Reading over the various websites and articles about The Lord of the Rings I am struck by the fact that as often as not it seems to be women who are jumping to Tolkiens defence in the whole controversial sexism issue. Maybe its because we are tired of other people (that is men, or non-Tolkien-readers) being offended on our behalf. The whole issue of Arwens role in the films has really brought this out in the open. Now as the debate rages I have decided to put in my two-pence worth. Maybe The Lord of the Rings isnt a forerunning example of feminist literature but then who says that it has to be. As for it being outright sexist, I think not.
In fantasy literature the distinction between guy books and girl books is often quite clear. That is not to say that they cant be read by both sexes just that they tend to appeal more to one than the other. The works of the likes of David Eddings and David Gemmell definitely fall into the "guy books" category. I have read them and enjoyed them but ultimately I find the whole "big blokes whacking each other with swords" thing a bit hard to relate to. In the same way I am sure a lot of guys have trouble with the works of people like Marion Zimmer Bradley and the "worship the mother-goddess" thing.
I have always thought of the writings of Tolkien as being a-sexual, not just because there is no actual sex in them but because they do not seem to come for a particular gender perspective. I can relate to the characters as people not as men or women (using the terms broadly, as of course most of the main characters arent human). It doesnt seem to matter that The Hobbits are all male, as they do not display any particularly mach characteristics. Their courage and loyalty is something that everyone can relate to. I think that it would make very little difference to the story if Merry, Pippin or even Frodo were female. Of course there are very manly characters like Boromir and Aragorn in the story but while they play important roles they are not the heroes. It is made clear from the beginning that the War of the Ring will not be won by strength alone. The traditional sword-wielding hero takes a back seat to the physically weak but emotionally strong lead character.
That is not to say that Tolkien never tackles the subject of gender identity in his writing. We have only to look at Éowyns story to see that. The conflict between the role that a woman is expected to play and what she actually wants from life is laid out very clearly in her conversation with Aragorn at Dunharrow. Far from suggesting that she should be happy to stay at home Tolkien has her defying convention and riding of to achieve what is arguably the most impressive feat of arms in the entire book. Despite the fact that she has to dress as a man to get on to the battlefield she achieves her victory over the Lord of the Nazgûl because she is a woman, not in spite of it.
The fact that Éowyn has to disguise herself as a man is entirely believable within the book. In a pseudo-medieval world like Middle Earth it would make little sense for woman to ordinarily be allowed to be warriors. Tolkien took his inspiration from ancient European mythology and cultures where the womans place was generally considered to be in the home. There have been examples of sword wielding females in our history but like Éowyn they are the exception rather than the rule. Nothing jars more in a fantasy novel than trying to impose modern sensibilities on a world that is inspired by the past.
This internal consistence also explains why there are no women in the Fellowship and why most of the other female characters stay at home. This does not necessarily mean that they are weak jut that they have a different part to play. There are certainly no women expected to play the role of damsel in distress who constantly needs rescuing as there are in so many other fantasy books and films. OK so women are rather under-represented in the book but when they appear they are usually strong in some way. Galadriel is certainly more the boss of Lórien than Celeborn and her gifts and advice prove invaluable to the Fellowship. She is certainly portrayed as being on an equal footing to Elrond and even Gandalf. Even little Rosie Cotton is unbowed by the bullying of Sharkeys men and thinks nothing of giving Sam what-for, for running off on her.
The female character that most people have the biggest problem with is usually Arwen. She doesnt do anything; she just sits at home and sews while her man goes off to battle. It is certainly true that she is a very underdeveloped character in the actually book although Tolkien does go into more depth in the Appendices. When you actually stop to think about what Arwen goes through you realise that she must be a very strong lady indeed. She makes the choice to give up her family, her immortality and her chance to go to the Paradise-like Undying Land all for the man she loves. It is practically impossible to imagine how difficult a choice that must be. Then she does what must be one of the hardest things of all to do. She waits. She waits while the man she loves goes off into danger and while the fate of her people hangs in the balance. In some ways Arwen is probably a lot braver than Éowyn, whose courage is driven by a kind of self-destructive urge.
Having said all that I will admit that Tolkien didnt really make his female characters as flesh and blood as the male ones. While I believe that he admired and respected women he did seem to place them on a pedestal. If anything the female characters are too strong rather than too weak. Perhaps the closest he gets to getting inside the head of any of the women is in his rather moving portrayal of Éowyns unhappiness. I am sure that a lot of woman can relate to it on some level. It is not really surprising that he would have this trouble given the male-orientated world that he lived in. He is certainly not the only author guilty of fleshing out characters of his own gender more fully than those of the opposite sex.
The thing that annoys me about the whole idea of a Warrior-Arwen is not that the character is expanded but by the idea that the only way that woman can be interesting in fantasy is by giving them a sword and essentially turning them into men with breasts. We probably have Tolkien to blame for the concept of the warrior princess in the first place although he handles it a lot better than most of his successors. At least he makes some attempt to look into the motivation and consequences of a woman playing a mans role. Of course I cant judge the filmmakers decision to change the role of Arwen until I have seen the film. It may work brilliantly if they actually manage to give the character some depth. It has been the scourge fantasy-films that women have to either play the man-like warrior or the fainting damsel but they tend to just be cardboard cut out window dressing. How ironic would it be if the film of The Lord of the Rings actually managed to change that. Heres hoping.