Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation. Feel free to comment even if you are not officially participating! This week’s prompt is:
Should Tolkien have included more female characters in The Hobbit?
I have never been a huge proponent of every book needing to have equal gender representation because I believe every book should have the types of characters that suit the story. I never read Little Women or Anne of Green Gables and think that more boys ought to be involved, because these are stories about girls growing up, and many girls (though not all–and other books represent that) naturally find themselves hanging out with other girls when they are young. Certainly at the time these books were published, girls and boys were naturally separated because they were expected to have different roles. Girls usually gathered together at recess while the boys played. The boys climbed trees and threw the fruit down to the girls. The girls and the boys would even sit on different sides of the classroom. We might not want these roles today, but they do paint an accurate picture of the time, so I can’t complain about how the books represent them.
The same might be said of other books that have mostly male characters–and these are the books that usually come under fire for not having more equal gender representation. They very often feature mostly male characters because it is appropriate to the setting or the time period, or to the type of story being told. Moby-Dick features male characters because you’d expected to find all men on a whaling ship. The Red Badge of Courage features male characters because Civil War regiments were comprised mostly of males (excepting the women who had to disguise themselves as males to be accepted into the army). A Separate Peace features all male characters because it’s set at a prep school for boys. The Chosen focuses on male characters because it’s about a friendship between two boys. None of these books can be classified as sexist solely based on the fact that they feature mostly male characters because that’s the point of the novels–they’re set in male spaces.
And The Hobbit? Does this one count as a book that should feature mostly males in order to be true to the time period it represents? After all, it’s a fantasy, not historical fiction, so anything can happen. An author don’t need to remain true to the Middle Ages when assigning genders.
First, we should consider that J. R. R. Tolkien was a university professor who taught medieval texts and was inspired by medieval works. When you read works like Beowulf or the Kalavela or King Arthur and decide to set your story in a medieval-ish world populated by heroes who go on an adventure to fight a dragon–well it does seem likely that you would make all those heroes male in order to be true to the works you are drawing upon. In fact, a person who grew up reading texts like this, where there were not likely many heroines donning armor to fight as knights, would probably need to make a conscious effort to not just copy the only gender roles he was familiar with.
However, we should keep in mind that The Hobbit was published in 1937 and that it’s perhaps unfair to hold a book from this time period to the same standards of gender representation we would hold a fantasy adventure to today. If few people back then were calling for equal gender representation in books or asking for more ladies to don armor or fight dragons, it’s very likely that such a thing just didn’t occur to many authors.
Tolkien’s failure to think outside the box and add a few female Dwarves to The Hobbit, however, does not seem to indicate a dismissive view towards women in general. He populated Middle-earth with quite a few impressive women, including Eowyn, Galadriel, Luthien, Melian, and Elwing, to name a few. These women do don armor, do fight alongside the men they love, and do very often succeed where the men have failed. Indeed, the women are often more powerful and skilled than the men they associate with or marry. Clearly, women in Middle-earth can fight and heal and perform magic and do any number of things. They run the spectrum and do not hold to any particular type in order to be considered strong or worthy.
So why aren’t there any women in The Hobbit? I’m not quite sure, but I don’t think it’s a detriment to the story, which I have always found enthralling, humorous, and poignant by turns. I don’t need a character to be female in order for me to identify with them, just as a male reader should not need male characters in order to identify with them. Bilbo, with his reluctance for adventure and his love of the simple pleasures in life speaks to me. His growth from an unsure Hobbit to a daring one who risks everything to do what he thinks is right, speaks to me. He and his companions could be any gender and his adventures would be equally delightful. I love a good female character and enjoy reading stories that talk about the types of problems that are often specific to female characters. But not every story needs a female character, just as every story does not necessarily need a male character. Some types of stories work just fine without.