The Relevance of Tolkien

With the release of the first official trailer for The Hobbit, the nerd and cinema worlds are once again abuzz with Tolkien-related hype. For those of you who haven’t seen the trailer:

It looks like it’s going to be everything I could hope for and more. I’m so excited that I wish they had a specific release date so that I could start planning my December 2012 accordingly. Because a year just isn’t enough time to prepare.

As a fantasy fan, it can sometimes be difficult to reconcile amazing, classic fantasy with the desire for strong female characters. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, fantasy, even classic fantasy, often portrays women as evil, sluts, or both. The subject of women in Tolkien is a little tough, or at least not as simple as I’d like. In The Hobbit there are zero female characters. That’s a pretty low blow, sure, but nothing we twenty-first century people can’t handle; we might actually be more confused as to why Bilbo doesn’t bag some babe at the end. I’m going to make a broad statement I not-so-secretly hate that I feel I have to make: sometimes I’d prefer there not be women in literature and movies, rather than have to deal with a misogynistic or just plain ignorant portrayal of women. This fact contradicts all I feel about inclusion, women, and the fantasy world, but sometimes it’s just easier that way.

In this adaptation of The Hobbit, there are two women on the cast list: Galadriel and Tauriel, a Mirkwood elf invented by Peter Jackson. Interestingly, it appears that Galadriel will play a decently-sized part in the films, despite her absence from the source material. From what I gather, the presence of characters not in the book relates to an attempt to frame The Hobbit in the larger context of its relation to LOTR and the War of the Ring, without being a prequel. I, despite my previous statement about exclusion, can appreciate Jackson’s decisions to add or increase the importance of female characters in his Tolkien adaptations. While sticking in two female characters hardly constitutes a breakdown of traditional gender ideas in modern fantasy, even that little bit helps. It shows that someone is thinking that women should be present in fantasy, that it’s not a stretch to try to be inclusive, even when it means parting a bit from the source material.

We also have no concrete reason to believe that Tolkien didn’t like women, and didn’t want them invading his books. In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, there are basically only three women: Arwen, Eowyn, and Galadriel. In the books, Arwen, the idealized woman in the classical tradition who is more of a goddess than a person, barely exists until Aragorn is set to marry her. People cite Arwen’s strength as lying in her willingness to sacrifice her immortality. These ideas are both obviously problematic. Yet in the context of LOTR, I’d prefer the female lover to be otherworldly, untouchable, and making sacrifices for those she loves, rather than wearing hip-high slits in her skirts and cleavage-squeezing bodices, while not thinking much of anything. While chivalry is dead for good reason, there is a respect in the former view of women that the latter lacks. It shows the reverence with which Tolkien saw women and their love, especially in light of the fact that amongst the elves, women and men were seen as equals, according to the Laws and Customs of the Eldar, published in Morgoth’s Ring.

As for Galadriel, she occupies a strange, gender-neutral place that I can’t really disapprove of. While she is beautiful, it is a distant beauty. In the films, she is portrayed as wise and revered; everyone respects Galadriel. While she is not going on blade-wielding adventures, she is hardly a weak character.

With Eowyn, Shield-Maiden of Rohan, Tolkien could have done what C.S. Lewis liked to do: give girls daggers they are told not to use, with Father Christmas making the admonition that “battles are ugly when women fight.” Though Tolkien wasn’t exactly a destroyer of traditional gender roles, Peter Jackson also wasn’t exaggerating Eowyn’s importance and badassery in the film adaptations.

Sure, at first Eowyn is scared, confronting Angmar. Anyone would be. But then, after her declaration to the Witch-King that she is no man and the ripping off of her helm, this happens:

Indeed, Eowyn’s reply to the Witch-King that, “I am no man” is one of the most empowering statements from a female character that I can think of, regardless of genre. She doesn’t slay Angmar in spite of being female, or because her femaleness wasn’t important right then, but essentially because she is female. Sure, she has some help from Merry, who stabs Angmar in the knee, but even he isn’t exactly a man. He’s a hobbit, a little halfling equally unfit for battle by the standards of the time and place. Besides, it’s not Merry’s wound that kills the Witch-King, but Eowyn’s. The fact that they work together is doubly empowering, proving that to Tolkien you don’t have to be a big, strong tough-guy to kick ass. I would even go so far as to say the moment is more dramatic in the book than in the movie; the movie doesn’t show the Witch-King realizing, oh man I’m about to die, the way that it should. In fact, it should look a little more like Matt Stewart‘s interpretation of the scene:

(Actually, all fantasy art should look like this.)

I suppose I should ask the question of whether having one female badass, who resists the orders of everyone around her not to fight, compensates for the fact that she is just one woman. I would say yes. Characters like Eowyn set the example for women and writers, male and female, to appreciate the sheer awesomeness that all women have within them. It may sound trite, but in a way, all women are Eowyn. And if more people recognized that all women have the capacity to whip off their helms and stab the Witch-King in the face, the world would be that much better.



3 thoughts on “The Relevance of Tolkien

  1. I would love to agree with you, but Tolkien really messed it up when it came to write a proper end to the badassery that is Eowyn. After the fight, Aragorn was what she wanted, and Faramir was basically the consolation prize. I know I can’t back this up properly, but I felt she was somehow penalized for not being girly-girly enough. I thought it unfair on Faramir AND on Eowyn. My consolation was that the couple got the best love scene in the trilogy, but still.

    • Well, I always saw her man-problems as being unrelated to her slaying the Witch-King. That and Aragorn already had Arwen. But, who knows, maybe you’re on to something. Tolkien certainly was no superfeminist. Thanks for the input!

    • Actually, I would not consider Faramir the “consolation prize” but the “diamond in the rough”. Passed over by Denethor, underestimated by just about everyone, Eowyn knows how this feels, and sees something wonderful in him that everyone else missed. So she’s the one who gets the real prize, that no one else recognizes, that is Faramir (Faramir is a prize because he is a Ranger and a wise person, but completely without recognition or fame or self-proclamation – he is doing the job whether anyone sees it or not – that is the mark of truest greatness). And he, in turn, gets the prize, that only the unavailable Aragorn recognizes, that is Eowyn. Too bad for everyone else. They were meant for each other. Eat your hearts out, Aragorn and (whatever woman/women overlooked Faramir in his day). When you think you are getting the short end of things because what you think you want is denied you, remember that perhaps something better is meant to come into your path.

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