I recently received Tolkien's Unfinished Tales as a birthday gift, and within the second of the "Great Tales", the Narn i Hîn Húrin (Eng.: The Tale of the Children of Húrin) we hear of Nellas the elf-maiden of Doriath. Although unmentioned in the published Silmarillion, Nellas spent much time with Húrin's son Túrin during his fosterhood in Doriath. Mention of Nellas is brief but important to Túrin's absolvement of his "crime" against the elf Saeros, who died in a tragic fall.
The glossary gives the following description of Nellas:
Elf of Doriath, friend of Túrin in his boyhood; bore witness against Saeros in the trial of Túrin before Thingol.
This only. Yet this does not tell their full story, and I am compelled to quote all mentions of her here to imply my first impression; that Nellas loved Túrin but he never knew, and this was a grief that she bore in silence.
By a hard road in exile from his homeland of Dorlómin comes Túrin to Doriath, the forest kingdom of the Gray Elves.
In the years of his childhood in the kingdom of Doriath Túrin was watched over by Melian, though he saw her seldom. But there was a maiden named Nellas, who lived in the woods; and at Melian's bidding she would follow Túrin if he strayed in the forest, and often she met him there, as it were by chance. From Nellas Túrin learned much concerning the ways and the wild things of Doriath, and she taught him to speak the Sindarin tongue after the manner of the ancient realm, older, and more courteous, and richer in beautiful words.
An editorial note by Christopher Tolkien goes on here to say:
Elsewhere my father remarked that the speech of Doriath, whether of the King or others, was even in the days of Túrin more antique than that used elsewhere; and also that Mîm observed that one thing of which Túrin never rid himself, despite his grievance against Doriath, was the speech he had acquired during his fostering.
The original text continues.
Thus for a little while his mood was lightened, until he fell again under shadow, and that friendship passed like a morning of spring. For Nellas did not go to Menegroth, and was unwilling ever to walk under roofs of stone; so that as Túrin's boyhood passed and he turned his thoughts to the deeds of men, he saw her less and less often, and at last called for her no more. But she watched over him still, though now she remained hidden.
Túrin, now a man, has laboured much in battles against the Orcs along the northern borders of Doriath. An envious and malicious elf named Saeros makes an attempt on Túrin's life, but ends up dead himself. Túrin flees and misunderstanding grows among the elves, and as Thingol the king is about to announce Túrin's banishment, there is a revelation.
Then there was silence in the hall, and Thingol lifted up his hand to pronounce his doom. But at that moment Beleg entered in haste, and cried: "Lord, may I yet speak?"
"You come late," said Thingol. "Were you not bidden with the others?"
"Truly, lord," answered Beleg, "but I was delayed; I sought for one whom I knew. Now I bring at last a witness who should be heard, ere your doom falls."
"All were summoned who had aught to tell," said the King. "What can he tell me now of more weight than those to whom I have listened?"
"You shall judge when you have heard," said Beleg. "Grant this to me, if I have ever deserved your grace."
"To you I grant it," said Thingol. Then Beleg went out, and led in by the hand the maiden Nellas, who dwelt in the woods, and came never into Menegroth; and she was afraid, both for the great pillared hall and the roof of stone, and for the company of many eyes that watched her. And when Thingol bade her speak, she said: "Lord, I was sitting in a tree"; but then she faltered in awe of the King, and could say no more.
At that the King smiled, and said: "Others have done this also, but have felt no need to tell me of it."
"Others indeed", said she, taking courage from his smile. "Even Lúthien! And of her I was thinking that morning, and of Beren the Man."
She was watching Túrin from afar, as always, thinking of Beren and Lúthien, the first union of Men and Elves.
To that Thingol said nothing, and he smiled no longer, but waited until Nellas should speak again.
"For Túrin reminded me of Beren," she said at last. "They are akin, I am told, and their kinship can be seen by some: by some that look close."
Then Thingol grew impatient. "That may be," he said. "But Túrin son of Húrin is gone in scorn of me, and you will see him no more to read his kindred. For now I will speak my judgement."
"Lord King!" she cried then. "Bear with me, and let me speak first. I sat in a tree to look on Túrin as he went away; and I saw Saeros come out from the wood with sword and shield, and spring on Túrin unawares."
At that there was a murmur in the hall; and the King lifted his hand, saying: "You bring graver news to my ear than seemed likely. Take heed now to all that you say; for this is a court of doom."
"So Beleg has told me," she answered, "and only for that have I dared to come here, so that Túrin shall not be ill judged. He is valiant, but he is merciful. They fought, lord, these two, until Túrin had bereft Saeros of both shield and sword; but he did not slay him. Therefore I do not believe that he willed his death in the end. If Saeros were put to shame, it was shame that he had earned."
Thingol goes on to find Túrin thus innocent, and that he should be called back to Doriath.
But when the doom was pronounced, suddenly Nellas wept. "Where can he be found?" she said. "He has left our land, and the world is wide."
She knew he had left, because she must have followed him as far as her courage would allow, perhaps to the borders of Doriath itself.
Many search for Túrin, but only Beleg remains true to the task. Eventually Túrin is found, and Beleg tells him all that has happened.
Then Túrin sat in silence, and strove with his pride, which would not let him turn back; and he brooded on the years that lay behind him. But coming suddenly out of his thought he said to Beleg: "The elf-maiden whom you named: I owe her well for her timely witness; yet I cannot recall her. Why did she watch my ways?"
Then Beleg looked strangley at him. "Why indeed?" he said. "Túrin, have you lived always with your heart and half your mind far away? You walked with Nellas in the woods of Doriath, when you were a boy."
Elves have a long memory. Beleg knew the relationship Nellas had with Túrin, and from the above quotes it seems he knew her personally as well. It isn't hard to believe that she watched over Túrin for many years and that while Túrin might not have noticed, Beleg certainly had. Beleg knew she would have witnessed the fight.
"That was long ago," said Túrin. "Or so my childhood now seems, and a mist is over it - save only the memory of my father's house in Dor-lómin. But why should I have walked with an elf-maiden?"
A man with his mind on other things. Far things that Nellas could have no part of. Why does he retain no memory of her at all?
"To learn what she could teach, maybe," said Beleg. "Alas, child of Men! There are other griefs in Middle-earth than yours, and wounds made by no weapon. Indeed, I begin to think that Elves and Men should not meet or meddle."
It is clear what he means by "meet or meddle". Beleg believes only tragedy can come of it, as the "loss" of Lúthien would seem to an Elf of Doriath like himself.
Túrin said nothing, but looked long in Beleg's face, as if he would read in it the riddle of his words. But Nellas of Doriath never saw him again, and his shadow passed from her.
The final line struck me the most. This could mean either "the curse of Morgoth that follows Húrin's kin" or "the weight of unrequited love". My first reading was the latter meaning. Then, perhaps that her feelings could even pass away at all is proof that he was not Beren, she was not Lúthien, and their love was not a destined thing. It is good that she was one day free of that weight, but surely bitter in the passing nonetheless.
Nellas isn't mentioned again, but she remains within Túrin as the one who gave him a new voice:
The sun shone and the young leaves were green; and Túrin was irked by the squalid camp of the outlaws, and he wandered away alone far into the forest. Against his will he remembered the Hidden Kingdom, and he seemed to hear the names of the flowers of Doriath as echoes of an old tongue almost forgotten.