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

Classic Remarks: Name A Classic That Should Be Required Reading

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:

What is a classic you think should be required school reading?

My Name Is Asher Lev

The secret of most syllabi is, of course, that the instructors put books on it that they like.  You may think they’re choosing the best of the canon or some significant classics and, to some extent, they are choosing the books that you “ought” to have read if you’re going to have a solid grasp of the literary tradition and its influences.  Still, when you only have room for maybe two novels in a high school class or eight in a college course, and an entire range of “important” books to choose from, you’re going to be tempted to choose the ones that you personally enjoy.  In that fine tradition, I thus present to you a critically-acclaimed and very important modern classic–but also one I happen to love: My Name Is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok.

My Name Is Asher Lev follows the titular character as he grows up a Hasidic Jew but one who possesses a artistic gift his father thinks is demonic.  Asher needs to paint to live, but his community believes art is a waste of time.  His gift causes others to scorn him and his father to hate him.  His family is being torn apart.  And yet Asher wants to believe that he can express himself as an artist and still remain faithful to his religion.  The tension between his desire to paint and his desire to serve his God and his people combine to create a story that is likely to break your heart.

And, of course, the work would count as a diverse piece of fiction that would also help students empathize with and understand with characters who may have a different lifestyle or religion from their own.  As schools increasingly search for books that reflect the lives of a myriad of readers, this one would certainly help fill that gap.

Krysta 64

Classic Remarks: What Would You Do in Anne of Green Gables?

Classic Remarks

Classic Remarks is a meme 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.  The schedule for 2017 is available now, if you would like to participate. We look forward to seeing your responses!


You’ve been dropped into L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables.

What do you do first?

Anne of Green Gables

Although I love the characters L.M. Montgomery creates in the Anne series, I am also enchanted by her portrayal of Prince Edward Island. I know that life on the Island may not have entirely been idyllic in the late 1800s/early 1900s.  (Anne’s chores are sometimes noticeably glossed over in the books, unless she’s having a mishap baking cakes or such.) However, Montgomery still makes the Island sound like one of the most beautiful places on earth, and if I were plunked directly into Anne of Green Gables, I would start exploring it.

Anne is enraptured by the red soil and the beautiful flowering trees when she first heads to Green Gables with Matthew, so I like I’d like to start there, traveling down the White Way of Delight. I’d move on to see all the beautiful places where Anne spends her girlhood, from the Lake of Shining  Waters to the Dryad’s Bubble to Lover’s Lane.  I think walking around Anne’s haunts would be a well-spent day.

If I had more time in Avonlea, I’d love to see what events were happening.  Entertainment in the past seems so much different than our own today.  (People really went to recitals to hear children recite great poems of literature?) However, it also sounds charming. I think I’d enjoy going to a school concert or a church picnic, or whatever was happening that week, and hopefully there would be delicious homemade desserts!

If you are participating this week, please leave the link to your post in the comments.

Briana

Classic Remarks: Recommend a Holiday Classic

Classic Remarks 1

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:

Recommend a classic you think should be read during the holiday season.

I don’t normally read seasonally, so when I first thought about this prompt, all I could come up with was the perennial favorite A Christmas Carol–but I’ve never enjoyed the film versions and the actual story fell flat for me when I finally read it, since I’d seen so many film versions.  Fortunately, however, J. R. R. Tolkien is here to rescue us from any holiday reading slumps.

The Father Christmas Letters collects letters that Tolkien wrote and illustrated for his children between 1920 and 1942.  Supposedly from Father Christmas himself, they tell the adventures of the titular character as well as of the North Polar Bear, who often gets into mischief.  Fans of Tolkien are sure to appreciate this offering!

Leave your link below! Krysta 64

Sneak Peek at the 2017 Classic Remarks Question List

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.  If you’re planning to get a head start on your blog and want to participate next year, we’ve provided questions for the beginning of 2017 below.  The full list will be up shortly under our “Classic Remarks” tab.

Jan. 6 What is a classic you think should be required school reading?

Jan. 13 Should Tolkien have included more female characters in The Hobbit?

Jan. 20 Do you think “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” by Geoffrey Chaucer is feminist?

Jan. 27 Do you think Severus Snape is a good person?

Feb. 3 Tell us about your favorite poem or poet.

Feb. 10 What do you think the funniest moment in Pride and Prejudice is?

Feb. 17 If you were to teach a Shakespeare text in a high school classroom and could not choose Romeo and Juliet, which play would you choose and why?

Feb. 24 Who is your favorite L. M. Montgomery hero?

March 3 What do you think of adapting classics for younger readers?

March 10 Tell us about your favorite classic graphic novel (not an adaptation of a classic but a classic of the form such as Maus).

March 17 Do you think Satan from Paradise Lost is at all a sympathetic character?

March 24 Discuss one of the changes Peter Jackson made from the book while adapting The Lord of the Rings.  What did this change add to or take away from the story?

March 31 What’s a somewhat obscure classic you wish more people would read?

Classic Remarks: Charles Dickens

Classic Remarks 1

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:

Tell Us ABout Your Favorite Charles Dickens Novel.

For a long time Bleak House was my favorite Charles Dickens novel.  Like all his novels, it combines pointed social commentary with a good story, all the threads coming neatly together at the end.  But over the years I have transitioned to considering A Tale of Two Cities my favorite Dickens story (though, of course, it’s very difficult to choose).

A Tale of Two Cities is, excuse my pun, classic Dickens.  Compelling characters, richly drawn.  Mystery.  Political commentary.  All of this is here, but in a concise, tight package.  Every time I read the book, I am in awe over Dickens’s ability to write such a neat story.  You can predict the end from the beginning, simply because the construction is so perfect.

And, oh the story.  Dickens sets this one in France and in England, crossing the Channel to tell a sweeping saga of a family caught up in the French Revolution.  It’s dramatic and heartbreaking, especially with its focus on protagonist Sydney Carton, a brilliant lawyer who is wasting his life through idleness and drink.  He knows it, too, but cannot stop.  Is there a greater tragedy than someone who wants to change and has a glimpse of how he might, and yet feels he can’t?

Sometimes the length of a Dickens novel scares potential readers away, but A Tale of Two Cities is unusually short, meaning that I can recommend it for its story and yet also feel that perhaps my recommendation will be taken up.  There’s also a musical now, though some changes have been made, so I’m hoping that will inspire some more Dickens fans.

Leave your link below! Krysta 64

Classic Remarks: Adaptations

Classic Remarks 1

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:

Nahum Tate is infamous for his 1681 adaptation of King Lear with a happy ending.  Why do you think some adaptations of works are praised and others dismissed?  Can we separate the merit of an adaptation from the merit of the work it is based on?

The definition of an adaptation is more elusive than it might initially seem.  For example, what is the difference between writing a story based on another story or inspired by another story, or writing an adaptation?  Is West Side Story an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet?  Is The Lion King an adaptation of Hamlet?  Is Nameless by Lili St. Crow an adaptation of “Snow White?”  How many matching elements must a story  have to be an adaptation?  Must the similarities be intentional on the part of the creators?

And if Shakespeare’s stories were inspired by others, why don’t we consider his works to be adaptations?  No one writes “The Winter’s Tale, an adaptation of Robert Greene’s Pandosto.”  Is a work only considered an adaptation if it’s considered inferior to the original?  Or if the original has a big name author attached to it?  And yet Pandosto was very popular during Shakespeare’s time.  How do we begin to decipher what is “good” literature or who counts as “popular?”  Many times works become famous due to a mixture of influence, money, and luck–not necessarily because they’re better than anything else out there.  And tastes change.  The sentimental novel was once considered great art in America.  Now people make fun of it.

Pinning down precisely what an adaptation is is difficult enough, without bringing in questions of merit.  And yet I think that the definition of an adaptation might tie into this question.  Nahum Tate’s King Lear is infamous now (though theatre audiences of the time loved it) because it seems a desecration to so radically transform Shakespeare’s existential commentary.  King Lear is greatness!  Who dares to give it a mere happy ending just to please people who don’t enjoy death?  But when Tate wrote, Shakespeare wasn’t quite the revered demigod he is today.  Transforming his work was acceptable, just as Shakespeare’s transforming others’ work had been acceptable.

Differing audience reception over time suggests that the merit of an adaptation is determined not solely by the work as it stands on its own, but by a comparison with the original.  If you adapt a lesser-known work that people are less attached to or familiar with, chances are you will run into less criticism than you would if you tried to radically adapt a the work of a “genius.”  But is this fair?

I think that adaptations should be judged on their own merits, and yet I also acknowledge that it seems almost impossible not to compare adaptations with their sources or even with other adaptations of the same work.  When someone adapts a work, I generally assume that they are making some sort of commentary on the original work.  I wonder, why did they make certain changes?  Are they speaking to changed cultural norms or making the story more politically relevant?  Are they speaking to audiences who might have always wondered something like “Where did Rumpelstiltskin come from?” or “Does Kate have to be ‘tamed’?”  Texts, for me, are inter-textual–I want to know what conversations the creators are engaging in, to see whom they’re referencing and responding to.  So, unfortunately, I cannot assess an adaptation without also thinking about the source.  Why adapt something if you don’t want to start a conversation?

Leave your link below! Krysta 64