Tolkien's Female Characters in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy

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In Tolkien's Middle Earth, women are generally expected to submit to patriarchal authority. To what extent does Tolkien present women who succeed in subverting this norm?

J.R.R. Tolkien’s works have been analysed for decades and have often been criticised for the lack of female characters. Arguably his most cherished publications, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, in particular has been condemned for the passivity of his relatively few female characters. Having said that however, throughout the three books, there are a number of female characters who combat the stereotypical role of women and subvert the norm of submission to a patriarchal authority. Arwen, Éowyn and Galadriel in The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King do not conform to the submissive role that was expected from women during Tolkien’s time, as contrasted with characters such as Goldberry, Lobelia Sackville-Baggins and Farmer Maggot’s daughters. This differentiation was further strengthened by Peter Jackson’s subsequent films, in which Arwen and Éowyn in particular are given larger roles than Tolkien had originally scribed.

Arwen Undómiel is an elven princess, the “daughter of [Lord] Elrond” (The Fellowship of the Ring, page 219, line 6), and Lady Celebrían, who rule Rivendell, an elven city in Middle Earth. Arwen has a romantic relationship with Aragorn, the last heir in Men’s royal lineage, but this alliance is fraught with complications due to her Elven immortality and his birthright as Middle Earth’s only hope against Sauron, Tolkien’s antagonist and “Dark Lord” (The Fellowship of the Ring, page 132, line 45). Arwen also has a complex relationship with her father, Elrond. She is both his daughter and the last hope left for the Elven people in Rivendell. Her duties cause additional conflict for her as she wishes to serve her people.

Éowyn is a noblewoman of Rohan, a township in Middle Earth, who battles with the norms and traditions imposed on her regarding a woman’s role in society. She wishes to serve her people by fighting alongside the men in combat when Sauron’s rule threatens their lives, as shown by her masquerade as Dernhelm, a man she pretends to be in order to fight. Éowyn maintains a dutiful loving respectful relationship with her uncle, King Théoden of Rohan, who addresses her as “Éowyn, sister-daughter” (The Two Towers, page 104, line 26). Tolkien shows the sincerity of their bond with Éowyn’s dramatic parting line “A year shall I endure for every day that passes until your return” (The Two Towers, page 112, line 22). This use of exaggeration is effective in portraying the strength in their relationship. She leads her people when the men of Rohan are away at battle. Her brother Éomer, one of the Riders of Rohan (also known as the Rohirrim), feels a need to protect her while she wishes to fend for herself. Éowyn develops romantic feelings towards Aragorn in The Two Towers but eventually falls in love with Faramir, son of the Steward of Gondor, a large city of men.

Galadriel is the Elf Queen of Lothlórien, a forest realm in eastern Middle Earth. She makes a profound impact on those she meets with her enchanting features, mannerisms and way of speaking. She governs Lórien with her Elven husband, Lord Celeborn, whom she often overshadows. It is evident in The Fellowship of the Ring that the members of the fellowship are utterly mesmerised by Galadriel, in particular Gimli, son of Gloin, a dwarf. Her effect on him is particularly potent due to the existing long history of distrust and hostility between Dwarves and Elves.

The difference between these three protagonists was the norms they rebelled against and the authority they faced at the time. Éowyn fights against the stereotypical role of a woman, the role of mother and housewife while Arwen is fighting for the right to perform these exact duties! Éowyn wishes to fight and protect Rohan and by extension the fate of Men in Middle Earth, by subverting...
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