“‘My friend,’ said Gandalf, ‘you had horses, and deeds of arms, and the free fields; but she, born in the body of a maid, had a spirit and courage at least to match yours. Yet she was doomed to wait upon an old man, whom she loved as a father, and watch him falling into a mean dishonored dotage…’”
From the first time I read LOTR at the tender age of eleven, I loved it. It wasn’t my first experience of high fantasy, but the seriousness with which Tolkien approached his heroes and the evil they faced appealed to me: I took myself seriously, and even then I believed that the small can slay the mighty, can stand up against evil. Tolkien’s worldbuilding is impressive and unprecedented and I’m grateful to the father of the genre I love for bringing about the high fantasy renaissance, which lead to the publication of novels like The Golden Compass, The Broken Earth Trilogy, and every perfect book Tamora Pierce has ever written.
Having established my credentials as a serious fantasy fan (come at me, bros) there’s something I have to get off my chest. LOTR has a serious lady problem. Three and a half books we’ve encountered only 5 female-identified characters in this months-long journey. Five! In the course of literally thousands of pages of epic journey! How is that even possible???? Let’s review:
- Goldberry River-daughter, wife of Tom Bombadil, first lady-bodied character to meet our Hobbits on their journey. Like Tom, she’s tied to the Old Forest outside the Shire but, unlike him, she doesn’t doesn’t move the plot forward at all, unless you count dancing upon the morning dew while starry-eyed Hobbits watch her, and their hearts were glad of it.
- Arwen Elrond’s daughter and Aragorn’s future wifey. Doesn’t have any lines. None. Zero. Zip. HOW????
- Galadriel Lady of Lothlórien/Lady of the Golden Wood/Keeper of the Ring of Adamant/mightiest and fairest of all Elves remaining in Middle Earth. Or, as every character who hasn’t met her alleges, an evil sorceress who entraps men in her woods, never to be seen again.
- Éowyn Niece of Theoden, King of Rohan, and ice princess of my heart. Hangs around caring for her bespelled, elderly uncle until Gandalf rides in and convinces the king and literally every other able-bodied male to go mess with Saruman in Isengard. This leaves Éowyn, shieldmaiden of Rohan, home alone to defend their capital city which we assume that she does successfully, but don’t know because at that point in the Two Towers all the men ride off to adventure and that’s the last we see of her or any female characters at all until…
- Shelob She’s actually just an ancient, venomous, offspring-slaying, darkness-vomiting, spider-monster who drinks the blood of Elves and Men and Dwarves and Orcs and Hobbits alike.
Yes, Éowyn does go on the slay the Witch-King of Agmar, a task that no man can complete. What happens after that? Everyone assumes she’s dead, talks about how beautiful she is and how tragic her collapse/death was and then Aragorn heals her physical wounds so she can fall in love with Faramir and “heal her soul.” She’s a badass character who Tolkien recognizes as being a worthy warrior unfairly limited by her gender. But, instead giving her a chance to prove her worth and take charge of her own story (just like all the other male-identified characters get to….) he writes her a love story and calls it a day.
No story is perfect, but we all deserve better. Now, more than ever, we could use the reminder from the genre that prides itself in building worlds, that there’s plenty of room to build awesome characters of all genders to kick evil out on its butt.