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.