I recently finished reading Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh which has given me plenty to think about, including a consideration of the roles that women are assigned in male-created art. It’ll be a few days before I’ve pulled my thoughts into order regarding Chabon’s work though, so in the meantime – and since we’ve only just passed Hobbit Day – let’s take this focus on the fictional female and turn it towards the great tome that I’ve read more than any other: The Lord of the Rings.1
Tolkien’s masterpiece is often derided as being one giant dude-fest with nary a woman in sight. And this is not too far from the truth. Of the roughly 30 or so primary characters in the book, only three are female: Arwen, Éowyn, and Galadriel.2
Arwen, despite her increased prominence in Peter Jackson’s films, barely appears in the novel. An expanded version of her romance with Aragorn appears in the book’s Appendices but does little to grow her character. She functions almost exclusively as a prize for Aragorn to win once his labors are done. For all intents and purposes, she’s a non-entity.
Éowyn, on the other hand, is an actual, fully formed character. She is of particular interest as she is essentially the lone protagonist in the entire book that actively rebels against her superiors. She is strong, both physically and mentally, and ultimately ends up destroying the book’s second most prominent villain. Tolkien makes it very clear that Éowyn is fairly badass.
And yet all that gruff strength and wraith-slaying is somewhat negated by her childishness and seeming immaturity. She falls in love with Aragorn immediately upon seeing him and then wallows around in self-pity when he doesn’t return her love. Her character is ‘redeemed,’ if you want to call it that, when Faramir basically asks her to love him instead of Aragorn. In that particular scene, Éowyn, like a teenager who likes someone only because they like them back, needs only a moment of hesitation to reevaluate her entire life before quickly agreeing to marry Faramir.3 They settle down and live in a garden.4
Let’s recap. Éowyn, badass shield maiden of Rohan and slayer of undead witch-kings? She was basically motivated to do a bunch of cool stuff by her desire to impress boys and, once she got one, was happy to live a quiet life with her hubby in a well-manicured suburb. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But considering the promise of her character, Éowyn’s story comes to a pretty stereotypically feminine ending point.5
At this point it seems pretty clear how Tolkien writes women: as accessories to men.
I submit to you that, as Sauron himself never truly appears in the novel, Galadriel is the most terrifying character to actually be in The Lord of the Rings.
You see, Galadriel was exiled to Middle-earth due to her pride. The result of this exile is that while she – like any good Tolkien elf – loves her home, she also, unlike nearly every other character in The Lord of the Rings, knows – and understands – regret.6 It’s this trait, her knowledge of loss and the imperfection of her actions, that makes Galadriel – despite her being an elf and all – one of the most human characters in the book. Galadriel’s regret and pride, her potential for weakness – her humanity – make her seem more real and more dangerous than a lot of Tolkien’s other characters.
In proof of Galadriel’s realness: while Arwen and Éowyn are the objects of picture perfect storybook romances, over my last handful of readings I’ve come to notice that Galadriel is basically trapped her marriage to Celeborn. Like an idiot husband on a TV show, he’s constantly jumping to wrong conclusions only for Galadriel to have to correct (and chastise) him.7 Frankly, Galadriel seems a little put out that she – one of the most powerful people in Middle-earth8 – is stuck with someone that she loathes. And I imagine that it especially irks her that Celeborn is deemed to be so wise9 when she’s clearly the brains of that (tree)household.
And Galadriel is dangerous because she endures the only real test of the Ring in the book (unless you want to count Frodo’s long descent into Ring-worship). A number of characters come close to the Ring with dichotomous good/evil results: Aragorn and Faramir easily avoid it while Boromir falls to its lure. On the other hand, Gandalf refuses the test outright and Elrond seems to fancy himself above such matters. But Galadriel? She is the only truly great power that is actually tested, and therefore tempted, by the most powerful object in the world. It’s not really a test if there’s no temptation to yield.
Powerful, but not so overbearingly so, Galadriel can feel the lure of the Ring, can imagine herself using it.10 And why wouldn’t she? For a woman great enough to summon the White Council11 while also somehow stuck playing second fiddle in her own home, yeah, ultimate power would be tempting. It’s possible that the moment when Frodo offers Galadriel the Ring12 – a moment when a powerful, imperfect being full of regret over the situation at hand is only an arm’s reach from taking the most potent object in existence13 – is actually the closest that the Quest comes to failing.
So it seems that women in Tolkien’s made-for-dudes world are handled thusly: they are accessories to men, unless they have some masculine characteristics. Éowyn transitions between the two. First, she wants to be a warrior outright; she essentially wants to be a man.14 She sees that, in the world in which she lives, power and agency are for men and men alone and she resents that.15 Right up until a boy likes her and she becomes the female trope of the happy wife.
And Galadriel? Tolkien is practically tripping over himself to tell us how masculine Galadriel is. She is a powerful woman, he seems to say, but – due to her height or her voice or nearly any other of her characteristics – she is also nearly a man.16 There is an implied sense of causation here, as if her power derives from the aspects about her that are decidedly unwomanly. As if she is a powerful woman only because she is the woman in Middle-earth that is most like a man.
For someone who wholeheartedly loves The Lord of the Rings, this may be my biggest concern with the book. Not the odd pacing, the fawning over visual detail, the awkward stretches of song, or the intense reliance upon the white=good/black=evil archetype. No, my biggest concern is that – and I should clarify that I do not believe that this was the author’s intent – Tolkien’s book seems to indicate that women are little more than accessories, to know their place and to be fetched when their men are ready. It suggests that the only power that women can obtain must be acquired through a separation from femininity and an embrace of masculinity. Men are powerful and power is manly, the book (though not necessarily the author) seems to conclude.
I love The Lord of the Rings. I truly do. But this aspect of the story disappoints me. For a man capable of creating such a robust world, it seems a shame that Tolkien was unable to depict both genders as equal.
1. I’m even going old school and breaking out the footnotes for this one.
2. I suppose you could make a minor claim for Ioreth, woman of Gondor, who – with her strong and distinct voice – is prominent in a handful of scenes. She’s also portrayed as something of a chattering busybody. And then there’s Shelob, a giant murderous spider, who is technically female. Take from that what you will.
3. “‘I wish to ride to war like my brother Eomer, or better like Theoden the king, for he died and has both honour and peace.'” And then only four pages later: “Then the heart of Eowyn changed, or else at last she understood it. And suddenly her winter passed, and the sun shone on her. ‘I stand in Minas Anor, the Tower of the Sun,’ she said; ‘and behold! the Shadow has departed! I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren.’ And again she looked at Faramir. ‘No longer do I desire to be a queen,’ she said.”
4. Nothing against Faramir, though. That dude was a boss.
5. At this point I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that a lot of characters in The Lord of the Rings get happily-ever-afters. I single out Éowyn’s as being stereotypical because hers is so explicitly feminized according to western tropes: she finds a man and gets a house with a nice garden.
6. “‘…through the ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.'”
7. Celeborn: “And if it were possible, one would say that at the last Gandalf fell from wisdom into folly, going needlessly into the net of Moria.” Galadriel: “He would be rash indeed that said that thing. Needless were none of the deeds of Gandalf in life…Do not repent of your welcome to the Dwarf. If our folk had been exiled long and far from Lothlorien, who of the Galadhrim, even Celeborn the Wise, wold pass night and would not wish to look upon their ancient home, though it had become an abode of dragons?” Celeborn: “I did not know that your plight was so evil. Let Gimli forget my harsh words: I spoke in the trouble of my heart.”
8. “‘Do not be afraid! But do not think that only by singing amid the trees, nor even by the slender arrows of elven-bows, is this land of Lothlorien maintained and defended against its Enemy. I say to you, Frodo, that even as I speak to you, I perceive the Dark Lord and know his mind, or all of his mind that concers the Elves. And he gropes ever to see my and my thought. But still the door is closed!'”
9. “For the Lord of the Galadhrim is accounted the wisest of the Elves of Middle-earth, and a giver of gifts beyond the power of kings.”
10. “I do not deny that my heart has greatly desired to ask what you offer. For many long years I had pondered what I might do, should the Great Ring come into my hands, and behold! it was brought within my grasp.”
11. “It was I who first summoned the White Council. And if my designs had not gone amiss, it would have been governed by Gandalf the Grey, and then mayhap things would have gone otherwise. But even now there is hope left. I will not give you counsel, saying do this, or do that. For not in doing or contriving, nor in choosing between this course and another can I avail; but only in knowing what was and is, and in part also what shall be.”
12. “‘I will give you the One Ring, if you ask for it. It is too great a matter for me.’ [said Frodo.] ‘And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!’ She stood before Frodo seeming now tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful. Then she let her hand fall, and the light faded, and suddenly she laughed again, and lo! she was shrunken: a slender elf-woman, clad in simple white, whose gentle voice was soft and said. ‘I pass the test,’ she said. ‘I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.'”
13. “‘Do you not see now wherefore your coming is to us as the footstep of Doom? For if you fail, then we are laid bare to the Enemy. Yet if you succeed, then our power is diminished, and Lothlorien will fade, and the tides of Time will sweep it away. We must depart into the West, or dwindle into a rustic folk of dell and cave, slowly to forget and to be forgotten.’ Frodo bent his head. ‘And what do you wish?’ he said at last. ‘That what should be shall be,’ she answered. ‘The love of the Elves for their land and their works is deeper than the deeps of the Sea, and their regret is undying and cannot ever wholly be assuaged…Yet I could wish, were it of any avail, that the One Ring had never been wrought, or had remained for ever lost.'”
14. “She was clad as a [male] Rider and girt with a sword.”
15. “‘All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more.'”
16. Though I’ve spent a significant amount of time reading his work, I can’t claim to be a Tolkien scholar. In my eyes, though, Galadriel, for all her strength and confidence of self, seems to chafe against her femininity. In a book where height is often directly equated with masculine power – Aragorn, for example, is repeatedly described as tall – Galadriel is described as being “no less tall than the Lord [Celeborn].” Perhaps most damningly of all, in a book where your voice says a lot about you, Galadriel’s is described as “clear and musical, but deeper than woman’s wont.” Tall and deep voiced? Tolkien sure seems to want to identify Galadriel – and her power – as being rather manly, doesn’t he?
Featured image taken from mechtild.