Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Are You My Mother? No, Sorry, She's Dead

Are You My Mother? No, Sorry, She's Dead

   A part of me, and a fairly large part, at that, is very tempted to try and continue the conversation from the past two classes, about Tolkien’s female characters and whether or not his treatment of them qualifies as sexist. However, I feel that entering into a conversation in that direction will basically just lead to me talking in circles around myself, much as the discussion about the subject in class has tended towards the unproductive. I do feel, personally, that Eowyn’s character is worse off for how she ends the story—that handing in her sword to go garden is, in some way, a move that is predicated on the fact that she is a woman, and that I, personally, do not agree with this end for her. I recognize the counter-arguments against this position, and even agree with some of them, but my opinion, I don’t think, is likely to change. However, I also don’t think I could convince anyone who doesn’t find her character problematic.
            Basically, a blog post about this will go nowhere. With this in mind, the subject of my post will be about motherhood in Tolkien’s Legendarium, and in the Lord of the Rings in particular. To risk over-generalization, the mothers of Tolkien’s characters seem decidedly less important than do fathers. Looking solely at the Fellowship, there really aren’t any extant mothers—Legolas and Boromir’s mothers are both dead, leaving them with relatively distant fathers. Frodo’s parents are both dead, of course. Aragorn’s mother is (or at least was) alive, but he seems to have been influenced much more by his foster father, Elrond (allowing him to join in the time-honored heroic tradition of loving your sister (but this time it isn’t by blood, so it’s fine.)) The mothers of Gimli and the other three Hobbits don’t appear to be dead, at least, none of these four really have any character development in relation to their families—except, of course, Gimli’s hatred of Elves, which stems from his father, who at one point was held hostage by Legolas’s father. Essentially, none of the mothers of the members of the Fellowship really seem to have done very much.
            This arrangement is, of course, not unique to Tolkien. What is interesting, however, is how the relationships of the unseen mothers factor into living arrangements of some of the characters who are seen. Eomer and Eowyn are fostered by their uncle, their mother’s brother, after their parents die. Considering that the culture and language of the Rohirrim seems to be heavily influenced by Anglo-Saxon traditions, it seems worth noting that much the same happens with the archetypical Anglo-Saxon hero, Beowulf, who is also fostered in the court of his maternal uncle. The main elves that we see are related through the female line, as Galadriel was the mother of Elrond’s departed wife, Celebrian. Frodo may be related to Bilbo through both sides of his family, but he is closer on his mother’s side[1]. If one chooses to include the characters of the Hobbit in this examination, Fili and Kili are on their quest with Thorin, their maternal uncle[2].
            Basically, the bonds of motherhood seem to be crucial for understanding the upbringing of many of the main characters of the Lord of the Rings, which doesn’t seem like a shocking revelation. Who could have guessed that characters would be defined by their mothers? The ‘novelty’ of this, of course, lies in the fact that it’s principally the absence of these mothers that makes them remarkable. Are there even mothers in the story? Considering the relative scarcity of female characters, it isn’t difficult to go through most all of them. There are, of course, a good number of future mothers. Arwen will, of course, eventually have her children. Rosie has thirteen herself. Eowyn’s children aren’t, I believe, ever mentioned, but it can probably be safely assumed that she has them. As for characters who are mothers at the time of the story, we have Galadriel, who has had her child so long ago that she seems to have lost any conventional trappings of motherhood[3]. There is…Lobelia Sackville-Baggins? She has a child, although he doesn’t quite make it[4]. That’s about it for female characters. Goldberry exists, I suppose, although I think her and Tom have surpassed the need for children.
            There are, of course, many more examples of father-son relationships within the books, whether foster-father or blood relations (although a father’s chance of actually living isn’t much higher than the mother’s). There are, of course, reasonable arguments that can be made for this disparity in the mentioned characters and relationships. As was mentioned, I believe, in class, this is essentially a war story, something that Tolkien almost certainly would not have seen as particularly appropriate for women. The Lord of the Rings also exists as a quasi-medieval fantasy, and this necessitates a larger focus on the roles of soldier and general or king and prince, things that leave no place for women. These arguments could all certainly be made, and might even seem somewhat convincing at the time. I’m not here to say that they don’t have their place.
            I’m still troubled by them, however. I keep thinking about something that was said, I believe, last Wednesday in class. Tolkien was very fixated on making sure that all of the relationships he created having their designated children, so the story of the next generation can be told and their stories can be passed down. That’s fine—that is, pretty much, how life works. Sure, there’s something stiflingly heteronormative about the expectation that every relationship will settle down and produce a passel of babies, but I can’t blame Tolkien for being born in 1892 (I mean, I could, but I don’t think that would get me anywhere.) Arwen and Aragorn will have their children, and the story of Middle Earth will pass to those children, just as Feanor’s story passed to his seven sons[5]. I don’t, strictly speaking, have a problem with this.
            When this narrative trend is combined with the fact that the mothers of characters in the Lord of the Rings are basically nonexistent, however, it seems like a less welcome trend. It seems, almost, as though the role of many female characters within Tolkien’s legendarium is to have their children, who will do great things and proceed on with their own part of the story, and to then be unceremoniously removed from the story. This is maybe most blatant in the story of Feanor’s birth. After his birth, his mother, Miriel, says that “strength that would have nourished the life of many has gone forth into Feanor.”[6] She then proceeds to fade away and die, and Feanor, once he grows up, ruins literally everything. Sure, the death of a mother can provide excellent character motivation and the like—but it seems as though the most important events in any woman’s life are the birth of her children and her death.
            This same trend makes other stories, such as Aredhel’s abduction by Eol seem even worse (and, since she was literally abducted and held captive and raped (I don’t care if Tolkien says she was not ‘wholly unwilling’, any relationship that has the man ‘[taking] her to wife’ is not o.k.[7]), it’s pretty hard to do that.) She literally exists to bring about the fall of Gondolin through her child—her only significant actions are giving birth to Maeglin[8] and being killed by her ‘husband’ in front of her son[9].
I’m not trying to say that Tolkien is doing this on purpose, or even that this is some sneaking unconscious idea. Honestly, the same claim could be made of a lot of male characters—I’m sure Finwe was a mighty king and everything, but it seems like his most important act is to be killed by Morgoth[10] and thus inspiring Feanor to begin his streak of ruining absolutely everything. However, there are many fewer female exceptions to the idea that the only things of import you can do are have children and then die (and since there are a lot fewer female characters in general, Tolkien basically gets fewer strikes.) Are there female exceptions? Sure, Luthien admittedly does some pretty amazing things, and I think her child is probably incidental to getting the Silmaril back (maybe not in terms of the overarching story, but it works to a degree). To be sure, this is somewhat of a historical trend, and certainly not something that Tolkien alone is guilty of.  I have nothing against female characters having children, and I acknowledge that there is a long literary and mythological tradition of a mother’s death being an excellent motivation, or something to that affect. Just because it has a storied tradition, however, doesn’t mean that it’s good.


[1] Primula being Bilbo’s first cousin, while Drogo was his second. The Fellowship of the Ring, pp. 23
[2] Which ends spectacularly for everyone involved, of course. Poor Dis.
[3] I suppose she differs from the Virgin Mary in the respect that her own child is hardly mentioned in the book.
[4] Although I’m still inclined to rate Lobelia fairly highly as an exemplary female character since she, you know, has a personality.
[5] One of these fathers, it should be noted, did a much better job of not ruining absolutely everything. In fact, he fixed things. What a novel idea.
[6] Silmarillion, pp. 63
[7] Silmarillion, pp. 133
[8] Silmarillion, pp. 133
[9] Silmarillion, pp. 138
[10] Silmarillion, pp. 79


  1. I had never considered this argument before, but this post is exceedingly well argued and I think you’re absolutely right. Unfortunately, the absence of motherhood in these stories somewhat undermines what we’ve been saying in class about how family, parenthood, and physical “incarnation” are important for Tolkien; why are the mothers either in the background or absent entirely, if their role is so crucial? I’ll definitely be thinking about this for a while…

    The absence of significant mothers is particularly striking when compared to the enormous devotion so many characters have to their fathers. I’m thinking especially of Fёanor’s sons, who are all so devoted to him that they are willing to consign themselves to the Everlasting Dark to recover his Silmarils- leaving Nerdanel in Valinor, seemingly without a thought. (As a further aside, Nerdanel gets a nice character description in Morgoth’s Ring which did not make it into the published Silmarillion, so that as it is she gets almost no role in the story. This is despite her being in terms of quantity the most “creative” elven mother in Tolkien’s work with her seven sons.) This same theme is apparent with Arwen, whose only reluctance about marrying Aragorn is that she “loved her father dearly” (Appendix A) but seems not to consider that in becoming mortal she will also forgo her reunion with Celebrían.

    Míriel is really the only notable exception I can think of here. While she is physically absent, I think she had much more of an influence on Fёanor than any of the other mothers seem to have had on their children- and yet, as you pointed out, this was only through her death!

    H. Bell

  2. I agree: I think you have hit on something very important here. Whatever we think of Tolkien's characterization of Eowyn, he does seem to have had real trouble including mothers in his stories as characters. Was it too painful for him to think about his own mother? Why so little thought about what it must have been like for Edith? The loss of his father when he was so young clearly affected his imagining of fathers, but he also lost his mother. It is interesting that she, in effect, is the great absence in his story, particularly given that it was her conversion to Catholicism which he most wanted to honor through his mythology. RLFB