On The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

In two previous posts, I covered The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and The Two Towers. In this post, I conclude the series with The Return of the King. According to I Am No Man: J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as Gender-Progressive Text by Justine A. di Giovanni:

Any conscientious commenter on gender in Tolkien’s work must acknowledge his failings when it comes to women. Although nearly all readers recognize the general absence of leading ladies, it is more difficult but perhaps more telling to peer into the rich, detailed background of the primary plot. For instance, not a single member of the Fellowship has a visible, living mother. Between evidence expressed in the text itself and information provided by the hundred-odd pages of appendices at the end of The Return of the King, the strange quirk of absent mothers becomes an obvious omission. Frodo, our diminutive protagonist, is an orphan; both of his parents died by drowning thirty-eight years prior to the events of The Lord of the Rings. Sam’s mother is also deceased, with no recorded date of death, although this is an omission that may be attributed as much to Tolkien’s relative disregard of the lower classes than to a specific gender-blindness. Aragorn is also an orphan, whose mother, Gilraen, died eleven years pre-text. Boromir’s mother is also dead, thirty years before the quest.

In addition, Merry, Pippin, Gimli and Legolas all must, theoretically, have mothers, but they do not appear nor achieve any mention in the text itself; Merry and Pippin’s mothers are at least allowed names in the family trees of the appendices, but disappear at some point between the year 3001 and 3018; living or no, they are never heard from again. Gimli’s and Legolas’ maternal influences are not only invisible but nameless, unmentioned even in the almost absurdly detailed records of lineage and ancestry. Gandalf, as a semi-supernatural entity, may never have had parents at all; regardless of the precise details of his origin, he certainly has no tangible maternal figure. Other characters bereft of mothers include Bilbo, Faramir, Arwen, Éowyn and Éomer, and all of the Ents. In fact, not a single character with a speaking role has an identifiable mother. While mothers are occasionally referenced as being influential, this role is always past tense; Bilbo and Frodo get their respective adventurous streaks from their Took and Brandybuck matriarchs, but this maternal influence occurred before and outside the text. Although fathers are also frequently absent, they at least receive names in every mortal’s history.

Part of this tendency toward authorial matricide stems from the author’s own life; Tolkien’s father passed first, followed by his mother when the author was twelve years old. He and his siblings were then raised by a Catholic priest by the name of Father Francis Xavier Morgan (Carpenter Biography, “Early Years”). Thus, the author came into his maturity somewhat unfamiliar with the mother-child relationship, and chose, it seems, to erase it rather than address it inexpertly. Personal tragedy, however, is no excuse to ignore an entire definitive gender role, and Tolkien’s absent mothers create a motif that women readers may well find somewhat offensive. As stated in Women Among the Inklings, “In fact, Middle-earth is very Inkling-like, in that while women exist in the world, they need not be given significant attention and can, if one is lucky, simply be avoided altogether” (Fredrick 108). While this comment has a somewhat antagonistic tone, the authors make a valid point: an attentive reader can almost feel the relief Tolkien might have felt at managing to write his entire epic without having to consider the messy issue of women too deeply. The books’ relationship with women and mothers is not solely focused on absence, although frequently the references to maternal influence is complex. Mothers are often lifted up in one sense while they are put down in another.

In a problematic discussion of the need and power of woman as mother, however, Tolkien approaches the weakness that men bring upon themselves when they ignore the necessity of procreation. Telling of why the line of kings failed in Gondor, Faramir relates, “‘Kings […] counted old names in the rolls of their descent dearer than the names of sons. Childless lords sat in aged halls musing on heraldry […]. And the last king of the line of Anárion had no heir’” (The Two Towers[henceforth TT] 286). Additionally, strength is occasionally characterized by references to noble maternal lineage rather than paternal genesis. Legolas says about Prince Imrahil, “’But nobler is his spirit than the understanding of Sauron; for is he not of the children of Lúthien? Never shall that line fail, though the years may lengthen beyond count’” (The Return of the King[henceforth RotK] 152). The author also refers to Éowyn in terms of her feminine royal ties: “‘For she is a fair maiden, fairest lady of a house of queens’” (RotK 142). Each of these quotations is ultimately both positive and negative; in the first, the need for women is implied through the need for children, but it is phrased in terms of the usefulness of those women for their men rather than themselves. The discussion of Prince Imrahil ennobles Lúthien and her descendants, but focuses more on her procreative power than on anything about her higher self. The relation of Éowyn to a line of queens sets up the power of the maternal line, but still quantifies that through the woman’s beauty rather than her prowess or character. Tolkien attempts to bestow a sense of power and nobility to women, but, unfortunately to the eyes of the progressive reader, chooses to do so in a highly traditional manner, emphasizing female use in the masculine sphere and physical beauty rather than personhood.

Beyond the implicit role of mothers in The Lord of the Rings, other background attributes develop a complex view toward women and their power or lack thereof. One of the only times Tolkien uses an asterisk with accompanying footnote in the entirety of the epic is to point out a fact about the gender of the sun: “The round Moon rolled behind the hill, / as the Sun raised up her head. / She* hardly believed her fiery eyes […] *Elves (and Hobbits) always refer to the Sun as She” (FotR 172). Later, entering Lothlórien, the stream called Nimrodel after a fabled elf-woman is granted restorative properties: “For a moment Frodo stood near the brink and let the water flow over his tired feet. It was cold but its touch was clean, and as he went on and it mounted to his knees, he felt that the stain of travel and all weariness was washed from his limbs” (FotR 353). These two instances are inconspicuous; though the author does not draw attention to the impact of women on his fantasy world, a portrait of feminine influence that is both wide-spread and potent is painted behind the main events. The feminine Nimrodel wipes away grief, weariness and pain simply through her touch. By making the Sun a She, Tolkien departs from the traditional Western interpretation of the moon as feminine and sun as masculine, and his rare asterisk marks an important point about the culture of Middle-earth, particularly since both the most noble beings (the elves) and the most accessible (the hobbits) ascribe to this idea.

Not all the positive attributes of women are so subtle. Frequently in Tolkien’s narrative, women are idealized beyond the realm of reasonable expectations, but for the most part in highly traditional ways. Tolkien seems to greatly appreciate the Angel in the House conceptualization of women, where the perfect female is beautiful, graceful, distant, and part of the paradisiacal homestead (Patmore). Arwen, the elven love interest of Aragorn, is one such woman. The first time Frodo sees her, he is stunned by her perfection:

Young [Arwen] was and yet not so. The braids of her dark hair were touched by no frost; her white arms and clear face were flawless and smooth, and the light of stars was in her bright eyes, grey as a cloudless night; yet queenly she looked, and thought and knowledge were in her glance, as of one who has known many things that the years bring. […] Such loveliness in living thing Frodo had never seen before nor imagined in his mind. (The Fellowship of the Ring[henceforth FotR] 239)

Similar is the description of Goldberry, wife of Tom Bombadil, the enigmatic and most ancient being in Middle-earth. The passage goes into less depth about her physical beauty, but the effect upon Frodo and the other hobbits is much the same:

The Hobbits looked at her in wonder; and she looked at each of them and smiled. ‘Fair Lady Goldberry!’ said Frodo at last, feeling his heart moved with a joy that he did not understand. He stood as he had at times stood enchanted by fair elven-voices; but the spell that was now laid upon him was different: less keen and lofty was the delight, but deeper and nearer to the mortal heart; marvelous and yet not strange. (FotR134)

This sort of reaction among men, particularly hobbit-men, is, of course, somewhat ridiculous even as it is empowering. Putting women on such a dramatic pedestal, above and separate from the somehow inferior men, both elevates and degrades them, because it makes them, in a way, distinctly un-human. Hyper idealization is flattering in the sense that it supposedly places women above men, but is simultaneously disempowering in the way that it removes them from the sphere of “real” people, i.e., men.

In addition to the problematic emphasis on her perfection, Goldberry’s relationship with Tom has anti-feminist origins. While she first appearsin “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil” as a trickster character, Tom returns at the end of the poem to capture her:

But one day Tom, he went and caught the River-daughter, […]
He caught her, held her fast! Water-rats went scattering
reeds hissed, herons cried, and her heart was fluttering.
Said Tom Bombadil, Here’s my pretty maiden!
You shall come home with me! The table is all laden […]
You shall come under Hill! Never mind your mother
in her deep weedy pool: there you’ll find no lover!’
Old Tom Bombadil had a merry wedding,
crowned all with buttercups, hat and feather shedding;
his bride with forgetmenots and flag-lilies for garland
was robed all in silver-green. He sang like a starling,
hummed like a honey-bee, lilted to the fiddle,
clasping his river-maid round her slender middle. (Tolkien, “Adventures” 14-15)

Goldberry is clearly an unwilling party in this “marriage.” Kidnapped from her mother’s dwelling, she is forced to wed her captor while he gropes her, singing. Although the poem is meant as a light-hearted adventure, it portrays a dark story in sharp contrast to the apparently happy marriage of Tom and his River-woman’s daughter. Tolkien describes her beauty and kindness, but he also writes the story of her imprisonment, again empowering a female character even as he fetters her.

In any discussion of gender and particularly women in The Lord of the Rings, Éowyn quickly becomes an important character indeed. Rightly recognized as the books’ only overtly feminist character, she alone is often able to persuade female readers that Tolkien isn’t the unapologetic misogynist that many decry him to be. Begging to be allowed to fight like her brother, she delivers a speech that would not sound out of place in the contemporary fight to allow women in military combat situations:

“If you must go, then let me ride in your following. For I am weary of skulking in the hills, and wish to face peril and battle.”
“Your duty is with your people,” [Éomer] answered.
“Too often have I heard of duty,” she cried. “But am I not of the House of Eorl, a shieldmaiden and not a dry-nurse? I have waited on faltering feet long enough. Since they falter no longer, it seems, may I not now spend my life as I will? […] Shall I always be chosen [to stay behind with those who cannot fight]?” she said bitterly. “Shall I always be left behind when the Riders depart, to mind the house while they win renown, and find food and beds when they return? […] All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more. But I am of the House of Eorl and not a serving-woman. I can ride and wield blade, and I do not fear either pain or death.” (RotK 57-58)

Although she is not granted permission, Éowyn defies her male relatives and rides to battle with her male comrades anyway. In fact, she is the one who deals the mortal blow to Sauron’s most powerful minion, the Witch-King of Angmar. When he boasts that prophecy states that no living man can kill him, she replies, “‘But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Be gone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him!’” (RotK 116). She proceeds, with Merry’s help, to strike her foe, destroying him utterly. Tolkien makes here an interesting point: Éowyn’s great success is no passive feminine victory, but instead comes from the realm of traditional masculinity. Tolkien seems, for a moment, to agree with a sentiment akin to the following from Feminine Masculinityby Judith Halberstam: “What is ‘masculinity’? […] I do not claim to have any definitive answer to this question, but I do have a few proposals about why masculinity must not and cannot and should not reduce down to the male body and its effects”(Halberstam 1). The undeniably female Éowyn nonetheless manages to embody a masculine identity, at least momentarily.

In general, praise for Éowyn by other characters occurs frequently in The Two Towersand The Return of the King. Explaining her plight to her brother, Aragorn says of her, “‘[B]ut she, born in the body of a maid, had a spirit and courage at least the match of yours. Yet she was doomed to wait upon an old man, whom she loved as a father, and watch him falling into a mean dishonoured dotage; and her part seemed to her more ignoble than that of the staff he leaned on’” (RotK 143). Of course, Tolkien cannot resist the desire to romanticize the feminine, so she is also given her share of prosaic descriptions of her beauty, but she is allowed to be both beautiful and strong, physically and in terms of character:

[Éowyn] turned and went slowly into the house. As she passed the doors she turned and looked back. Grave and thoughtful was her glance, as she looked on the king with cool pity in her eyes. Very fair was her face, and her long hair was like a river of gold. Slender and tall she was in her white robe girt with silver; but strong she seemed and stern as steel. (TT 119)

As relatively progressive as these extracts may be, it would be naïve to assume that Tolkien’s treatment of Éowyn marks the author as an incipient feminist. For every way in which she is given extraordinary power, she is also given a push back toward traditional female roles.

Like both Arwen and Goldberry, Éowyn is often defined by her status as beautiful woman. She is frequently called a maiden, and her virgin purity is emphasized as oneof her key appeals. She is described as “fair and cold, like a morning of pale spring that is not yet come to womanhood” (TT 119). She is dismissed from the councils of the men –”‘Go, Éowyn sister-daughter!’ said the old king. ‘The time for fear is past’” (TT 119) –and even after she destroys the Witch-King, whom we are specifically told that no man could kill, Aragorn says of her, “‘Alas! For she was pitted against a foe beyond the strength of her mind or body’” (RotK 142). Although it can be said that the lord of the Nazgûl would be beyond the strength of any warrior’s mind or body, there is a sense that Aragorn is here referring to the implied inherent physical and mental inferiority of the “fairer sex.” Although Peter Kreeft, Tolkien scholar, argues that Éowyn’s victory is “a grace, not a justice” (106), and that her ability to slay the Nazgul shows the author’s rejection of the hegemonic gender binary role structure, I disagree. Tolkien does not permit her to have a flawless victory, and she is nearly destroyed herself by the darkness that is brought upon her by her audacity in striking a male foe so obviously superior to her in both physicality and will.

Although Éowyn ultimately recovers from her wounds, it is through the power of a man; by falling in love with Faramir, her cold, unwomanly heart is melted and she renounces her old ways, choosing instead to be a traditional wife and mother. Succumbing to the implied natural way of things, she declares:

“I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren. […] And would you[, Faramir,] have your proud folk say of you: ‘There goes a lord who tamed a wild shieldmaiden of the North!’” (RotK 243)

After the strength that Éowyn displays until this point, and the independence of will that defines her character, her regression to womanhood under the influence of a man is doubly disappointing. At least one critic has tried to soften the blow by insisting that Éowyn manages to retain her agency even in her yielding to heteronormative, repressive love:

The love of Faramir and Éowyn is not Courtly Love, like that of Aragorn and Arwen, because Éowyntakes an active role in the relationship. Faramir and Éowyncan be seen as more of a modern ideal for marriage, the uniting of equal life partners. Therefore, the love story and subsequent “healing”process of Éowynshould be seen as an independent woman’s self-willed transformation. (McCrory Hatcher)

I find this interpretation to be overly generous. Although Tolkien seems sympathetic toward the plight of the oppressed woman, ultimately, she is a threat; she is unnatural and uncomfortable, and though she may accomplish great deeds, she must eventually wind up back in her proper place. As is perhaps becoming clear, the author’s relationship with women is a complex one, and though he desperately tries to be progressive, he is unable to allow such behavior without strict restrictions.

Of course, there are other female characters who are not placed so high, and therefore are not brought so low in an effort to retain control over them. Hobbit women, in particular, are portrayed in a much more accessible light, and one that is, though lessunceasingly complimentary, actually more beneficial in terms of women’s status in the novel. At the end of the quest, as the world itself seems to crumble and burn around them on the very brink of doom, it is Rosie Cotton that Sam thinks of:

“So that was the job I felt I had to do when I started,” thought Sam: “to help Mr. Frodo to the last step and then die with him? Well, if that is the job then I must do it. But I would dearly like to see Bywater again, and Rosie Cotton and her brothers, and the Gaffer and Marigold and all.” (RotK 211)

Rosie is not some immortal beauty blessed with pseudo-angelic status, nor is she a bright, cold shieldmaiden willing to die for her land; she is a farmer’s daughter whose first words to Sam after the quest are to scold him for his prolonged absence. “‘Hullo, Sam!’ said Rosie. ‘Where’ve you been? They said you were dead; but I’ve been expecting you since the Spring. You haven’t hurried, have you’” (RotK 287)? Although Rosie is in some ways the archetypal abandoned Penelope, left behind to wait faithfully while her Odysseus travels the world, she is given a reality denied Arwen, Goldberry, and Éowyn. Nor is she the meek, gentle woman with no word of reprimand for her deserting suitor; although she is merely teasing, Rosie lets Sam know just how it feels to wait without word for more than a year.

There is another hobbit-woman who gains power in her own, more mundane way. Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, Frodo’s much-loathed aunt, redeems herself toward the end of her life by showing remarkable spunk in the face of powerful adversaries. When the hobbits return to the Shire, they are brought up to date on her courageous acts:

“Why, they even took Pimple’s old ma, that Lobelia, and he was fond of her, if no one else was. Some of the Hobbiton folk, they saw it. She comes down the lane with her old umberella. Some of the ruffians were going up with a big cart.
‘Where be you a-going?’ says she.
‘To Bag End,’ says they.
‘What for?’ says she.
‘To put up some sheds for Sharkey,’ says they.
‘Who said you could?’ says she.
‘Sharkey,’ says they. ‘So get out o’ the road, old hagling!’
‘I’ll give you Sharkey, you dirty thieving ruffians!’ says she, and ups with her umberella and goes for the leader, near twice her size. So they took her. Dragged her off to the Lockholes, at her age too. They’ve took others we miss more, but there’s no denying she showed more spirit than most.” (RotK 293).

While there are certainly problematic issues concerning class with Tolkien’s depiction ofmost hobbits, in terms of gender, this portrayal of Lobelia is actually fairly positive. In overtly challenging the thugs who have invaded her home, she steps beyond the traditional limits of her sex and asserts her own agency. The fact that she fails in her attempt is ultimately unimportant; by physically challenging a much stronger opponent, Lobelia denies that her size or sex require her to submit to any power outside herself.

For the reader searching for a strong woman who is both intelligent and powerful, The Lord of the Rings contains one who is written as unabashedly strong. Galadriel, queen of the elves of Lothlórien, is a woman who is wiser than the most ancient wizards of Middle-earth, counseling them on their own matters and guiding their deeds. As she states in The Fellowship of the Ring, “‘I it was who first summoned the White Council. And if my designs had not gone amiss, it would have been governed by Gandalf the Grey, and then mayhap things would have gone otherwise’” (372). It is made fairly clear that if the wisdom of Galadriel had prevailed, many of the evils brought about by Saruman would never have occurred, and the free peoples of Middle-earth would be more prepared to face the threat from Mordor. Indeed, Galadriel is one of thefew who can strive mind-to-mind with Sauron, and it is through this constant struggle that the powers for good know as much as they do about his power and his plans. She tells Frodo of this as they stand by her mirror in Lothlórien after Frodo has seen the lidless eye:

“I know what it was that you last saw,” [Galadriel] said; “for that is also in my mind. Do not be afraid! But do not think that only by singing amid the trees, nor even by the slender arrows of elven-bows, is this land of Lothlórien maintained and defended against its Enemy. I say to you, Frodo, that even as I speak to you, I perceive the Dark Lord and know his mind, or all of his mind that concerns the Elves. And he gropes ever to see me and my thought. But still the door is closed!”
She lifted up her white arms, and spread out her hands towards the East in a gesture of rejection and denial. […] Frodo gazed at the ring [upon her finger] with awe; for suddenly it seemed to him that he understood.
“Yes,” she said, divining his thought […].”Verily it is in the land of Lórien upon the finger of Galadriel that one of the Three [elven rings of power] remains. This is Nenya, the Ring of Adamant, and I am its keeper.” (FotR 380)

Galadriel’s ability to face the power in the East, but also her ability to bear one of the great rings, indicates just how steadfast an individual she is. Each of the other rings, whether borne by men, elves, dwarves, or Sauron himself, are in the possession of males. Galadriel is the only woman among this confederacyof chosen ones, and even there she is among the most powerful. The dwarven rings all are lost, and the men were all corrupted by Sauron’s influence. The elven rings are the only ones that survive, and even among them, Galadriel bears Nenya, the ring of adamant, the substance that most represents an unbreakable will.

Even more important, Galadriel has the potential for yet more strength. Were she to take the Ring that Frodo freely offers her, she would become a power both wonderful and terrible, stronger even than Sauron and all his works:

“And now at last it comes. [Frodo] will give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!” (FotR 381)

The temptation for Galadriel to take the Ring is strong. If she does not, the fate of her world is balanced as though on the edge of a knife, and neither outcome is a full victory for her people. Should Frodo fail, the only hope for her and all the elves is to flee across the sea, where with time even there Sauron could reach them. Should he succeed and the Ring be destroyed, the elven rings will lose their power as well, and the elves will still be forced to abandon the land they love. If she were to take the Ring, she could defeat the evil in Mordor and take its place, restoring beauty eternal to all of Middle-earth. In time, however, she too would be corrupted, and her absolute power would turn to absolute domination that none could cast down. It is for this reason that Galadriel refuses the Ring, choosing to weaken herself rather than take power that would both save and ruin her.

Beyond these lofty manifestations of her ability, Galadriel is even able to show a degree of mastery over her own husband, the Lord of the Galadhrim. Compared to Galadriel, Celeborn seems both rash and somewhat foolish. When Celeborn asks a question of the company, Galadriel already knows the answer:

“Here there are eight,” [Celeborn] said. “Nine were to set out: so said the messages. But maybe there has been some change of counsel that we havenot heard. […]”
“Nay, there was no change of counsel,” said the Lady Galadriel, speaking for the first time. […]”Gandalf the Grey set out with the Company, but he did not pass the borders of this land.” (FotR 370)

Later in this same exchange, she gravely scolds her husband for speaking against Gandalf’s choice to lead the fellowship into Moria, ultimately causing his own fall:

“Alas!” said Celeborn. […] “And if it were possible, one would say that at the last Gandalf fell from wisdom into folly, going needlessly into the net of Moria.”
“He would be rash indeed that said that thing,’ said Galadriel gravely. ‘Needless were none of the deeds of Gandalf in life.” […]
At length Celeborn spoke again. “I did not know that your plight was so evil,” he said. “LetGimli forget my harsh words: I spoke in the trouble of my heart.” (FotR 371)

Although Celeborn is the Lord of Lórien, it is quickly apparent that its Queen is its true ruler. Wise though Celeborn may be, his wife’s power is far beyond even his ken, and it is she who guides him.

Similarly to Galadriel’s power over Celeborn, there is one other way in which female characters have dominion over males in The Lord of the Rings. The story of the Entwives is ultimately one of feminine independence, and while the final outcome of the tale remains unresolved, the way in which the Entwives reject the lands of their husbands and follow their own desires shows their agency as separate individuals. Speaking of forests, Treebeard tells Merry and Pippin, “The oldest were planted by the Ents to try and please the Entwives; but they looked at them and smiled and said that they knew where whiter blossom and richer fruit were growing” (TT 87). In rejection of the wild ways of the Ents with their trees, the Entwives turn instead to ordering the natural world as they see fit:

“They did not desire to speak with these [plants]; but they wished them to hear and obey what was said to them. The Entwives ordered them to grow according to their wishes, and bear leaf and fruit to their liking; for the Entwives desired order, and plenty, and peace (by which they meant that things should remain where they had set them). So the Entwives made gardens to live in.” (TT 79)

It is in this way that the Entwives separate from the male Ents, to the extent that the Ents do no know where they went, if they shall return, or even if they are still alive. Although the Ents search for them in an effort to make amends, the Entwives do not come back to the woods they did not love in favor of the gardens that they do. As Treebeard sings of them, “‘[They]’ll linger [t]here, and will not come, because [their] land is fair / […] [They]’ll linger [t]here beneath the Sun, because [their] land is best!’” (TT 80). Although they do not appear in person in The Lord of the Rings, the Entwives are a subtle feminist subplot in the text, where female choice is both real and powerful.

In addition to the feminism inherent in the story of the Entwives, the environmentalism implicit in their tale further strengthens both Tolkien’s progressivism and female power in The Lord of the Rings. The Entwives and their gardens typify the author’s attitude toward industry, in which progress that despoils the natural world is abhorrent and should be avoided at all costs in favor of sustainable practices. In modern feminist theory, environmentalism is strongly linked to women as a “female issue”; beyond the traditional feminine role of gardener, women are the most likely to hold environmental issues dear, and actively lobby on their behalf (Warren). This perspective, however, did not exist during Tolkien’s time, and his foresight in linking women with ecological activism is both prescient and significant. The Entwives are, themselves, nature, and it is consistent with modern feminist thought that they would serve as activist voices for environmental protection.

One of the more compelling female influences in The Lord of the Rings, however, is no benign-but-distant force. Instead, a chilling agent of darkness, and arguably the most direct and accessible of Tolkien’s villains, is female. Shelob, the great spider-guardian of the pass of Cirith Ungol, is both terrible and inarguably a “she”:

Too little did [Sam] or his master know of the craft of Shelob. […] There agelong she had dwelt, an evil thing in spider-form[…]. But she was still there, who was there before Sauron, and before the first stone of Barad-dûr; and she served none but herself, drinking the blood of Elves and Men, bloated and grown fat with endless brooding on her feasts, weaving webs of shadow; for all living things were her food, and her vomit darkness. Far and wide her lesser broods, bastards of the miserable mates, her own offspring, that she slew, spread from glen to glen, from the Ephel Dúath to the eastern hills, to Dol Guldur and the fastnesses of Mirkwood. But none could rival her, Shelob the Great, last child of Ungoliant to trouble the unhappy world. (TT 332)

Anti-intuitive though it may seem, Shelob is perhaps the most feminist of any of Tolkien’s women. Massive, ancient and horrid, Shelob is without master or superior. She precedes the reign of Sauron and lives on the borders of his lands not as his slave, but with his consent, making her more of an equal to him than even his most powerful minions. She is wholly, irredeemably evil and under the dominion of her own will alone, and all the inhabitants of Middle-earth, fair or foul, are her prey. It is unlikely that any reader will see the stinking spider demigoddess as a heroine for women’s rights, but Tolkien’s choice to write his most instinctively horrifying villain as a female force shows that the author himself respects and somewhat fears the potential for power within the female influence.

Tolkien’s attitude toward women and their place in his world is a complicated one. In many ways he is pleasantly progressive, producing characters such as Éowyn and Galadriel, writing about the Sun with feminine pronouns, making the primary deity of the elves, Elbereth, female, and bestowing upon many woman characters agency, strength, wisdom, and the audacity to use those gifts. He constructs his world so that even the simplest of women save lives, as in the case of Ioreth the old housewife, who remembers ancient lore about the King’s ability to heal the wounded in time to save Faramir, Éowyn and Merry:

Then an old wife, Ioreth, the eldest of the women who served in that house, looking on the fair face of Faramir, wept, for all the people loved him. And she said: “Alas! If he should die. Would that there werekings in Gondor, as there were once upon a time, they say! For it is said in old lore: The hands of the king are the hands of a healer. And so the rightful king could ever be known.”
And Gandalf, who stood by, said: “Men may long remember your words, Ioreth! For there is hope in them” (RotK 136).

Women play important roles in The Lord of the Rings, and the contributions they do make to the plot should not be forgotten by even the most frustrated feminist reader.

But let’s shift more towards how these characters are depicted throughout the film series, namely Arwen Undomiel, Éowyn, and Galadriel.


Although Arwen’s first appearance in the films puts her as a woman who fights the Ringwraiths, note that this quickly puts her character’s agency is still well within the range of it being dependent upon other men, in this case, Frodo. Additionally, the role of character remains passive for the rest of her story throughout the films, solely focuings on her desire to be married to Aragorn, and as such, many of her conversations are with her father, Elrond. With the birth of Eldarion, the heir to the United Kingdom of Arnor and Gondor, Arwen’s role would continue to remain passive.


One of the highlights of The Return of the King is when Éowyn, Lady of Rohan, defeats the Witch-king of Angmar, at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. Feminist Fiction‘s “How The Lord of the Rings Broke My Heart” details the plot surrounding her character:

Then I made the mistake of rereading the books in college. Suddenly I wondered why everyone was male, except for a couple of elegant elves who were mostly off-screen and a hobbit who exists to get married. I was disturbed by the racist tones that ran through the whole thing. But most of all, I was heartbroken by Eowyn.

Because Eowyn, as she exists in the books, is not a badass feminist figure. Not by a long shot. She does several badass things, disguising herself as a man to ride with the Rohirrim and defying and killing the Witch King to protect Theoden. But the book always presents her from a distance, with constant references to her “fairness” and her “beauty,” as though she is something to be seen, rather than a person who acts. And in the end, her fighting, her defiance, is presented as unnatural. She’s a delicate and beautiful lily, warped by necessity, and as soon as she sets eyes on Faramir, “her heart changes.” She declares that she will be a shieldmaiden no longer, and instead dedicate herself to being a healer — a far more suitable female pursuit. It’s almost as though she fought the Witch King because the legend needed someone weak and otherwise unlikely to do it (after all, no MAN can kill him), because the world was wrong and it needed something similarly wrong to do it, something that left Eowyn utterly broken and scarred and as hard as steel. And once the world is healed, she can heal too, and be the womanly figure she was always supposed to be.

It must also be addressed that throughout the battle, she is accompanied by a male character (Merry) as well.


Galadriel, Lady of Lothlórien, is depicted as an extremely passive character, as all of her actions are to the benefit of male characters, as described here in The One Wiki to Rule Them All:

Apart from the strands of hair given to Gimli, she gave a Mallorn seed and a small box of earth from her garden to Samwise Gamgee; a green stone set in silver to Aragorn, along with a scabbard for his sword; and a belt each to Boromir, Merry, and Pippin. To Legolas she gave a long, stout bow of the Galadhrim. To Frodo she gave a magical phial, which captured the light of Eärendil’s star, without which Frodo and Sam would have been unable to pass through Shelob’s lair to complete their quest. After the departure of the Fellowship, Galadriel acted to ensure the success of the quest. It was she who summoned Gwaihir to rescue Gandalf off the peak of Celebdil, and it was she who nursed him back to health, dressing him in white, symbolizing his status as the new leader of the order.

Her abilities ultimately lay, like Arwen’s, within the mystical realm, a common trope for female characters. Only Éowyn truly takes a different path compared to the others.

According to Roger Ebert:

At last the full arc is visible, and the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy comes into final focus. I admire it more as a whole than in its parts. The second film was inconclusive, and lost its way in the midst of spectacle. But “Return of the King” dispatches its characters to their destinies with a grand and eloquent confidence. This is the best of the three, redeems the earlier meandering, and certifies the “Ring” trilogy as a work of bold ambition at a time of cinematic timidity.

That it falls a little shy of greatness is perhaps inevitable. The story is just a little too silly to carry the emotional weight of a masterpiece. It is a melancholy fact that while the visionaries of a generation ago, like Coppola with “Apocalypse Now,” tried frankly to make films of great consequence, an equally ambitious director like Peter Jackson is aiming more for popular success. The epic fantasy has displaced real contemporary concerns, and audiences are much more interested in Middle Earth than in the world they inhabit.

Still, Jackson’s achievement cannot be denied. “Return of the King” is such a crowning achievement, such a visionary use of all the tools of special effects, such a pure spectacle, that it can be enjoyed even by those who have not seen the first two films. Yes, they will be adrift during the early passages of the film’s 200 minutes, but to be adrift occasionally during this nine-hour saga comes with the territory; Tolkien’s story is so sweeping and Jackson includes so much of it that only devoted students of the Ring can be sure they understand every character, relationship and plot point.

The third film gathers all of the plot strands and guides them toward the great battle at Minas Tirith; it is “before these walls, that the doom of our time will be decided.” The city is a spectacular achievement by the special- effects artisans, who show it as part fortress, part Emerald City, topping a mountain, with a buttress reaching out over the plain below where the battle will be joined. In a scene where Gandalf rides his horse across the drawbridge and up the ramped streets of the city, it’s remarkable how seamlessly Jackson is able to integrate computer-generated shots with actual full-scale shots, so they all seem of a piece.

I complained that the second film, “The Two Towers,” seemed to shuffle the hobbits to the sidelines — as humans, wizards, elves and Orcs saw most of the action. The hobbits are back in a big way this time, as the heroic little Frodo (Elijah Wood) and his loyal friend Sam (Sean Astin) undertake a harrowing journey to return the Ring to Mount Doom — where, if he can cast it into the volcano’s lava, Middle Earth will be saved and the power of the enemy extinguished. They are joined on their journey by the magnificently eerie, fish-fleshed, bug-eyed creature Gollum, who started in life as a hobbit named Smeagol, and is voiced and modeled by Andy Serkis in collaboration with CGI artists, and introduced this time around with a brilliant device to illustrate his dual nature: He talks to his reflection in a pool, and the reflection talks back. Gollum loves Frodo but loves the Ring more, and indeed it is the Ring’s strange power to enthrall its possessors (first seen through its effect on Bilbo Baggins in “The Fellowship of the Ring”) that makes it so tricky to dispose of.

Exhilarating visuals

Although the movie contains epic action sequences of awe-inspiring scope (including the massing of troops for the final battle), the two most inimitable special-effects creations are Gollum, who seems as real as anyone else on the screen, and a monstrous spider named Shelob. This spider traps Frodo as he traverses a labyrinthine passage on his journey, defeats him, and wraps him in webbing to keep him fresh for supper. Sam is very nearly not there to save the day (Gollum has been treacherous), but as he battles the spider we’re reminded of all the other movie battles between men and giant insects, and we concede that, yes, this time they got it right.

The final battle is kind of magnificent. I found myself thinking of the visionary films of the silent era, like Lang (“Metropolis”) and Murnau (“Faust”), with their desire to depict fantastic events of unimaginable size and power, and with their own cheerful reliance on visual trickery. Had they been able to see this scene, they would have been exhilarated. We see men and even an army of the dead join battle against Orcs, flying dragons, and vast lumbering elephantine creatures that serve as moving platforms for machines of war. As a flaming battering-ram challenges the gates of the city, we feel the size and weight and convincing shudder of impacts that exist only in the imagination. Enormous bestial Trolls pull back the springs for catapults to hurl boulders against the walls and towers of Minas Tirith, which fall in cascades of rubble (only to seem miraculously restored in time for a final celebration).

And there is even time for a smaller-scale personal tragedy; Denethor (John Noble), steward of the city, mourns the death of his older and favored son, and a younger son named Faramir (David Wenham), determined to gain his father’s respect, rides out to certain death. The outcome is a tragic sequence in which the deranged Denethor attempts to cremate Faramir on a funeral pyre, even though he is not quite dead.

Spectacle supplants emotions

The series has never known what to do with its female characters. J.R.R. Tolkien was not much interested in them, certainly not at a psychological level, and although the half-elf Arwen (Liv Tyler) here makes a crucial decision — to renounce her elfin immortality in order to marry Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) — there is none of the weight or significance in her decision that we feel, for example, when an angel decides to become human in “Wings of Desire.”

There is little enough psychological depth anywhere in the films, actually, and they exist mostly as surface, gesture, archetype and spectacle. They do that magnificently well, but one feels at the end that nothing actual and human has been at stake; cartoon characters in a fantasy world have been brought along about as far as it is possible for them to come, and while we applaud the achievement, the trilogy is more a work for adolescents (of all ages) than for those hungering for truthful emotion thoughtfully paid for. Of all the heroes and villains in the trilogy, and all the thousands or hundreds of thousands of deaths, I felt such emotion only twice, with the ends of Faramir and Gollum. They did what they did because of their natures and their free will, which were explained to us and known to them. Well, yes, and I felt something for Frodo, who has matured and grown on his long journey, although as we last see him it is hard to be sure he will remember what he has learned. Life is so pleasant in Middle Earth, in peacetime.

12 thoughts on “On The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

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