Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Tolkien and Binary Power

I have read almost all of Tolkien's work prior to the Lord of the Rings, saving his crème del la crème for a rainy day. Boy I was not disappointed! The plot may have moved slow and the dialogue/characters may have felt out of place at times, but other than that I had a very enjoyable reading experience. Maybe even too enjoyable to think critically about the text. So I took some time to look over my notes, gage the general flow of the plot one more time, and sort out the argument I have in my head regarding Tolkien. 

Lets speak of the way that Tolkien portrays women, my main irk. There were a couple conversations regarding the way women are portrayed in LOTR and they are all correct in their own right. The lack of any powerful female characters, aside from Eowyn and Galadriel, is naturalizing the idea in fantasy to associate power and heroism with the masculine. Spot on interpretation, I understand that point of view. Yet the absence of female characters does not show that female power and presence is unimportant. Yes, he may be playing into conventions (Hell, at the time he was writing, he may even be creating them) that place power in a masculine role but that does not mean women are written out of the equation. When looking closely at the characters and the plot, Tolkien may in fact be doing the exact opposite of what most believe. 

Tolkien's feminine characters serve as a counter to the traditional use of power, epitomized in Boramir and Faramir. Traditional power, seen in the Gondorians, is used in an effort to stifle evil in a physical way; they are characterized as brutish warriors who have a mastery over weapons and can kill Orcs, who are the epitome of evil, by the hundreds. Ultimately hubris, or pride, is tied with the traditional use of power; the more you kill the more powerful you become in the eyes of others. Pride bolsters the hero's power personally and publically, thus making the traditional use of power more associated with those characters that embody these masculine traits, which most of the time are men. 

Tolkien's feminine characters critique the physical, masculine power. Instead of pride and physical combat, the feminine qualities of the characters focus on love and healing. These characters offer an alternative that can be summed up as creation over destruction. Love and health are ultimately more important than the traditional power models relied upon by Aragorn or Gandalf. Frodo can only complete his task through the constant love and companionship of Sam and the health/nourishment provided by Galadriel in the form of the Lambas bread. Remember the plot of the novels: the big four (Gandalf, Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas) must distract Sauron so that Frodo can bring the ring to Mount Doom and destroy it. When looking at the plot this way, the masculine power model is subservient to the feminine power model. 

So in the end, it may not be correct to say that Tolkien is sexist or promotes male over female. Tolkien may in fact be creating a binary power structure, one of traditional male qualities and one of female qualities. If in fact this is the case then we are left to wonder, why has fantasy seemed to use the masculine power structure more than the feminine? 

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