“Ever since I arrived at Cambridge as a student in 1964 and encountered a tribe of full-grown women . . . babbling excitedly about the doings of hobbits, it has been my nightmare that J. R. R. Tolkien would turn out to be the most influential writer of the twentieth century.”
These words were written by Germaine Greer, militant feminist and author of the 1970 book, The Female Eunuch. Ever since early after its publication in 1955, The Lord of the Rings has come under heavy fire from feminist critics. The primary reasons given for this analysis are the following: there are few women in the story; they conform to feminine stereotypes; nearly all embrace fertility in the end as the ultimate resignation of their journeys; and ultimately, Tolkien’s method of dealing with women is to glorify them on a pedestal. Although some would say that Tolkien was writing The Lord of the Rings during the earliest stages of feminism (after the first wave but well before the second), a feminist critical analysis of the text reveals that Tolkien’s novel is more than simply not anti-feminist. It is actively a feminist piece – an analysis that requires close textual reading, commentary by other feminist scholars, and a deep understanding of the woman whom Tolkien considered his leading example of femininity: Mary, the Mother of Jesus Christ.
Joseph Pearce’s article, “Why Feminists Hate Lord of the Rings,” describes thoroughly four main reasons why some feminists insist that The Lord of the Rings is an anti-feminist piece. The primary reasons are: 1) there are few women in the story because Tolkien was writing for a chiefly male audience (his literary men’s club, the Inklings). 2) The few women that are in the novel conform to traditional feminine stereotypes (supposedly the fairy bride, the good witch, and the shield maiden). 3) The majority of those few women embrace fertility in the end. 4) Finally, Tolkien tends to glorify women in general through the examples of femininity he presents (Pearce).
Each of these four reasons will be addressed. The first argument – that there are so few women in The Lord of the Rings because Tolkien was writing for a male audience – is not accurate criteria for analyzing if a book is feminist or not. A first point of discussion is whether or not Tolkien’s male audience – his writer’s club, The Inklings, – should determine whether or not his novel is feminist. Just because he was primarily writing to a male audience does not mean his female characters will be anti-feminist. Simone de Beauvoir states the following in his article “Woman’s Situation and Character”: “Sometimes the ‘feminine world’ is contrasted with the masculine universe, but we must insist again that women have never constituted a closed and independent society; they form an integral part of the group” (Lodge, 102). The fact that there are more men in a story than women is not enough criteria for arguing the opposing side. In a feminist analysis of a work, while analyzing the role of men is important, there should be more focus on the representation of the women in the story, regardless of how many there are.
Nancy Enright’s “Tolkien’s Females and the Defining of Power” provides another important reason why a large female presence is not an indicator of a feminist piece. She does this by drawing in the important theme of power in the novel and the unique way Tolkien defines power in The Lord of the Rings. In this lengthy quote, Enright spells out the way Tolkien defines true power as going deeper than the physical, typically masculine stereotype:
J. R. R. Tolkien’s female characters, though few in number, are very important in the defining of power, a central thematic concern of the text. In fact, in The Lord of the Rings, power, when presented in the traditional male-oriented way, is undercut as often as it is asserted . . . The stereotypical and purely masculine kind of power, as represented by Boromir for instance, is shown to be weaker morally and spiritually than its non-traditional counterparts . . . The general lack of a female presence in battle scenes . . . or even among the members of the Fellowship does not imply that female power and presence are unimportant. On the contrary, Tolkien’s female characters epitomize his critique of traditional, masculine and worldly power, offering an alternative that can be summed up as the choice of love over pride, reflective of the Christ-like inversion of power rooted in Scripture, and ultimately more powerful than any domination by use of force (93).
She goes on to compare Tolkien to Michael Foucault, as an individual who “questioned the validity of the human sciences to represent the rationality of the age … [according to him] true power emerges from wise and healing service to the community” (93). This new definition of power highlights a traditional view of women, while simultaneously downplaying the value of traditional manly strength.
The second argument, that the women in The Lord of the Rings conform to stereotyped feminine gender roles, does not consider Enright’s point. Many medieval-themed fantasy books written today claim to be historical even though women act as warriors on the field of battle, when this isn’t historically accurate. Tolkien was writing a historically accurate fiction piece and as such, his writing depicts historically accurate and strong women, mostly off the battlefield.
Sandra Miesel discusses the importance of traditional values to feminist criticism. In her article, “The Lady’s of the Ring,” Miesel does not believe traditional feminine values are an indicator of an anti-feminist work. She admits without hesitation that Tolkien’s women “excel in traditional feminine functions. They fructify, inspire, counsel, preserve, nourish, and heal -- all in the service of life” (Miesel). She continues, drawing attention to the fact that Tolkien doesn’t depict women as evil either. There is no temptress, evil witch, sorceress, or evil counterpart. Miesel recognizes this and observes that “Tolkien prefers to show females in a positive – even too positive – light. At the risk of committing the biographical fallacy, his idealization of women may have grown out of his reverence for his widowed mother. She forfeited support from her family by converting to Catholicism with her two sons and died in appalling poverty” (Miesel). This observation by Miesel provides a motive for Tolkien and his glorification of women.
A third argument, presented by opposing feminists, is that the majority of the few women embrace fertility as the summation of their journeys (The reality is that, of the four to be discussed in this study, only two embrace fertility). This is a typical approach for more radical feminist criticisms, particularly those from the second wave – the notion that any woman who embraces fertility is not embracing the totality of her freedom and is psychologically restraining herself by conforming to gender norms. However, as Enright and Miesel discussed, this type of criticism portrays traditional values as being unimportant and even detrimental to the feminist movement. Tolkien’s female characters are upstanding examples of femininity and demonstrate their strength in a variety of different ways.
Of them all, Éowyn is typically the woman in The Lord of the Rings who is heralded as the most feminist. However, even when analyzing the obvious strengths of a shield maiden, Éowyn still falls under criticism from feminists. Leanna Madill addresses in her study, “Gendered Identities Explored: The Lord of the Rings as a Text of Alternative Ways of Being,” how Éowyn is sometimes incorrectly seen as an anti-feminist character, for surrendering her shield maiden freedom and resigning herself to marriage. The following statement by Éowyn reveals the moment that causes some feminists to cringe. She has just recovered from destroying the Witch King, and is speaking to Faramir, her future husband. “[B]ehold! the Shadow has departed! I will be a shield maiden 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” (Tolkien, 965).
While some feminists believe this statement makes Éowyn into an anti-feminist character, Madill does not agree. To begin with, Éowyn is not rejecting the strength she displayed when killing the Witch King, but the shadow that has passed over her. Madill states, “Although others may read her resolve not to be a Rider nor practice typical masculine characteristics as a backward step for Éowyn, I would argue that it is only a step back if we, as readers, do not value healing, loving, and nurturing, traditionally feminine qualities.” This notion that healing is a stereotypically feminine quality is one that Tolkien clearly wanted to push against. When accusing The Lord of the Rings of allowing its women to conform to stereotypes, radical feminist critics forget to consider the fact that it was Aragorn who healed Éowyn’s spirit – a character who had been heralded as a healer throughout the novel. Tolkien viewed the attributes of a healer as indicators of kingship, drawing from Christian tradition. Aragorn’s healing of Éowyn enabled her to understand that deeper kind of power, redirecting her unhealthy love of death to a new understanding of love that triumphs over death.
A final argument used by radical feminists to condemn Tolkien is that his novels glorify women by putting them on a pedestal, turning them into trophies instead of human individuals, complete with virtues and flaws. In order to understand Tolkien’s high esteem of women, it is important to analyze from where his inspiration came. While Miesel believes it came from his deep admiration for his mother, there may be an even deeper motivation.
Scholars have discussed Tolkien’s deep love for his Catholic Faith and the influence it had on The Lord of the Rings. This influence is demonstrated exceptionally when one considers Tolkien’s love of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In a 1953 letter to a friend, Robert Murray, Tolkien described his love for “Our Lady,” saying that it was “upon [her] which all my own small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity is founded” (Carpenter, 172). In this quote, Tolkien is essentially stating that Mary affects the way he sees beauty, majesty, and simplicity in the world. It is not far fetched to see echoes of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Tolkien’s female roles. In the sentences directly following the above quote, Tolkien goes on to describe the extreme connection between his Catholic Faith and The Lord of the Rings. He states:
[It] is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion’, to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism (Carpenter, 172).
That last sentence is vital. Tolkien considers his religion so totally absorbed into the story of The Lord of the Rings that it does not need any actual physical representation (cult, organized religion, or otherwise) in the story. Clearly, it is not a far stretch to analyze his female characters in connection to Mother Mary. By analyzing the following four strong female characters in The Lord of the Rings, one can recognize how Tolkien mirrored various aspects of Mary through Galadriel, Elbereth, Arwen, and Éowyn.
Galadriel stands as a symbol of the difference between pure, virtuous power and selfish power that corrupts. Again, there is here an example of true strength and power being demonstrated through the denial of physical power in preference for selflessness. At her first entrance, Galadriel is described as a warrior queen – not merely a trophy, but a woman of strength and power. “Her voice was clear and musical, but deeper than a woman’s wont” (Tolkien, 461). She is described as towering over all, even her husband, Celeborn. Tolkien compares her wisdom to the great wizard, Gandalf, and to the renowned elven lord, Elrond. Apparently, it was she who summoned the council that called for the fellowship of the ring. The future king, Aragorn, even defends the extent of her strength and virtue, when he states “There is in her and in this land no evil, unless a man bring it hither himself” (Tolkien, 465). Clearly, this woman possesses power in the narrative.
As a powerful queen, Galadriel presents herself as a symbol of Mary as Queen of Heaven, particularly in the scene when Frodo offers her the Ring. Having convinced himself that the Ring would be safer with such a powerful and good queen, Frodo gifts it to Galadriel. She responds in the following manner:
‘I do not deny that my heart has greatly desired to ask what you offer. For many long years I had pondered what I might do, should the Great Ring come into my hands, and behold! . . . You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!’ . . . 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’ (Tolkien, 365-366).
In this scene, the reader gets a glimpse of what Galadriel would become if she were to embrace power alongside pride. By rejecting complete power, Galadriel comes across as strong, even though her body is described as physically weakened by the struggle. She becomes a mirror of the Blessed Mother Mary as Queen – rejecting all power that is self-directed, and in so doing, appearing all the stronger. Tolkien’s ability to juggle such paradoxes is part of the mastery in his work.
Elbereth Gilthoniel, the supernatural queen of the heavens in Tolkien’s universe, becomes a compelling comparison to the Blessed Mother Mary as Intercessor. Although Elbereth is never physically present in The Lord of the Rings, her importance cannot be pushed aside. The Lord of the Rings was initially written by Tolkien as a means of drawing readers’ attention to his real pride and joy: The Silmarillion – a fantasy history which he had been writing since World War I and never could get published. Even though Elbereth gets no more than passing mentions in The Lord of the Rings, her role in The Silmarillion is crucially significant.
The reader’s interest in her is peaked do to the fact that humans, elves, and hobbits – in times of happiness, sorrow, plight, and grief – constantly call upon her intercession. This makes her an interesting parallel to Mary, going deeper than the similarity in their names (Elbereth’s name literally means “Star Queen” and one of Mary’s many titles is “Star of the Sea”). Elbereth is called upon multiple times in at least eleven scenarios throughout The Lord of the Rings. In the first installment, The Fellowship of the Ring, Elbereth’s name is mentioned in both greeting and parting blessings by elves. Her name is also a title of an elvish song about her, sung multiple times in the novel. Interestingly enough, when translated from Sindarin Elvish to English, this song is remarkably similar to the Hail Holy Queen, a Marian hymn in the Catholic Faith.
“Elbereth Gilthoniel” (Tolkien, 79)
Snow-white! Snow-white! O Lady clear!
O Queen beyond the Western Seas!
O Light to us that wander here
Amid the world of woven trees!
Gilthoniel! O Elbereth!
Clear are thy eyes and bright thy breath!
Snow-white! Snow-white! We sing to thee
In a far land beyond the Sea.
O stars that in the Sunless Year
With shining hand by her were sown,
In windy fields now bright and clear
We see your silver blossom blown!
O Elbereth! Gilthoniel!
We still remember, we who dwell
In this far land beneath the trees,
Thy starlight on the Western Seas.
“Hail Holy Queen” (Traditional Catholic Marian Hymn)
Hail Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy
Our Life, our sweetness and our hope
To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve
To thee do we send up our sighs
Mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.
Turn then, oh most gracious advocate,
Thine eyes of mercy towards us
And after this, our exile,
Show unto us the blessed fruit
Of thy womb, Jesus.
Oh clement, loving, sweet Virgin Mary
Pray for us, oh Holy Mother of God
That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.
The similarities between these two is apparent. However, the intercessory power of Elbereth has more direct results in cases of dire need. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo calls upon Elbereth when being attacked by the Witch King at Weathertop. Afterwards, Strider (revealed later to be Aragorn) tells Frodo that he believes the name of Elbereth was “more deadly to him [the Witch King]” than the sword with which Frodo had tried to stab him (Tolkien 198). A few chapters later, when being chased by the Black Riders to the ford outside of Rivendell, Frodo calls upon Elbereth again. “'By Elbereth and Lúthien the Fair [another powerful female elf from The Silmarillion],’ said Frodo with a last effort, lifting up his sword, ‘you shall have neither the Ring nor me!’ (Tolkien, 214).” Just like at Weathertop, we have an example of a male character, calling out for the intercession of a stronger female character/Marian figure.
In the following two books, The Two Towers and The Return of the King, there are more examples of Elbereth as a Marian intercessor. Legolas whispers her name before shooting a Black Rider from the sky at dusk. Samwise Gamgee, Frodo’s comrade, changes as a person every time he calls on the aide of Elbereth. When fighting off the evil spider, Shelob – one of only three female villains in Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth – Sam receives unprecedented courage after calling upon Elbereth. After calling out several lines in elvish, he cries, “Now come, you filth . . . You’ve hurt my master, you brute, and you’ll pay for it. We’re going on; but we’ll settle with you first. Come on, and taste it again!” (Tolkien, 730). After saying these words, Sam takes on new power. Tolkien states that Sam fought “[a]s if his indomitable spirit had set its potency in motion . . . No such terror out of heaven had ever burned Shelob’s face before” (730). Sam continues to call on Elbereth, when trying to free Frodo from the orcs. Using Elbereth’s name as a password because “No orc would say that,” Sam breaks Frodo out of confinement (Tolkien, 912). Calling on her name yet again to tame the watchers at the gate, he successfully gets Frodo out of the tower of Cirith Ungol. Throughout The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien makes an obvious comparison between Elbereth and Mary through the powers she bestows on those who request her intercession.
Although a particularly controversial character among feminists, Lady Arwen, demonstrates yet another important facet of the Blessed Mother: Pure Virgin. This symbol seems to represent all that radical feminists abhor. However, as Enright and Madill describe, traditional values need not be an opposition to feminism. In the character of Arwen, Tolkien provides his readers with an individual who indeed enables Aragorn to become the king he was meant to be. Although Arwen has few scenes in the book, it is only when she is present that Aragorn appears kingly. When the hobbits rest in Rivendell before the Council of Elrond, Frodo notices this distinct difference in Aragorn. Before taking his place near Arwen, he was simply Strider – a ranger and their rugged guide. Upon joining his future bride, Frodo witnesses the future king revealed.
To his surprise Frodo saw that Aragorn stood beside her; his dark cloak was thrown back, and he seemed to be clad in elven-mail, and a star shone on his breast. They spoke together, and then suddenly it seemed to Frodo that Arwen turned towards him, and the light of her eyes fell on him from afar and pierced his heart (Tolkien, 238).
In order to be queen, Arwen must marry Aragorn. Therefore, all her royalty comes from her King. However, she is also the source of his strength. Prior to this moment, Aragorn did not appear like a king. It is when his bride stands near him that Aragorn can truly possess the power of kingship.
This holds true at the end of the novel as well at the wedding. Frodo comments that, even though Aragorn has been crowned king and the entire world is at peace, all does not seem complete. When Arwen arrives to join Aragorn on the throne “with stars on her brow and a sweet fragrance about her, [Frodo] was moved with great wonder, and he said to Gandalf: ‘At last I understand why we have waited! This is the ending. Now not day only shall be beloved, but night too shall be beautiful and blessed and all its fear pass away!’” (Tolkien, 972). It is only when the queen, Arwen Evenstar, rules next to her king, that Middle Earth is completely protected. Arwen also demonstrates bravery in consenting to marry Aragorn. As an elf, her immortality will be bereft of her for marrying a mortal. In choosing to marry Aragorn and throwing in her lot as ruler, Arwen makes a profoundly courageous statement. Her virginity is her strength. As wife and queen, her fertility and immortal sacrifice becomes her power.
The fourth character to be discussed is Éowyn – shield maiden of Rohan and a simultaneously beloved and despised character among radical feminists. There are typically two complaints leveled against Éowyn as a feminist character. The first, her supposed rejection of her shield maiden status in favor of healer, has already been discussed. The second is the tendency to criticize her role as the slayer of the Witch King. The argument is that, since the legend, “No man can kill me,” required someone weak and unlikely in order to make it interesting, it is demeaning to women that Éowyn be that character – making her role only to fulfill a prophecy and then resign herself to marriage. Such a reading completely disregards not only the fact that Éowyn did not slay the Witch King alone (Merry helped her), but also Tolkien’s entire message behind The Lord of the Rings – one does not have to be physically strong and powerful in order to be a hero. It is in the small and everyday deeds of individuals like Frodo, Sam, and Éowyn that true heroism lies.
Éowyn also acts as a symbol of yet another facet of the Blessed Mother: Mary, the Protector. G. K. Chesterton was a favorite author of J. R. R. Tolkien’s. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy is echoed greatly in Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories.” As such, Tolkien would most likely have read Chesterton’s Ballad of the White Horse, the legend of King Alfred and his victory against the Danes. In the battle at the end, Chesterton describes the Blessed Mother Mary rising above the battlefield, leading Alfred’s armies into battle. Guthrum, the king of the Danes, witnesses it in the following manner:
One instant in a still light
He saw Our Lady then,
Her dress was soft as western sky,
And she was a queen most womanly –
But she was a queen of men.
Over the iron forest
He saw Our Lady stand,
Her eyes were sad without art,
And seven swords were in her heart –
But one was in her hand (Chesterton, ll. 195-204).
This phraseology is similar to the way Tolkien describes Éowyn when she presents herself to the Nazgúl Witch King and defends her uncle, King Théoden.
It seemed that Dernhelm [Éowyn in disguise] laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel. ‘But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.’ . . . [T]he helm of her secrecy had fallen from her, and her bright hair, released from its bonds, gleamed with pale gold upon her shoulders. Her eyes grey as the sea were hard and fell, and yet tears were on her cheek. A sword was in her hand, and she raised her shield against the horror of her enemy’s eyes (Tolkien, 841).
The last few sentences – in particular the references to Éowyn's eyes and sword – are remarkably similar to Chesterton’s verse. Even though Éowyn's shield is quickly shattered and – though victorious – she is left for dead, weak and alone on the battlefield, Tolkien brings to light the power that exists with the weak, echoing that biblical message: it is through the weak that the strong will be put to shame.
The Lord of the Rings is a piece of feminist writing primarily due to the fact that it makes the following argument: unlike the macho ideals of men, physical strength does not automatically indicate true, mental, and/or spiritual strength. Although radical feminists condemn The Lord of the Rings, the remarkable strength of its female characters and the connections Tolkien wove between their characters and that of the Blessed Mother Mary prove otherwise. In conclusion, it is fitting to end with these lines from Joseph Pearce, condemning the radical feminist notion that to glorify women is to be anti-feminist: “The complaint of women to Tolkien’s treatment of them is only tenable if it is centered on the desire to be removed from the pedestal, not if it is rooted in a demand to be raised from the floor. Women may not deserve to be treated in the way in which Tolkien treats them; if so, it is because they are not worthy of such reverence and respect” (Pearce).
Chesterton, G. K. The Ballad of the White Horse. Ignatius Press, 2001. Print.
Enright, Nancy. “Tolkien’s Females and the Defining of Power.” Renascence 59.2 (2007): 93–108. www.pdcnet.org. Web. 5 May 2017.
Madill, Leanna. “Gender Identities Explored: The Lord of the Rings as a Text of Alternative Ways of Being.” The ALAN Review 35.2 (2008): n. pag. Print.
Miesel, Sandra. “The Ladies of the Ring.” N.p., n.d. Web. 5 May 2017.
Pearce, Joseph. “Why Feminists Hate Lord of the Rings.” Intellectual Takeout. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 May 2017.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings Deluxe Edition. Anv. edition. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. Print.
Tolkien, J. R. R., Christopher Tolkien, and Humphrey Carpenter. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. 1 edition. Boston: Mariner Books, 2000. Print.
Wood, Nigel, and David Lodge. Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. 3 edition. Harlow, England ; New York: Routledge, 2008. Print.
About the Author:
Anna Berlinger is a practicing Catholic and Latin instructor at Chesterton Academy of the Sacred Heart. Homeschooled throughout her childhood and raised bilingual (English and German), Anna is very proud of her German and Irish heritage. She has a BA in English and History with a Masters in English Literature from Bradley University. Anna has published both fiction work and short stories. In her spare time she enjoys training horses, reading, and honing her home-making skills. Through this small business, Celtic Homestead, she promotes traditional Catholic values and the importance of creating in a consumer society.