"The only criticism that annoyed me was one that it 'contained no religion' (and 'no Women', but that does not matter, and is not true anyway)." --Tolkien, Letter 165
Professor Fulton: "Who's the greatest hero in Middle-Earth?" Class: "Lúthien!"I think we can all agree that Lúthien is pretty cool--she is the only Child of Illuvatar to overpower Morgoth! She's also female. The greatest hero in Middle-Earth is a woman--surely, that means that Tolkien wasn't sexist? Yet idealization of the female is often just as sexist as straight up misogyny, and I believe Lúthien actually exemplifies some of the sexist aspects of Middle-Earth. I'm going to look at two of these: firstly, men can be united in mind and body, but women are relegated to the body alone and are thus subordinate; secondly, women are treated as ideal objects instead of fellow subjects.
In Tolkien's world, men can be both mind and body, but women are only bodies. In Middle-Earth, men are intelligent and ambitious, creators and warriors. The best men are allowed to unite mind and body: the hands of the King are the hands of a healer. However, women are presented solely as caretakers of the body. The few women who appear in The Lord of the Rings are either healers (the nurses in the Houses of Healing) or wives and mothers (Arwen, Rosie Cotton). True, Eowyn is a warrior and a shieldmaiden, but she is also profoundly damaged, "stricken, soon to fall and die" (bk V, chp VIII). When she becomes whole in the Houses of Healing, she also gives up the sword, becoming a healer and Faramir's wife. The only female who really doesn't fit is Galadriel, and anyway she's partially masculinized, with a voice "deeper than woman's wont" (bk II, chp VII). If Morgoth is the fallen Male, defying Illuvatar with discord in the music, then Ungoliant is the fallen Female: she is possessed by an insatiable hunger that causes her to devour everything in her path including, eventually, herself. Female sin, like female virtue, like all females in Tolkien's world, rests firmly in the realm of the body.
Lúthien is no exception. Her beauty comes from her dancing--the most physical, most embodied form of art. Likewise, she manages to overcome Morgoth through stereotypically feminine powers of the body. Through her singing and dancing, she puts Morgoth to sleep. Moreover, her sexuality is unconsciously used as a weapon in a way that would be unthinkable if the sexes were reversed (even assuming that one could have a Dark Lady instead of a Lord): Morgoth lets his guard down because he sees her as a "flower...honey-sweet to kiss" (lns. 4029,31).
But more damagingly, Lúthien is never really allowed to become human the same way Beren is, because she is presented as a prize to be won. Most obviously, the only reason why she's in Angband at all is because Beren needs to get a Silmaril in order to win her from her father. Overprotective parents aside, Lúthien herself acts like a Golden Snitch. It's telling that her epithet is Tinúviel, the Nightingale, an animal: she flits away from Beren like a bird, and she must be literally "caught" (ln. 745) before falling in love with him. Various other women in LotR are treated the same way. Arwen and Rosie Cotton are the rewards that await the victorious males at the end. They represent domesticity and happiness, but their individual characters are very vague, and we have no idea of their struggles, or even if they do struggle. They are the ideal, the prize, the Other, and this perfection traps them and keeps them from realizing the human. It is true that there are women, even many women heroes, in Tolkien's world. But there are no women who have the same depth of character as the men, no women who are not defined and caged by their sex. Though Lúthien overcame the Dark Lord, in the end she could not escape her fate as the Other.
As was mentioned today, Lúthien is a fictionalized version of Tolkien's wife. Judging from the "awww"s of the audience, a lot of people found it really romantic that Tolkien would write his wife into a legend where flowers literally spring up underneath her feet. While I know nothing about Tolkien's relationship with his wife (which I'm sure was genuinely very romantic and loving), I would personally find this incredibly disturbing. I am not perfect; the people I have loved have not been perfect. Yet it is precisely because of their flaws and fumbles and utter humanness that I did love them. Snowdrops did not grow in their footsteps, but I'm happier that they walked beside me a while on the sidewalk--and I would hope that they'd say the same for me.