For those who haven’t noticed, Tolkien did not hesitate with creating characters. Even the movies, after much cutting, have more than many others. It is therefore somewhat surprising to notice how few of them are women.
The only female character in The Hobbit is… actually, there are none. Lobelia Sackville-Baggins is implied in the last chapter, if one has read The Lord of the Rings, but that’s it. Some males includes the main characters (the titular hobbit, 13 dwarves and a wizard), Lord Elrond, the Great Goblin of the Misty Mountains, Azog and Bolg of Moria, the Lord of the Eagles, Beorn, the mayor of Esgaroth, Dain of the Iron Hills, Bard the archer, the dragon Smaug, the three trolls, and probably others. As I said, characters? Lots of them. And they are all male.
The Lord of the Rings
The Lord of the Rings is a much more interesting novel, for many reasons. It so happens that there are more female characters, if only because there are even more characters. All the same, female characters with some sort of meaningfulness (as opposed to just being named in genealogies) are limited to Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, Goldberry, Rosie Cotton, Éowyn, Arwen, Galadriel and Ioreth. (There is also Gilraen, Aragorn’s mother, in Appendix A.) Only Galadriel and Éowyn are meaningful to the main plot and are interesting characters by themselves.
With the notable exception of Galadriel (more below), almost all of these women are defined with reference to more important male characters: Lobelia is Bilbo’s cousin, Rosie is Sam’s love interest and wife, Arwen is Aragorn’s (and also Elrond’s daughter), Éowyn is Éomer’s sister and King Théoden’s sister-daughter, Goldberry is Tom Bombadil’s… something. As expected in a traditional patriarchal society, they are also under the care and supervision of male characters: those who marry or are married (Rosie, Arwen, Eowyn) go from the care of their father (or brother, in Eowyn’s case) to their husband’s; Ioreth is under the male master of the Houses of Healing. Golberry may or may not fit (it’s hard to tell, giving how mysterious she is), but she seems subordinate to Tom Bombadil. Only Lobelia escapes this as a widow.
There is little more to say about Lobelia and Rosie, really. As for Goldberry, she is an interesting and lively character who contributes strongly to the atmosphere of mystery of Tom Bombadil’s house. The others, however, deserve some discussion.
Ioreth, the healer, is not interesting in herself. She appears in two chapters, “Houses of Healing” and “The Steward and the King”. She acts principally as a comic relief. In her first appearance, she spends much time frustrating Gandalf and Aragorn by her infinite loquacity. She does, however, say that The hands of the king are the hands of a healer, and so shall the rightful king be known, which is significant because it prompts Gandalf to convince Aragorn to enter Minas Tirith and heal Merry, Faramir and Eowyn. Given how passive other women are, this is enough for 3rd place amongst female characters for active influence on the plot, after Eowyn and Galadriel.
In her second appearance, Ioreth provides a description of Aragorn’s coronation to her “kinswoman”, which is an interesting way to see what “the ordinary folk” think of all this. Herein lies her little significance for this essay, because the conversation almost makes the novel pass the feminist Bechdel test. To pass, a work needs 1) to have at least two women with names in it 2) who talk to each other 3) about something besides a man. Obviously, as we have seen, the novel has more than two women, so criterion 1 is fine, but these women don’t talk to each other. They don’t even see each other, except if you count Mrs. Cotton and Rosie, who meet Sam together in “The Scouring of the Shire”. Only Ioreth talks to her kinswoman. Sadly, the kinswoman is not named and really just exists to hear Ioreth’s infinite speeches, so she doesn’t pass criterion 1. Anyway, she doesn’t talk to Ioreth, Ioreth talks to her, so it only passes the 2nd with a lot of generosity and goodwill. As for criterion 3, the subject probably does not pass as “something other than a man”. She mostly describes men, or talks about how men behaved with her, so mostly, no. There is, however, this one sentence: “This is just a ceremony such as we have in the City, cousin.” — after which she goes back to Aragorn. For a moment, arguably, she’s not technically talking about a man, but about the ceremonial habits of Minas Tirith (which are held by and for men). It’s pretty thin. Still, “arguably/not really” at all criteria is the closest I found to a Bechdel-worthy moment in 1349 pages. (I say this counts as failing the test. Badly.)
Éowyn, proud shield-maiden of Rohan, seems to offer a positive portrayal of rejection of feminine gender roles despite the sexist attitude of her male social superiors (Théoden, Aragorn). We also have an interesting episode of gender reversal when she rides to battle as Dernhelm and defeats the With-King. This, however, all falls when we get to understand her overarching plot. At the Houses of Healing, where she lies under the Black Shadow, we learn that her troubles go beyond what happened on the Pelennor, that “her malady [began] far before this day”, that “frost” was over her because she wanted to do great deeds. Forced not to go to war, the real “healing” commences under the care and love of Faramir. Result?
Then the heart of Éowyn changed, or else at last she understood it. And suddenly her winter passed, and the sun shone on her.
‘I stand in Minas Anor, the Tower of the Sun’, she said; ‘and behold! the Shadow has departed! I will be a shield-maiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren.’
They then promise to marry, Faramir goes to the Warden of the Houses and says: ‘Here is the Lady Éowyn of Rohan, and now she is healed.’
Basically, her “Shadow” was gender non-conformity, her healing, the acceptance of traditionnal female gender roles. This is called “enforcing gender normativity”.
Galadriel is a more complex case because who she is and what she means was never truly settled in Tolkien’s mind, as described in Unfinished Tales. What is certain is that, in the Lord of the Rings, she is the most important female character, by far, and the only one to be in the same league as the mainly male cast. Daughter of Finarfin and Eärwen, she is of the line of Finwe, first High King of the Noldor, and related to king Thingol of Doriath — for those who don’t understand any of this, just know that she is one of the noblest people around, surpassing Elrond. With Glorfindel and Elrond, she is one of the few characters to have appeared in the Quenta Silmarillion, and probably the only Noldo on Middle-Earth to remember the Exile from Valinor. As the Bearer of Nenya, she belongs to the very select club of Ring-Bearers, and in fact she is the only original Bearer who still had her ring. In a version of her story from Unfinished Tales, she was even Sauron’s “chief adversary and obstacle” in the Second Age. She is certainly a very welcome exception, in that she is female (unlike most characters), important to the story (unlike Goldberry), interesting on her own (unlike Arwen) and without any obvious problems in her story (unlike Arwen).
It is clear, however, that Tolkien was aware of this exceptionality, and that he tried to manage it. In one essay (published in Unfinished Tales), he said that “her mother-name [i.e. the name given by her mother] was Nerwen (‘man-maiden’).” She is thus partly framed as male — as if being self-willed, strong and independent was a question of gender.
Most fans, especially movie-goers, will have noticed that I haven’t discussed Arwen yet. In fact, her concrete role in the movies is expanded enormously from the novel, in which she exists mostly in the background. She does exactly four things in the novel proper: she is present at the feast in Rivendell (“Many Meetings”), she makes Aragorn’s standard (we learn about it in “The Passing of the Grey Company”), she marries Aragorn (“The Steward and the King”), and she gives Frodo a chain with a white gem and her place on the ships (“Many Partings”). She appears more often in Appendix A I.v, “Here Follows a Part of the Tale of Aragorn and Arwen”, which also gives us another unimportant female character — Gilraen, mother of Aragorn. It is here that we understand Arwen’s full narrative purpose: drive Aragorn to fight Sauron for his royal rights, because Elrond will not allow Arwen “to be the bride of any Man less than the King of both Gondor and Arnor.” In the end, she is only more important than Ioreth because of how men act towards her. Basically, it’s “woman as inspiration for male character” all over again. (The video is not about this situation precisely, but it’s relevant anyway. Here, have another about the reverse situation, revenge, which still goes back to using women as tools for advancing male characters’ plot — exactly what is going on in The Lord of the Ring.)
In the Silmarillion (and The Children of Hurin, which is basically the long version of chapter 21, “Of Turin Turambar”), there are obviously even more women, because the number of characters explodes once again. A full account of women in the Silmarillion is more than I intend to do here, and would require an intensive study. A quick look will suffice for now.
First, there are the queens of the Valar, but they have much less significance, on average, than their male equivalent. Only Yavanna and Varda (Elbereth) seem to do anything, whereas Manwë, Ulmo, Aulë, Oromë and Mandos, arguably Tulkas too, are all very important at different moments.
There is also the Maia Arien, who guides the vessel of the Sun, opposed to Tilion who guides the Moon. (This is why the Moon is a “he” and the Sun a “she” in Middle-Earth.) Gender-wise, there is something disturbing in how Tilion is framed : He sought to come near to Arien, being drawn by her splendour. Now this is not a subject I’m particularly familiar with, but I think this sort of attitude (active men pursuing passive women as endeavours) is part rape culture somewhere, isn’t it? As I’m not an expert on this, I leave the question open (please comment if you know better), but it is significant that it isn’t the other way around.
Leaving the lofty world of divine beings for First Age Middle-Earth, once again, we notice that women are defined with reference to male characters: Luthien is Beren’s lover and Thingol’s daughter, Morwen and Niënor are Turin’s mother and sister (and Hurin’s wife and daughter), Elwing is Eärendil’s wife and the daughter of Beren and Luthien, Aredhel is Turgon’s sister and Maeglin’s mother, Finduilas is Turin and Gwindor’s love interest — not to mention the many wives who scarcely exist outside genealogies. Once again, they are always under the authority of male characters (except the widow Morwen and, as a consequence, her daughter Niënor). Only the Maia Melian and Haleth (who is never part of any plotline herself) are somewhat independent characters, and even Melian is officially subordinate to her husband Thingol — she never contradicts any of his decisions, even when she knows the doom they will bring, but there are reasons other than gender for this, in universe.
Most of these women do very little. For example, Finduilas is Turin’s “damsel in distress” and little more; Aredhel, as Maeglin’s mother who fled from Gondolin and married Eöl, accidentally causes evil, in her son, to enter the Hidden City. They rarely achieve more than a supporting role, like Elwing’s. Still, this is an improvement on The Lord of the Rings. A notable case is Luthien, a more active version of Arwen in that she actually takes part in Beren’s quest to marry her — she even rescues Beren from Sauron. However, she is framed mostly as Beren’s objective and characterized as a beautiful maiden (like most of Tolkien’s female characters), but it’s refreshing nonetheless.
Bechdel-wise, The Children of Hurin comes closer to passing than The Lord of the Rings. This happens when Morwen commands Niënor to go back into Doriath. This is another “arguably passing” on criterion 3, since the underlying matter is finding Turin. Once again, this is the closest that is achieved in any of the First Age stories, unless I’ve missed something. This novel also has more women who play some kind of part (Melian, Nellas, Morwen, Niënor, Lalaith, Aerin, etc.) than any other.
My point here is not to say that Tolkien was sexist. Obviously, there is misogyny involved, but I wouldn’t have written an article for that only purpose. Sexism in Tolkien’s works does not mean no one should read and enjoy them, just that we must acknowledge the problem of sexism when we approach his universe. In addition to “It was another era” arguments, it is important to remember that Tolkien was strongly influenced by medieval literature, which was certainly not progressive.
Obviously, we can’t re-write The Lord of the Rings (even though we may twist it). The past is past, and feminism is not about mourning on the past, but working for a better future. Therefore, I now turn to areas where the past is the future, or at least the present, and where dismantling the problematic aspects of influential works of fiction will have consequences.
First, adaptions, and specifically the movies. I don’t expect this article will influence them, since only the last Hobbit movie has yet to be screened (N.B. I haven’t seen The Desolation of Smaug yet), but it can influence our appraisal of them. Although they were working on an almost female-free world, Peter Jackson’s team succeeded to give the few who were there a more positive role. For example, Arwen rescues Frodo, and Eowyn is no longer “healed”. My intent here is both to praise the work of the filmmakers on this point and to silence the purists who mourn the absence of Glorfindel.
Second, fantasy fiction in general. I don’t read much of it, and don’t watch much more, but I gather that it’s influenced by Tolkien and not always much more feminist than he was. This is a problem in all modern fiction. Seeing flaws in an ultimate role-model is a good way to move forward and to write more progressive stories in the future.
Third and last, roleplaying. Dungeons & Dragons is the most popular roleplaying system at the moment, and the D&D universe is most influenced by Tolkien’s. As a consequence, players approach roleplaying in it with models such as Aragorn, Frodo, Gandalf, Thorin Oakenshield, etc. Misogyny is a real problem in roleplaying, and amongst geeks in general, so this is not benign. Very often, this is a “women are almost absent” variery of misogyny — like in The Lord of the Rings. Roleplaying provides an opportunity for everyone, not just film producers and fiction writers, to create progressive narratives involving women as full and interesting characters. I move we take it.