Tolkien Blog Party || "Dark is the Shadow, and yet my heart rejoices." {Women of Middle-Earth}


"Ere [Sauron’s] foul spirit left its dark house, Luthien came to him, and said that he should be stripped of his raiment of flesh, and his ghost be sent quaking back to Morgoth; and she said: ‘There everlastingly thy naked self shall endure the torment of his scorn, pierced by his eyes, unless thou yield to me the mastery of thy tower.’ Then Sauron yielded himself, and Luthien took the mastery of the isle and all that was there."

So.

One of the things I've realized about myself over the years is that I don't usually go so much for stories that have an overly extensive cast of characters.  I prefer authors or screenwriters to focus on a small group of people and really dig into them, rather than touching on a dozen or more "semi-protagonists".

The Lord of the Rings would be one of the exceptions to that. ;)

Noro lim, Asfaloth, noro lim! Run fast, Asfaloth, run fast! (As much as I loved Arwen in the movie, I miss Glorfindel something dreadful!)

There are plenty of male characters in Tolkien's universe (and wonderful male characters they are, too); the female characters are slightly scarcer, at least in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.  I believe Tolkien has come under fire for that, actually.

But I don't mind it, because ⎼ I would argue ⎼ the women that Tolkien does write are just as three-dimensional and complex and integral to the plot as the men with whom he populates Middle-Earth.  And in this essay I will prove it. ;-P

I can't touch on every single secondary character who's mentioned in the appendices (or *cough* The Silmarillion *cough*), so I'll focus on what I'll call The Big Four: Galadriel, Arwen, Goldberry, and Eowyn. 

⎼ g a l a d r i e l ⎼

Galadriel

Throughout all the time we know her, from The Silmarillion to the end of The Return of the King, Galadriel struggles with power-hunger.  She wants control.  She wants dominion.  She wants majesty and acclaim.  

Those are some severe flaws to integrate into one of your "good characters," y'all.  They're not halfway admirable, like some.  They're thoroughly wrong, thoroughly scary.  (And not in a glamorous way.)  

[Which, coincidentally, is just one of the things to love about Tolkien.  He was not afraid to give his characters weighty and consequential issues to resolve within themselves.]

And yet, Galadriel is able to control herself.  She does not become a spotlessly pure individual, but she chooses right over wrong even when a part of her might truly still prefer wrong.  She knows, deep in her spirit, which contending force inside her soul is best, and she chooses to defer to it.

Frodo bent his head.  "And what do you wish?" he said at last.

"That what should be shall be," she answered.

I love her as Galadriel so much.

Galadriel gives to the Fellowship succor mixed with truth.  She knows they may not all live, and she does not pretend their task is easy or safe.  But she helps them insofar as she can, without exploiting or manipulating their own free wills.  (She does not accept the Ring from Frodo; she does not bend Boromir's mind to her own ends; etc.)  Out of the bounty of Lothlorien she chooses gifts that will aid each member in unique ways.

She stood before Frodo seeming now tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful. Then she let her hand fall, and the light faded, and suddenly she laughed again, and lo! she was shrunken: a slender elf-woman, clad in simple white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad.

"I pass the test," she said. "I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel."


And she does.  She recognizes her current role in the drama of her world, and she accepts it.

⎼ a r w e n ⎼

I like that there's a faint image of the inscription of the Ring, but it's nothing compared to the message of hope.

Arwen's contribution to the trilogy is slightly subtler.  She makes very few appearances in the books themselves, but I don't find Jackson's inclusion of her in the films to be far-fetched.  (I mean, yes, he does steal the whole "whisking Frodo away from the Ringwraiths to safety on a white horse" thing from that other guy and give it to her, but still.)  One of the most central players in the story is Aragorn, and one of the most central influences on Aragorn and Aragorn's behavior is Arwen. 

Arwen embodies the women left behind during war.  She embodies the faithfulness, the sacrifice, and the motivating spirit of those whose loved ones must go far away to fight for sacred and ineffable values.  

And, more specifically, we mustn't forget that she is the one who, by giving up her immortal birthright and staying behind when the last elves left Middle-Earth, provided a way for Frodo to travel to the Undying Lands and be healed. 

I really like her, but I may delve more deeply into her character in another post, so for brevity's sake that is all I will say about her right now.

⎼ g o l d b e r r y ⎼

In his letters, Tolkien describes Goldberry as the seasonal changes in nature, and Bombadil as the nature spirit of the English countryside. based on Eurasian myth and cosmology-The Great Goddess who is mother of all things was, before Time existed, the element of water, undifferentiated. The River is the local manifestation of the primal Great Goddess, and Goldberry is her daughter, the spirit of all local waters existing in Time, alive and embodied.

One of the things I love most about the books that didn't happen to make it into the movies is the time the four hobbits spend with Tom Bombadil and Goldberry in the Withywindle Valley.  

Then another clear voice, as young and as ancient as Spring, like the song of a glad water flowing down into the night from a bright morning in the hills, came falling like silver to meet them . . . 

Goldberry is so important.  She sends the travelers off with optimism for the road ahead, but also for the road back.  If they succeed, not only will the world be saved and high truths reclaimed; perhaps there will even be beauty closer to home.  Perhaps there will be refreshment and joy and deep-running gladness that produce goodness, even in a place as lowly as the Shire.

Goldberry, like so many other ladies in Tolkien's canon, represents a purposeful detachment from the horror that threatens.  She represents defiant hope.

Goldberry in the house of Tom Bombadil:  O slender as a willow-wand! O clearer than clear water!  O reed by the living pool! Fair river-daughter!  O spring-time and summer-time, and spring again after!  O wind on the waterfall, and the leaves' laughter!  Old Tom Bombadil is a merry fellow;  Bright blue his jacket is, and his boots are yellow.

[Frodo] stood as he had at times stood enchanted by fair elven-voices; but the spell that was now laid upon him was different: less keen and lofty was the delight, but deeper and nearer to the mortal heart; marvelous and yet not strange.

⎼ e o w y n ⎼


In Eowyn, Tolkien created a true warrior maiden.  She refuses to subscribe to a narrow definition of what she can contribute, but she does so with grace.  When the men in her government (and, coincidentally, in her family) dismiss her abilities and debar her from fighting for her country, Eowyn doesn't throw tantrums or openly defy them.  

She just joins the army anyway. 

Not to prove a point, but because she knows that she can give aid to her nation's fighting forces.  And because she loves her nation.  She loves her people.  She loves freedom.  And she's willing and wanting to fight for them. 

That's not to say that she's without flaw or that her motivation is unclouded by selfishness.  She, like Galadriel, wants glory.  She wants valor in battle and will not be satisfied with valor in any other area.  

But she is eventually willing to let go of her aspirations when they surpass the limits of healthy ambition.  Sometimes she needs a push from others to do so, but she does it.  And she realizes that she can use her courage and determination to mend instead of to fight, once the need for fighting has passed.

"I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren."



“But who knows what she spoke to the darkness, alone, in the bitter watches of the night, when all her life seemed shrinking, and the walls of her bower closing in about her, a hutch to trammel some wild thing in?

And these are just four of many ladies whose appearances in Tolkien's stories may be brief but are certainly memorable.  Luthien, Este, Tauriel, Rosie Cotton, Varda . . . there are several more, all worthwhile in their way. 

What do you think of Tolkien's female characters?
Who is your favorite?

Comments

  1. Really enjoyed this -- now I want to sit down and reread the entire trilogy this afternoon (which, alas, is not possible). But seriously, great idea and it's also inspiring me to try my hand at one of these sometime. Maybe next year. <3

    You did a great job encapsulating everything and I really like your points on Arwen specifically. I guess I was always kind of sad that there was just no way to reasonably work her into the story more (while keeping that distant, epic feel), but your points about her being the faithful woman on the home front are so true. Which would also tie into how much Tolkien's own wartime experiences shaped him. So that's interesting.

    (Oh, and also mustn't forget Ioreth, right? ;))

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    1. Thank you! Oh, this kind of post would be stunning coming from you; I know it. One can only try to imitate Heidi's Tolkien-esque writing style in one's posts, and one usually fails. ;-P

      It's really fascinating to see how much of the Great War went into The Lord of the Rings. You see less of it in Narnia, I think, but in Middl-earth it's very prevalent. I know what you mean about Arwen's inclusion in the story, though: part of the beauty and allure of the elves is that distant, remote quality, so it's kind of nice that some of them are rather elusive in the books. I do think the movies did a good job of preserving Arwen's detachment, even while she was in them almost as much as any member of the Fellowship.

      (*shifts eyes* Ye-ees . . . mustn't forget Ioreth . . . because . . . one definitely remembers her to begin with . . . *shifts eyes again*)

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    3. Awwww.... *blushes deeply* ye're too kind... and likewise, dear friend! ;) <3

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  2. Love this, but I think "slightly scarcer" has got to be the biggest understatement ever, haha. If we're being honest the only primary female character is Eowyn! Galadriel at a push but in the books I think Arwen only speaks about once? I do love Eowyn though. Have you seen the Tolkien film yet? I can definitely see your point about Arwen as a woman on the home front too - there are definite comparisons with his wife I think! :)

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    1. Haha! I'd still call Galadriel a main character. Boromir's a main character (at least, in my mind), and he's only in it briefly.

      Awww, yes. I love how Tolkien saw himself and his wife as Beren and Luthien. :')

      I haven't seen the Tolkien film yet! For some reason, I wasn't suuuuper excited about it, when I watched the trailer? And I really don't know why. Anyhow, have you seen it? What did you think of it, if you have?

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    2. I liked it! It was a bit slow in places but Nicholas Hoult made a lovely Tolkien :)

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  3. Everything is conspiring to make me read the books again!!

    And Katie McGrath as Luthien. She'd be absolutely perfect.

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    1. Do it!! I'm thinking I might need to do it, myself.

      It sure looks like it, doesn't it??

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  4. An interesting take on things! I hadn't ever seriously considered Galadriel's character flaws, but you make some excellent points. Eowyn and Luthien are two of my favorite heroines ever and Ioreth is quite memorable. I always seem to forget about Goldberry.

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    1. I'd like to study Luthien more thoroughly. She's really rather phenomenal.

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  5. I love this post so much!!!

    I love how you said that Goldberry represents defiant hope.

    I think that of these four women, I most appreciate Éowyn. I don't necessarily *relate* to her a whole lot, but I so admire her growth throughout the story!

    And yes, you should most definitely write a post about Arwen!

    Caiti <3

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    1. Thank you!!!

      That's kind of how I feel about Eowyn, too? (I mean, I don't know that she's my favorite out of these four, but everything else you said. ;))

      Thanks! ;)

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  6. Great post! <3 I love what you said about how complex and nuanced these women are--how they have real flaws, but also real strengths.

    I think . . . and I know it's a bit absurd, me having an opinion on this, cuz I don't even READ TOLKIEN lol, but here we go . . . *cracks knuckles* ;-P

    I think Tolkien absolutely had GREAT respect for the women he placed in his stories (Arwen, Eowyn, Galadriel, and the others). I also think that, in terms of sheer numbers, he clearly wrote a male-centric work: cuz, like, he has sooooooooooooo many characters and the great majority of them are Not Women. And that fact should be acknowledged.

    But here's the thing: Tolkien wasn't aware (I would bet good money) that he was writing male-centric stuff. He wouldn't even know what 'male-centric' means!! Because that is a concept of OUR time, not HIS time. He, like all of us, was a product of his time and his culture. And it was a patriarchal time & a patriarchal culture, when adventure stories and quest stories were considered strictly the province of men. That's the way it WAS. We can't take Tolkien out of his own time, and re-educate him according to our standards.

    We work with classic authors as they are, and not as we might wish them to be.

    All that's to say, I think it's important to recognize that these books, and other books like them, emphasize men and sometimes leave women out. Yet, I don't think it needs to tarnish their fundamental greatness. It's just A Fact to Be Aware Of. And . . . I guess that's where I come down in the "is Tolkien sexist?" debate. ;-)

    *dusts off hands* *tips hat*

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    1. Excellently stated! I completely agree. :)

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    2. Thank you!! Heehee, no, it's not absurd at all. I'm glad you commented!

      My personal opinion is that, while Tolkien most likely DID consider "women's place" to be in the home, the stories he wrote, themselves, are not remotely un-inclusive. There are certainly more men than women in the majority of his work, which is probably reflective of that mindset in the author himself, but the stories as they are are not sexist merely because they have more male than female protagonists. Additionally, when you consider the patriarchal society in which he lived, it's actually all the more extraordinary that he wrote character such as Eowyn, Galadriel, and Luthien--females who fought as well as the men and often more effectively and significantly than them.

      (Not to say there are no flaws in his stories, obviously. Just that I personally don't think this particular one is one of them. ;))

      Anyway. Again, das just mah opinion. Thanks again for your awesome comment!

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    3. I think we're saying roughly the same thing here ;-) Not EXACTLY, but ROUGHLY, Jeeves.

      The way I look at it, objectively speaking, if you're attempting to tell a story that fits into the category of "broad saga of entire fictional universe," it is a GOOD IDEA to attempt a gender balance within your cast. Because your broad fictional universe has as many women as men, so if you want us to feel the full 'sweep' of that universe, we need to feel its equal, half-and-half reality. As much as possible, anyhow.

      And this is ONE OF the MANY reasons *ahem* why reading Tolkien does not personally appeal to me. Because every time I pick it up & attempt to dive in, my brain goes "but where are all the women tho?" Absolutely, not every female Tolkien reader is gonna react that way: and that's completely fine! This is just how it happens to strike me.

      But.

      Tolkien did not believe he needed a gender balance. He likely didn't even CONSIDER the question "is there a gender balance in my fictional world?"; and that is part & parcel of the real, historical world in which he himself lived. We can't extricate him from his cultural mindset, just as we can't extricate his work from his beliefs . . . it's all a big, enmeshed puzzle. As human affairs tend to be. ;-)

      But I definitely agree, he deserves major kudos for making the women he did include so complex, strong, & empowered. Because his culture wasn't encouraging him to do so, that's for sure. He 'swam against the current' there, and he should rightfully be praised for it.

      Thank YOU for your awesome, thought-provoking post! <3

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    4. It would certainly seem that way, sir. ;D

      That's fair! I don't mind the fact that this particular story has more male characters than female in, I suppose, "starring roles," because, to me, it's kind of like if he had written a story about, say, WWII. There were absolutely women involved in WWII and their stories absolutely need to be told, but if ONE AUTHOR wants to focus on ONE SPECIFIC GROUP of characters, and those characters mainly happen to be men, that doesn't strike me as imbalanced. You know? But I get what you're saying, and it's a good point that the full "universal" feel would probably reach more people if more women were spotlighted in his story. It's just not something that bothers ME, in THIS instance.

      Absolutely!

      Awwww, shucks. ;) <3

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  7. Eee, this was SO good. Lovely and powerful. Also the aesthetic. YES.

    I think of the four I would say Éowyn is my favorite. I feel that I relate more to her struggles and hopes than that of the other women, though Arwen might be more of a favorite in terms of admiration??
    But Arwen's elven grace and quiet strength and hope are just too good for me personally to relate to. xD

    Éowyn's impatience and frustration with her life are HIGHLY relatable. (As is her unrequited crush on Aragorn, hahaha) I just really love how she grows and changes, and learns to value herself and her role even when it might seem small or not as "glorious" as being a famed warrior like a man.

    I also think she portrays a healthy version of feminism, or at least a healthy angle of it. She decides to help fight when she KNOWS she can, but, as you said, doesn't do it to prove a point or to rub it in the faces of the men who told her not to. And afterwards, she realizes that though she CAN fight and played a very important role in doing so, it isn't her primary purpose to do so, and that her gifts of strength and courage are better suited to the role of healing.

    So yes. Long story short, I agree with what you said. And I LOVE this summation of these four characters! ♥ (And I'd really love a post on Arwen! :D)

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    1. Thank you!!! :D

      Well, if that be the case, you know you can also relate to Eowyn's courage and her love of family and her many talents, right?? ;) <3

      I know what you mean, though. I love how Tolkien makes his characters relatable even when their circumstances are worlds different than ours.

      Yes! Healthy feminism is recognizing that women are every iota as valuable, courageous, and capable as men. It isn't a gender war. (Also, I love that Tolkien clarifies that ALL of his characters, male and female, would benefit from turning their efforts towards reparation and restoration when they can.)

      Awww, thank you! I'm so glad you commented. :) <3

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  8. YES. GOLDBERRY!!!!!! <333 She and Tom Bombadil were my favorite part of The Fellowship of the Ring!!!

    For some reason I have a hard time liking Eowyn, I don't know what it is. I think when I watch the movies I'll understand her more, maybe it's because I'm too much like her? Anyway, this post made me appreciate her a lot more! I really want to reread all of the books now after this party week!

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    1. Aren't they wonderful??

      Interesting! Yeah, I'd definitely be interested in hearing whether your opinion of her changes when/if you watch the movies. I knooooow, don't you just want to immerse yourself in Tolkien now???

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  9. I have never heard Galadriel analysed like this (not sure I've ever heard anyone really analyse her, tbh? she doesn't get as much attention as she deserves, imo), but YES. I absolutely love her, and just the way her character is, from the beginning of The Silmarillion to the end of The Lord of the Rings, and everything you said is so spot-on. She is a truly marvellous character.

    And Eowyn is one of my favorite characters of, like, all time, so yeah, she's awesome.

    I've never thought much about the characters of Arwen or Goldberry, but these are really good points and now I want to reread with all this in mind...

    I love this post overall. <3 It's so well-written, and...the important thing when it comes to female characters is quality, not quantity. And there is just so much quality to be found in Middle-earth.

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    1. Galadriel is pretty fascinating, isn't she? I mean, the elves as a race are fascinating, but she's one who is especially so.

      Eowyn's great!

      I know, I'm really wanting to re-read the books myself.

      Awwwww, thank you!! I'm so glad you liked it! Yes, absolutely.

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