Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Where are the women in Tolkien? (Part 1)

In which Kate discourses on the mystery of why there are so few women in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.

Part 1

At the age of 13 I carefully wrote myself into The Lord of the Rings. I was found in Moria by Frodo’s party, accompanied them into Lothlorien, helped to save Boromir from his addiction to the Ring, and lived with him happily ever after. I needed that romantic element, dammit, because even in adolescence I knew that The Lord of the Rings was a tale derived from chivalric romance and medieval symbolism, in which women were integral to the story. The bewildering lack of women in The Lord of the Rings simply felt wrong, and so I filled in one of the gaps that J R R Tolkien had left for me.

There are some female characters in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, but in The Hobbit, there are … none. This is not a good start, so let’s think imaginatively. Belladonna Took, Bilbo’s dead mother, is mentioned, to be sure. Perhaps one of the trolls was female: they’re not easy to distinguish from male trolls, according to Terry Pratchett, but a male name never stopped ovulation yet. The spiders were probably female. Laketown and the King of Mirkwood’s palace, and Rivendell were undoubtedly inhabited by female humans and elves, but without being told in the story, we can’t know. Dwarf females are also hard to distinguish, but I’m going to assume that there were some dwarf women in King Dain’s army. I really don’t want to start sexing goblins. So, for The Hobbit, all we have for gender equality are suppositions.

Rosie Cotton played by Sarah McLeod

Rosie Cotton played by Sarah McLeod

Hold your protests about anachronistic social demands for a wee minute: I want to check out The Lord of the Rings. It’s a much bigger book, and has more characters, and we’ve all seen the films, so we know there are some women in there. But don’t think about the films: magnificent though they are, they are vastly different from the books in important, often confusing ways, and how they depict women is the biggest difference of all. Peter Jackson’s team updated Tolkien’s fiction for the 21st-century screen, so don’t use the films as a basis for deciding what Tolkien was up to, 60 or so years earlier, when he wrote the books. We’ll start in The Shire, where we find Rosie Cotton and Lobelia Sackville-Baggins. In Bree: no women. In Tom Bombadil’s country: the Lady Goldberry (not in the films, but no great loss either, as all she does is dance and sing while setting the dinner table). In Rivendell: Arwen. In Moria: nobody. In Lothlorien: various unnamed elf maidens apparently weaving cloaks in Galadriel’s court (out of sight, though), and Galadriel herself, the most powerful female in Middle-Earth. The only female whom Frodo and Sam meet in the remainder of their travels is Shelob, the mother of all spiders. The other chaps meet Eowyn in Edoras.  And that is it. Six female speaking parts and one spider, in three long and complex volumes of epic myth. Shelob’s sting fools Sam into thinking that Frodo is dead, so he takes the Ring, and saves it from the orcs, but she doesn’t count as a female acting with volition, since she neither knows or cares about the fate of Middle-Earth. (I can’t believe I’m justifying whether a female spider counts as a plot-relevant female character or not.)  So of these, only Eowyn, Arwen and Galadriel influence the plot, and have anything to say.

Shelob

Shelob

Why is this a problem? Well, women certainly exist in Tolkien’s well-developed conception of how Middle-Earth in the Third Age came to be. He wrote poetry and stories featuring heroic Valar women who are courageous, powerful, self-sacrificing, wise and demanding. We hear about the human women of Gondor and of the far north, who were brave and noble and were the mothers of heroes. We hear about the torture and sufferings of Elrond’s wife.  We hear about lively hobbit women who were sparkier than their duller husbands, and who ran matriarchal hobbit holes like Smeagol’s grandmother. Tolkien could write women, and give them good parts to play. So why are they not present in the story of the Ring?

Tolkien had tried writing stories in conventional fictional styles of the period, but these didn’t work: his imagination needed the mythical, the legendary and the fantastic to take flight. So, creatively confined by the way his mind responded to the stimulus of myth, Tolkien was also confined by the constraints that the tradition of those myths had handed down. If the myths didn’t pay much attention to women, neither could Tolkien. Reworking myth to embrace modern alternatives was also not his interest: he wanted to create his own world, in a familiar and powerful pattern, but telling new stories of his own invention, all based on the languages he was creating.

Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings organically, in bits, over many decades. It began in 1917 or thereabouts, with stories sent to Edith Bratt, whom he would later marry. These became part of The Silmarillion (for completists only). The Hobbit was published in 1937, and The Lord of the Rings in 1954-5. Both these works were written with his son in mind as their first reader. It’s unlikely that Tolkien would have wanted to have shown his son his early private fiction of love and romance that he had written with his wife in mind, at least not until Christopher Tolkien became his father’s editor. Instead, The Hobbit is a child’s story, a quest tale of dwarves and a hobbit looking for a dragon. What part was there for a woman to play in that? In fairy tales, the traditional form on which Tolkien patterned The Hobbit, women are succourers, holders of babies, occasionally princesses and very rarely have anything other than a supporting role. But with so many dwarves to move around in the plot, and with the masculine parade of trolls, Beorn, Bard, the Master of Laketown, the King of Mirkwood, and Elrond to accommodate, there simply are no roles left for women to play. Not even a witch, the usual female standby.

When Tolkien was writing The Lord of the Rings, he read completed parts of it aloud to the people around him whom he could trust to give him sensible criticism, and to understand what he was trying to do.  These were men, the Inklings, his colleagues and close associates at the University of Oxford, with whom he felt comfortable sharing his work. When Tolkien was ready to try out a new chapter, they discussed it as intellectuals, as medievalists, as scholars, and as enthusiasts for imaginative literature. Like Tolkien, they were traditional men of the late Victorian/Edwardian period: women were still effectively second-class citizens for their generation, so they would have seen nothing odd in the lack of female roles in Tolkien’s epic fantasy.

Edith Tolkien

Edith Tolkien

If Tolkien himself had felt the absence of women in Middle-Earth, he always had Luthien to think about, at home in Oxford. Edith Tolkien did not aspire to shine socially in the male-dominated world of university dons, which had a rigid social etiquette for women that she did not feel able to follow.  For Tolkien, Edith was the model for his beautiful, noble, pure and wise elf women of Middle-Earth. She was the inspiration for the immortal elf maiden Luthien, loved by Beren, and those are the names on their joint tombstone. She also inspired Arwen. Edith Tolkien was probably the only woman who heard his writing read aloud before it reached completion. Would a shy and retiring woman, possibly also a little tired of, or blasée about her husband’s decades-long obsession with his increasingly complex invented world, have said, ‘where are the women?’ I don’t think so. Edith probably never thought about the matter. Could Tolkien have drawn inspiration from women beyond his wife? Obviously he would have encountered ‘ordinary’ women in daily life, but his sustained exposure to intellectualized women at the university, students and dons both, and his constant association with a quiet and modest woman who did not enjoy socialising, would have skewed his perception of how women could be portrayed in fiction. The female influences on Tolkien’s developing world came from literature.

Tomorrow, in Part 2, Kate explains why Eowyn is a terrific heroine, why Arwen could not compete, and why the Entwives are important.

Kate podcasts weekly on the books she really, really likes at http://www.reallylikethisbook.com.

About Kate

Blogger, lecturer, podcaster, writer, critic, reviewer, researcher (in no particular order) in and on British literary history. Preferred occupation while listening to podcasts: cooking or knitting. Preferred soundtrack while reading: the sound of silence.

10 comments on “Where are the women in Tolkien? (Part 1)

  1. Jackie
    December 11, 2012

    Though I’ve never read any of Tolkien, I’m really impressed at the in-depth knowledge you display of his work. You’d probably win a trivia contest. I must say, the lack of women in these books somewhat put me off. I know what you say about the era & the effect of mythology, but remember how many women were in the Greek & Roman myths? Surely by the early 20th C, women’s status has improved from ancient times? Maybe it was the insular Oxford world that created the mindset of women not even registering.
    Of course, it could also be said that since there are spiders in the book & so many women are afraid of spiders, that they had been there, but ran shrieking from the book. Hey, it’s possible….

  2. Kate
    December 12, 2012

    There are more spiders in The Hobbit, and no women. You clearly have a hypothesis to run with there, Jacks …

  3. CFisher
    December 12, 2012

    What could he have drawn from Anglo-Saxon tales to provide him with models for women in his stories. I think Homer could have given him a few pointers. Well, slave, wife and princess. But it would have been a start. Virgil would have given him very little except the women who tried to burn the Trojan boats so they wouldn’t have to begin again the journey.

  4. Kate
    December 13, 2012

    Women just aren’t in the Anglo-Saxon corpus, Colin! They simply don’t appear, as if they don;t exist, or as if there’s a cultural taboo on mentioning women in writing. Except, once or twice, when a queen is mentioned as a guest-cup giver, or the wife of X. The style of A-S poetry is also not focused on personalities and character, unlike modern poetry, it’s about deeds and philosophy, abstract concepts, so there isn’t as much scope for picking out characters from it.

  5. John Carney (@johncarneyau)
    December 13, 2012

    I was going to say that you’d forgotten the Entwives, but I see you’re going to cover them in your next post. I look forward to it :)

  6. Kate
    December 14, 2012

    I did! What do you think? Good theory? Clotted nonsense?

  7. Pingback: The Hobbit by J R R Tolkien « Vulpes Libris

  8. Pingback: Writing Challenge: The Plot | The Evolving Dad

  9. Peter Barta
    March 13, 2013

    Let me stirr the water up a little. J.R.R.Tolkien could be described as an egocentric, manshovinist, hypocrite of his time as their felow Inklings (Lewis, Williams, Barfild, etc.) were, too. He was engaged in a religion which was both Roman Catholic and gnostic – very far from Biblical Christianity and very near to pre-protestant mediaeval European Christianity (he was conservative and even reactionist). He has particular interest in magic, in the so-named Christian qabbalah and in the A.E.Waite-type ritual mysticism and wanted his myths to become reality (that was the declared purpose of his acivities both in literature and in personal life). As I understand, he takes the feminine as an externalised aspect of the true masculinity, which is a very misunderstood concept of creation of Eve from Adam’s rib, but very popular in mystical traditions. I think Eowen marrige to Faramir (who was Tolkien’s semblance as he himself declared in a letter) is a really important example of this idea. Because Faramir was a composite person full with masculine strength and feminine grace and this complete personality (the mystical androgyn) helped Eowin to accept her femininity, to sacrifice of her ‘rebellious’ independent self and to become a gardening wife of the house. The aim of the mystic was to absorb the feminine aspect and leave the external feminine (i.e. the marriage partner) as a simple receptive ‘matter’ of his creative fullness. The sanctity of the marrige by a mystical way means a complete personality (‘the Man’) and his consort who must obey him and serve him. They are not equals at all. Of course, this is unacceptable from a feminine as well as from a masculine aspect and leads unhappiness and torture for both. The acceptance of his or her gender is the basic foundation of accepting her or his true self. Without it, we are and remain miserable without hope.

  10. Jake Adler
    October 4, 2014

    There are most likely generational elements to Tolkein not having many strong female characters. Attitudes to women were different then than they are today, which thankfully have changed for the better as people become more enlightened. All Tolkein needed to do was to read about real women and weave them into his yarns. Women such as Boudicca, or Joan of Arc or even Cleopatra and lets not forget Queen Elizabeth I who saved a nation from the Spanish Armada. Stories are so much richer with strong characters from both genders and for that matter, different races (both real and imagined). However, Tolkein set the standard for quality of writing. I am betting that if he was alive today, that we’d read about some fantastic female characters.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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