Guest Post: “She who Weeps”: the Value of Sorrow in Tolkien

Tolkien 2012

Melpomene, the Ancient Muse of Tragedy, likes to associate with mortals through the mediums of sorrow, tight plot structure, catharsis, and snappy delivery. Occasionally she moonlights as a Graduate Student of Literature. Failing those, she can be found enjoying a cup of tea – or Scotch – at the Egotist’s Club, communing with her sister muses and the occasional visitor.

The Egotist’s Club, a sociable society of brilliant minds, embraces the fact that most blogs – for the most part – exist for the ego of the authors, who beg to be read and acknowledged. We simply do so more honestly, smugly, and eruditely than most. We wax poetic over wurms and firebugs, rhapsodize over the moments of awkward that – for some reason – pervade our lives, and enlighten the world with our reflections on poetry, music, novels, and all other types of art. We have a manifesto. And we only take ourselves seriously enough!


Despite often being classed as part of the modern Fairy Tale genre, Tolkien’s stories rarely have a modern “Fairy Tale Ending”.

The Elves are heartbroken by the wars and death and plan to leave Middle-earth. Aragorn and Arwen must suffer through the mortal travails of rebuilding a society, and eventually die.  And Frodo cannot remain in his beloved Shire.

This continued suffering might be more “true to life” than the promise of “happily ever after”, but Tolkien does not merely seek to add some “reality” to his story by following through on the consequences of such sacrifices.

Rather, Tolkien speaks to the value and beauty of such sorrow and pain.

Justice does not have complete sway over the fates of the characters. The villains, or mediocre-ly evil characters, are – for the most part –disposed of, but rarely in as painful a manner as would seem fitting. And our heroes still carry the scars and burdens of their experiences.

The closing chapter of Lord of the Rings aches with the sorrow of Samwise Gamgee, as he sees the consequences of the war on Frodo: permanently wounded and no longer able to stay in his home. The pain is palpable, and the injustice of Frodo’s suffering hurts the reader.

In The Silmarillion, Tolkien tells of fourteen great powers who shaped Arda and who guard and guide her peoples, the Valar. Most of these are – like the powers in most folk lore – directly linked with the natural world: Manwe, Lord of the Breath of Arda: Varda, Lady of the Stars: Ulmo, Lord of the Waters: Yavanna, Giver of All Fruits. Some of them are keeper of certain skills or places: Aule, the Maker, master of all crafts: Irmo, Master of Visions and Dreams: Namo, Keeper of the Houses of the Dead.

But there is one Vala who does not easily fit into the pattern laid out either by Tolkien himself or by the traditions of folk lore and fairy tale: Nienna, She Who Weeps.

“She is acquainted with grief, and mourns for every wound that Arda has suffered in the marring of Melkor . . . But she does not weep for herself, and those who harken to her learn pity, and endurance in hope . . . All those who wait [in the Houses of the Dead] 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.” (The Valaquenta, 28.)

Tolkien describes her not as a guardian or protector, but as a teacher and converter.

Nienna is not a figure out of lore or tradition. Rarely do fairy tales have a character associated first with suffering. Yet the very presence of Nienna seems to indicate that there is an intrinsic value to suffering itself; that grief is not something to merely endure, but something can have a refining and annealing affect.

She brings comfort and patience to those who suffer, and brings good consequences out of misery. In this, Tolkien indicates that there is value to be had in such sorrow. Suffering and pain are not useless afflictions upon the world, but a means of attaining something better.

When the Trees of Arda, the splendid Trees that gave Light and beauty to all the land, are destroyed by the malice of the jealous Melkor and his servant Ungoliant, (the mother of Shelob the Spider,) it is Nienna who can reclaim the place by means of her sorrow.

“And Nienna arose and went up onto Ezellahar, and cast back her grey hood, and with her tears washed away the defilements of Ungoliant; and she sang in mourning for the bitterness of the world.” (The Silmarillion, 79.)

It is through her mourning that the land is cleansed; even though trees can never be completely healed, it is in part through her sincere grief that a new good can rise out of the dead. Her sorrow, and its sincere outpouring, is a means of healing and growth.

While sorrow and pain turned inward do fester and even injure, (like in Feanor,) Nienna can use that same suffering to better effect.  Just as her dwelling place looks “outward from the walls of the world,” Nienna’s focus is outside of herself, and thus her grief becomes a means of purifying. It is not a necessarily nice world, but Nienna sees beyond the pain and looks to something outside her own existence.

In a way she harkens back to the creation of Arda. When Eru, the One, taught the Ainu, the Holy Ones, to sing, and in their singing they created the world. Even then Melkor was jealous and attempted to weave his own melodies and discord into the music, and so strife was part of the world from the beginning. But when the music ceased, Eru smiled and said:

“Seest thou not how here in this little realm in the Deeps of Time Melkor hath made war upon thy province? He hath bethought him of bitter cold immoderate, and yet hath not destroyed the beauty of thy fountains, nor of thy clear pools. Behold the snow, and the cunning works of frost! Melkor hath devised heats and fire without restraint,, and hath not dries up thy desire nor utterly quelled the music of the sea. Behold rather the height and glory of the clouds, and the everchanging mists; and listen to the fall of rain upon the earth!” (The Ainulindale, 19).

The hardship and pain inflicted upon the earth by the evil of Melkor did not destroy or corrupt, but, by the will of Eru, allowed an even greater beauty to emerge. The conflict that challenged the earth brought it to a higher glory.

Nienna’s suffering does not embitter her. She walks in grief, and feels the sorrows of the world most deeply, but she is not lost in that pain. Instead, that grief allows her to become an instrument of sympathy and a beacon of hope, and the maturation of wisdom.

She is later named as the teacher of Wisdom, and it is said that Mithrandir, the Grey Wanderer who would later be known as Gandalf, was her disciple.

It is perhaps through him that we can best see the fruit of her teaching: it is Gandalf who defends pity as the virtue which protected Bilbo from the hurt of the evil of the Ring,  pity for Gollum, teaching Frodo both the imaginative sympathy and the activity of mercy that eventually save Middle Earth.

Frodo’s “reward” for his role is not just. The world is not fair.

But it can be beautiful. And the change in Frodo’s heart and fate, however sad in this world, allow him to set sail for the next world.

And Gandalf, concluding the story of the Lord of the Rings with the wisdom of Nienna, tells both Sam and the reader,

“Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are and evil.”

If you enjoyed this post, you can find more of Melpomene at the Egotist’s Club:

Books That Make Us Human: “Leaf by Niggle
Favorite Book of All Time
O! Happy Mariners!
The Lay of Tinnuhen

10 thoughts on “Guest Post: “She who Weeps”: the Value of Sorrow in Tolkien

  1. jubilare says:

    I am chilled. In a good way. You put into words something I have long felt about Tolkien’s writing. I know that he suffered in his life, and I hope to know, some day, the process that lead him to weave this thread of wisdom into his stories.
    It is far too easy to look at conflict, both in real life and in fiction, and see only the surface.


    • Melpomene says:

      For some reason, I have always been more attracted to the character of Nienna than to any of the other Valar. In part, I think, because she is the closest to us as human readers.

      And the way that she makes sorrow and suffering her own . . . and channeles them into something greater . . . every teen ought to read about her, instead of reading Poe!


      • jubilare says:

        Aw… I don’t think I’d go quite that far. Poe taught me a few things, but I can agree that a hefty dose of Nienna is likely more edifying and helpful in navigating adolescence and adulthood. It’s easy to overdose on Poe.


      • Melpomene says:

        Yes . . . I do like his more human and cheerful stuff – his mystery storie? Brilliant! – but I am not sure emotional teens should read much of him otherwise. And I must admit, somewhat shamefacedly, I never cared for his poetry . . . (You can throw rocks at me for beinga snob now.)


  2. David says:

    “He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” Isaiah 53:3

    Methinks you are on to something, friend. It’s an ancient idea, of course: Aristotle wrote about the importance of catharsis in tragedies. But I’m not sure the Greeks fully understood it themselves, because even though there is goodness in some of the characters in their tragedies, I rarely find hope in them. But with Christ, all that mystifies comes into sharp relief. Not all tears are an evil, no! Expressions of heartfelt grief and sorrow can heal, or cleanse in preparation for healing, and Tolkien, because of the Holy Spirit, knew this.

    I confess I hardly remember Nienna at all, beyond her name, as it’s been long enough since I’ve read the Ainulindale and the Valaquenta. You’ve made me want to go back and read about her. She’s such a beautiful character: one who can weep even for those who cannot weep for themselves, and so bring peace.

    Thank you for this sensitive rumination, friend.


    • Melpomene says:

      My sister and I used to scour all Tolkien for the slightest reference to Nienna. I have forgotten most of them now, but I do think she is one of the more intrinsically Holy of the Ainur.

      I was trying to avoid specifically Christian references, becasue her truth is for all people, but I do think that Nienna springs from the faith of Tolkien: the notion of sorrow not just as a catharsis, but as something for a higher purpose. And the fact that her house looks “beyond the walls of Arda”? that alone set the underlying philosphy of Middle Earth apart from the Eastern philophies: she starts her healing by looking outside, rather than attempting to empty self by looking *in*. She is a character only Tolkien could have written!


  3. jubilare says:

    No stones from this quarter. I don’t like Poe’s poetry… it maxes out my melodramameter. I love a number of his shortstories, though, even some of the darker ones. I’m caught in the strange position of having a high tolerance for the macabre, and a low tolerance for gore.


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