Tolkien's Treatment of Women

(Epics for Students)

Manuscript page from Beowulf Published by Gale Cengage

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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Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring

(Epics for Students)

The death of Gandalf is a moment of transcendent heroism in The Fellowship of the Ring, yet Celeborn, reflecting on it later, remarks, "And if it were possible, one would say that at last Gandalf fell from wisdom into folly, going needlessly into the net of Moria". An understanding of the strongly overdetermined etymology of Moria helps to clarify the significance of Gandalf's death and the question of his fate and folly. Moria's roots would have to include mors (Latin for death), as well as Moira (Greek for fate) and moria (Greek for madness, late Latin for folly). Celeborn's remark unwittingly stresses the thematic linkage of fate (Moira) or "net" (a frequent image for fate) and folly (moria). The drumbeats that sound within the earth before and after Gandalf's death seem to stress fate: "doom, doom". It is, however, also possible to see, as Celeborn does, Gandalf's death as perhaps foolish or unnecessary, as his fall at the Bridge of Khazad-dum (emphasis supplied) may imply. But is Gandalf's leading the company into Moria, where he dies, as foolish as Celeborn implies?

In fact, far from "going needlessly" into Moria, Gandalf first considers other tactical options and even tries one--the ascent of Caradhras--as an alternative to the underworld journey. To go around the mountains would endanger the quest by prolonging it and open the company to further observation from the air and interference by the enemy. The company attempts to climb over the mountains but is rebuffed by Caradhras itself. By the time Gandalf recommends the descent, Moria is the only reasonable option available. Later in Lothlorien, Galadriel sees this more clearly than her husband Celeborn: "Needless were none of the deeds of Gandalf in life". Nevertheless, even Frodo, who was present during the deliberations that took the company into the earth, seems to have doubts about whether Gandalf's death was wise: "In Khazad-dum, his wisdom died". Frodo's lament suggests that he may see his friend's death, a result of the descent into Moria, as foolish.

A way to reconcile Gandalf's fate (in the sense of unavoidable death) with a wisdom that also addresses the issue of folly is found in the New Testament, and especially Corinthians. The Christian precept "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his...

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'Traveling the one road': The Lord of the Rings as a….

(Epics for Students)

Picture of a Viking Published by Gale Cengage

J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings is a massive epic fantasy of more than a half-million words. It is also a hugely complex work, with its own complicated chronology, cosmogony, geography, nomenclature and multiple languages, including two forms of elvish. The plot is so grand, moreover, that it casts backward to the formation of first things while glancing forward to the end of time. How did this huge and learned work—written by an obscure Oxford philologist—become a classic?

The answer has to do with Tolkien's central characters. They are humanoid creatures called hobbits, and their unlikely hero has the unheroic name of Frodo. During the 1960s, so many American youths were drawn to these diminutive creatures that Tolkien became something of a cult figure. "Frodo Lives" was a popular graffito of the time. T-shirts declared that "Tolkien is Hobbit-Forming." No doubt there was something escapist about this hobbit-habit. Perplexed by our nation's carnage in Vietnam and by the ultimate threat of a nuclear inferno, a whole generation of young Americans could lose themselves and their troubles in the intricacies of this triple-decker epic. Indeed, the rumor got about—a wish seeking its fulfillment, no doubt—that Tolkien had composed The Lord of the Rings under the influence of drugs.

Yet The Lord of the Rings has outlasted its cult status. Repeated readings do not exhaust its potential to deepen and define our moral and spiritual lives. Young and old alike keep returning to it for both wisdom and delight. True fantasy, Tolkien declared in his 1939 essay "On Fairy-Stories," is escapist in the good sense: it enables us to flee into reality. The strange world of hobbits and elves and ents frees us from bondage to the pseudo-reality that most of us inhabit: a world deadened by bleary familiarity. Fantasy, Tolkien observed, helps us recover a sense of wonder about ordinary things: "stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine."

Despite the eucharistic hint, Tolkien's work is not self-evidently Christian. As C. S. Lewis observed when it was first published, the Ring epic is imbued with "a profound melancholy." The ending is tearfully sad. Frodo is exhausted by his long quest to destroy the Ring of coercive power that had been fashioned by the monster Sauron. Though the victory has been won, Frodo cannot enjoy its fruits. And so he sails away to the elven realm, leaving his companions behind. Sauron and his minions of evil may have been defeated, but the triumph is only temporary. Evil will reconstitute itself in some alarming new form, and the free creatures of Middle Earth will have to fight it yet again.

The word "doom"—in its Anglo-Saxon meaning of damning judgment as well as final fate in ruin and death—pulses like a funereal drumbeat throughout the entire work. Toward the end of volume I, the elf Legolas offers a doom-centered vision of the world. It sounds very much like an elvish and Heraclitean version of entropy. "To find and lose," says Legolas, is the destiny "of those whose boat is on the running stream.… The passing seasons are but ripples in the long long stream. Yet beneath the Sun all things must wear to an end at last." Though elves are so long-lived that they seem immortal to humans and hobbits, the tides of time will sweep even them away. A deeply pagan pessimism pervades all three of the Ring books.

Yet it is a mistake to read Tolkien's work as sub-Christian. Tolkien, the finest Beowulf scholar of his day, had a thesis about the Anglo-Saxon epic that may be applied to his own fiction. Beowulf is a pagan work, Tolkien argued, exalting the ancient Scandinavian and heathen virtue of an unyielding, indomitable will in the face of sure and hopeless defeat. Yet it was probably written by a Christian, Tolkien contended, who infused it with Christian concerns: "The author of Beowulf showed forth the permanent value of that pietas which treasures the memory of man's struggles in the dark past, man fallen and not yet saved, disgraced but not dethroned." In a similar way, The Lord of the Rings recounts a prebiblical period of history—a time when there were no Chosen People, no incarnation, no religion at all—from a point of view that is distinctly Christian.

This judgment may seem strange because there is little that is Christian about The Hobbit, Tolkien's first fantasy work, published in 1937. It is a standard quest-story about the seeking and the finding of a tremendous treasure, a delightful "there and back again" tale concerning the adventures of Bilbo Baggins. But by the time he published The Lord of the Rings in 1954 and 1955, Tolkien had deepened and widened his vision, especially concerning the nature of heroism. The hobbits prove to be perennially attractive characters because they are very unconventional heroes. They are not tragic and death-defying warriors like Ajax or Achilles or Beowulf; they are frail and comic foot soldiers like us. The Nine Walkers—four hobbits, two men, an elf, a dwarf and a wizard—constitute a company not of the noble but of the ordinary.

They all learn, in a proleptically Christian way, what every mortal must confront: that we no sooner find our lives than we have to give them up. Unlike Bilbo, Frodo his nephew is called not to find but to lose, indeed to destroy, his great gem: the Ring of Total Control. It is a task that he does not seek but reluctantly accepts. Yet Frodo proves to be a fit bearer of the Ring. Not only does he possess native powers of courage and resistance; he is also summoned by a mysterious providential grace. The destruction of the Ring is nothing less than Frodo's vocation. And the epic's compelling interest lies in our discovery of how, just barely, Frodo remains faithful to his calling. In so doing he does far more than save his beloved Shire from ruin. Frodo learns— and thus teaches—what for Tolkien is the deepest of all Christian truths: how to surrender one's life, how to lose one's treasure, how to die, and thus how truly to live.

Early in the narrative, Frodo recalls that his Uncle Bilbo, especially during his latter years, was fond of declaring that

... there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. "It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door," he used to say. "You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to."

Tolkien's work is imbued with a mystical sense of life as a journey that carries one, willy-nilly, beyond the walls of the world. To get out of bed, to answer the phone, to open the door, to fetch the mail—such everyday deeds are freighted with eternal consequence. They immerse us in the river of time: the "ever-rolling stream" which, in Isaac...

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The Road to Middle Earth

(Epics for Students)

The gist of what has been said in this chapter is that The Lord of the Rings possesses unusual cultural depth. 'Culture' is not a word Tolkien used much; it changed meaning sharply during his lifetime, and not in a direction he approved. Still, one can see a deep understanding of its modern meaning of 'the whole complex of learned behaviour….. the material possessions, the language and other symbolism, of some body of people' in chapter 2 of Book II of The Fellowship of the Ring. This marks a jump-off point for the characters, whose objective is disclosed within it. It was also I suspect a jump-off point for Tolkien, since after that he was no longer writing his way through...

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