Talking about Tolkien ladies is a hard task, because one has to fight many preconceptions that appear to dominate public conscience. And the most widespread of those is the idea that Tolkien was a misogynist. This idea comes from the fact that Tolkien was a conservative and religious man. It is further corraborated by this letter where he expresses some quite outdated ideas about woman- (and man-) hood. But is it okay to judge someone by one letter and assumptions that “all [class of people] must be like…”?
Well, I think it’s wrong. With Tolkien’s personal views we have him citing Simone de Beauvoir. Or caring deeply for female students in Oxford (who were considered second or even third class students at the time). Or we can see him having personal and creative relationship with none other than Mary Renault. He praised her books; he never ever said a word against her homosexual characters. And he encouraged her to use a female pseudonym because… you won’t believe me: representation matters. Yeah. He told her to use female name, because the audience needs to know there are female writers out there.
But of course personal views of a creative person are always secondary to those they express in their works. So, let’s have a look there…
I know, this sub-heading may sound strange. What has Tolkien to do with genderqueer? But elves certainly do not comply to either to modern, or to Victorian/Georgian gender standards. And I’m not talking about their looks, though it is there, too: a beardless, long-haired, sleek figure comes out as a “feminine”, not “masculine” image.
But looks are just looks. What matters here is, their society doesn’t view gender the way we do. It certainly exists; men (neri) and women (nissi) are certainly different. Even among Valar and Maiar (literally Powers That Be, incarnated elements and ideas) there are those who choose to express themselves as male and female. But other than personal choice, what does this entail? Well, not much.
We can learn the most from Laws and Customs of the Eldar – a fictional ethnographic document written by a Human anonim somewhen around the third age of Middle-Earth. It’s important to have in mind that it is ethnographic, not jurisprudential. It depicts an average median of Elven lifestyle, not the laws as in “something they have to obey”. So, things as depicted there are “how it is”, not “how it should have been”.
There are certain spheres that were male-dominated (like, war or smithcraft), and there were certain spheres that were female-dominated (like, healing and agriculture). There are also domestic chores that are taken by men (like cooking) and women (like baking bread). Bakng Lembas is seemingly female-only thing, performed as a religious rite by the Chosen of Yavanna. But the bottom line is this:
all these things, and other matters of labour and play, or of deeper knowledge concerning being and the life of the World, may at different times be pursued by any among the Noldor, be they neri or nissi
This is the conclusion that in-universe author draws after listing all possible trades and vocations. Gender doesn’t play any role in an Elven life; and an Elven individual can go from “masculine” to “feminine” activity at their own will.
The above information is further corraborated by the figure of Galadriel—or Nerwen, “A Man-Maiden”. Unlike in many other fictional worlds, this nickname does not indicate any hostility or disappoval. It’s just who she is: a person who equally engages in feminine and masculine activities and combines masculine and feminine traits in equal measure.
Her ability to bake Lembas means that she is belongs to the Yavannildi—a female-only society of Yavanna’s chosen apperentices. This is the most feminine an Elf can be. But none the less she took pleasure in the hunt and later in war, and made friends mostly with her male relatives. Her personality is equally complex; she has as many traditionally masculine attributes (tall, strong, powerful, unrelenting) as traditionally feminine (graceful, kind, beautiful, motherly).
What’s more, while she is certainly punished in the course of Silmarillion events, she is never punished for her gender non-conformism. Her pride is condemned; her desire to rule independently. In the end she winds up one of the most powerful figures in Middle-Earth, a Lady of her people and a person wielding universal respect on par with Gandalf and Elrond, if not even more than them. Her bloodlust and passion that made her almost share The Oath of Feanor are condemned; her fierceness and readiness to fight? Well, she is the one to bring down walls of Dol-Guldur.
While she makes mistakes, and she falls, and she is not immune to temptation—no one is in Tolkien’s world—her falls are never tied to her being female and not gender-conforming.
A Brief Word About Edits
We all should thank Christopher Tolkien for the very fact he made his father’s works available to us. But in editing The Silmarillion he was quite persistent in banishing female figures, and more importantly—influential female figures, from its pages.
As he was not that bad as an editor, and his cuts-and-additions are mostly smooth, there is a whole lot of beautiful female stories that never came to wider audience. (I wish to thank Kemenkiri here for her wonderful blog; a pity her works are in Russian only!)
To show how much did we lose, let me tell you how different women made possible the Star of Earendil.
Elving and Her Decision
While male heroes are certainly quite important actors in this story, I want you to see how female figures made the main narrative of The Silmarillion-– the story of The Star– possible.
It all starts with Elbereth, of course. She gave The Silmarili her blessing in the very beguinning of the story; she sent Earendil to roam the sky in the end. But she was not the only one.
There was Luthien. She was not just a love prise; she had immense agency and often it was she who actually got things done while Beren was, well, a dude in distress. She was also the most explicitly sexual heroine of Tolkien’s (and was never ever shunned or punished for using her sexuality). Reading the Lay of Leithian we learn that she was also her father’s trusted advisor, a learned healer and a wizard on par with the future Sauron.
There was also her mother, Melian. According to the later versions of the story, it was her assurance that made Beren decide to go for the Silmaril. She also somehow acquired it from the dwarves that killed Thingol and gave back to Beren and Luthen. And she ruled Doriath until Dior their son was able to ascend to its throne.
Dior married a woman whose name in most of the published drafts was Lady Lindis, but in The Silmarillion it is Nimloth. This lady fought side by side with her husband, but more importantly she managed to gather those of the people of Doriath who survived the attack of the sons of Feanor and flee to Ossir, and then to Sirion river delta. Not much is known about her later life or death, though. (This part of Middle-Earth history is… to say sketchy is to say nothing.)
This all makes it possible for Elving to be born and grow up and inherit the Silmaril and the rule over the people of Doriath (so much for “no female heirs among elves” claim). To honor her grandmother Luthien she decided to become an Elf in her stead. Her husband, Earendil, was inclined to be Human but followed her decision. This untraditional family dynamics made it possible for The Star to come into existance, as Earendil was given his ship, and this ship was given two wings, and you know the story.
All because a lady wanted to honor her grandmother.
Earendil, son of Idril
While certainly a man, this guy has much to thank his female ancestors for. After all, his birth was possible only because of the heroism and bravery of several great women.
His grandmother was Rian, and she stayed alive only because of leadership and bravery of Emeldir, Beren’s mother and queen of the people of Beor. While she was a warrior on par with her husband, she eschewed her personal desire to fight The Enemy, gathered most of her people and lead them first to Bretil, and then to Hithlum.
And his mother was Idril Celebrindal. In my opinion, this figure is very under-rated. Not only was she beautiful and all that, she was a skilled politician and her father’s advisor. She had enough foresight not only to see darkness in Maeglin and scorn his advances, but also to make her husband build a secret escape passage out of Gondolin. Against her father’s will, mind you. Also it is clear she choose Tuor as much as he chose her.
Thus the very existance of Earendil was made possible by two wise women who acting as war leaders happened to value saving light more than heroic deeds. Well, not bad at all, huh?
And Much, Much More…
Actually that was just a tip of an iceberg. There is so much more on gender expression and gender dynamics in Tolkien’s world!
There is a theme of women as religious leaders. Not the pious women trope, mind you; those women appear to be philosophers and theologists in their own right—like Andreth or Adanel. They preserve the old knowledge and they teach religious doctrines. They are goddesses, like Elbereth, or priestesses, like Galadriel. And they are positive figures; no goddesses of evil here.
Or let us talk about family life. We have wives to share their husbands’ nature (Luthien and Beren, Arwen and Aragorn) and husbands following their wives (Tuor and Idril, Earendil and Elving). We have women freely leave their husbands if they find it uncomfortable to live with them (Nerdanel leaves Feanor, Mithrellas leaves Imrazor). We have wives who choose their personal values over their love towards their husbands (Curufin’s sadly yet unnamed wife or Eldalote Angrod’s wife).
Or let’s take Eowyn and how seriously her trauma and her crush are dealt with. Her grief and her bitterness are never devalued; they are dealt with with respect and care both from the author and from his character. And her smackdown of patriarchy is still one of the most epic female speeches in world literature.
What I’m trying to say is, Tolkien’s world is very, very complex. It has its lows, of course. He was a mortal man and he lived in a certain era and a certain society. But for the most part, it has great female figures to look at, and great ideas about gender to consider.
But, well, maybe I’m biased. Tolkien’s works made me a feminist, after all.