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Where are the women in Tolkien? (Part 2)

In Part 2 of this post on why there are so few women in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, Kate works out why Eowyn is a terrific heroine, why Arwen cannot compete, and why the Entwives are important.

The first females to be written into Middle-Earth were elves, Tolkien’s ideal for female beauty and wisdom. Their importance, and power, overshadowed any other women that Tolkien needed in his stories. Human women may have been equally beautiful, but they were less wise because they didn’t live anything like as long. Hobbit women were peasants in bright colours. How did elf women affect how Tolkien went on to write other female characters?

Let’s go back to Tolkien’s experiments with language, because this is relevant for how Middle-Earth, and its peoples, were developed. As the narrative in The Lord of the Rings moves between the different civilisations in Middle-Earth, Tolkien changes his vocabulary, and linguistic style, as well as his literary style. (This I got from Tom Shippey, the best mainstream interpreter of Tolkien’s writing, and an excellent critic.) The hobbits are eighteenth-century English country folk: they farm, they speak in a rural dialect, they have a class system, and they go to the pub. So, in that kind of society, the women’s roles would be farmers’ wives, matriarchs, and barmaids. Rosie Cotton the farmer’s daughter, and Lobelia Sackville-Baggins the acquisitive matriarch, are the only hobbit women we meet. The others we are only told about from the Baggins and Took family histories. The people of Bree, though we see almost nothing of them, are the townsfolk to the Shire’s countryfolk: more knowing, less trustworthy, more exposed to the dangers of the world outside, and their women are kept, or keep themselves, out of sight.

The elves and the Gondorians are semi-exotics, ancient races with highly formalised social structures, rituals and traditions in their society. As soon as an elf or a Gondorian, and a hobbit, start to talk to each other, the hobbits adopt the language style of the higher civilisation, and come over all noble, unless they want to make a point about being simple, or practical. In a highly evolved society like that of the elves, females are well-established in the political, social, artistic and strategic maintenance of that civilisation, and have had the time (aeons of it) to root themselves into all aspects of its workings. The Gondorians seem not to have allowed their women a public role, or even to appear outside the home. We only know the name of Boromir and Faramir’s mother, Finduilas, because of her big blue mantle given to Eowyn, and because she was not happy in Gondor. A human, warring society does not, typically, allow its women to be active except in breeding for the maintenance of the race, and thus we know of no publicly active Gondorian women in The Lord of the Rings.

a little light sword practice before packing for battle

a little light sword practice before packing for battle

The Rohirrim are interestingly different, in such paradoxical ways. The Riders of Rohan are essentially Anglo-Saxons, Tolkien’s laziest creation of a civilisation, because he barely does anything to alter the template from Beowulf, ‘The Wanderer’, or ‘The Fight at Finnsburh’. But they are also his most successful because they live: they are seriously alive, fighting for survival while the Gondorians sit passively and wait for annihilation under Sauron. The Rohirrim have clearly defined social and cultural roles for the female nobility. Eowyn is the only woman at court, the niece of the king and is thus the chief lady in the land. Tolkien gives us unprecedented detail about what she see her purpose as being, what hopes she has, what she thinks her life will be like, and what her choices are. She is an astonishingly full character, far more defined than Arwen or Galadriel, all because of Tolkien’s real-life Anglo-Saxon sources. He was inventing his own sources – languages and histories – for creating his elven civilisations, and somehow these were not deep enough, or real enough, to give his elf characters the life that the Rohirrim have. Something in the material that Tolkien was drawing on for Eowyn, and the other Rohirrim, sparked his imagination fully. He really responded imaginatively to Eowyn’s situation in a way that he denied the elf women, or even Lobelia Sackville-Baggins. Why is this?

Look at the language. As a scholar of language, Tolkien is very careful to avoid using Latinisms in the vocabulary in The Lord of the Rings, because there is no place for Latin (or Latinate romance) in Middle-Earth. It is based on Germanic culture, and Tolkien’s main inspirations for Middle-Earth came from Anglo-Saxon literature, and English medieval poetry. The British literary culture of Tolkien’s upbringing was romantic and chivalric, in which women had pre-determined roles and social functions, but also had a role to play, deeds to do, and counsel to give. But the woman-centred chivalric literary influences (think Queen Guinevere from Le Morte D’Arthur) were overshadowed for Tolkien by the earlier Anglo-Saxon cultural tradition which was uninterested in women. Anglo-Saxon literature has almost no named women, except some queens and monsters, and describes very few identifiable acts by women. The most important, the offering of the guest-cup by Queen Wealhtheow to Beowulf, is re-enacted in The Lord of the Rings by Eowyn.

Miranda Otto as Eowyn, and David Wenham as Faramir

Miranda Otto as Eowyn, and David Wenham as Faramir

But something else gave Tolkien the inspiration to make much more of Eowyn than he could achieve with any other female character in Middle-Earth. He responded imaginatively to the poetry that inspired Eowyn, and somehow this response just kept on going, linking up with the chivalric tradition as well. If you’ve ever read Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, you might find similarities between his Renaissance female knight Britomart and Eowyn. Tolkien makes Eowyn romantic as well as heroic: she can fall in love twice (maybe three times: was she in love with Theodred too?), and she is a magnificent warrior. She has opportunities that no other woman in Middle-Earth is allowed, because Tolkien creates a myth for her. She is a success as a character not because she is destined to become just ‘the wife of’, to be defined solely through her marriage. Her journey, her character’s development, makes her exciting. She can’t have Aragorn because he’s 80-odd years older than her, and is already tied up with dreary Arwen. So Eowyn goes through a rather delicately described unrequited passion, is rejected (kindly) by Aragorn, and then resigns herself to a heroic death by surging into battle in male disguise. What could be more thrilling for a heroic epic? And it doesn’t end there: she triumphs in battle, and she (so importantly for the whole plot of the novel) fulfils the prophecy that no man may kill the Witch-King of Angmar. She and Merry the hobbit finish him off (a plot twist that Tolkien borrowed from Macbeth), which weakens Sauron’s attack on Minas Tirith and ends the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. Finished now with being a wild shield-maiden of the north, Eowyn is taken off the battlefield, and is healed by Aragorn, which is another vital plot point for his acceptance as the coming King, whose hands are the hands of a healer. She pines while waiting for the battles to end, and (at last) we have a proper romantic episode where she and Faramir fall in love, and represent the hope of the new day and the new Fourth Age, as the Ring is destroyed and Sauron’s power falls.

It’s interesting that Aragorn has a line combining Anglo-Saxon and Romance elements to say at the betrothal of Eowyn and Faramir: ‘No niggard are you, Eomer, to give Gondor the fairest thing in your realm’. This connects the Anglo-Saxon concept of being ‘niggardly’ (mean, ungenerous and thus unlordly), with the chivalric concept of a woman being the fairest thing in a kingdom. ‘Fair’ is a Romance concept of value equated with beauty: the Anglo-Saxons would probably say that a sword or other piece of war loot was the most valuable because of its history, and power. Tolkien knows what he is doing in combining these words. As a symbol of the joining of two civilisations, Eowyn leaves Rohan for good, and becomes a lady of Gondor, living in a cultured society. She is the most satisfying female character in all of Middle-Earth’s history, because she has complexity, and passion, unlike the unchanging bloodless blandness of Arwen, or Galadriel’s alien remoteness. But she is also the only satisfying female character in the whole novel, which shows so strongly what is missing in Middle-Earth.

Where does that leave Tolkien: as a culpable misogynist, or as a writer in thrall to his material? I think it’s significant that, in the making of The Two Towers (the second film) Peter Jackson’s team tried reconfiguring Arwen’s character to allow her to join the army of elves marching to help King Theoden, and Aragorn, in Helm’s Deep: the modern adaptors really wanted Arwen to become another Eowyn. There is footage in the extended director’s cut DVD showing Liv Tyler rehearsing her battle scenes, looking totally out of place and simply wrong. That experiment was abandoned, I think, because extending Arwen’s character that way was pushing her role too far away from what Arwen had to be for the plot. Eowyn’s character is a success because she appeals so much to modern preferences for active, independent women of volition, but that is not what Arwen is like: she’s an ethereal, ancient elf. The modern, western, requirements of equality between men and women cannot be applied to a story set in a time and place with no connection to that way of thinking. If Tolkien wrote too few women in the stories, so be it: like it or lump it. But I do believe that he felt instinctively that something was missing. To find the evidence for that we need to go back to the land and the ‘ordinary’ women who farmed it, though not to The Shire.

In Fangorn Forest, Treebeard the Ent (a tree-herder) tells Merry and Pippin the sad story of the loss of the Entwives. These were the female Ents who specialised in growing and nurturing, in planting new trees, and keeping the land green. They grew tired of their menfolk who would not come and help them farm, because the male Ents persisted in following their calling of singing songs to trees, and roaming the hilltops for centuries. When the Ents finally decided to come home, to see how things were doing on the farm, the Entwives were gone, and nobody knew where they had gone. So there will be no more Entings, and the Ents will die out without their womenfolk. Without reading too much into the symbolism of women who leave because they’re being ignored, and unhelped, and take hope with them, I think we can look at the story of the Entwives of Middle-Earth as a subconscious hint that Tolkien knew that something was missing in Middle-Earth, but he couldn’t quite see what.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is released on 12 December 2012.

Kate podcasts weekly on books that she really, really likes on

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.

19 comments on “Where are the women in Tolkien? (Part 2)

  1. Hilary
    December 12, 2012

    Brava, Kate! This is a triumph. Thank you so much for delving into the matter of language, as well as tradition, in the Middle Earth books. This is something that has been lapping at my consciousness in my reading of The Hobbit, but without your hep I would not have been able to account for it. I have silly, sentimental reasons for not re-reading LOTR, which I shall go into (ie confess to) at the end of the week – but I think you have just blown them out of the water.

  2. Kate
    December 12, 2012

    Well that’s me intrigued! Roll on Friday!

  3. Hilary
    December 12, 2012

    Nah – don’t get too excited …

  4. kirstyjane
    December 12, 2012

    Really excellent piece. I need to re-read both before I can intelligently comment, but as Hilary said, brava.

  5. Christine Harding
    December 12, 2012

    Really enjoyed both pieces, and yes, I’ve always noticed there are no women in ‘The Hobbit’ (even when it was first read to me when I was nine or ten), and very few in Lord of the Rings, but I don’t care! I just love the books exactly as they are. On a serious note I think you are right, it probably has a lot to do with Tolkien’s influences, and societal attitudes at the time he was writing, but I don’t think we should stifle creativity by saying novelists should have male and female characters, any more than suggesting they should all have an ethnic or religious balance.

    And, if we’re talking Inklings and fantasy, the book that always outraged me with its odd attitude towards women was CS Lewis’ The Last Battle, where poor Susan isn’t allowed into Narnia any more because she’s interested in lipstick and stuff – ie she’s grown up!

  6. Jackie
    December 12, 2012

    Found this greatly interesting about the way Tolkien used Medieval & Anglo-Saxon culture as guides for his imaginary land. In that time, yes, women were insignificant, but it still irks me.
    The most intriguing part was at the end, about the Entwives. It’s sad & yet very true to life.

  7. Kate
    December 13, 2012

    I don’t think stifling creativity is the issue here. If a world is being described which clearly has females in it, to ignore the females so completely (when they aren’t hidden away, for cultural reasons, for instance) is just a goal waiting to be kicked into touch, Or something like that. (I’ve never played rugby.) I totally agree about The Last Battle, the male suspiction of nylons was thoroughly annoying, but it was also Lewis’s resentment at women escaping male control by stopping being children. Susan was great, a much misunderstood character, cast out of Narnia because she didn’t obey the fantasy land rules and instead obeyed the rules of nature.

  8. Pingback: Where are the women in Tolkien? (Part 1) « Vulpes Libris

  9. sakura
    December 14, 2012

    This is a question I constantly ask myself when reading fantasy written by the majority of male authors. It’s probably one of the reasons why I found The Hobbit quite boring (although I loved LOTR). I was certainly intrigued to see Arwen’s part enlarged in the films but I agree that Eowyn is the most interesting female character in the tale. Great post!

  10. Redpossum
    December 19, 2012

    Bravo, well done!

    As a long-time Tolkien enthusiast, I noted long ago the absence of female characters. Then again, I’ve read LOTR 8 or 9 times in the last 45 years, and even with the most recent re-reading, about a year ago, I felt I was noticing things that had escaped me before. The old professor really was an amazing storyteller. In that regard, if in no other, he reminds me of H Rider Haggard.

    My mother was a feminist in those long-ago days of the early 1970’s when it was definitely not well accepted; Gloria Steinem was still in charge at NOW, and the ERA was a hotly-debated issue. Growing up with that influence, I certainly saw things from a different perspective than most young boys. Oddly enough, I don’t think I ever had this conversation with my mother, which is a shame, because I know she’d read Tolkien.

    I honestly figured Tolkien was of that uniquely-English breed of repressed homosexuals with “Mother Issues”, who secretly loathe women. No disrespect intended, we are what we are, and I have always viewed the LGBT community with a friendly eye.

    Your analysis of the careful selection of Tolkien’s vocabulary was entirely new to me. I had vaguely noted that he use of words was situational, but I had never articulated it in any specific terms, so that was a real eye-opener. I love those “aha!” moments when something is explained, and it dovetails neatly with what you already knew, adding another piece to that ever-incomplete jigsaw puzzle that is our view of the world.

  11. Daphne
    February 4, 2013

    There is one woman of Gondor who has a role in public life: Ioreth, the healer.

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  14. Pingback: Feminist Friday: Éowyn & The Lord of the Rings | The Leather Library

  15. Pingback: The Leather Library / Feminist Friday: Éowyn & The Lord of the Rings

  16. Pingback: The Leather Library / Is Aragorn the Philosopher-King? - The Leather Library

  17. Bagatiba
    November 20, 2015

    Thank you very much for your analysis. Loved that part about entwives. I got a feeling that Tolkien put women on high shelf – far away from troubles and war, leaving problems to the men to sort out. Just look on them – no bad characters, they are perfect as they are. So nothing should happen to them as they are not going to change.
    Possibly, it is some kind of over-expressed respect and love, that on downside left out any adventures and growing for women? I like it, as it is in opposite to women characters in movies today- strong and manly, sometimes pushed to violence and torture. I dont understand this aspect of modern perception of females.
    On other hand, I think that women-power should not be manly. It is other part of the myth – that muscular and strong character has impact. That ignores the mental power and the soul of human. Without those qualities we are animals, thus myths are nice, however, too old-fashioned looking on the things.

    Sorry for english, i is not my first language (as you can observe it)🙂


  18. Pingback: The Lord of the Rings revisited. | Vulpes Libris

  19. karen j carlisle
    June 8, 2016

    Reblogged this on Karen J Carlisle.

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