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The Problem of Female Characters in Tolkien

So the first part of “The Hobbit” is out in theaters. With the release of another Peter Jackson film based on the work of Tolkien, pundits everywhere can once again gloss the back cover of the book or watch the trailer of the movie and render sweeping judgments. 

The latest one comes from  Ruth Davis Konigsberg of Time Online.  Her complaint is not …

  1. Foxfier

    He wrote ladies, not men with boobs.  Of course they find him “unrealistic.”

  2. Zafar

    There are admitted very *few* women characters in Tolkien, and of these even fewer are even half fleshed out and three dimensional (Eowyn comes closest, Go!ShieldmaindensofRohan!) rather than objects/symbols (that Elf queen in Lothlorien, Mrs Bombadil, Rosie-in-the-Shire) – but let’s not forget that the story (the books) is a product of its time and place (written 1930s-1940s?) and is constrained by its genre (boys’ own adventure).  

  3. Stephen Hall

    There are not many female characters in Patrick O’Brian’s long series of novels about Napoleonic naval warfare either. He must be a misogynist.

    Denis-Dighton-xx-The-Fall-of-Nelson-Battle-of-Trafalgar-21-October-1805-1.jpg

  4. Rachel Lu
    C

    No, Tolkien doesn’t do much with women. Apart from Eowyn and a little bit Galadriel, the few that there are are basically placeholders. Arwen is Aragorn’s Awesome Lady, but receives almost no character development. Rosie’s Sam’s Simple But Good Sweetheart, but again, that’s about all weget. So, not the richest source of material about femininity. But hey, a series doesn’t have to do everything in order to be good. Is Jane Austen worthless because her male characters are mostly pretty flat? Women aren’t Tolkien’s subject.

  5. iWc

    There are no Jews in Tolkein either. Guess I need to stop enjoying his works.

  6. D.C. McAllister
    C

    I read Tolkien over and over again beginning in 5th grade, absolutely captivated by the story and all the characters. I even tried to learn elvish and dreamed of having my own cloak with a brooch from Lothlorian (those were the days prior to mass production of such things). I’d imagine wearing it to school and everyone thinking I was all dark and mysterious. If I could have carried a sword, I would have. If my parents would have let me go out “into the wild,” I’d have been gone in an instant–carrying only lembas bread to eat. More than anything, I wanted to be Aragorn. I never thought once that the books failed me because they didn’t have enough female characters. Once again, in Konigsberg article, feminists show what they really are–narcissists. If they don’t see themselves in the pages of literature or on the movie screen or in the board room, then something must be wrong with the book or the film or the company. No, honey, something’s wrong with YOU. Stop being so self-referenced and you might actually enjoy something as fun as The Lord of the Rings!!

  7. Robert E. Lee
    Zafar:  “…but let’s not forget that the story (the books) is a product of its time and place (written 1930s-1940s?) and is constrained by its genre (boys’ own adventure). ”

    This bears repeating.  From Huckleberry Finn to Penrod and Sam to Winnie the Pooh, they are all a products of their time.

  8. Lord Humungus

    I guess multicultural historical revisionism has come to Middle Earth at last. Looking forward to the Womyn in Orc history addendum.

  9. katievs

    I think she’s on to something.  

    I’ve never been able to get into the books.  I think I read them through once, but didn’t love them.  I think this partly explains it.

    I have nothing against other people loving them, though.  And I certainly don’t think the books worthless because they have a weakness.  But I do think it’s a weakness.

    He’s not just telling an adventure story, he’s creating a whole world.  And it’s a world too bereft of the feminine to be wholly convincing, at least for me.

    I didn’t feel that way at all about Patrick O’Brian’s series.  

    About Jane Austen’s world, I do think it somewhat lacking in due appreciation for the masculine.   A weakness.  Doesn’t mean I don’t love her novels, and highly appreciate their great strengths.

  10. Foxman

    Did anybody else notice that the good guys tend to be fair-skinned and the villians… um swarthy?

  11. Donald Todd

    Having read The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, I would note that I did not miss women per se.  I saw a few in particular settings that fit but other than that, no.  I believe that, given the story line, they would have been superfluous, other than the few female characters he did introduce into those stories.

  12. Fake John Galt

    Odd, I have read a lot of books in my life. Some have the predominately male characters, some have predominately female characters, but I have never thought to judge a literary work based on its male to female ratio.

    Does Ms Konigsberg actually believe that Tolkien’s work would be improved if he included more about camp followers, fornication and birthing babies? I have my doubts. On the other hand I read for entertainment and do not look for historical / biological accuracy of fictional characters in fantasy worlds.

  13. Joseph Paquette

    When art is appreciated only through your ‘prism’ such as feminism, you’ve missed the point of the art, regardless of the medium. 

  14. katievs
    Joseph Paquette: When art is appreciated only through your ‘prism’ such as feminism, you’ve missed the point of the art, regardless of the medium.  

    I agree with your general point.  But it doesn’t seem to me apropos in this case—unless you would want to argue that there’s no difference between  femininity and feminism.

    Further, can’t we all grant the value and necessity of criticism, even of great works of art?

    She’s not calling for Tolkien to be banned from school curricula because LoTR doesn’t have a sufficient number of female characters.  She’s taking note of a deficit.

  15. Tripedis Canis

    “Biological accuracy”? Please! If something doesn’t appeal to your particular taste, just say so.

    Biological accuracy: ever see a toilet on the Enterprise?

    Biological accuracy: James Bond is, what, 110 now?

    Biological accuracy: Sparkling vampires and sullen werewolves. Need I say more?

    Tolkien’s worldview was far deeper and richer than Ms. Konigsberg gives credit. In the full scale of Middle Earth, LOTR was a coda, a tying up of loose ends. Female characters? Read the story of Beren and Luthien, or the full history of Galadriel, in The Silmarillion

  16. katievs
    Fake John Galt: …On the other hand I read for entertainment and do not look for historical / biological accuracy of fictional characters in fantasy worlds. 

    I look for truth and reality, especially in the spiritual realm.  That the plenitude of personal existence is expressed in the union of male and female is so prime a fact of our experience that where one or the other principle is missing, it jars.

    I think Tolkien’s greatness has a lot to do with the fact that he gets other prime things, such as the reality of evil, personal responsibility, the value of suffering, etc., exactly right.  

  17. katievs
    Tripedis Canis: “Biological accuracy”? Please! If something doesn’t appeal to your particular taste, just say so.

    I think her point is deeper than that.  Also truer.  

  18. Lord Humungus

    katievs, are you stating that you view Tolkien’s treatment of femininity (as opposed to feminism) as a weakness?

  19. Crow

    I’m not going to completely geek-out on this thread and go into any depth on the subject, but I will mention the tale of Beren and Luthien, as well as seconding the mention of some characters others have already spoken about.

    But I also think that Katie has a point. The deficiency I see in Tolkien is not so much a lack of the feminine as it is a very, very understated treatment of the theme of romantic love. 

    There are many good reasons for this given what I apprehend Tolkien’s project was actually about, and given the source material he was drawing from. Moreover, I think that not dealing very directly with romantic love allowed him to emphasize other themes: the solidarity and consolation of true friendship, for example. Any reading, I think, that tries to misattribute anything homosexual [another favorite activity of literary critics] in the relationship between Frodo and Sam is a deeply impoverished reading, for example. 

    But other than Beren and Luthien, eros is only really deeply expressed by Tolkien’s own act of creation of his world. Otherwise, it is largely dealt with in abstentia.

  20. Crow
    Tripedis Canis: In the full scale of Middle Earth, LOTR was a coda, a tying up of loose ends. Female characters? Read the story of Beren and Luthien, or the full history of Galadriel, inThe Silmarillion.  

    I see as I was typing my post, someone beat me to this point.

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