Wicked Women: Tolkien and King Lear

by Varda with responses from Brave Hobbit and Rogorn

In the current issue of Mallorn there is a mention of an essay on Tolkien and King Lear. About time, I thought.

Although Tolkien’s sources are always seen as myth and Anglo-Saxon, there is plenty of evidence that Shakespeare influenced him more than most. I have mentioned Marples’ excellent essay The Hamletian Hobbit, but the parallels between The Lord of The Rings and King Lear are even greater.

In King Lear an autocratic old king decides to give away his kingdom to his daughters, and seek premature dotage. ‘Unburdened crawl towards death’ as he says. He unjustly deprives his virtuous daughter of her share of land and gives it to her evil sisters, and in turn he is deprived of shelter and honour and even life.

Théoden at once comes to mind, although Lear is not as kindly and avuncular as the King of Rohan is in the book, but resembles more Bernard Hill’s strong and warlike version of Théoden that we get in the film. Wormtongue is like a Shakespeare character from another play, Iago, and he tries to persuade Théoden that he is decrepid. It is left to Gandalf to show him he is still strong. Lear too finds out that you cannot cast off your responsibilities, especially if you are King.

Denethor is also partly copied from Lear, as he is strong-willed, autocratic and powerful but misguided. In the play Lear has long debates with himself, but Tolkien gives Denethor long debates with Gandalf, and the theme of duty and what one should do in the face of great evil surfaces in both. Both Denethor and Lear want things to be 'as they were', they are betrayed by their fear of change.

Denethor also resembles the other character in King Lear, Gloucester, the father who favours the son who does wrong over the son who is dutiful (Edgar and Edmund). The theme of sight occurs in both Lear and Tolkien; Gloucester ‘stumbled when he saw’ but sees clearly when he is blinded. Théoden is called forth by Gandalf to look out and see that the world is not yet all dark.

What binds Denethor and Lear most firmly together is their injustice to their offspring; Cordelia, the spurned but devoted daughter, is far more like Faramir than Éowyn as she is the object of hatred and an active attempt to destroy her. In contrast, in the film, Peter Jackson models the scenes between the recovering Théoden and Éowyn on the scenes of Lear recovering his senses and recognising his daughter, still loyal despite all he has done to her. Similar words are even used;
‘I know your face….’ Says Jackson’s Théoden; ’Methinks I should know you ‘ says Shakespeare’s Lear. Yet Théoden has not been unjust to Éowyn, who is only a niece, and we never learn of his relationship with his son, who is killed off without even a tear in the book, which is a strange omission on Tolkien;s part, caused by lack of time or space perhaps.

Also, Éowyn is not like Cordelia in the book, but in the film Jackson obviously is thinking of her, a woman called an ‘unpriz’d priceless jewel’ by the king who claims her hand in marriage. One who has a voice ‘soft, gentle and low’. Éowyn is on the contrary a shieldmaiden who in the book is given charge of mustering the evacuation, and reports tersely to her father that there were ‘hard words but no deaths’.

Er….good. The overtones of a hockey mistress are hard to escape. When Éowyn wakes in the Houses of Healing she is disappointed to find herself alive but comforts herself with the thought that she can still fill a saddle. When Cordelia goes to war it is as a leader, not a fighter. There is a gentleness in Cordelia absent from Éowyn, who is strident. Aragorn was being diplomatic when he said she was ‘hard’. Arwen never had much to worry about….

There is no equivalent of Cordelia’s wicked sisters in The Lord of The Rings. Tolkien lacks evil women. This is strange, as the witch or enchantress is a common figure in myth, witness Morgan Le Fay in the Arthur legend. The closest is Galadriel, who meets Sauron in realms of thought and vies with him there and evidently envies him his power. In the book she is shown sadly contemplating her and her Galadhrim’s eventual journey to Valinor, but actually Galadriel is forbidden to go to the Havens on account of an ancient wrong-doing. So her morality is enticingly ambivalent. But despite the superstitions voiced by Boromir and Éomer she is not a witch or an enchantress in an enchanted wood. Just a wise and powerful Elf queen fighting to keep her people free till they can be released to go west.

Lear's daughters Regan and Goneril are much closer to Lady Macbeth than to enchantresses, though. They are ambitious, vicious and needlessly cruel. Tolkien has nothing like this in his fiction. When faced with hardship or evil or opposition his women do not become fierce but usually give up and die, like Gilraen or Finduilas. History is full enough of strong, ambitious and even bloody-handed women to show us that Tolkien's fiction is lacking in strong women.

The only evil female in The Lord of The Rings is Shelob, and possibly she is copied from Grendel’s mother, the awful monster who is also hurt and runs away after wounding the hero.

If King Lear influenced Tolkien, did he also take the play’s central theme of the chaos and dark absurdity that lie at the heart of the seemingly ordered world? Tolkien does show us a world turned upside down, where dynasties fall – Denethor’s and Théoden’s, and the Elven realms are doomed. As at the end of Lear a new order is ushered in by all the terrible events, but in Tolkien it is welcomed with joy, whereas in Lear it is received with grief and foreboding. Yet Tolkien’s happy ever after ending is undermined by Frodo’s suffering and departure. Cordelia makes all right by invading, even though she dies, and so does Frodo make all right, even though he too does not benefit from the revolution….

Just musing…..no offence to Shakespeare or Éowyn fans….


Respose from Brave Hobbit:
No offense taken ---- If I may, I'd like to venture a rationale for Tolkien not having 'evil women' (Shelob being excepted, but she's an animal, not human).......I venture that Tolkien was a devout Catholic and was most likely highly respectful of his wife, at the very least; He may have been unable to see 'evil' in women because of a potential devotion to Mary (Gilraen ?), to his own mother, and to his wife, his 'Luthien'.....
I'm sure he was aware that there were diabolical women in history, but perhaps his interest and devotion to an Anglo-Saxon mythology was tinted by a romanticized and hopeful view of the Chivilrous past of what he wanted England to have been.

Response from Rogorn:
The old influences game. Nothing wrong with it, Varda, this doesn't go against what you said (very well written), but that's one of the reasons why I never went very far in literary criticism. This is a personal opinion only. It seems that no matter what you write, somebody has done it before, and if what you write gets read by anyone, they could claim you based yourself on this or that, even if it wasn't in your mind at all. And poor of you if you ever mention that you actually liked this or that author: from then on everything you write will be interpreted as consciously based on those readings. You could write a shopping list, and it would be influenced by Shakespeare too.

Someone asked Tolkien once whether the moment in which Bilbo steals something from Smaug was copied from Beowulf, which he very obviously knew by heart. He answered: 'Beowulf is among my most valued sources; though it was not consciously present to the mind in the process of writing, in which the episode of the theft arose naturally (and almost inevitably) from the circumstances. It is difficult to think of any other way of conducting the story at that point. I fancy the author of Beowulf would say much the same.'

Of course, this might be deemed author's pride, but I genuinely believe that the stories flowed freely in his mind, although of course everyone's mind is made up of their own experiences and readings.

In fact, Tolkien is one of the most perfect examples of how to drink from very defined sources and yet be completely original. We have a term in Spanish (I don't know if it exist in English): plagio con asesinato (plagiarism with murder). It's when you take a previous material from someone else and make with it a work of art much worthier than the original. For example, the story of Hamlet was a tale more or less known around the literatti before Shakespeare, but it was him who took that material and crafted it into one of the peaks of literature. Should he be brought down because he plagiarised other people's work or revered because of his art? Today, he would have had to pay some royalties, and the original author could do two things: sue him and lock himself in his ivory tower, or do a Dolly 'I will always love you' Parton and laugh all the way to the bank.

So, I always read parallels like this with interest, but unless the author said quite clearly that they can be drawn, I tend to not to read too much into them. However, as Tolkien also wrote: 'I am as susceptible as a dragon to flattery, and would gladly show off my diamond waistcoat, and even discuss its sources, [and] where I got it from. But would not that be rather unfair to the research students? To save them trouble is to rob them of any excuse for existing.'