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.
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.
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.
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 http://www.reallylikethisbook.com.