Classic Literature Film Adaptations Week: Gendered Values and Women in Middle Earth

This is a guest post by Barrett Vann.

Several weeks ago, I was trawling the internet for reviews of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, when I came across this one, by Rhiannon at Feminist Fiction. In it, she says:

The film was … a retelling of one of the oldest, most classic, and so most male and white modern fantasy tales we have. And in that context, the film was actually quite an interesting achievement.

I’m not going to try to argue that The Hobbit was a feminist movie — with only one female character in the whole film, that feels a bit of a stretch. I’m not even going to claim that the film was perfectly executed, because I think it had many flaws. But I think it presented the all-male fantasy adventure in a somewhat new way, valuing strengths other than sheer might and blunt, obvious bravery.

… I’m not going to claim that these are “feminine” strengths. But I think they are traits that many other adventure movies would brush over, or present as weaknesses, a lack of proper, adventurous masculinity. The fact that the Hobbit focuses on these traits and integrates them into its adventure is admirable.

The fact that Rhiannon drew attention to this gave me pause, not because it’s not truequite the contraryor because I hadn’t noticed it myself, but because that is something so consistently true of Tolkien’s works that it would never have occurred to me to mention it. The value system in Tolkien’s Middle Earth consistently favours “softer” strengths, putting emphasis on gentleness, scholarliness, empathy, and patience as qualities that heroes possess. Indeed, it’s written into the very mythology of the legendarium. In The Silmarillion, one of the mighty of the gods of Middle Earth is Nienna, who “is acquainted with grief, and mourns for every wound that Arda has suffered in the marring of Melkor. … But she does not weep for herself; and those who hearken to her learn pity, and endurance in hope” (Tolkien, p. 19). Gandalf in his younger days is described as having learned pity and patience from her. This value placed upon empathy, of sorrow as a virtue, endurance of the spirit rather than the body, resonates throughout all of Tolkien’s works.

In The Lord of the Rings, whilst there is a war to be fought, and manly men like Aragorn and Éomer to fight it, the true heroes of the story are Frodo and Sama scholar and a gardener. In Fellowship, Frodo and Gandalf have this telling exchange in the Mines of Moria:

Frodo: It’s a pity Bilbo didn’t kill him when he had the chance!

Gandalf: Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand. Many that live deserve death, and some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play yet, for good or evil before this is over. The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many. [1]

Indeed, characters who embody more traditionally masculine values are more often the ones at moral fault, more apt to fall prey to the deceptions of evil or act rashly and in pride. To take things back to The Silmarillion once more, Fëanor, the Noldorin prince and gemsmith, is “the mightiest in all parts of body and mind: in valour, in endurance, in beauty, in understanding, in skill, in strength and subtlety alike: of all the Children of Ilúvatar” (Tolkien, p. 109). Fëanor is characterised by his might, but he is also rash, prideful, selfish, quick to wrath, and heedless of consequences. His actions result in horrific civil war and centuries of bloodshed and pain.

In The Lord of the Rings, a lesser example is Boromir, who is Captain of the Tower of Guard, and widely regarded as a great warrior among men; large and strong, doughty in battle, and fiercely patriotic. In The Two Towers and Return of the King, he is posthumously contrasted to his brother Faramir, who is the more gentle and scholarly of the two, and who, it is said, is “more Númenórean” than his brother. Boromir possesses many “masculine” virtues, but it is he who first of the Fellowship falls prey to the Ring, as it plays on both his fears for his city and his pride in his own skill. [2]

So, if we’re looking at traditionally gendered values and strengths, Tolkien’s works (and subsequently Jackson’s movies) often subvert them. Which is great! But what about the actual women of Middle Earth? Here, for those readers less geeky about Tolkien than I, I shall cease reference to The Silmarillion, and focus solely on The Lord of the Rings, and the differences between women in the books and the movies.

The Lord of the Rings books are not exactly overflowing with women; Galadriel, Éowyn, Arwen, Goldberry, Rosie Cotton, and a few bit players like Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, and Ioreth the Gondorian healer. The three most significant of these, and those who survive into the movies, are Galadriel, Arwen, and Éowyn. The first two have their roles expanded for the movies, sometimes with more success than others.

Galadriel is the character who stays closest to her book incarnation, and is, let’s make no bones, awesome. The Queen of Lothlorien, Galadriel is one of the oldest Elves in Middle Earth, and a powerful sorceress who bears one of the three Elf-rings. In the book, she appears only once, when the Fellowship stops in Lothlorien after losing Gandalf in Moria. She is a reader of thoughts, and speaks to the hearts and minds of each member of the Fellowship, testing their weaknesses. She also possesses the Mirror of Galadriel, in which can be seen “things that are, things that were, and some things that have not yet come to pass.” She invites Frodo and Sam to look into the Mirror, something which foreshadows events to come and helps to harden their resolve. She is tempted to take the Ring when Frodo offers it to her, envisioning a future in which “Instead of a Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All will love me and despair” (Tolkien, p. 356). The Ring tempts those of power, and as an immensely powerful woman, it is a hard test, but she overcomes it. She also gives gifts to the Fellowship, many of which are of immense use later, particularly the ones given to the Hobbits.

Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) is tempted by the Ring

It is of note, I think, that the Ring Galadriel bears is Nenya, the Ring of Adamant. Through her ring, she is characterised as a figure of strength.

The movie’s Galadriel is little changed, but her role is expanded. She provides the voiceover at the beginning of Fellowship, as one who was there and remembers the events of ages past, and in Two Towers, she and Elrond converse on the subject of the rising evil of Sauron and Saruman, and how best to subdue it. She also sends a host of warriors to the battle at Helm’s Deep. In Return of the King, Frodo imagines he sees her as he struggles through Cirith Ungol, and her reminder, “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future,” serves as a sort of tagline for the trilogy. She embodies strength, wisdom, and experience, and is seen frequently in a role of support for other, more obviously active characters.

“Will you look into the Mirror?”
It can be said without much argument, I think, that Galadriel is an excellent feminist character. Though she is married, it is she who is the leader of the galadhrim; she is powerful, compassionate, and wise, but she is not without flaws; temptation, and a certain withdrawal from the events of the world which Tolkien implies is the result of mistakes made when she was younger.

Arwen is a different case. Aragorn’s love, she is the daughter of Elrond, and in the books is more or less a nonentity. Frodo sees her at dinner in Rivendell, and she is described as fair and wise, dark-haired and grey-eyed, and she appears again, at the end of Return of the King, to marry Aragorn. Her only dialogue is a short exchange with Frodo in which she gives him a pendant to wear, to draw strength from when his experiences are too hard to bear. She is meant to be an echo of Luthien, the elf-maid in the First Age who married a mortal man; Luthien was an enchantress who, among other things, glamoured herself to look like a vampire, snuck into the fortress of Angband and put the Dark Lord Morgoth into an enchanted sleep so she could snatch a Silmaril from his very crown. However strong and fabulous Luthien was, though, all the resemblance we see in her descendant is that Arwen also loves a mortal man. Her entire character centres around Aragorn.

Now, Peter Jackson knew, at least, that if you’re going to have a love story, the other half of that love story has to show up more than once before she gets hitched. The way he goes about that, however, doesn’t always work.

In Fellowship, she takes the role of Glorfindel from the books, showing up to bring a wounded Frodo to Rivendell, outrunning Black Riders and summoning the flood of the River Bruinen to drown them after she crosses it. She’s competent, fearless, she even teases Aragorn at one point. Later on, the two of them share a romantic moment, reminiscing about the moment they met; Arwen assures him that she has faith in him, and pledges to forsake immortality for him. All that is fine.

Arwen (Liv Tyler) faces off against the Ringwraiths

In Two Towers, things start getting a little wobbly. With the introduction of Éowyn, a pseudo-love triangle is formed, and Aragorn spends a lot of time being woeful and having flashbacks about Arwen, in one of which he gives her back her Evenstar pendant, the symbol of her choice to become mortal for his sake. Unfortunately, this memory serves only to show Aragorn completely ignoring the agency of the woman he loves and adopting a paternalistic role in which he knows what’s best for her. Never mind the fact that they both knew this was always in the cards. The one element of this scene which might salvage it is the perfect chill of Liv Tyler’s delivery of the line, “It was a gift. Keep it.”

There are also scenes of Arwen and Elrond, in which Elrond takes on this same role, attempting to convince Arwen that there is nothing for her in Middle Earth, and that she would do best to stay with her family and depart to Valinor. Again, Arwen’s agency is undermined, and further, though she is a mature womanindeed, over two-thousand years oldshe is made childlike, as she trembles and weeps in her father’s arms.

In Return of the King, she is on her way to the Grey Havens until she has a vision of the child she might one day have with Aragorn, and rushes back to accuse Elrond of keeping his foreknowledge from her. It is then that the weakest element of the Arwen subplot commences; her mortality has (apparently) taken a very immediate form, and her fate somehow tied to that of the Ring. She is reduced to lying on cushions and weeping whilst Elrond rides to tell Aragorn that she is dying, and will die unless Aragorn wins this war for them. It’s utterly illogical, and worse, practically turns Arwen into a Sleeping Beauty figure.

Like a Victorian consumptive, Arwen dies prettily

All in all, the movies’ version of Arwen is a curious thing. She is shown to be competent, wise and compassionate and loving, but all that is largely undermined by extraneous plot points which strip her agency from her and serve to make her into merely a motivation for Aragorn. This is unfortunate, as she has the potential to be so much moresomeone old and wise, strong and brave enough to willingly accept her own death, when death is something so alien to her.

The third of these women, Éowyn, is one of my favourite characters in The Lord of the Rings, because she is a mass of contradictions. She is a young woman, only twenty-three, whose parents have died, whose uncle has sunk slowly into dotage, whose country is being encroached on by enemies; she is fragile, injured, deeply sorrowfulindeed suicidalbut she responds to this by being as strong as she possibly canand the way she knows to be strong is the way men are strong. She is trained as a warrior, but because she is a woman (more likely, because she is a royal woman), she is not allowed to fight. And so she rages, furious at herself for her uselessness, and at everyone else for making her so. The metaphors through which she is described are of ice and steelbeautiful, but cold, sharp, distant. When she rides to war, hers is “the face who rides seeking death, having no hope.” She is at once strong and deeply vulnerable.

Though the movies do at least allow her a few rare moments of happiness

In the books, she appears to develop an infatuation with Aragorn, but it is clearly grounded more in the fact that Aragorn is someone she wishes to emulate; he symbolises strength, and also the possibility of escape. She would follow him, but as a soldier follows his captain, not a girl pining for love. This is one respect in which the movies misstep. Miranda Otto’s Éowyn is much tearier, more delicate, where the Éowyn of the books is stubborn and dignified, and in introducing the love triangle element, her feelings for Aragorn are depicted as more genuinely romantic, and therefore she also becomes jealous of Arwen. There is, of course, nothing wrong with a woman having romantic feelings for someone she cannot have, but I feel that in this case, it rather misses the point.

Éowyn (Miranda Otto) weeps over the death of her cousin and the treachery of Wormtongue

In the books, Éowyn is left to rule at Edoras when Aragorn, Theoden, and his men ride off to war, and in a touch I appreciate, is actually nominated for the position by one of Theoden’s guards when Theoden is left in doubt over whom he ought to entrust with the role. ‘‘’I said not Éomer,’ answered Háma. ‘And he is not the last [of the House of Eorl]. There is Éowyn, daughter of Éomund … She is fearless and high-hearted. All love her. Let her be as lord to the Eorlingas, while we are gone’” (Tolkien, p. 512). Though she is young, she is known by her uncle’s men to be strong and intelligent enough to command, to be entrusted with defending the capital of their realm. Éowyn, however, does not take it as such, and chafes that she is not allowed to ride with the men.

Concerning war, there are a few points to make concerning the movies’ depiction thereof. Éowyn tells Aragorn, “The women of this country learned long ago; those without swords can still die upon them.” The implication here ought to be that there are other shieldmaidens of Rohan; perhaps not in the court, but in the smaller hamlets away from Edoras, that Éowyn is not an anomaly. However, the only other women of Rohan we see seem to be either old women or young children, fleeing from burning settlements or cowering in the caves at Helm’s Deep. I was disappointed that they only nominally normalised the idea of women fighters, rather than actually showing it.

Éowyn after the defeat of the Witch King

Éowyn’s best known moment, understandably, is her defeat of the Witch King; riding to the battle of the Pelennor Fields disguised as a man, she faces off with an immortal creature so terrifying he can fell men with a mere scream, beheads his draconian mount, and then, with the assistance of Merry the hobbit, kills him. My personal preference is for the book’s version of that scene, but that’s only because I have an unabashed fondness for Éowyn’s speech before she beheads his steed.

But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him. (Tolkien, p. 823)

The movie, perhaps understandably, shortens that to “I am no man!,” but the point remains. Éowyn is strong here not because she’s trying to be a man, but because she is a woman. It’s a triumphant moment.

Overall, I would say women in the movies actually come off rather worse than they do in the books, if only by a little. While scenes like Lothlorien and the Battle of the Pelennor fields are truly excellent, the writers seem to struggle in knowing how to depict women who aren’t strong or powerful in obvious ways, as shown in the unfortunate choices made regarding Arwen, and the way Éowyn shines less than she does in the books when she’s not cutting the heads off monsters. Considering the books, Tolkien’s world, although it is not a feminist one by any stretch, does to some extent restructure a gendered value system, and does contain dynamic and thoughtfully written female characters. If only there were more of them.

[1] This is the movie’s version of this dialogue, though a similar one occurs in the book.

[2] Note: I am not hating on Boromir! I feel I have to point this out, because people so often do, but he is actually one of my favourite characters. All those delicious flaws and a redemptive death; I’m a sucker.


Barrett Vann has just graduated from the University of Minnesota with degrees in English and Linguistics. An unabashed geek, she’s into cosplay, literary analysis, high fantasy, and queer theory. Now that she’s left school, she hopes to find a real job so in a few years she can tackle grad school for playwrighting or screenwriting, and become one of those starving artist types.

  • I agree, while I like that they tried to give the women slightly more expanded roles, it didn’t always work. I loved Arwen’s introduction, but then…it’s gone. I love the shield maiden concept; it is frustrating that Eowyn is the only shield maiden we see. And when they are recruiting fighters from the noncombatants at Helm’s Deep, they somehow deem 10 year old barely pubescent boys will stand up better against the large powerful Uruk-hai rather than women who have probably done heavy farming/peasant work all their lives?

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