I will not argue that Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings contains a wealth of women. Goldberry, Galadriel, Rosie Cotton, Ioreth, Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, Arwen, Eowyn, and Shelob make up a total of eight female characters who appear in the work. (I do not count named characters such as Elbereth or Lúthien who function more as references than as characters.) However, I do contest the well-worn arguments that Tolkien’s women are not valuable or interesting or that they do not count as meaningful characters “because they are only there to help the men” on their way.
These claims ignore the rich history Tolkien gives his women and implicitly suggest that women can only be considered strong or worth talking about if they take on certain (traditionally masculine) roles. That is, these claims suggest that Eowyn is Tolkien’s only significant female character in LotR because she is the only woman who takes up a sword to fight in battle. But this standard of “strength” is never applied to Tolkien’s male characters. Tolkien’s men get to run the spectrum, to be warriors or not, intelligent or not, brave or not, good or not. But, for some reason, Tolkien’s women cannot do the same and still receive respect from critics. The call for “strong female characters” in Tolkien is often actually a demand that women conform to a one-size-fits all model. And this demand is damaging because it denies women the opportunity to be simply human.
Furthermore, the argument that Tolkien’s women “don’t do anything” is absurdly reductionist. If we are to make the argument that Goldberry is not significant to the plot, then we must admit that Tom Bombadil is not, either. He is merely a side adventure on the Hobbit’s journey to Rivendell. If we want to argue that Galadriel is present merely to bestow gifts and help the Fellowship on their way, then we must also argue that Elrond exists merely to dispense advice and send the Fellowship off. If we criticize Rosie Cotton for being a boring Hobbit who does not do anything, well, we can probably make the same criticism of half the Shire. But Tolkien’s male characters do not tend to receive these same types of criticisms.
To be clear, I am not arguing that women of LotR typically receive the same type of characterization as the bulk of the men. I do not pretend that Arwen receives any significant page time in the story proper or that Ioreth has any sort of character arc. I understand that Rosie Cotton has about one line and that Shelob is a spider and not necessarily a proper female character. I readily admit that Eowyn receives the most significant page time and has one of the most fleshed out arcs of the women (though Galadriel’s redemption and Lobelia’s umbrella shaking both merit mention). I am simply arguing that these women deserve a second look.
If we cannot imagine any meaning for Tolkien’s women or any reasons for their presence in the story other than to support the men, the fault is with our literary analysis, not with the work. Consider a few examples. Arwen’s connection with Lúthien, her decision to give up immortality, and her separation from her father and brothers all are worth consideration. What does it mean for a third Elf and Man couple to appear in the Third Age? How can we reconsider Arwen in light of her sacrifice and her later realization that death is more bitter than she imagined? And Galadriel! Various versions of her story exist. Sometimes she rebelled against the Valar. Sometimes she wants to rule a land of her own. Sometimes she takes up arms against her own kin. All before the events of the LotR. But her previous history gives even more meaning to her final rejection of the One Ring and the power it represents.
And what about Goldberry? If people can write papers about Tom Bombadil, about whom we know essentially nothing, why not a paper on his wife? Surely scholars can find something to say about the presence of a river spirit in Tolkien’s work, possible influences and inspirations, and the significance of her presence when Tolkien did not have to give Bombadil a wife at all. Why should we overlook her when people are so fond of her husband? Even Ioreth, who plays a tiny comical role as a gossip, might have something said of her, her function in keeping lore and healing alive in Gondor, and her characterization. Scholars have written papers on less.
The Lord of the Rings does have women (and The Silmarillion many, many more), though critics tend to write as if half of them do not exist. And those women are interesting, though critics apparently can see nothing to admire about any of them except for Eowyn (and sometimes Galadriel). Let us not pretend that The Lord of the Rings is less than it is. Rather, let us use our imaginations and apply the same type of inquiry and interest so many people have evidently deemed only the male characters worthy to receive. Because, if we do not, we are only revealing our own attitudes towards gender and about which types of women matter–and which do not.