Classic Remarks: Does The Hobbit Need More Female Characters?

Classic Remarks

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.

Krysta 64

13 thoughts on “Classic Remarks: Does The Hobbit Need More Female Characters?

  1. Briana says:

    The first time someone told me there are essentially no female characters in The Hobbit, I scratched my head and thought about it for a bit because I hadn’t even noticed. Historically, there have been “male” spaces and “female” spaces, and arguably there are some still today. Because Tolkien was trying to write a story that could believably have occurred in England’s past, I think including primarily male characters actually lends some realism to the story. Sure, there were some kickass female warriors and adventurers (sometimes disguised as men), in the pre-modern period, but they were rare. It doesn’t trouble me that Tolkien wrote about a bunch of men going on a trip any more than it would trouble me if someone wrote about an all-girls boarding school. I also think, because he was trying to write something that might stand in for a history or mythology for England, that this isn’t even the same casesas writing an entirely fabricated fantasy world where an author would pointedly write in gender equality.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      All excellent points. And I was confused the first time someone told me there are no female characters! They said they couldn’t get into the book because they couldn’t identify with anyone, but that never occurred to me. The character doesn’t need to be female for me to connect with them.

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  2. Geraldine @ Corralling Books says:

    Honestly, I never really thought about the gender imbalance in The Hobbit all too much – I just read The Hobbit, and never really analysed it.
    You made wonderful points though – the character’s gender doesn’t necessarily have to be a characteristic for readers to identify with – its their personality, etc. that resonate with readers.
    Wonderful post, Krysta! ❤

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    • Krysta says:

      I think the first time I realized there were no female characters was when people started discussing Tauriel. But gender isn’t what makes me connect with a character. In fact, I don’t identify with Tauriel at all and I’d rather have no female characters than a stereotypical “strong female character” involved in a love triangle that also flouts what we know canonically about Dwarf-Elf relations. (Her relationship takes away from Legolas and Gimli’s, which is supposed to be weird and shocking in LotR because that sort of thing is just not done. But apparently it is, in Peter Jackson’s world.)

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  3. Books, Vertigo and Tea says:

    I have never even given this issue a thought while reading The Hobbit. I guess because it is not an issue for me.

    As you mentioned, Tolkien has given us a fair share of strong female characters. Being one of my absolute favorites and a story of camaraderie and adventure, I have never felt the need for further diversity in The Hobbit. The mixture of characters provide that well enough without gender being a factor. We were, after all, presented with a handful of varying races who would not have normally joined forces.

    I feel that adding female characters may have actually influenced the story to veer in further or other directions that could have possibly impacted it negatively. Given the setting and timeline, everything works perfectly for me, feeling more authentic (well as authentic as one can with fantasy 😉 ).

    Great choice for a discussion post. Love it!

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    • Krysta says:

      Yes, I think it does feel authentic as a English mythology to have a band of male Dwarves journeying to reclaim their treasure. If Tolkien had had an overall record of poor representation (kind of like Pixar only having one female protagonist–Merida) I’d be unhappy, but he seems to have chosen all male figures for this story to make it feel like a real myth, not so much because he can’t imagine adventurous women.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Nandini Bharadwaj says:

    As far as I know, The Hobbit (or some parts of it, at least) started as a bedtime story adventure for Tolkien’s sons. So, it would’ve made sense to have a primarily male cast because, at that age, boys would be more comfortable around other boys.
    I didn’t find it a major issue when I was reading it because it is the personality of the protagonist that makes us relate to him/her rather than their gender. I wasn’t too happy with Tauriel, to be honest, because of the horribly clichéd love triangle and also because the impossibility of it, as you’ve said. I felt it like it took away from the original story.
    I think the legendarium has plenty of amazing female characters and I don’t think they need to appear in every story just for the sake of “equal representation”. I enjoyed the story even without a female character, which is also the opinion of many modern women, so I don’t think it’s a problem. In fact, I gifted The Hobbit to one of my female friends for her birthday and she didn’t rant about the lack of relatable characters, so there you go.

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    • Krysta says:

      I find it interesting that so far no one has commented saying they couldn’t relate to the male characters. I have had at least one person tell me that they couldn’t get through The Hobbit because there were no women, but I would love to hear more from the people who didn’t like The Hobbit for that reason and welcomed Tauriel. (Though I would have welcomed Tauriel if her character had been better-written. I don’t mind additions to movies if they’re good additions.)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    One hundred percent agree with you here- books do not have to have equal representation- especially in older books where it is just reflecting the reality of the time. And your view on the Hobbit is very accurate! Like you said, it’s not like Tolkein has an aversion to strong, interesting and impressive female characters- LOTR and his other works have many of them. Plus it is in keeping with the works he mirrored and took inspiration from. I agree that it in no way detracts from the story! Excellent post!!! Wholeheartedly agree with it!!

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