Table of Contents
1. The Female Characters
1.1 Their Personalities
1.2 Their Sexuality
2. The Women's Virtues
2.2 Self- denial
3. The Women's Vices
Since the first film of Peter Jackson's trilogy, "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring", was released, debates about the role of women in Tolkien's work have emerged again. Fans of Tolkien praise the writer's deep understanding of the female mind while on the other side his critics mourn about a medieval and chauvinistic perception of women in his books.
In this paper, I want to examine the role of women in Tolkien's most popular and successful book The Lord of the Rings. In the first chapter I will describe the female characters as they are presented in the book. I will put special emphasis on how the women's sexuality is presented.
In the second chapter, I will analyse the most important character traits that distinguish the "good" from the "bad" women in The Lord of the Rings: subordination, self- denial and weakness. The third chapter will deal with the vices that are represented by some of the female characters: temptation and evil.
In the last chapter I will conclude the paper by summarising and discussing the main arguments of the first three chapters. I will also briefly discuss the consequences of such a presentation of women in literature.
Tolkien gave birth to different kinds of fantasy races in The Lord of the Rings. I am aware of the fact that not all of the females in his work are humans. However, I found it less disturbing to the flow of the paper to speak of women rather than females all the time. I hope the reader will excuse that.
1. The Women's Characters
1.1 Their Personalities
Most of the women we meet in The Lord of the Rings are characterised fairly similarly. The only exceptions in this are Éowyn and Shelob.
The first woman of some importance, Goldberry, is presented to be very girlish. Constantly singing and dancing around with her husband, she has a "clear, maiden- like voice", and the "slender grace of her movement filled them with quiet delight" (Tolkien a: 171). Another sign of her apparent immaturity is that she has to go to bed early (Tolkien a: 173). At their parting the Hobbits see her "small and slender like a sunlit flower against the sky" (Tolkien a: 187). She seems pure and fresh and transforms everything around her to be just the same (see Tolkien a: 186).
The first time Arwen appears, she sits next to her father Elrond and her cousin Glorfindel. The description of the two male elves is full of hints to their strength of character. Elrond is described to be "venerable as a king crowned with many winters and yet hale as a tried warrior in the fullness of his strength" (Tolkien a: 297). Glorfindel's description also reveals his power: "On his brow sat wisdom, and in his hand was strength" (Tolkien a: 297). Arwen, however, is only depicted as lovely and beautiful to look at. The next time we see her, she is sitting with her father while Aragorn stands protectively next to her, looking down on her (see Tolkien a: 311). Thus, Arwen is presented as a very beautiful woman, but we do not get to know anything about her actual character. The only thing Tolkien hints at is a certain weakness, as she is always described to be close to either her father or Aragorn, who protect her.
Just like Arwen, Galadriel is described as a pure virgin-like woman as she is "clad wholly in white" and has hair "of deep gold" (Tolkien a: 460). She seems very mysterious and it is hard to fully understand her character. Even though she is a ring-bearer, she never shows any sign of power. Galadriel is a very pure and innocent character: "There is in her and in her land no evil unless a man brings it hither himself" (Tolkien a: 465). We do get to know a different side of her, however, when she is tempted to take the ring. She resists the temptation and thus restores the picture of innocence and beauty.
When we first meet Éowyn, she is presented unlike any other female in the book. She seems to be very strong-minded, self-confident and restless. "But am I not of the house of Eorl, a shield-maiden and not a dry-nurse? I have waited on faltering feet long enough" (Tolkien c: 62), she tries to convince Aragorn to let her go to fight with the warriors. Her desire to fight, however, issues not from her sense of responsibility but from pride and the prospect of winning fame. She asks: "Shall I always be left behind when the riders depart to mind the house while they win renown?" (Tolkien c: 62). And when Aragorn tells her that she has to stay home, she knows exactly why he does not want her to come: "All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house" (Tolkien c: 63). In this scene, Tolkien seems to understand and sympathise with the problem of many women. To Aragorn´s question about what she is afraid of, he lets Éowyn answer: "A cage . . . To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire" (Tolkien c: 63). After the battle of Gondor, Gandalf makes a very similar remark about Éowyn´s life:
"You had horses, and deeds of arms, and the free field; but she, born in the body of a maid, had a spirit and courage at least the match of yours. Yet she was doomed to wait upon an old man . . . and her part seemed to her more ignoble than that of the staff he leaned on" (Tolkien c: 169).
If the story did not take a turning in the end which puts Éowyn in exactly the position she feared, this would be a remarkable insight into the female mind. The way the story goes on, however, implies one thing: Even though women seem to feel that way sometimes, they are misled and need to be tamed and put into order. We will have a closer look at how this happens to Éowyn in chapter 3.1.
The female spider Shelob is the most evil creature described in the book. As a reader, we still feel sorry for Saruman as he is characterised with at least some humanity left and we never meet the worst enemy, Sauron. Shelob, on the other hand, is described in every evil detail:
"She served none but herself, drinking the blood of Elves and Men, bloated and grown fat with endless blooding on her feasts, weaving webs of shadow; for all living things were her food, and her vomit was darkness" (Tolkien b: 418).
Still Sam manages to defeat her, however: Shelob "cowered at last, shrunken in defeat, jerked and quivered as she tried to hasten from him" (Tolkien b: 426). Even though she stays evil until the end, she does not represent a danger anymore.
1.2 Their Sexuality
In his work Männerphantasien, Klaus Theweleit describes the perception of women from a fascistic point of view. According to this, women are divided into four main categories: Mother, virgin, nurse/sister and "Flintenweib", a more cruel, dominant and evil version of Tolkien's shield- maiden (see Theweleit: 96, 121, and 133). While the mother, virgin and sister/ nurse are free from all sexual allusions, the "Flintenweib" is often described to have male sexual characteristics and exhibits her sexuality openly and aggressively. In fascistic literature, these women are often presented with a knife, sword or something else penis-like to enhance their male attitude (see Theweleit 97).
Trying to train his body as armour and shield to his surrounding world, the fascistic man perceives female influence as a threat. The most immediate danger thus comes from women who exhibit their sexuality freely and play an active and dominant role. Mothers and virgins on the other hand do not have any immediate sexuality and are therefore not seen as a threat (see Theweleit: 98).
I do not necessarily agree with Guido Schwarz in saying that Tolkien's perception of the world is fascistic. However, the women he creates in The Lord of the Rings can all be put in one of the categories that Theweleit describes. Arwen, Galadriel, Tinùviel and Goldberry can easily be characterised as virgins. This seems especially striking as Aragorn and Arwen are lovers. Aragorn, however, never seems to think of Arwen as anything other than the dancing maiden he meet in the wood. In her article "Ladies in waiting confined to Ringside", Stephanie Merrit accordingly states that the relationships between men and women in The Lord of the Rings"exist as one more occasion for the characters to showcase their virtues. They are solely characterised by purity and self- denial, not by desire" (1).
In her non- conformed state, Éowyn is not as easily put into one of these categories. First, she appears to be a virgin, as she is merely described as a young girl, "like a morning of pale spring that is not yet come to womanhood" (Tolkien b: 147). Later on, however, she exhibits characteristics of the "Flintenweib", trying to seduce Aragorn and wanting to be a warrior like the other men. Her sexuality is shown by Wormtongue´s desire for her and by her love for Aragorn. The way she expresses her sexuality, however, is very childish (e.g. drinking out of the same cup, [see Tolkien b: 156]), and thus has no effect on Aragorn. Both him and Faramir realise that her love for Aragorn is only an illusion: "In me she loves only a shadow and a thought: a hope of glory and great deeds, and lands far from the fields of Rohan" (Tolkien c: 170), Aragorn states and Faramir assesses correctly:
"You desired to have the love of the Lord Aragorn because he was high and puissant, and you wished to have renown and glory and to be lifted far above the mean things that crawl on the earth. And as a great captain may to a young soldier he seemed to you admirable" (Tolkien c: 293).
In the end, Éowyn's sexuality is transformed:
"Von der weißen Jungfrau, die als Schildmaid tapfer kämpft, wird die hübsche Éowyn zur weißen Gattin, die jedoch fern jeder Sexualität dargestellt wird, also keine Gefahr für den gepanzerten Mann darstellt" (Schwarz: 177).