Tuesday, July 20 – Some More Valar

6:00 PM The Valaquenta: Nienna, Goddess of Sorrow

Nienna – The Text

 Mightier than Estë is Nienna, sister of the Fëanturi; she dwells alone. She is acquainted with grief, and mourns for every wound that Arda has suffered in the marring of Melkor. So great was her sorrow, as the Music unfolded, that her song turned to lamentation long before its end, and the sound of mourning was woven into the themes of the World before it began. But she does not weep for herself; and those who hearken to her learn pity, and endurance in hope. Her halls are west of West, upon the borders of the world; and she comes seldom to the city of Valimar where all is glad. She goes rather to the halls of Mandos, which are near to her own; and all those who wait in Mandos cry to her, for she brings strength to the spirit and turns sorrow to wisdom. The windows of her house look outward from the walls of the world.”

Nienna – Discussion

Curious: Sad songs, they say so much. Nienna does not cry for herself, so she would not be a bore.  Instead she would be like the saddest music in the world, or the saddest movie; and if you could bring yourself to visit her, it would be a profound cathartic and healing experience.  Note that she is mightier than Este, for who can heal before they grieve?  I feel sure Nienna will play a part in Frodo's healing.

A. Nienna, like Ulmo, dwells alone without a spouse. Any connection?

Lucia: sorrow and wisdom I wonder if she creates enough tears to connect with Ulmo through the water...:)

Erather: Weep and you weep alone. No, Nienna dwells alone because such intense mourning doesn't bode well for a congenial marriage.  But it seems Olorin hangs out with her quite a lot...

Kimi: Nienna thoughts Nienna has no spouse because she's concerned with all living beings rather than desiring a special relationship with any one.

Beren IV: Gloom and Doom, indeed! Both of them are otherwise pretty solitary, it would appear. And no, I don't think that Olorin is very interested in the opposite sex.

Luthien Rising: what erather said We experience sorrow most fully when it we are alone.

Aragonvaar: The Bachelor/Bachelorette Valar of "challenge" Ulmo, Nienna, and Melkor are all spouseless, and Tulkas only married after he came to Arda.  I belive these four were originally meant by Eru to personify "challenge", the idea that conventional thinking and conventional sentiments aren't always enough, a source of stimulus and "friction" (in the good sense; as a physical phenomenon, friction is necessary to life and movement) to the other Ainur.  Melkor turned his powers to destructive/counterproductive pursuits, Tulkas proved too "primal" to be good for Arda w/o a balancing "gentle" principle (ie Nessa).  That leaves the "softer", subtler nonconformists: Ulmo and Nienna.

B. In three different phrases Tolkien suggests how sadness can give strength. Is he right? Does sorrow rate a mighty Goddess?

Lucia: I dont think he is saying that sadness gives strength. I think he is saying that one can learn wisdom, compassion and become stronger through sorrow and suffering.  She is a healer who helps people endure their suffering (she can feel it all, there is no suffering that is too great for her to be with), survive it and transform it into something useful. Yes, she rates as a mighty Goddess.

Erather: That which does not kill us makes us strong.  Yes, there is enough sorrow in the world to keep a very mighty goddess busy.

Kimi: Nienna's sorrow has a special quality: there's no element of self-pity. Such intense sorrow completely for others is not common among us mortals. Nienna has great powers of empathy, so that she feels the sorrows of others. Perhaps it is in part the awareness that she is sharing their sorrows that makes Nienna give strength to the sorrowful.

Beren IV: Well, it's healing, but of a different sort. Estë is physical healing; Nienna is emotional healing, acceptance, and so on.

C. ”Turns sorrow to wisdom” rings a Lord of the Rings bell to me. Where? Why?

Lucia: There is such a tone of sadness that always is present in LotR.  I think it comes from the destruction caused by evil, from the steady observations of how things are weaker, ruined or lost from the older days, from the suffering of the characters, from the ending of the age and the departing Elves and wizards. Not to mention the intense poignancy of Frodo's westward journey.  I think it is a fundamental need of human nature to find meaning in our suffering and thus we create stories in which the suffering has a clear purpose and positive outcome.  Tolkien, a consummate storyteller, does his job well.

FantasyFan: turns sorrow to wisdom I think what you may have been remembering is what is Aragorn says to Pippin of Merry, while he is lying in the houses of healing.

"‘Do not be afraid,’ said Aragorn.  ‘I came in time, and I have called him back.  He is weary now, and grieved, and he has taken a hurt like the Lady Éowyn, daring to smite that deadly thing.  But these evils can be amended, so strong and gay a spirit is in him.  His grief he will not forget; but it will not darken his heart, it will teach him wisdom.’"

Interestingly, Aragorn is said to embody the characteristics of wisdom and mercy (said to Saruman) and he also speaks of his perception of Eowyn with sorrow and pity.  The Ents also have their own sorrow and wisdom.  But I think for me it is Gandalf, his face lined with care and wisdom, who most clearly embodies this combination:

"A deadly sword, a healing hand,

a back that bent beneath its load;

a trumpet-voice, a burning brand,

a weary pilgrim on the road.


A lord of wisdom throned he sat,

swift in anger, quick to laugh;

an old man in a battered hat

who leaned upon a thorny staff."

          Ransom: That poem chokes me up everytime

Kimi: Nienna's description brings to mind the "Man of sorrows, acquainted with grief". One of the titles of the BVM is "Our Lady of Sorrows", so perhaps Nienna shows one aspect of Mary.

Beren IV: Been pointed out. Also, "It was pity that stayed Bilbo's hand!"

D. Nienna is the sister of the Fëanturi brethren – why is she not one the Fëanturi? Is it a guy thing?

Beren IV: Another throwback, I think.

Aragonvaar: Nienna isn't about freedom from grief but about accepting it and transmuting it into something positive.  It is reasonable that she be sister to creativity and Fate, sister-in-law to Healing and Memory.

Images of Nienna

Here are some images of Nienna.

 E. How to illustrate sorrow? Are there any still images (painting or sculpture) you’ve seen that convey the quality of grief and pity that Tolkien ascribes to Nienna (post or link, if you can)?

Kimi: Depicting sorrow is hard. Let's face it: red, swollen eyes and nose, fluids less romantic than tears... you get the picture. Valar probably don't suffer from those things, though.

Here's a detail from a fresco that I found a powerful expression of grief and loss "in the flesh", though I'm afraid that the reproduction doesn't do it justice.

Beren IV: Not sure if I know; the pictures do a reasonable job, though.

Luthien Rising: I'm not sure that sorrow of this degree can be illustrated -- at least not by showing the one who sorrows. It is deep within that it is felt; tears are only superficial and can show many degrees of sadness. I suspect that great sorrow is best illustrated abstractly.

Piled Higher and Deeper

Nienna has always been among the Valar, but Tolkien’s “placement” of her has varied quite a bit. Here is a chart of the evolution of Nienna.

F. What changes do you see in Tolkien’s conception of Nienna, as reflected in her different placements in the “family”?

Beren IV: She moves around, doesn't she ;) That she's always in the same bunch as either Mandos or Vairë does mean something, which I think is pretty obvious.

Luthien Rising: This really is interesting. I do think that she ended up in the right place: we cannot help but connect deep grief with death, because it is death that makes us most alone. But in doing so Tolkien left us without a goddess of death -- indeed, we have a keeper of the houses of the dead, but not really a god or goddess of death itself.

Extra Credit

You’re just a working Noldo, tired from a long week of singing and pottery making. You have been invited to Nienna’s annual garden party on the borders of the world. Her crying-jags are legendary, and that’s when she’s happy -- too bad she’s never happy. And let’s hope she hasn’t invited her drag of a brother Mandos and his boring PhD-for-Dull wife, but let’s face it, she always does.

G. How would you beg out of a garden party of the Gods of Gloom and Doom?

Erather: Plead a previous engagement at chez Tulkas.

Kimi: I'd be washing my hair that day.

Beren IV: Honestly, I don't think I'd find Vairë all that boring...

Squire: Sure, Vairë's the best of the three I like history, too. I might find someone who knows all of history, and has illustrated it in weavings, a little intimidating -- not to mention that anyone who could stand to be married to Mandos must have some kind of weird personality disorder -- but mostly I was just having fun at the expense of the Ph.D.'s among us.

Luthien Rising: A really bad headache? Unbearable joy? A necessary trip to the far end of Middle-earth to battle the forces of evil?

Aragonvaar: Depending on my mood, I might actually want to go to Nienna's party!

Discussion Guide and Full Text of the Valaquenta


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