Female characters in Tolkien’s writings
One criticism towards Tolkien’s works is his scarcity of female characters. Some believe that he was being chauvinistic. Personally I disagree with this opinion for some reasons I will explain shortly.
First of all, Tolkien’s works (especially the “Lord of the Rings” and the “Silmarillion”) are supposed to be written as pseudo-medieval/ancient accounts of a fictional historical past of Europe. Also, the stories revolve a lot around perpetual war. It is only natural that male characters would be prominent since, traditionally, it was men that mostly participated in wars. Considering the period that Tolkien lived, we have to remember that feminist notions weren’t circulating much in society so he adherred to more traditional values.
Yes, some Tolkien’s female characters are courageous but only within the limits of femininity (e.g. Eowyn kneeling in front of Aragorn and then resolving to become Faramir’s lady). I think that Tolkien kept some feminine traits but didn’t make them look inferior like many old writers used to do. It can be argued, that in Medieval Literature for instance, females used to be literary tools for a knight to prove his worth or trophies to be won. I didn’t get that from Tolkien. Tolkien’s female characters have agency and influence.
He doesn’t use the “evil-temptress” or “femme fatale” archetype for them. I think this is because Tolkien’s characters served as morally didactic; he showed how people should be so maybe having evil characters (apart from the villains) would be against his purpose.
Secondly, the most important clue that shows that Tolkien wasn’t a chauvinist is that his few female characters were powerful and capable women and not ‘damsels in distress’. This is a short description of them that proves this:
“No living man am I! You look upon a woman.”
The strongest female character that comes to most people’s mind is Eowyn. She was a shieldmaiden who went to fight alongside men. She famously killed the Witch-king of Angmar. Tolkien was inspired to write this sequence after he found a flaw in the prophecy in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”: “Be bloody, bold, and resolute. Laugh to scorn the power of man, for none of woman born shall harm Macbeth.” which he found that this meant that a woman could actually kill him.
“…but Galadriel, the only woman of the Noldor to stand that day tall and valiant among the contending princes, was eager to be gone.”
Galadriel is a very ancient Elf and Tolkien describes her as strong and tall as an Elven man, that’s why her mother gave her the name “Nerwen” which means Man-maiden. When she was young, she was rebellious of nature, strong-willed and wished to rule a realm of her own. And she succeeded it.
The most beautiful maiden that ever lived and inspired by Tolkien’s wife, Edith. In the Silmarillion, we see she is a powerful Elf who isn’t afraid to take initiatives. To save the man she loves, she runs away from her King father, defeats Sauron in a spell-battle, releases his captives, enchants Morgoth (Sauron’s mighty boss) and helps Beren retrieve a Silmaril.
“…and Haleth only brought her people through it with hardship and loss, constraining them to go forward by the strength of her will.”
A lesser-known character, Haleth was also a female warrior. After her father and brother were killed, she valiantly held the forces while being cornered by Orcs. Eventually, she was saved by the Elven lord, Caranthir, but she was too proud to remain close to him and led her people far away. The people loved her and she held them together with her strong leadership skills and created her own realm in the Forest of Brethil. In a different version, Tolkien describes her as “a renowned amazon with a picked bodyguard of women”. (Tolkien, J. R. R. (1996), Christopher Tolkien, ed., The Peoples of Middle-earth, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Of Dwarves and Men, p. 309)
“I am your sister and not your servant, and beyond your bounds I will go as seems good to me. And if you begrudge me an escort, then I will go alone.”
Aredhel was tall and strong, and loved much to ride and hunt in the forests. She is considered one of the most fearless and self-confident Elven maids and loved freedom. Her relationship with Eol, though, leaves a lot to discussion.
“…But Idril Celebrindal was wise and far-seeing, and her heart misgave her, and foreboding crept upon her spirit as a cloud.”
Idril was a wise-hearted and foresighted Elven princess of the First Age. It was thanks to her initiative that a remnant of Elves managed to escape the sack of Gondolin by secretly having a tunnel opened under the mountains. She led her people and if it wasn’t for her idea, no one would have escaped (and this would have had terrible consequences as her descendants were some of the most influential characters).
MELIAN THE MAIA
Melian was the mother of Luthien and a Maia, a semi-divine species. She fell in love with the Elven-King Thingol and thanks to her magic, she protected his realm with the Girdle of Melian. It was thanks to her that the Sindarin kingdom was safe and prospered for centuries while other realms were in constant battles against Orcs. She was the one who taught the Sindarin Elves wisdom, old lore and arts that they otherwise wouldn’t have learned and would have probably been be akin to the Dark Elves of the East.
Morwen was one of the most beautiful mortal women that ever lived and the mother of the tragic hero Turin Turambar. She is known as very proud, stern and strong-willed. The barbaric men who conquered her land dared not to touch her because they were afraid of her. When she went to King Thingol’s realm and found her son was gone, she went by herself to find him during perilous times. This proved a bad decision though…
The Vala (deity) of Nature. She created the famous Two Trees of Valinor, which played an important role in the Elder Days. It is through their holy light that the Undying Lands were so fruitful and the Elves that lived there became stronger than anywhere else. Their light was later trapped in the Silmarils, the holy gems that were central in the wars of the First Age. The light of her Two Trees was also used in the creation of the Sun and the Moon.
Honourable mention: the Numenorean Queen, Tar-Ancalime, who can be considered a proto-feminist.
Nerdanel was the wife of Feanor. She’s described as free of mind, understanding, strong and skillful. The fact that she was the only one who could control someone like Feanor shows her inner strength. Also, having her take up stereotypically unfeminine occupations (such as crafting/sculpting) and having a wife influencing such a powerful husband is definitely a non-traditional view that isn’t found in old literature where it was expected that wives should be submissive. Even when Feanor told her that as a good wife she ought to follow him to Beleriand, she didn’t succumb and remained strong and wise. Moreover, her wandering alone in Aman (where she met Feanor) shows independence. All these demonstrate a strong female figure.
Andreth was a mortal wisewoman from the House of Beor. She was so highly esteemed that Finrod Felagund himself would seek to converse with her. Throughout old literature, wisdom wasn’t a popular trait that writers would give to female characters. In the past centuries, the seeking of knowledge wasn’t expected to be the field of women. So, having a mighty ruler like Finrod seeking a woman’s company and appreciating her for this reason is something that most male heroes of old stories would rarely do, since they valued male opinion more. Here, Tolkien provides a different view in gender interaction.
So, I believe these strong and influential female characters prove that Tolkien was far from being a chauvinist. And if his stories weren’t revolving around war, I’m sure he would have added even more female characters. However, the fact that they were so few is what makes them even more special and well-developed.