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”.