Perilous and Fair: Women in the Works and Life of J.R.R. Tolkien ed. by Janet Brennan Croft and Leslie A. Donovan

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme selected by the Tolkien Society is Hope and Courage. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts! Check out the full schedule of events by clicking here.


Perilous and Fair book photo

Information

Goodreads: Perilous and Fair: Women in the Works and Life of J.R.R. Tolkien
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 2015

Official Summary

Since the earliest scholarship on The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, critics have discussed how the works of J. R. R. Tolkien seem either to ignore women or to place them on unattainable pedestals. To remedy such claims that Tolkien’s fiction has nothing useful or modern to say about women, Perilous and Fair focuses critical attention on views that interpret women in Tolkien’s works and life as enacting essential, rather than merely supportive roles.

Perilous and Fair includes seven classic articles as well as seven new examinations of women in Tolkien’s works and life. These fourteen articles bring together perspectives not only on Tolkien’s most commonly discussed female characters—Éowyn, Galadriel, and Lúthien—but also on less studied figures such as Nienna, Yavanna, Shelob, and Arwen. Among others, the collection features such diverse critical approaches and methods as literary source study, historical context, feminist theory, biographical investigation, close-reading textual analysis, Jungian archetypes, and fanfiction reader-response.

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Review

Overall, this collection is essential reading for anyone who loves Tolkien, and it will provide some eye-opening arguments for anyone who thinks Tolkien’s women are flat or his portrayals are sexist. The authors consistently offer evidence that while, of course, Tolkien would not have held the views of a 21st-century feminist, the women in his books are nuanced and powerful and generally subvert gender expectations rather than fulfill them. Tolkien was also a champion of women academics in his personal life, and we have no evidence to suggest he didn’t like or respect women.

Here are some brief thoughts on the individual essays:

“The History of Scholarship on Female Characters in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Legendarium: A Feminist Bibliographic Essay” by Robin Anne Reid

This essay lists feminist articles about Tolkien’s work, beginning in the 1970s (when there were only two) and continuing to 2013, right before Perilous and Fair was published. Reid summarizes the articles and gives readers an idea of what feminist Tolkien scholarship has looked like and where it might go, but I admit I’d probably find this bibliography much more useful if I were planning to do some research myself. For pure reading value, this is mildly interesting, but I think it can be skipped unless you actually want to go read some of the articles listed.

“The Missing Women: J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lifelong Support for Women’s Higher Education” by John D. Rateliff

I understand what this essay is doing. The idea that Tolkien was mired in a nearly all-male world (and that he preferred it that way) in ingrained in many people’s understanding of Tolkien and his life. Rateliff even quotes parts of Humphrey Carpenter’s biography that argue explicitly this point- and this may be why so many people believe it, since Carpenter’s biography is generally considered the definitive one. However, it’s still a bit funny that, in order to correct this misconception and demonstrate that Tolkien knew women and was even a staunch supporter of them academically when others weren’t (coughLewiscough), Rateliff found it necessary to comb letters, archives, and people’s personal memories in order to make a list of every time Tolkien ever interacted with a woman.

“She-who-must-not-be-ignored: Gender and Genre in The Lord of the Rings and the Victorian Boys’ Book” by Sharin Schroeder

An interesting comparison between Tolkien’s work and the “boys’ book” genre that early critics dismissively accused The Lord of the Rings belonging to. It seems weird today that anyone would accuse LotR of being a children’s book and I don’t 100% see the need any longer for people to “defend” Tolkien’s work. However, Schroeder does go beyond that to explain how gender in LotR compares to that in popular Victorian boys’ books and touches briefly on some books Tolkien might have been familiar with or read in his own youth. It focuses heavily on She: A History of Adventure by H. Rider Haggard (as it’s one of the few books Tolkien explicitly mentioned in an interview), which frankly didn’t mean much to me as I’d never heard of the book before.

“The Feminine Principle in Tolkien” by Melanie A. Rawls

An excellent look at masculine and feminine characteristics and Tolkien and the important point that both men and women need to embody both characteristics. (This essay is quoted in a few of the other essays, so definitely an influential piece to pay attention to.)

“Tolkien’s Females and the Defining of Power” by Nancy Enright

Enright explores the power that Tolkien’s women have. She has an interestingly extensive discussion of Arwen, considering many readers write her off as barely even being in The Lord of the Rings.

“Power in Arda: Sources, Uses, and Misuses by Edith L. Crowe

Crowe argues that Tolkien’s works can fit in with some definitions of feminism and also points out the importance of female power and involvement in creation in The Silmarillion. She also makes the intriguing point about how important renunciation of power in Tolkien is and how not killing plays such as important role, rare in modern fantasies.

“The Fall and Repentance of Galadriel” by Romuald I. Lakowski

This is one of those essays that really highlights how much Tolkien revised his writing and how much was never fully resolved. There are different versions of Galadriel’s story, but the only things we can say for certain about her are in The Lord of the Rings because otherwise Tolkien was constantly revising his material concerning her. However, this is an insightful look at what we do know and what different information would mean for readers’ interpretations of her character and her power.

Cami D. Agan, “Lúthien Tinúviel and Bodily Desire in the Lay of Leithian”

This essay reads into silences in the text and asks, “How then might it affect the text to assume that Lúthien and Beren consummate their love in the forest?” (172). This is not my favorite approach to literary criticism (How would it affect the text to assume something happens that readers have no direct evidence actually happens?), but Agan still manages to make interesting arguments about Lúthien’s power and how it’s tied up with her body. Personally, I haven’t read Lúthien’s story recently, and I would like to be more familiar with it to have any stronger opinions on this essay.

“The Power of Pity and Tears: The Evolution of Nienna in the Legendarium” by Kristine Larsen

Nienna is another figure I’m not 100% familiar with, but this look at the value of pity and tears is convincing, and of course one can see the importance of pity in The Lord of the Rings, as well. Larsen also discusses whether pity is considered a particularly feminine trait and what that might mean.

If this topic interests you, you can check out one of our previous guest posts, “She Who Weeps:” The Value of Sorrow in Tolkien.

“At Home and Abroad: Éowyn’s Two-fold Figuring as War Bride in The Lord of the Rings” by Melissa A. Smith

I dislike assertions that Tolkien’s writing was “influenced” by his wartime experience (though, of course, one’s life experience must imbue one’s creative works in some way), but the argument that Eowyn can be read as a war bride is persuasive and explains things like how quickly she and Faramir develop a romantic relationship. Smith points out that Tolkien seems to acutely understand something of women’s psychology here, what it means to be left behind in war, what it means to fall in love with someone you recently met, etc.

“The Valkyrie Reflex in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: Galadriel, Shelob, Éowyn, and Arwen” by Leslie A. Donovan

This piece stands out in the collection for bringing in Arwen and Shelob, along with Galadriel and Eowyn. I do think the lists of “and this is how Character X has valkyrie characteristics!” went on a bit long for my tastes. (Apparently luminous eyes are notable, and all these characters have descriptions of their eyes?) But the look at how Tolkien might have been influenced by depictions of valkyries is intriguing.

“Speech and Silence in The Lord of the Rings: Medieval Romance and the Transitions of Éowyn” by Phoebe C. Linton

A very good essay looking at Eowyn, as well as what her apparent silences in the book indicate. I think, however, it raises similar points as other essays in the book do, as Eowyn is an obvious subject for a look at “women in Tolkien,” and I probably would have enjoyed this more if I’d read it on its own or if I’d read it first rather than practically last. I can only read the same quotes about Eowyn and what they mean so many times, no matter how interesting I think they are.

“Hidden in Plain View: Strategizing Unconventionality in Shakespeare’s and Tolkien’s Portraits of Women” by Maureen Thum

I’m always on the fence about comparative essays. Thum makes insightful points about the subverting of gender expectations in Twelfth Night and The Lord of the Rings, but I think she could have written two entirely separate essays; the points about Shakespeare don’t really illuminate Tolkien. Additionally, her arguments about Eowyn and Galadriel are convincing but don’t strike me as overly different arguments from other essays in this collection. It’s a fine essay but certainly not my favorite in this book.

“Finding Ourselves in the (Un)Mapped Lands: Women’s Reparative Readings of The Lord of the Rings” by Una McCormack

A good look at Tolkien fan fiction and the way women authors have chosen to write themselves into the story of LotR where they feel they have been excluded. This is interesting from an academic viewpoint, but I can’t say it made me particularly curious about reading the fan fiction itself, as McCormack herself admits some of it can be Mary Sue-ish as authors work out how to insert female characters– as female knights, as original side characters, as lovers of existing female characters, etc.

Briana
5 stars

Defending Middle-Earth by Patrick Curry

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Nature and Industry. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts!


Information

Goodreads: Defending Middle-Earth: Tolkien: Myth and Modernity
Series: None
Source: Purchased
Published: 1997

Official Summary

What are millions of readers all over the world getting out of reading The Lord of the Rings? Newly reissued with a new afterword, Patrick Curry’s Defending Middle-earth argues, in part, that Tolkien has found a way to provide something close to spirit in a secular age. His focus is on three main aspects of Tolkien’s fiction: the social and political structure of Middle-earth and how the varying cultures within it find common cause in the face of a shared threat; the nature and ecology of Middle-earth and how what we think of as the natural world joins the battle against mindless, mechanized destruction; and the spirituality and ethics of Middle-earth, for which Curry provides a particularly insightful and resonant examination that will deepen the understanding of the millions of fans who have taken The Lord of the Rings to heart. 

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Review

Defending Middle-Earth: Tolkien: Myth and Modernity by Patrick Curry is a classic in the world of Tolkien scholarship, so I find it somewhat surprising I haven’t read it before now.  Perhaps on some level I don’t feel that Middle-earth needs defending; I love The Lord of the Rings and have ideas about why I do and why other people do.  However, finally reading Defending Middle-Earth has sparked some more reflection in me about why other people love Tolkien’s work and why it continues to resonate with readers year after year.

To be fair, the book was published in 1997 and revised in 2004, so it can feel a bit dated at times (I think some of the disgruntled Goodreads reviews are a reaction to this).  This is both in regards to the real-world examples Curry gives about how Tolkien’s work can be applicable to our own lives and to the positioning of the scholarship.  For instance, although there certainly are still academics today who disdain genre fiction, fantasy, and Tolkien’s work in particular, I think the tide has generally changed and the idea that “scholars don’t take fantasy seriously” is today a bit overblown.  University students can take classes on everything from zombie books to children’s literature.  PhD students can specialize in science fiction.  An incredible amount of serious work has been published on Tolkien alone.  So while Middle-earth might need defending to certain people, I think some of the contempt that Curry was responding to at the time of original publication is much less of an issue today.

Nonetheless, the general scope of Curry’s analysis of what makes Tolkien’s work popular and beloved feels timeless.  He focuses on three main categories: the social, the natural, and the spiritual.  One might reductively say this is about the sense of community in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s obvious love of nature, and the clear sense that there is some spiritual meaning in the world of Middle-earth, even as Tolkien’s books rarely overtly mention anything resembling religion.  Curry, of course, goes much more in-depth on these topics, drawing on scholarship and literary theory and even touching on broad topics like why fantasy or myth might resonate with readers in general.  The result is thought-provoking, even if a reader does not agree with all of Curry’s points.

If you’re a Tolkien fan who wants to think more about The Lord of the Rings and the general question of “why people like this stuff,” Defending Middle-Earth is worth a read.

Briana

The Dilemma of Delphini Diggory (A Criticism of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child)

Delphini Diggory Discussion

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child spoilers below!  Read at your own risk!

Perhaps of all the criticisms leveled at the new Harry Potter script, the most searing one has to do with the revelation of Delphini Diggory’s true identity.  I admit that even though I do not consider the story fan fiction, as the Internet has been clamoring, I was a bit disappointed by this plot twist.  Revealing the hidden heir of an old villain is hardly original and it borders on the ridiculous, especially in this case.  For years we have heard that Voldemort was incapable of love and that Bellatrix pined after him with an unrequited devotion.  Now suddenly the two of them did the deed?  Not for love certainly, but it still does seem like–dare I say it–a  fan fiction moment.  It is the fulfillment of a plot line readers previously could only have imagined, but most likely did not consider probable or even possible.

However, before I jump to condemn this odd moment in what I otherwise consider a solid drama, I have to consider the reasons Rowling may have included Delphini.  The number one rule of reading, after all, is to begin by reading sympathetically.  Only after you try to view the work on its own merits and to understand what it is saying–and not simply what you think it might be saying or ought to be saying–can you begin to break it apart.

Missing in the critiques of the story I have seen so far are mentions of Albus and Harry’s relationship; it seems that the time travel plot and the revelation of Voldemort’s heir are so sensational that they have overshadowed what I consider the true driving force of the play.  This is not, in the end, a time travel tale, nor is really another battle of good versus evil.  This is the story of Harry trying to accept his past and his son Albus trying to accept his present burdened by his father’s past.  In this way, having Albus attempt to change the past is fitting.  He cannot yet understand the sacrifices that had to be made, nor can he understand his father’s pain.  He cannot see how love sometimes has to accept loss and pain.

So where does Delphini come into this?  The Harry Potter books have always been about the power of love, with an emphasis on Lily’s motherly love for her son.  Rowling contrasts this love, prepared to die so that another might live, with the emptiness of Tom Riddle’s life.  Riddle does not know love nor how to love; that is the deceptively simple explanation for how he becomes Lord Voldemort.  He cannot begin to understand that love wishes the good of the other, that love puts another first.  If you think about it, Harry, an orphan starved for love himself, might have followed Tom’s lead and descended into self-pity or anger or resentment himself.  But instead he chooses to rise above the example provided to him by the Dursleys and, when tested, to give of himself instead of taking.  Now, in the eighth installment of his series, he and his son face a similar test.  But this time their choices are juxtaposed with Delphi’s.

Harry never knew his parents and, despite knowing that they did love him enough to die for him, we can see in this story that this created an emptiness inside of him that continues into his adulthood.  He hangs on to his childhood blanket.  He makes pilgrimages to Godric’s Hollow.  He suffers because he fears he is a bad father to Albus and he knows he has had few father figures to model himself on.  In a way, the story is about Harry always trying to fill in the gap his own father (unwillingly) left in his life; he does not want Albus to have a similar emptiness.

But Albus is experiencing just the opposite problem.  He does not have a hole in his life.  Rather, he has too much Harry Potter in it, and he has no idea how to deal with that and the expectations it brings.  In many ways, this is because he fundamentally misunderstands his father.  He believes his father, despite his childhood with the Dursleys, had a charmed life.  He had friends and popularity and he found everything easy.  Then he become famous for saving the world.  And Albus believes all of this means Harry does not care or else he would find a way to change the bad things that people keep saying happened because of him.  Voldemort did not kill Cedric; Harry did.

Both Harry and Albus are contrasted with Delphi, who is, though engaged in a maniacal plot to overthrow the world and create a new order full of murder and torture, really another lost orphan, another suffering child.  She and Harry are not so different.  She, too, wants to know her father and wants him to be proud of her.  She wants to fulfill her destiny and receive recognition.  She simply has the misfortune of being born to a father who did not model love and sacrifice but selfishness and ego.

The defining moment for them all comes in Godric’s Hollow.  Here Delphi and Harry want the exact same thing–another chance for being with their parents and feeling their love and approval.  The difference is that Delphi is willing to sacrifice everyone to get her father back, while Harry has to be willing to sacrifice everything to ensure the good of the world.  Harry experiences the pain and trauma of his parents’ death over again because he knows he cannot choose himself and risk everyone else.  And finally here Albus begins to understand his father.  Harry is not sacrificing lives unfeelingly.  The deaths are Voldemort’s fault–not Harry’s–and Harry has to live with the pain of them.

The lives of Harry, Albus, and Delphi intersect with one another to provide a further commentary on the nature of love and family in Rowling’s world.  Family is a legacy, a burden, an aspiration, a necessity.  Love is strange and terrible and beautiful and painful.  And though we understand love as a positive, love can be twisted and used as a justification for the most horrible of acts.  It’s all very messy and very complicated.  It’s almost like trying to figure out what love and family are and what your place in them is, is a constant reassessment of who you are and where you came from–and where you wish you could be.  And who among us, if given a Time Turner, would not be tempted for a moment to figure out if we could indeed change our place in the world?

Krysta 64

Introducing Derrida: A Graphic Guide by Jeff Collins and Bill Mayblin

Introducing DerridaInformation

Goodreads: Introducing Derrida
Series: Introducing series
Source: Purchased
Published: February 10, 1993

Official Summary

Jacques Derrida is the most famous philosopher of the late twentieth century. His philosophy is an array of rigorous tactics for destabilizing texts, meanings, and identities. Introducing Derrida introduces and explores his life and work and explains his influence within both philosophy and literature.

Review

As a disclaimer, I have no direct experience with Derrida’s work.  I started my journey in critical theory by reading Introducing Critical Theory, which I found offers a useful overview of the subject but which is, perhaps necessarily, very general.  To help fill in some of the gaps, I decided to continue on to some specific theorists, starting with Derrida.  So my review of this book is purely of this book and how clearly and engagingly it seems to convey the complex, sometimes seemingly contradictory, school of deconstruction.  Whether it interprets Derrida “correctly,” I cannot accurately judge without reading his works myself.

Introducing Derrida, from a novice’s perspective, is a very approachable guide to deconstruction.  I went into the book really knowing nothing about the topic (besides the fact that people seem to equate it with tearing things apart) and came out feeling as though I could talk knowledgably about the general concepts and approaches of the theory.  The book highlights key terms and gives brief definitions and examples, providing a more than adequate overview of not only deconstruction itself, but also its historical reception and its political implications.

I do have some confusion, but I believe my issues are with deconstruction itself, and not necessarily with this book.  In many cases, deconstruction does not make sense to me.  The book is written clearly enough that I understand the explanations…but I fail to see the point of deconstruction.  I see that one can, for instance, show the “undecidability” of terms, but I have yet to understand exactly why one would want to, why deconstructive approaches are actually useful.

For example, the book explains that a deconstructive approach to architecture would theoretically result in a building that is ugly and functionless—but then hastily reassures the readers that this would not be quite the case, because perhaps beauty and function can be redefined—but then notes that no one has ever really solved this problem or built such a building.  First, this summary is contradictory.  Is the building useless or not?  Second, it fails to adequately convey why someone would want to build a maybe-useless building, besides as some type of protest or artistic statement.

In comparison with Introducing Critical Theory, the graphics in Introducing Derrida are notably less clever and less useful as mnemonic devices.  An inordinate percent of the illustrations are simply of Derrida himself, with speech bubbles quoting some of his works directly.  Many of the other remaining illustrations are of other theorists and philosophers, with their own speech bubbles.  So there is really no overwhelming benefit to the book’s being a “graphic guide” as opposed to having been primarily text-based—unless one simply enjoys pictures breaking up what can otherwise be a dense topic.

However, the Derrida pictures occasionally complicate the message of the book.  As in Introducing Critical Theory, the lines between instances where the authors are summarizing Derrida (or other scholars) and when they are adding their own personal commentary on deconstruction are vague.  The fact that there are so many mini Derridas with speech bubble quotes tempts the reader to suspect that anything not in a speech bubble must be authorial commentary…but it is impossible to be certain.

So, I still have a lot of work to do understanding Derrida and deconstruction, but I feel as if this book has given me a solid foundation from which to start.  Derrida is notoriously complicated (the word “incomprehensible” may have been thrown around as well), so I believe having a general overview of his primarily ideas will be essential in attempting to tackle his primary texts.  And after that I should be able to move on to figuring out how other scholars have used deconstruction.

Introducing Critical Theory: A Graphic Guide by Stuart Sim and Borin Van Loon

Introducing Critical TheoryInformation

Goodreads: Introducing Critical Theory: A Graphic Guide
Series: Introducing Series
Source: Purchased
Published: August 29, 1997

Official Summary

The last few decades have seen an explosion in the production of critical theories, with deconstructionists, poststructuralists, postmodernists, second-wave feminists, new historicists, cultural materialists, postcolonialists, black critics and queer theorists, among a host of others, all vying for our attention. The world around us can look very different on the critical theory applied to it. This vast range of interpretations can leave one feeling confused and frustrated. This book provides a route through the tangled jungle of competing theories.

Review

It is always difficult for a novice in a subject to judge whether something is a good introduction to that topic. If one knows little about the subject being discussed, how can one tell if all the relevant points are being covered or whether the information given is correct? Such is my issue with this Graphic Guide. That said, I do have a bit of background knowledge of critical theory and, based on that, this book appears to give a pretty good overview of the topic, quickly covering the major schools, their most influential ideas, and their most prominent thinkers. I finished the book feeling as if I could talk about the main ideas of critical theory intelligently and that I had enough of a grasp of the basics to be able to delve into the topic more deeply. So, overall, this guide is effective.

Introducing Critical Theory keeps readers on track by drawing lines between different schools of thought, frequently referencing what a particular school thinks of previous schools, and whether they are a response or reaction to any particular theorists. Generally, the book relates just about everything back to Marxism, which allows readers to get a basic idea of how critical theory developed chronologically.

The pictures also help hold reader attention. They are mostly for fun or perhaps may function as mnemonic devices. For instance, the page introducing post-structuralism might have some doodles of lamp posts on it. There are also frequent pictures of theorists themselves, occasionally with brief quotes that might further elucidate some of their beliefs. Readers will have to look closely, however, to see the tiny scrawled names identifying each person in the pictures.

On the negative side, Introducing Critical Theory is occasionally too general. It mentions a number of key terms, often bolding or otherwise highlighting them so readers know they are key, without adequately defining them. Sometimes, there is no attempt to define them at all. Readers should keep a search engine at hand, or make notes of words to research later. Also, the book is not always objective and sometimes offers opinions on the theories it is introducing. Now, some schools of thought may be “obviously” absurd, and these notes may actually help readers differentiate between schools that are popularly rejected or accepted by current theorists, but one does not really expect this type of biased commentary from an introductory book. Hopefully, readers who look further into the topic will later be able to draw their own opinions about which schools are valid and invalid.

Introducing Critical Theory nonetheless does a very good job at what it sets out to do. It makes critical theory accessible and mildly entertaining and should serve as a very good basis for those looking to learn more about critical theory. Personally, I plan to get a few more of these guides focused specifically on some of the theorists mentioned.

Looking for Hamlet by Marvin W. Hunt

Summary: Hunt describes the history of criticism on Hamlet, as well the sources from which Shakespeare drew in order to write the play.

Review:  Looking for Hamlet serves as a wonderful introduction to the critical reception of what many consider Shakespeare’s greatest play.  Hunt begins by describing the sources upon which Shakespeare based his own play, thus establishing the context of the drama and highlighting the importance of changes made by Shakespeare.  He then continues by describing the earliest printed versions of Hamlet and explaining the differences among them and how those differences affect our understanding of the work.  Hunt keeps the origins of the play and the distinct versions in mind as he proceeds to explain and comment upon the interpretations of Hamlet offered by various historical eras and critics.  Readers need not agree with Hunt’s interpretation of the play to appreciate his contributions to our understanding of Shakespeare.  Rather, because Hunt supports all his assertions with textual evidence from Hamlet, readers who differ with him on points may be surprised to find the play sustain contradictory arguments so well; disagreements on interpretation ultimately testify to the richness and depth of the text. Continue reading