Art recommendation

A year or so ago, I discovered this fantastic gallery by liga-marta on deviantART – some really beautiful drawings of various characters and scenes from the Silmarillion, including (you’ve guessed it) quite a lot of the women!

This one of Idril, Tuor and Earendil escaping Gondolin is probably my favourite (I love the haunted, sad expression on Idril’s face), while this is the best attempt to capture Luthien I’ve ever seen.


Martin, again

Amid all the buzz generated by Season 2 of Game of Thrones, there’s a lot of thought-provoking stuff on Martin doing the rounds at the moment. I’m a particular fan of the Boiled Leather Audio Hour podcast, and by a happy coincidence, the latest episode was on a topic central to the study of women in Martin’s fiction – that is, the depiction of sex and particularly sexual violence in the A Song of Ice and Fire series.

Cllick here to listen and comment:

The special guest on the episode, Alyssa Rosenberg (who writes on pop culture, including but not limited to Game of Thrones at Think Progress has also penned an essay on this very subject for Beyond the Wall, a series of studies on the ASOIAF books and the broader phenomenon. I just got the book today and haven’t read it yet, but watch this space for my thoughts (and no doubt comparisons to Tolkien).

Galadriel: Rebel, Ringbearer, Lady of Light

At the risk of outing myself as a nerd (as if having a Tolkien-centric blog hadn’t done that for me already), my younger brother and I have watched the Jacksonmovies together an embarrassing number of times. During one of our many viewings of Fellowship, my brother (who hadn’t read the books, and to the best of my knowledge still hasn’t) made the observation that while she’s clearly on the side of the good guys, Galadriel can come across as, well, rather sinister.

Describing Galadriel in these terms (in addition to “sinister”, I’ve heard “creepy” and “unnerving”) might seem a little incongruous at first glance – after all, she’s an Elf (and when are they ever less than perfect, in LoTR at least), and those of us (readers and Fellowship alike) who saw her in Lothlorien know there is no reason to be suspicious of her loyalty. However, it’s perfectly in keeping with Tolkien’s presentation of Galadriel as she is viewed by much of the world outside Lorien – and particularly by the Men of Rohan and Gondor, for whom the very real elf-woman who rules in Caras Galadhon has been transformed by time and unfamiliarity into a half-forgotten legend of a dangerous sorceress who ensnares men in her webs, and whose land it is dangerous for any mortal Man to enter. Take, for example, Eomer’s comments on meeting Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli in chapter 2 of The Two Towers:

 “‘Then there is a Lady in the Golden Wood, as old tales tell!’  he said, ‘Few escape her nets, they say. These are strange days! But if you have her favour, then you also are net-weavers and sorcerers, maybe’”.

 (Book 3 chapter 2, “The Riders of Rohan”)

Later in the same book, Faramir – a far more intelligent and erudite character than Eomer – expresses similar concerns about the Lady’s power, albeit in a characteristically more thoughtful tone:

 “’You passed through the Hidden Land”, said Faramir, “but it seems that you little understood its power. If Men have dealings with the Mistress of Magic who dwells in the Golden Wood, then they may look out for strange things to follow. For it is perilous for mortal man to walk out of the world of this Sun, and few of old came thence unchanged, ‘tis said.”

  (Book 4 chapter 5, “The Window on the West”).

Although these are clear examples of how the years have warped mortals’ understanding of the elves who still live among them, there is also a degree to which people are right to view Galadriel with some trepidation. After all, as one of the few remaining protagonists of the rebellion of the Noldor (of the original leaders it’s just her and Maglor, who’s presumably still wandering around the seashore somewhere), she has a distinctly chequered past. And although she didn’t take the oath of Feanor and doesn’t have the blood of the Kinslaying on her hands, she is nevertheless put under the ban of the Valar.

What is more, she displays a number of personality traits which are neutral at best. Restless, ambitious and eager to escape the constraints of life in Valinor, In a tantalising brief reference to her in the Silmarillion (apparently she stood “tall and valiant among the contending princes” on the day the Trees were destroyed and Feanor swore his oath”), we are told of her adventurousness and curiosity (“she yearned to see the wide unguarded lands” of Middle-Earth), but also of her desire to “rule there a realm at her own will” – that is, her ambition and will to dominate. And although she’s clearly mellowed considerably over the intervening millennia, we definitely see glimmers of the old Galadriel during her most memorable scene in the Lord of the Rings, the scene of her temptation by the Ring.

All this goes a long way towards making Galadriel into a far more complex, nuanced character (and to a certain extent more identifiable, although there are always going to be limits on how far readers can identify with an intimidatingly beautiful immortal elf who has powers of prophecy and is several millennia old). And it’s given further depth by another aspect of her character that is touched on obliquely in several places in the LoTR and then explored in more depth in Unfinished Tales and in several places in Tolkien’s letters – that is, her identity as an exile. Although these are precisely the kind of details it’s easy to overlook on a first (and even a second and third) reading, the two songs Galadriel sings as the Fellowship leaves Lorien are full of longing and wistfulness that gains infinitely in meaning once you know the full background to her story. First, in her song in the Common Tongue, she laments the passing of the years in Middle Earth and the fact that the way home is barred to her:

“O Lorien! Too long I have dwelt upon this Hither Shore

And in a fading crown have twined the golden elanor.

But if of ships I now should sing, what ship would come to me,

What ship would bear me ever back across so wide a Sea?”

(Book 2 chapter 8, “A Farewell to Lorien”)

Then, in her Quenya song (for which Tolkien helpfully provides a prose translation), she repeats her belief that the way back West is barred to her, and adds a hopeful prayer that Frodo may do as she cannot and find his way there someday: “Now lost, lost to those from the East is Valimar! Farewell! Maybe thou shalt find Valimar. Maybe even thou shalt find it. Farewell!”). Galadriel’s status as an exile – and her obvious fears that she will never be allowed to return home – are alluded to once more in the book, this time in a cruel and taunting way, by Saruman following Sauron’s defeat and his own unceremonious eviction from Isengard. As the remaining Fellowship and their assorted hangers-on (who include the Lord and Lady of Lothlorien) pass the old villain on their way back north from Minas Tirith,

Saruman takes a momentary break from lamenting his misfortune and kicking Wormtongue to taunt Galadriel with the notion that she is as doomed to fade as he is, asking “And now, what ship will bear you back across so wide a sea?” (note the echo of Galadriel’s own words earlier). “It will be a grey ship, and full of ghosts”.

That’s hardly the last I want to say of Galadriel – she’s one of the most written-about women in the legendarium, and I anticipate returning to her several times (among other things, I want to write about the various versions of her backstory contained in the essay on Galadriel and Celeborn in Unfinished Tales, about how she exercises power as a leader, and about her identification with the Virgin Mary). For now, though, it’s time for me to head to bed, so I’ll leave you with these incomplete thoughts.

Not Tolkien…

…but of interest to women-in-fantasy fans anyway. The team behind Cast of Thrones (, a highly irreverent and extremely funny podcast focussing on the Game of Thrones TV series and the Song of Ice and Fire books have just released the second of what I hope will be many episodes specifically looking at female characters and the role of women within the series.

The most recent episode (focussing on women in A Clash of Kingsand the second season of the TV show – so that’s Her Amazingness Brienne of Tarth, Ygritte, Margaery, Melisandre and Asha/Yara/whatever the hell her name is in addition to old favourites Cersei, Daenerys and both the senior and junior Stark ladies) is available here:

The first episode, which was released back in February and looked at the ladies of A Game of Thrones/Season 1, is available here:

(This is probably a good moment to add in a brief for-your-information. This blog will focus primarily on Tolkien – that is, on the female characters he created, and on various themes relevant to the role of women in his fictional world. Hence the name. However, I’ve never been particularly good at talking about one thing to the exclusion of all others, and at any rate I’m doing this for my own enjoyment, so posts about the role of women in other fantasy series such as Harry Potter andA Song of Ice and Fire are going to slip in from time to time. I hope at least some people will find these interesting on their own merits or as a point of comparison with Tolkien’s very different works – but if not, you’re more than welcome to skip).

The Dowager Countess of Bag End: Lobelia Sackville-Baggins

‘ “I’ll give you Sharkey, you dirty thieving ruffians!” says she, and ups with her umberella and goes for the leader, near twice her size. So they took her. Dragged her off to the Lockholes, at her age too. They’ve took others we miss more, but there’s no denying she showed more spirit than most’. – Young Tom Cotton, “The Return of the King”

Eowyn, the Shieldmaiden of Rohan. Galadriel, Lady of Light. Shelob. Luthien. Elbereth. There are so many memorable, in some cases even iconic female characters in Tolkien’s world, whose influence reverberates well beyond the actual space they occupy within the text. So why on earth have I decided to start this blog by looking at a decidedly minor character, whose known deeds are confined to making off with Bilbo’s silverware and attacking Saruman’s lackeys with her umbrella during the scouring of the Shire? First of all, because chronologically speaking, she’s the first female character to make an appearance in any of Tolkien’s published works on Middle-Earth when she shows up at the auction at the end of “The Hobbit” (well, unless you count the fleeting references to Bilbo’s mother Belladonna Took, which I don’t). And secondly and more importantly, because in spite of her many unsympathetic characteristics, I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for the old battleaxe.

Now, I’m not denying that during her fleeting appearance at the end of The Hobbit and her more substantial cameo in the opening chapters of The Fellowship of the Ring, Lobelia comes across as a pretty unsympathetic character. With her repeated attempts to snatch Bag End from under the noses of both Bilbo and Frodo and her snobbery (“You’re no Baggins – you – you’re a Brandybuck!”, she says to Frodo shortly after Bilbo’s disappearance), not to mention the dominance she obviously exerts over her less strong-willed but equally unpleasant husband and son, the matriarch of the Sackville-Baggins clan is an embodiment of a particular sort of woman Tolkien probably knew in real life – and heartily disliked. Worse, she’s a thief, and a repeat offender at that – not only did she infamously swipe Bilbo’s best spoons while he was off at the Lonely Mountain, but after Bilbo finally leaves the Shire his nephew Frodo is forced to divest her of “several small (but rather valuable) items that had somehow fallen inside her umbrella”.

If Tolkien had left it at that, I doubt Lobelia would be getting her own entry here – and I very much doubt I’d have chosen “Lobelia” as my username when I first signed up to a Lord of the Rings discussion board at the age of fifteen. (Come on. It’s better than “IluvLegolas2000”, or whatever). But when put to the test during the scouring of the Shire, Lobelia shows what she’s really made of. She unfurls, like that anachronistic umbrella of hers, and in the process becomes far less of a caricature and much more sympathetic. For all her snobbery, she has a spine of steel and a strong sense of right and wrong (spoon-swiping aside). Taking on Sharkey’s goons with her trusty umbrella is as brave, in the smaller arena of the Shire, as Eowyn facing down the Witch-King on the field of Pelennor, or Arwen fearlessly embroidering Aragorn’s banner in her comfy chambers at Rivendell*.

And she shows spirit right to the end. In the penultimate chapter of “The Return of the King”, we see her hobbling out of the Lockholes on her own two feet, still clutching her umbrella, despite being over a hundred years old. In the end, Tolkien even allows her a bit of pathos. In her final appearance in the story, as she drives off after being freed from prison, Lobelia is in tears – not just because of the grisly death of her son Lotho (of whom she was clearly very fond), but also because she had never in her life been popular before. And when she dies shortly afterwards, she leaves all of her money to her once-detested nephew Frodo, to help our poor hobbits left homeless by the troubles.

In the end, Lobelia reminds me of no-one so much as the Dowager Countess of “Downton Abbey” fame, splendidly played by Maggie Smith. Prickly for sure, and a horrendous snob in thrall to a set of values in which I have no sympathy at all – in short, not somebody I would ever want to sit down to dinner (or afternoon tea) with. But in a tight spot, it’s clear that that underneath that unsympathetic exterior there’s a core of firmness and decency – in short, she’s someone you could count on in a pinch.

*Obviously a joke.