Tolkien and women – I´m not the only one who´s interested!

The current elevated state of Tolkien-related excitement owing to the release of the first “Hobbit” movie (which I loved, by the way! Some minor quibbles, but on the whole it was a lot of fun) has led a couple of other people to look into the issue of how women fit into Tolkien´s world – and their efforts, in Time and Slate respectively, have garnered a great deal more attention than my humble efforts here in this little corner of cyberspace (though somebody did link to my Haleth article in the comments after the Time piece, which pleased me very much!)

The piece by Ruth Davis Konigsberg in Time magazine, entitled “The Hobbit: Why Are There No Women in Tolkien´s World”, and available online here, was frankly rather poor – not surprisingly so, as the author appears to have little familiarity with the source material (she says that she “did not read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy as a child”, leaving it ambiguous whether she has read them since) and confines her comments to the first part of Jackson´s “Hobbit” trilogy, without any effort to look at the number of female characters present throughout Tolkien´s legendarium and the kind of roles they play. In fairness, Davis Konigsberg makes no pretence that her breezy little article is anything other than a bite-sized opinion piece designed to generate clicks and comments, but I can´t help thinking that if major publications are going to publish articles on Tolkien´s world (and believe me, I´m glad to see them doing it) they should entrust the job to someone rather better-informed about the subject-matter in hand.  As it is, a great deal of the comments below the line demonstrate a far surer grasp of the material than the article itself.

Actually more of a disappointment to me personally, however, was Alyssa Rosenberg´s article in Slate, “We Don´t Need Women in The Hobbit” (available here). I say it was a disappointment because I have previously enjoyed Alyssa´s observations on female characters in popular culture, and particularly on “A Song of Ice and Fire” and the associated HBO series. In this case, however, I felt that her argument was fundamentally flawed, and that those flaws were the result of a basic unfamiliarity with the material (something which a number of other commenters were quick to point out below the line). The basic premise of the article is that Cate Blanchett´s Galadriel was somehow shoehorned into the movie to ensure that somebody with two X chromosomes got some screen time, and that this smacked of tokenism. This is not, however, accurate. If anything was “shoehorned” into the movie, it was the White Council subplot itself, and not Galadriel – who, although she doesn´t appear in “The Hobbit”, was clearly very much involved in the simultaneous decision to eject the Necromancer from Dol Guldur. Tokenism really doesn´t come into the picture here – once Jackson had decided to incorporate the White Council storyline (and I for one am very glad he did, although I understand that not everybody agrees with me there), Galadriel, along with Saruman, needed to be in the movie.

Although I wasn´t particularly impressed by either of the articles, I suppose I should be pleased merely to see major media outlets publishing articles on Tolkien on their websites, and encouraging their readers to join in the debate. However, I´m really not that pleased about it at all, and I suppose the reason is this. Poorly researched and written articles (particularly pieces like Davis Konigsberg´s, which unfortunately can be summarised as “Tolkien´s works don´t appeal to women as there are no women in them”) tend to confirm certain unfortunate stereotypes about feminists and others interested in issues of gender and popular culture, implying that we have a myopic focus on the number of X chromosomes within a book, film or show, and are incapable of enjoying anything that doesn´t fulfil certain quotas of equal representation. You can see this in the comments, with outraged readers (both male and female) asking whether the authors want to rewrite “Moby Dick” to include more female characters, or letting Tolkien off the hook because he is writing about a medieval-style world (because there were no women in the Middle Ages, right?). There are even a few comments stating that Tolkien is “for men”, and that women should just back off “men´s stuff” and read “Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants”, which is both nonsensical (I have known just as many female Tolkien fans as male ones – and this observation predates the association with Viggo Mortensen and Orlando Bloom) and offensive.

Most annoying of all, however, is the conclusion that many seem to draw from this kind of article – that the issue it tries and fails to raise, that of the representation of women in Tolkien´s world, is not worth discussing. This irritates me because it seems very clear to me that on the contrary, we should be talking about why there are four times as many named male characters as female ones in Tolkien´s world. Why, although his books do contain a number of very memorable female characters (Eowyn and Galadriel being the obvious examples in the LoTR), he seems at times to have actively avoided writing about women – note just how many of his characters in the LoTR are bachelors, and how most of those who did at some point have wives (Denethor, Elrond, Theoden) have conveniently lost them through death or departure to Valinor. And – most interesting of all to me – how sometimes within the course of a single text (the Laws and Customs of the Eldar being the perfect example) he can go from demonstrating seemingly progressive attitudes towards gender roles (for example, in his acknowledgement that female Elves are capable of doing everything the men do) to embracing a kind of gender-based biological determinism which ensures that whatever their capabilities, his female characters remain overwhelmingly confined to traditionally “female” spheres (in other words, female Elves can fight, and learn lore, and do metalwork – but most of them choose to dedicate themselves to their children and weave the odd tapestry). To me, these are interesting and relevant questions which,  like discussions of mortality, or religion, or good and evil in Tolkien´s world, have the potential to lead to far more fruitful and thought-provoking discussion than age-old questions about Balrog wings or whether Tom Bombadil is Aule in disguise.

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The LoTR Project

A friend of mine just alerted me to the existence of the LoTR Project, a spectacularly nerdy site that catalogues Tolkien´s world in fantastic detail – including a timeline of major events right the way from the Years of the Trees to the Fourth Age, an interactive map showing the journeys of the Fellowship during LoTR – and best of all, the mother of all Middle Earth family trees. Check it out here.

(One tiny quibble – I can´t find Andreth on the tree. Am I looking in the wrong place, or is she missing? I know she only appears in HoME, but a bunch of characters from the HoME version of the “Fall of Gondolin” make it in – as do characters created specifically for the movies or for games, so she definitely deserves to be included).

The site also includes a number of interesting statistical analyses of aspects of Middle Earth. These include – you´ve guessed it – a breakdown of characters according to gender! Turns out Tolkien´s works are just as much of a sausage-fest as we´d all suspected – 81% of named characters are male, compared with 19% who are female. The Valar and Maiar are at the top of the tree when it comes to equal representation, while the hobbits are doing best when it comes to the races of Middle-Earth. Dwarves are hopelessly underperforming, with just the one named woman (Dís, mother of Fili and Kili, and apparently noteworthy only for that fact).

See the full chart here.

(On a side note, this got me thinking – are there any characters in Tolkien whose gender is not explicitly stated? I can´t think of any. Even monsters such as Balrogs, dragons and giant arachnids have an ascribed gender, and (with the exception of Ungoliant, Shelob and Thuringwethil) they too are usually males. Come to think of it, even the mysterious anthropomorphic fox at the beginning of FoTR is male, as is Old Man Willow (unless Bombadil is talking bollocks, which I suspect he does quite often). How about the Watcher in the Water? The Barrow-wights? Are some of the Orcs we meet actually female? Hmm).

‘I have no doubt that Smeagol’s grandmother was a matriarch, a great person in her way”

 –          Gandalf, “The Fellowship of the Ring”

A couple of months ago, I kicked off this blog with a biography of Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, the most prominent female hobbit in the series, and a firm favourite of mine despite the fact that she’s such a cantankerous old bat. However, on reflection I felt that I hadn’t really explored how women fit into hobbit society more widely.

In contrast to some of the other races of Middle-Earth, we don’t have a lot of formal information about how hobbit society works or how women fit into it: Tolkien never wrote the Shire equivalent of the “Laws and Customs of the Eldar”, or even anything along the lines of the brief paragraph on Dwarf women in Appendix A of “The Return of the King”. Most of what we do learn is anecdotal – and aside from Lobelia, probably the most intriguing female hobbit we learn about is Smeagol’s grandmother, the redoubtable if long-dead matriarch of a clan of Anduin Stoors.

Smeagol’s grandmother has her origins in what I presume were initially a couple of throwaway lines in chapter 5 of “The Hobbit”. As Gollum casts around for the answer to Bilbo’s second riddle, we learn that in his long-ago youth he lived with his grandmother in a hole by the river. A page later, just as it looks as though he is going to fail to answer Bilbo’s second riddle, he suddenly remembers “thieving from nests long ago, and sitting under the river-bank teaching his grandmother, teaching his grandmother to suck…” – eggs, as it turns out, the answer to the riddle. Like the earlier reference in chapter 1 to the goblin-chieftain Golfimbul whose demise led to the invention of the game of golf, this was almost certainly something Tolkien threw in for comedy effect – an amusing use of a rather silly colloquial expression, and nothing more.

Come “The Lord of the Rings”, however, we find Tolkien fleshing out the story of Smeagol’s youthful riverbank adventures as part of the overall attempt to develop Gollum into a more complex, tragic character than the fleeting villainous presence of “The Hobbit”. This is where we learn that this redoubtable woman, described by Gandalf as “stern and wise in old lore, such as (her people) had”, ruled over a family which, while no doubt rather modest in the big scheme of things, was nevertheless “large and wealthier than most” among the Anduin Stoors. Her position as head of the family is underlined by the fact that it was she who ejected Smeagol from her hole and exiled him from the family, setting off the chain of events that would culminate in a certain riddle-game under the Misty Mountains several centuries later.

What is more, hundreds of years after his exile and the disappearance of his whole community, this formidable woman continues to loom large in her grandson’s memory. Not only do his memories of carefree days of childhood egg-sucking surface during his conversation with Bilbo, but we learn that during his interrogation with Gandalf, he repeatedly tried to cover up the true story of how he obtained the Ring by claiming that it was a gift from his grandmother, who owned many such things – a claim rightly dismissed by Gandalf as “ridiculous”, but which nevertheless reflects the stature she had within her community and in her grandson’s early life.

So, Smeagol’s grandmother clearly played an important role as the matriarch and main authority figure of her little clan. The question is – how typical is this of hobbit society? Do hobbit women typically exercise this degree of independence, or was it a characteristic of the now-defunct Anduin Stoor community to which Smeagol and his grandmother belonged, or was his grandmother simply propelled into that position by the absence of any male authority figures or by her own forceful personality? From the little evidence we have, both the first and the last would appear to be the case. While (as in other Middle-Earth societies, and indeed in Britain in Tolkien’s day) men appear to be the default heads of hobbit families, women nevertheless enjoyed a significant amount of influence, particularly in the event of their partner’s death. As Tolkien wrote in a letter to A.S.Nunn:

“The government of a ‘family’, as of the real unit: the ‘household’ was not a monarchy…It was a ‘dyarchy’, in which master and mistress had equal status, if different functions. Either as held to be the proper representative of the other in the case of absence (including death). There were no ‘dowagers’. If the master died first, his place was taken by his wife, and this included (if he had held that position) the titular headship of a large family or clan. This title thus did not descend to the son, or another heir, while she lived, unless she voluntarily resigned”.

 Presumably, then, this was the position Smeagol’s  grandmother found herself in: with her partner dead, this redoubtable widow was able to take over, in her case assuming not only the titular headship of the family but also the authority to make decisions affecting the whole clan (such as the decision to cast Smeagol out from the family)

Smeagol´s Grandmother, or women in hobbit society

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.