown when the Girdle of Melian was still erected, the journey may never have happened and Beleriand and the rest of Middle-earth may have collapsed much sooner than it did.
© 2019 Jamal Smith