Women in The Lord of the Rings

The roles of women in The Lord of the Rings have often been assessed as insignificant, or important only in relation to male characters in a story about men for boys. Meanwhile, other commentators have noted the empowerment of the three major women characters, Galadriel, Éowyn, and Arwen, and provided in-depth analysis of their roles within the narrative of The Lord of the Rings.

Some commentators describe Tolkien as placing women only in background roles while the male protagonists see all the action.[1] Arwen sewing Aragorn's banner, by Anna Kulisz, 2015, inspired by Edmund Leighton's 1911 Stitching the Standard

Weronika Łaszkiewicz has written that "Tolkien's heroines have been both praised and severely criticized",[2] and that his fictional women have an ambiguous image, of "both passivity and empowerment".[2] J. R. R. Tolkien spent much of his life in an all-male environment, and had conservative views about women, prompting discussion of possible sexism. Much of the action in The Lord of the Rings is by male characters, and the nine-person Fellowship of the Ring is entirely male.

On the other hand, commentators have noted that the Elf-queen Galadriel is powerful and wise; Éowyn, noblewoman of Rohan, is extraordinarily courageous, killing the leader of the Nazgûl; and the half-elf Arwen, who chooses mortality to be with Aragorn, the man she loves, is central to the book's theme of death and immortality; and that several other female characters fulfill roles which are not insignificant within Tolkien's narrative.

Tolkien's backgroundEdit

 
Secluded male environment:[2] Pembroke College's Old Quad, where Tolkien had his teaching rooms

The author of the bestselling fantasy novel The Lord of the Rings,[3] J. R. R. Tolkien, was orphaned as a boy, his father dying in South Africa and his mother in England a few years later. He was brought up by his guardian, a Catholic priest, Father Francis Morgan, and educated at boys' grammar schools and then Exeter College, Oxford, which at that time had only male students. He joined the British Army's Lancashire Fusiliers and saw the horror of trench warfare, with life as an officer made more bearable by the support of a male batman or servant. After the war he became a professor of English Language at the University of Leeds, and then at the University of Oxford, where he taught at Pembroke College.[4] At Oxford, he created an all-male literary group with another Oxford professor of English, C. S. Lewis, called the Inklings.[5]

Among Tolkien's influences, he stated that he enjoyed reading boy's adventure stories, such as those by H. Rider Haggard and John Buchan. Tolkien stated in an interview that Haggard's novel She was his favourite. The scholar of English literature Dale Nelson notes that Tolkien "was evidently spontaneously moved by mythopoeic and straightforward adventure romance"[6] as in Haggard's books. On Buchan's influence, Nelson writes that Greenmantle tells "of desperate chances and plentiful good luck, of cross-country pursuit and massive battles ... [and] the heroism of a handful of men".[6][7][8] In On Fairy Stories, Tolkien wrote that "Treasure Island left me cool. Red Indians were better: there were bows and arrows ..., and strange languages, and glimpses of an archaic way of life, and, above all, forests in such stories. But the land of Merlin and Arthur[a] was better than these, and best of all the nameless North of Sigurd and the Volsungs,[b] and the prince of all dragons. Such lands were pre-eminently desirable."[T 1]

As seen in a letter to his son Michael Tolkien, he held conservative views about women, stating that men were active in their professions while women were inclined to domestic life.[9] While defending the role of women in The Lord of the Rings, the scholar of children's literature Melissa Hatcher wrote that "Tolkien himself, in reality, probably was the stodgy sexist Oxford professor that feminist scholars paint him out to be".[5]

Women, insignificant or powerfulEdit

A story about men for boysEdit

The Lord of the Rings has repeatedly been discussed as being a story about men for boys, with no significant women characters;[1][10] there are 11 women in the work, some of them mentioned only briefly.[2] Catherine Stimpson, a scholar of English and feminism, wrote that Tolkien's women were "hackneyed ... stereotypes ... either beautiful and distant, simply distant, or simply simple".[11]

Robert Butler and John Eberhard, in the Chicago Tribune, stated that all the races from Hobbits to Elves, Dwarves to Wizards, get their due in the novel, but "Women, on the other hand, do not."[12] In their view, "Tolkien didn't think much about the female sex. Yes, he was happily married, and yes, he did have a daughter. But his wife, Edith Mary, and daughter, Priscilla, seemed to have practically no influence on his writing."[12] They quoted the scholar of medieval and Old English literature, Linda Voigts, as defending Tolkien, pointing out that, brought up in a male world and living among male scholars at a time when "Oxford was a boys' club",[12] he could not have been expected to be a modern feminist.[12] Butler and Eberhard wrote that the woman in the novel see little action, giving the example of Arwen. In their opinion, a strong-willed woman, Éowyn, was created when the teenaged Priscilla asked her father for a female character.[12]

The critics Candice Fredrick and Sam McBride, referencing the all-male Inklings group, wrote that "Middle-earth is very Inkling-like, in that while women exist in the world, they need not be given significant attention and can, if one is lucky, simply be avoided altogether."[13] Melissa McCrory Hatcher, while not discounting the women altogether, writes that Hobbit women like Rosie Cotton and Lobelia Sackville-Baggins serve "only as housewives or shrews", Dwarf women are hardly feminine, the Entwives are lost, and Goldberry "is a mystical washer-woman".[5]

Few but powerful womenEdit

The Tolkien scholars Carol Leibiger, in the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, and separately Maureen Thum, replied that Stimpson's charge was definitely disproven by Tolkien's vigorous characterisation of Éowyn (and in The Silmarillion by numerous strong female characters such as Lúthien).[14][15] Liebiger stated that while Tolkien's female characters appear like "chaste medieval ladies of courtly romance", doing little but encouraging their menfolk to be heroic, the few prominent women in the narrative are in fact extremely powerful in their own right.[14]

The theologian Ralph Wood replied that Galadriel, Éowyn, and Arwen are far from being "plaster figures": Galadriel is powerful, wise and "terrible in her beauty"; Éowyn has "extraordinary courage and valor"; and Arwen gives up her Elvish immortality to marry Aragorn. Further, Wood argued, Tolkien insisted that everyone, man and woman alike, faces the same kinds of temptation, hope, and desire.[1]

The scholar of English literature Nancy Enright stated that the few female characters in The Lord of the Rings are extremely important in defining power, which she suggests is a central theme of the novel. She commented that even the apparently heroic male figures such as Aragorn and Faramir "use traditional masculine power in a manner tempered with an awareness of its limitations and a respect for another, deeper kind of power".[16] She argued that Faramir's brother Boromir, who fits the picture of the powerful male warrior hero, is in fact "weaker morally and spiritually"[16] than those who exercise the deeper kind of power, and noted that Boromir falls while the "less typically heroic characters",[16] including all the women (and the apparently unheroic Hobbits) survive.[16] She specifically denied that the absence of women in battle, Éowyn excepted, and among the nine members of the Fellowship of the Ring, meant that female power and presence are not important in the novel.[16] On the contrary, she wrote, the women embody Tolkien's critique of the conventional view of power, and illustrate his Christian view that selfless love is stronger than selfish pride and any attempt to dominate by force.[16] Liebiger noted that Tolkien's attitude towards destructive masculine power is "compatible with that of contemporary feminists".[14]

Weronika Łaszkiewicz noted that "Tolkien's heroines have been both praised and severely criticized",[2] stating that his fictional women have an ambiguous image, of "both passivity and empowerment".[2] She suggested that this could be a result of his personal experience. Firstly, women in early 20th century England normally stayed at home and looked after the children, she noted, and Tolkien expected as much of his wife Edith, even though she was a skilful pianist. Secondly, his environment was overwhelmingly male, and other Inklings, especially Lewis, believed that "full intimacy with another man was impossible unless women were totally excluded" from their intellectual and artistic discussions; Łaszkiewicz notes that Edith resented the Inklings meetings.[2][17]

The scholar of humanities Brian Rosebury wrote that Tolkien gave his mother's memory "something of the numinous intensity which radiates from the adored, benevolent, intimately present or achingly distant, feminine figures of his work",[18] naming Galadriel, Arwen, Goldberry and the remote Varda/Elbereth. He adds that the differing interests of Tolkien and his wife Edith may be "dimly discernible" in the estrangement of the Ents and the Entwives, while their long-delayed romance is evident in Elrond (as Father Francis Xavier, Tolkien's guardian), who forbids Aragorn to marry Arwen unless he becomes king of Gondor and Arnor. He notes that the delayed marriage of the servant-hobbit Samwise "Sam" Gamgee and Rosie Cotton is a homelier echo of the theme.[18]

GaladrielEdit

 
Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus by John William Waterhouse, 1891: Galadriel's support of the Fellowship of the Ring has been compared to that of Circe and Calypso for Odysseus in Homer's epic.[19]

All-seeingEdit

The Elf-queen Galadriel, Lady of Lothlórien, is the most powerful female character in Middle-earth during the Third Age.[14] Tolkien portrays her as all-seeing, able to read people's thoughts.[5] She uses this power to test the loyalty of each of the Fellowship in turn; David Craig, writing in Mallorn, comments that Tolkien would not have had a man do this, so it is "a gendered moment".[14][20] She gives each of the nine members of the Fellowship of the Ring a personal gift, chosen to assist them with the quest to destroy the One Ring, and with their personal journeys, as with her gift to Sam the gardener of a box of earth to restore the fertility of his garden, the Shire.[5]

HomericEdit

Mac Fenwick compares Galadriel and what he sees as her monstrous opposite, the giant and evil spider Shelob, with the struggle between the good and the monstrous female characters in Homer's Odyssey. Like Galadriel, Circe and Calypso are rulers of their own secluded magical realms, and both offer help and advice to the protagonist. They help Odysseus to avoid destruction by the female monsters, the Sirens who would lure his ship on to the rocks, and Scylla and Charybdis who would smash or drown his ship; Galadriel gives Frodo the Phial of Galadriel, which by her power contains the light of Eärendil's star, able to blind and ward off Shelob in her darkest of dark lairs. Galadriel's gifts, too, are Homeric, including cloaks, food, and wisdom as well as light, just like those of Circe and Calypso.[19]

ÉowynEdit

Jessica Yates wrote that Éowyn meets all the requirements for a classic woman warrior: a strong identity; skill in fighting; weapons and armour; a horse; special powers, seen when she turns the Ringwraith's prophecy of doom back onto him; and being modest and chaste.[5][21] Leibiger added that Éowyn is the only strong human female in The Lord of the Rings (Galadriel and Arwen being Elves), noting that her rejection of the woman's place in the home leads her to fulfil the prophecy about the leader of the Ringwraiths, the Witch-King of Angmar, that "not by the hand of man will [he] fall".[14]

Melissa Hatcher wrote in Mythlore that The Lord of the Rings has as a central theme the way that "the littlest person, a hobbit, overcom[es] the tides of war": that the real power is that of healing, protecting, and preserving.[5] She noted that Éowyn tries the path of the warrior and then becomes a healer, and that some academics have interpreted her choice as weak submission. Hatcher stated that instead, Éowyn is following Tolkien's "highest ideal: a fierce commitment to peace", embodying the "full-blooded subjectivity" that Tolkien believed necessary for peace.[5] She described Éowyn as "a complete individual who fulfills Tolkien's theme of peace, preservation, and cultural memory."[5]

Hatcher cited the philosopher Gregory Bassham's list of the six essential ingredients of happiness in Middle-earth, namely "delight in simple things, making light of one's troubles, getting personal, cultivating good character, cherishing and creating beauty, and rediscovering wonder", and stated that these are all seen in Éowyn and the Hobbit Sam, the gardener who inherits Frodo's Bag End and restores the Shire, "but in very few others".[5][22]

ArwenEdit

Arwen is depicted as extremely beautiful; she is in Hatcher's view "a symbol of the unattainable, a perfect match for the unattainable Aragorn in Éowyn's eyes."[5] Leibiger wrote that Arwen's lack of involvement follows the general Elvish pattern of retreating to safe havens already established in The Silmarillion and continued in The Lord of the Rings.[14]

Enright wrote that Arwen, like Christ, is an immortal who voluntarily chooses mortality out of love, in her case for Aragorn. She granted that Arwen is not a conspicuous character, and unlike Éowyn does not ride into battle, but stated that her inner power is "subtly conveyed" and present throughout the novel.[16]

Hobbit womenEdit

There are several female hobbit characters in The Lord of the Rings, though all have limited roles.[23][24] They include Rosie Cotton, Sam's fiancé; Rosie's mother Mrs Cotton; Mrs Maggot, the wife of Farmer Maggot who assisted Frodo's departure from The Shire; and Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, the wife of Bilbo Baggins's cousin, who covets his Bag End residence and his collection of silver spoons.[24] In the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, Katherine Hasser observed a lack of role-separation between male and female Shire-folk, as several men perform domestic duties such as cooking, cleaning, arranging parties, purchasing and wrapping gifts; Bilbo in particular adopts and nurtures the young Frodo by himself.[25]

In Tor.com's series on the people of Middle-earth, Megan N. Fontenot considered Rosie important in The Lord of the Rings as an emotional anchor for her would-be husband, and a real world anchor for readers.[26] Echoing Tolkien's remarks in a letter about the "simple 'rustic' love" between Rosie and Sam being "absolutely essential",[T 2] she wrote that their relatable relationship gave readers context and believability for Aragorn and Arwen's idealised romance.[26] Their eldest daughter, Elanor, inherits the Red Book of Westmarch, an in-universe framing device,[T 3] when Sam sails to Valinor after his wife's death.[27] Tolkien wrote about Elanor in further detail within the book's Appendices, describing her uncommon Elf-like beauty and how she became a maid of honour to Queen Arwen.[27]

While Tolkien wrote to Allen and Unwin that Lobelia Sackville-Baggins is modelled on an elderly lady he knew,[28] commentators have suggested that she is an unfavourable caricature of Vita Sackville-West, an aristocratic novelist and gardening columnist in Tolkien's time.[29][30] The journalist Matthew Dennison called Lobelia a memorable comic relief character whose name resembled Sackville-West's, while her frustrated attempts to secure Bag End mirrored Sackville-West's unsatisfied longing to inherit her family home, Knole House.[29] Fontenot drew attention to Lobelia's substantial character development in spite of her minor importance: she contrasted her initially unsympathetic characterisation to her courageous defiance against Sharkey's thugs during The Scouring of the Shire armed with only an umbrella, and her generosity in helping displaced Shire-folk. Fontenot stated that Lobelia was "a compelling character in her own right", an "unexpected hero" whose story serves as a reminder that even the most irritable or contemptuous individuals may have redeeming qualities.[28]

Other female charactersEdit

Ann Basso, writing in Mythlore, commented that all the women in The Lord of the Rings are either noble or ethereal like Galadriel and Éowyn, or simple rustics like Rosie, with one exception: Goldberry, the River-woman's daughter, wife of Tom Bombadil, whom Basso considers to be a biblical Eve figure to Galadriel's Mary. All the same, she writes, "Close analysis of the text, however, reveals a roster of women whose characters are rich and diverse, well drawn, and worthy of respect".[31] Hasser emphasized that the most significant point about Goldberry's depiction as a feminine figure is that she is presented as sharing reciprocal domestic duties with her husband, and is seemingly equal to him in status.[25]

Another minor female character, Ioreth, is a talkative wise-woman of Gondor who works as a healer at the Houses of Healing in Minas Tirith in The Return of the King . The Wizard Gandalf learns from her that "the hands of the king are the hands of a healer", which inspires him to persuade Aragorn to tend to the wounded survivors of the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, in the process defining Aragorn's power and publicly proving his birthright as the rightful claimant to the kingdom's vacant throne.[23] Kate Nepveu from Tor.com considered that Ioreth's character "provides a realistic view into the thinking of ordinary people".[23][24]

Shelob is presented as a disgusting female monster in the story.[14] Shelob has been likened to a witch's cat in that Sauron provides food for her through his servants.[32] The analogy is linked to "male fear of the power of women's sexual attraction", "revealed in the constant connection with black magic, the witch and her familiar, the cat".[33] She is the "embodiment of monstrous maternity", and Sam's battle with Shelob could be interpreted as a "masculine rite of passage" where a smaller, weaker male penetrates and escapes the vast female body and her malicious intent.[34] In her essay "No Sex Please--We're Hobbits: The Construction of Female Sexuality in The Lord of the Ring", Brenda Patridge described the hobbits' protracted struggle with Shelob as rife with sexual symbolism; she suggested that for Tolkien "the female linked with sexuality is seen as evil".[34]

NotesEdit

ReferencesEdit

PrimaryEdit

This list identifies each item's location in Tolkien's writings.
  1. ^ Tolkien, J. R. R. (1964). On Fairy-Stories. Tree and Leaf. George Allen & Unwin. p. 39. OCLC 247412364.
  2. ^ Carpenter, Humphrey (1981). Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Allen & Unwin. #131 to Milton Waldman, 1951. ISBN 0-04-826005-3.
  3. ^ Tolkien, J. R. R. (1954), The Fellowship of the Ring, The Lord of the Rings, Boston: Houghton Mifflin (published 1987), Prologue, "Note on the Shire Records", ISBN 0-395-08254-4

SecondaryEdit

  1. ^ a b c Wood, Ralph C. (2003). The Gospel According to Tolkien. Westminster John Knox Press. pp. 2–4. ISBN 978-0-664-23466-9.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Łaszkiewicz, Weronika (2015). "J.R.R. Tolkien's Portrayal of Femininity and Its Transformations in Subsequent Adaptations". Crossroads: A Journal of English Studies. 11 (4): 15–28. doi:10.15290/cr.2015.11.4.02. ISSN 2300-6250.
  3. ^ Wagner, Vit (16 April 2007). "Tolkien proves he's still the king". Toronto Star. Archived from the original on 9 March 2011. Retrieved 8 March 2011.
  4. ^ Carpenter, Humphrey (1978) [1977]. Tolkien: A Biography. Unwin. pp. 24, 38, 39, 41, 60, 80, 89, 91, 114–115, 122. ISBN 0-04-928039-2.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Hatcher, Melissa McCrory (2007). "Finding Woman's Role in The Lord of the Rings". Mythlore. 25 (3). article 5.
  6. ^ a b Nelson, Dale (2013) [2007]. "Literary Influences, Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries". In Drout, Michael D. C. (ed.). J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia. Routledge. pp. 366–377. ISBN 978-0-415-86511-1.
  7. ^ Carpenter, Humphrey (2000) [1977]. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography. Houghton Mifflin. p. 168. ISBN 978-0-61805702-3.
  8. ^ Shippey, Tom (2000). J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. Harper Collins. pp. 127, 347–348. ISBN 0-261-10400-4.
  9. ^ Carpenter, Humphrey; Tolkien, J. R. R. (2000). The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Houghton Mifflin. letter 43 to Michael Tolkien, 6-8 March 1941. ISBN 978-0-618-05699-6.
  10. ^ Croft & Donovan 2015.
  11. ^ Stimpson, Catharine (1969). J.R.R. Tolkien. Columbia University Press. p. 18. ISBN 978-0-231-03207-0. OCLC 24122.
  12. ^ a b c d e Butler, Robert W.; Eberhart, John Mark (1 January 2002). "In Tolkien, it's a man's world, and with good reason". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 21 July 2020.
  13. ^ Fredrick, Candice; McBride, Sam (2001). Women Among the Inklings: Gender, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams. Greenwood Press. p. 108. ISBN 978-0313312458.
  14. ^ a b c d e f g h Leibiger, Carol A. (2013) [2007]. "Women in Tolkien's Works". In Drout, Michael D. C. (ed.). J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia. Routledge. pp. 710–712. ISBN 978-0-415-86511-1.
  15. ^ Thum, Maureen (2004). Croft, Janet Brennan (ed.). The 'Sub-Subcreation' of Galadriel, Arwen, and Éowyn: Women of Power in Tolkien's and Jackson's The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien on Film: Essays on Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings. pp. 231–256. ISBN 978-1887726092.
  16. ^ a b c d e f g Enright, Nancy (2007). "Tolkien's Females and the Defining of Power". Renascence. 59 (2): 93–108. doi:10.5840/renascence200759213. ISSN 0034-4346.
  17. ^ Partridge, Brenda (1983). Giddings, Robert (ed.). No Sex Please—We're Hobbits: The Construction of Female Sexuality in The Lord of the Rings (PDF). J.R.R. Tolkien: This Far Land. Vision and Barnes & Noble. pp. 179–197. ISBN 978-0389203742.
  18. ^ a b Rosebury, Brian (2003) [1992]. Tolkien : A Cultural Phenomenon. Palgrave. pp. 137–138. ISBN 978-1403-91263-3.
  19. ^ a b Fenwick, Mac (1996). "Breastplates of Silk: Homeric Women in The Lord of the Rings". Mythlore. 21 (3). article 4.
  20. ^ Craig, David M. (2001). "'Queer Lodgings': Gender and Sexuality in The Lord of the Rings". Mallorn, A Journal of the Tolkien Society (38): 11–18.
  21. ^ Yates, Jessica (2000). "Arwen the Elf Warrior?". Amon Hen, A Journal of the Tolkien Society (165 (September 2000)): 11–15.
  22. ^ Bassham, Gregory (2003). Bassham, Gregory; Bronson, Eric (eds.). Tolkien's Six Keys to Happiness. The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy. Open Court. pp. 49–60. ISBN 978-0812695458.
  23. ^ a b c Nepveu, Kate (28 June 2010). "LotR re-read: Return of the King V.8, 'The Houses of Healing'". Tor.com. Retrieved 31 January 2021.
  24. ^ a b c Nepveu, Kate (1 November 2010). "LotR re-read: Return of the King VI.5, 'The Steward and the King". Tor.com. Retrieved 25 February 2021.
  25. ^ a b Drout, Michael D. C., ed. (2006). J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia. Routledge. p. 245-246. ISBN 978-1-1358-8033-0.
  26. ^ a b Fontenot, Megan (11 February 2021). "Exploring the People of Middle-earth: The 'Absolutely Essential' Rosie Cotton". Tor.com. Retrieved 25 February 2021.
  27. ^ a b Fontenot, Megan (25 February 2021). "Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Elanor Gamgee". Tor.com. Retrieved 27 February 2021.
  28. ^ a b Fontenot, Megan (14 January 2021). "Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, an Unexpected Hero". Tor.com. Retrieved 25 February 2021.
  29. ^ a b Dennison, Matthew (18 August 2015). "Behind The Mask: Vita Sackville-West". St Martin's Press. Archived from the original on 20 September 2015. Retrieved 20 April 2020.
  30. ^ Doctorow, Cory (16 September 2019). "Tolkien's Lobelia Sackville-Baggins is probably a misogynist satire of women's rights campaigner Victoria Sackville-West". Boingboing.net. Retrieved 5 March 2021.
  31. ^ Basso, Ann McCauley (2008). "Fair Lady Goldberry, Daughter of the River". Mythlore. 27 (1). article 12.
  32. ^ Nitzsche, Jane Chance (1980) [1979]. Tolkien's Art. Papermac. pp. 111–113. ISBN 0-333-29034-8.
  33. ^ Giddings, Robert, ed. (2008) [1984]. J. R. R. Tolkien, this Far Land. Vision. p. 188. ISBN 978-0389203742.
  34. ^ a b Hunt, Peter, ed. (2013). J.R.R. Tolkien. Macmillan International Higher Education. p. 96. ISBN 978-1137264015.

Further readingEdit