Celebrimbor - Bisexual Icon in the Making?
I recently had a conversation about my queer reading of Celebrimbor, the master craftsman of the Ñoldorin Elves in the Second Age of Middle-Earth, and it inspired me to document my thoughts. I have asserted more than once amongst my friends that Celebrimbor's interaction with Annatar (Sauron in disguise) is one of the few canonical examples of Tolkien's work that is left open for a plausible queer interpretation of the characters.
I'd like to explain my perspective and express my hopes regarding the ongoing depiction of Celebrimbor by actor Charles Edwards in the Prime Video series The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power. To do so involves a good deal of set-up for anyone unfamiliar with the characters, so I hope you'll bear with me!
First, before we delve into the lore and my interpretation of it, there are a few basic agreements we must make:
Tolkien's personal faith is irrelevant. When examining a piece of art or literature, the artist is not the one who fashions the lens through which the consumer perceives the art. Regardless of Tolkien's faith and/or personal beliefs, my interpretation of the text and the way it resonates for me is utterly personal. Yours is likely different, and that's not only okay but fully expected. What I say here may not resonate with your own reading of the text, so just keep an open mind.
Sexuality is only one aspect of some relationships. Tolkien's approach to sexual activity in the context of Middle-Earth was quite hands-off, even for characters who canonically reproduce. Love, devotion, and companionship, however, are all painted in vivid colors. These are the facets of relationships Tolkien chose to focus on in his narratives. They are not features that apply exclusively to cis-het relationships.
- Queerness is not code for "gay sex". Queerness encompasses several aspects of an individual's identity, expression, and being. It includes sexual desire and sexual expression, yes, but it also includes concepts of gender identity and expression as they relate to the social construct of gender in a given society. It includes romanticism, intellectual attraction, and platonic love in the case of many on the asexual spectrum. Tolkien chose not to publish sexually explicit fiction, but because queerness is about more than just sex, his choice does not preclude it from containing any element of queerness, intended or interpreted.
If you've made it this far without rushing to the comments to spew vitriol and bandy about the word "woke" as if it's an insult, then I think we're off to a great start. Let's talk about Celebrimbor. If you need a refresher on the basics of his character, his origin story, or the time-line of his past in the First Age, please reference THIS POST I wrote.
Celebrimbor is a wonderfully complex and nuanced character, not necessarily because of what Tolkien directly wrote about him, but because of where he fits into the overarching narrative of Tolkien's works. Celebrimbor is one of those characters we have bullet points for in the history of Middle-Earth but rarely get to address in a more intimate philosophical or psychological manner.
He is the grandson of the greatest craftsman of all Elvendom: Fëanor. But Fëanor died in the aftermath of the Dagor nuin Giliath (Battle Under the Stars) just before the beginning of the First Age. Celebrimbor lived nearly an additional 2,300 years beyond that, and in that time, he became the second greatest Elven craftsman in history. But what was going on in his head? What were his motivations? How did this Elf come to accept the help of Sauron in disguise, fashion the Three Elven Rings with his own hands, and then fall to utter ruin along with his entire realm?
And how on earth does all of this make him a potential bi/pansexual icon?!
It doesn't. That's part of my point. It's not just what Tolkien writes; it's the lens through which I (and other queer people) read it. It isn't necessarily the job of the writers for The Rings of Power to make an overt show of Celebrimbor's sexuality... or anyone's, for that matter. I'm not insisting we need Celebrimbor/Annatar sex scenes in order to give the finger to anyone who doesn't agree with the Silver-Gifting ship. I actually think such a thing would be tasteless and contrary to the tone of Tolkien's work as a whole. It would be for shock value, and I'm frankly tired of queerness being used as a tool to shock audiences and give a studio or production a more "edgy" public perception.
Full disclosure: I am a Silver-Gifting shipper who has both read and written erotic fanfiction starring these characters. (Silver-Gifting is the relationship name for Celebrimbor paired with Annatar, just in case you've never heard the term before.) It's not that I dislike sexual content---quite the contrary---but that I think this particular adaptation (The Rings of Power) is the wrong time and place for it. Fanfiction is an excellent outlet for people like me who enjoy Tolkien with a more erotic tilt. It's a safe place to explore that aspect of the characters' relationships. If that's what we want as fans, then that is where we go to find it, and I feel there should be zero shame in that.
Official adaptations of Tolkien's works prioritize staying true to the tone and vision of the author. That is exactly as it should be. And Tolkien's tone is not a sexual one. But that doesn't mean that queerness cannot or should not exist in Tolkien's world. While overt sex is inconsistent with Tolkien's canonical tone, queer-coding is not.
And that brings us at last to Celebrimbor specifically. Within canon, there is room for his character to be perceived as bisexual (or pansexual). Before I give examples, let's answer an important question:
What makes a character bi/pan? -- Contrary to popular belief, having a bi/pan identity doesn't require you have sexual relationships. Period. Full stop. A character doesn't need on-page spice with both sexes to qualify as bi/pan. They just need to show an interest or desire for a relationship (of any kind) with both in the theoretical sense. Because Tolkien obviously doesn't dive into his characters' heads and overtly say who they desire, we are left only with subtext. And that is where queerness thrives in much of mainstream modern media.
When there is chemistry between characters, queer or straight, you can sense it when you read about them or watch an adaptation. It's palpable without the characters ever needing to kiss or touch intimately. It's a subtle art, especially when it comes to film-making. It's in cinematography that showcases a look from across a room, opting to edit in an actor's twitch of an eyebrow reacting to innuendo in another characters' dialogue, or the atmosphere set by the lighting, timbre of voices, or the music chosen to overlay the interaction. There are countless elements that can imply chemistry. A hint of desire alone needs to be depicted or alluded to, and boom, you've got yourself a relationship.
For a bi/pan character, those tiny hints need to be dropped in both directions, but that's the only difference. And this is where Celebrimbor could potentially come alive on screen.
Let's look at the canon. -- The tl;dr is that Celebrimbor has some form of love for Galadriel (despite Galadriel's typically early marriage to Celeborn), and that comes into conflict with the relationship he develops with Annatar, who is essentially the Dark Lord Sauron in disguise.
The bulk of the evidence comes from The Unfinished Tales, in the section titled "The History of Galadriel & Celeborn". Celebrimbor's interactions are sprinkled throughout, but here is a section about the Elessar ("Elf-stone") that is of particular interest. There are two in-world versions of the Elessar, and then two accounts of the creation of the first of the two. From the first account, beginning with Galadriel's dialogue:
'I would have trees and grass about me that do not die -- here in the land that is mine,' she answered. 'What has become of the skill of the Eldar?' And Celebrimbor said: 'Where now is the Stone of Eärendil [the Elessar]? And Enerdhil who made it is gone.' 'They have passed over Sea,' said Galadriel, 'with almost all fair things else. But must then Middle-Earth fade and perish for ever?'And then from the second account:
'That is its fate, I deem,' said Celebrimbor. 'But you know that I love you (though you turned to Celeborn of the Trees), and for that love I will do what I can, if haply by my art your grief can be lessened.'
The Elessar was made in Gondolin by Celebrimbor, and so came to Idril and so to Eärendil. But that passed away. But the second Elessar was made also by Celebrimbor in Eregion at the request of the Lady Galadriel (whom he loved), and it was not under the One, being made before Sauron rose again.This unrequited love is never mentioned in officially published texts; neither The Lord of the Rings nor The Silmarillion ever delve into Celebrimbor's friendship with Galadriel. Indeed, The Unfinished Tales paints a much more complex interaction between their characters, especially after Sauron reappears:
When [Sauron] felt himself to be secure he sent emissaries to Eriador, and finally, in about the year 1200 of the Second Age, came himself, wearing the fairest form that he could contrive. ... But Sauron had better fortune with the Noldor of Eregion and especially with Celebrimbor, who desired in his heart to rival the skill and fame of Fëanor.There we are given a chink in Celebrimbor's proverbial armor. A means through which Sauron could (and did) exploit him. I feel the need to pause here a moment to examine what Sauron may have used as inspiration for his form as well. I'm occasionally scolded by commenters online for being of the firm opinion that Sauron took a form that at least loosely resembled the Elves specifically. But here is my evidence to back that up:
It was because of their love of Eä, and because of the part they had played in its making, that they wished to, and could, incarnate themselves in visible physical forms, though these were comparable to our clothes (in so far as our clothes are a personal expression) not to our bodies. Their forms were thus expressions of their persons, powers, and loves. They need not be anthropomorphic (Yavanna wife of Aulë would, for instance, appear in the form of a great Tree.) But the 'habitual' shapes of the Valar, when visible or clothed, were anthropomorphic, because of their intense concern with Elves and Men.When Sauron actively infiltrates the Elves, it makes sense that he would contrive an anthropomorphic form with suitable grandeur to lend credibility to his deception as described in The Unfinished Tales:
~The Letters of JRR Tolkien (Letter 212)
In Eregion Sauron posed as an emissary of the Valar, sent by them to Middle-Earth ('thus anticipating the Istari') or ordered by them to remain there to give aid to the Elves. ... Sauron used all his arts upon Celebrimbor and his fellow-smiths, who had formed a society or brotherhood, very powerful in Eregion, the Gwaith-i-Mírdain; but he worked in secret, unknown to Galadriel and Celeborn. Before long Sauron had the Gwaith-i-Mírdain under his influence, for at first they had great profit from his instruction in secret matters of their craft.If Sauron took "the fairest form he could contrive", he had a vast amount of experience with the Elves, a lens through which he could shape a form that would inspire awe and trust from them. In the First Age, as recounted in The Silmarillion, he even fought Lúthien Tinúviel herself, the half-Maia-half-Elf regarded to be the most beautiful of Elvenkind. With such knowledge of what Elves perceive as beautiful, we can safely assume that his form was tailored to take advantage of that perception. He was not attempting to fly under the proverbial radar, but while his presence was known by all, he used more subtle manipulation in secret so as not to rouse suspicion. In short, Sauron in his Annatar form is the very epitome of Pretty Privilege.
Celebrimbor fell for it. Sauron's power is in cunning; he finds an individual's buttons then proceeds to push them at the opportune moment. In this case, it even drove a wedge between Celebrimbor and Galadriel. In The Unfinished Tales, one version of events sets Galadriel and Celeborn as the rulers of Eregion who are then overthrown by Celebrimbor and the Gwaith-i-Mírdain. This then splits Galadriel and Celeborn temporarily. While Galadriel passes through Khazad-dûm into Lórinand (part of which later becomes Lothlórien), Celeborn stays behind in Eregion due to his lingering hatred of the Dwarves over the destruction of Doriath in the First Age. Celebrimbor disregards Celeborn at this point, and it's clear that he refuses all attempts at counsel by Celeborn, Elrond, and/or Gil-Galad, though not out of any malice.
Now Celebrimbor was not corrupted in heart or faith, but had accepted Sauron as what he posed to be; and when at length he discovered the existence of the One Ring he revolted against Sauron, and went to Lórinand to take counsel once more with Galadriel. ... When Sauron learned of the repentance and revolt of Celebrimbor his disguise fell and his wrath was revealed.
The Intimacy of Creation -- So there is a period of 300-400 years (approximately SA 1200 - 1600) in which Sauron works closely with Celebrimbor. That's quite a period of time to be essentially apprenticed to the Dark Lord, and the intimacy of the creation of great works of art in Tolkien's world is not to be understated. The Elves impart pieces of their spirit when they create. In this, they truly are like the Ainur as fellow creations of Eru, the One.
This transference of spirit and power is present in both the willful creation of children between Elves as well as for the most praised works of craft. There are also ready examples of what happens when too much of one's spirit is given away through such creative endeavors, and they both directly relate to Celebrimbor himself.
With regards to children, Fëanor immediately comes to mind. So much of his mother Míriel's spirit was given in his making that Míriel no longer had the strength or desire to continue living. This then set up Fëanor to have one of the brightest of Elven spirits ever, which he then utilizes to make the famed Silmarils, constructing them from the light of the Two Trees of Yavanna. His skill was unrivaled, and in The Silmarillion, it states "The heart of Fëanor was fast bound to these things that he himself had made." Fëanor treats the Silmarils with more love and passion than he does his own seven sons. When asked to give up the Silmarils in order to revive the Two Trees following Morgoth and Ungoliant's attack in Valinor, Fëanor's response is this:
But Fëanor spoke then, and cried bitterly: 'For the less even as for the greater there is some deed that he may accomplish but once only; and in that deed his heart shall rest. It may be that I can unlock my jewels, but never again shall I make their like; and if I must break them, I shall break my heart, and I shall be slain; first of all the Eldar in Aman.'Much like Fëanor and the Silmarils, Celebrimbor's Three Elven Rings of Power are the greatest of his works. Under the tutelage of Annatar (Sauron), the abilities of the Gwaith-i-Mírdain were greatly enhanced, Celebrimbor even more so.
In those days the smiths of Ost-in-Edhil surpassed all that they had contrived before; and they took thought, and they made Rings of Power. But Sauron guided their labours, and he was aware of all that they did; for his desire was to set a bond upon the Elves and to bring them under his vigilance. ... And much of the strength and will of Sauron passed into that One Ring; for the power of the Elven-rings was very great, and that which should govern them must be a thing of surpassing potency...If the One Ring took so much of Sauron's divine spirit, imagine what the Three took from Celebrimbor. And in that skill, he was taught directly by Sauron as they worked together to create the lesser 16 of the Rings of Power.
~JRR Tolkien: The Silmarillion - "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age"
I imagine the intimacy of this partnership as being on par with any that Tolkien wrote as resulting in procreation. Tolkien is vague on both kinds of intimacy, as he avoids talk of sex in favor of the meeting and melding of minds in intellect and philosophy. There is an almost religious sanctity awarded to close relationships. We see it in the bond of Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings, and also echoed through the love shared by Beleg Strongbow and Túrin Turumbar in The Silmarillion. I argue that Celebrimbor's relationship with Annatar was on an even deeper level, as it was given centuries to develop and deepen. Their collaboration was continuous for literally centuries. This makes the deception and ultimate betrayal of Sauron a much deeper blow to Celebrimbor.
Potential for Nuanced Adaptation -- Now you know the existing framework from canon. The interpretation of what that means will be up to the directors and writers of The Rings of Power. Making the jump from mere canonical proximity to either physical or romantic intimacy takes very little effort in this case. Furthermore, in my opinion, ignoring the depth of this particular relationship would be a missed opportunity of catastrophic proportions when it comes to queer representation within the high fantasy genre.
Celebrimbor and Annatar provide the framework for a tragic and toxic relationship, one which Celebrimbor enters eagerly but under Sauron's false pretenses. Sauron's intentions are anything but pure; Tolkien typically uses the term "seduction", which is exceptionally intimate in nature. Not necessarily sexually, either! When Tolkien identifies seduction in his world, it is typically defined by a soul-deep connection through which one person learns the deepest desires, the darkest fears, and the most selfish instincts of the other... and with this knowledge, twists the individual to their own purposes. Because of the depth of connection, this reshaping is often perceived as innocent guidance or encouragement rather than a manipulation. Seduction is multifaceted and consuming, and Celebrimbor falls prey without even realizing his trust is being misplaced.
There are two ways this manipulation can be portrayed, and both of them have heavy queer subtext. Option 1: Sauron is playing Celebrimbor from start to finish, leveraging every desire and vulnerability to his advantage until the One Ring reveals his true intent to Celebrimbor and the jig is up. Option 2: In the probing of Celebrimbor's mind and spirit, Sauron is not left unaffected, and what begins as nefarious seduction slowly morphs into a true connection between the characters.
This second choice makes for much more nuanced storytelling, in my opinion, and further plays on the motivations of Sauron not being entirely without merit. If Sauron feels kinship and closeness with Celebrimbor, then perhaps that final betrayal leaves him feeling conflicted. Sauron knows what his plan is; he knows the betrayal that will ultimately have to happen for him to take power. Loving Celebrimbor is an inconvenience that necessitates a shift in his machinations. Instead of merely using Celebrimbor as a pawn, he must now convince Celebrimbor to embrace the darkness and follow him.
The sect of the audience who has read the lore knows that this is doomed to failure, but for those unfamiliar with Second Age lore, this could be a very interesting twist. Either way, half the fun of an adaptation is watching the journey the characters must take, even if we know their final destinations. Celebrimbor could absolutely struggle when faced with Sauron's deception. That would be reasonable given the canon. But making Sauron himself struggle with the execution of his own plan because of complicated emotional entanglement with Celebrimbor? That could really highlight internal conflict for both parties and give their ultimate choices heavier impact.
We know Celebrimbor doesn't break. We know Sauron does not show him mercy in the end. But when we depict the following, that internal conflict can really sing to life:
At last the attackers broke into Eregion with ruin and devastation, and captured the chief object of Sauron's assault, the House of the Mírdain, where were their smithies and their treasures. Celebrimbor, desperate, himself withstood Sauron on the steps of the great door of the Mírdain; but he was grappled and taken captive, and the House was ransacked. There Sauron took the Nine Rings and other lesser works of the Mírdain; but the Seven and the Three he could not find. Then Celebrimbor was put to torment, and Sauron learned from him where the Seven were bestowed. This Celebrimbor revealed, because neither the Seven nor the Nine did he value as he valued the Three; the Seven and the Nine were made with Sauron's aid, whereas the Three were made by Celebrimbor alone, with a different power and purpose. ... Concerning the Three Rings Sauron could learn nothing from Celebrimbor; and he had him put to death. But he guessed the truth, that the Three had been committed to Elvish guardians: and that must mean to Galadriel and Gil-galad.Note that Tolkien writes Sauron "had him put to death". This implies that Sauron gave the order but did not slay Celebrimbor himself. Why not? In my opinion, this is where the subtext of their intimacy lends a great deal of nuance. If Sauron had grown to even marginally care for Celebrimbor, torturing him would have been an act of desperation not pleasure. We see a shift in Sauron here, and I propose that being unable to break Celebrimbor or persuade him to darkness fills Sauron not just with anger but despair. His only choice is then to have Celebrimbor slain, and doing so then breaks whatever small part of Sauron which had forged a true connection with Celebrimbor. The impact of Celebrimbor's death isn't just how it affects the other Elves but how it affects Sauron himself. What follows Celebrimbor's death then feels far more personal, the death and loss of that small part of Sauron capable of love. Without it, he becomes utterly consumed by rage:
In black anger he turned back to battle; and bearing as a banner Celebrimbor's body hung upon a pole, shot through with Orc-arrows, he turned upon the forces of Elrond.After this event, Sauron never again attempts a deep connection like this. He continues to play on insecurities and get close in order to manipulate, but we never see a repeat of him sharing his skill and creative power with another. When he later infiltrates Númenor and goes from prisoner to high-council of Ar-Pharazôn, he twists the population en masse into a cult that worships Melkor. He never allows himself to be put in a position of emotional vulnerability again.
So the potential for intimacy between Sauron and Celebrimbor is not only present but can lend an entirely new layer to all Sauron's subsequent choices. Loss and grief do terrible things to people, and a soul like Sauron's would become even more dangerous. It tracks with his actions in the second half of the Second Age and even into his actions in the Third Age when he has lost physical form and must search for the One Ring to restore his power.
After all... what else does he have to lose at that point? Nothing. All that remains is for him to fulfill his purpose as the bad guy. If that's what Elves and Men want -- if that is all Eru has made him capable of -- then that is exactly what he's going to be. Nothing more. There is no one left around him to push him to aspire to something greater, some vision of paradise over which he can rule. When shown that all he touches turns to ash, Sauron resigns himself to just setting the world ablaze and watching it crumble at his feet.
And in my humble opinion, it takes one hell of a character to cause such a reaction. It takes one hell of a romance for the angst and loss to be so far-reaching. Thus, Celebrimbor is a bisexual/pansexual character that could potentially shape the narrative for Sauron in ways no other character would manage. Toxic as it is, this relationship determines the fate of Middle-Earth, and having stakes that high hang in the balance would make for fantastic television.
There is Always Hope -- It is my sincere hope that the writers for The Rings of Power take this into consideration. Given how little Celebrimbor played a role in the first season, with the majority of his role relegated only to the season finale, I can only hope they examine the extended canon with great care and come to appreciate this particular relationship in all its potential nuance. The relationship between Celebrimbor and Annatar doesn't have to be depicted as sexual for it to be present. I would even argue that it being non-sexual lends even more impact to the soul-deep connection that could be displayed with the right writing, directorial intent, and acting.
The potential here is untapped and the opportunity unprecedented in Tolkien adaptations. It would mean a lot to the queer community to see a story of love and tragedy we can call our own. The cis-het community has Beren and Lúthien (plus their Third Age counterparts Aragorn and Arwen). In The Rings of Power, they get echoes of that with Arondir and Bronwyn as well. Celebrimbor and Annatar deserve to be treated with the same care. Doing so would give the queer community a bi/pan hero for once instead of just a villain. After so long... I feel like it is time. And I hope the creators of this adaptation feel the same.