Tolkien’s Women Speak

I’m currently ploughing through the “Letters” to see what Tolkien has to say about women, both in real life and in his work. In the meantime, I thought I’d post a few quotes from the women of Middle-Earth which, while not feminist exactly, display a considerable amount of respect for women’s abilities and (in some cases) sympathy with the limitations under which they are placed by society. For all that Tolkien doesn’t seem to have dedicated a great deal of time to thinking about how women fit into his fictional world, these quotes show that when he did give them a moment in the spotlight, he was far from an anti-woman author.

“You must choose, Beren, between these two: to relinquish the quest and your oath and seek a life of wandering upon the face of the earth; or to hold to your word and challenge the power of darknesss upon its throne. But on either road I shall go with you, and our doom shall be alike”.

–          Luthien, “The Silmarillion”

I’m not the biggest Luthien fan (I know, I know – I just don’t find her appealing and complex as a lot of the other First Age ladies. For the record, Idril is by far my favourite of the three elven women who married mortals). However, I have to say that while it would have been easy for Tolkien to write yet another story about a man who braved endless perils to win the hand of a fair maiden sat at home, Tolkien goes beyond that and gives us instead a story about the importance of teamwork and playing to your strengths, decades before Princess Leia took charge of her own rescue mission and promptly led the gang into the Death Star garbage compactor.

“They (men) would be craftsmen and loremasters and heroes all at once; and women to them are all fires on the hearth – for others to tend, until they are tired of play in the evening. All things were made for their service: hills are for quarries, rivers to furnish water or to turn wheels, trees for boards, women for their body’s need, or if fair to adorn their table and hearth”.

–          Erendis, “Unfinished Tales”

Erendis, whom I hope to do a full entry on very soon, isn’t a happy woman. Her anger at her husband Aldarion has morphed into a general bitterness against all men, and leads her to mar both her own life and that of her daughter, Ancalime, later queen of Numenor. However, her observations about women being essentially the playthings of men ring very true as a description – even a condemnation – of the status of women in a patriarchal society – something you might expect from George R.R. Martin, but not from Tolkien.

“I am your sister and not your servant, and beyond your bounds I will go as seems good to me. And if you begrudge me an escort, then I will go alone”

–          Aredhel “The Silmarillion”

I’ve discussed Aredhel’s behaviour in depth in my biography of her, and yes – I agree that her behaviour can be seen as a bit capricious given the context (war-torn continent swarming with orcs and all the rest of it). At the same time, there’s no getting around the fact that her angry retort to Turgon here points up the essential paternalism of Elven society despite what Tolkien says in the “Laws and Customs Among the Eldar”. If neri and nissi are so equal, then why is Aredhel’s brother allowed to boss her around like this?

“All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more. But I am of the House of Eorl and not a serving-woman. I can ride and wield blade, and I do not fear either pain or death”.

–          Eowyn, “The Return of the King”.

Obviously.

 

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Invention and Change: Tolkien’s Women and their Creative Capabilities

“In all such things, not concerned with the bringing forth of children, the neri and nissi (that is, the men and women) of the Eldar are equal – unless it be in this (as they themselves say) that for the nissi the making of things new is for the most part shown in the forming of their children, so that invention and change is otherwise mostly brought about by the neri

–          Morgoth’s Ring (HoME X)

Tolkien himself said that primary theme of his work (or at least of “The Lord of the Rings”) was death and immortality. It seems to me, however, that creativity is another of his principal themes: from the creation of Arda through the music of the Ainur to the Two Trees, the Silmarils, and the Rings of Power, creativity and the creator play a significant role in the legendarium.  A lot has been written about this theme over the years – see, for example, the essay “The Tolkienian War on Science” by Dr. Joan Bushwell for an original and iconoclastic take on Tolkien’s approach to what we might call “science and technology”. What interests me here, unsurprisingly, is how female characters fit into this theme, given that the characters we most readily associate with creativity (Aule, Feanor, Sauron, Celebrimbor, various Dwarves) are without exception male.

 Of course, this doesn’t mean that female characters aren’t associated with creation at all. While the powers granted to some of the female Valar lead me to wonder whether Tolkien wasn’t running out of suitably feminine attributes for the number of females required to ensure that as many of the male Valar as possible were in stable heterosexual relationships, two of their senior colleagues make rather more tangible contributions to the shaping of the world. Varda (the “Elbereth Gilthoniel” of “Lord of the Rings” fame) made the stars. Her colleague Yavanna, meanwhile, is associated with one of the most emblematic acts of creation in the whole legendarium: the creation of the Trees of Valinor, which go on to play a crucial role in the events of the First Age.

 Among the famously crafty Noldor, we also come across a couple of women remembered for their creativity: namely, Feanor’s mother Miriel (whose hands were “more skilled to fineness than any hands even of the Noldor”) and his wife Nerdanel, a sculptress who “learned much of crafts that the women of the Noldor seldom used: the making of things of metal and stone”.

However, these two are the only two examples I can think of of female characters who are expressly singled out for their creativity, even amongst those races (such as the Noldor and the Naugrim) which are most closely associated with their creative impulses. Nerdanel’s vocation as a sculptress is considered anomalous even amongst the notoriously crafty Noldor, whose women rarely involve themselves with “the making of things of metal and stone” – and indeed, aside from Nerdanel and her mother-in-law, none of the other Noldorin women we meet (Aredhel, Idril, even Galadriel) is ever referred to as making anything.

The same appears to be true of the Dwarves. While we learn in Appendix A of “The Lord of the Rings” (and in a memorable scene in Jackson’s “The Two Towers”) that dwarf-women are virtually indistinguishable from their male counterparts (“They are in voice and appearance, and in garb if they must go on a journey, so like to the dwarf-men that the eyes and ears of other peoples cannot tell them apart”), there is no indication that the similarity extends to their activities. When discussing the slow pace of dwarven population growth (which appears to be roughly analogous to that of the giant panda), Tolkien writes that a significant minority of both male and female Dwarves do not desire marriage; however, while in the case of the men this is described as being because they are too “engrossed in their crafts” to take much notice of the other sex, no such explanation is given for the women’s choice. While the very indistinguishableness of male and female Dwarves leaves the door open for us to speculate that some Dwarven craftsmen might in fact be craftswomen, the way in which male dwarves are so specifically identified with their crafts would seem to indicate that this is a trait which the women do not share.

With the exception of a rather objectionable letter written to his son Michael in 1941*, Tolkien addresses the topic of women and their capabilities (creative and otherwise) most fully in an essay called “Laws and Customs Among the Eldar”, to be found in Volume X of the “History of Middle-Earth” (“Morgoth’s Ring”). The depiction of women (well, female Elves to be exact) in this essay is a beguiling mixture of progressiveness (perhaps surprising given the Professor’s reputation as a bit of a fuddy-duddy!) and, in the end, a frustrating biological determinism. On the one hand, we learn that in principle at least, male and female Elves share the same capabilities – there are, apparently, “no matters which among the Eldar only a ner (male) can think or do, or others with which only a nis (female) is concerned. What is more, there don’t seem to be too many societal restrictions placed on men and women in terms of what they can do: after reeling off a long list of activities, Tolkien (or AElfwine) says that “all these things, and other matters of labour and play, or of deeper knowledge concerning being and the life of the World, may at different times be pursued by any among the Noldor, be they neri or nissi”.

So, it’s not as though women among the Noldor are forbidden to become hunters, or metalworkers, or poets, and indeed we have the odd exception that proves the rule – just think of Nerdanel with her sculptures, or Aredhel with her wanderlust and love of hunting. However, we learn shortly afterwards that while they possess these abilities, most female Elves choose not to exercise them, opting instead to devote their creative energies towards the bearing and raising of offspring: “For the nissi the making of things is for the most part shown in their  children, so that invention and change is otherwise mostly brought about by the neri”.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I don’t think having and raising children is in any way a “lesser” pursuit than ruling kingdoms or making lifelike statues of the Valar, and in fact I think Tolkien’s belief that being a parent is worthy of mention as a significant act of creation is rather laudable. I just find it disappointing that when sitting down to create his “ideal” race, Tolkien was open-minded enough to give the women the same basic abilities as the men – only to shut down the possibility of real social equality by having the women choose to focus on having babies instead. This is multiplied approximately a thousandfold by the fact that we are not dealing here with mortal women, of whom we could plausibly argue that they spent the prime years of their lives either pregnant or running around after children, and so never got around to that sculpture of Varda/poem about the awakening at Cuivienen they were planning. We are dealing with an immortal race, who have literally all the time in the world to dedicate themselves both to raising a family and to perfecting any number of crafts on the side – as the example of Nerdanel, mum of seven and kick-ass sculptress, clearly shows. (And while the sons of Feanor and Nerdanel weren’t the most stable bunch, I like to think this was the result of their dad’s crazy genes/emotional blackmail, rather than having anything to do with Nerdanel being Valinor’s most famous working mum).

I also think that this passage in “Laws and Customs Among the Eldar”, backed up by examples of women’s behaviour from throughout the legendarium and by Tolkien’s comments on women in his letters, brings us as close as we can get to Tolkien’s views on women and their abilities. He wasn’t anything so simple as a classic sexist who believed women were inferior to men, and that was that. On the contrary, he often displays a lot of respect for women and their capabilities, whether through praising the abilities of female students in the “Letters”, or through the creation of female characters who are capable leaders (Haleth; Galadriel), fierce warriors (Eowyn) or renowned for their wisdom (Andreth; Nerdanel). In Numenor, he created a political system in which the first-born child of the monarch succeeded to the throne regardless of their gender – something the United Kingdom is only now getting around to introducing. In fleshing out the details of how society worked amongst the Eldar, he went to the trouble of thinking about the relative capabilities of men and women and deciding that they were basically equal, both physically and mentally. I suspect a lot of male writers (certainly in Tolkien’s day, and maybe even now) wouldn’t think to do the same.

However, these relatively progressive views only extend so far. The relative invisibility of female characters in his works suggests that whatever their inherent capabilities, the primary role of women in Tolkien’s world is to be wives and mothers and to take less of an active role in society – something which the “Laws and Customs of the Eldar” makes official (as it were) by stating that while the male Eldar engage in creative pursuits of all kinds, their womenfolk tend to direct their creative energy exclusively towards the production of children. Tolkien is far from alone in this view – the past year alone has seen the publication of a flurry of editorials claiming that while yes, women can be rocket scientists and film directors and prime ministers, they choose instead to step back from their careers and devote themselves exclusively to family, neatly sidestepping any discussion of the social pressures that tell women that having both a career and a family constitutes “having it all”, while for a man it is simply called “life”. And it’s not at all hard to see why Tolkien came to this conclusion – after all, in the society he knew, the majority of women did choose a husband and family. Those who opted for a career (including some of his academic colleagues at Oxford) were definitely in the minority, and had abandoned hope of a traditional family life along the way. In other words, it’s not surprising that Tolkien’s writings would display this kind of biological determinism. To a modern, feminist reader, it’s just a bit disappointing, given how progressive he seems in some other respects.

*He states in this letter that “it is their (women’s) gift to be receptive, stimulated, fertilised (in many other manners than the physical) by the male. Every teacher knows that. How quickly an intelligent woman can be taught, grasp his ideas, see his point – and how (with rare exceptions) they can go no further, when they leave his hand, or when they cease to take a personal interest in him.

Crossovers, slash and Mary Sue

Earlier in the week, I really enjoyed this BBC radio documentary on the weird and wonderful world of fanfiction, presented by novelist Naomi Alderman: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01p0bmx

I particularly enjoyed the parallel drawn between modern fanfiction and types of literature which were very popular in previous eras (notably the Middle Ages), although at one point the discussion also touches on the fact that fanfiction is overwhelmingly written by (and apparently also read by) women, and what this says about female readers and how we respond to texts. I must say that a lot of Tolkien fanfiction in particular seems to respond (whether intentionally or not) to the paucity of female characters in his work, whether that’s through the inclusion in the Fellowship of a spunky teenage girl with a gift for archery who ends up getting with Legolas (the infamous “Mary Sue”) or by trying to breathe life into some of the women who are only fleeting presences in, or even entirely absent from, the texts (such as Amarie, or Celebrian, or Finduilas). Some time down the line, I am planning to have a good look at women in Tolkien fandom and the representation of female characters in fan works – not sure whether I’m looking forward to the research, or sort of dreading it…

“The Female Attitude to Wild Things”: The Entwives

“I longed to devise a setting in which the trees might really march to war. And into this has crept a mere piece of experience, the difference of the ‘male’ and ‘female’ attitude to wild things, the difference between unpossessive love and gardening”

–          Letter 163 (to W.H. Auden)

 For me, one of the things that really makes Tolkien stand out from other authors is the fact that although I first read “The Lord of the Rings” thirteen years ago and have returned (in full or in part) countless times since, I never fail to spot something I’ve never noticed before, or to suddenly see a familiar passage in a new light. (And yes, I am fully aware that there are people out there who’ve been reading the book for sixty years who could say much the same thing!) On my most recent re-read over the Christmas holidays, the fact that I’ve been writing this blog meant that I found myself thinking consciously about the roles played by the various female characters for the first time, and one of the things that most struck me was the fundamental distinction that Tolkien draws between the Ents and the Entwives when it comes to their attitude towards nature.

 Ents (at least according to Treebeard in Chapter 4 of “The Two Towers”) appreciate nature for itself, and have no desire to control it or force it into a mould: “The Ents loved the great trees, and the wild woods, and the slope of the high hills; and they drank of the mountain-streams, and ate only such fruit as the trees let fall in their path; and they learned of the Elves and spoke with the Trees”. This laissez-faire attitude towards wild things is in stark contrast to the approach favoured by the Entwives, who are not content to leave nature to its own devices but rather seek to control it in order to serve their own ends, an attitude more reminiscent of modern agriculture than of the Ents’ uncomplicated love of the wild. According to Treebeard (perhaps not the most objective of sources, but there’s no reason to believe he’s lying) “They did not desire to speak with these things (the lesser trees and grasses which the Entwives favoured above the tall trees of the forest); but they wished them to hear and obey what was said to them. The Entwives ordered them to grow according to their wishes, and bear leaf and fruit to their liking; for the Entwives desired order, and plenty and peace (by which they meant that things should remain where they had set them)”,

 This could be taken as a distinction unique to this particular race, distinguishing Ent from Entwife in the same way that the peacock’s plumage distinguishes him from the dull peahen, and not as a broader comment on the respective attitudes of men and women towards nature – were it not for that fact that Tolkien himself, in a letter to W.H. Auden, explicitly identifies the difference in philosophies between the Ents and Entwives as a reflection of one he has observed in real life. In a footnote describing the origin of the idea of the Ents, he finishes by saying that “into this has crept a mere piece of experience, the difference between the “male” and “female” attitude to wild things, the difference between unpossessive love and gardening”. Furthermore, the same distinction pops up elsewhere in Tolkien’s work: in the “Laws and Customs Among the Eldar” essay in “Morgoth’s Ring”, we learn that the women among the Eldar tend to be interested in “the tending of fields and gardens”, while the males “delight in forestry and in the lore of the wild, seeking the friendship of all things that grow or live there in freedom”.

 What Tolkien is saying here is pretty clear – while both men and women appreciate nature in their own ways, in his view the “female” attitude is to seek to control it and check its wildness, the “male” approach is to love it for what it is. What’s less clear is why he thought this way, as this is not a distinction I’ve come across elsewhere, either in real life or elsewhere in literature. (Indeed, the equally reductive stereotype we have today is that women are the natural, intuitive ones, while men are always seeking to control and improve on what they see around them!) The best explanation I can think of is that this stems from his own observations of people he knew. We know that Tolkien was fond of nature and of walking (including in my own beloved Malvern Hills!). Maybe Edith and other women in his close circle were more drawn to formal gardens and to flowers in a vase rather than beside a forest path, leading Tolkien to interpret this as a universal distinction? Really, of course, we’ll never know – though as a woman who loves a good walk in the woods but hates gardening, I would be fascinated to find out!