I believe I can safely assume no one will be too surprised if I say that Tolkien’s works are not exactly feminist masterpieces from today’s point of view. The Lord of the Rings was published over sixty years ago; The Hobbit predates the Second World War, and The Silmarillion is a collection of stories from various points in time between 1930s and 1960s. But how bad it actually is? How painful is it to read the stories today with feminist goggles on? Let’s take a detailed look.
There are, as ever, two basic ways to approach this issue, the Doylist one (Is the narrative feminist? Is the representation good?) and the Watsonian one (Do women living in Middle-Earth suffer from oppression? Is the world sexist, and if so, is it depiction or endorsement?). I’ll try to cover both of them here, though the Watsonian perspective will make me delve into some of Tolkien’s more obscure work, and so parts of it might perhaps not be that relevant for evaluating those of his books that actually function as fiction, rather than reference resources for nerds.
From the Doylist point of view, the first problem, of course, is the dearth of female characters. The Hobbit mentions a single woman: Belladonna Took, Bilbo’s mother, who is dead at the time of the story and plays no part in it except to provide Bilbo with adventuring genes. That is a depressing score even for 1937, when it was first published.
The Lord of the Rings fares somewhat better as far as numbers go. Ignoring the barely mentioned characters – something I could not have afforded to do in The Hobbit, so progress! – there’s Lobelia Sackfold-Baggins and Rosie representing hobbit ladies, Arwen and Galadriel for Elves, Goldberry for, well, fairy-tale creatures, and for Men, Ioreth and, most importantly from the feminist perspective, Éowyn. And Shelob, I suppose, for spiders. They all have enough of a role in the story for me to have something to analyse, too, so that’s what I’ll proceed to do.
Rosie is a pretty conventional love interest for Sam; something to long for when he’s away from home, where she waits patiently. But she is smart enough in her own way. For example, after his return to The Shire, she tells Sam she has been expecting him home since spring, and spring was actually the time when the ring was destroyed, so she was very right to do so. Rosie embodies all of the typical Hobbit characteristics in her calm solidity, and in this context, even the things that could perhaps be considered a little stereotypical (‘the sensible woman who doesn’t want her man to get into any nonsense’ trope) aren’t because that is what the vast majority of hobbits feels, male or female. Rosie leaves me, in short, feeling perfectly neutral.
Lobelia, on the other hand, is a straight out feminist icon. She’s a strong-headed, unpleasant, greedy and opinionated woman with plenty of faults who is brave and will stand up to tyranny. Let me just quote the relevant passage and allow it to speak for itself:
She comes down the lane with her old umbrella. Some of the ruffians were going up with a big cart.
“Where be you a-going?” says she.
“To Bag End,” says they.
“What for?” says she.
“To put up some sheds for Sharkey,” says they.
“Who said you could?” says she.
“Sharkey,” says they.
“So get out o’ the road, old hagling!”
“I’ll give you Sharkey, you dirty thieving ruffians!” says she, and ups with her umbrella and goes for the leader. near twice her size. So they took her. Dragged her off to the Lockholes, at her age too. They’ve took others we miss more, but there’s no denying she showed more spirit than most.
Of course, the spirited old lady is a trope in itself, but the way Tolkien works with it here is far from cliché. Lobelia gets arrested for her attack, grows frail and thin in prison, and would have likely died there if Frodo and company, returning from a much more dangerous conflict, didn’t organize a force to free her. Proud, she insists on walking out of the prison on her own feet. Everyone cheers for her once she does, moving her deeply, since she has never been popular before. It’s heartbreaking.
She was also the mother of the hobbit who effectively turned the Shire into a dictatorship, and when she died, she left her money to take care of those who were made homeless by what her son had started. Her story is a story of human decency triumphing over pettiness, and of indomitable spirit, and I wish we had more about her than the few lines we do.
Taking Goldberry next, she is…well, she is a fairy-tale nymph, wife to a maybe-God. It’s a very special position. Considering this, her duties are way too domestic and gender-stereotypical – Tom asks her if the supper is ready and she does autumn-cleaning. She is fey and cheerful and otherwordly, and in fact, in some ways she is the antithesis to Arwen, being a faerie creature who keeps to her faerie folk and gets to be forever happy for it…but I prefer my faerie creatures without dinner-making duties.
Arwen, on the other hand, represents in many ways the perfect maid of chivalric romance: completely passive and perfectly, tragically beautiful, waiting for others to act, while at the same time having something of the nymph that we often see in these tales as well. Aragorn falls in love with her; she lets herself be enchanted the second time she meets him (though I do give Tolkien points for the slight condescension she treats the Man with the first time they meet – he really acts like an exceptional idiot there, so he fully deserves it), and after he demands she chose between him on one hand and immortality and everyone she loves on the other, she obediently chooses him. Then her father tells her fiancé that he will only get to marry Arwen once he becomes king, so Aragorn sets out to become king. Arwen, meanwhile, is waiting for him to be the prize at the end and passing her time by weaving and embroidering a standard for him. Her opinion on this whole king business seems to interest no one at all. So far, so two-dimensional.
It’s not quite as easy as that, of course. When Frodo first sees her, she is said to be beautiful, yes, but it’s also said that ‘thought and knowledge were in her glance, as of one who has known many things that the years bring.’ Later when she gives him her jewel, she does indeed add some words of wisdom to it. Also, while it’s often repeated how beautiful she is, her tragedy is an equally important aspect of her, and it many ways it overshadows her happiness with Aragorn. When she promises herself to him, she does so with regret for the father she will have to leave, and the final point of her story is her dying alone and grieved in a withering Lothlórien. All things considered, I would not exactly say that the message of her story is that abandoning all of your family and friends for the man you love is a good plan, even though it does carry the troubling message of it being inevitable in a way. The story stays romance enough for that. But still, and this is very important, it’s there is only one female character who is like this, in the whole of The Lord of the Rings. It’s not a pattern. Tolkien worked with classic literary tropes, but he was not limited by them, and to them.
Now to Galadriel. I could go on for hours and hours about Galadriel, and I’m not even exaggerating. But for the moment I’ll try to limit myself to her role in The Lord of the Rings. It is basically one of a mysterious and powerful faerie queen, a queen who is unquestionably good even though there are numerous assumptions about her being an evil witch, assumptions that come from people’s prejudices. There is a feminist commentary to be had here, about the hangups many have about women in power, and with power. And boy, does she have power.
Her actual influence on the story is rather limited compared to the others who are comparably powerful, true – both Elrond and Gandalf influence it more, and so does Saruman, naturally – but we do see her strength clearly. Besides being at least a co-ruler of her realm, she can play tricks on the minds of the Fellowship and read their reactions, she can see and show the future, she wears one of the three elven Rings of Power. She tells Frodo she fights with Sauron daily via her mind and can reads his plans, while her own thoughts remain secret. That’s pretty badass.
At the same time, she is not idealized, or not any more than the wise male characters are. She is shown to desire power, the Evil Queen being a temptation she has to resist, and there is no doubt presented at all that if she decided to go that way, she could pull it off. She could take the ring from Sauron and defeat him and become the universal ruler, it’s only that she’d become evil if she did so – not immediately, but in time – and that’s why she doesn’t. Let me reiterate: she could rule the world by extending her hand but chooses not to because she would do harm by it. And this in spite of having always wished to be Queen. As much as a character that’s clearly intended to be outside of our own experience can be a role model, she is one.
And speaking of role models… Éowyn. The perfect, brilliant, incomparable Éowyn. When we first come across her, she is stuck at home, taking care of her uncle and being sexually harassed by Wormtongue (their interaction is only seen directly in the films, but in the books, Gandalf tells Grima “too long have you watched her under your eyelids and haunted her steps”) when she’d much rather be out there fighting. She loves her uncle and does her best for him, as is considered her duty, but her character is suited to a different kind of task. She is said to have ‘cool pity’ in her eyes when she looks at Théoden, which to be honest is not something I would want to see in someone who took care of me in illness. Not everyone has the temper for nursing, and Éowyn clearly doesn’t. When her nurturing is finally no longer required and she gets her heart’s desire by seeing Théoden get better, her country goes to war for survival, she is handed a sword and the rule of her people in her uncle’s absence.
Now this is, in fact, quite subtle, and a more complicated feminist message that much of current media manages, to be honest. Éowyn is handed the rule because people trust her to lead them (“She is fearless and high-hearted. All love her. Let her be as lord to the Eorlingas, while we are gone”). It’s one of Théoden’s guards who proposes it, in response to Théoden’s assertion that there is no one left in his line except Éomer. Éowyn gets forgotten by the very man she cared for for so long, but not by her people, and is trusted with a very important task. And yet there is no doubt that she would rather ride to war with the king than do this. Not because it is a feminine task and she is Not Like Other Girls (it’s not feminine, as was made obvious by Théoden not remembering her), but because, quite simply, she wishes to fight, thinks that is her calling and her talent. The problem, here, is not that she is relegated to an unimportant task – in fact taking charge of all the non-fighters in the land is a more important task than being one of many warriors in a field, generally speaking – but that she cannot choose the task she is given, because what she really wishes to do she is prevented from doing, being a woman.
Yet here, she doesn’t protest. She knows it’s an important job and someone must do it, and someone with authority, too, and so she accepts it without complaint, because there really aren’t that many choices, and goes on to do it well, defusing the tensions that arise in its course effectively (“There were hard words, for it is long since war has driven us from the green fields; but there have been no evil deeds.”)
There is also her crush on Aragorn. Éowyn values and admires strength, and she sees more of it in him than she’d seen in any Man for a long time, or at least any who wasn’t her brother or cousin. She is loath to part from him and happy to see him again, and horrified when he tells her he intends to go through the Paths of the Dead. She repeatedly tries to convince him not to go – in her experience, all who try that die, and Aragorn never explains why that might not be the case with him – or, if he has to, at least allow her to go with him. She actually begs him on her knees, which is certainly not something she would do easily. He refuses and explains, in a very patronizing tone, why when he rides to danger and Théoden and the rest of fighters ride into yet another battle, she has to stay and take care of the people hiding in the mountains. Their dialogue is brilliant and I have to resist the urge to quote it in its entirety. Here are the most perfect bits:
‘Your duty is with your people,’ he answered.
‘Too often have I heard of duty,’ she cried. ‘But am I not of the House of Eorl, a shieldmaiden and not a dry-nurse? I have waited on faltering feet long enough. Since they falter no longer, it seems, may I not now spend my life as I will?’
‘Few may do that with honour,’ he answered. ‘But as for you, lady: did you not accept the charge to govern the people until their lord’s return? If you had not been chosen, then some marshal or captain would have been set in the same place, and he could not ride away from his charge, were he weary of it or no.’
‘Shall I always be chosen?’ she said bitterly. ‘Shall I always be left behind when the Riders depart, to mind the house while they win renown, and find food and beds when they return?’
‘A time may come soon,’ said he, ‘when none will return. Then there will be need of valour without renown, for none shall remember the deeds that are done in the last defence of your homes. Yet the deeds will not be less valiant because they are unpraised.’
And she answered: ‘All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more.’
(…) He said. ”Stay! For you have no errand to the South.’
‘Neither have those others who go with thee. They go only because they would not be parted from thee – because they love thee.’
So first, let me reiterate: she did not protest the first time she was assigned this task, because while she wanted to ride to war, she knew the people and supplies had to be gathered and led to the mountains. But now all of this is done (“All is now ordered, as you see.”), and only the less complicated work of guarding them there is required, and so now she finally protests that it still has to be her who does this.
And then there is the pointed question, Shall I always be chosen? That’s it in a nutshell. It’s not that the work isn’t necessary, but that out of all the marshals and captains who could have done this same job, it’s always going to be her, because she is a woman and therefore can’t ride into battle. Aragorn’s answer to this is incredibly moronic. For one, it entirely misses the point, as she tells him in her reply. And for another, desiring to be celebrated in songs is a crucial part of the culture of Rohan. He might not agree with this, but telling her that there are deeds without renown to be had is simply idiotic. And then the point is hammered home once again: Men have the choice to sacrifice their own lives for something they value when they want to, women don’t.
Éowyn, of course, proceeds to ignore the haters, rides to war, and kills Sauron’s second in command – a job no man could have done. If there is a more decisive way to prove that all this gendered prejudice is bullshit, I don’t know about it. She becomes the most loyal and steadfast of all the king’s knights, and does the single one most typically heroic deed of the entire battle. Of the entire war. If The Lord of the Rings was a traditional heroic epic along the lines of Beowulf, she would be its heroine.
Just think about that for a minute.
She almost dies of this confrontation, and is healed by Aragorn, in a wonderful role reversal. She is the epic hero, and he, who would fit the role the most, becomes the healer. Of course, being Aragorn – more on that later – he can’d do so without comment, stating that she was “pitted against a foe beyond the strength of her mind or body.” I am sorry, Aragorn, but last time I checked, Witch-King was dead and she was still alive, and will remain so if you get to work instead of standing there passing judgement. And he had the gall to accuse the other healers of talking too much and not acting quickly enough!
She gets over her unproductive crush on him, too, though that is likely the most problematic part of her story. Faramir effectively falls in love with her because he pities her, and the way he insists on talking about his feelings for her after she told him no reeks of harassment. But it gets better, and though her acceptance of Faramir could easily be read as “silly girl learned her lesson and now understands her place,” the narrative proved her right, not Aragorn, so I think it would be a misinterpretation.
Instead, I think her ‘understanding her heart’ is meant to indicate her understanding that valuing strength above all is not a reasonable approach, and that while war might be necessary to fight evil, it should not be loved for itself, because of all the tragedy it brings. Not an unreasonable development for someone who had just lost a beloved uncle in one and almost died, I think. Faramir mostly helped her along on the road to this realization, by being strong enough to be a warrior and yet not being a fan of toxic masculinity, and so became the perfect match for her. She doesn’t give up her feminist views either. When he paints their future in Ithilien, she says: “Then must I leave my own people, man of Gondor?” Just casually bringing up one of the biggest injustices women in patrilocal societies face. She has long wished to leave Rohan, so she doesn’t really protest, she just reminds him, with one simple sentence, that he has just described their future without asking her opinion once, and that that’s not going to fly.
Éowyn has nuance, a heroic tale, her own story arc…she is easily the most prominent woman in this tale, and the her plotline is awesome. Yes, I would have been happier if her speech to Faramir sounded a little less like she was planning to change her whole personality for him, but given how awesome she is otherwise, I don’t want to be too nitpicky.
So awesome, in fact, that it might seem like a bit of a downer to speak of the rather less heroic Ioreth, but she does deserve a mention. She is a healer, and a bit of a cliché gossiping lady, but it’s also her who thinks of a king’s healing power as a chance for those hurt by the nazghul. I mean, Gandalf is right there and it doesn’t occur to him, and it occurs to her. She is, simply, a kind and chatty human woman very good at her job. That should not be overlooked.
And of course, there’s Shelob. There is something to be said about Tolkien envisioning both of his main evil spiders as female, and about the difference between the male and female darkness in his work, but it would, I fear, require a separate article. It comes down to this, however: his female villains are monsters, not fallen angels, and they don’t get to command any armies. That is rather telling.
So, in summary, there are not enough women in The Lord of the Rings by half – we get about four or five times as many male characters of at least some note. Some of it can be chalked up to the setting, but still, it certainly could have been better. But it absolutely needs to be said that all the women are pretty damn impressive, while at the same time each being different, and their femininity is not being called into question in any of their cases. It’s as if, I don’t know, Tolkien thought you can have different kinds of women and they could all still be women and find love – even your typical heteronormative love – ins pite of being queens or warriors. Galadriel is clearly more powerful and wiser than Celeborn, and Éowyn’s deed was more heroic than Faramir’s. None of these men seem to mind, somehow. I know, I don’t understand it either.
It hurts the brain to think about, really, so let’s move to The Silmarillion.
There are way too many characters there to be able to go thorough all of them, but I’ll try to cover at least the most important. First, there are the Valier, the female angels/deities. There are seven of them and they have three out of eight representatives in the “most powerful deities” club, so it could be better, but it’s not so bad. Apart from Varda, their roles are pretty stereotypical (growing things, grief counselling, flowers, healing, weaving the fates of the world, and hanging out with deer – okay, I guess Nessa is not so very stereotypical), so that is a little irritating, but at least they are there, and Varda is, in fact, the most revered of all the Valar. So that’s something.
There are only four female Maiar (lesser deities) mentioned in The Silmarillion. Ilmarë is simply said to be a handmaiden of Varda, and Uinen is the calmer and more friendly part of sea, in contrast to her husband, because even Maiar have testosterone, apparently. Arien gets quite a brief mention as well, but one I think needs to be appreciated, because Arien is the Sun, while the moon is a male Maia, so the usual gender assignments for these heavenly bodies are swapped here, to my great appreciation. Women do not have to shine less brightly than men.
The fourth female Maia, of course, is Melian, and there I’m much less happy with her role. She is said to be very wise and very powerful, but what she actually does…well. She meets Thingol in a forest, they fall in love, and then they marry and live together, and he proceeds to completely ignore her advice on anything, something she seems not to mind at all.
It’s most obvious when it comes to their daughter, Lúthien. Lúthien is an immortal elven princess who, at several thousand years old, falls in love with a mortal Man. After learning of that, her father sets the Man up to die – something he plainly admits – and then, discovering Lúthien wants to go help her boyfriend, locks her up to prevent her. And this whole time, Melian does nothing, except giving her husband a few sharp words.
Lúthien, now, that’s a different matter. It takes her a while to really get going, but once she does…well, she escapes her father’s prison, takes down Sauron and his fortress, and then puts Morgoth to sleep to steel a jewel from his crown. As in, the guy who was said to be the most powerful of all the Valar. And, also, her boyfriend repeatedly tries to leave her to go to his dangerous quest alone, for her own good, and she calls him out on it and never lets him. Of course, she also gives herself zero influence on their future – she literally tells him that he has to choose whether he’ll risk his life or live in exile, but whatever he does, she’ll follow him – but still. Oh and then when her boyfriend dies, she convinces the guardian of the underworld to let him come to life again, Orpheus-style – and doesn’t mess it up by looking back at the wrong moment either. In short, Lúthien is amazing.
Now to the Noldorin elves, the real protagonists of The Silmarillion. The first thing that comes to mind about their women is how persistently they are ignored. At least half of the heroic male protagonists were married, yet we hardly ever get a name for their wives, let alone anything else. We know the name of Finwë’s two wives, because they provide a source of conflict for some of the protagonists. We know Finarfin’s wife’s name because she is important to establish certain kinships, but we never actually see her in any scene. Nerdanel, Feanor’s wife, does at least get a brief description – and she appears to be awesome – but we never see her either, and Fingolfin’s wife is not mentioned in The Silmarillion at all, even though she is the mother of some of the most important heroes and her decision not to accompany her husband to Middle-Earth must have been quite important for them.
And in the next generation, it’s even worse. Finrod’s love interest is only mentioned as the reason why he doesn’t marry, and there is a row of nameless wives we only know must have existed because there are children. Oh, yes, and Turgon’s wife Elenwë, whose only place in the story is to tragically die.
These two have a daughter, Idril, and she is an entirely satisfactory heroine. You might remember her from my article about the disappointing quality of the Wise in Middle-Earth as one of the very few who I said really deserve the epithet. She is traditionally feminine while staying capable and wise and powerful, and takes no crap from anybody. She has to put up with sexual harassment from her own cousin, making her dislike him and so remain the only clear-sighted person, as most others seem charmed. Once Tuor comes – a Man, while she is an elven princess – she falls in love with him without prejudice hindering her in any way. And most importantly, she saves all she can from her city after her father royally screws up and her harasser betrays them all. Literally one hundred per cent of people from Gondolin who survive do so thanks to her, because she kept her priorities straight and because Maeglin’s personal charm had nothing on her. There is never a single hint of the poor friendzoned Nice Guy in her story with him, he was simply a creep who would not take the hint, and for that I am very grateful.
Idril had an aunt, Aredhel, whose story is problematic in rather different ways than what I described until now. She is strong and brave and spirited, and puts up with no crap either, but as a result of insisting that her brother had no right to keep her locked up, she gets lost and stumbles upon an elf who ensnares her with enchantments and “takes her to wife,” while she is “not wholly unwilling.” Now, it’s important that the power of elves in Tolkien is largely dependent on whether or not they, or at least their ancestors, have been to Aman. Aredhel has. Her not-wholly-rapist, on the other hand, has not. So the whole premise of him overpowering her or tricking her with spells is a little hard to believe in-verse, and saying that she let herself be overpowered has even worse implication. There is honestly hardly a non-problematic way to imagine this, because either you work with the assumption that women are always weaker than men, and that’s why she could be overpowered, or you are victim-blaming.
And, of course, when she finally runs away from him with her son, her ‘husband’ follows her and kills her – well, tries to kill his son, really, and Aredhel jumps in front of the spear, and then begs for her abuser’s life to be spared before she dies. Because that is so very much the story we want to hear told, the narrative first punishing a woman for daring to be independent and then punishing her again for escaping abuse. It serves as a lovely tragic background for her son, though. Ugh. The less said about that, the better, really. Just…this is not the way to depict abuse sensitively, not even in a mythological setting.
Let’s look at Aredhel’s cousin instead, the golden Galadriel. I know I’ve already talked about her, but her role in The Lord of the Rings is very different from that in The Silmarillion.
Galadriel, the only woman of the Noldor to stand that day tall and valiant among the contending princes, was eager to be gone. No oaths she swore, but the words of Fëanor concerning Middle-earth had kindled in her heart, for she yearned to see the wide unguarded lands and to rule there a realm at her own will.”
Sounds promising, does it not? That’s from The Silmarillion. So the moment we get to Middle-earth, I’m sure we see her establishing that realm and ruling it wisely…or not.
What we do see is her falling in love and getting married, and…that’s it. She lives in Thingol’s realm, too, where her mother tongue is soon forbidden by law, but she continues there nevertheless and the only glimpses of her we get is two talks with with Melian and one with Finrod, both mostly plot devices for something the other characters needed to say.
Especially given the set up we had for her, and knowing her from The Lord of the Rings, this is deeply disappointing to more than just me, I’m sure. Of course, the composition of The Silmarillion is a bit of a problem here, because we know that Tolkien tried to change her story time and again and struggled with it, and that is why the original version was included, and it is likely that had he had enough time, Galadriel would have been given more of a role. Still, this is the book we have. I’m not blaming Tolkien – or not JRR, at least – but the story we ended up having is problematic.
Galadriel’s great-niece fares even worse. Princess Finduilas first loves an elf who gets captured by the Dark Lord, and then when he comes back, traumatized and weakened by his torture, she turns away from him and unwillingly falls in love with Túrin, this edgy new and able-bodied Man he brought with him. She is sad about it, but it’s at least partly because Túrin doesn’t want her. That, at least, is what she replies to her ex when he nobly gives her leave to like whom she wants. Her ex then tells Túrin that Finduilas is his only chance for redemption, but Túrin doesn’t get to her in time, and she dies. Finduilas is so wholly, amazingly passive she has no control even of her own heart, let alone any other aspects of her fate. It’s legitimate to include such characters, of course, but she is no feminist icon.
Speaking of Túrin, there is also Túrin’s mother and sister, both impressive ladies in a way. The mother, Morwen, prevents barbarians from attacking her home simply by how impressive she looks. It’s closely associated with her beauty, which is a little irritating, but still, the story leaves no doubt about the force of her personality. Her husband’s last thought about her is that she was not conquered by all the tragedy that followed her in life. That, however, takes us deep into the territory of the tragically beautiful suffering lady trope, one of which Morwen’s daughter is an even better example. Nienor is said to be strong of spirit, and in fact pulls an Éowyn in one moment, dressing up as a man to get where she wants to go, but in her case it’s not to fight, but to stop her mother by the emotional blackmail of her presence, which is rather less heroic. She is said to struggle with dragon-will for a moment, which is an admirable feat, but her most memorable aspects in the story remain that she goes crazy, cries, marries her brother and commits suicide. Of course her story is meant to be extremely tragic, that’s the point, but still, compared to the role Túrin gets to play, the gendered expectations of what a tragic story should look like for a man and for a woman are very clear here.
The last elven woman of note is Elwing, whose life starts ona tragic note by escaping from a city under attack as a toddler, and continues in a similar vein when she is forced to abandon her children and jump into the sea to get away from the very same attackers some decades later. One of the Valar saves her, and she is reunited with her husband the Mariner. Together, they travel to Middle-Earth paradise, where she thwarts his attempt to protect her for her own good and then arranges, by her storytelling skills, their alliance with the Teleri and their promise to transport liberating armies to Middle-Earth. And then she gets to choose the ultimate fate she and her husband will have. Oh, and she learned to speak with birds and to fly, too. So Elwing is quite admirable, in fact, and one of the most independent women in Middle-Earth, with a unique skillset. The framing of her story, however, detracts from this a little. She is constantly said to be sad and waiting for her husband, or it’s stated that she was not as strong as him. Still, judging from what she actually did, she was quite impressive.
As for Men, the most notable human woman to be mentioned from the first age, apart from Morwen and Nienor, is Haleth, who was the chief of her own tribe of people and a pretty badass lady. She took command of her people in a desperate situation, and after she was rescued, she was grateful but still proud and unwilling to accept charity or limit her independence. She was strong-willed and strong-headed, but unwilling to take council, and risked the lives of her people unnecessarily, but she had their loyalty and was able to push them through difficulties by her iron will. Though we only have a few paragraph about her, she is fleshed out in them as an admirable, but not perfect, heroine. And no one seems to have a problem with her being a woman at all, which is something to be thankful for.
Of the women of Númenor, only one gets more than a mere mention of her name in The Silmarillion, and that’s Tar-Míriel, who gets to be forced to marry her cousin – after she becomes queen! – and have her throne usurped by him. How did that not start a civil war, when there are two fractions clearly implied in Númenor at this point, I have no idea, but it makes me uncomfortable. I mean, we all know there would have been civil war if power was usurped from a man in this way…
So The Silmarillion has roughly the same ratio of noteworthy men and women in it as The Lord of the Rings, but a much less positive score when it comes to how many of these women are actually personalities and agents in their own right, not walking stereotypes or passive rewards for the hero/tragedies to cry about. And there is no direct taking on the patriarchy as there is in Éowyn’s case. Even Lúthien, who comes closest, never truly questions is and remains constrained by it in many ways. But there certainly are female characters of note, or at least with hints of interesting qualities that the fandom can take and run away with. Lúthien, Idril, Elwing, Haleth, Morwen, Nerdanel, …those are all ladies I’d dearly love to know in person.
But for that, I’d have to live in Middle-Earth, and while that sounds great at a glance…would I actually want to? Specifically, would I want to as a woman?
In other words, let’s look at the problem from the Watsonian perspective. How sexist were the societies where the stories take place? I’ll work with the novels I’ve just analyse, but given how often is crucial background for this given in History of Middle-Earth, I will sometimes use that as well.
The dwarven culture certainly fares the worst. There are no dwarven women in any of the novels, something that is later explained by there being little of them – only one third of dwarves are women – and not travelling except for dire necessity. And this in spite of the fact that they look pretty much the same as male dwarves, including the beard, and so it seems that they would be of equal physical strength as well, so fear for their safety, however problematic that would be, is not even a plausible reason here. They do not as much as write women in their genealogies. They simply ignore all daughters on family trees. It’s nice to hear that there are dwarven women who choose not to marry, but not enough to counterbalance this whole disaster. Dwarves, to put it simply, are about as sexist as the most sexist human societies in the real world.
And speaking of disasters, there are the elves. First, there is what we know from the novels, which is that sexism is widespread among them. I already talked about Thingol’ treatment of his daughter and wife, but Galadriel not getting her own land while all of her brothers and cousins do – including the kinslaying kind of cousins – is another example and so is Idril not inheriting the crown from her father. Speaking of inheritance, it’s pretty depressing, actually. Among the Sindarin elves, kingship can at least pass through women, since Dior, grandson of Thingol via Lúthien, inherits the crown…but with the Noldor, not even that is possible. Not only did not Idril inherit, neither did her son, and instead the crown passed to her father’s nephew/first cousin twice removed, Gil-Galad*. This is ridiculous.
And then there’s this infamous thing Tolkien wrote, called Laws and Customs Among the Eldar, and there, he says…things. Things we’d be much happier not knowing, in spite fo how often the text seems to imply gender equality.
For one, he declares that male and female elves are roughly of the same physical strength, which sounds great at first…until you realize that one glaring problem: why are all the elven warriors we see men, while we get Haleth and Éowyn for Men, even though they’re physically weaker? Well Laws and Customs has an answer for you: because women are not naturally inclined to fight, you see! They naturally tend to be healers, but there are of course exceptions and you get plenty of female warriors, only unfortunately we never saw any in the stories, because reasons. We get lots of other details about natural inclinations, too, and the vast majority of them are completely stereotypical.
Plus, it all has a bit of a ‘separate but equal’ ring to it. Men are warriors and women are healers, generally speaking, says Tolkien. It doesn’t really go together, because if you kill people for a living it harms your healing abilities, he continues, but both is of course very valuable and all that. So…why is it that there are no ruling queens among the elves? If both skill-sets are equally valuable, why didn’t kingship pass to Idril from her father, or to Lúthien from hers? Surely you don’t actually need to be able to swing your sword to be a good ruler? Not for the wise elves from the West at least? This is not Rohan, after all.
And, come to think of it, we never see any female healers either. In fact, there are two people in Tolkien who are celebrated as great healers: Elrond and Aragorn. Both, you might notice, are male, and not only that, but fighters as well (Elrond is said to have participated in the defence of Eregion and the Battle of Last Alliance at least). So…how does that go together? Arwen should have been the one to heal Frodo in Rivendell, by this logic. You cannot declare that women are bad at one thing and good at another, and then only give the other to men.
And there’s also the most monstrous part of Laws and Customs, from my point of view, and that’s the matter of pregnancy. Elves are said to give something of themselves to their children in its course, more so than Men, and with female elves, in fact, it’s so bad that their creative abilities become stunted, because they pour all of their ability to create into their babies.
Now if there ever was something that made me want to punch Tolkien, it’s this.
Because clearly, carrying children for nine months and then going through painful delivery is not enough, oh no, women need to sacrifice more for their children, because what is the point of them otherwise, amirite? One of the first female characters in the story, Míriel, the first wife of Finwë, dies after childbirth not because of infection or something, but simply because she gave too much of herself to her child. The result is the most powerful and talented and great elf in history. So the lovely implication is go on, give up as much of yourself as you can to your child, you want them to be great, don’t you? Not doing so would be selfish. Of course, in some ways this is only a physical manifestation of the very real sacrifices parents have to make for their children, but that’s just it. Parents. Both of them. here, while Tolkien originally says that the strength of both goes into the begetting of children, it is only the women whose creativity suffers, and only Míriel who dies after Feanor is born, not Finwë. Fuck that.
So, no. If I was to be a woman in Middle-Earth, I’d stay human, thank you very much. They at least had queens at some point in history, though otherwise it seems much like ordinary human society in this regard, meaning not free of sexism at all, as we could see clearly in case of Éowyn. There’s plenty of casual sexism in form of random remarks, too. Even being the most impressive hero of the war apart from the hobbits didn’t save Éowyn from this. So spake Aragorn to her brother:
‘No niggard are you, Éomer,’ said Aragorn, ‘to give thus to Gondor the fairest thing in your realm!’
It’s a comment on her engagement to Faramir. From a man she used to have a crush on, of which he was well ware. It’s so inappropriate and in poor taste that Éowyn low-key takes him to task for it, even though he is now her king. Of course this isn’t Aragorn’s only issue when it comes to the treatment of women, as this article brilliantly points out. It certainly makes it clear why he choose Arwen among other women, and perhaps – if I am mean – even why her story wasn’t so happy.
And of course, there’s cross-species sexism as well. There is that gem of a scene where Gimli and Éomer threaten to fight each other because one pronounces Galadriel the prettiest, while the other thinks so about Arwen. Galadriel was Arwen’s grandmother. I’m sure they’d both appreciate it.
Or take the scene of the Fellowship’s departure from Lórien. For one, Gimli asks her for a few strands of her hair, and she gives them to him with a smile. It’s a moment of objectification that makes me shudder every time I read it. You just don’t ask one of the most powerful rules in the world for a token of their affection in this way. You don’t. Imagine someone walking to Angela Merkel and asking for something like that. I think she’d punch them in the face – no, I hope she would. It’s like saying that sure, yes, you might be really powerful and wise and all this, but you’re a woman, so the main thing about you is that you’re pretty and have really nice hair.
And speaking of that…there is that terrible, monstrous, unforgivable line of Aragorn’s in the same scene that makes me see red every time I read it. Judge for yourself:
“O Lady of Lorien of whom were sprung Celebrian and Arwen Evenstar. What praise could I say more?”
Galadriel is over eight thousand years old at this stage. She has lived thought some very major historical events, and ruled Lórien for years, wrestling with Sauron and taking part in the White Council. But the best Aragorn can say of her is that she managed to produce a decent child, and then through that a grandchild. And this from one of the story’s heroes.
You may be the hope of Gondor, Elessar, and I might have even deemed you wise enough, but you are a sexist jerk.
Was Tolkien, though? For his time, or would he be considered so today? My general impression from his works is the conviction that there are exceptional women who can excel in areas traditionally reserved for men, but that generally speaking, society should stay structured in the gendered way it is now, because that is what suits the majority of people. He clearly does not endorse some things, like what Éowyn has to put up with or the prejudice against Galadriel, but many others, like the father’s right to decide his daughters fate, or the right to make random objectifying remarks about women, ale never called into question by the story, and are in fact endorsed by the sort-of divinely sanctioned king. Some of the sexism in the stories is depiction; most of it is endorsement. Exceptions, it seems to imply, should be made for the few women who do not fit the mould, and they should not be forced to adhere to all of the gendered standards. That’s pretty good for a conservative Catholic writing in the 50s, I suppose, but now we have to see the feminist icons that are contained in his works and see them in context, and realized how very much as exceptions they are treated.
A quote from another fantasy series comes to mind: “A woman must needs piss twice as hard.”
* The parentage of Gil-Galad is a complicated matter, but in no version of it was he a closer relative to Turgon than Idril, his own daughter. Also, yes, Tolkien states somewhere in HoME that the Noldorin king was chosen, that inheritance wasn’t automatic, but that might make it even worse…