Thursday, July 22 – The Maiar

6:00 PM The Valaquenta: The Maiar Melian and Olórin

Melian and Olórin – The Text

 “Melian was the name of a Maia who served both Vána and Estë; she dwelt long in Lórien, tending the trees that flower in the gardens of Irmo, ere she came to Middle-earth. Nightingales sang about her wherever she went.

Wisest of the Maiar was Olórin. He too dwelt in Lórien, but his ways took him often to the house of Nienna, and of her he learned pity and patience.

Of Melian much is told in the Quenta Silmarillion. But of Olórin that tale does not speak; for though he loved the Elves, he walked among them unseen, or in form as one of them, and they did not know whence came the fair visions or the promptings of wisdom that he put into their hearts. In later days he was the friend of all the Children of Ilúvatar, and took pity on their sorrows; and those who listened to him awoke from despair and put away the imaginations of darkness.”

Melian and Olórin – Discussion

A. Melian is a major figure in The Silmarillion, wife of Thingol and mother of Lúthien. Is she the only Maia to “marry” an Elf? How is that possible in Tolkien’s cosmology?

Hills: melian/olorin Yes, she is. How is the union of an Elf and a Maia not possible in Tolkien's world? It's more possible than a man and an elf, as both elves and maia virtually live forever (elves until the world ends). elves and maia can also both live in the undying lands. the only thing that doesn't quite fit is that Melian is of a divine race, and thingol isn't. Also, does anyone, as far as the elves go, get "married" in Tolkien's world? usually, he just says that they dwell together. I'm pretty sure that this is what he said of melian and thingol, although I could be wrong. so if melian and thingol were just dwelling together, not married, then there is nothing wrong with this either.

N.E. Brigand: Marriage. Tolkien's elves marry.  I think in Morgoth's Ring that Tolkien got around to explaining elven marriage, which is relatively unceremonious but deeply serious.  No elvish divorces.  Even in the Sil, aren't there references to a male elf "taking [a female elf] to wife?"

Penthe: UUT - no evidence Melian ideas In the back of my mind, unexamined and unremarked upon, is the idea that Melian's choice is rather like Luthien's, a kind of foreshadowing. So she has to keep the Elf-like attributes she has chosen to take on forever. Hence her ongoing life in Middle Earth, instead of popping home to visit the rellies and so on.

As I said, this is an unexamined feeling. But I believe it. So tread softly....And Squire, I know it's not REAL.

Ceorl: a gentle observation ;-) It would appear that Melian's freedom to travel was not restricted by her choice as after the ruin of Doriath she returned to Valinor.

I think that while Thingol lived she was indeed enamoured of ME and tied to it, however when he was killed her grief was to great and it's appeal faded.

Erather: Tolkien on marriage from "Laws and Customs of the Eldar" quoted in the document linked below:

"Marriage is chiefly of the body, for it is achieved by bodily union, and its first operation is the begetting of the bodies of children, even though it endures beyond this and has other operations. And the union of bodies in marriage is unique, and no other union resembles it."

"It was the act of bodily union that achieved was at all times lawful for any of the Eldar, both being unwed, to marry thus of free consent one to the other without ceremony or witness... in flight and exile and wandering, such marriages were often made."

So, if Melian had assumed an elf body, and elected to stay thus confined until Thingol was dead, I don't see any problem here. <Tolkien on elf sex>

Hills: you're right i had completely forgotten about the LACOE essay. so, elves do marry, however, i kind of disagree about melian retaining her elven form after thingol dies, though you are entitled to your opinion. im going to see if i can find something on that...

Beren IV: Bodily versus spiritual acts Also pretty easy. Melian is a spirit, and Thingol is a bodily creature, so Melian and Thingol can't really have children that would be half of Melian and half of Thingol. Melian, however, does have to manifest a body, and I am to gather that the body that she manifests is that of a female Elf. That body functions in all ways like a normal Elven body, except that it serves as the vessel for a Maia. Thus, she can have children - but Lůthien (and her brothers, if she has any; in BoLT, she does) is an Elf like any other, or is at least concieved and born that way.

NZ Strider: A quick thought or two Melian is, in fact, the only Maia to bear a child.  This is an interesting problem for several reasons. 

The first -- how does a being of spirit couple with a bodily being? -- can be answered in the way in which Beren IV suggests, i.e. by Melian generating a body which is capable of reproducing.  The second is more interesting...

In Tolkien's earliest drafts in The Book of Lost Tales Valar and Maiar repeatedly have children.  Tolkien, however, eventually edited all of that out; Valar and Maiar thereafter remain childless.  Tolkien's altering of a pantheon originally conceived of as "pagan" to what amounts to an assemblage of Angels probably required this. 

Yet he left one exception: Melian.  Was there something different about Melian?  Some special dispensation from Eru?  Finally, the one time an Ainu does reproduce, it is with one of the Children of Ilúvatar.  I have always wondered if the following verse in Genesis was at the back of his mind when he decided to leave Melian's coupling with Thingol in:

"The sons of God (or: of the gods [?]) saw the daughters of men, that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose."  (Gen. VI 2)

Of course, in Tolkien it is a female Ainu who marries a male Elf, yet, still...

Erather: How do you feel about Beren IV's theory that Melian was able to reproduce because she inhabited an otherwise normal elf body, and hence Luthien was "full-blooded elf" rather than part maia?  That is what I had been assuming. It makes a lot of sense, particularly in view of all the discussions of the implications of Olorin inhabiting a body as Gandalf.

If this is the case, then there could have been more interbreedings -- we have to assume that adopting a physical body was so limiting for most maia that they didn't do it except under very extraordinary circumstances.

NZ Strider: I mostly agree -- the only thing which makes me wonder is that Tolkien edited out so many other offspring of Valar and Maiar.  Did Melian's coupling with Thingol just get left in because her begetting Luthien was a necessary element of the story?  Or, as you say, taking on a body which was actually capable of reproduction was either too limiting or too great a strain for most Maiar to do it.  I don't know.

B. We know Olórin becomes Gandalf. Is that the only reason Tolkien includes him here? He never appears again in The Silmarillion (visibly, anyway). Did Olórin even “exist” before Lord of the Rings?

Hills: Yeah, I'm pretty sure Olorin existed before LOTR, as much of the Silmarillion material was written before even the Hobbit was started. However, we don't know if Olorin became Gandalf or Gandalf became Olorin. Olorin may only appear in the Silmarillion once, but he plays a much larger role in the Unfinished Tales. This tells of the council in which the Valar decide that they must send missionaries to ME.

N.E. Brigand: Don't you answer... your own question, "Did Olórin even 'exist' before Lord of the Rings," with the history of the development of the "Valaquenta?"  Apparently Olorin did not exist, at least on paper, before 1951.  Does anyone know at what point Gandalf's "Olorin" reference crept into the LotR?  Why did Tolkien include that name in the LotR?  Just further "depth?"  As a hopeful cross-connection to The Silmarillion, which for a time he (impossibly) hoped to publish in conjuction with the LotR?  Most intriguing.  I wonder if the comment about Olorin--"he walked among them unseen, or in form as one of them"--grew out of the name "Gandalf," that is, "staff-elf," that Tolkien had snatched from the "Dvergatal" ("dwarves' tally") in the Voluspa when he was writing The Hobbit.

Did Melian too, as appears from the chart, not appear before 1951?  Or just not in the Valaquenta?  Was she always Luthien's mother in Tolkien's legendarium?

Squire: I don't know Of course he doesn't appear in the chart, but the chart is simply the Valaquenta texts.

What I didn't do was an index search of the HoME series, to see if he shows up in some story, or more frighteningly, in one of those notes, somewhere in Tolkien's earlier works.

I also don't know when the Unfinished Tale was written, where Olorin makes a real star turn; but my gut tells me it was after LotR.

My personal feeling is that Tolkien added the name to the LotR text after thinking a bit about Gandalf (as Pippin/Tolkien puts it, "Who was Gandalf?") -- and then went and added him, really just as a name and a spiritual quality, to the new "Maiar" section while revising Silmarillion for parallel publication with LotR in the early 50s. The UT piece and the Valaquenta piece are linked in my mind.

But I don't know. And maybe someone here does.

Luthien Rising: On the wisest of Maia Well, there *is* The Hobbit, of course, though it's not at all clear to me that Tolkien knew at that time that Gandalf was a Maia (but I missed most of The Hobbit discussion here, so I'm likely wrong about that). Yes, I *do* think that's precisely why Olórin appears here; if he didn't, we'd be wondering where he was.

Entwife Wandlimb: When I am an old man, I shall wear grey We do?!?  I don't.  I haven't read ahead.  I am barely hanging in here.  How do "we" know?  And then who is Radagast and Saruman?

An seileachan: I'm wearing purple, now, so I'll answer... ;-) good parody!

In TTT, in the chapter "Window on the West", when Faramir is explaining to Frodo about the Grey Pilgrim who had visited Minis Tirith, he tells Frodo the other names the Pilgrim gave himself. One of them was "...Olorin I was in my youth in the West that is forgotten..."

Frodo recognizes him by his Elven name Mithrandir, and tells Faramir he was lost in Moria.

I'm not sure this is the only reference in LOTR, but the only one I'm aware of.

An seileachan: um, never mind. I think I answered the wrong question. :-) I think you already knew that Olorin was in LOTR, but not that he didn't appear in the rest of the Sil. To which I have no answer. Or to which I already have the same answer. Or also didn't know.

Going to slink out quietly...

Still love your parody...

Entwife Wandlimb: no, you were right! I hadn't made the connection between Gandalf and Olorin. Thanks!

And, I'm glad you liked the parody!

N.E. Brigand: As for Radagast and Saruman... to my knowledge they are not mentioned in the Sil, but their Valinorean incarnations turn up in the section on the "Istari" in Unfinished Tales, which is, however, brief and unfinished.  The two blue wizards also get a mention there.

Beren IV: Tolkien may have had ideas. The Sil was written fairly close in time to LotR, although a little before, and Tolkien may have known about this already.

NZ Strider: Yes; and No.

C. Looking ahead, are there any examples of “fair visions” or “promptings of wisdom” that any Elves experience in The Silmarillion that we might credit to Olórin, based on this passage? If you haven’t read Silmarillion yet, maybe keep this in mind as you do.

Hills: There are some that are directly related to Melian, but none that are explicitly Olorin. Some of them might be from him, but since there were many Maia, we can only speculate.

Beren IV: An awful lot of the Elves don't act very wise in the Sil. In fact, one could argue that Lůthien herself is the wisest of the bunch, despite what happens to her, and if she has any special knowledge, she would have gotten it from her mother, not  Olórin.

Curious: This gives me a chance to ask about Lorien. I was too late to ask this in the thread about Lorien.

Olorin gave people "fair visions."  Later we will learn that Ulmo sent people dreams.  What part did Lorien, the master of visions of dreams, play when other Valar and Maiar sent people visions and dreams?  Was he the Ma Bell of visions and dreams, some sort of divine switchboard?  Did even Ulmo call upon him for assistance?  Or did he just have primary responsibility, while other Ainur dabbled in dreams and visions from time to time? 

I can't imagine Ulmo asking for permission or assistance from Lorien before sending dreams or visions.  Olorin, though, might well ask for permission or assistance.  Still, I am sure they aren't the only two Ainur to dabble in dreams and visions, and it makes me wonder about Lorien's role in this favored form of divine communication.  Did Lorien play any part in Frodo's dreams?  In Faramir's?  In Sam's visions of Frodo and Gollum?  What about Galadriel's mirror?

I don't have any answers because Tolkien never explains.  The visions and dreams certainly happen, and Lorien presumably has some part in some of them, but we never learn what part or how many of them.  One thing seems likely though; Este and Lorien presumably worked together to send Frodo his healing dreams that he couldn't remember.


Both Melian and Olórin live among the Elves, as if they were Elves themselves; yet Olórin is in disguise and unknown for what he is, while Melian reveals her true identity.

D. Why does Tolkien pair these two Maiar, with their very different incarnations and roles in the cosmogony, in this passage?

Hills: Because they were the only two Maia (i think) that had a direct interaction with the peoples of ME, and they also were the only two Maia mentioned that dwelt in Lorien. It seems natural that they would be somewhat "paired together".

Luthien Rising: It strikes me simply that if he wanted to include Olórin (which it seems, in 1951, he first did), he didn't want to make that inclusion stand out too much and so included another M-e-bound Maia as well.

Curious: Melian and Olórin both became flesh, and therefore appreciated the fate of elves and men, respectively, in a way the other Ainur could not.  This prefigures the story of Christ, Eru made flesh.  The glitch is that other Maiar might also have taken on physical bodies.  We have the Great Eagles, the Ents, and on the dark side Ungoliant and the Balrogs and Morgoth himself.  It is all a bit messy and unexplained, especially after Tolkien decided that the Ainur shouldn't normally have children.

Images of Olórin and Melian

Picture time. Oddly enough, very few illustrators have taken on the wisest and most compassionate spirit in Valinor, as opposed to the Grey Pilgrim of Lord of the Rings.

Luthien Rising: I don't find it odd; the pictures of the Grey Pilgrim stem from LOTR, not from the lesser-known Sil.

E. Given zero description and zero appearances except as Gandalf, how does one illustrate Olórin?

Luthien Rising: As more Elf-like than Gandalf ever appears. (But what does an "elderly" Elf look like?)

Beren IV: NO PICTURES!! Broken link...

Squire: The Picture Link restored! sorry...

Luthien Rising: what's up with Govar? That Melian doesn't match any criteria for beauty for any culture I've ever been exposed to. Yow. If the mother of the most beautiful woman who ever lived looked like that, then Thingol must have been devastatingly handsome.

Piled Higher and Deeper

The Valaquenta has its roots in Tolkien’s original sketches of his mythology back in the years after World War I, and he revised the material repeatedly over the years. Here is a chart of the evolution of Olórin and Melian.

F. What changes do you see in Tolkien’s conception of Olórin and Melian?

N.E. Brigand: Did Melian too, as appears from the chart, not appear before 1951?  Or just not in the Valaquenta?  Was she always Luthien's mother in Tolkien's legendarium?

Squire: I'm even more vague on Melian. But I would tend to leave investigating her for her discussion week with Daughter of Nienna, August 9th, folks, don't miss it!

Beren IV: You left out Melian in the Book of Lost Tales. There, she is a sprite that escaped from Lórien before the First Age. Tolkien does not say that she is a Maia.

Extra Credit

G. What did Olórin most object to when he visited Middle-earth: a) The old man's body. b) The old man's body odor. c) The old man's bushy eyebrows sticking out past a wide-brimmed hat. d) Can no longer walk unseen among bathing elfmaidens, or in form as one of them.

Hills: old man's body.

Luthien Rising: The body odour; hence his delight in the discovery of fragrant pipe-weed.

Entwife Wandlimb: e) None of the above.  All outweighed by the benefits:

"When I am an old man, I shall wear grey

with a blue hat that doesn't go, and doesn't suit me.

And I shall spend my gold on pipes and pickles

and fireworks, and say we've no money for ponies.

I shall ride eagles when I am tired

and blow green smokes-rings and open secret doors

and give out magical diamond studs

and make up for the sobriety of my youth.

I shall go out in black boots in the snow

and make marks on other people's doors

and learn to spit."

Beren IV: I am going to guess (a), although being as wise as he was, I think Olórin may have seen through it. I definitely do not think (d), since Gandalf never really gave me the impression of being an at all sexual being. Besides, if the Ainur are able to choose their forms, then I would expect that a normally male maiar masquerading as a female elf would quickly find that she was feeling female, rather than male, impulses. It might be interesting for a change, though!

Discussion Guide and Full Text of the Valaquenta


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