Tolkien Females or… How the Women of Middle-Earth Failed to Make a Meaningful Impact When Peter Jackson Put Them on Screen

Harsh Words I Know, But That Was An Appropriately Epic Title Pun To Start Off With, Right?

The year was 2001 and having grown up reading and re-reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, I was wildly excited about the upcoming Fellowship of the Ring movie. I’d never really seen any of my favourite fantasy stories come to life on the big screen (The Black Cauldron doesn’t count) and the buzz was that this was going to be huge. I was especially intrigued when I saw the trailer and learned that the rider being pursued by the nine ringwraiths was Arwen. I’d never really been a big Arwen fan (I mean, who is?), but it seemed to me that there was an effort being made to give the women in Tolkien’s story a more dynamic role. So let’s talk about how successful that effort was, character by character (don’t worry, it’s a short list).

Arwen: Daughter of Elrond and Chronic Napper

Going back to when I learned it was Arwen who would be rescuing Frodo, I remember thinking it was a great way to expand her role while reducing the clutter of ancillary characters (sorry, Glorfindel). Her actions in spiriting Frodo away to the safety of Rivendell set her up as a risk-taker, someone with real power rather than the passing reference she got in the books. Then she proceeded to do literally nothing but stand/sit/lie around for the rest of the trilogy. I’m positive the only reason she was even shown in The Two Towers was contractual obligations because Liv Tyler was one of the only well-known stars in the cast at the time.

Now, I realize that there were a ton of characters in these movies already, but it kind of defeats the purpose to turn Arwen into a character with agency, only to have her do nothing. Some people might argue that her love story with Aragorn and her decision to give up her immortality gave her depth and warranted the amount of screen time she was given, but it’s really hard to care about a love story when you don’t see how the two characters fell in love or any sort of reason for their passion. It’s the same problem with Star Wars Episode 2; you can’t just shove two good-looking characters into a pretty setting and say: Boom! Love! And hell, it’s not like Elves can never be killed. They can be killed in battle. I mean, she was out there waving her sword at ringwraiths and yet it took her three movies to decide to live a mortal life so she could be with her true love? Seriously?

To be fair, she was REALLY into Twilight at that time.

You want Arwen to bring romance to the trilogy? Fine. Why not have her show up with Haldir at Helm’s Deep in a gesture that proves her love for Aragorn and shows that even if he’s missing and might be dead, she’ll still stand for the ideals he espoused? Again, it’s no more of a stretch than her taking on the ringwraiths. And yes, I’m aware Haldir came from Lothlorien not Rivendell. But maybe Arwen goes to Galadriel and pleads with her to send help. That perhaps the Elves should not be so quick to “diminish”. Hey, then at least one movie would pass the Bechdel Test. At the very least have Arwen show up BEFORE the all-important battle against evil incarnate is over.

Galadriel: The White Lady, Lady of Light, Instigator

So, right now you might be thinking, “Well, Arwen was always kind of lame, but come on, Galadriel was super powerful, out of her and Celeborn, she was the one who was really in charge, plus she had only the most polished of silverware and most glittering of trees”. And that thought, though a bit jumbled, isn’t wrong. But on the other hand, besides narrate the prologue and freaking the ever-loving shit out of Frodo (and the audience), what does Galadriel really DO?

Yes, we covered that already, Galadriel.

Short answer: She goes to the west and diminishes. What the fuck does that line even mean? I know it’s explained more in the books, but I’m talking about the movies and they need to be able to stand alone. Gandalf runs around shooting off magic; you’d think she’d at least give it the old college try before giving up and “diminishing”. Man, these Elves are such downers. Do they really hate humans that much? Maybe I should be talking about Elven racism instead.

Anyway, after planting a strong seed of paranoia in Frodo, Galadriel does her own version of Oprah’s Favourite Things (Everyone’s getting a brooooo-oooch!), gives a creepy wave, and then we never see her again. (Oh, I guess she’s also on the boat at the very end. So she can diminish. In the west. As she remains Galadriel.) You could argue that her gifts do prove invaluable, but did she know Frodo and Sam would use the bottled light of the star against Shelob? Because if so, I think a heads-up would have proven a more valuable gift. I suppose I should give her points for not having her hench-elves kill the fellowship in the woods and for not taking the One Ring… I guess she’s really good at NOT doing things? *shrugs*

Hey, wasn’t she the one who healed Gandalf after the Balrog incident and made him Gandalf the White in the book? (Speaking of Elven racism, she seems awfully bent on making everything white…) Why wasn’t that in the movie? Then I would have been like, okay, this lady is contributing, clearly she cares about defeating evil. Maybe it’s in the extended edition that I own and solemnly swear I will someday watch. But as it stands, Galadriel is simply cold, distant, pretty, and has lots of power, but does nothing. Basically, she’s a statue. And about as relatable. I realize they were going for mysterious and ethereal, but that doesn’t have to equal completely devoid of personality or charisma. I can’t get any sort of read on her motivations, whereas with Elrond we’re shown clear-cut evidence for his skepticism and cynicism (he was there, you see, when the strength of men failed). You might think that’s an unfair comparison, but Galadriel is clearly presented as a figure of importance in the film (hers is in fact the very first voice we hear); she should get at least as much backstory as fellow ring-bearer Elrond. It wouldn’t take much; that single scene between Elrond and Isildur speaks volumes.

Ėowyn: Shieldmaiden, Nazgul-slayer, and Winner of Widest Eyes in Rohan Three Years Running

“Okay, now we’re really getting somewhere,” you’re saying to yourself, “Ėowyn was a badass even in the books. Here’s a character with agency and even an arc. You’ve got nothing!” Well, that’s a mite rude of you. But seriously, growing up I LOVED Ėowyn. I even had that Brothers Hildebrandt poster of her fighting the Witch-king of Angmar up in my room. And as far as Tolkien Females goes, she does indeed tower above the rest.

Here comes the but. Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings between 1937 and 1949, although it wouldn’t be published until 1954. And for that time Ėowyn was remarkable. Aside from historical figures like Joan of Arc, there weren’t a whole lot of women being depicted as warriors in literature, and certainly not many who got to slay a Big Bad like the Witch-king. So when The Two Towers came out, I was pumped. If Arwen rode through forests sword in hand, rescuing hobbits, what would Ėowyn, the predecessor for all ass-kicking fantasy women, be doing? The answer: not a whole lot, apparently.

I am still baffled by the wide-eyed, moony portrayal of Ėowyn in the films. And I don’t really blame Miranda Otto for it, even if she is somewhat more waif-like than Ėowyn really ought to be. I understand that a Brienne of Tarth-like casting was never going to happen and wouldn’t have jived well with the aesthetic and environment Peter Jackson created or the theme that size does not equal strength. And in fact, I think Otto has a lovely naturalistic and everywoman quality about her face that provides a nice contrast to the porcelain faces of the Elves, and she manages to pull off both the dresses and the armour quite well.

Having said all that, is there anything about the character that you see on screen that says “strength” or “solidity” to you? Is there anything that indicates that this is a woman who truly believes herself capable of great deeds if she were only given the opportunity? To me, Ėowyn felt frail and delicate and…off. She spoke in the same breathy voice as every other female character in the movie (was there some sort of law in Middle-Earth that women couldn’t speak above a whisper unless they were shouting about becoming a dark queen?) and seemed to lack the self-assurance that a shieldmaiden of Rohan should have, appearing like a deer in headlights in far too many scenes. Even her Crowning Moment of Awesome, when she does what no man can and kills the Witch-king is lacklustre. I remember watching Return of the King on DVD and my mother and sister coming into the room during that scene and laughing. That should have been one of the most powerful scenes in the trilogy, a triumph of the small but pure over an enormous evil, and instead it was laughable.

Yeah, that was my reaction to that scene too.

Yeah, that was my reaction to that scene too.

I will give the movie props for not stressing the whole “Aragorn doesn’t love me so I’m going to go die in battle” aspect of her character from the books, but why not excise that romantic subplot entirely? It doesn’t really add much to the story being told on screen and she has more than enough motivation to fight without it. Book Ėowyn was great for the times; five decades later she needs to simply be great, without the qualifier. And I want to stress that I don’t mean she needs to turn into Ms. Strong Female Character, utterly flawless and somehow the perfect warrior. That’s incredibly boring.

Why not explore her character as someone hurt and angry? The groundwork is laid. Expand a little more on her suffering in the presence of Wormtongue, knowing that she cannot leave her uncle alone in his grips even as her brother is off (albeit not by choice) with the riders of Rohan, watching the impact Wormtongue’s presence has on Rohan, and feeling helpless while resenting the fact that she feels helpless. Show us the juxtaposition of joy and jealousy she feels at watching her brother ride in to save the day at Helm’s Deep. Have her speak out (in a voice above a whisper) and portray her with a confidence born of determination and a quiet rage within. Really hammer home the brutal pain and frustration of seeing her ambitions crushed when she is denied a place in Rohan’s army. Seeing her temporarily broken makes her triumph all the more meaningful. It’s really not that much change and it is completely in keeping with her epic fear of cages speech. And hell, you can still have her hook up with Faramir at the end. The two of them together make a lot of sense. (“Oh, you’ve got a brother you could never live up to? Me too! What’s that? You’re father went mad and tried to burn you alive? My uncle went mad and tried to pawn me off on the creepiest dude alive! Say, how do you feel about performing valorous acts in battle?”)

I can’t dislike Ėowyn (or Galadriel for that matter), there’s too much goodwill built up from my youth, but I certainly think there’s vast room for improvement.

One Conclusion To Rule Them All

I suppose it’s hard modernize characters when you’ve got legions of fans waiting to pounce on any change you make and so often trying to disguise their ingrained misogyny with “staying true to the book”. And I admit, if you love a story you want it to stay as is, but that’s far easier to argue when you have a huge host of characters representing your gender and in this case, women don’t. Which is a problem that over only a handful of decades, modern fantasy authors have really tackled. I think the big takeaway from the Tolkien Females is the vast array of female characters they spawned in series like The Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire (in the future maybe you’ll see my argument for why Sansa Stark and Cersei Lannister are two of the best portrayals of women in fantasy. Blasphemous, I know!). These days it’s more of an oddity to find a fantasy novel without compelling female characters. To that I say: huzzah! And catch up, Hollywood!

Bonus: Because One Ending Isn’t Enough When You’re Talking About Lord of the Rings

Tauriel: ?

So Tauriel is not technically a Tolkien Female (though certainly token) as she does not appear in any of the books. Rather she appears in the second installment of The Hobbit as an original character (I assume) because Fran Walsh was like “Umm… guys? Just a reminder: women exist”. (Not a direct quote.) From what I’ve seen of the trailers, Tauriel kind of reminds me of Tallis from the Dragon Age 2 Mark of the Assassin DLC crossed with Merida of Brave. At least, based on looks and choice of weapons.

Wikipedia tells me she is a Silvan Elf, lower in social standing than the LotR Elves which sounds quite promising and should make for a good foil for highborn Legolas (who is also there for some reason). My hope is that she’ll be a solid side character with a bit more personality than we’ve seen from the other ladies, and, since The Hobbit is lighter in tone, a bit of humour. I shall report back when I have seen The Desolation of Smaug.


2 thoughts on “Tolkien Females or… How the Women of Middle-Earth Failed to Make a Meaningful Impact When Peter Jackson Put Them on Screen

  1. Pingback: Eowyn | Per ogni generazione...

  2. Pingback: Feminist Friday: Éowyn & The Lord of the Rings | The Leather Library

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s