Monday, May 23, 2011

Tolkien Might Not GET Women

Immortality, certainly, is an interesting subject for Tolkien; however, my focus was quickly snapped towards the women Tolkien has created. Specifically, I found it interesting that this week we examined the stories of Lúthien, Arwen and Galadriel. Perhaps this may be because they are all elves, but it may also be because Tolkien has created an interesting link between the feminine and mortality. The only other strong female character in the Lord of the Rings is Eowyn (and perhaps Rosie for marrying Sam), but she is a mortal woman. However, her character also is faced with the challenges of her mortality – she strives against her society to go to war, and when she does Marry notices that her face “was the face of one...who goes in search of death.” I find it interesting that all of these women have strong connections with their own mortalities. Eowyn, Arwen and Lúthien were all determined to die for love. Galadriel, guided by ambition to cross the sea and rule, also resisted the eventual diminishing of the elves, until tested by Frodo. While I will not focus on Eowyn, some of the aspects I will discuss about women can relate to her. Still, we should ask why Tolkien gives his female characters such dramatic choices regarding their mortalities.

First though, it's important to examine Tolkien's perspectives on the sex. In a letter written to his son, Tolkien offers some insight on his opinion on relationships between men and women. “Women really have not much part in all this,” Tolkien states about love, “for it is their gift to be receptive, stimulated, fertilized (in many other matters than the physical) by the male.” Regarding marriage, Tolkien claims that “For a Christian man, there is no escape. Marriage may help to sanctify and direct to its proper object his sexual desires; its grace may help him in the struggle; but the struggle remains. It will not satisfy him.” Marriage then is more than a simple agreement – it is a divine contract that has far reaching consequences if one were ever to break it. Perhaps Tolkien's women are so certain in their decisions that they can accept death as a consequence. Seems fairly absurd and almost misogynistic, but we can see that all of the women Tolkien produces are warriors or at least very determined women. It's wrong for me to only point out these statements: interestingly, Tolkien also regards women as “guiding stars” in literary matters, and companions on the shipwreck of love in earthly matters. Given these perspectives, maybe it isn't too hard to see why the women that Tolkien has created are the way they are: Galadriel, the Lady of Light; Arwen, the Evenstar; Lúthien, the Morning Star. Perhaps all these women are guiding stars for the men they lead.

But, why must they make such incredible decisions when it comes to love? Arwen and Lúthien are forced to choose between immortal life or death. Galadriel refuses to return to her home, attempting to solidify her position in middle-earth, which she loves. The consequences of these decisions seem far greater than the situation would demand. Perhaps it's the jargon. “Demand” may not be the correct word. All of these women made a choice to enter into their contracts. Tolkien's perspective on women makes these decisions a bit more clear, as he believes women to be “servient, helpmeet,” and so a decision to sacrifice everything for love doesn't seem like a stretch for me. However, is life really everything?

In all, I find that women in Tolkien act as “guiding stars” for the people or men they seem to follow. The pattern between men and women isn't a linear as it may have initially seemed – instead, it is circular. By guiding, they in return are rewarded with companionship and procreation (with the exception of Galadriel, who instead is given redemption and a return home). The cycle of love, then, is immortal. The sudden mortality of Lúthien and Arwen isn't nearly as impactful. Tolkien himself remarks on this: “Death: by the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste (or foretaste) of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexity of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man's heart desires.” While Tolkien may be speaking about the Blessed Sacrament in this quote, I think we can make the assumption that by accepting love from men, Lúthien and Arwen are taking a Holy Sacrament. By accepting death, these women allow for their love to eternally endure, and allow for the divine mystery of copulation to occur. So, I don't think Tolkien is a misogynist. Just a really weird romantic. 

Chris Strange 


  1. Love's immortality is a fantastic point, and one which I don't think we touched on enough in class. By forsaking their own personal immortality for the romantic and sacred consummation, for lack of a better word, of their love for the greatest of mortals, the Elf-women achieve a different kind of immortality, one that transcends themselves and creates a greater story.

    They are no longer immortal, true, but their love is, and in creating that sort of legendary, pure union, their immortality is transferred more than it is sacrificed, becoming bigger and more important than itself. By marrying, by making themselves one with mortals, they are uniting two peoples as well as two souls, and that combination becomes sacred and transcendent.

    That was not the direction I intended to take this comment, so, apologies; basically, I do think that Tolkien is deeply romantic more than he is misogynistic. That's not to say that his portrayal of women is never problematic, but that it is nuanced and interesting and that perhaps the roles assigned to individual women, as well as to women as a whole, in his works should be more deeply explored. -Michaela Jandacek

  2. I found this post very interesting especially after the class we had on the 23rd. It appears that religion strongly influenced his depiction of love throughout the Lord of the Rings. You brought up the idea of the women making the “choice to enter into their contracts.” As discussed in class, it seems that Tolkien values the love of the servant (Samwise to Frodo, Christians to God, etc.) to be one of the most powerful forces when willingly entered by love. I really don't intend to be misogynistic, but perhaps when he writes that women are “servient, helpmeet” he isn't necessarily putting them down but instead praising what he sees as the ultimate sacrifice. By creating such extreme sacrifices for the female characters you describe, he is highlighting exactly how important he finds these relationships. I also like the imagery of the “guiding stars” and the implications of the undying love that you discuss. It shows that Luthien and Arwen were able to recognize something greater than their immortality and willingly made sacrifices in order to achieve it. And yes, Tolkien does seem to be a somewhat strange romantic.
    Brian W.

  3. I like the imagery of the "guiding stars" very much, too, but I think Brian W. makes an important point that only reinforces your larger argument: it was no small thing for Tolkien to be a servant or helpmeet. And, of course, I agree: I don't think that Tolkien is ultimately misogynistic, but I don't understand why he is "weirdly" romantic. Why is it strange for him to value marriage so highly? Or is this not what you meant? Because what you describe in your last paragraph simply seems romantic--love everlasting?--to me!


  4. I understand how Tolkien can appear as weirdly romantic, and I do think that he sees these women as romantic figures, but I think this romantic view in based in problematic views, and that to say "he's not a misogynist, he's romantic" ignores the fact that he can be both.

    His views on women as guiding stars, important yet, but passive, their presence is enough to inspire action, are rooted in the sexist views of his time. Women are receptacles for men's passions, but where can they direct their own desires, and who guides them? IT is no small thing to be a servant in Tolkein's mind, but the women are only ever servants. The women in Tolkien's universe are “strong” but their strength is still rooted in their willingness to make a sacrifice that Tolkien does not ask of his male characters. Some of his male characters make sacrifices, but ALL of his female ones do. Their reward is companionship and procreation, and isn't that the age-old idea of what women want? Marriage and babies? They are warriors, but only until they are shown that what they really want isn't the battlefield, it's the bower. They are determined to do whatever it takes for the love of a man, even if his sacrifices pale in comparison to hers. What help do the men give their women? Aragorn's entire journey is so he can win Arwen's hand, but what does that really do for her? And what is she to him besides a banner; beautiful, inspiring, but only containing whatever meaning you give to it, endowed with no power of its own.


  5. I too find Tolkien's treatment of women in his grand love stories problematic at times - after all, as you stated, it seems in the majority of cases that it is the woman and not the man who has to make the grand sacrifice. The number of female characters within the legendarium - let alone well-developed ones - pales in comparison to the number of male characters. Yet I wonder if the emphasis on sacrifice is a product of Tolkien's view on love as an undying contract rather than as passive "guiding stars." Indeed, out of all the female characters listed, I really think it is Arwen alone who is a passive character. One could make a strong case that Luthien is a more active character than Beren - after all, it is she that rescues Beren, she that defeats Sauron single-handedly, she that overcomes Morgoth so that Beren has only to snatch the Silmaril from his crown. Galadriel's commitment to Middle-Earth does not prevent her from returning home in the end, and she is a much more important character than her husband Celeborn.

    I think the story of Eärendil and Elwing also provides an interesting perspective on this issue, because both lovers are given the choice to join either the Elves or Men by the Vala. Here it is Eärendil who chooses immorality for Elwing's sake, "though his heart was rather with the kindred of Men." (Silmarillion, p. 249) Though this seems to us a much easier sacrifice than giving up immortal life, I think it's important that Tolkien does not seem to consider the fate of Men inferior to that of the Elves. In the end, I agree that Tolkien is a dedicated romantic and more comfortable writing from the perspectives of men, rather than a misogynist.

    Taylor Ehlis

  6. Dealing with death is tough stuff. Is a hero showing a suicidal impulse if he or she walks openly into battle? Death in stories is perhaps different, too, from death in life. We postulate the work is a secondary reality, but it’s hard to escape the emotional impact of death in a primary reality. Tolkien recognizes that impact in various scenes of death. But the narrative function, its place in a story of heroes, may be different. Didn’t Ralph Waldo Emerson say something like history is just the biography of great men? Whether or not we agree (I don’t, without qualification, at least), it tells us that history is built on the shape of a life, which must be defined by birth and death, among other things. Death gives shape to a life, as Eowyn knows, and it gives shape to stories as well. Death usually happens to us, but not to elves. But choosing one’s death is seen as a veritable power in numerous heroes, from Beowulf to the hobbits not least of all, who anticipate death from their journey even if they are spared. The idea of choice is critical, as we’ve discussed. It is a power to reject the natural shape of a life, human, or elven, as in the cases of Luthien and Arwen. For Tolkien it may have Christian resonances. For the hobbits it is primarily this choice that reveals the depth of character that hobbits actually have, and that deepens their character as well. But, the choice made for love turns the choice into something else altogether, as you suggest.

  7. I’m more or less with ACC on this one. I think Tolkien can be both a misogynist and a romantic. I think it’s pretty clear that Tolkien doesn’t actively dislike women, so in that sense the term misogynist doesn’t apply. However, we’ve seen again and again in his personal writings that he simply thinks women are limited (for example, his discussion about how they can make excellent students, but for whatever reason cannot translate that into making good teachers). For my money, he essentially views women as incomplete. That’s why they only pop up as accessories to men. The guiding star image is useful here. Basically, the message is, women can be useful, but only insofar as the help men accomplish great tasks. They’re like narrative step-ladders. They can help a man reach his necessary and important goal, but no one ever thanked his step-ladder for the box of cereal he retrieved off of the shelf.
    Even Luthien, who actually DOES accomplish something on her own, is problematic. As we’ve discussed, she accomplishes one of the greatest feats in Tolkien’s legendarium, and yet she only does it for the sake of a man she loves, as opposed to (for example) literarily everyone else in the world. This would be all well and good if it was only one of many valid reasons that women show for doing remarkable things. But that’s not the case. One might object and say that all that amounts to is a reversal of roles- Beren becomes the guiding star for Luthien. “You can’t have it both ways, Emma. Either Luthien is heroic for having a guiding star, or all the other women are for being guiding stars” you might say. Not so! I would respond, because the difference is that characters like Aragorn, who is of course guided by Arwen, have a multiplicity of motivations. Aragorn shows a number of times that he is concerned with the safety of the world itself, with the welfare of the hobbits, the people of Gondor, etc. Arwen is a guiding star, but not the soul motivator behind his actions. So I’ll restate: women are only lauded as accessories to men. This is, perhaps, the reason that there are almost no unmarried women in any of Tolkien’s narratives. Without men to hang on to, women in Tolkien’s work can’t really accomplish anything. This is not to say that they don’t accomplish many laudable feats, or that they are non-entities entirely, only that Tolkien very clearly had a vision of the appropriate woman, and he followed it relatively strictly.

    -E. Moore

  8. I found your post to incredibly thought provoking, but I think I disagree with your conclusion. You say that Tolkien is just an odd romantic, but it may be that this statement is borne out of a desire to keep the author we all admire pure. It is not inconceivable that Tolkien did, in fact, have a misogynist view of women.

    To take the perspective of the cynic, Tolkien may be a product of his times. The quotes you cite demonstrate an opinion of Women that was not in any way uncommon in the years in which he lived. That women and men occupy different sphere of purpose in Tolkien's conception seems to be beyond the scope of simple romanticism. As "guiding stars," women must exist outside the story. As helpers and facilitators rather than actors. This endows men wit the role of actors. The relationship between helpers: women and actors: men seems, to me, to be a misogynist one. This may not be true, but it is important not to blind ourselves to Tolkien's flaws.

    -Nick Carter

  9. I would not say that Tolkien was a romantic or a misogynist, rather, that he was passive. This is hard to understand in modern terms, since he appeared to lead such an active existence. However, he simply passively absorbed both the good and bad in his culture. It was the English land that protected him from the more negative aspects of British culture, and his attraction for natural features of the landscape was clear throughout everything he wrote; it was what kept his mind in a sort of unsteady balance, which started to unravel by the time he was writing The Return of the King. Rather than saying he was a misogynist or a romantic, it seems to me important to consider that British culture is neither misogynistic nor misandrystic; it has anti-human elements which tempt both sexes, out of nervousness, to ascribe their own sexuality to things which are not sexual at all. I would say that Tolkien tried to escape from his culture by writing the books the way he did, and that he was a nervous person, but highly imaginative; that he was hierarchical to an extreme, and that he had surrendered largely to all the culture rules which he had been given without much audible complaint. Popular fiction tends to be accepting of the current rules, but to offer a way out of them simultaneously in a concealed and hidden way. It is the love of the land which he felt, but which, passively, he never allowed himself to directly emotionally experience, which is the exit door to the confusion manifested by the characters he invented. This love was also how he was able to write the books at all.


  10. What if Tolkien is simply correct in his views?

    Why is it really so bad if women are mostly sacrificing servants to more active males?

    What is so superior about the roles played by the males that people feel more women need to be portrayed in those roles?

    I personally think the modern world is completely disordered (really, when one begins to look at how we live this should be obvious to anyone with imagination). As someone influenced by Hinduism I could say this is because we live in the late Kali Yuga, but the common Christian term 'End Times' works just as well. There is a correct order for all things in Creation, including men and women of course - this order is simply no longer recognized, understood or accepted in the late time in which we live.

    Tolkien understood the roles that men and women were Created to play, simply put.