Foundational Women in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings

Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkein
Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkein

So February has swept by with its projects both life-changing and mundane, and I realized I haven’t updated the blog all month. My fun read, the escape from the research projects and the books I need to read for review, has for several weeks been an enchanting and rewarding return to Middle Earth. Seeing Jackson’s last installment of The Hobbit trilogy prompted it, I suppose.

“But Misty,” you say, “this is a blog about women and literature. There are no women in The Lord of the Rings. How can you possibly justify this post?” And I thought much the same when I opened the book. I enjoyed Tolkein so much when I was younger; I remember reading The Hobbit in grade school, LOTR in junior high and high school, but now that I’m a feminist scholar, and much older, I wondered, how much can I enjoy the exploits of a strictly all-male company setting out to perform masculine deeds of great heroism and in the meantime save Middle Earth?

I was, of course, forgetting Eowen. Daughter of Edmund, sister to Eomer, battle-maiden of Rohan, she gets the most page-time of any other woman, and her role is no small one; she [*spoiler alert!*] is made regent of Rohan when Theoden and company rides to Helm’s Deep, and when later they set out for the aid of Gondor, she disguises herself as a Rider of the Mark and goes along. The terrifying lord of the Ringwraiths, the evil spirit that can be killed by no man, is, ultimately, vanquished by a woman. But this thirteen-year-old girl didn’t make a heroine of Eowen the way my sixteen-year-old self did of Morgaine when I read Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon. Likely I just wasn’t emotionally mature enough to realize there is some complexity to Eowen’s character, proud and cold though she seems. Even now I tear my hair a little that she goes to battle hoping to die because she has found out Aragon, who she fell in love with at first sight, is engaged to somebody else. If she can’t have the man she wants, might as well die alongside her uncle and brother, fighting for her country, her people, their way of life.

The other female characters (even in watching Jackson’s movie) I tended to dismiss as cameos. Galadriel gets more face-time with the company than Celeborn, and she is the wielder of Nenya, one of the great Elvish rings, but what power does she have outside the bounds of Lothlorien, other than to inspire Frodo with her words and give the fellowship useful gifts? Arwen gets more to do in the movie, but mostly stares into the camera with trembling lip and dewy eye. The book has a few more female characters, but they too seem no more than stereotypes. Goldberry, snug in Tom Bombadil’s cabin with flowers floating at her feet, doesn’t seem to do much more than sing, do occasional house-keeping, and be the bright presence Tom can’t wait to get home to. The old crone from the Houses of Healing in Minas Tirith provides comic relief, running off at the mouth about plants and such, but it is the King who has the real healing power. Any other women who appear are mere footnotes: Elrond’s wife was set upon long ago by orcs; Aragorn’s mother appears only in the appendices; I don’t think we ever see a female dwarf; and of the women in the Shire (setting aside Farmer Maggot’s wife, who packs a fine picnic basket), we see only Rosie, Sam Gamgee’s sweetheart, and crafty old Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, whom we first meet stealing Bilbo’s silver spoons at the end of The Hobbit. Tolkein, I assumed for a long time, just didn’t know how to imagine a world in which the women had any other function than to serve as mothers, muses, or housekeepers. I always wondered, though it’s none of my business, how this attitude played out in his real life, in his relationships with his wife and kids.

Reading the books again, though, I found more going on than I had always assumed, more depth in Tolkein’s female characters. I found much more of interest in Eowen’s recovery, in the way she learns compassion and empathy thanks to Faramir, who has these qualities in spades. Hers is an emotional journey, in which she evolves past the heroic, black-or-white, do-or-die ethic as she once understood it, comes to comprehend the world in a more complex way, and comes to comprehend her own heart, and to feel a more mature and sophisticated love than the infatuation for Aragon. (Let’s face it: who wasn’t infatuated with Aragorn? In the constellation of childhood crushes, he was right up there with King Arthur and Indiana Jones in this girl’s book.)

Likewise, Galadriel has more going on with her than it appears at first glance. As keeper of one of the rings of power, she has more at stake in Sauron’s defeat, and has all along been investing more in the struggle–more of her energy, her self, which perhaps is why, after Sauron’s defeat, she will diminish, and go into the West. The Tale of Arwen and Aragon, among the appendices, illuminates Arwen’s character a great deal more, but even in the three books, we see her not just as Aragon’s love interest but an intelligent, maturing woman who makes a choice to invest in a cause, to give her heart, to love deeply. Though there is little else given her to do, since she’s not the warrior type, she has been weaving Aragon’s standard, the beautiful banner he will carry into war and which announces to all of Gondor, to Middle-Earth, who he is. At my age this seems much more an act of love and support than I had previously gathered. Arwen isn’t sitting there waiting for her man to come to her, as this teenager thought; she waits until he has done his work and established his place, and then she comes to him, just in time to be made his queen. Sure, it’s not killing the chief Ringwraith, but it’s something.

I noticed while reading, too, how often tales of women surface in the mythology of this world, how key they seem to be as narratives. Tinuviel and Luthien are the big two, and sure, neither of their tales are particularly happy, but that makes them more interesting. That the woes of these ancient women continue to provide a illustrative tale for our characters seems itself an education in empathy, in love, in the human heart. And even those women who aren’t superlatively beautiful Elvish princesses get an admiring glance; Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, remember, was one of the first to stand up to Sharkey and what he was doing to the Shire, and isn’t cowed either when she is thrown into jail or brought out of it.

I think the key to my changed opinion was in how I read Goldberry this time. Before she always seemed a background character, just a pretty girl Tom had managed to marry and who kept his house neat. But this time the pair struck me as much more an allegory of the forces of Nature, and the need for balance. Tom, the old spirit, roaming about to observe the earth and its health–and the behavior of its living things, like crafty Old Man Willow–is the protective force, guarding and preserving (as when he saves the hobbits from the barrow, again). But Goldberry, beautiful Goldberry, seems the anchor, the very spirit of life itself, that which allows all things to grow and thrive and then age in their natural cycle. I would hesitate to draw the conclusion from this that the domain of the masculine must always be to protect and the responsibility of the female to nourish and keep. But it is possible to see the two of them as a necessary blend of masculine and feminine, or rather, a balanced team, working in tandem to protect all living things.

In this sense, Tolkein’s world has more room for the female than I had previously thought it did. Maybe the women have less to do–or the only females really on stage are the warrior maidens–because the work at hand is to defeat and subdue a pure evil that is ambitious, destructive, dominating, and recognizes nothing but the fulfillment of its own will. This excessive display of yin (or is it yang?) needs, in this narrative, to be defeated by more of the same. But the health of the world is restored only by balance, when the egomaniac is cast down and the women step forward again: when Galadriel emerges from her wood, when Arwen journeys to Minis Tirith to take her place at the king’s side, when the battle maiden Eowen weds the steward Faramir and unites the two countries further.

The fellowship is disbanded and the happily-ever-afters dispense them into duos, lands are restored to their rightful owners, night and fire diminish into proper balance for the brightness of day. All those who can be are properly bonded, and the free-floating radicals–Gandalf, Elrond, Bilbo, even Frodo, who is left single because his alter-ego Gollum has fallen into the volcano–go away to that mystical place across the sea. And the tale–which is so much more about the quiet heroism of Sam than I had ever perceived–ends in the quiet Shire where it began, with Sam happily married and rearing children, with the deeds of the great little more than far-off tales, and the work of farming, of raising children, of living in communal peace are once again the lot of the common folk. Older now, I appreciate the subtleties of Tolkein’s vision a great deal more, and place a great deal more value on the acts of quiet heroism, the small gesture, the seemingly simple things that, in the end, are everything. What he elevates is not heroism itself but the wholeness of things, an integrated vision, the sense of all things in their place. That the shape of his world is one of kings and farmers, an exotic and strange East next to a birthplace-of-civilization West, gives this scholar, though a medievalist, things I could quibble with. But that idea of wholeness, of balance, of integration, of the ineffable and crucial function of the feminine to a balanced psyche and a healed world–I like that just fine.