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.
- “16 of Tolkien’s Most Badass Women”
- “Eowyn: A Feminist Character?”
- “Does The Hobbit Need More Female Characters?”