Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Lúthien and the Female Other

Note: While I signed up to write a post on Monday's discussion, this is not it--I'm working on a post about Tolkien and translation which will be up later. However, I did want to address a tangential point about Lúthien and Tolkien's treatment of the female in Middle Earth; it wasn't at all the main topic of discussion, but I found it interesting and worthy of further examination outside the classroom. So, here's why I think Lúthien's heroism is not a counterexample of Tolkien's sexism.

 "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.



  1. What you say about Tolkien's female characters is very true, but I am unclear why their having "feminine" characteristics makes Luthien less of a hero(ine). One could as easily say that the men are "caged by their sex": Aragorn is not allowed to marry until he fulfills his quest--and marriage is just as much the fulfillment of his desires as it is of Arwen's. To be sure, both Luthien and Arwen make the more difficult choice, but Tolkien was all about the importance of choices; he did not take them lightly.


  2. I agree with some parts of your argument, but I have two quick counter points. First, I think Galadriel is a very telling example of a complex female character who “unites both mind and body”. Yes, a voice “deeper than woman’s wont” and “the lady no less tall than the lord” are sentences which somewhat masculinize her, but I don’t think this demands outright dismissal. (For one thing, nearly every other description of her is men swooning over her beauty, so either she is not excessively masculine, or we need an entirely separate set of posts about homoeroticism in Tolkien).

    Galadriel straddles the mind/body dichotomy which you outline. She is both a warrior (more aptly protector) and craftswoman. She summons the original white council, is wise to trust Gandalf above Saruman even then, and is instrumental in throwing down Dol Guldor during the close of the war of the ring. She wields the Ring of Adamant, and its power, more than Celeborn’s armies, is what protects her lands from the encroachment of evil. At the same time, she weaves garments for the fellowship, gives finely crafted gifts, and composes poetry and song like all elves. Her physical beauty complements her skills, rather than marginalizing them. She is an ideal not because Tolkien idealizes her as a woman, but because he idealizes almost all his heroes’ physical appearances.

    My second point is about Eowyn. Many people have interpreted her character arc, from shield maiden to courtly wife, as character decay reinforcing traditional gender norms. It’s a very valid interpretation, but I think at least one other thing is going on. For Tolkien, war is not good; though it may offer a chance for glory if prosecuted properly, it is a necessary means of defense, not an end in itself. The highest ideal his main protagonists aspire to is peace, whether to return to the blessed realm of the west, rule ensure the security of middle earth from the throne of Gondor, or, best of all, tend one’s garden and raise a family. This is the lesson that Eowyn learns on the fields of Pellanor. At first she thinks only of winning renown and a worthy death, by the end of ROTK she appreciates the joys of normal life. I see her transition as that of warrior to civilian, laying down arms and beginning a process of post-war restoration, which is also conducted by male protagonists like Aragorn and Faramir. To Tolkien this is not a sign of a character becoming less brave or glorious; rather it reflects the highest degree of wisdom and character.

    David Gittin

  3. While a lot of what you've said makes sense to me, there's one thing about Luthien I think bears pointing out: she is the only Elf to die as Men do. Rather than go to the Halls of Mandos (again, I believe), she passes out of Arda.

    Your remarks that Luthien "is never really allowed to become human" and "remains Other'" confused me, then, because Luthien's final gift (or doom) is precisely that she does become human, in a way that no other Elf does. While she may retain an Elvish nature, I think it's valid to give a great of attention to the kind of mortality she receives. (Of course, I could be misunderstanding you entirely on this point.)

    We haven't discussed Elvish immortality and the mortality of Men yet, but I recall mortality as being referred to as the "gift" of Men, and Tolkien considered the Lord of the Rings to be concerned most with "Death and the desire for deathlessness". In light of this, I think not only Luthien's choice, but her "reward" is of great importance. That Luthien is permitted the choice of (and given) an ultimate fate different from that of her entire race, in my opinion, indicates that she was the greatest hero of the Legendarium. While her means may have been traditionally feminine in nature, her reward seems to me to transcend gender lines.

    Caroline Crouch

  4. Again I rue the lack of an edit function. My post should read "rule TO ensure the security..."


  5. To further clutter this comment thread, I would like to add to Caroline's thoughts that Arwen also chooses not to sail west, but to live and die as a mortal. Does this make her a heroine, given that we never see any of her other deeds? Maybe there's something to be said that no male elves ever choose to sacrifice immortality for human women...


  6. In any analysis of feminine characters one has to include the Valar I think. Not only are there equal numbers of male and female Valar, but within each pair they are equally powerful. Even Manwe and Varda rule together on Mt. Oiolosse. Furthermore, the Vala that the Elves reverence the most is Varda, who is praised both for her glory and strength as well as her radiance and her beauty. Futhermore, the elves are associated with the stars and twilight, which are Varda's element. Tolkien has assigned the elves' core qualities to a female power, giving the Elves a feminine association. Tolkien clearly feels the Elves to be kindred spirits in many ways to himself, and admires them greatly; if his portrayals of the feminine were sexist I feel the elves would not have this quality.

    Additionally to David's commentary on Eowyn, I think her "love of things that grow" is quite genderless, as opposed to a symbol of her transition to wife and motherhood. It is Galadriel's garden, a strong and powerful woman's ability to grow things, that restores the Shire. And it is our beloved Samwise who is, above all things, a gardener.


    P.S. 'homoeroticism' reminded me: if people are interested there is a chapter in Morgoth's Ring entitled "Laws and Customs of the Eldar" that talks about Elven sexuality. Its really neat.

  7. I think your remarks are quite interesting and true, especially your identification of the idealization of women as sexism of the same degree as misogyny, though different in kind. That said, Arda is the creation of a lone man drawing upon an extended body of myths and stories primarily dating from historical periods with what we would aptly describe as deeply sexist social norms. While Tolkien could have created any kind of world, he chose to structure his historically inspired creations along the lines of his own imagination, an imagination that was undoubtedly both romantic and male. If he were to attain political authority and insist that all women in our primary reality behave exactly as his heroine do, that would be worth criticizing. But Tolkien was an author of books and a teller of stories. By making all his tales politically correct, much of the enjoyment via secondary reality coherence (and dare I say real world relevance) would be lost to us. Case in point: Garm the dog. Of course I realize you're not criticizing Tolkien, but merely pointing out sexism which is arguably present. I am just concerned that your argument might be construed as assigning moral blame to the general incidence of sexism in literature.

    -Philip R.

  8. I would argue that the problem which besets Tolkien's women is not the fact that they are idealized. Most of Tolkien's characters are idealized in some way--it comes with the territory of high romance. Rather, what disappoints me about Eowyn, Arwen, and Luthien is that they do not exist on their own terms. By in large, they are defined and motivated by the men in their lives.

    Arwen is only important in the context of being Aragorn's love--so much so that she doesn't appear in the text until they're about to marry. Luthien accomplishes incredible things--but only in the interest of saving Beren, protecting Beren. (Which is not to say that saving the man you love isn't a noble cause to take up, but why didn't Luthien consider Sauron a threat before he threw her boyfriend in the dungeon?) Though Eowyn comes very close to being her own woman--she has independent fears of being caged, and ambitions of fighting--but she also spends most of her time "on-screen" moping after Aragorn or falling in love with Faramir.

    (I also think that there's an argument to be made that Eowyn's surrendering her ambition is a loss of identity, but I don't have the time...)

    I love Tolkien, but I question why, in a story about characters discovering their own power, he leaves his female characters to be defined by their relationships with men.

    ~S. Gregory

  9. I quite agree with David Gittin's comments about Eowyn. Let us not forget that Eowyn is an echo of the historico-mythic shieldmaidens of Scandinavia who forswore sex and marriage, preferring instead to fight alongside men. Let us also remember that the men of the Mark, along with the other Men of Twilight, take great joy in combat and warfare. The Men of Gondor, on the other hand, or at least those who hew closest to their Numenorean ancestry and have been least influeced by the Men of Twilight, take no delight in battle. Faramir says of the men of Rohan and of Gondor:

    "if the Rohirrim are grown in some ways more like to us...we too have become more like to them...for as the Rohirrim do, we now love war and valour as things good in themselves, both a sport and an end..." (The Window on the West)

    Faramir, speaking his own mind and comparing himself to Boromir, says:

    "War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory." (The Window on the West)

    Those who approach most nearly the wisdom and peace of Elvendom and of Numenor that was take to arms only as a means and not as an end. When Eowyn relinquishes war and betrothes herself to Faramir, she is not submitting to male dominance so much as embracing the "higher" ideals that once characterized the world of Elves and Men and that will again flourish during the reign of Elessar.

    -G. Lederer