"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."

THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Thursday, January 29, 2015


"You could fire a machine gun randomly through the pages of Lord of the Rings and never hit any women.”

-Neil Gaiman 

The Tolkien Misreader

Watching Peter Jackson's The Hobbit trilogy, TIME magazine's Ruth Davis Konigsberg wanted to know "Why Are There No Women In Tolkien's World?"  She's not alone in her inquiry; for decades people have been taking about the "anti-feminist" streak in his works.  The arguments usually come down to there being a lack of women, to his habit of putting women on pedestals, and to the "fact" that there are no female role-models in his Middle-earth.  All sorts of explanations are offered for this, ranging from his devout Catholicism to the death of his mother when he was twelve.  None of them are satisfactory, however, for one important reason: the fault lies in an assumption made the audience, not in the author's work.

I had a great-grandmother who walked into Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds once thinking it was going to be a documentary about our feathered friends.  Needless to say, she had a rude surprise coming to her.  If you pick up The Lord of the Rings, and expect it to be a modern novel, or mistakenly assume Tolkien was a "novelist," you are in for the same kind of shock.  Tolkien was exactly the opposite of a novelist.  Intentionally.

We need to think about the word a minute here, because as a professional philologist, that is exactly what Tolkien would do.  The word "novel," from the Latin for "new," means something that is "...new and different from what has been known before."  The word becomes associated with "narrative literature" only around 1640, because at the time, the novel was something novel.  

For, centuries, the role of the storyteller had been that of custodian.  The storyteller preserved the language, culture, and ethics of the past by passing them down, generation after generation, in the form of tales and fables.  Traditional literature, whether the Iliad or Odyssey, the Ramayana or Mahabharata, the Kalevala or Mabinogion, was simply oral tradition finally making its way into writing.  Sir Thomas Malory didn't invent Arthurian Romance any more than Hans Christian Andersen or the Brothers Grimm invented their fairy tales.  They were part of the older tradition, of preserving the past in writing.  In the late Renaissance, by sharp contrast, we see the emergence of modern novel--a new story invented by an author, and frequently as a social criticism meant to initiate change.  This was a complete reversal of previous written literature, and it is not until the 19th century that it rises to dominance.

J.R.R. Tolkien was an academic and a writer, but certainly not a novelist.  His career as a philologist, his groundbreaking work with traditional pieces like Beowulf and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, his academic writings, all make it clear he was dedicated to preserving the kind of literature that the modern novel was trying to supplant.  To read him as you might read Martin or Jordan is to completely miss the point.

Now you might be thinking at this point "but Middle-earth is just fantasy, it's something Tolkien 'made-up.'"  Yes and no.  It is true that Tolkien invented the Elvish tongues, with a smattering of Black Speech and Dwarvish for spice, but otherwise his "invention" was in fact a kind of "imaginative reconstruction."  Looking at the scattered fragments of fairy tales and legends of Northern Europe, especially the old Anglo-Saxon and Germanic bits, Tolkien played a game of trying to imagine where it all might have come from.  Who are the dwarves in Snow White?  Are they the same as the dwarves scattered throughout Arthurian romance?  What about elves? Goblins?  Trolls?  Tolkien sifted through all the pieces and tried to imagine a primordial myth cycle that might have originated them.  

The clearest example of this lies inside The Hobbit.  The dwarves in The Hobbit are all drawn from a section of the Norse Eddas call the "Völuspá," specifically a chapter entitled Dvergatal or "catalogue of the Dwarves." This ancient poetry fragment lists Durin, Kili and Fili, Bifur and Bombur, Thorin, et al.  Nestled among these names was one that to Tolkien would have stood out like a sore thumb...Gandalf.  Not only did it sound different than the others, it meant literally wand elf.  What was an elf doing in a list of dwarves, and what on earth was a wand elf?  Eventually he would conclude a wand elf was a wizard, not really an elf at all but a staff-bearing immortal from the Undying West where the elves lived.  Is he making this up?  Of course he is, but hardly from scratch.  He was trying to imagine what these things might have meant.

And this brings us back to the charges of anti-feminism.  Neil Gaiman is right; you could take a machine gun to The Lord of the Rings and not hit any women.  But the same could be said for Beowulf, or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  It would have been impossible for Tolkien, who so clearly and painstakingly tried to emulate traditional literature, to include Peter Jackson's version of Arwen, or the elf maiden Tauriel, in his works.  They would have stood out as obvious anachronisms.

Tolkien himself was aware of this.  Take for example his understanding of fine amor, the medieval tradition of "courtly love."  The idea, essentially, is of a pure and chaste woman who inspires a man to preform great deeds.  Loving her from afar, the hero elevates himself out of a desire to be worthy of her.  This is exactly the kind of relationship Arwen and Aragorn have, because if you are writing an authentic piece of medievalism like The Lord of the Rings then fine amor can't be ignored.  All the same, Tolkien, both as a modern man and especially as a Catholic, rejected the concept;

"Its (fine amor) center was not God but imaginary Deities, Love and the Lady.  It still tends to make the Lady a kind of guiding star or divinity - of the old-fashioned 'his divinity' = the woman he loves - the object or reason of noble conduct.  This is, of course, false and at best make-believe....The woman is (just) another fallen human-being with a soul in peril..."

- Letter to Michael Tolkien, 6-8 March 1941

Tolkien then is not the one elevating women to such a status, the genre is.  He recognizes the idea of a perfect, ideal woman as "false" and "make-believe," and that women are human beings just as flawed as men, but there is simply no way he could authentically preserve medieval literary tradition by omitting fine amor, taking Arwen down off her pedestal so she could go out adventuring with Aragorn as a modern writer (or filmmaker) might have preferred him to do.  

The Refusals of Galadriel

While we can agree that The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, like the literature they are meant to emulate, have few women characters, and that Tolkien includes the medieval trope of elevating women to paragon status in The Lord of the Rings, the claim he presents us with no feminist role models is simply wrong.  Again, I tend to think this oversight arises from a fundamental misapprehension of his work.  If you read The Lord of the Rings as a self-contained novel, which is in fact to misread it, then you are missing a full understanding of the character of Galadriel.  Only reading the book in the context of Tolkien's greater myth cycle, published in The Silmarilion, does it become possible to see Galadriel as exactly what she is; a role model.  Indeed, in Tolkien's mind she might have been the role model, for reasons we will soon discuss.  As this status does not depend on her gender, and if we accept feminism as being "the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes," this makes her a powerful feminist role model by default.

But before we get there, we need to cover a few concepts first.  Most importantly, we are not talking about Galadriel solely as a character in The Lord of the Rings, but as a key figure in a larger myth cycle.  This is crucial to fully understanding her significance. 

Keep in mind that in The Lord of the Rings Tolkien is writing a history, not a novel.  Consider his famous quote from the front matter of The Fellowship of the Ring;

I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history – true or feigned– with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.

Tolkien refers to The Lord of the Rings as a history time and time again, and for him, it was just the tail end of an immense saga stretching back eons, the final chapter of the great history of Middle-earth.  Because he is writing a history, he does things no sane novelist would ever do.  When Galadriel appears in The Fellowship of the Ring, for example, there is no real explanation of who she is or why she matters.  A novelist would never have done this, but a historian would.  Consider, when Sir Gawain's shield is described to us in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (a work I reference again because Tolkien knew it so well and translated it into modern English), we are told the inside of it bears the face of the Virgin Mary.  The anonymous author doesn't stop to tell us who Mary is...he simply expects us to know.  The same is true of Galadriel, who anyone in Middle-earth would presumably know of.  Telling us about her breaks the illusion of Middle-earth being a real world, and Tolkien likely hoped we would go and reference other documents (The Silmarilion) to get those answers.  If we did, our understanding of Galadriel in The Fellowship of the Ring would completely change.

Galadriel--based solely on her scenes in The Fellowship of the Ring--has been compared to Glinda the Good Witch by some critics, who see her as almost one dimensional in her cartoon goodness.  She is so virtuous and pure that when Frodo offers her the Ring she refuses it.  Then she gives the Fellowship some nifty parting gifts and sends them on their way.  And oh, how cute that she gives the dwarf Gimli three strands of her pretty hair.  It is easy to see her as little more than the goody two-shoes fairy queen, or--as others have more flatteringly hypothesized based on Tolkien's devout Catholic faith--some sort of reflection of the Virgin Mary. 

But if you read The Silmarillion, or Tolkien's notes and other writings about her, these scenes look completely different.  Galadriel is anything but sweetness and light, and she is certainly not the Virgin Mary.  In some ways she has more in common with Lucifer than the Mother of God.  She is an exceedingly complex character and central to one of the author's themes.

Let's get the Marian comparisons out of the way first.  Mary, in Catholic doctrine, is revered because of her submission to the Divine Will;

By her complete adherence to the Father's will, to his Son's redemptive work, and to every prompting of the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary is the Church's model of faith and charity.

- The Catechism of the Catholic Church

But "complete adherence to the Father's will" is hardly how you would describe Galadriel, who is defined primarily by her refusals, rather than obedience.  Galadriel is half Noldor, a race of elves that once dwelled in timeless Paradise by the grace of the Creator and his emissaries, the archangelic Valar.  Rebelling against the Divine Will, Galadriel and her brethren became exiles from Paradise, driven by pride and anger.  They were banned from these lands of bliss.  Later, given a second chance to return to grace, Galadriel was among those who refused again, too proud to surrender the queenly status she had attained in the fallen world of Middle-earth for the role of servant in the Undying Lands.  As Tolkien summed up the Marian comparisons;

I think it is true that I owe much of this character to Christian and Catholic teaching about Mary, but actually Galadriel was a penitent; in her youth a leader in the rebellion against the Valar (the angelic guardians). At the end of the First Age she proudly refused forgiveness or permission to return...

Letters, p. 407

Tolkien reiterated her position more strongly elsewhere;

(Galadriel) joined the rebellion against the Valar who commanded them to stay; and once she had set foot upon that road of exile, she would not relent . . . Her pride was unwilling to return, a defeated suppliant for pardon...Pride still moved her when, at the end of the Elder Days after the final overthrow of Morgoth, she refused the pardon of the Valar for all who had fought against him, and remained in Middle-earth...

-The People's of Middle-earth, p. 338

Again, this idea of "Fallen elves" is not something Tolkien was just "making up."  Elves, in pre-Christian mythologies, were a class of intermediary spirits between gods and men.  In medieval tradition they were reinterpreted in light of the new religion.  Folklore had it that after Lucifer's rebellion in Heaven, the third of the Angels who sided with him fell and became demons, the third that fought with Michael stayed in Heaven, and the third that remained neutral were cast down to Earth to become elves.  Tolkien's Noldor reflect that tradition; they are not strictly evil, but they are angelic immortals banished from Paradise.

But what does this have to do with Galadriel being a role model, let alone a feminist one? 

For starters, Galadriel is significant in her total equality.  When we meet her in The Fellowship of the Ring, she is the co-ruler of Lothlórien, described as equal in everything (including physical stature) to her husband, Lord Celeborn.  Tolkien calls her not only the "greatest of elven women," but also the "mightiest and fairest of all the Elves that remained in Middle-earth." She is second to no one, male or female.  Indeed, even her name implies a kind of transcendence of gender stereotypes; not "Galadriel," the name she has come to be called in Middle-earth, but "Nerwen," a name she bore in the Undying Lands that means "man maiden," given to her by her mother because she was as tall and strong as any male elf.  

This must not be taken as meaning her "mannishness" is what defines her.  Galadriel's feminine attributes are key as well;

...and she grew to be tall beyond the measure even of the women of the Noldor; she was strong of body, mind, and will [...] Even among the Eldar she was accounted beautiful, and her hair was held a marvel unmatched. It was golden like the hair of her father and of her foremother Indis, but richer and more radiant, for its gold was touched by some memory of the starlike silver of her mother; and the Eldar said that the light of the Two Trees, Laurelin and Telperion, had been snared in her tresses...

—Unfinished Tales, The History of Galadriel and Celeborn

The significance of her femininity is also reflected in the importance of being a mother, and in fact a grandmother to Arwen, the elf maid Aragorn loves.  

Thus, just as her beautiful hair combines the golden and silver light of the two divine trees, Galadriel combines qualities we might see as both masculine and feminine, but what really distinguishes Galadriel is her complexity.  In a cycle of tales often criticized for their "black and white morality," Galadriel stands out as very grey.  She is not, like Morgoth or Sauron, evil, but neither is she as loyal and obedient as Gandalf.  Galadriel knows her own mind.  And again, we come back to her refusals.  Not only did she refuse the command of the Valar to remain in the Blessed Lands, not only did she refuse to return, it was her refusal that started--indirectly--the fall of her entire race.  It was Fëanor, her kinsman, who fashioned the three Silmarils, enchanted jewels that captured the golden and silver light of the two trees that lit the Undying Lands.  The fallen angel Morgoth poisoned the trees and stole these gems, taking them to Middle-earth, and this is why the Noldor went into exile; against the wishes of the Valar they decided to go after Morgoth and the stones.  But Fëanor forged those jewels because of Galadriel's refusals.  For it is said her beautiful hair also captured the light of those trees, and Fëanor asked her three times for a strand of it.  Three times she refused, and so he made the jewels instead.

And here, her gift to the dwarf Gimli takes on special significance.  Reading only The Lord of the Rings we may think nothing of it, but it was a monumental act;

Her parting gift to Gimli is highly significant. He asks for a single hair from her head, which he intends to enshrine within imperishable crystal. In the elder days Fëanor had asked the same, and been refused three times, for her tresses were famed for seeming to contain the light of the Two Trees. . . . Now she gives Gimli three hairs, one for each of the ancient refusals, which were bound up with so much grief for the Elves. Galadriel's gift heals the long rift between her people and the Dwarves. It implies that she now repents of any part her pride may have played in the long tragedy. 

The Power of the Ring, p. 54

Here again is Tolkien's excellence as a mythographer and historian and "failure" as a novelist.  We cannot grasp the immense significance of Galadriel's gift by reading The Fellowship of the Ring alone.

Which brings us at last to the act that makes Galadriel heroic, and absolutely central to Tolkien's work as a role model to us all.  

Tolkien succinctly summed up his themes in a letter later published in The Silmarillion. "Anway, all this stuff is mainly concerned with Fall, Mortality, and the Machine" (The Silmarillion, p. xvii).  The Fall in particular haunts his tales, from the Fall of the Dark Lord and the Fall of the Elves to the Fall of the proud Men of the West.  As we have seen, Galadriel is bound tightly to the theme, and the Fall of the Elves.  But she does something amazing in The Fellowship of the Ring.  When Frodo Baggins offers her the One Ring, she refuses it;

"And now at last it comes. You will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night!" . . . She lifted up her hand and from the ring that she wore there issued a great light that illumined her alone and left all else dark. . . . Then she let her hand fall, and the light faded, and suddenly she laughed again, and lo! she was shrunken: a simple elf-woman, clad in simple white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad.

"I pass the test," she said. "I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel." 

Fellowship, p. 381.

This is not, as critics would have it, because she is one dimensional and too good to take it.  As we have seen, Galadriel has twice refused the Divine Will already, and chosen to "rule in Middle-earth rather than serve in Paradise," to paraphrase Milton. The One Ring signifies rulership of the world, and Galadriel is a fallen immortal who refused forgiveness because she desired to rule in Middle-earth.  Offering her the Ring is to tempt her with everything she ever wanted.  But unlike Lucifer, or Sauron or Morgoth for that matter, Galadriel refuses this.  It is this last of Galadriel's refusals that changes her destiny.  

It was not until two long ages more had passed, when at last all that she had desired in her youth came to her hand, the Ring of Power and the dominion of Middle-earth of which she had dreamed, that her wisdom was full grown and she rejected it, and passing the last test departed from Middle-earth forever. 

The Peoples of Middle-Earth, p. 338

Here at last we come to Galadriel the role model.  Tolkien famously said, "The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work," and we have seen some of this in the many "Falls" that happen in the  mythology.  Morgoth falls.  Sauron falls.  Saruman falls.  The Men of the West fall.  And most of the Noldor elves fall.  Likewise, there are many who resist temptation and do not fall; Tom Bombadil, Gandalf, Samwise, Faramir, etc.  But Galadriel is very nearly unique in that she falls and is then redeemed, in a sense representing the whole of the human condition as Tolkien understood it.  There may be a shortage of women in Tolkien's quasi-medieval fiction, but we cannot simply dismiss the fact that the character that best embodies Tolkien's faith--that it is possible to sin and be forgiven--is a woman.  And a proud, self-possessed, regal woman at that.  

You don't have to be a Catholic or a a Christian to appreciate this; I am certainly neither.  But you are on very shaky ground when you accuse Tolkien of anti-feminist tendencies when one of the most important figures in his work is a woman.  Galadriel doesn't swing a sword or wear armor, but the strength she demonstrates in resisting temptation far exceeds any action-heroine antics.  The author clearly meant her to be a role model for us all, male or female.  Galadriel is neither Eve nor Mary, but an "every person" meant to represent us all.  If we are looking for feminist role models, and quality is to outweigh quantity, then Tolkien was perhaps a feminist after all.

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