Tolkien and Female Characters: Part I
On one of the messageboards I frequent, I came across this interesting post…
Now what are the demographics for LOTR readers… many old men and very very few young women. LOTR has no significant female characters. Eowyn is only a minor character and definitely not enough to motivate young women to read LOTR to their children!
I have no idea where this claim about Tolkien reader demographics comes from. Not least because fanfiction writers are disproportionately women, to the point where the phenomenon has been studied academically, and based off my own experience, Tolkien fanfiction is no different. If “very, very few young women” are reading Tolkien, who on earth is writing that fanfiction (which in the case of Fingon-Maedhros slashfic and Legomances are generally about a heterosexual woman’s wish fulfilment)?
But I digress… the really contentious claim is that The Lord of the Rings has no significant female characters, with Éowyn supposedly a minor character. This ties into a common criticism of Tolkien for lacking diversity of gender (Margaret Atwood, for example, claims there are only three female characters, including Shelob). How fair is this claim?
It turns out that it really depends on which Tolkien work you are talking about. The only female characters in The Hobbit are a reference to Bilbo’s deceased mother (Belladonna Took) and, presumably, the giant spiders of Mirkwood. Does The Hobbit suffer from its male-dominated nature? Perhaps, though Peter Jackson deciding to rectify the lack of women with a shoehorned Tauriel did not do the adaptation any favours. I also doubt that gender representation is a strong consideration for mothers reading the book to children – eighty years after The Hobbit first appeared, it is still as popular as ever.
That leaves The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion, both of which are much more serious and weighty tomes. And both of which actually do present women as significant characters.
Starting with Rings, let us consider the female characters… Éowyn, Galadriel, Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, Mrs Maggot, Rosie Cotton, Mrs Cotton, Elanor Gamgee, Goldberry, Ioreth, Shelob, and Arwen.
Some of these are more interesting and significant than others. Arwen and Rosie are indeed relegated to “hero reward” status, while Elanor (in addition to being the illustration of Sam and Rosie’s happy marriage) is a character who exists simply to explain how the story came to be told – she receives the Red Book from Sam before he goes over the Sea. Mrs Maggot is there to provide mushrooms and beer for our protagonists, and Mrs Cotton is simply the wife of her more active husband. In short, we can discard all of these as being of little real substance.
Then there are the minor characters that actually have a personality – Ioreth and Goldberry. The former is generally played for laughs, but beneath the comic relief lurks an intelligent brain, keeping alive otherwise forgotten folk-wisdom. Ioreth would fit comfortably into one of Terry Pratchett’s Witches books. Goldberry, like Tom Bombadil, is mysterious, but also gentle and pleasant – a sort of personification of the countryside. Presumably, like Tom, she also has more to her than meets the eye, but unlike him we never even begin to find out what it is (her connection with the river, incidentally, is further explored in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, but she remains an enigma).
That leaves Éowyn, Lobelia, Galadriel, and Shelob (now there’s an unlikely grouping!) as characters of interest. What we find here is a distinction between Éowyn and the latter three – she rejects traditional roles, and even after she finds Faramir, seems to opt out of the matriarchal power dynamic that marks the other three, becoming a sort of hybrid of Ioreth and Goldberry – a gentle healer. Lobelia, Galadriel, and Shelob by contrast, find themselves in prominent positions on the food chain (literally in Shelob’s case), and like Beowulf’s Wealhþēow exploit considerable power (within particular boundaries) in an otherwise male-dominated setting. Tolkien incidentally uses the matriarch motif elsewhere – Lalia the Great (who utterly dominates her son the Thain) and Gollum’s grandmother qualify as obscure examples, and as we will see, there is at least one example in The Silmarillion.
Turning to the first of these matriarchs, Lobelia is smarter, tougher, and altogether more formidable than either her husband or her son (she is much more persistent in pursuing Bag End, for a start). She even attacks Saruman’s ruffians with nothing but a umbrella. Is Lobelia a significant character? Not as far as the wider story goes, and her crotchety and unpleasant personality is certainly played for laughs and social satire (the Sackville-Bagginses being an uncharitable portrayal of middle-class social climbers). The key point though is that she is capable of a fair bit within particular social parameters, and overcoming Lobelia on her own turf is not something to be taken lightly – it is her arrest as much as Mayor Will Whitfoot’s that marks the moment when Lotho (and indeed hobbits in general) completely lose control of The Shire to Saruman.
Galadriel is this, on a much grander scale (with at least a hint of the Virgin Mary for good measure). She is, along with Saruman, Gandalf, and Elrond, one of very few people who might competently use the Ring against Sauron, should she so choose. She is the keeper of one of the Three Rings, and has an illustrious family tree (daughter of Finarfin, niece of Fingolfin, cousin of Turgon, and sister of Finrod Felagund). She clearly wears the proverbial trousers in her relationship with Celeborn. In short, she is an Elven matriarch like no other – yes, it is Celeborn who leads the Elven conquest of Dol Guldur, but she is the one who “threw down its walls and laid bare its pits”. She certainly wields immense power over those areas she does control.
But is she significant? In one sense, no. There is a case for seeing Galadriel as a greater and more glorious Tom Bombadil figure, who provides respite and gifts to Frodo and company before they move on – the plot could still function without her, so long as the hobbits get their gifts elsewhere. The problem with that reasoning is that while there are characters of greater role in the book, there are not many – and Galadriel is probably the most significant Elven character, save perhaps for Elrond. After all, the plot would function without Legolas too. Moreover, Galadriel is inherently limited by the simple thematic fact that the Elves are fading. This is not their Quest, though they will give what help they can.
If Lobelia and Galadriel are both examples of Tolkien’s female characters being masters of their domain, Shelob is a darker twist on the theme. In contrast to Sauron, she only operates within the boundaries of her lair, but is perhaps the only being in Middle-earth who literally does not care about the result of the War of the Ring. While she lives alone, the book compares her to the spiders of Mirkwood, and in that sense really does make her into a sort of distant matriarch of the greater arachnids (“But none could rival her, Shelob the Great, last child of Ungoliant to trouble the unhappy world”).
Is she significant? Unquestionably. She is not only the focal point of Gollum’s planned betrayal, but in her capacity as a villain, she is instrumental in bringing out the best in the closest The Lord of the Rings has to an individual hero – Sam Gamgee. So even if you (unfairly) regard Galadriel as merely another “rest and respite” episode, Shelob remains a rock solid example of a significant female character – albeit an unconventional one.
Speaking of unconventional, let’s return to Éowyn – supposedly a minor character in the eyes of the quoted post. Is Éowyn minor? Well, if she is, then so is Faramir, Denethor, Boromir, Merry, and Pippin – indeed, the entire cast outside of Frodo, Sam, Gollum, Gandalf, Aragorn, and Sauron. Éowyn can literally not be removed from the text without axing the Witch-King of Angmar himself, at which point you no longer have the Battle of Pelennor Fields as we know it. Éowyn is easily the single most important female character in The Lord of the Rings. She is probably also the most important Rohirric character, being of greater narrative significance than her brother or even her uncle.
But if she is so significant, what to make of her? What does she represent as far as Tolkien’s portrayals of women are concerned (or at least portrayals that aren’t clearly love-letters to Edith)? Quite a bit. Éowyn’s underlying resentments – the feeling of confinement, of spending her youth caring for an elderly uncle – are very real and very understandable. They are also feelings not unique to Éowyn. But whereas Erendis (from Unfinished Tales) grows bitter and angry at her lot in life, and turns petty and vindictive against men, Éowyn desires escape. First through her unrequited crush on Aragorn, and, then, when Aragorn does not return her feelings, she desires the escape of death.
Those who see Éowyn’s ride to war as a shattering of the glass-ceiling – a female warrior-hero – are ignoring the underlying psychology of the character, which is every bit as unhealthy and suicidal as Denethor. Yes, she achieves an amazingly heroic deed in her defeat of the Witch-King – as I discussed previously, the Northern Theory of Courage is a powerful thing in Tolkien – but someone riding to war in search of their own death is not something to be admired. That Faramir (a gentle, caring guy with a nuanced view of warfare) is able to connect with her, and that she herself moves past that, is not a case of a woman being put back in her box. It is a case of a woman choosing to live, and to help others. The Northern Theory of Courage may get you remembered, but it doesn’t heal the wounds afterwards.
For length reasons, I’ve had to make this a two-parter. Next time, we’ll look at women in The Silmarillion and elsewhere.