Friday, May 23, 2014

Tolkien and Gender

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.

-J Keener


  1. "They may have conformed to the gender roles assigned to them"--but then so do the men, yes? Why are the roles given to the female characters necessarily lesser? To judge from the roles that Tolkien gives Aragorn, "healer" is one of the greatest--and he is very specific that both neri and nissi might take on this role. Are you assuming that "warrior" is a more important role for him than "enchantress"? But Galadriel is clearly more powerful than any of the Elf warriors--she is, after all, the only one of her siblings to survive the First Age! RLFB

  2. Dear J,
    Thanks for taking on this difficult and multi-faceted question and I appreciate how you tried to handle the question with sensitivity and gave reasons for your judgments. Well done.
    As you concluded with a note about his contextual time, I think we must be careful how closely to tie the gender roles of middle-earth to those with which we grapple. For example, let me press you on a point: You mentioned that Luthien fell into a gender role by her sole reliance upon enchantment, which you recognized as a female domain in old Norse literature. But the question is, does that old Norse gender type fit middle-earth? Is enchantment limited to women in middle-earth? Decidedly not. So, can we still draw the inference that Luthien’s choice not to weild weapons is conformity to a middle-earth or elvish gender role? Maybe, but it is not so clear.
    Secondly, I too am rather puzzled what to make of the almost exclusive female-elf and male-man pairing. As you noted, “women are always the ones who make the sacrifices.” Is this Tolkien falling in to the romantic chivalric model that he privately denounced to his son? Or can we see a kind a heroism in it. Throughout Tolkien’s writings, but especially in LOTR, it is the hopeful and self-sacrificial acts that redeem, that make heroes, that ennoble. Is it possible to see Tolkien’s superior-female & lesser-male pairs as an attempt to offer a high compliment to the female members? (Notably, his pattern is a turn away from a common trend in historical morganatic [unequal rank] marriages, including King George VI in 1923.)

  3. I'm still not sure how useful I think questions about Tolkien and his work are—haven't feminists been saying for ages that we are all implicated in patriarchal oppression, all necessarily reproducing forms of dominance?—but I'd like to make a point I haven't seen made elsewhere. You write, quite rightly: "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 . . . gender roles, however loose, are still gender roles." I think it's very strange that people think that, if Tolkien makes clear that the neri or nissi can choose not to conform to gender roles, Tolkien's legendarium is less problematic. The very fact that they clearly have the choice to ignore gender expectations—and therefore clearly choose, on the whole, to conform—naturalizes gender roles, casting them both as a product of unconstrained, pre-social nature and as an unproblematic product of free will. A legendarium in which gender roles were clearly enforced and everyone was afraid to violate them would not be problematic, because then gender would appear as what it is: a constraint imposed on our wills and creative potentials. But it is precisely that Tolkien's gender roles are "loose," and that still almost all of the characters (even the divine and pre-social ones) conform to them, that is the problem.

  4. Your points on Tolkien’s casual enforcement of gender roles under the veil of free will are very interesting, and I wonder if an inclusion of the Ents and the Ent-wives would inform this. Treebeard tells Merry and Pippin that while the Ents tended to live in the forests and eat “only such fruit as the trees let fall in their path” but the Ent-wives “did not desire to speak with these things; but they wished them to hear and obey what was said to them. The Entwives ordered them to grow according to their wishes, and bear leaf and fruit to their liking; for the Entwives desired order” (LotR Book II Ch.4). In this case, it appears that while the Ent-wives are in line with the description of the nissi in that “the making of things new is for the most part shown in the forming of their children”, the Ents don’t really bring any invention or change either. Furthermore, the Ent-wives are killed by Sauron’s army in an older war, the Ents are very far away and are anguished when they are lost. Perhaps Tolkien is unconsciously – or consciously – reinforcing a gender role here as well in the form of romantic chivalry, or rather, by portraying what he believes to be the result of a lack of romantic chivalry.

    - K. Weis

  5. While I enjoyed your post and the topics that you broached very much, I was surprised to notice that in a discussion of gender roles in Tolkien you never once discuss Eowyn, one serious counterexample to the trend of strict gender roles which I agree seems dominant throughout Tolkien’s writing. While it is true that most characters seem to adhere firmly to these gender roles, it is important, I think, to note that Eowyn breaks this trend, even to the point of disguising herself as a man in order to do so. Then question that I then turn to is does this absolve Tolkien of any accusations of sexism? Personally as much as I love Eowyn as a character I am not willing to go that far. For one thing, I am still seriously troubled by the scarcity of female characters in Tolkien’s writing. The presence of a single female character who is both capable and eager to fight does not reduce the significance of this but rather increases it, as it suggests that women are not unfit for battle or unable to shape their own stories, which then makes it all the more surprising to me that there are not more of them in Tolkien’s stories. If Tolkien believes—as Eowyn’s characterization suggests that he might—that women are capable and, at least in some cases willing to break these norms, why is it not more prominent in his writing, as you have noticed?


  6. While I hate to include even the barest mentions of Tauriel (Peter Jackson's invented female elf in his Hobbit trilogy) in a discussion of The Lord of the Rings and actual canon, I think the actress who plays this character has a valuable quote that can be applied to any of Tolkien's women: "Women [in fantasy] went from being the helpless heroine to trying to pretend to be men. And I was like ‘How is that gender equality? We want to be like you’. That’s actually pathetic.
    So when I play ‘strong’ females, and particularly with Tauriel, it was my mission to represent true female strength. I believe that our strength - as women - comes from our compassion, our selflessness, our instincts to help, to protect, to put others first. Unlike often - sorry - selfish men"
    When I saw this interview, I was immediately reminded I our discussions of women in Tolkien's work. Evangeline Lilly actually has a very good understanding of the kind of power that women of Lord if the Rings and the Silmarillion do have, which is a kind if nurturing compassion. As it has been written above, men and women do have different roles but this does not necessarily indicate sexism. After all, as we discussed later in class, often the hero is the gardener rather than the warrior and this is certainly a role a woman could play (after all, it was Yavanna who first planted the trees of Valinor). I am actually pleased with Tolkien's ability to recognise the difference in the strengths of men and women while often portraying them as equally necessary.
    --Alex Hale