Considering the Roles of Women in The Hobbit & The Lord of the Rings.
My daughter has noticed that I’ve been reading a lot of Tolkien books. She is almost 6, her own reading is beginning to develop well and she has been observant regarding what I’m doing with my own books. I’ve showed her The Hobbit and began reading a bit of it to her (the attention span is still a little way from putting up with long prose stories), in general she is interested. If only because I’m interested in it. When I began thinking about sharing The Hobbit with my her I realised there isn’t a single female character in the entire book. At least not an active participant. If any females are mentioned they are done so in their roles as mothers and in reference to lineage.
There is something vital in the ability for people to be able to see themselves in mass-market media. It makes a difference. If you spend your entire life never seeing anyone that looks like you doing anything, the idea might never enter your head that you could do that too. It sounds simplistic, but the truth is I grew up always seeing boys and men, like me, doing everything, I never for a moment considered I might not be able to do the same. It’s difficult to imagine not having that mind-set and it’s sad to imagine generations of girls growing up believing their lives and opportunities were in some way limited… The reality of which might actually be an even sadder truth.
There is a very simplistic cross-over for this theme that applies to all societal minorities and media representation. I plan to write a follow-up article tackling diversity and race in Tolkien’s work. For now I’m going to concentrate on how women are included.
All of this to say, I worried about my daughter connecting with a story I love dearly because she is unable to see herself in it. A fair criticism. If you took the entirety of Tolkien’s writing it is notable how few female characters there are and specifically how they are represented.
It isn’t a particularly incisive observation to proclaim that Tolkien’s works are rather light on female characters. A few possible reasons why this might be suggested themselves when reading Humphrey Carpenter’s Tolkien biography. I’m not the biggest fan of connecting the creator with the final art and making links between the two, but there are clear influences, quite natural ones in fact. All artists and creators put some of themselves into whatever they produce. Art can be a reflection of our experiences. In general, women didn’t seem to take a prominent part in Tolkien’s real-life, but where they did feature, they were pivotal and crucial. Which is precisely how I would describe the female characters (for the most part) that appear in Tolkien’s stories.
Tolkien lost his Father very early in life. So his one constant was his Mother. She went to great lengths to provide for her children, she took on their early education herself. Tolkien was able to read fluently by the age of 4. His Mother died when he was just 12 years old. The two boys were then placed under the guardianship of Father Francis Xavier Morgan. His childhood was spent in education (an all boys school) and the Roman Catholic Church. It is easy to believe he didn’t spend a lot of his time in any sort of female company.
During his school years he made firm friendships with a select group of boys with an interest in similar writing and poetry. This proved to be the start of a lifelong fondness for male company and fellowship.
School led to Exeter College, Oxford. He met Edith Bratt, his eventual wife who stayed in the same lodging house. But the courtship wasn’t straightforward. Tolkien’s guardian didn’t approve and eventually prohibited Tolkien from seeing her until he turned 21. Tolkien complied with his wishes (apart from one instance where he got caught out and his Guardian threatened to cut the funding for his education). He wrote a letter of proposal when he turned 21 to discover Edith had agreed to marry someone else.
His letter changed Edith’s mind, she had thought he had lost interest in her in the years he had been forbidden to contact her. She agreed to convert to Catholicism for him, angering her own guardians, they eventually married in 1916, just before Tolkien left for the Great War.
Tolkien’s time in the army is a definitive period of his life that must have furthered his appreciation for male company and comradeship. He was allowed to complete his degree before being commissioned for officer training. He traveled to France and played his part as a signaler during the Battle of the Somme. He was eventually returned to home shores suffering from Trench Fever, having lost many close friends. His battalion was almost completely killed.
During his recovery he began writing what would become his mythology. After his military service he embarked upon a career as an academic. He worked for the Oxford English Dictionary before becoming a professor at the University of Leeds before returning to Oxford to be a fellow of Pembroke College and eventually moving to Merton College. At Oxford he made friends with other professors and once again sought out ‘clubs’ and ‘meetings’ with like-minded men to share and discuss their literary pursuits. ‘The Inklings’ being the most notable of these.
Edith remained his wife until her death in 1971. They had four children; three sons and one daughter.
Hopefully that quick sketch of his life displays how limited his experience of women might have been, how pivotal the few women in his life were and how important the role of male friendship and camaraderie was.
I’m not trying to write a defence of the deficiency of female representation, I’m just trying to understand why it might be the case. The worst offender is surely ‘The Hobbit’. The Lord of the Rings has a few more, they play important roles but their appearances are somewhat fleeting, the greatest focus landing on Lady Galadriel and Eowyn.
There are a lot more female characters with a greater range of power and agency in The Silmarillion (certainly still unbalanced), but I find the ‘lack of female characters complaint’ is usually leveled mostly at The Hobbit and LotR. This is a totally fair and just concern. However, the female representation that is present is progressive for the time it was written.
It is all too easy to forget that these books exist within historical context. They are a product of their time, even though the mythological and heroic themes are timeless. They are also steeped in historical any mythological traditions meaning there were very set gender roles within combat and narrative. It can be argued Tolkien broke free of a few of these traditions to give the spotlight to his female characters.
Galadriel is one of the most powerful characters in the entire Legendarium. She is on the same level as Gandalf and Elrond in the Third Age. She rules her realm with Celeborn, her husband, but it’s made quite clear it is her power and influence that maintains Lorien.
Eowyn is the obvious example of a woman breaking out of her role defined by the men around her to forge her own path and destiny. She strives to prove her worth, to show everyone what she knows she is capable of despite those around her imposing limitations of expected responsibilities.
Shelob could be read as a very unflattering metaphor. However, I see her as an even-handed representation of evil. The feminine side, evil is multi-faceted and complex, it’s able to affect everyone.
Lobelia Sackville-Baggins makes a star turn at the very end. We want to dislike her at the start. She’s small-minded and petty, but her actions in the lead up to the scouring of the Shire define her as an indomitable matriarch that wins the respect of her community.
This is a very shallow dip into a pool that is a lot deeper. I don’t want to make justifications or excuses. I began with a simple question. Could I begin to share Tolkien’s work with my daughter in the hope she might connect with it; see herself in it? Of course, the answer is yes.
Even in The Hobbit, with no female representation at all, there is so much to relate to. Gender is irrelevant. It’s about a small person discovering a big world and learning that they can do great things beyond what others might have expected of them because of their appearances. It’s about coming to terms with who you are; the different parts of your character. It’s about courage, bravery and friendship.
None of those themes depend on being male or female. They are universal and that is why The Hobbit is such a successful piece of children’s literature.
I guess, I hope there will be enough for my daughter in the further works that she will be able to relate to, if she chooses. But I might argue there is much more to savour. It’s very much a case of the imperfections making the whole more interesting rather than spoiling it.
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