My job requires me to spend a lot of time literally wandering in the wilderness, if the presence of a GPS, map, and compass allow me to call it wandering, and as a result I spend unhealthy amounts of time alone with my own thoughts. (Or, in other words, alone. Har har.) Recently those intruding thoughts have, for some reason, had a lot to do with The Lord of the Rings.
It’s self-evident that Tolkien’s writing has a gender problem. I mean, there are four female characters in LotR*. They are totally kickass characters, and I wouldn’t change anything in LotR for the world. But still. Four characters. One of whom is an evil giant spider.
I used to attribute this lack of women to a combination of tradition—after all, warrior and adventurer are pretty traditionally masculine roles—and lack of awareness—Tolkien wasn’t writing to create female role models. But I think there’s something more pernicious going on. Consider. Theoden’s wife? Dead. Denethor’s wife? Dead. Elrond’s wife? Sailed to the Undying Lands. Sam’s mother? Probably dead too, or he would’ve been pining for her in Mordor. These are opportunities where a female character could easily have been inserted, even in a tiny, nonspeaking role. Instead they’re conspicuously absent.
Gimli’s father Gloin is present at the Council of Elrond. Presumably Gimli has a mother; where is she? (We find out in one of the appendices that Dwarf women are rare, and some Men think they’re actually a myth.) Legolas’s father Thranduil appears in LotR and The Hobbit, but his mother is never even mentioned; has she gone Grey Havens-ward already?
Was Tolkien even aware of this pattern? Was he subtly affected by the “conveniently an orphan” trope? Or did he just think these female characters were unnecessary? Or, like most things Tolkien, is there some subtle underlying meaning?
Is Middle Earth simply more dangerous for women? Celebrian, Elrond’s wife, is the only one of these women whose fate is ever reported, and she left Middle Earth because she never fully recovered from the trauma of an orc attack. If women were disproportionately affected by the growing power of Sauron, it (a) makes the bad guys look nastier, (b) plays into the “weaker sex” stereotype, and (c) makes Eowyn look even more badass. And what does this say about the valiant men who are supposed to be defending their womenfolk?
At least some of Tolkien’s characters have noticed the male-biased sex ratio: the Ents have an entire song about how all the Entwives disappeared. Maybe the same thing that happened to the Entwives is now occurring to female elves, hobbits, and humans. Maybe the Entwives never left—maybe they were killed off. Or maybe the non-Ents are following in the Entwives’ footsteps. After all, it’s never explicitly stated that the absent wives and mothers are dead.
One last thought: I meant this to be a serious line of inquiry, but I also can’t help thinking that “where are Tolkien’s women?” would be a great plotline for a Thursday Next novel.
*Excluding Rose who eventually marries Samwise, Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, the matron in the Houses of Healing whose name I forget, and Goldberry. And I like to think the Nazgul’s creepy pterosaur mounts are female.