1. In Defence
Berúthiel, Queen of Gondor, appears very briefly in Tolkien’s writings. In FotR Aragorn says “He (Gandalf) is surer of finding the way home in a blind night than the cats of Queen Berúthiel”. Apart from this line in FotR, the only reference to her name appears in this paragraph in the Unfinished Tales:
"She was the nefarious, solitary, and loveless wife of Tarannon, Berúthiel lived in the Kings house in Osgiliath, hating the sounds and smells of the sea and the house that Tarannon built below Pelargir at Ethir Anduin. She hated all making, all colors and elaborate adornment, wearing only black and silver and living in bare chambers, and the gardens of the house in Osgiliath were filled with tormented sculptures beneath cypresses and yews. She had nine black cats and one white, her slaves, with whom she conversed, or read their memories, setting them to discover all the dark secrets of Gondor, so that she knew those things " That men wish most to keep hidden", setting the white cat to spy upon the black, and tormenting them. No man in Gondor dared touch them; all were afraid of them, and cursed when they saw them pass. At last King Tarannon had her set on a ship alone with her cats and set adrift on the sea before a North wind. The ship was last seen flying past Umbar under a sickle Moon, with a cat at the masthead and another as a figure-head on the prow. And her name was erased from the Book of the Kings."
In this paragraph, Tolkien actually summarises two millennia of fears and superstitions regarding cats and the women who kept them as pets, and mainly from a Catholic man’s perspective. This essay will discuss several aspects of her character as described by Tolkien, including her personality, her relationship with King Tarannon and the court of Gondor, her relationship with her cats and the influence of various superstitions on her tale.
She was the nefarious, solitary, and loveless wife of Tarannon.
Not a very pleasant person to be around, it seems, let alone being married to such a shrew. One could reasonably wonder why Tarannon married her in the first place. The answer to this is simple. Unlike popular fairy tales, royal marriages are rarely the result of love. In most cases, marriages between nobles and especially royalty are just another form of diplomacy. Most likely, Berúthiel was of noble blood, either from a family with legitimate claims to the throne of Gondor, or from a neighbouring kingdom. It has been argued that she was originally from a noble family of Umbar. Although I personally find this possibility plausible and very attractive, I have found nothing in Tolkien’s writings to support this.
So Berúthiel weds the king and comes to live in the Kings’ house in Osgiliath. She must have been very young at the time, in her early twenties at most. Kings rarely favour mature women as their brides. A queen’s role is mostly decorative and her main purpose is to produce heirs to the kingdom. Beauty, pleasant personality, noble bloodline are useful traits in a court’s public relations.
Still, Berúthiel is described as nefarious, solitary, and loveless. One can safely assume that she had not been as such at the time of her marriage. Something must have happened along the way to cause this change in personality. It takes little imagination to understand why. She was a young girl who found herself married to a man she hardly knew and had most likely never seen before her wedding day. She was taken away from her home and family and was relocated to an unfamiliar environment where she was supposed to function according to royal etiquette. Still a maiden, she had to share her bed with a man who expected from her offspring and, most important, an heir to the throne. In most medieval societies, as this of Gondor, sexual education of the female members of the upper class was usually overlooked. These women were supposed to behave with chastity, take no pleasure from lovemaking and breed. Otherwise they were labelled as prostitutes. Given Tolkien’s Catholic background, it is logical to assume that his views were not much different.
Not surprisingly, Berúthiel was probably not pleased with this arrangement and slowly distanced herself from her husband and the court.
Wife to the King
Berúthiel lived in the Kings house in Osgiliath, hating the sounds and smells of the sea and the house that Tarannon built below Pelargir at Ethir Anduin.
And she probably hated Tarannon as well.
The king, should his legitimate wife fail to please him, could always look for female company elsewhere. Ever-willing maids, bored wives of royal advisors, sophisticated courtesans; they were unlikely to decline an invitation to the king’s chambers. However, none of them could provide him with a legitimate heir to the throne.
Even in modern times, fertility problems are attributed more often to women than men. Many men (and their mothers) are in denial when it comes to consider the possibility of male sterility. It’s always the woman who is deemed barren. However, in Tarannon’s case, we read in the appendices that he died childless. One can reasonably assume that Berúthiel was not the only woman he ever bedded. Then why he produced no heirs, or at least some illegitimate son to step forth and claim the throne?
Perhaps here lies the true reason of Berúthiel’s exile; her inability to give Gondor an heir.
Servants to the Queen
She had nine black cats and one white, her slaves.
Tolkien must have never met a cat.
Cats are not slaves; such an arrangement is against their nature. Cats have slaves.
The earliest findings of feline domestication are dated back to 10,000 BC from an excavation site in Cyprus. At that time, dogs and horses had already been a part of the human household for many millennia. However, ask any cat-guardian: no cat is ever fully domesticated.
This line, however, reflects the medieval beliefs concerning witches and their familiars; usually cats, hares and toads. According to these beliefs, a familiar acted as an intermediate for the witch and carried out her orders. Black cats were most commonly associated with these minions of the devil and the powers of dark magic. When Pope Innocent VIII issued a degree in 1484 denouncing all cats and the people who owned them, many innocent women and their pets met with an unfortunate fate. Then came the Black Death, but that is another tale.
Given the feline temperament, it is highly unlikely that Berúthiel managed to keep her feline horde in order, let alone dominate them. If she did, I’d very much like to know her secret.
It’s a cat’s life.
“…wearing only black and silver and living in bare chambers, and the gardens of the house in Osgiliath were filled with tormented sculptures beneath cypresses and yews.”
Tolkien must have never seen a cat.
Even if her clothes were not black originally, with nine black cats shedding on them, they would soon be. Add a bit of white fur from the tenth cat and here you have your silver lining.
Incidentally, aren’t black and silver Gondor’s colours? What else would the Queen wear?
When it comes to her bare chambers, let me explain to you the first Law of Feline Economics:
“If it is on the floor, it is mine. If it is not on the floor, I’ll throw it there and claim it as my own.”
Cats knock things over. Cats break things. It is as simple as that and could very well explain those tormented sculptures as well. Have ten cats climb on any sculpture and watch it crumble. Those cypresses and yews must have suffered equally, I guess.
If Berúthiel’s sentence was based on that evidence, it’s a wonder that so many cat-guardians still roam free.
Workers of evil
“…with whom she conversed, or read their memories, setting them to discover all the dark secrets of Gondor, so that she knew those things " That men wish most to keep hidden”.”
In this phrase we again see echoes of the “evil witch-feline familiar” superstition.
Let us explore this hypothetical situation.
A member of the court of Gondor has an extramarital affair, or steals from the treasury, or takes illegal commission from an army supplies’ provider. No culture is free from state corruption and it is only logical to assume that such incidents were not unknown in Gondor. On his way back from his shady deal, he meets a cat who is in fact minding its own feline business. The cat stares right at him. The next day, for whatever reason, his indiscretion comes to light. Whom does he blame?
The cat, of course, and never his own sloppiness in covering his tracks.
There is something in the cat’s gaze that makes people uncomfortable. The ancient Egyptians’ name for “cat” was “mau”. According to some scholars, the word “mau” also means “light” and the Egyptians named this animal so because of the light that their eyes reflect. (Those scholars must have never heard a cat mew.) In later times, the association between their luminous eyes and Lucifer (bringer of Light) was made, with additional unfortunate impact on the feline species.
Superstitious minds can easily assume that cats can read their minds.
There is always the possibility that in a fantasy world, such as Middle Earth, Berúthiel’s cats were of a magical nature. Tolkien writes of Huan and of the Mearas, but these animals originated from Valinor and there is nothing in his works to suggest that Berúthiel’s cats had a similar origin.
Alpha of the pride
"… setting the white cat to spy upon the black, and tormenting them.”
A colony of cats shares many similarities with a lions’ pride. There is a strict hierarchy, there’s the alpha male, the alpha female and the runt of the litter. There is a certain order in which things are done; who gets the first bite, who gets to reproduce, who gets to use the litterbox first and so on. Apparently, the white cat was the alpha of the pride.
As for tormenting them? The term “cat-fight” comes to mind. Either for maintaining a certain level of discipline or as a result of common misunderstandings, regarding favourite toys, favourite napping spots or who gets petted first.
The good Professor was definitely not a cat person.
“And her name was erased from the Book of the Kings.".
This line brings to mind two famous female rulers of ancient Egypt: Nefertiti and Hatshepsut. In both cases, attempts were made to erase their name from temples and monuments as a punishment to capital crimes.
But what was Berúthiel’s crime?
All evidence against her seems circumstantial, from the little Tolkien writes about her. When one tries to read between the lines, though, a different image appears. Not this of an evil witch, but this of a strong woman from a noble bloodline, who opposed the traditional role of the queen. Her love of cats can be interpreted as a substitution for the children she never borne, but still she probably fell victim to court intrigue and superstition.
Still, almost two thousand years after her death, Aragorn remembered her name and her tale inside the darkness of Moria. Perhaps he was not the only one.
She was not burned at the stake; her black cats were not roasted alive at the Feast of St. John. King Tarannon had her set on a ship alone with her cats and set adrift on the sea before a North wind. Much like her, countless innocent women with their equally innocent cats have fallen victims to human stupidity and malice during the Witch-hunts. Even for their sake alone, Berúthiel deserves a closer look, beyond superstition and fanaticism.
In defence of Berúthiel and her cats, I rest my case.
Tolkien, FotR, “A journey in the dark”.
Tolkien, Unfinished tales, Part 4, Ch II The Istari, Note 7
J. Malek, The cat in Ancient Egypt.
JR Stephens, The enchanted Cat.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.