Tolkien and women

Continued from thread “Great Books” that no one seems to like… to avoid hijacking that thread further:

I don’t know whether Tolkien was familiar with either of those works, but they’re not the same kind of thing he was writing. The tradition Tolkien was writing in was not one with a lot of strong, active female characters.

The Oz books actually are a good example of fantasy fiction with strong, powerful female characters (and this was deliberate on Baum’s part); but, again, if Tolkien even read them, I don’t think he was much influenced by them or was trying to write the same kind of thing.

I think Tolkien was at least as good as his direct influences, both fictional and historical, at including strong female characters, even though there weren’t many.

I think, if someone doesn’t like Tolkien because of the dearth of female characters, or would enjoy his works more if they had more women in them, that’s a perfectly legitimate subjective opinion to have. But I’m not convinced that it’s an objective flaw in those works: that there’s something wrong with Tolkien or LOTR that he didn’t include more active female characters.

The Hobbit is a sausagefest and LOTR really only has Eowyn as a strong female character (and even she gets “tamed” and falls for Faramir awfully quickly). There are some strong women in The Simarillion, especially the Elvin beauty Luthien (whom Tolkien idealized, even having her name, and that of her lover Beren, inscribed on his wife’s and his tombstones).

I don’t think Tolkien was at all a he-man woman-hater, not at all, but the kind of writing he was doing, and its high-fantasy setting, was and always had been almost entirely about men. He was rigorously faithful to that tradition.

I suppose it isn’t clear without reading a lot more than the LotR but Galadriel is basically the most power person they run into short of Gandalf & Saruman who are effectively disguised divine. She is more powerful than any other Elf, Human, Dwarf, Ent, Orc, Troll or even Nazgul.

The Balrog is tricky, in close melee I suspect it had the edge, but Galadriel’s power was probably greater.

And don’t forget, despite being married and ruling a kingdom not of her own people. She is Queen and Celeborn is only Lord

The dearth of female characters is a valid complaint but Tolkien should be given credit for creating characters any feminist would love.

Eowyn has arguably the biggest battlefield victory and is the only person willing to stand before the Witch King at his full might. She even laughs at his threat. While she gets substantial help from Merry he is only able to do so because he is inspired by Eowyns icy courage.

As What_Exit pointed out, Galadriel is married. Many powerful women in fiction are either single or married to a dotard but Celeborn is a powerful elf in his own right. Their relationship is a healthy sharing of influence with no doubt about who is the ultimate authority.

Even the minor characters are all competent. All the baffoons and evil characters are men.

The closest Tolkien comes to paternalism is the ongoing dialog about the beauty of Galadriel and Arwen.

Agreed with all of the above. Tolkien was specifically trying to create a mythology for the British Isles, and drew a lot of his inspiration from epic poems like Beowulf, the Germanic Völsunga saga, and the Finnish Kalevala.

As you note, the books with which most non-fanatics are familiar (The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings) have few female characters, and even fewer in prominent roles. The situation is somewhat better in The Silmarillion, with characters like Luthien, Idril, and Melian, who are powerful and brave, and play bigger roles.

Galadrel is, of course, a total badass, whose power and ability is, unfortunately, only hinted at in most of the books.

Yes, I definitely should have mentioned Galadriel. And Ungoliant and Shelob.


I’m in agreement here. This is one of those flaws that doesn’t seem to have a strong bearing on the narrative, plot, or themes of the series. I can see why someone would prefer to have more women characters in LotR but the work doesn’t suffer without them.

I think Tolkien was drawing heavily on the medieval concept of courtly love.

The literary convention of courtly love can be found in most of the major authors of the Middle Ages such as Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, Dante, Marie de France, Chretien de Troyes, Gottfried von Strassburg and Thomas Malory.

I agree on most points, but must pedantically point out Lobelia Sackville-Baggins as a counter-example.

Who, in the end, does a damned fine job of standing up to real evil.

But you don’t see that in LOTR. In that book, her role is placing an order for camping equipment. For the most part, when people say they want strong female characters, they want to see those women actively demonstrate their strength and agency as a central part of the narrative. Being really, really strong but never using that strength in any significant way in the single scene that where the character appears in doesn’t count.

Eowyn is a strong female character (and demonstrably so) but she also shows up on less than 10 pages of a 1000+ page book.

A rather minor female character that always stood out for me was overly chatty Ioreth, the healer’s assistant. The way it read was almost as if written for a 1940’s screenplay. The woman was pure comic relief. Running her mouth nonstop and getting interrupted by the coronation.

A fair point… that I’d forgotten, since movies have started to eclipse the book in my mind. The Scouring of the Shire is a bit foggy for me.

Consider, though, the importance of moral choices in LOTR – the whole epic is set into motion by Bilbo’s refusal, out of pity, to slay Gollum in The Hobbit. Then his passing the Ring on to Frodo, Frodo’s acceptance of his ordeal, Boromir’s seduction and Denethor’s fall, Faramir’s refusal to take the Ring from Frodo. All of these are treated as crucial, important scenes, as significant to the tale as any scene of war or battle.

By Tolkien’s lights, then, he did give Galadriel an “action” scene – Frodo’s offer to her of the Ring, and her subsequent refusal to succumb to its temptation. I’m guessing that to JRRT, that might have been as crucial a victory as the Riding of the Rohirrim, or Aragorn’s summoning of the army of the dead.

A fair point.

And she makes that choice about halfway through book 2 of 6. After which there are 4 and a half more books full of men making crucial moral choices and doing things (sometimes, even using her helpfully ordered outdoor gear).

Or, I’ll ask a different way - if you’re a kid and you and your friends are playing LOTR in the backyard - do you choose to be Legolas & shoot arrows and walk on snow or Sam who travels with his best friend to save the world or even Boromir who has a few cool fight scenes before an awesome death scene or Galadriel who “refuses to succumb to [the ring’s] temptation” but, you know, crucially refuses?

A month or so ago I finally finished reading the trilogy to my 12-year-old daughter, and I was really aware of a lot of issues with Tolkien, including the dearth of female characters. We talked about it, and how it’s a significant criticism of the books, and that it’s possible to criticize the books for that (and for other things) while still appreciating their excellent parts.

But even Eowyn, in her strength, was described mooning after Aragorn for about as much time–possibly more–as she was described being a double-strength badass. I wish Tolkien had been better at writing women, and recognize he didn’t, and enjoyed the other parts of the book that he was good at.

So in the 1940s what percentage of books had strong woman characters?
Is that percentage larger or smaller for Speculative Fiction?

Why is Professor Tolkien being held to such a high standard?

He’s not.

As LHoD said, it’s possible to appreciate and enjoy the book and still recognize that it has some issues with female representation.

Do you think that there are writers from the 1940s who get a pass that Tolkien isn’t being afforded?

I suspect that, compared to most of his contemporaries (in both speculative fiction, and fiction generally), Tolkien and his works have endured in popular culture, and are still being widely read. I suspect that that may be leading to him and his books getting more attention for the lack of female characters, compared to other authors and works from that era, because they’re more visible and known to modern readers.