“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.”