So in a grand comeback gesture, I’ve decided to post every day (a bit ambitious, I know, and there are going to be hurdles, like travel and friends in the way) about a different female fantasy character who I see as being a ‘worthy’ model for a modern woman. There I go, stepping into dangerous territory, by dragging in categories worth debating like ‘modern’, ‘woman’and ‘worthy’. There’s no way to de-politicize this however, and I’ve sort of made my peace with that (I think). Besides, why SHOULD I de-politicize and de-radicalize my stance in a world where EVERY THIRD woman is raped and/or sexually abused, and most are subjected, no matter what their race, caste, colour or class background, to verbal and physical sexual harrassment nearly every day of their lives. Yes, living in a city like Delhi in India has served to make this disgusting reality much more immediate than it has been for the past 20 years of my life, and yes, the recent incidents have served to underline the horror and sheer banality of these happenings, but here, in my blog, I want to remind myself of WHAT reading fantasy literature has taught me, how its women have shone as beacons in what often seems a lightless world, and given me the courage to not despair and just give up on humanity.
Though sometimes it seems so, so tempting.
Anyway to turn from darker thoughts. Let me start with my oldest fantasy love, the Ur-text of my musings and writerly daydreams, The Lord of the Rings. Here, I shall shamelessly plagiarize from one of my own old essays, and wax poetic on the Lady of Light herself, Galadriel of Lothlorien.
Fitting, really, given that she is the oldest on my list by, oh, millenia.
‘The Lady of Lothlorien’, Galadriel is presented to the reader as ‘no less tall than [her husband]…grave and beautiful.’ She is ‘clad wholly in white…[with] hair of deep gold.’ She bears ‘no sign of age’ (being, in fact, immortal) but for the ‘depths of [her] eyes, for these were as keen as lances in the starlight, and yet profound, the wells of deep memory.’
In the creation of this character, Tolkien drew upon sources both literary and religious in nature. Galadriel embodies the ‘missing mother figure’ that is a common icon in many fairy tales. She provides guidance and hospitality to the Fellowship: feeding, clothing and lading them with gifts before sending them on their way. She is, in this way, reminiscent of the Biblical figure said to be her source: the Virgin Mary.
The parallels between the two are obvious when TLOTR is compared to a late nineteenth-early twentieth century ballad by Chesterton: ‘The Ballad of the White Horse’. The hero in this poem is called Alfred, a dispossessed king on a quest to win back his rightful kingdom from the usurping Danes. Chesterton’s poem begins with Alfred’s vision of the Virgin, who counsels him to fight on against the Danes, but refuses to ‘read the future’ for him:
But if he fail or if he win
To no good man is told…
I tell you naught for your comfort
Yea, naught for your desire
Save that the sky grows darker yet
And the sea rises higher.
Galadriel’s Mirror, which Frodo looks into during his stay in Lothlorien, shows the viewer many images, but there is no knowing whether they are set in the past, the present, or the future. When Frodo asks whether she advises him to look into it, Galadriel responds:
‘I do not counsel you one way or the other. I am not a counselor. You may learn something, and whether what you see be fair or evil, that may be profitable, and yet it may not. Seeing is both good and perilous. Yet I think, Frodo, that you have courage and wisdom enough for the venture, or I would not have brought you here. Do as you will!’
Galadriel urges the Fellowship to continue on their Quest, but refuses to ‘read the future’ for them. Like the conventional mother figure, she offers a refuge for the weary travelers, and is a provider of miraculous gifts and articles that will help them overcome obstacles and achieve their aim. Even the Ring she wears- Nenya- is the Ring of preservation with the power to save and nurture- gifts traditionally ascribed to the mother.
The Elven Queen also bears traces of another Biblical figure by the name of Mary, but this one is a far cry from the Virgin Mother. Mary Magdalene, the fallen woman who is redeemed by Christ, is also a source for Galadriel. Like Magdalene, she too once sinned. She rebels against the Valar (the great spirits who created the world) and leaves their kingdom (Valinor) to come to Middle Earth and ‘be free’. Once there, she rises to great power, becoming one of the holders of the Three Elven Rings, and Queen of her own realm, but barred from entering Valinor. Her great test comes in the form of the One Ring. When Frodo offers it to her she is momentarily tempted (or so it seems) by the desire for more power. The Hobbit sees her standing before him:
”…tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful. Then she let her hand fall , and suddenly she laughed again and lo! She was shrunken: a slender elf woman, clad in simple white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad.
“I pass the test,” she said, “I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.” ‘
By giving up her chance instead of swooping upon and seizing the One Ring when it is offered to her ‘freely’, Galadriel redeems herself and the ban on her is lifted. She is allowed to sail away to Valinor at the end of the book.
How well does Galadriel conform to any fairy tale type? As far as being a good powerful woman goes, Galadriel defeats the general run of the group members by being quite capable of exciting admiration among men. Yet, like other good powerful fairy tale figures, she is detached from the action in a sense, appearing only to aid the Fellowship, then slipping back into the green shadows of her land. Frodo sees her as ‘present and yet remote; a living vision of that which has already been left far behind by the flowing streams of Time.’ Samwise Gamgee attempts to capture the Lady of Lorien with words:
“Beautiful she is…! Lovely! Sometimes like a great tree in flower, sometimes like a white daffadowndilly, small and slender like. Hard as di’monds, soft as moonlight. Warm as sunlight, cold as frost in the stars. Proud and far off as a snow mountain, and as merry as any lass I ever saw with daisies in her hair in springtime. But that’s a lot o’ nonsense, and all wide of my mark.”
Galadriel seems to defeat all definition, instead remaining a curious blend of conflicting qualities- both nurturer and redeemed, immediate and remote, gentle and imperious. Rigidly delineated categories seem to stutter and fall before her- all rendered a ‘lot o’ nonsense’ and ‘wide’ (perhaps in this case too narrow!) ‘of the mark’.