J.R.R. Tolkien was a great writer not just of epic adventures and worlds, but an author of people as well--he created characters that lived and breathed and developed in the pages of his books. However, many people complain that his biggest fault was that he didn’t write enough women and those women whom he did write weren’t developed enough (one must assume Peter Jackson falls into the complainer category, since he created Tauriel for the big screen and included Galadriel as well, due to the fact that The Hobbit had no women in it at all). It’s true, the ratio of women to men in Tolkien’s writing is very unbalanced, but he in fact did create women who drove the plot forward and weren’t just there for romantic involvement. The Professor even proved that over the years he was steadily working on creating believable, realistic women and incorporating them into every aspect of his writing--this, combined with the fact that he allowed women to step in and save the day (Eowyn!) proves to me that he wasn’t sexist or even a poor writer of women.
To understand the origins of Middle-earth and Tolkien’s inspiration, one must go back to the mythology that he derived his world from. Keeping it short, Tolkien’s writing was influenced by Nordic and Finnish mythology, Greek mythology, and Christianity (and, arguably, Celtic and Arthurian influences which he at times denied--but the parallels exist. Another topic for another day!). Tolkien continued the traditions of the epics (Beowulf, for example) in his own writing, which is one explanation to why there is a lack of female influence at first. A lot of epics and legends paint men as the primary character, the one with the most character development and who slays the beast and saves everyone in the end, usually with women playing a romantic role (even if they assist him in some way during the course of his quest). There are plenty of exceptions to this, in each realm of mythology, but they are still “exceptions” because female main characters just didn’t pop up as often. I’m not saying that it was right to leave women out (certainly not!) or not develop their plots as carefully, but rather I’d like to point out that it was historic, and this could be one reason that Tolkien’s stories turned out the way they did.
I’ve heard here and there (though I’m still looking for a source to back it up, so we can come back to it another time) that it’s evident in Tolkien’s letters that as time went on, he started developing the female characters more and gave them roles beyond being in the background of Middle-earth. It’s certainly true that he started paying more attention because, for example, he created a lot of background and wrote a fair amount of history on Dunedain women and women in the elven line of the Noldor, and there is no way they’d get that amount of time and history if Tolkien didn’t care about them.
In The Lord of the Rings trilogy, we only see a few characters who have speaking parts and/or contribute something to the plot: Eowyn, Arwen, Galadriel, Rosie Cotton, and Goldberry. And only three of them were really featured in the movies. Still, although it’s important to note they all had love interests, Tolkien didn’t make this their only interest. Eowyn, while she initially fell for Aragorn, didn’t make that the center of her life and learned to move on and accept the fact that he was engaged to Arwen. She was a self-sacrificial character, filled with love for her family, even to the point where she risked everything to save her uncle. In my opinion, she is one of the best female characters because she was feminine and she loved those around her, stayed on good terms with Aragorn, and still was strong and courageous and rode into battle fearlessly--and slayed a beast that would’ve made most men quake in their boots (saving tons of others in the process).
Arwen proves that Tolkien didn’t have a mould for his female characters; she was different than Eowyn, not just in race but in character. Arwen had a patience, a peace, a faithful spirit and was brave in her own ways, but differed from Eowyn’s headstrong, passionate nature. She chose someone else over herself, even if it was to be a relatively short time together--her love for him was greater than the desire she had to save herself.
Galadriel was a somewhat confusing character who also shared both Arwen’s and Eowyn’s goodness of heart (a theme that is quite prevalent with Tolkien characters; even though it may have been a bit overdone, it is truthful to ancient mythology and I like reading a book that has gentle, loving female characters--who, like Eowyn, can also get stuff done). She was one of the oldest elves in the book, having mysterious magical powers, mostly concentrated in a powerful ring called Nenya, and could predict the future (and often used a mirror to do it). Once I talk about the Nolder in depth at some point, the fact that she’s said to be one of the greatest of them will be much more significant. She’s powerful, and uses it, and although she’s married her and Celeborn can be compared to the real-life Queen of England and her husband, Prince Philip--he’s important, but she is definitely the ruler (and more so in Galadriel’s case, because she wasn’t just a figurehead).
I think that through these women, and other minor characters who have different backstories and roles, Tolkien proves that the women in Middle-earth are as well rounded as the men. No, there is not as many of them--but when we take into account the history Tolkien worked with, and the fact that he was a man (it’s true that men usually write more male characters, and vice versa with female authors), I think it would be fair to say he did well with the women he did include in his epic. Another final point to consider is the fact that regardless, we still love the characters--and I think even if we’re women, we can still find common ground and relate to male characters. We love the characters and how they struggled and developed and changed, not just for their gender. Tolkien proves that we can all learn a lot from them, no matter what race or gender they are.
(up next: More in depth character analysis! We talked briefly about the awesome female characters here, but over the next few weeks I’ll go into detail about each one. What are your thoughts on women in Middle-earth over all and who in particular would you like to see discussed?)