The Women of Middle Earth

In the midst of piles of Lord of the Rings merchandise on every shelf, Tolkien’s wisdom is applied to just about everything — Tolkien and industrialization, Tolkien and communism, Tolkien and religion, etc. What’s surprising, especially in today’s hypersensitive post-Gloria Steinem world, is the dearth of commentary on Tolkien and women.

The Bittersweet Complexities of True Womanhood

Even as I researched this article, the only writings on Tolkien and feminism I found were on websites for freebee high school essays.

Why is there seemingly so little written about Tolkien and women? Tolkien critics have accused the creator of Middle Earth of being anti-woman, even archaic, when viewed through today’s politically correct lens of gender roles. Is there a perception that women are similarly disinterested in Tolkien? Whatever the reason, it’s an untapped topic that when explored can offer great amusement and insight into the mysterious creature called the woman.

Tolkien’s portrayal of women in Lord of The Rings is bold and courageous. The bittersweet complexities of true womanhood are daringly depicted in each of the female characters. If these women are such fascinating and rich characters, why weren’t they given more page time? Brad Birzer, author of Sanctifying Myth, Understanding Middle Earth (ISI Books), points out that Lord of the Rings was written from a hobbit’s perspective. Saying that the lack of women in Lord of the Rings makes it anti-woman is like saying that Rob Reiner is a chauvinist for the lack of women in the film “Stand by Me.” To toss in a female character simply to appease the misguided demands of moviegoers would severely take away from the film's legitimacy.

The women in Tolkien’s trilogy possess such an authentic depth that even the little we do see of them has a profound impact on the whole adventure. Through his female characters, Tolkien offers insight into what it means to be a woman. He strikes a delicate balance between the extreme attitudes of feminism. His female characters, although drastically different from each other in personality, manifest at their core, true womanly femininity.

There’s the gentle and hopeful Arwen in whose presence everything becomes peaceful. There’s the tumultuous, restless Eowyn, whose free spirit leads her to triumph over her greatest foe. We have the regal matriarch Galadriel whose strength of mind has created a timeless haven for her people. Finally, there’s Belladonna Baggins, a hobbit who is mentioned in just four lines out of thousands of pages. Yet, it is from her bloodline that Bilbo Baggins inherits his atypical adventurous streak. This whisper of her presence ignites what has become a legend.

Was Tolkien a Liberator or an Oppressor?

Budding feminists in the essays cited earlier assert that in Tolkien’s chauvinistic Middle Earth, Eowyn had to become a man in order to reach her destiny. To be a hero, a woman must become masculine. What they overlook is the significant role Tolkien gave her and the radical statement he makes. Tolkien elevates womanhood; it is specifically her gender that allows her to triumph. No man can defeat the Witch King. But Eowyn is no man.

In the battle for Gondor, the Witch-King, chief of Sauron’s minions, attacks a disguised Eowyn and her King. As she bravely draws her sword in defense of her wounded companion, the Witch-King scoffs, “Thou Fool. No living man may hinder me!”

Eowyn laughs and retorts, “…No living man am I. You look upon a woman…You stand between me and my lord and my kin…I will smite you if you touch him.” After centuries of conquering male warriors, the Witch-King is ultimately vanquished by a woman.

When we first met Eowyn, she was conflicted about the fire inside of her. For her whole life she was expected to behave like Arwen, though she desired to take an active role in stopping the downward changes occurring in her country. When this wasn’t permitted, the wild spirit in her was stifled and gave way to bitterness and despair. It is only when she reconciles her femininity with her warrior spirit that the torment is gone, and her true womanhood is discovered.

Perhaps Tolkien is showing us that all types of femininity are valid. Obliterating one in favor of the other is destructive to all. Each type of woman is crucial to the wellbeing of a healthy community.

Was Tolkien sympathizing with the plight of women in his day, when the only options besides housewife were waitress, secretary, or movie star? Maybe Tolkien was saying that while woman should be respected, some of society’s ‘chivalrous’ ideas were doing more harm than good, isolating woman instead of protecting them.

© Copyright 2003 Catholic Exchange

Christine O'Donnell serves as Director of Communications for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. She has been described as sassy, stubborn and sweet, and by those who disagree with her as “the girl you hate to love.” This young woman who National Review Magazine says “blends the flare of the Bible with Cosmopolitan,” shatters the stereotype about her generation. Her frequent television appearances include ABC's Politically Incorrect, MTV, CNN, C-SPAN, Fox News Channel, MSNBC and CNBC.

Matriarch, Princess, and Warrior

To me, Belladonna is the unseen grandmother whose prayers guide and protect her family as they go on to accomplish great tasks. She is the picture of a woman who has led a full life. The few lines written about her tell us that Belladonna did not have many adventures after she married, for her husband provided a great home for her. Belladonna’s independence in her earlier adventurous life before marriage provides a catalyst for Bilbo, her male heir. Yet, she is content, even utterly satisfied, in the role of a wife and mother.

Tolkien’s most popular female character is Arwen, the elven princess in love with the warrior Aragorn. In Tolkien’s writings, the immortal character of Arwen presents the softer virtues of femininity: she’s beautiful, gentle, and longsuffering. Everything about her is pure. Waiting for her beloved to return from his quest, she demonstrates faith and devotion, believing beyond all doubt that they will be reunited. In Arwen we see a tragic, romantic heroine, for Aragorn’s return means she must leave her people and face the knowledge that her mortal lover will someday die. Through her character, Tolkien shows us the challenge and the value of virtue and sacrifice.

I cannot understand why film critics praise Peter Jackson for his more masculine, modern adaptation of the elven Lady. Recall, if you will, the scene in Fellowship of the Ring in which a Ringwraith stabs Frodo. In the book, as Frodo escapes to Rivendell, the elven lord Glorfindal sends Frodo alone riding Asfaloth, Glorfindal’s white horse. The horse races across the ford with Frodo on his back just in time for a flood to engulf his pursuers. Later we learn that Elrond, the Elven King and Arwen’s father, summoned the flood.

Yet, in the film, Peter Jackson causes Arwen to perform the heroic tasks of Elrond and Glorfindal, making her appear more a stereotypical warrior princess like those popular with today’s audience. It is as though he is introducing her character as a warrior so viewers won’t notice that she becomes a passive heroine later in the story. It’s as if Jackson is justifying her later passive portrayal that is true to Tolkien’s Arwen.

Some critics claim that Tolkien’s serene version of femininity is offensive to the modern female viewer. As a modern female viewer, I find the assumption itself offensive. Just because women can be warriors doesn’t mean they have to be. Everything about Tolkien’s Arwen is tranquil, serene, calming. These qualities are part of the charm of the womanhood she expresses. There are many types of women in the world. Arwen represents one of them. She represents a pillar of calm that is a source of strength for her man. Her great contribution to the war is the strength she provides to the future King.

Peter Jackson’s adaptation is contradictory to this image. In Jackson’s introduction of Arwen, there is an out of place sauciness that goes against the meekness of her character. It’s unnecessary, too much embellishment. It’s like putting cheesecake on a lobster tail. Both are great foods, but they do not belong together. Nor is one better than the other.

This is not to say that Tolkien’s ideal woman is necessarily pure and angelic. Consider the significant role he gives to the more down to earth Eowyn, Lady of Rohan. Conflicted and free spirited, one can easily imagine Eowyn with a wicked case of PMS, which is part of why we love her. Still, she remains feminine bearing a sense of pride and dignity.

Eowyn is Arwen’s opposite. Arwen represents the calm and serene. She’s content to stay at home. Eowyn is internally conflicted. A free spirit, she feels caged in her role as nursemaid to an ailing king. Restless, and at the same time she bears a deep compassion for her people and a desire to protect them. She displays an absolute refusal to watch her country fall down around her while she is doing nothing. In her desperation, she disguises herself as a man so she can ride with the King and his soldiers in the War of the Ring. Rather than live a stifled life behind the city’s walls, she seeks an honorable death fighting for her people: “Give me liberty or give me death.”

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