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Despite its immense popularity, J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord
of the Rings has long been criticized by feminists who say that there
are too few female characters and that those who do exist are most notable
for their conventionality. The first charge is irrefutable: there are
only three major and six minor feminine roles in the three fat volumes
that comprise Rings. Even the numerous horses in the story all
seem to be male!
An Oxford professor of Anglo-Saxon, Tolkien moved in a world steeped in
masculine intellectuality. Although Tolkien himself took female students,
women played almost no part in scholarly life at Oxford in the 1930s and
40s. Tolkien was a prominent member of the Inklings, an all-male, mostly
Christian coterie of pipe-smoking, pub-loving dons. Like many men in such
a milieu, Tolkien put women on a pedestal.
In the entire body of Tolkien's work no women are ever immoral although
they may face sexual harassment, attempted rape, forced marriage, or even
death at the hands of men. Nor are any women ever shown in the service
of the Dark Lord Sauron or his ancient master, Morgoth. The only named
females who aid them are a vampire bat and two giant spiders.
In an era that doesn't prize traditionally feminine virtues, Tolkien's
work stands out for its idealized view of women. He highly honors their
traditional roles. Indeed, it could be argued that nearly all the action
in Tolkien's universe derives from one women's dereliction of her motherly
duties. In The Silmarillion, which is set millennia before Lord
of the Rings, the elf-queen Míriel suffered such a severe case of
post-partum depression that she willed herself to die, ignoring the desperate
entreaties of her husband. Her motherless son grew up proudly ungovernable.
It was he who fomented the rebellion of the elves against the gods, thus
setting in train thousands of years of misery. To the chagrin of feminists,
Rings' three heroines conform to conventional feminine Types, familiar
from medieval literature and fairy tales. These are: Arwen the Fairy Bride,
Galadriel the Good Witch, and Eówyn the Shield Maiden. Their negative
equivalents, however, are significantly absent.
Tolkien's heroines, furthermore, excel in traditional feminine functions.
They fructify, inspire, counsel, preserve, nourish, and heal -- all in
the service of life. They are mistresses of domestic arts: Arwen embroiders,
Galadriel weaves, Eówyn cares for her infirm uncle and manages his royal
Tolkien doesn't include evil counterparts to these images of conventional
femininity. There's no Temptress, Sorceress, or man-hating Amazon in his
story. Female characters among Tolkien's speaking peoples (elves, humans,
dwarves, ents, and hobbits) may have character flaws and foibles but only
one fleetingly mentioned woman in the work is deeply evil.
When the first Rings film, The Fellowship of the Ring, came
out in 2001, a newspaper article noted that there "[wasn't] much estrogen
flowing" in the movie. Filmmaker Peter Jackson, however, has made some
intriguing changes in the story's female characters. Jackson's principal
alteration was to give Tolkien's women more time on stage and more opportunities
to be active. He didn't make them proto-feminists though you'd never know
this from the hue and cry raised on various Tolkien websites.
In the book, Arwen the elf maiden seems just a pretty face, a promised
trophy wife to reward the human hero Aragorn for his mighty deeds. She's
meant to be Aragorn's supportive partner who makes him more of a man than
he would have otherwise been. Despite her significance, Arwen makes only
the briefest appearances in the books. This treatment would do for medieval
romance but contemporary audiences -- of any sexual politics -- expect
to see more of the hero's love interest.
As director, co-producer, and co-writer of the three Rings movies,
Jackson widened Arwen's role, casting Liv Tyler in the part. Jackson dramatized
the poignant romance of Arwen and Aragorn that Tolkien had relegated to
an appendix in his hobbit-centered story. Jackson emphasizes Arwen as
a source of loyal encouragement: she believes in Aragorn's destiny more
strongly than he initially does. Against her father's wishes, she insists
on sharing her lover's mortal status even before he's won his victory.
The filmed Fellowship of the Ring puts a sword in Arwen's hand,
supposedly the sword of her brave great-grandmother -- whom Tolkien probably
didn't picture armed. And Arwen rather than a male elf warrior rescues
Frodo, the hobbit who bears the baleful Ring, when enemy forces close
in. For The Two Towers, the second film in the trilogy (2002) ,
Peter Jackson invented a scene where a vision of Arwen restores the breath
of life to a nearly drowned Aragorn. The concluding installment, The
Return of the King (2003) devises another bit of initiative for Arwen.
She requests the reforging of Aragorn's broken ancestral sword to enhance
his manhood, aid his military prospects, and strengthen his claim to his
throne. The written text has her engaging in a more conventional feminine
pursuit -- embroidering his royal banner. In the film, Arwen herself brings
the banner to Aragorn's coronation, but it's not specified as her own
handiwork. Purists screamed about the alterations and doctrinaire feminists
are unlikely to have been mollified with all this tinkering.
Arwen's maternal grandmother Galadriel, greatest of her people, is a far
more complex character, ably played by Cate Blanchett. Eager to rule her
own kingdom in Middle-earth, Galadriel listened to the voices of rebellion
and departed the Undying Lands against the will of the gods who rule there.
She is forceful in other ways as well. Her mother originally called her
"Man-maiden" because at six feet four inches in height, she was the tallest
of all elf women and notably athletic. In one version of her story, she
actually took up arms to defend her kin from attack before her departure
from the realm of the gods.
But Tolkien re-wrote the Galadriel sections repeatedly, trying to eradicate
the sinful pride with which he had originally endowed her, for he was
much taken with the notion that Galadriel resembled the Virgin Mary. Despite
her formidable appearance, she functions as a consoling, protective mother-figure.
Tolkien's highest goddess, Varda Elbereth, is an even better fit for the
Marian role because she stands on the world's highest peak, listening
to the prayers of Middle-earth's people who invoke her in their need.
Another female character skillfully adapted by Jackson is Eówyn, a human
maiden played by Australian actress Miranda Otto. Eówyn is the 24-year-old
niece and nursemaid of an enfeebled king. Called "the steel lily," she
longs to do great deeds in the company of men. Tolkien depicts her plight
with sympathy but implicitly rejects her notion that men's work matters
more than women's. Jackson gives Eówyn an extra opportunity: He allows
her to best Aragorn at swordplay. (A scene in which she destroyed a monster
threatening women and children wasn't used in the final cut of The
Two Towers.) In The Return of the King, Eówyn plays the hero
as she does in the book by slaying Sauron's greatest servant, whom no
man can kill.
Although there are no villainous women to oppose Rings' three great
heroines, there is a female monster -- Shelob, the giant spider, who attacks
Frodo and his servant Sam on their journey to destroy the evil Ring. Shelob
is an archtypical Devouring Mother, sadistic and entrapping, a female
who takes and destroys rather than give and nourish. One feminist critic
decried the episode as an attack on the womb and evidence of anti-female
bias. But after breathing a prayer to Varda Elbereth and blinding the
spider with a light source provided by Galadriel, Sam is able to kill
Shelob because she unwittingly helps him drive his sword into her own
belly. Evil mars itself as good feminine powers overcome an evil one.
Tolkien prefers to show females in a positive -- even too positive --
light. At the risk of committing the biographical fallacy, his idealization
of women may have grown out of his reverence for his widowed mother. She
forfeited support from her family by converting to Catholicism with her
two sons and died in appalling poverty.
Marriage is the best destiny for women -- and men -- in Tolkien's world.
Even the king of gods sees more when his queen is beside him and she hears
more when he is with her. Marriage for Tolkien is the culmination of the
past and the promise of the future. Only through intermarriages with human
men -- sons of indomitable mothers -- can the elves leave lasting progeny
in Middle-earth. The wedding of Arwen and Aragorn that renews his kingdom
unites three lineages of elves and three of humans, not to mention a trace
of divine blood.
Their fateful marriage consciously recapitulates the union of their ancient
heroic ancestors Luthien, an elf princess, and Beren, a human warrior,
who fought the ancient enemy, Morgoth, in The Silmarillion. Tolkien
modeled the unconquerable Luthien on his own wife Edith, both for her
beauty and for the long struggle they endured to marry: the priest who
had raised Tolkien had forbidden the lovers contact until Tolkien came
of age. "She was my Luthien," he said and had that name inscribed for
her on their joint tombstone, with his later entered as "Beren."
The royal union of Arwen and Aragorn has a rustic parallel in the marriage
of hobbits Sam and Rose at the end of The Return of the King. Rose
is Sam's touchstone of normality, his emblem of hope in the bleakest part
of the Ring-quest. Being able to found a family with her shows that bearing
the Ring has not harmed him as it has his master Frodo. The hero comes
home to his garden and his Rose.
Although Tolkien's females are conventional, they are also powerful. Females
alone can harvest and process the super-nourishing wheat of the gods into
"way bread" for journeys. They routinely "see farther" than men and summon
sacred trees to grow. They bring inspiration and instill hope. They listen
to the woes of the world, encourage resistence, and shed tears of pity.
In Tolkien, feminine virtues make life worth living.
This article was originally published online
Miesel is the co-author, with Carl Olson, of The
Da Vinci Hoax.
She holds masters degrees in biochemistry and medieval history from
the University of Illinois. Since 1983, she has written hundreds of articles
for the Catholic press, chiefly on history, art, and hagiography. She regularly
appears in Crisis magazine and is a columnist for the diocesan paper
of Norwich, Connecticut. Sandra has spoken at religious and academic conferences,
appeared on EWTN, and given numerous radio interviews.
Outside the Catholic sphere, she has also written, analyzed, and edited
fiction. Sandra and her husband John have raised three children.
Related Titles from Ignatius Press:
A Celebration, edited by Joseph Pearce
Man and Myth by Joseph Pearce
Tolkien: Myth, Morality, and Religion by Richard Purtill
R. R. Tolkien: Master of the Ring - (DVD)
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