Choices in LOTR: The Role of Men vs. Women

by Fan Forever

One of the reasons why LOTR was so attractive to me from the moment I could think of making my own choices (read : adolescence), was that feeling that people in the book where really doing what they thought was good, was right, and above all that they were able to choose for themselves : Frodo to go away to try to destroy the ring (although reluctantly at first as he reacted so strongly to Gandalf); Sam, to have absolutely no hesitation to follow him (in spite of Rosie); not to mention the rest of the Fellowship, choosing freely to face danger no matter what. There was that exhilarating feeling for me that THIS was the way to act in life, to choose what to do, to take the steps to go towards what was right.

But this inspiration might have had quite an interesting effect on women readers I think. I mean, I for one grew up in a society that for millenia had valorized the role of men’s as initiators of action, and women's role to support them; it is only from a very very short time that women are beginning to think that maybe their action would be as important as men’s.

Re-thinking about all that, and about that moment when my world was earth-quaked by the coming of FOTR (I was totally and violently brought back to my adolescence), I thought about Tolkien and how indeed he was also the product of his own society (just assuming from what others have said - no scholar here!). One of the aspects that WW1 seemed to have brought is that people were from now on very consciously faced with the dilemma of choosing between personal responsibilities (to continue as if no war was going on) and public responsibilities (to do something about it). Between your duty to your family (to not die) and your duty to your country in a world at war, for example.

It is interesting to look at the characters in that light, especially male vs female characters. The males are free to choose wherever their conscience dictate them to go. Frodo is conveniently an unattached bachelor, Sam is not yet married to Rosie; Merry and Pippin are in their own adolescence (or so) and have no obligations whatsoever; the Elf, the Dwarf, and the Men are ‘free’, even Aragorn, who cannot consider himself as obligated to his (potentially) future wife until he has proven that he is worth the kingship he was destined for. And Gandalf, well, Gandalf is the quintessential figure of Conscience in that book.

But the women? True to his time, Tolkien could only put men into action, so they could easily choose public responsibilities over private ones. We look at it now and get offended that Tolkien underrepresented women in LOTR, but how could he not? Up until very recently, women who would fight to express themselves out of their families and/or out of their servitude to men (yes, that’s strong but that’s unfortunately true), choosing their art, their career, remaining unmarried, indeed choosing public responsibilities over private ones, had a very hard time, and were often considered as not respecting their ‘true’ nature. Or then they were elevated as saints who sacrificed themselves for the common good, becoming nurses, nuns, teachers, yet still remaining in the ‘female’ realm.

In LOTR, Arwen, for choosing her own path, for listening to love over reason, and choosing to abandon her people (and in the film, to clearly abandon her father) is promised horrible solitude that will lead her to choose death. Éowyn, for choosing to assume her public responsibilities and rebelling against having to take care of an elderly kin, and wanting to be part of the war as any of her brothers in arms, is rewarded in the end with being tamed, and getting a husband and a career as a nurse in the Houses of Healing, before retiring in her new domain. Tolkien in having her rebelling against her condition is almost giving her a life of her own, but she will be brought back to ‘normal’ and not be allowed to just be a warrior and contribute as such. And Galadriel, banned for fomenting rebellion, and once in ME, wanting to fight and destroy Sauron, is also rewarded with going back to Valinor as an ordinary Elf. Goldberry seems to be the perfect example of what the ideal woman must have been to Tolkien, powerful, independent in spirit and yet totally committed and at the service of her man. And speaking of Tom, perhaps what makes him so different (with everything else) is the fact that he is the only male in LOTR not choosing public responsibilities over privates ones : his main concern, above all others, is Goldberry. As if being a female in LOTR meant to either respect the traditions or to suffer from wanting to break away from them.

Compared to that, the male characters (except for Frodo, though in a way he does) come back socially heightened, rewarded, promoted, crowned, for their efforts, their decisions and their rebellion. Even Faramir, in spite of having disobeyed to his father. Of course Boromir dies, and Denethor too, and Théoden as well, but they had been either on the evil side or corrupted at some point. Frodo is the only male to choose public responsibilities and to lose everything in doing so, but then Frodo, in my eyes, has always been much more of a ‘female’ character than anything else (ducking now!). But Tolkien could never have had him stay behind, with a family and such, so I suppose he had to make him yearn to go on ‘adventures’ like Bilbo and materially make him ‘free’ to go.

When I was younger, I could not see this, and indeed I must have subconsciously accepted this difference between male and female as ‘normal’, as it had been such for millennia. But in spite of all that, it remained that I was always inspired by Tolkien’s story and characters, and Frodo and Sam and Faramir. Because it touches something so universal, and I think it is our desire to actually DO something and contribute to the change of our world and to make it better, the very power that a desire for life can instill in us. And for this now I am able to consider and recognize Tolkien and his female characters within his time and society.

But now, I also wonder if that feeling of sadness, or despair even, I feel at the end of book, is not also due, apart from what I can feel for Frodo and the Elves, to the fact that perhaps Tolkien could only see the fact of following your own path, for a woman (or for female characters, or for men with a strong feminine side, for the feminine side of things) as something that inevitably leads to personal disaster. As if, along with instilling such great inspiration to fight for good, and to be true and courageous, that story also tells underneath the beauty of it, that when you actually do choose to live as a person rather than as a woman, that is to act according to your own conscience when you are woman, that could only mean that you would have to pay dearly for that.

That was certainly the way of thinking in the time of Tolkien and revealed in some way by WW1, where the choice between art and politics, for instance, or between personal expression and the sacrifice of personal endeavours for the sake of something more global, revolution, war, or whatever, must have been at the very core of interior conflicts. Tolkien must have been greatly influenced by that (just take is his environmental concerns).

But fortunately for us, we can keep from LOTR its wonderful characters and enlightening qualities of courage, compassion, friendship and loyalty that are imperishable and essential, and continue to be women and to love LOTR. We are able now to understand that being a woman and choosing public responsibilities over private ones does not necessarily lead to personal disaster. Or do we? :-/


Lizmybit:  Some very interesting thoughts - not sure I agree with all of them, especially the Frodo being a female character. But you have gotten me thinking! I agree about what you say about Eowyn. But I guess, perhaps shw was ready to settle down and become Faramir's wife because, what did they have to fight for anymore after all. The war was over and life would be normal again.

We are never really told what their life is like after the war. I like to think that Faramir understood Eowyn as the person she really was, and didn't make her fit into the perfect housewife mold.

Varda: The female principle is very strong in LOTR but manifests itself in ways not normal to heroic literature. The Elven ladies, Arwen, Luthien Tinuviel and Galadriel are a protective triad throughout the book. One, Arwen, inspires the King of men. Luthien gives mythic support to both the heroes Aragorn and Frodo, and they use her as a battle-cry, to great effect. Galadriel saves the day by giving sanctuary to the Fellowship in Lorien, and by giving the Star Glass, light of a star named for Earendil, a mortal who loved an Elf-queen, to Frodo, which subsequently allows him to pass Shelob's lair.

Galadriel herself is a great Noldorin queen working out a ban on her going to Valinor. all Elves venerate the female, and Elvish culture is seen as the highest in Middle Earth, so the female is the wellspring of all that is inspiring, beautiful and good. Through Arwen forging Anduril and Galadriel herself going to war the female is seen as intrinsically capable of warrior activity, and this is shown in the realm of men by Eowyn's slaying of the Witchking.

On the level of the human characters, Eowyn is not a 'nurse' in the Houses of Healing but a patient. She ultimately becomes mistress of Ithilien, and indeed probably has the happiest outcome of all, as her husband will not outlive her nor she him, nor does she have to give up her culture or her people because Gondor and Rohan are close allies.

Thanks for the thought-provoking post, FF

Reply from Fan Forever:

I think the female principle in LOTR is idealized and seen through a man's vision of females having to be, indeed, either protective, inspirational and/or supportive, and who must be venerated and adored, beautiful and immortal. That is not to say that they should not be, on the contrary! The female presence and action in LOTR is indeed essential, but I also think that Tolkien associated womanhood with something doomed, on top of all the above qualities; with something eventually leading to catastrophic ends. It is strangely to me as if females for Tolkien were all at once representing hope, force, life, and loss and sadness and despair. It gives the woman reader (well, me anyway) the impression that whatever they do or inspire, Tolkien's idealised vision of his female characters (to which he opposes, btw, the practical Rosie and annoying Ioreth) makes them forever disappear in a cloud of mist never to come back. They are strong and beautiful, but they die or are tamed, or diminish or disappear.

Reply to the reply from Varda:

However, It would be hard for Tolkien NOT to see women through a man's vision, wouldn't it?

We have to be very careful not to get on a feminist hobby horse with this book.(and I say that as a feminist) epic is not a woman's genre, but in spite of this women shape Middle Earth, through the tutelary deities of the Elves. Denethor, the human ruler who drives his wife Finduilas to die of depression, is shown very clearly as a wrong-headed man who will not listen to his heart or give love.

It is true that women are protective, inspirational and supportive, but then so is Aragorn! And Sam! By which we see the virtues of women are held in esteem when they occur in men too.

The book shows a doomed world, not a doomed sex.

The whole thrust of the end of the book is to show life returning to normal, for women and for men.

This is not a book of the 20th century; Tolkien thought the 20th century had gone wrong; he is suggesting other ways of being, seeing and acting. This is a book out of time. It is counter-productive to try to hammer modern sexist politics out of this numinous, nebulous work of literature. It is not a tract on the place of women in society,and should not be read as such, or you will get nothing, certainly not pleasure out of it.  Thanks again - V.