Was Tolkien a feminist?

If, like me, you are a fan of The Lord of Rings (print), you might puzzle over the title of this post. Years ago, when I first read The Lord of the Rings, I mused over the fact that there are so few women in the story. The Fellowship of the Ring is all male, and the member of it who has the most feminine qualities is Sam, the lowliest in status, though he achieves heroic stature in the end. He is Frodo’s faithful companion and servant, and loves him, watches tenderly over him, rescues him and follows him to near-death. The few female figures who do appear in the story, with notable exceptions, are peripheral — as in the story of Bilbo’s departure from the Shire and Frodo’s decision to take on the mission of bearing the Ring — or evil, as is Shelob, the giant spider who rules the tunnels in Torech Ungol.

But there are at least four women who stand out, and three of them have supernatural or magical powers. The first, memorable one is Goldberry, Daughter of the River and lover/wife of Old Tom Bombadill. Both are ageless, but Tom is cast as old, autumnal (though hale, active and vital) whereas Goldberry is described entirely in images of spring, natural beauty and life. She has long golden hair rippling down to her shoulder, a green gown shot with silver, when the Hobbits first meet her,  and is unfailingly merry, tender and delightful. She and Tom are depicted as a perfectly happy couple, tending their separate spheres in the small domain of which Tom is the Master. Domestically, they almost magically produce delicious feasts, weaving ‘a single dance’ as they wait on the Hobbits (one wonders who did the kitchen work, whether they had a retinue of invisible servants, or if Goldberry actually cooked and Tom did the washing up, or vice versa).

After this lovely interlude, of course, things get much darker and more difficult for the four unlikely heroes. But through their trials and adventures, they will meet three more  women who will enchant or inspire them on their way. The first, who is only allowed a couple of brief appearances, is Arwen, the elven daughter of Elrond in Rivendell. She shares a secret with Aragorn, aka Strider, one of the Fellows of the Ring and heir (in disguise) to the Throne of Gondor. They are in love. But their secret love and eventual union, when Aragorn is crowned king, is elided by the story of Frodo and the Ring, and we are given only hints, brief teasers. The sub plot, which is not revealed in this narrative, is that Aragorn must claim his heritage and assume his power before they can wed. I find it curious that Tokien elides this romance, but it seems that this is a narrative in which romance has little part, except as brief interludes or memories or hopes for the future. The tragic, epic journey subsumes it. If I had a parallel life, I would write their story, for their elusiveness and understated power and veiled beauty haunts me each time I re-read the book (I’m on my 6th read now).

The next magical woman the Fellows meet  is Galadriel, Lady of the elven kingdom of Lothlorien and partner to the Lord of Lothlorien, Celeborn. The partners are presented in the story as equally powerful in magic and wisdom. Indeed, Galadriel has a more active part in blessing and empowering the mission of the Fellows of the Ring. She reads minds; she presents the Mirror of Galadriel to the companions of the Ring, and each who gazes in it glimpses visions of the unknown, possible future. When Frodo offers her the Ring, she momentarily envisages herself as the ruler of Middle Earth, and abjures that terrible power, becoming, once more, ‘a slender elf-woman, clad in white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad.’ A typical Tokien female role model, you might say. Apart from Goldberry, the powerful women in The Lord of the Rings are either grave  or sad, or both. When the companions are leaving on their quest, Galadriel gives each of them a gift she has prepared, which holds great power, though it might seem humble, like the little wooden box of Lorien earth she gives Sam, with the promise that if he sees his home in the beloved shire again, and sprinkles the earth there, he will see his garden bloom like none other. Here, I might diverge to comment on the film, and the miscasting  of Cate Blanchett as Galadriel; she was too big,  too physical,  too human for the elven queen, I thought.

The last woman of significance in the book is Eowyn, daughter of Theoden, King of Rohan. When Aragorn and some members of the company come to assist the defence of the kingdom, she falls for Aragorn in a big way. He sees her beauty and acknowledges her, but is unable to respond, for ‘his heart is in Rivendell.’ When the last great battle for Minas Tirith is being prepared for, and Aragorn sets off on the seemingly hopeless mission to rally the ranks of the Dead, Eowyn, who has been deputised to guard her people in her father’s absence, pleads with him to let her go too. He refuses, reminding her of the duty she bears to her people. Her defence of her right to spend her life as she wills is a rousing and moving testimony, which has inspired me to write this article.

‘Shall I always be left behind when the riders depart, to mind the house while they win renown, and find food and beds when they return? … All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house…. 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.’

What she fears, she adds, is to ‘stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond strength and desire.’

She steals her hour of heroism and glory, when she dresses as a soldier and takes part in the great  battle. Her moment comes when her father, Theoden, falls under his horse, which has been smitten by the Lord of the Nazgul, and she challenges the terrible fiend, who boasts that no man can destroy him, with the cry: ‘You look upon a woman.’ She destroys the winged beast that he rides, and when he turns on her, he is attacked from behind by Merry, the Hobbit;  Eowyn deals the fatal blow to his his head, and is destroyed in the process.

This is the stuff of tragedy, and for me, this episode shines out as one of the most heart-breaking in the epic. Her assertion of her right to be a woman and take on roles that are not customary for her sex is exceptional in this male-dominated epic, and suggests to me that Tolkien was a proto-feminist. I don’t deny that his vision of women is stereotyped and either caricatured (for many of the minor characters) or idealised (for the exceptional women), but his imagining of a brave and passionate young woman who resists the role cast for her, takes a disguise and dares to confront evil and defend what she loves, is a vision of a feminist woman trapped in a medieval warrior culture.

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