In class we discussed the importance of sex and mortality in Tolkien’s work, including the roles of different genders in the context of sex and mortality. Naturally this led to a discussion of whether or not Tolkien’s views were sexist. While his works obviously ignore nonbinary genders or the possibility for non-heterosexual relationships, for the sake of simplicity, I am only going to discuss the matter of whether or not Tolkien is sexist toward women. The fact of the matter is that judging whether or not Tolkien is sexist isn’t as simple as it appears.
Tolkien recognizes that women are objectified when they shouldn’t be. After all, they are human, too. As he says, “[The romantic chivalric tradition] still tends to make the Lady, a kind of guiding star or divinity – of old-fashioned ‘his divinity’ = the woman he loves – the object or reason of noble conduct. This is, of course, false and at best make-believe. The woman is another fallen human-being with a soul in peril” (Letters 49). Assuming that Flieger’s interpretation of Thingol and Melian’s relationship is correct, then the view Tolkien expresses in his letter is reflected in his work in that way—Thingol, in turning aside from the light of the trees in order to follow the light of Melian, is led away from the true source of light, marking the beginning of his descent into darkness. A more obvious example of this can be found in Maeglin’s desire for Idril Celebrindal. Tolkien writes that “he desired above all things to possess her” (Silmarillion 298) to the point where he is willing to betray Gondolin to Morgoth, “and indeed desire for Idril … led Maeglin the easier to his treachery” (Silmarillion 299). Tolkien’s message was clearly that women should be viewed as human beings and not as prizes to be won or even goddesses to be placed on a pedestal and worshiped. To view them as anything other than people is a dark and dangerous mindset that can only lead to trouble.
However, Tolkien falls short of achieving true gender equality in his work. In his description of the laws and customs of the Noldor, Tolkien describes the different roles of the men and women—that is, the neri and nissi—among the Eldar. He does insist that the neri and nissi are equal and that they can really do whatever they want, saying,
In all such things, not concerned with the bringing forth of children, the neri and nissi … are equal – unless it be in this … that for the nissi the making of things new is for the most part shown in the forming of their children, so that invention and change is otherwise mostly brought about by the neri. There are indeed some differences between the natural inclinations of neri and nissi, and other differences have been established by custom. (Morgoth’s Ring 213)
He continues to describe the different roles that the neri and nissi play according to their customs, appending at the end of the description, “But all these things, and other matters of labour and play, or of deeper knowledge concerning being and the life of the World, may at different times be pursued by any among the Noldor, be they neri or nissi” (Morgoth’s Ring 214). Therefore, the gender roles in among the Noldor in Tolkien’s world were very loose. While this may seem to show gender equality in Tolkien’s work, the men and women in his writing do not quite achieve equality, although they come very close. Gender roles, however loose, are still gender roles.
Even in the histories of Middle Earth, the women who do a lot of work and earn a lot of praise still conform to the gender roles that are assigned to or expected of them. For instance, although Lúthien rescues Beren from Sauron’s werewolves when the men can’t, heals him repeatedly, and becomes responsible for sneaking them into Angband, she never once wields a weapon. Everything she accomplishes she does through the use of enchantment, and magic is traditionally, in Norse tradition at least, known as the woman’s domain. Even without bringing Norse tradition into the discussion, Lúthien as the healer and Beren as the warrior still fall into the roles that Tolkien assigned them according to gender. Moreover, Tolkien himself views Lúthien’s role in the quest as that of an assistant, saying, “It is Beren the outlawed mortal who succeeds (with the help of Lúthien, a mere maiden even if an elf of royalty) where all the armies and warriors have failed … Thus he wins the hand of Lúthien” (Letters 149). By describing Lúthien as a “mere maiden,” he implies that her status as a woman makes her somehow less or weaker than Beren because he is a man, dismissing the fact that she is a powerful enchantress descended from a Maia and an elven king.
To complicate things more, there is the fact that all marriages between races occurred where the woman belonged to the more powerful race than the man did. Melian, a Maia, married Thingol, an elf. Lúthien, Idril, Mithrellas, and Arwen were all elf maidens who married men, Beren, Tuor, Imrazôr, and Aragorn. Even the love between Finduilas and Túrin, although they never married, was between an elf maid and a man. The only romance between races where the man belonged to a more powerful race than the woman did was between Andreth and Aegnor, but Aegnor turned away from Andreth, and they were never married. Finrod, Aegnor’s brother, argues that the reason why Andreth and Aegnor could not marry was that it was not fated, saying to Andreth, “For such barters are paid for in anguish that cannot be guessed, until it comes … if any marriage can be between our kindred and thine, then it shall be for some high purpose of Doom. Brief it will be and hard at the end” (Morgoth’s Ring 324). The anguish, or the sacrifice, that Finrod describes are paid on the part of the more powerful race (excluding marriages between Maiar and Elves, in which no sacrifices are made as far as I’m aware), and, because Andreth and Aegnor were unable to wed, this means that the women are always the ones who make the sacrifices. I’m not sure what exactly this says about Tolkien’s views on the roles of women in relationships or even if this reflects any view at all on whether or not Tolkien believed women should have a certain role in relationships. However, it is notable that this pattern exists.
All that being said, Tolkien did create intriguing, powerful female characters. They may have conformed to the gender roles assigned to them, but they did act as independent characters and not as objects meant for men to worship, and Tolkien makes an effort to create equality between neri and nissi among the Noldor. He certainly was not a misogynist, and I believe that he was progressive for his time (although I’ll admit I don’t know much about feminism at that time and therefore don’t know exactly where he stood). However, that does not mean he wasn’t sexist, and it’s important for us to recognize that.