Reclaiming Arwen: Why I Don’t Appreciate Peter Jackson’s Limited View of Womanhood in His LotR Films

It has been a commonplace to complain that Tolkien does not include enough women in his works and that he is therefore sexist.  Readers of our blog will already know that I do not subscribe to this view.  Tolkien, after all, presented us with many strong women throughout his work.  Plus, I do not believe that every book must have an equal ratio of men to women.  I will elaborate more on my understanding of Tolkien’s women in a future post.

In this post, however, I want to address the idea promulgated by Peter Jackson in the LotR films that a strong woman is one who fights.  Thus he keeps Eowyn’s role in the story intact, he adds Tauriel the Elf-warrior to his Hobbit trilogy, and he enlarges Arwen’s role by giving her a horse and a sword (presumably to fight the Ringwraiths, though it never comes to that).  He even meant Arwen to fight at Helm’s Deep, thought these scenes were later cut.  Meanwhile, women like Ioreth, Goldberry, and Lobelia Sackville-Baggins are erased from the LotR films completely.

Jackson’s decision to “add” more women to his films is understandable.  He wants to increase his potential fan base and appeal to audiences who may not have connected to Tolkien’s books because they wanted more female characters.  However, his additions (again, after he cuts most of Tolkien’s female characters) typically involve handing a woman a sword.  It is almost as if he cannot conceive of a “strong female character” as someone who does anything besides kick bad guy butt.

What Jackson’s vision obscures is that there is more than one way to be a strong woman.  Not every woman has to be a warrior to be valuable, impressive, or admirable.  Little girls do not all need to dream of learning fencing or joining the military when they grow up.  Plenty of amazing women fulfill other roles that are also difficult; that demand fortitude, patience, and strength; and that require them to overcome personal and professional challenges.  Women who are nurses, doctors, teachers, researchers, actors, gardeners, engineers, architects, and homemakers are also strong women.  They also make contributions to society and they also often face great obstacles or stigmas to get there.

It is true that J. R. R. Tolkien’s Arwen is barely present in the book and that few people would argue she counts as a fleshed-out character.  In fact, most of what we know about her comes from Appendix A.  We do know, however, that Arwen falls in love with a mortal man and gives up her own immortality to be with him.  We know that her decision means that she will likely never see her family again.  (Elves believe that Elves and Men go to separate afterlives.)  We know that she initially does not fully understand the choice she has made–not until Aragorn dies and she is left alone to taste the bitterness of mortality.  However, in all these moments, she shows strength.  She makes a difficult decision and she follows through with it, even when she begins to understand why Men flee from death.

We may have no record from Tolkien of anything Arwen does as queen.  We do not know how or if she influenced politics, what talents she possessed, or how she used her influential position.  We do not even have any notable record of her character or character development.  However, I am not sure we need to know any of this to respect Arwen as a a woman.  Even if she never leads an army into battle, even if her life appears to be a footnote in another person’s history, her life is not without meaning or value.  She surely was, if nothing else, important to her friends and family.  In suggesting that Arwen can only be a strong role model by taking up a sword, Peter Jackson actually reduces Arwen–and women.  Because women are valuable no matter their skills, their jobs, or their roles.

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The Continuing Appeal of Little Women

The first half of the new Masterpiece adaptation of Little Women premiered on Sunday, May 13, leading to a series of reviews that range from delighted to puzzled to disdainful.  Two of the most negative reactions come from Melanie McFarland’s article “PBS’ ‘Little Women’ looks thoroughly unfashionable” and Sonia Saraiya’s “Review: PBS’s Little Women Is Thoroughly Un-Modern.” McFarland opines that the new adaptation needs something to happen and suggests that audiences raised on the drama of period pieces like Downton Abbey will be bored.  Saraiya argues that the story itself is objectionable because the heroines are domesticated and–gasp–religious.  Yet it seems strikingly obvious that Little Women has lasted through the centuries because audiences actually like something about the text.  Indeed, I argue that the aspects McFarland and Saraiya object to most are the ones that continue to appeal so strongly to modern audiences.

A Coming-of-Age Story

McFarland’s comparison of Little Women to Downton Abbey suggests that she does not fully understand the nature of Louisa May Alcott’s work–and thus is ill-suited to comment on why audiences still connect with it.  Although the titular “little women” do grow from children into adults who marry and have children of their own, the story is not meant to be a period drama like Downton Abbey, where the characters are of marriageable age from the start.  Her examples of Downton Abbey-esque drama center on characters like the Turkish diplomant Mr. Pamuk, who dies in the unmarried Lady Mary’s bed.  That is, the implied argument is that the real drama audiences want is sexual escapades–a strange argument for a story that begins with Meg, the eldest daughter, at the age of sixteen.  Though audiences may cheer on her blossoming romance with Mr. Brooke, I hardly think showing her in bed would appeal to a modern-day audience–she’s still a child!

It is true that the second half of Little Women (first published as a separate volume called Good Wives) shows a married Meg as well as two more engagements.  However, Little Women remains very much a coming-of-age story.  The March sisters are shown transforming from children who must fight their besetting weaknesses into strong, virtuous women.  Adding sexual drama is completely antithetical to this narrative both because sin is illustrated as something to be combated and not welcomed, and because sin is shown to be sin no matter how “small” or “boring” it may seem to viewers like McFarland.  Jo’s temper, Meg’s vanity, and Amy’s desire to fit in no matter the cost all create very real drama because they all result in very real consequences for the characters.

Part of Little Women‘s enduring charm is its ability to remind readers just how significant everyday moments can feel, especially to the young.  Amy’s chastisement at school after she is found with contraband pickled limes may seem silly to some adults–but not to those who remember how keenly the desire to be like the other girls can hurt.  Likewise, a few girls complaining about Christmas without presents (and their father–away at war!) may seem self-centered and not worthy of any real empathy.  However, who has not felt the difference in holidays where traditions are broken, relatives missing, or finances a little tighter?  Real life is very dramatic to those living it.  The relatability of these moments gives Little Women far more staying power than a narrative in which a forbidden sexual liaison leads to a soap-opera like death and cover-up.

The Drama of Everyday Moments

The very real stakes of these everyday moments is also precisely why Saraiya’s critique rings hollow.  She condemns the story for being anti-progressive and blames it on the Christianity embedded within the text: ” Each spirited daughter is not just forced to reckon with the proscribed role of women in the world; they are also heartily encouraged to embrace their confinement, through their parents’ faith-based home-schooling.”  There is a lot to unpack here, including the assumption that domesticated women or wives are not progressive, the ignoring of Alcott’s own (rather feminist) biography, and the implied censure of faith-based homeschooling families.  However, to keep this post (relatively) short, we’ll focus on the argument that faith keeps the March sisters “confined.”

Little Women is an obviously moral book–one where the March sisters play Pilgrim’s Progress in order to fight temptation and become better people.  And yet generations of readers have connected with it despite Saraiya’s censure.  And I would argue that audiences connect with it precisely because it does offer the message that people should strive to be better–and that they can even succeed in doing so.  In this respect, the faith of the sisters is actually very freeing because it empowers them to fight characteristics that were holding them back by making them unhappy and harming their relationships.

We can see this freedom occurring throughout the text.  Meg’s rejection of the Moffat lifestyle is not a blanket condemnation of wealth or parties or fancy dresses, but of a household where money is used to paper over the reality that the family is not very close and deeply unhappy.  Her ability to let go of her envy of material possessions frees her to have a satisfied marriage with a man she loves, even though he is poor.  Likewise, Amy’s ability to recognize that she will never be a famous artist enables her to find happiness in roles that her talents make her more suited to.  She also gains the ability to enjoy art for the sake of creating art, rather than for the pursuit of fame.  Without her ability to humble herself, she would never have been happy because she would never have been famous.

Yes, all this sounds deeply moral and thus, I suppose, boring to McFarland and Saraiya.  However, audience members are hardly starving for media that depicts more “modern” sensibilities.  Little Women continues to appeal precisely because it is different.  It offers a story where everyday moments and everyday battles are taken seriously.  It says that ordinary people and their experiences matter.  And it says that they can win their fights.

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Crossing Ebenezer Creek by Tonya Bolden

Information

Goodreads: Crossing Ebenezer Creek
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: May 2017

Summary

When Gen. Sherman’s army marches past her plantation, Mariah and her brother Zeke join them for a chance of freedom.  But , to Mariah’s surprise, not all Union men are abolition men.  Even as she starts falling for Caleb and dreaming of a new life and an acre of land, Mariah will find that the protection the army offers is tenuous and a chance at freedom fleeting.

Star Divider

Review

Crossing Ebenezer Creek tells the story, often overlooked, of the black men, women, and children who followed Gen. Sherman’s March to the Sea for a chance at freedom.  In particular, it focuses on an incident at Ebenezer Creek that sheds light on just one of the many ways the Union army failed to protect the former slaves it liberated in an attempt to end the war.  While the explanations of army strategies and politics can sometimes feel simplistic, the book does achieve its goal of reminding readers that black individuals participated in the March, as well.

Crossing Ebenezer Creek balances its need to tell the horrors of slavery with a recognition that its younger audience may not need all the gruesome details.  Thurs, readers learn about the ways in which the men and women on Mariah’s plantation were degraded, injured, harassed, and even murdered, but the book still seems to be holding something back.  The full impact of this life is left to the imagination, lest it prove all too much for readers to process.  Younger readers may feel overwhelmed by what they read even so, but older readers who have been exposed to more detailed accounts will know that something is missing.

Ultimately, Crossing Ebenezer Creek works nicely as an introduction to readers who may not know a lot about Sherman’s March to Atlanta or who may still have only a simplistic understanding of the Civil War.  It reminds readers that things were complicated, that Lincoln liberated slaved in a region he had no control over, that free blacks lived a precarious existence, that not all Union sympathizers were abolitionists, and that even well-intentioned abolitionists still had to struggle against assumptions about black individuals or other prejudices.  None of this is new, but it might be to individuals who have only a superficial understanding of the war.

4 stars

Will Barnes and Noble Actually Fail?

Amazon’s Low Prices Hurt the Book Industry

Last week I wrote about “Why I Won’t Buy Books on Amazon” to highlight some of their unethical business practices.  These practices, as I explain, are typically great for customers but terrible for authors and publishers.  Those low, low prices everyone raves about often occur because Amazon is selling at a loss, which means less revenue for the people who work on those books.  However, once Barnes and Noble goes out of business, Amazon will have no reason to keep their prices so low, and I predict you will see those book prices rise.

Some of the comments raised questions about how dire the need to avoid Amazon is.  After all, Amazon offers fantastic services customers want.  And those low prices remain tempting to customers even if they know that buying on Amazon will hurt publishing in the long run.  And some people questioned whether Barnes and Noble will actually fail.  The short answer is, of course, that no one really knows when Barnes and Noble will fail.  But most people in the book industry seem to assume it’s only a matter of time.

Why Save Barnes and Noble?

Readers invested in supporting the book industry tend to support Barnes and Noble because they are considered Amazon’s major rival.  Barnes and Noble runs the most retail stores in the United States.  At the beginning of 2018, they operated 630 stores in all 50 states.  In contrast, Books a Million, the second largest book retailer in the U.S,. operates “more than 260 stores in 32 states and the District of Columbia,” according to their website.  Because Barnes and Noble is larger and less regional, it seems best positioned to compete with Amazon’s current dominance.

Supporting indie book stores is also, of course, a laudable goal and most book lovers would likely encourage readers to shop locally when possible.  However, many people no longer live within convenient distance of an indie store.  Additionally, consumers who look to Amazon for cheap prices are not likely to number among those who are willing to pay cover price at an indie store.  In these cases, offering Barnes and Noble as the alternative to Amazon seems like the most effective way to encourage people to shop elsewhere.  In many cases, the prices Barnes and Noble offers online are cheaper than in-store and more comparable to Amazon’s prices.  In addition, they offer free shipping with a membership of $25/year compared to an Amazon membership of $119/yr. They are in a position to compete with Amazon’s prices in a way many indie stores are not.

How Much Trouble Is Barnes and Noble in?

A May 6 article in The New York Times by David Leonhardt brought to public attention what industry insiders have known for years–financial reports from Barnes and Noble typically do not look so good.  Leonhardt, however, lays out the problem in plain terms:

Revenue from Nook, the company’s e-book device, has fallen more than 85 percent since 2012. Online sales of physical books have also plummeted. At the stores, where business was once holding up, it’s down about 10 percent over the past two years.

After the article was published, Barnes and Noble’s stock fell 8%.  Edward Helmore for The Guardian picked up the story in his article “Barnes and Noble: Why It Soon Could Be the Bookstore’s Final Chapter“:

Sales have been on the slide for 11 years; even online sales have fallen. Over the past five years, the company has lost more than $1bn in value. Dozens of stores have closed. A shake-up in February resulted in the loss of 1,800 full-time jobs.

Those layoffs were supposed to save Barnes and Noble $40 million dollars after the company reported that the 2017 holiday sales were 6.4% lower than the holiday sales the year before. However, it remains unclear that laying off employees will be able to save the company if their revenue does not increase.  Indeed, laying off full-time employees could arguably hurt the company, which has just lost some of its most experienced and dedicated workers, many of whom presumably  had strong ties with community members.

What Is Barnes and Noble Up Against?

Even though Amazon has made news for years due to it s unethical business practices, consumers do not seem particularly worried.  In a January 2018 articled entitled “A changing book business: it all seems to be flowing downhill to Amazon,” Mike Shatzkin writes that:

Amazon continues to grow its share of print and digital sales. It appears to be approaching half of all print sales and more than 90% of ebook sales.

If Barnes and  Noble is truly competing against a giant that sells half of the physical books in the U.S., the writing is on the wall.  (I think we all know that the Nook has been irrelevant for years.)  Unless consumers make a conscious decision to spend their money elsewhere, Amazon will likely end up with a monopoly on the bookselling business.  With no real competition, their low prices will be a thing of the past–just like Barnes and Noble.

TL;DR

  • Amazon’s historically low prices are often because Amazon is selling books at a loss and recovering the income from selling non-book items.
  • This practice hurts publishers and authors who then make less of a profit margin.
  • Lost revenue to publishers and authors could mean fewer books published in the future.
  • Many see Barnes and Noble as Amazon’s last major competitor because they own the most stores in the U.S. and have stores in all 50 states.
  • However, Barnes and Noble has seen sales decline over the years.  Many believe it is only a matter of time before B&N closes.  (One source claims Amazon sells half of the physical books in the U.S.)
  • Consumers are being urged to shop for books at places besides Amazon so that Amazon will not have a monopoly on the bookselling business.

A Final Note on The Book Depository and AbeBooks

Many readers have asked if they should shop at The Book Depository.  The U.K.-based business was acquired by Amazon in 2011, when it was then considered one of Amazon’s major online rivals.  Some readers also like to shop on AbeBooks for used and out-of-print titles.  Amazon acquired AbeBooks in 2008 Readers should research both companies and determine for themselves how they can best use their purchasing power based on their individual circumstances.

5 Bookish Misconceptions: Part Three

The Ringbearers Die/Gain Immortality at the End of The Lord of the Rings.

Ships that leave from the Grey Havens set sail for the Undying Lands, named so because the immortal Valar dwell there.  Frodo does not die at the end of the book, nor does he become immortal himself.  We can assume that he lives quietly in the Undying Lands for some time before dying a natural death.

Juliet Wakes to See Romeo One Last Time Before He Dies.

Garrick’s 1758 version of Romeo and Juliet modified Shakespeare’s text so that the lovers have a brief union before their deaths.  This may be one of the  most famous adaptations of the play.  However, students who believe that Juliet wakes before Romeo’s death are likely thinking about the 1996 film Romeo + Juliet directed by Baz Luhrmann.  In Shakespeare’s original play, Romeo dies before Juliet can see him again, thus denying audiences that brief moment of happiness.

Thoreau Lived in the Remote Wilderness When Writing Walden.

It’s an inside literary joke to remark on how Thoreau’s experience roughing it in nature actually consisted of his living in a cabin less than a half hour’s walk from his family’s home.  His mother also came by sometimes to help with the housekeeping.  Thoreau may have been observing nature, but he was hardly in a survival situation.

The Western Canon Has Remained Static Over the Years.

The Canon is supposed to be a list of “timeless” works that have influenced Western culture.  It is thus awkward sometimes to admit that the list of works in the Canon have changed over the years, with some titles being dropped and others added.  Consider, for instance, that literary scholars largely ignored Beowulf until 1936–when Tolkien made a case for its literary, and not just its historic, value.  Its “timeless” qualities simply were not obvious to most people for hundreds of years.  And, in the future, we could very well see Beowulf, or another work, removed from the list as literary tastes and values change.

Go Set a Watchman Is the Sequel to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

Go Set a Watchman was the original story Lee presented for publication and she was asked to rewrite it.  The result was To Kill a Mockingbird.  Thus, we can consider Go Set a Watchman as a draft for To Kill a Mockingbird.  It is, however, difficult to know how Lee’s understanding of the story and the characters changed as she rewrote it, or if, after rewriting, she still saw the events of Go Set a Watchman as canonical.

Furyborn by Claire Legrand

Furyborn

Information

Goodreads: Furyborn
Series: Empirium #1
Source: City Book Review
Publication Date: May 22, 2018

Official Summary

Follows two fiercely independent young women, centuries apart, who hold the power to save their world…or doom it.

When assassins ambush her best friend, the crown prince, Rielle Dardenne risks everything to save him, exposing her ability to perform all seven kinds of elemental magic. The only people who should possess this extraordinary power are a pair of prophesied queens: a queen of light and salvation and a queen of blood and destruction. To prove she is the Sun Queen, Rielle must endure seven trials to test her magic. If she fails, she will be executed…unless the trials kill her first.

A thousand years later, the legend of Queen Rielle is a mere fairy tale to bounty hunter Eliana Ferracora. When the Undying Empire conquered her kingdom, she embraced violence to keep her family alive. Now, she believes herself untouchable–until her mother vanishes without a trace, along with countless other women in their city. To find her, Eliana joins a rebel captain on a dangerous mission and discovers that the evil at the heart of the empire is more terrible than she ever imagined.

As Rielle and Eliana fight in a cosmic war that spans millennia, their stories intersect, and the shocking connections between them ultimately determine the fate of their world–and of each other.

Star Divider

Review

I admit had some concerns about Furyborn before going into it.  The plot summary on the jacket seemed like one of those unwieldy things where the editor(s) couldn’t quite figure out how to convey what the main point of the story was, so they just kept writing, and I had questions about how the stories of two queens born 1000 years apart were going to converge. After reading Furyborn…I realize my concerns were well-founded.

I think high fantasy like Furyborn often gets a pass on some striking flaws because when a book is “high concept,” readers can step back and say, “Oh, but it’s so imaginative! So creative! So unique!” It’s harder to do this with a book that’s, say, about a girl going to prom. If the pacing is off there, the pacing is off, and readers aren’t going to excuse it because some shiny magic or badass speeches about saving the world compensated for it.  Basically what I’m saying is that I have conflicted feelings about Furyborn because I am experiencing this; I had definite issues with this book, but the cool world building occasionally made me think that maybe I could deal with them.

The primary problem: The book purports to have two protagonists with chapters alternating their points of view—but keep in mind that these protagonists live over 1000 years apart.  My concerns that their storylines would be too disparate were well-founded.  For the vast majority of the book, I felt as though I were reading too entirely separate novels. Honestly, I think in some ways the book could use a complete overhaul.  The novel should have been about the “present day” queen, and the history of the older queen 1000 years in the past should have been woven in.  Why the author decided to write these two things as parallel stories, and why the editor kept it, is beyond me. It may be unique, but I think there’s a reason people don’t generally write books like this; it doesn’t really work.

I also got annoyed that there was basically a cliff-hanger at the end of every chapter (until Rielle began completing a sequence of tasks, for which the outcome was obvious because…Eliana’s half of the book is set 1000 years in the future, and all the characters already know all about Rielle’s life). Some reader may actually find these cliff-hangers engaging, so it’s a personality thing, but I found it incredibly frustrating to keep jumping between two different stories that were always keeping information just out of reach.

Finally, I just didn’t really connect with any of the characters in the book—the protagonists or their various love interests.  The author does try to make the characters complex, and I applaud that effort, but Eliana has the issue that she’s obnoxious and I mostly felt that other characters kept *telling* me she is secretly a wonderful person with a good heart, but it was hard to see why they thought so.  Rielle is more interesting in terms of whether she’s good/bad, but I think all the things I actually wanted to know about her weren’t in this book and I need to wait for the sequel (which I won’t be reading BTW).

So, why three stars? Yeah…because it’s high fantasy, and it’s sort of original and all that stuff I said above. I haven’t read a book *quite* like this before, so it stands out. The magic is interesting. The religion is interesting. The plot is occasionally interesting. The author is clearly trying to write something awesome and epic. It didn’t work for me, but I can respect parts of it.

3 StarsBriana

10 Interesting Posts from the First Half of May

Post Round-Up

  1. Michael @ My Comic Relief discusses Avengers: Infinity War (SPOILERS!)
  2. Ronyell @ Rabbit Ears Book Blog talks about the need to support bookstores.
  3. Daniela @ Nocturnal Devices explains why we should all read children’s books.
  4. The Orangutan Librarian admits to being able to critique parts of Harry Potter.
  5. Of Maria Antonia lists five reasons she liked A Tale of Two Cities.
  6. Joce @ Write Through the Night discusses the pros and cons of buddy reading.
  7. Danielle @ Books, Vertigo, and Tea reveals 10 times she failed as a new blogger.
  8. Marie @ Drizzle and Hurricane Books answers some bookish questions from her readers.
  9. Priyasha @ Books and Co. recommends 20 book bloggers for you to follow.
  10. Inge @ The Belgian Reviewer gets enthusiastic about bookmarks.

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