An Absolution of Femininity: Debunking the Misleading Ideas about Women in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Works
For the average Tolkien fan, it is a too frequent experience to encounter complaints about the scarcity or poor representation of women in his works. “Too few”, “not too great”, “just love interests”, “only weak, support roles” are all being said within the fandom and may get to shape a newcomer’s view. However, that view would be terribly distorted when compared to the reality of the author’s universe.
To say that Tolkien did not cherish women is as wrong as considering the 1950s as the worst decade for women to live in. Yet it is part of our superficial Internet culture to believe so.
First of all, understanding where the Middle-earth works come from will help us see more about the male to female ratio in the books. The number of masculine characters is overwhelming, but let us not forget that the Professor needed a mirror and an outlet for his own war experiences. Besides, it is only a historical fact that warfare was a man’s job, with some exceptions. Secondly, the ages of his fantasy world were made to be taken as a believable history, to have happened before our own – before the history as we know it. It is expected to adhere to a traditional worldview, where men would go to battle, protecting their homes and leaving their wives and daughters behind, in a safer environment.
Tolkien’s Christian faith may also play a role, as it often gets to reinforce the misconceptions. It is wrongly believed that Christians have a world view where women have a lower status and therefore a devoted Christian author would not leave much to the feminine side. While the religion has always allowed for women to reach sainthood just as men did, while its Byzantine empire was repeatedly ruled by empresses alone and the highest of all human beings was a woman, we cannot speak of a tradition that is oppressive to the feminine gender. Therefore, only a biased point of view would lead to considering that Tolkien did not value women enough. His own works and characters prove otherwise.
Tolkien’s female characters are rarely obedient. They are the types who love so fiercely that they take up the sword, ditch all the advice received and head straight into battle alongside their husbands. They not only have love for them, but also for the land, the kin, for peace, for all that’s good and worth protecting.
One such woman is Niënor, Turin’s wife in The Children of Hurin. She cannot let her husband face the dragon without her being next to him. Waiting at home for news to arrive just isn’t an option for her, so she goes past those set to watch and protect her, straight into the wild, to face the danger. Niënor resembles her own mother greatly (Morwen) and so we have another female character who cannot go unnoticed. The latter stands true to her values and strives to do the best she can for her Morgoth cursed family until the very last moment of her life. Morwen is brave and fierce, makes weighty decisions and goes the extra mile to fulfill her duty, facing with dignity her tragic destiny.
Within the same story, elven maiden Finduilas is equally impressive. In spite of her bitter fate, she always does the right and brave thing. She gets to shine through the courage of her heart. Finduilas was there to teach and protect Turin during his young years. Although she was in love with him, she never interfered with his free will and let him go his own way. She allowed him to completely forsake her and, when the time came, she saved Turin by offering a most honest testimony in his favour in front of the king. The way she insists on always doing the right thing is nothing short of impressive.
Naturally, we cannot discuss this topic without mentioning the brave Eowyn, the one known as the Witchking’s slayer. Is that not enough of a special status there? Eowyn’s book presence as well as her character on the screen are representative of the way Tolkien saw women and gifted them with impressive qualities. Galadriel herself is a prime example of the heights women could reach in these literary works. Exceptionally old, wise and powerful, politically cunning, Galadriel is simply a too stunning presence, of a highly significant influence.
Somehow, Tolkien’s women get to juggle all responsibilities: love/relationship/marriage, battle, travel, high status and more. They’re far from being one-sided. In fact, they are an absolution of femininity, where they can fight without losing their grace, be strong without compromising kindness and accomplish great deeds without denying their family roles. At times, their strength lies in their emotions alone and that creates miracles. Judging from a certain angle, these are female characters far ahead of their time, one may say.
By Alina H.
(Read more of the writings of Alina H. on the Sci-Fi and Fantasy Network)
(The art work used above for representative purposes is by Liga Klavina)