Tolkien's Treatment of Women
Tolkien has been accused of being perfunctory in his treatment of his female characters and excused as being merely a man of his times. Looking closely at the characters in Lord of the Rings, however, it could be argued that Tolkien returned to possibilities for female participation which the epic traditionally afforded, but which were long overlooked in criticism. Tolkien's own relationships with women were obviously largely a product of his time. The early death of his mother, his marriage to a woman who was uncomfortable in Oxford intellectual circles, and the attitude of C. S. Lewis whose misogyny was only overcome by a late marriage, all affected Tolkien. It is wrong, however, that it always affected him for the worse. Tolkien had been a student of Joseph Wright, the philologist who had married a former student. She not only worked alongside her husband, but made Tolkien and many other students comfortably at home. His final scholarly collaborator was a woman, Simone d'Ardenne, a former student who became a professor at Liege. This promising collaboration, thwarted in part by the World War II only ended because of his increasing involvement with his fiction.
"My friend ... you had horses, and deeds of arms, and the free fields; but she, born in the body of a maid, had a spirit and courage at least the match of yours. Yet she was doomed to wait upon an old man, whom she loved as a father, and watch him falling into a mean dishonoured dotage; and her part seemed to her more ignoble than that of the staff he leaned on." These lines from The Return of the King are a recognition of spirit that has nothing to do with gender, and the effects of a gender-based division of opportunities on ability. From a man born in the reign of Victoria, who spent most of his life in the men's club atmosphere of the Oxford colleges, it suggests an unexpected, but genuine, sensitivity.
The women in Lord of the Rings reflect the broad generic background that Tolkien co-opted into his novel. They range from the comic Lobelia Sackville-Baggins who could, except for her furry feet, wander through the door at Blandings without more than a passing groan from Lord Emsworth, to Galadriel, who one suspects has more than a little in common with the hero, Athena. Between them are Mrs. Maggot and Rose Cotton, who could be out of the kinder moments of Hardy, and Goldberry, who like her husband seems to represent the earth as it might have been. There is Arwen, elusive, and in the end, hidden away in the Appendices, supremely tragic. The true female counterpart of Frodo, she is wounded by the choice between father and lover, immortality and mortality, just as Frodo is by the experience of the Ring. Although she assumes mortality, she dies utterly elven in her attitude. The individual reader is almost forced to react to it on a purely subjective level.
Three women, however, are pivotal in Lord of the Rings: Ioreth, Eowyn and Galadriel. Each of them is not only important to cause and effect in the narrative, but each gathers up important thematic threads.
Ioreth is the lineal descendant of Juliet's nurse, if less earthy, certainly, and, if she could be stopped for the question, unlikely to suggest deception and bigamy as the answer to any problem. But for all the comedy of her character, Ioreth performs and embodies a vitally important cluster of functions. She might be called the tenth muse, the muse not of a particular genre, but of those all-important literary functions: preservation and transmission. She is muse as philologist. It is she who remembers that "the hands of the king are the hands of the healer." She and her kind remember the old rhymes and words and ponder them, "'kingsfoil' . .. 'tis a strange name, and I wonder why 'tis called so; for if I were a king I would have plants more bright in my garden." Her garrulousness is comic, but it is more than comic; it is deeply characteristic. She must repeat what she remembers, what she has heard, what she has experienced. She is a repository, transmitter commentator. On Aragorn's triumphal re-entry into Gondor, she begins the transmutation/ transposition of event into literature "Would you believe..." Old wives tales, or the material of epic? But as Charles M. Schulz famously had Linus van Pelt remark "some of those old wives were pretty smart." There may be a formal minstrel's "Nine fingered Frodo and the Ring of Doom," but anyone who has read Tolkien's "On Fairy Stories" will know perfectly well the version Tolkien would expect to sink deep into the hearts and minds of the west like a grain of sand in an oyster. However comic Ioreth is, she is not...
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