Thursday, December 17, 2009

Female Characters (or lack thereof) in The Lord of the Rings

The argument exists that female readers should feel inclined to read and attempt to be objective while reading Tolkien’s work; however, a problem still exists in the differentiation of his characters, or lack thereof. In his renowned work, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the reader is privy to a number of different adventures and experiences; the trials and the separation of the Fellowship, the path of the hobbit, the path of the King, and of the wizard. Found within each of these, the reader meets a bevy of characters, predominant or supportive, that serve the purpose of keeping the story interesting and allowing the true personalities of the main characters to shine through interaction. For example, we have the mystery and knowledge of the wizard Gandalf, the bravery and heroics of Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas and Boromir, and the selflessness and companionship of Frodo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee, Peregrin Took and Meriadoc Brandybuck.

The Fellowship of the Ring, the first book in the trilogy, focuses on introducing Middle Earth and its inhabitants to the reader. We meet each of these characters somewhere along the way, including others such as Bilbo Baggins and Elrond, and invest ourselves into who each of these characters truly are. Frodo Baggins, a hobbit, must take the One Ring of Sauron to Mount Doom to be destroyed, and each of these characters helps him in some way, some more than others. Through their trials and tribulations, the reader grows to care for them in different ways, to the point where the relationship between Frodo and Sam can really be felt in the reader’s heart, as can the unfortunate death of Gandalf.

During the first major hurdle that Frodo, Sam and Pippin must overcome, which is trying to avoid the ring wraiths while on the trip from the Shire to Bree, they meet up with a group of elves, all male, that offer a minute form of protection, and eventually with Merry. After this they continue on their way and are once again at the mercy of the ring wraiths, mysterious shrouded beings much taller than the hobbits who are later on explained to be past kings of men, until they reach the territory of enigmatic Tom Bombadil, and his wife Goldberry.

After this they find protection in Bree from Strider, a.k.a. Aragorn, a proud warrior and rightful king of Gondor, as well as from Barliman Butterbur, the owner of the Prancing Pony Inn where the hobbits and Aragorn stayed the night. After safely leaving Bree, Frodo ends up being stabbed by one of the ring wraiths and infected with their dark magic. Aragorn fights off the wraiths and risks his life in his haste to take Frodo to Elrond in Rivendell, where he can be cured and, once again, find protection. From there, the Fellowship of the Ring is created, consisting of nothing but males, to protect Frodo and help him bear the burden of the One Ring.

Where are all the women? It takes more than half of this first book for Tolkien to officially introduce Arwen, who has virtually no role as of yet except as Elrond’s daughter. The idea that Aragorn and Arwen are in love does not truly become prevalent until The Return of the King, when Arwen’s brothers give Aragorn the black cloth from her. Essentially, the hobbits are constantly under protection by strong, male figures for nearly the entire first book, until the very end when Frodo and Sam have “grown” enough, have developed as characters enough to venture out on their own.

So, thus far in Fellowship, for the most part, we are shown the dominance of man, not only through the protection they offer, but through their constant presence within each chapter. Near the end of the book, the reader is introduced to Galadriel, another female elf and grandmother to Arwen. Here the significance of female characters grows relatively stronger, not only in that she provides the Fellowship with protection in Lórien, but also provides each member of the group with something useful. In this sense, her character represents some form of dominance over the males.

However, as though to tease readers into believing Galadriel to be impervious to stereotype with her omnipotence, the last thing that she gives away is some of her hair to Gimli. More important than this, though, is why she does so. By the end of their stay in Lórien, Gimli has become smitten with Galadriel, and simply wants a lock of her hair to remember her beauty by.

Here is presented both sides of the argument. Galadriel provides Frodo with the light that eventually saves his life from Shelob in The Two Towers, thus proving her ability’s current superiority to Frodo’s. However, she dominates Gimli with her beauty, and this ultimately serves no purpose in determining an outcome of future events. True, it provides the reader with the idea that, despite Gimli’s stubbornness towards elves, he has room for improvement, but in the end Galadriel is simply portrayed as a beautiful female that attracts the attention of male characters. At times she breaks away from the stereotype, but at others she absolutely caters to it.

Perhaps the most profound female character in The Lord of the Rings trilogy is Éowyn, a character mildly introduced in The Two Towers but who vividly shines in The Return of the King. When her uncle, King Théoden of Rohan is freed from the poisonous control of Wormtongue by Gandalf, Éowyn becomes infatuated with Aragorn, who of course does not return her affection. When Rohan goes to battle, she wants to take up the sword and help her uncle and brother, Éomer. Théoden and Aragorn both refuse to let her join in the war, saying that her duties rested with taking care of the people of Rohan. Despite their wishes, she joins in the battle, and ends up defeating the Witch-king of Angmar, an enemy whom her uncle could not defeat.

Here is where the argument over Éowyn’s character takes place. On one hand, she did take up the sword despite the wishes of man, and slew the enemy who defeated her uncle. On the other, by the end she gives up fighting forever and decides to become a healer. Is Tolkien showing here that, while women are capable of fighting, ultimately they should leave it up to men and instead take up the role of nurse?

Many believe that this trilogy directly reflects Tolkien’s view on war, showing that men (men, elves, dwarves, hobbits) should only fight to protect that which is theirs from their oppressors (orcs, Sauron). If this is indeed true, it could be argued that Éowyn’s character represents these feelings, as she puts down her sword by the end of The Return of the King and vows to never take it up again. Considering that Éowyn is female, yet can perform the actions of men, her actions, it can be argued, portray what Tolkien believes everyone everywhere, men or women, should ultimately end up doing during or after war.

Regardless of Tolkien’s intentions, the question still remains: are female readers for the most part turned off by male-dominated stories filled with the stereotypically male-dominated ideas of war and action, or are characters such as the virtually non-existent Arwen, the semi-important Galadriel, and the male-defying Éowyn enough for female readers to trudge on until the end?

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