Monday, May 7, 2012

Lord of the Rings Has Three Women (This Is Bad)

I've said it before on here, but I was a huge Lord of the Rings nerd. I mean really, really, epically huge. Growing up, my parents were of the "televisions spoil the mind" crowd, so the most we did was occasionally rent a video from the library and watch it on our otherwise useless TV. This meant that, even compared to most kids, I had a buttload of free time.

I used this time to obsess about Lord of the Rings, mostly.

Let's put it this way. When you've never played with a Barbie, television is a concept you're still trying to grasp, and your idea of fun is building a stick fort in the woods and declaring war on squirrels, LotR is pretty perfect. It features epic adventures, relatable characters, some romance, but not too much, real heartache, and real heroism. I was completely and utterly in love.

Looking back on it now, though, I'm actually a little disappointed in a single fact about those books. Namely, the dearth of female characters.

I don't even mean good female characters. The ones that appear are great, well-drawn, complex and totally interesting. It's just that there are three of them. Basically.

Go through the Holy Trilogy in your mind, and the major characters that all stick out are pretty much men. Yes, Sam's wife Rosie is in there too, but if we're talking female characters, then it really comes down to three women: Arwen, Eowyn, and Galadriel.

And, again, I want to stress that these women, as characters are fairly nuanced. Arwen decides to give up her tradition and family, standing against her father, in order to stay in a dying world with the man she loves. She also saves him with a pseudo-mystical connection, and brings him the sword he'll use to unite the men of Middle-Earth. Yes, her motivation is frequently a man (Aragorn, he of the beardy deliciousness), but that doesn't negate her actions, nor does it mean that her feelings aren't genuine.

Eowyn is another woman whose main motivations seem to be men, but she gets away with it even better than Arwen does. Eowyn really just wants to be counted as a Rider of Rohan like her brother (Eomer, my first crush). It's a rather feminist message for Mr. Tolkien, who didn't seem actively against women's lib, but also not particularly in favor. Eowyn demands equal rights, and for a brief, shining moment she has them. Then she gets almost dead, and marries Faramir when she recovers.

The movie makes more of her almost-romance with Aragorn, and her frustration that he's into Arwen, instead of a nice human like her. But her real frustrations are with her uncle and brother, who insist on leaving her behind. She stabs the Witch King, she saves Rohan, and she's a fantastic ruler. Baby steps, Mr. Tolkien. (Yes, I know he's dead.)

The final major female character from LotR is Galadriel. Galadriel has one major thing going for her that the other two don't: she's fully independent. Galadriel is the principal ruler of Lothlorien. Her consort, Celeborn, is sort of a co-ruler, but Galadriel is the one shown making the important decisions, and she's the one who wields one of the Elven rings of power. There was a lot of nerd in that sentence, but stay with me!

These women are cool, interesting, and integral to the story. But here's the thing. There are three of them. Three. Do you know how many male characters there are in this story? Hint. All of them.

In a world as rich as LotR, I'd like to think there are more than three notable women. Lord of the Rings virtually created the fantasy genre, and I have to wonder if this is the reason that so many archaic gender roles have persisted in fantasy. Wizards, elves, and orcs carried over. I'm willing to bet gender inequality did too.

Now, again, I feel the need to stress that I don't dislike LotR. I kind of love it. I went to see the movies a disgusting number of times in theater, and own both the regular and extended editions of all three movies. I reprimand because I love.

Obviously, there's nothing we can do about Lord of the Rings specifically. That ship has sailed (to the Grey Havens--nerd five!). But we can do something about the fantasy books and movies that follow now. More women, more plot, and more gender equality.

Or Eowyn will stab like she stabbed the Witch King. She's good at that stabbing thing.


  1. I always felt that what Tolkien did in creating strong women characters was remarkable. Bear in mind he was drawing on a narrative tradition that did not have a lot of strong women, let alone warrior women. Yes, Nordic tradition had the Valkyrie but the Kalevala does not.

    Unfortunately, what followed Tolkien, the years of fantasy novels that eventually became the norm, inevitably shunted women to the sidelines. The rare exceptions were usually written by women. Sure, I would have loved it if he had allowed the women to do more but Eowyn is about as bad ass as you can get. Her role in the battle is crucial. And I do see more interesting women characters emerging in fantasy novels, even those written by men. But my oh my was there a dearth of these characters in the fantasy novels published in the 60s and 70s.

    1. That's a very fair point. Given the time and his background, I think Tolkien's work was impressive. That having been said, though, I do still think that women are woefully underrepresented in his work, even as love interests or named figures.

      The fantasy novels that have followed are a huge disappointment, in the way that they have aped the aesthetic without understanding the reasons. Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series comes to mind, with its rampant sexism even in the descriptions. On the side of good female characters is Anne McCaffrey, I think, whose characters are all really well-rounded.

  2. I found Ioreth and Lobelia Sackville-Baggins pretty interesting as well, but they were left out of the movies. I can sort of see why, because Ioreth is pretty minor and mostly there for comic relief, and Lobelia's character arc is resolved in the Scouring of the Shire chapter, which was cut, but I wish the film-makers had worked them in somehow. Even so, five female characters in such a huge cast is still pretty paltry.
    I find it interesting comparing Tolkien with Arthur Ransome when it comes to female characters. Sure, Ransome wasn't writing fantasy but children's adventure stories, but his writing period overlapped with Tolkien, all of his books have at least one female lead, and she always gets to be as adventurous as the boys (Ransome gets pretty faily when it comes to race, though).

    1. Ah race!fail. The scourge of most popular fantasy series.

      You're right, there are other women in the books who just didn't make it to screen, also including Goldberry and the aforementioned Rosie Gamgee. The reason I didn't talk about them is that I wanted to focus more on female characters that could drive the plot. And those are sorely lacking.

      I've never read anything by Ransome, but that whole women-lead-characters thing sounds pretty good to me. Where should I start?

    2. Argh, I'd forgotten I commented here! If you want to read Ransome, start with Swallows and Amazons and read the rest of the series in publication order. The books are about a group of pre-teen and teenage kids who go on various sailing adventures in the late 1920s-early 1930s. They're all very imaginative, and two of the girls (the Amazons) like to pretend to be pirates or Amazon warriors - the narrative treats this as perfectly valid, and the one character who tries to enforce more traditional gender roles on them is treated as a villain.

    3. That sounds awesome. Thanks for the tip!

  3. But you'll find lots of amazing female characters in The Silmarillion... :)

    1. That is true! But doesn't fix this book, sadly.

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