Friday, May 23, 2014

The Artistic Creation of Women in Tolkien’s Legendarium

In class we briefly discussed Tolkien’s treatment of female characters in his works. There are few female characters in his legendarium, and while some of them seem to be very strong, they still reflect opinions expressed in Tolkien’s letter to his son Michael that I took issue with. In the letter he certainly has some strong points. He rejects the idea of women as “guiding stars” and instead puts women and men on the same level as “companions in shipwreck” (49). However, he rejects the idea that women and men can be friends because he believes that one person will certainly fall in love with the other. He also explains that men have lives and careers while women think only of having a home and raising a family. Perhaps as a result of these opinions, Tolkien is never able to develop his female characters to the extent that he develops his male characters and is not able to create an independent female character comparable to one of the many independent male characters.

One of the strongest female characters in Lord of the Rings (certainly the strongest female human) is Eowyn. She is put in charge of Rohan when Theoden and Eomer go to battle with Saruman’s army and everything goes smoothly with her in charge. Eowyn becomes a shieldmaiden, and at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, slays the Witch-king of Angmar with Merry’s help. In this way Tolkien also shows Eowyn as a fierce warrior, clearly more capable than many of the men that fight alongside her. The problem with Eowyn’s character arises when you look at her love life. Tolkien brings in his “women and men can’t be friends” theory when he makes Eowyn fall in love with Aragorn. This love is not returned and after Eowyn gives up hope of a future with Aragorn, she falls in love with Faramir. She eventually gives up her dreams of future glory in battle when she decides to settle down with him and have a family. I don’t object to Eowyn finding happiness, but do I object to the idea that the way the women in Tolkien’s works find happiness is through a relationship with a man. In fact, I cannot think of a female character in Lord of the Rings who remains single at the end of the book. This is not true of the men. Legolas and Gimli don’t have any sort of romantic relationships throughout the series (with the exception of GImil’s infatuation with Galadriel), but find happiness in their friendship.

Galadriel is another of Tolkien’s very strong female characters. She is beautiful, smart, and extremely powerful, but even she does not rule alone. She is married to Lord Celeborn and rules alongside him. At least in the story, Galadriel is a much more visible ruler that Celeborn and is the only female to hold a ring of power. She is one of the few female characters that doesn’t have to make some kind of large sacrifice for her relationship and she is a stronger character because of this. But the fact that Galadriel is the only of the three important female characters in Lord of the Rings I can think of that does not make some kind of sacrifice for a man indicates that Tolkien’s work is somewhat lacking in female characters.

Elf-human relationships are also an indicator of the lack of equality of the sexes in relationships. As we mentioned in class, there is a lack of en elf-human relationship in which a male elf gives up his immortality for a female human. We have examples of elf-human relationships that work, but it is always a female elf that gives up her immortality for the male (Beren/Luthien, Aragorn/Arwen). The only exception to the male human/female elf rule is Andreth and Aegnor. They loved each other but the relationship did not work out because Aegnor was killed in battle. Andreth never marries, making her one of the few female characters in the Tolkien’s legendarium to remain single. However, unlike in the cases of Eowyn or Arwen, Andreth’s marriage would have supported the equality of the sexes as Aegnor would have had to sacrifice to be with Andreth. By ending this relationship, Tolkien eliminates one of the only instances in which a male character could have made a large sacrifice for a female.

The elf-human relationship that shows the strength of a female character the most is the story of Beren and Luthien. Even though Beren is tasked with stealing a Silmaril in order to win Luthien’s hand, Tolkien allows Luthien to participate in the quest. During the quest, Luthien ends up saving Beren and is the reason it is (almost) successful. Beren ends up sacrificing a hand to be with Luthien, but Luthien sacrifices eternal bliss with the Valar to be with Beren. In this case Tolkien still has the woman still makes the bigger sacrifice.

I think that Tolkien made a conscious effort to include strong female characters in his works. I only wish that he had given us a strong, single female character that did not have any kind of romantic relationship, especially one in which she had to sacrifice something important to be with the man. Tolkien’s biases from the letter to Michael show through in his work and prevent him from creating a fully independent female character. Galadriel is the closest he comes to this, but I think she would have been an even stronger character had she been unmarried and ruled alone. His treatment of women in his works suggest that he subscribed to traditional gender roles and relationship preferences, and as much as he tried to overcome these, they are still reflected in his characters.



  1. ECB,

    Interesting take! I’m not sure I follow you in some of the details. For example, I think Éowyn’s lack of a career as a general has more to do with the fact that peace has probably come for her lifetime, and her desire to fight was that of a Viking wanting to acquit himself well on Ragnarök. She despaired—utterly—of a future for her people, and wanted to die fighting. Once she saw a future, her hope gave her a different perspective, and I think forming a living bond between Rohan and Gondor in uniting her house and that of the former stewards’ was probably a conscious dimension of her attraction to Faramir, whose cultivation and lack of bellicosity she seems to have found a complement to her own Béowulvian temperament. Moreover, Éowyn had already earned eternal glory on the battlefield precisely because she was “no man.” There’s really no greater battle for her to win.

    On Galadriel, I actually disagree that she’d look stronger ruling by herself. Celeborn always looks like a Prince Consort to me. He may have a title, he may be an impressive guy, but he’s so profoundly secondary to Galadriel in every dimension that matters, she seems more impressive by her ability to dwarf him without diminishing him. Elizabeth I was a Virgin Queen because if she married, her interests would be yoked to, and possibly subordinated to, someone else’s. Galadriel is utterly without rival among the sovereigns of Middle Earth as she is. Even Aragorn Returned is no competitor—Arwen adds to his glamour in a way Celeborn never adds to Galadriel’s.

    I think the point that women sacrifice more in these relationships could actually be used to make an opposite case. Your take relies on the assumption that Tolkien believes it is meet for women to sacrifice more; it might be the case that he believes that women, tragically, do sacrifice more in relationships—especially in a world when women died in childbirth, women did actually regularly lose their lives for their family. Tolkien’s relationships here could be descriptive rather than prescriptive. See also Elf-Human Love for still another, different take.

    Finally, having cited complementarity in Éowyn and Faramir’s characters, I might suggest that some form of complementarity underlay Tolkien’s view of the sexes. As a devout man, he sure believed “male and female He created them,” and the letter to Michael seems to suggest that in a Fallen world, their differences both separate them and are, perhaps paradoxically, the key to their (provisional) happiness—in what one lacks, the other often excels.

    I think your argument holds up pretty well according to the standards of a world where everyone is a unique, unconnected individual, and where hröa holds little sway over fëa. But, as you point out, Tolkien, a child of Victorian England and a son of the Church, didn’t live in that world, nor created Middle Earth in its image and likeness.

    Nicely done.

  2. I do take the point about Éowyn’s changing life trajectory being linked to the respective exigencies of peace and wartime, and can see a certain version of complementarity in her relationship with Faramir that seems consistent with Tolkien’s conception of the relationship between men and women, but also echo ECB in that I always find myself vaguely dissatisfied with the way Éowyn is presented in The Lord of the Rings. Éowyn, though beautiful and strong, is always discussed in terms of having been blighted or in some way psychically disfigured by her circumstances; Aragorn describes his first impression of Éowyn as “a white flower standing straight and proud, shaped as a lily, and yet….maybe, a frost...had turned its sap to ice, so it stood, bitter-sweet, still fair to see, but stricken, soon to fall and die” (866). The fact that Éowyn has been stricken by “frost” is not her fault; she suffers greatly from Théoden’s dotage and her inability to help and protect those she loves. Still, Éowyn is only mentally and emotionally healed once she accepts Faramir’s love and gives way to her love for him; upon accepting Faramir, “the heart of Éowyn changed or at least she understood it. And suddenly her winter passed, and the sun shone on her” (964). This description of Éowyn is frustratingly reminiscent of longstanding stereotypes of that uncoupled women are literally and figuratively “frigid”–cold and emotionally distant. Her union with Faramir seems to “complete” her in a way that it doesn’t complete Faramir. This is not to say that Faramir is not benefitted by the relationship, or that he does not carry with him baggage that is partially alleviated through their love. Yet it seems that Éowyn could not have persisted uncoupled and ever come out of her “winter” as a single woman. She is uniquely tortured in her condition of singleness in a way that no man in The Lord of the Rings appears to be. Though men in The Lord of the Rings do couple off and seem to enjoy their unions, no man’s existential health is so dependent on romantic couplehood as Éowyn’s.


  3. While do I find all of the above reasonable and potentially applicable to Tolkien's depiction of women in his legendarium, we must constantly remind ourselves that the Lord of the Rings is unlike many other works of fiction in one very important respect. Tolkien was not simply writing from himself, he was actively engaged in fabricating an historical document/mythology which would fit existing Anglo-Saxon tradition. In doing so Tolkien, in theory, would have included a number of elements not necessarily representative of his own beliefs but rather indicative of the reconstructed beliefs of the Men, Elves, and Dwarves whose history he writes.

    It is a fact, an unfortunate one perhaps, but a fact nonetheless that women in history and in mythologies the world over are represented as a minority and one generally relegated to relationships with men in very much the way we find them in Tolkien’s legendarium. Strong, independent, single, totally fulfilled female figures simply don’t occur in human mythologies with any notable frequency. The closest any mythology comes such a figure is the archetype ECB identified in Galadriel. Aphrodite, the Lady of the Lake, Skadi, and even Grendel’s mother, though powerful women in their own right, are all qualified by either romantic or motherly associations with men. Like it or not, that’s how history/myth was written, so finding that pattern in Tolkien is not necessarily a reason to condemn the author for anything more than accurate mimicry.

    --H. Goldberg

  4. I would generally agree with much of what you have written. Obviously Tolkien wrote his book unconsciously expressing both the biases of the historical period he wanted to write into, as well as the biases of the society he grew up in.

    However, I am a little confused by your post. You reference a "strong female character" extremely often, without making it particularly clear what you mean by the phrase. From what you've written, I can infer that you mean a female character whose life path does not need a romantic relationship to be happy and fulfilling. The immediate logical disjoint I see here is that having a romantic relationship does not necessarily weaken a female character. I feel that Galadriel, for example, exists fairly independently of Celeborn, and that her joint rule with Celeborn is a technicality that does not detract from her general character.

    In principle, I would agree that Tolkien's gender representation was unequal. However, I think that this claim would be better supported with a stronger conception of what exactly would constitute equal gender representation. Right now, the idea of "strong female characters" is largely getting defined in negative-- not needing a relationship, not needing a man...

    Indeed, female characters can be strong in different ways. Just because we do not personally think that the opportunity cost sacrificed by a character for, say, a relationship is justified, does not in and of itself make a female character weak. Female characters are only weak when they are one-dimensional and possess no other traits (or worse traits still) than that of existing for the sake of a man. Likewise, there are many different ways through which independence can manifest-- not just independence from romantic relationships. Either way, I would argue that most of Tolkien's female characters are not that simplistic.

    Carol Ann Tan

  5. I do like that you utilized a personal letter of Tolkien’s to discover his true opinions on women, but there are some caveats in making an argument from this. First, know that his views were, at his time, either fully accepted or even radical, his female characters already significant for his time (see his colleague CS Lewis’ infamously terrible treatment of women in his novels). Second, it is not correct, in my opinion, to draw ideas of women or men from the perspective of relationships. Does a woman truly give up independence when she marries? That is the traditional, anti-feminist view. Relationships should be like friendships—equal, and leaving both parties just as independent as before with regards to inner and outer strength, etc. Perhaps, if we look at women only from a pre- and post-marriage perspective, Galadriel is not the strongest female character, but represents a “wicked woman” who has taken control over her husband. And while Eowyn falls in love with a man—isn’t the man happy too? It is difficult and often not recommended to superimpose feminist theory on works like LotR which, as we have studied, utilize historical familial structures to give a deep sense of history.

    Scotty Campbell

  6. I have always appreciated this comment I've found regarding Strong Female Characters: "Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong."

    I must admit, I echo the dissatisfaction with the outcry for strong females. What is supposed to constitute strength? Often, it appears to mean simply independence and a lack of romantic inclination. A woman who kills dragons and doesn't need a man to do it. Male characters are so rarely defined by their relationships to women - how does it benefit females to define them by their relationships to men, even if that distinction is that they don't have them? It still takes the focus away from the woman's personality, achievements, and depth of character, even in attempting to individualize her.

    Galadriel is no less powerful a character for her marriage to Celeborn. Likewise, we should not consider Eowyn weaker for her love for Aragorn, nor her marriage to Faramir. Many have considered it a failure of character for Eowyn to denounce the shield and take up the title of healer; rather, it appears to me a growth of wisdom and an indication of her complexity as a character. Eowyn is interesting not because she kills monsters, but because she is nuanced.