She Always Needs to Feed: Tolkien's Bad Mothers

by Varda, with responses
It has been pointed out many times that most of Tolkien’s major characters are orphans, or have no mother. Frodo was orphaned by a boating accident, something both tragic and strangely grotesque. Aragorn lost his father to a troll, and his mother to some pining malady perhaps similar to that which carried off Denethor’s wife, the mother of Boromir and Faramir. Arwen’s mother too wastes away out of the picture after being abducted by orcs.

The culture of Rohan seems to be robust and warlike, and their women not prone to fits of Victorian style acadie, and yet we are told that Eowyn’s mother pines away when her husband is slain by orcs, leaving her daughter and son Eomer to be yet another two of Tolkien’s orphans. Some women, Tolkien seems to suggest, are just too good to live.

The parents we are shown in The Lord of The Rings are not very good role models. The principle parent-offspring interaction in The Lord of The Rings is surely the relationship between Denethor and Faramir. The interaction between Denethor and his preferred son Boromir takes place outside the action and we can only guess at their exchanges. But the scenes between Faramir and his father take place in the book, and they are terrible.

Denethor first of all prefers another sibling to this one, and he makes that glaringly obvious. Even though Boromir is dead, largely on account of his own rashness, Denethor still prefers him. He rages at Faramir because the young man has exercised his own (very sound) judgment in letting Frodo and the Ring go. Faramir deduces that whatever destroyed his brother can’t be a good thing. Denethor treats his son like a vain idiot with no wisdom of his own.

Then it gets worse; surrounded by enemies and feeling lost without Boromir, Denethor sends his only surviving son Faramir to almost certain death. It has been said that he is under the spell of the Palantir. But even so, to destroy your own son goes beyond the power of bewitchment. After all, the Palantir is not the Ring.

This is definitely the most frightening scene in the book, for me. No evil of the Ring, which in the end is a thing of magic, can rival a man trying to kill his own son.

So the only family we are shown in LOTR is a disaster. But even those we are not shown directly are discouraging. What about Theoden’s son, Theodred? In the book we are told he is slain by an ambush at the fords of Isen. It happens just before Gandalf arrives to liberate Theoden from the influence of Wormtongue. Gandalf even refers to it, twice. Yet Theoden never mentions his son, not even to grieve for him. He even rides past the fords where Theoden died and does not speak of his loss.

This, to me, is bizarre. It might be explained by Tolkien’s lack of space. But as we know, Tolkien had no fear of bunging something major into an Appendix or footnote. So why not explain this in a footnote? It seems that Tolkien just did not think it important.

Fathers, therefore, do not fare too well under Tolkien. In fact, father figures tend to take their place. Theoden is Eowyn’s father figure. Frodo has Bilbo as his father figure, and after him, Gandalf supplies something like a father figure. But a real flesh and blood father would not have let Frodo take the ring. However great the need, we are usually not able to send our own children into the fire. But then, Gandalf is not human, so he cannot think like a human father…..

Mother-child relations are not shown in the book and it has been suggested that this is because Tolkien himself was an orphan, although he did know his mother. The female principle in The Lord of The Rings seems to be elevated to something close to deity, as in Luthien and Varda. The Elven cosmic principle seems to be female.

But if there is a beautiful Elven female principle at large in Tolkien’s universe, there is also an evil maternal principle, as an essay 'Webs of Horror' by Lin Davis in the latest issue of Amon Hen points out; Shelob the giant spider, and her ancestor Ungoliant, who destroyed the two trees of Valinor, are both female and are seen as the utmost evil. Even Sauron gives Shelob a wide berth, and he cannot destroy her. Both she and Ungoliant are shown as having insatiable appetities, to be capable of devouring everything. As Gollum states;
'She is always hungry; she always needs to feed.....'

Not only are these all-devouring creatures female, but they are fertile; they bear horrible offspring to continue devouring the world. Mirkwood is overrun with black giant spiders who are multiplying at a fearsome rate.

Both Shelob and Ungoliant are equated with darkness, whereas Varda the Elven higher being is seen as a kindler of stars, a creator of light. When the argument is put forward that Tolkien made up for a dearth of female characters in the story by giving his Middle Earth a higher, utterly beautiful female principle that guides the Elves and enlightens all creation, it should be pointed out that he also gives Middle Earth horrific, evil beings that are essentially female, creators of darkness who are utterly cruel, cunning and also, in a grotesque inversion of the life-giving female principle, they are mothers.

Just musing, with thanks to Lin Davis for a terrific essay.

Response by Primula:

I hadn't really thought of Ungoliant and Shelob in that light, and I'm not sure I'm quite willing to follow along in that reasoning, that he made them female in some expression of misogyny. I had simply assumed it was logical for spiders that they would be female, as in the world of arachnids the feminine is by far the stronger and sometimes even consumes its consorts. Or perhaps he was thinking on the old Greek references to Arachne the weaver, obviously female.

Either way, it would have seemed odder to me if they had been male... Besides, it also provided him with a handy explanation for all those spiders he put in his children's book, The Hobbit, leftovers from his earlier rambling tales (remember the spiders on the moon in Roverandom?) They had to have come from someplace - why not a hatching?

Just a side-trail, regarding the spiders in particular - I concur with his weak portrayal of parents in general.

Response by Rogorn:

One thought I can offer off the cuff is Tolkien's own words that 'peace-time tales are not worth telling', and by the same token peaceful and loving families have no tales worth telling. What do we know of Pippin, Merry and Sam's families? So little that by default we can interpret that all's well with them, and their stories wouldn't be 'in the newspapers', so to speak. Same thing with Legolas and Gimli. It might not be so, but we just don't have the evidence.

Another thought is that it heightens the 'suffering hero' figure. For some reason stories (and not only this one) seem more interesting when there is a disgrace in the background, an 'against-the-odds' element that the protagonists have to fight.

Also, it heightens the drama. Drowned parents are more dramatic than drowned uncles, for example. And the tale wouldn't be the same if Denethor wasn't Boromir and Faramir's father - imagine those two being just generic Gondorians - and so with everyone else, like Aragorn and Arwen. In particular the ruling Elves, having lived so long and gone through so much, they must have had troubles in the past at some point, and some, like Galadriel, several times.

Reply by Varda:

Thanks for your reply, Prim. I was not suggesting that by making Shelob and Ungoliant female Tolkien was being misogynist, no more than making Sauron male is an attack on the male principle. But many people excuse Tolkien's lack of female characters by pointing out how important the female element was in the Elven universe, and I am showing here that there was a powerful female force in Tolkien's universe that was malevolent too. Perhaps not as enduring as Varda, but it did destroy the Two Trees of Valinor, so it had a far-reaching impact on Middle Earth and creatures and races beyond just the Elves.

Thanks, Rogorn, and of course, peace time tales aren't as exciting.  I was more thinking Tolkien never shows us active, warlike families, under pressure, even in defeat, families working as families work in real life crises, hanging together with desperation, love and courage.

The only family we see is Denethor's, which is a total disaster, right from previous events where Denethor did not manage to prevent his wife Finduilas dying of this fear of orcs and general nastiness. Theoden and Eowyn are a sort of family, but he forces her to stay at home when she wants to go to war, and she has to go undercover to battle and therefore saves him by sheer luck (or fate, but we won't get into that right now )

In Tolkien's defence we could admit that literary families tend to be dysfunctional; think of ancient Greek tragedy and the disaster area that is Agamemnon's family. Or Oedipus's. Or Hamlet's doomed and dangerous family. As you say, who is interested in peaceful, ordinary families?

I think you are right that the reason is that all this isolates the hero, makes him more alone and accentuates his moral and physical courage; he has no-one to lean on, literally. As Galadriel says to Frodo 'to bear a Ring of power is to be alone....'

I wonder though does Tolkien take it too far. There are just too many orphans, and sometimes it does increase the sense of unreality of certain characters. Nothing makes a character as real as showing them trying to work round a hostile parent, or mourning a lost sibling. Theoden not commenting on his son's death takes from him as a real character. It causes characters to lack context. It is genuinely hard to imagine Frodo's childhood, for some reason. He seems to have taken no damage from his awful bereavement, no dark shadow on his soul. In his personality we see no trace of his awful experience. But you can imagine Boromir and Faramir as boys, sparring together, and the older claiming dominance just as he claims dominance when he takes the quest to go to Rivendell away from Faramir in the book.

Response by Rogorn:

Varda wrote: In Tolkien's defence we could admit that literary families tend to be dysfunctional; think of ancient Greek tragedy and the disaster area that is Agamemnon's family. Or Oedipus's. Or Hamlet's doomed and dangerous family. As you say, who is interested in peaceful, ordinary families?

I knew there was another point I wanted to include, and this was the one! Thanks. It does seem to happen to anyone writing this type of story all through the centuries, doesn't it? Who wants to take the in-laws on the journey or Gaffer Gamgee with the pipe?  :lol:

 I wonder though does Tolkien take it too far. There are just too many orphans, and sometimes it does increase the sense of unreality of certain characters.

He must have realised at some point, yes. So it has to be a deliberate decision. However, how much of the characters we see were forged by those dysfunctional families? I'm not saying that each of them should have a Freudian complex relating their parents, but what do dead relatives do for a character? Provoke immediate sympathy from the reader, I guess. It happens even with Sméagol!

Response by Celedor:

As Varda eluded to, the orphan is a rather archetypal heroic character. (Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, and Frodo Baggins are eerily similar in upbringing.)

Of course, Tolkien himself being orphaned at the age of 12 probably affected his storytelling, as did the Great War.

Response by Primula:

On the other hand, it could also be seen as being more "historically accurate" in the sense that in the past there were more orphans, and death was a frequent visitor to many a family. Perhaps we are looking at it through the eyes of people accustomed to modern medicine, lower infant/elder mortality and longer lifespans in general?

Reply by Rogorn:

Good point. Although I always wonder how much of this was true and how much a cliché. Not the death rate, obviously, but the abundance of broken families. Was everyone missing a parent from early age or was a nuclear family the norm? It might change from area to area too.

Reply by Primula:

Well, in Europe there was certainly a lot of it... Between women dying in childbirth, men dying in ongoing wars or from the dangers of their work, and assorted nasty diseases sweeping through I expect the extended family was the safety net for many children left parentless - hence the network that the hobbits were given, and the use of the Uncle-as-father-figure for Frodo and Eowyn, plus the removal of the most commonly missing element, the mother. It would not have seemed unusual for someone to have been raised by someone other than their birth parents, and lineage would become all the more important as heritage was more frequently in danger of being lost or forgotten without the parents there to actively teach it.

Reply by Varda:

Actually, living in a country where whole families being swept away by plague or famine is a not too distant memory, I know that this does not weaken the family structure, in fact it enforces it. Other mothers and fathers are found, older sisters, brothers, uncles, aunties, grandparents. You don't have to be the biological parent. In even older times fostering created a second family in case war or disease removed the first. So a high death rate is nothing to do with the lack of a family.

Bilbo however is very much still an uncle in LOTR; he is never a father to Frodo, as I said, Gandalf is more a father figure than Bilbo. The truth is, Tolkien never shows us a functional family; he only shows us dysfunctional families, like Denethor's and Theoden's. As you say, Rogorn, this is to enhance the hero's individual courage and character. As one French writer said; the first prison that the hero must escape from is the family.

Mon dieu....

Response by Sarahstitcher:

In mythology, it's common for there to be an image of mother as producer, but also as devourer. I think it goes back to our original Mother, the Earth. She brings forth in abundance all we need to eat and live, and at the same time "devours" all that dies, plus seeds that we plant to bring forth new life. Those aspects then get played out in all sorts of variations and story-imagery. So I agree, making Shelob and Ungoliant female isn't mysogyny. In my mind, in Tolkien they are balanced by not only the Valar, but also figures like Luthien and Galadriel who are protective and generous.

Respose by Doctor Gamgee:

 This has been an interesting read. Thank you Varda for a great musing.

I must say that while I understand what you are saying regarding Theoden's lack of mourning for his son, I myself do not find that it distances me from him, nor that it lessens his 'reality' in my mind.

Perhaps it is the difference between Men and Women, or (more likely) the difference between Dr.G and the rational world. I can only speak from my perspective as the son of a father who survived WWII.

My father spent 5 years in the Army Air Corp. He was a mechanic in N. Africa. Of his time in the service, he only told three tales. 1--He got sea sick on the ride over; 2--a dudd german shell landed 6 feet from his tent one night; 3-- he ran into his brother by coincidence at a cantina just before my uncle was sent to the battle where he lost his life. When our local paper began to run features about the progress of the war 50 years ago, he would read the updates, and I asked him if he would ever tell me about his time there. His response was a simple, "I don't think so."

This was not a man who denied his past; he had 5 buddies from his platoon that got together every few years from 1945 until he died. At his funeral, the last survivor of this group attended from across the country, as did a wife of another who had already gone -- both for the support of my mother. But he never took time from his daily duties as father and husband to let us know what had happened there. It was a memory that was best left undisturbed.

Denethor had just lost his son, after being separated by the malice of Saruman for who knows how long. That in the midst of war he didn't take time to go publicly mourn fits the profile of a very real man to me. You may see it differently.

I also have a problem with your statement,

"But a real flesh and blood father would not have let Frodo take the ring. However great the need, we are usually not able to send our own children into the fire. But then, Gandalf is not human, so he cannot think like a human father….. "

I am afraid that a quick survey of History (and Tolkien) would show a different picture. You are correct that no parent would want his child put in harms way; as a parent, I agree with you whole-heartedly. But it wasn't an uprising of the Slaves in Alabama that ended Slavery in the US. It was the Fathers and Mothers from (mostly) the North who sent their Sons/Husbands into battle to free strangers; and Fathers and Mothers from the (mostly) South who sent their Sons/Husbands to protect their way of life.

In the Shire, we see the Gaffer sending off Sam (not wanting to, but not forbidding him to go). And when they return, is it not Farmer Cotton who sends his Sons to regain their "Pre-Sharky" way of life? We even see Lobelia (Mother of a bad son) hailed as she returns from the prison. It is not only men who were praised for their standing up to Evil -- women such as Galadriel, Eowyn, and even Lobelia who are given their rightful place of honor.

But when there are clashes of ideas, one must either agree to disagree and live peacefully with our differences, or spend our Sons and Daughters to keep our way of life possible. No rational person wants war; sometimes (though not always) it is needed. If you don't think so, remember you are an intelligent woman who can speak her own mind and make brilliant points -- we are all blessed to have you among us. And yet, had you been born in a part of the world where women are not to be heard, we would miss you greatly. And there is somebody's Son/Daughter/Husband/Wife/Uncle/Aunt/Loved one who is standing guard somewhere so that you can argue with Dr.G in Freedom.

Great Topic, V. Many Thanks!

Reply by Frodosmiss:

Dr G, you literally brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for sharing about your father. Tolkien likely knew what haunted Theoden's mind, because he was also haunted, as was your father. I agree with your assessment in this regard.

I also agree with your input re: parents who would put their children in harm's way. I recently read of a woman (no doubt, one of many) in the Middle East who has proudly offered up her sons as suicide bombers. She believes this is the way to glorify her God and fight for her way of life. Fanatical? Perhaps, by western standards, but not by the standards of her community, where she is beheld as a hero amongst women. Turn the "volume" down a few notches and you will see mothers and fathers proudly sending their children as soldiers off to war, knowing the dangers they will encounter and that no matter what, their child would never be the same again. Parents have farewelled their children to war for centuries, often times not to protect life and limb, but to protect a WAY of life. This is one reason why war is so a way of life worth dying for? The definitive answer to that question in the RW remains to be seen, but in LOTR, it was clear that the answer was yes. Failure to destroy the ring didn't necessarily mean loss of life and limb to all the peoples of Middle Earth, but it did mean the doom of their way of life. Frodo offered to take the ring of his own free will, knowing what lay ahead, because in his heart, he knew he was the only one to do it. Gandalf "allowed" Frodo to take the ring (He was an adult, after all), but did not leave him to do it all alone. Being a parent or parent-figure doesn't always mean protecting our children's safety at all times. Sometimes, it means supporting our sons and daughters as they fulfill their destiny.
Just my musing of a musing of a musing. As always, Varda, you have provided us all with good reason to pause and think.

Reply by Varda:

Many thanks, Doc for your reply, and for your kind words about my writing, not really deserved, but soaked up sponge-like anyway

The sad fact is if you juxtapose your account and the excellent post by Frodosmiss you realise that the mother who encourages her offspring to be suicide bombers and the mother who lets (unwillingly or not) her son go off to war in the West, are doing something disturbingly similar; sacrificing their children for a cause. Whether that cause is right or wrong is almost irrelevant, they are putting country above family.

I myself think war is evil, but I understand some wars are necessary, like WW2. Tolkien would have thought so too. He might not have thought WW1 was necessary, but he did think it was his duty to fight for his country.

However in many ways we have changed since Tolkiens day; remember he was born into the British Empire of the Victorian age, when it was quite acceptable to invade some little country and annexe it on any pretext, and Britain did so, as we Irish know rather too well. Now, we still understand the value of freedom, and know it has to be fought for. But we want to know that the war that claims young lives is really necessary, and just. Or was it just fought for economics, or revenge, or because the politicians were too stupid to work anything else out? Even the great British war chieftain Winston Churchill said 'jaw jaw is better than war war'

But when Gandalf advises Frodo to take the Ring out of the Shire, he is not like a father sending his son to war, because Gandalf does not at that moment realise that the hobbit will have to carry it all the way to the Cracks of Doom, an almost certainly fatal journey. Gandalf only sends Frodo as far as Bree, where he intends to meet the hobbits. The mission to Mordor is only decided at the Council of Rivendell, and even then it is actually Elrond who says to Frodo, 'this task has been appointed for you'. All Gandalf does is pledge to help him.

But Gandalf is seen by Frodo as a father figure. When he wakes up in Rivendell and sees the wizard, he at once asks 'where were you?' The truth is, by failing to meet Frodo at Bree, for whatever reason, Gandalf shatters the hobbit's sense of security and his faith in what he is told by his elders. From then on, Frodo, although needing Gandalf's guidance, is more inclined to rely on himself. Gandalf does not prompt Frodo to take the Ring to Mordor; he decides that on his own. And after Gandalf falls in Moria, Frodo offers the Ring to Galadriel, a hair-raising bluff-calling, all on his own instinct. But this move pushes Galadriel to recognise her own temptation, and ensures that she gives Frodo valuable aid and advice -and the Phial of Earendil, which saves the day later on.

It is far from Gandalf that Frodo has come, even though he is overjoyed to meet him again at the end. Frodo has 'dropped the pilot', and has gone far beyond Gandalf in moral and physical courage. How could he not, for Gandalf is not human; not mortal; not even in complete control of his own actions, for after Moria he does not return of his own free will but says 'I've been sent back, till my task is done', a bit like a schoolboy who has messed up his homework. The hero is Frodo, not Gandalf.

So the one who not fully intending it sent Frodo off to war is in the end made irrelevant. So I think it is in life. Parents cannot send their children off to war. They might approve when their offspring do go, but in the end, our destinies are in our own hands, not those of our parents, and people go to war of their own free will, not because their parents want them to.

In finishing I would like to thank you, Doc, for reminding me that somewhere, someone is fighting to guarantee my freedom of speech. I have in turn to gently remind you that Ireland less than a hundred years ago fought for her own freedom, and has fought to keep it despite poverty, political ineptitude, bigotry and terrorism. We understand the meaning of freedom, Doc. We had to do without it for 800 years. It is so important to us that we tend to question carefully anyone who uses it as a pretext for war.

I dare to go off-topic and tell you about my own father. When he was a schoolboy during WW1 the mailboat The Leinster was torpedoed and sank just off the Irish coast near our town. 800 civilians were drowned. They were brought ashore here and housed in a local convent. That night my grandmother, who knew the nuns, was let into the hall where the dead lay. She showed my father a drowned woman with her baby still in her arms.
'Never forget this' said my grandmother to the little lad ' is the face of war..'

My father ever after had no time for war or fighting.

In the Lord of The Rings, it is not the warriors that win the fight against evil, but the small, quiet feet of two hobbits braving the terrors of Mordor. In the end, the battle for freedom is not won, or lost, on a foreign field, but in every heart and mind on earth.

Response by Mathom:

I've never seen so many spiders before I moved to Oxford. There are spiders of all shapes and sizes here, although they don't get really big like Shelob, thank goodness. Our shed is full of them. In the autumn they come indoors and I have to spend a lot of time getting them out of every corner of our house, especially the high corners. So I am not at all surprised that Tolkien chose to include spiders in his stories.

Response by Gamlefan:

Thanks, as always, Varda, for starting another fascinating conversation, and triggering much thought. A few, perhaps slightly random, comments:

Tolkien presumably had the normal education for a boy of his class at that time: boy's school from age seven (was he a boarder?), all-male college when a University student. Even without the loss of his mother when he was 12, women (mothers or otherwise) were pretty peripheral to this life. In addition, in those environments, boys were expected to keep their feelings to themselves. Although matrons and housemasters' wives were undoubtedly a source of sympathy and comfort in the best-run schools, boys were not allowed to rely on them. Whether suffering from homesickness, a caning, or the loss of a loved parent, boys were supposed to maintain a 'stiff upper lip' and not moan. Deeds were more important than words.

Although not a historian, Tolkien set his tale in a world which was like pre-medieval/medieval Europe, and took pains to make it historically accurate. In that period in Europe, families would indeed normally have been extended rather than nuclear, and thus large and well able to support orphans, but the men and women would have worked separately most of the time, the men mainly in outdoor and distant activities, the women mainly in and around the home. Thus, again, women would be a small part of men's lives (albeit, as wives and sweethearts, an important small part).

In addition, in that period, it was the norm for aristocratic children to be fostered with other families from an early age, so the parent-son link was broken early for most noble boys. In the largest noble households, there would have been quite a number of those boys, quartered together under trainers and tutors like an early form of boarding-school. Again, not much room or time for women to be around. (It happened to girls too - their 'boarding school' was in the sewing room rather than in the stables, well away from the boys.)

In earliest history, the important relationship for males was not father-son but uncle-nephew - specifically, 'sister-son'. This was because before the biology of reproduction was understood, the clear blood relation was not seen as between father and son but as between man, sister by same mother, and son of sister. In the tale of Tristan and Yseult, which has very ancient roots, Tristan is King Mark's sister-son, which makes the illicit love between him and Yseult an even more serious betrayal of Mark than it would be if he were merely a noble retainer. By the high medieval period, the role of the father in reproduction was understood (hence the addition of the Branwen part of the Tristan story), but the importance of the uncle-nephew relationship persisted in literature. It was, anyway, still the most certain blood tie. There are plenty of tales illustrating how little a husband knew about what his wife got up to once their wedding night was past. Tolkien was deliberately writing in the particular literary forms of which he was a scholar and expert - pre-medieval epic, and high medieval romance. (Not exclusively, I agree, but for a lot of the tale.) This, I'm sure, was a factor in the limited way women are presented in the stories.

There is another element to this. In those literary forms, relationships and attitudes are expressed through deeds and dialogue, not through description of emotions, or analysis of attitudes. Where strong emotion is described (as in the Tristan tale, for example), it is treated pretty much as a form of madness. 'The Lord of the Rings' is sometimes criticised for 'just' being an adventure tale, describing what the characters did and said, not what they felt, but this was deliberate on Tolkien's part. That was the style of writing he knew, loved, and wanted to use.

'Book' Theoden's apparent indifference to the death of his son is a consequence of these influences in Tolkien's writing. Theoden does not express grief publically, because men didn't. Theoden is more concerned about Eomer, because Eomer is the replacement for his lost full-age heir. (Eomer is, of course, sister-son to Theoden.) Tolkien does not mention Theodred even when Theoden and his men ride past the place where he died because the tale is an epic about their valiant deeds in the defence of Rohan, not about Theoden's feelings. (It's worth noting, also, that when one is a ruler on his way to the defence of a fragile kingdom against a possibly overwhelming force, it is not good politics to draw attention to the fact that the royal line is as fragile as the kingdom.)

I can't comment on the Denethor/Boromir/Faramir relationship, except to say that the tale of the favoured older son being bested by the less favoured younger son is another ancient literary theme, which Tolkien would have known.

This has rambled round the topic quite widely, but to summarise, I think the main reasons for the nature of family relationships in LOTR can be found very clearly in Tolkien's own experience of, firstly, his world where women were peripheral to men's lives, secondly, the historical context he used for his tale, and thirdly, the literary conventions he used in order to tell it.

Reply by Varda:

Many thanks, Gamlefan, and I am quite glad you brought this up, because it is a main worry I have about Tolkien's writing.

First of all, about Tolkien's upbringing, I don't know if it is always a good idea to use a writer's biography to explain what is in his book. But the strange treatment of women (to put it mildly) in LOTR suggests a man not at ease in female company, but more at home with a large group of male cronies (a Fellowship?). But Tolkien only lost his mother at 12, when one is quite advanced in terms of needing a mammy. He also had a substitute father figure in a priest who took an interest in his education and upbringing. Like many upper-class Englishmen, though, he suffered the public school system, which is orientated to the male, and his wife felt in later life that he deserted her for his male cronies.

But many public school boys survived and learned later to see the female point of view and in later life Tolkien knew many female friends. It seems odd that such a perceptive writer never managed to see into the mind of half the population.

You say (quite accurately  )

"There is another element to this. In those literary forms, relationships and attitudes are expressed through deeds and dialogue, not through description of emotions, or analysis of attitudes. Where strong emotion is described (as in the Tristan tale, for example), it is treated pretty much as a form of madness. 'The Lord of the Rings' is sometimes criticised for 'just' being an adventure tale, describing what the characters did and said, not what they felt, but this was deliberate on Tolkien's part. That was the style of writing he knew, loved, and wanted to use."

The problem is, the age in which such writing was the norm is past. Like it or not, we have moved on. We no longer see passionate love as the 'furor' that the Romans and Medieval cultures saw it. We don't believe that some goddess called Fortuna rules all the world under the moon. We have to be fair to ourselves, a more understanding, less judgmental and more charitable attitude to people's behaviour now prevails, affected but not totally decided by a knowledge of the existance of psychology and the influence of emotions and genes and hormones.

Tolkien can't pretend to spirit himself back to an age when people thought like the writers of the Tristan and Isolde myth. That would be a total fabrication, a pretentious exercise in mock Arthurian romances. There are plenty of them about, and they are ghastly. Although The Lord of The Rings is not a typical novel, more a romance, we have to treat it as a novel, because the central human story is the journey of Frodo, his growth, his spiritual and physical heroism, and his tragedy.

Regarding the behaviour of Theoden, it is quite true that in former ages, it was thought wrong to give way to immoderate grief. But you are quite wrong to say people, even men, even kings, did not grieve publicly. I refer you to Beowulf, one of Tolkien's prime sources, where the Saxon king grieves for his son, and there is a long and poignant passage where he delineates the empty life of a father who loses his son before he dies himself. I can't give you the page reference as I am in cold and damp internet cafe and my copy of Beowulf is not to hand. 

Also, if we are to say that Theoden is not publicly grieving because Tolkien is trying to put him into some medieval mould of character, that makes the book ridiculous, because most of the characters around him, his niece, Eowyn, Frodo, Sam, Aragorn, are shown with realistic motives, regret, fear, remorse, pity, longing, realisation of their failings. All this, Gamlefan, is modern. Why then make Theoden an anachronistic Dark Age king?

The fact is we can't put ourselves into a time machine and go back and write as they did in the 12th century, however much we dislike the modern world. And I challenge anyone to prove that Tolkien did. His characters ring true, or we would never have read the book. Great intricate mythologies, great detail, great colour and settings is NOT what holds us as we read a book; it is the truth of the characters.

The touchstone of all this is Aragorn. When we meet him, he is a stern unbending character. Wooden, in fact. He says to Sam after Frodo is wounded on Weathertop, 'I don't think he will die' he is thick-skinned and not too bright. He tells the hobbits they should come with him, or what follows them will 'come on you in the open, where there is no help'

And what happens? something comes on them in the open, where there *is* no help, and Frodo is stabbed by the Nazgul.

Tolkien wanted to show us the great prince in waiting, the Dunedain, Elessar, in the best mythic-romantic-Arthurian-mock-medieval way. But after a while he realised that he also had to show him as a real person, and from the death of Boromir Aragorn begins to act in a more human, more hesitant and compassionate way. He begins to lead from the rear, sharing rather than preaching.

To get an idea of how Tolkien gradually came to a more modern novel-like way of portraying his characters, you should compare Aragorn to Faramir, who from the first time we meet him is a thoroughly modern character, wise but modest, compassionate but tough, far-seeing but fatalistic. There is nothing like Faramir in any ancient romance or myth I can think of, he is a hero for our modern age. And Theoden, he is at the end not a king to ride unmoved over the death-place of his son. He is kindly old king ashamed of letting his people down, who longs for an honourable death and who spares Grima and gives a halfling the post of his esquire. All he wants, from the time Aragorn and Gandalf rescue him, is to die with some glory. He is no more a medieval character than Barbie.

You are quite right that in ancient times the family was extended, and fosterage was the norm. Even more here in Ireland, where fosterage was combined with hostage-taking. The fostered child was also a hostage. But the ties of blood were very strong, as can be seen by the revenge taken for slain kin; whole wars were fought not only for a slain relative but for an insulted relative. The ties of family were the omerta of that age.

It is true that as time went on the nobility were not only far separated from their people but the men from the women. But it is important to realise that Tolkien took his sources not from the high middle ages and the Roman de la Rose and its equivalent, but the early Middle Ages and the oral epics of that time such as Beowulf and the Battle of Malden. Then, there was not such a luxury of distance between man and woman. It is notable that Viking wives were seen as partners, not subordinates, and they held their dowries for their own use and had the right to divorce their husbands, and still keep their dowries. If they were equals, they could speak to their men as equals, and if they were equals, then they could also be friends.

As are we all here.