Reading that Shapes the Writer: Tolkien (Part 2)

Part 1

As a white child growing up in a ‘colorblind’ household I didn’t notice the issues with how race was depicted in the material. Criticism there is fully warranted and I wish people adapting the work would realize that Tolkien himself, were he alive today, would probably have grown enough as a person to want race depicted otherwise. I doubt he’d be offended at the notion of casting an actor like Idris Elba as Aragorn.

Less fair, in my opinion, is criticism of Tolkien on the subject of sexism. Yes, the books are a sausage fest. I would personally do some gender-bent casting were I the one adapting the material for the modern era. But I’ve read and watched many modern fantasies and sci-fi stories that were less of a sausage fest but far more misogynistic. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is a primary example.

It was incredibly rare for Tolkien’s era to have characters like Eowyn and Galadriel, especially Galadriel. Galadriel is a married woman, but unapologetically portrayed as the power in her relationship and her lands. She’s obviously the equal of Elrond and Gandalf, her fellow ring-wielders – I’d even go so far as to say their superior on some level.

She’s freely offered the power of the One Ring and freely rejects it, because she understands herself well enough to know she would not be able to fight its influence forever – but the influence wouldn’t put her in Sauron’s thrall – she would, instead, overthrow him and become the new Power in Middle Earth.

That’s right. Tolkien casually shows that Galadriel is such a powerful person in her own right that with the power of the One Ring she would overthrow Sauron and become the ruler of Middle Earth. This casual acceptance of female leadership and power was not only nearly unheard of for the era in which Lord of the Rings was written, I’d say it’s still rare today, especially from male authors.

For a girl being taught that women were weak, and easily deceived, that we shouldn’t teach men and that our place was to submit to the authority of a man, Tolkien might as well have been an avowed feminist. Galadriel was so far out of my frame of reference that I didn’t even know what to make of her back then.

As for Eowyn – just remembering reading her story sends a shiver of awe through my body.

“No man am I, but a woman,” Eowyn declares, facing down the leader of the Nazgul, whose mere presence can rob a man of his courage.

Eowyn is Joan of Arc with a happy ending.

(I hated how they adapted Eowyn for Jackson’s movie trilogy. They made her look like a sad, tearful puppy instead of a queen made of ice and iron.)

Galadriel and Eowyn are prime examples of why it’s not mere representation that matters – it’s the quality of the representation, too.

Contrast Tolkien’s treatment of women in the 1950s to Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer’s treatment of women in the 1998 movie Armageddon. The movie is certainly as much of a sausage fest as LotR. But let’s look at the quality of the female characters that do get screen time, shall we?

Liv Tyler’s character is there to have sex with her boyfriend and cry for her dad. The one woman on the team sent to the asteroid inexplicably spends her time running around in a tight white t-shirt, her role never specified. There’s a minor appearance by someone’s wife, and an appearance by a sex worker.

I saw this movie in theaters as a teenager and was so furious at the way women were portrayed in it that I instantly hated it and have hated it ever since.

I’ll take Tolkien over Bay or Bruckheimer any day.

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