An Absolution of Femininity: Debunking the Misleading Ideas about Women in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Works

AN ABSOLUTION OF FEMININITY: DEBUNKING THE MISLEADING IDEAS ABOUT WOMEN IN J.R.R. TOLKIEN’S WORKS

By Alina Lyn

Summary: The women in LotR are strong and feminine, far ahead of the time Tolkien was writing in.

Rating: G

Word Count: 808

Image result for eowyn
Image credit: New Line Cinema

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.

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12 thoughts on “An Absolution of Femininity: Debunking the Misleading Ideas about Women in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Works

Add yours

  1. I have just read this article regarding Tolkien and the (unwarranted, I believe) criticism he has received in his depiction of woman within his stories. I have heard these before, and I have often wondered if the critics had truly read the same works as I have.

    Few and far between in fantasy literature have I found stronger, more noble portrayals of women then in his collected works. Ms. Balestri enumerates well those characters who have displayed heroism, determination and complexity. I would suggest those who would dismiss his portrayal of women take a much closer read of all his works.

    How many of us, man or woman, could resist the temptation freely proffered to Galadrial? Who but Eowyn would not only disobey their king, but come to confront and defeat an enemy so terrifying that almost all would run screaming from him? Both Luthien and Arwen stood firm in defying their father’s wishes, choosing to marry a mortal man. The list goes on back through Tolkein’s astounding histories and works.

    No, there are abundant examples of powerful woman in his works. Perhaps we are seeing isolated examples of weak critics, instead.

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  2. I deeply love all of the women in Tolkiens works (well, except Lobelia Sackville Baggins!), and I think they encompass a wide range of strong femininity! Certainly no one can argue that Eowyn and Galadriel are not awesome – only that they get so little screen time. To this day I still hunger for more stories about them. (I own “The Unfinished Tales” pretty much solely for the Galadriel chapters.)

    I wish fan fiction could be more easily read – you know, on paper or a kindle, and not on a glaring computer screen. Tolkien himself wished for fans to create a whole mythology around Middle Earth. I think while he wouldn’t approve of all the fan fiction out there, he would really love idea of fan fiction and fan art. In some ways I wish the Tolkien estate would authorize some further novels or anthologies by fans – carefully vetted, of course, but I think it would be in the spirit of what Tolkien envisioned and would provide some quality expansions of some stories for us.

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    1. Actually, that’s an interesting idea….
      I think the main problem would be finding somebody with a similar worldview to Tolkien who can also write well and wants to write those stories. It would also require an in-depth knowledge of his work, though I personally think that would not be a horribly big deal as somebody passionate enough to write such works woud likely be well steep already in his marvelous mythos. This is assuming the fan doesn’t just want to make his own universe.

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  3. Tolkien’s depiction of women is being put down? I always thought his depictions were awesome and empowering!

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  4. Excellent points and examples! I think the reason Tolkien’s work is often seen as too heavily skewed to the men’s side is because most people have only read “The Hobbit” and/or “The Lord of the Rings” where there are very few female characters present. One has to look into other works like The Children of Hurin” and “The Silmarillion” to find more evidence of the feminine.

    Another thing that I think bothers some people is that the first descriptor usually given to these female characters is that they are “beautiful.” However, I think that this emphasis on “beauty” may not be solely physical, but rather their inherent goodness and strength shining through, especially in the case of the elf-maidens. Fairytales tend to have “beautiful” good guys and “ugly” bad guys as a kind of short-hand to show the internal effects of those good or bad deeds, and Tolkien’s work is as much a fairytale mythology as it is a “historical” work. But the lack of female characters in both works never really bothered me, as the women who are present, especially Eowyn, stand out so well.

    Thanks for sharing!

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  5. That’s been a criticism of LOTR for a LONG time… I never figured out where it came from (and I read LOTR in the 60s.) Lady Galadriel, Eowyn, Luthien, Arwen…. all had their places in the saga. Back in the day, women usually DID stay home and used their swords in final defense of the hearth (and they asked Eowyn to do that, which she ignored because she thought she had nothing left to lose.) A woman who rides to war, except as a last desperation move, as a shield maiden has renounced her femininity. It’s normal, biological etc. I’m saying this as a very female, very much a veteran of the US armed forces….. Lewis and Tolkien both did NOT demean women…. they portrayed a traditional role for women in society. Galadriel did her own defense, with her Ring of Power, never forget. I’m concerned about our own modern society, I think we are losing some values when we don’t have enough men to stand up and volunteer to defend our country, that the women have to do it. It goes much deeper than “women in the Army” believe me. OK end of rant.

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  6. “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…” YES!

    There were just as many Queens of the Valar as there were Lords of the Valar (male Valar), and they show up just as often. Varda. Yavannah. Nienna. Women come into the picture quite often. Melian. Idril. Elwing. (Besides Morwen and Nienna). And let’s not forget Luthien Tinuviel, who dared deeds more dangerous than any open battle. Luthien Tinuviel was the only one to contend against Morgoth single-handedly and win.

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  7. It’s high-school level at best. Exceptional individual women, almost always ‘the’ woman in the story, or one of a contrasted pair, do not make for female normalcy, participation, or well-rounded views of muliebrity.

    Galadriel is a fair test case. And what does she imagine when she tries on the ring? All men in love with her. She’s grand, she’s plausible, we love her: but it’s silly and small-minded for her to have this particular image of universal power, feminine vanity writ large. JRRT did not do women very well. Eowyn is the best, and she is heiress of a tradition from Homer through Shakespeare and Wagner.

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    1. 1. Galadriel did not just say that; she said that she would be a queen of the earth, a ruler. In addition, it appears to be merely a way to describe the terrible beauty she will have. Note she says “all”, not “men”.
      2. Anyone who says Nienor was a less complicated character than Tuor, many elven kings, and others is bonkers.
      3. Yavanna played a massive role in the creation of the Two Trees and after their death.
      4. Idril was the smart one of the pair [Tuor and Idril].
      5. And that makes Eowyn worse? My my, I can’t use anything old b/c then it’s not my work; anything good about it is attributed to my predecessors and anything bad, to me
      6. Morwen, Melian, Nienor: great tragic heroes and characters.
      7. read about Melian’s Girdle

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