Ladies of the Rings

Being at once a Tolkien fan and a woman (and a feminist at that) can sometimes feel like a contradiction in terms. Whereas more recent writers of fantasy have tended (with varying degrees of success, it must be said) to populate their invented worlds with female characters ranging from conventional princesses, wives and mothers to scholars, warriors and even villains, Tolkien’s Middle-earth remains a resolutely male place.

This is true not merely in the figurative sense that his works take place in the traditionally masculine world of the battlefield, the mead-hall and the council chamber. It’s also true in a literal sense: put simply, there are very few women around – so much so, in fact, that it’s hard to see how the various races of Middle-earth go about maintaining their population numbers in the absence of the kind of reproductive technology even the likes of Feanor and Sauron never got around to inventing.

Worse, the few women who do appear – at least in The Lord of the Rings – tend for the most part to adhere closely to traditional archetypes or modern stereotypes and to receive relatively little character development compared with the men. Take Arwen, who in the books is surely one of the most one-dimensional women in all of modern fantasy. All she gets to accomplish is to play to the hilt her role as the object of Aragorn’s chaste and honourable desire. Unlike her spunkier ancestress Luthien, she doesn’t even get her hands dirty – although she does embroider Aragorn a nice banner.

Galadriel, Arwen’s grandmother, is an altogether more formidable character – but in the Lord of the Rings, she’s usually described in masculine terms. She’s as tall as a man, her voice is as deep as a man’s – and for Eru’s sake, her mother-name is “Nerwen” (man-maiden). Other than these two, the female characters who crop up every few chapters are either annoying snobs and/or gossips (Lobelia; Ioreth), giant spiders, or frankly inexplicable (Goldberry). (No doubt you’ve picked up on the deliberate omission by now – Eowyn is clearly awesome). Rohirric shieldmaidens aside, however, Middle-earth is clearly not a great place to be a woman. It can also seen to hold few attractions for the female fantasy fan, particularly compared with more recent works such as “Harry Potter”, “His Dark Materials” or “A Song of Ice and Fire” (though not “Twilight” – I get the impression Bella Swann would struggle to defeat even Arwen in a fight).

Once you break the surface and begin to explore Tolkien’s work in a bit more depth, however, a different picture starts to emerge. For me – as for many other readers – delving into the deeper mythology is a richly rewarding experience, and one of the many joys of doing so is that you come across a wealth of interesting and complex female characters. Within the pages of the “Silmarillion”, for example you’ll cross paths with the warlike Haleth, the rebellious elven princess Aredhel, and Luthien, who turns all the old fairy-tale tropes on their heads by repeatedly getting her lunkheaded mortal boyfriend Beren out of all sorts of scrapes – not to mention the vampire Thuringwethil and Ungoliant, the monstrous spider who made Morgoth himself scream like a girl.

Delve deeper into “Unfinished Tales” and the “History of Middle-earth”, meanwhile, and you’ll come across Galadriel’s backstory (which makes her a far more flawed and fascinating character), as well as the bitter queen Erendis of Numenor, Feanor’s wise and creative wife Nerdanel, and Andreth, mortal wise-woman and co—protagonist of Tolkien’s most profoundly philosophical work. It’s Tolkien as most of his readers never see him, and it’s worth exploring in more depth – which is why I’ve decided to start this blog.