The Awesome Women of Middle Earth

In Middle Earth, people set a lot of store by convention and tradition—for instance, hobbits take a long time to accept the idea of change or straying from a beaten path (that’s why Frodo and Bilbo are considered weirdos in the Shire), and the people of Gondor would rather spend years and years waiting for the return of a king rather than setting up a new line/system of government. The Elves as a people can’t handle change at all, and prefer to forsake a world that’s outpacing them and retreat to a timeless zone where everything stays just the same forever and ever.

aragornIf you’re a ‘good’ man, the chances are that, during any of Ages of Middle Earth, you are engaged in fighting to preserve this order. Your duty dictates that you give your all in the effort to end Morgoth/Sauron/whatever evil comes afterwards, that you learn the art of war and horseback riding and other such manly pursuits and stay far from morally compromising technology. The only men who really go ‘against’ the dictates laid down on them (and by ‘men’ here I’m referring to males both Elven and human) are some of the High Elves, and of course, Feanor and his sons.

But if you’re a woman in Tolkien’s world, your duty is to rebel.

Yes, this might be a strange thing to say. After all, enough and more people have pointed out how the Tolkienverse is a ‘boys’ club’, how no women were made part of the Fellowship, how there are all of three important women in a book as fat as The Lord of the Rings, all of whom are royalty, beautiful and set impossible standards for female readers. The Hobbit has no important female characters at all, but The Silmarillion makes up for both with a bevy of well drawn, smart female Elves and humans who push the story in decisive directions while, more often than not, their men sit around, ‘doing their duty’.

One glance at Tolkien’s women should be enough to convince anyone of the importance of quality over quantity. All his named female characters are fighters, going against convention in ways that the men never dare to do. Let’s just illustrate this with a few examples:

Galadriel—Galadriel turned her back on a comfortable life in Valinor and ventured forth into Middle Earth, and was exiled from the West for her actions. She braved the Crossing of the Ice, lived through Ages of war against Morgaladriel-the-hobbit-an-unexpected-journey-97371goth, and even when the Elves were granted pardon after the War of Wrath, chose to stay on and rule her own kingdom in Middle Earth. Galadriel is a woman of ambition, who left the West primarily because of the pull of adventure and the lure of her own dominion. And there’s no denying the fact that Lothlorien is really run and sustained by her, not Celeborn.

Arwen and Luthien—I know a lot of people think Arwen is nothing more than a beautiful love interest for Aragorn, but you have to stop for a moment and appreciate the magnitude of her choice. She chose to give up her immortality, to sunder herself from her family forever—no one else pushed her into ‘cleaving’ to Aragorn. Tolkien stresses that again and again, even permitting her a very ‘human’ reaction to Aragorn’s death wherein she finally laments and understands what she’s signed up for.

Luthien, well. She’s a superElf. I don’t think any Elf, male of female, accomplishes what she does in the course of her quest. Standing up for her right to love a human, breaking out of house arrest, convincing a hound to aid her quest rather than drag her back to her father, breaking her lover out of Sauron’s prison, coming face to face with Morgoth and luthienbesting him, convincing Mandos, the Keeper of the dead himself to let her lover out—can anyone claim these feats? And she accomplished all this because she refused to stay at home and sing and wait like a good little Elf maiden.

Aredhel—Before warrior woman Eowyn, there was Aredhel, who wandered on her own through forests and lands unmapped by her kindred. Tolkien presents her as an Artemis-like figure, one for whom domesticity is a confinement. Even after she gets married and has a child, Aredhel feels the need to explore and thinks nothing of walking out on her husband.

Eowyn—The only human to actually kill a Nazgul in single combat. Eowyn refuses to stay behind, awaiting news from the battlefield, to do the caregiving and shepherding duties expected of her as a woman. She breaks away from that line of duty with truly astounding consequences.

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Morwen and Nienor—Turin’s mother and sister spent years moving from sanctuary to sanctuary, searching for him. Morwen never allowed despair to overcome her, trudging on until she had found the stone that marked the grave of both her children. Sure, neither of them had the greatest of lives, but they also took charge, plunging out into the field to find their loved ones rather than sitting meekly by and allowing Elf lords to dictate their lives.

Given the context, Tauriel is a perfect fit in the Tolkienverse. She’s spirited, brave and has tauriela healthy disrespect for convention, defines her own duty and role as she sees fit. If it’s the male way to prescribe and maintain settled codes and systems in Middle Earth, it’s the female who questions and pushes back. And through these rebellions, Tolkien’s women advance the storyline, throw back the Enemy and, quite literally at times*, function as lights ‘in dark places, when all other lights go out’.

*Seriously. Luthien, Aredhel, Galadriel, Elwing—these women are literal lamps in dark settings at various points of Middle Earth’s history.

The Hobbit 2: The Elves of Mirkwood

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There be Spoilers, Most Calamitous Spoilers, Ahead.

Last night, I went with a couple of friends to watch the latest installment of the Hobbit trilogy. Two of these friends were die-hard fans, one of the movies and resultant fanfiction (her ‘Muse’ is the Elf she fondly dubs ‘Legsie’) and the other, like me, would most likely classify herself as a ‘purist’, one who frequently turned to me and asked ‘Does that happen in the book? I don’t remember!’. The fourth member of our happy gang was a ‘fan but not a super fan’, one who had watched the previous Hobbit and Lord of the Rings movies and liked them.

Funnily enough, given the all the tweaks and quirks in the film, it was the ‘purists’ who walked away happier. Maybe we weren’t expecting as much as the others? Maybe we were just able to see the movie as ‘entertainment’ and naught else? Or maybe we saw glimpses of more Middle-Earth history than we expected? The last, I think, to be substantiated soon.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is, primarily, a fun movie. It’s filled with silly jokes, improbable action sequences, Middle Earth/New Zealand beauty and some truly stunning visual effects. It’s also got its fair share of inane dialogue (as any franchise movie, especially in the superhero or fantasy genre, has these days), repetitive chase sequences and one fairly trippy scene with the (spoiler) Eye of Sauron. The last caused both me and said ‘purist’ friend to sputter ‘What was THAT?’

Seriously, what was that?

Besides the fairly heretical and foolhardy decision (I think it’s appropriate, given that Tolkien himself apparently said his name means ‘foolhardy’) to split the children’s book into three big-budget, two and a two third hour long films, Peter Jackson has—gasp—introduced romance into this boys’ club of a novel. And that was a big divider in our little group. Funnily enough, it was, again, the purists who loved it and melted into sentimental puddles of goop.

In this post I’m going to talk about what, for me, formed the meat of the movie: the Elves, and detail what I thought about their roles. I’m leaving my absolute favourite addition to the Jackson-Tolkien-verse for a separate post, because the stuff I have to say about him is actually sort of semi-serious. Yes, Thranduil will get a space all to himself. I think he deserves it.

Tauriel

From the moment it was announced that Evangeline Lilly would be playing a female Elf named Tauriel (‘maiden of the forest’), fans were riled. Of course the introduction of a female character meant romance, and who is there for her to romance besides dear darling Legolas, heart throb of Middle Earth? My own worry was that, like many before her, that would be all Tauriel would represent—a love interest.

Thankfully, my fears were pretty unfounded. Not only was Tauriel more kick-ass than Legolas in battle, but she fell for, of all beings, a Dwarf.

Now that is sure to spark many an angry note among the purists. Is it possible? How can a Dwarf ‘love’ an Elf? How can said Elf even contemplate reciprocating? But there’s already a basis for this in Tolkien’s world: remember how smitten Gimli was by Galadriel? Kili’s response to Tauriel seems exactly like Gimli’s; he sees her as full of ‘light’, ‘walking among the stars’. And how does Tauriel see him? Evidently as someone worthy of her act of busting the King’s trust and favour and running off into the wild to find.

It was my fanfic-loving friend who called the Tauriel-Kili romance angle ‘unnecessary’, oddly enough. On the other hand, I found it very compelling. It had its corny moments, yes, but which franchise movie doesn’t? And besides, it was so utterly unconventional in Middle Earth pairings. Of course Tauriel is expected to fall in love with the dashing Prince Legolas, but instead she chooses a Dwarf. A Dwarf! Those most unglamorous of Middle Earth denizens, hated by Elves, distrusted and distrusting of most and a race that wasn’t even part of the Divine Plan in the first place (ref: The Silmarillion). I thought it was a brave stroke, and one that didn’t fall entirely amiss. Not only does is foreshadow the races uniting at the (spoiler) close, but it was a breath of fresh air in movie-romance/Middle Earth romance terms as well.

A Dwarf, for Eru’s sake.

Legolas

It must have been odd for Orlando Bloom to reprise his role as Legolas ten years after the LOTR movies, and play him at least 60 years younger. Legolas, in The Hobbit 2, is mostly a killing machine, something of a video game character. He rips off Orc heads, he does more skateboarding stunts, he seems to face somewhat of a moral  dilemma (or pretends he does so he can follow Tauriel around). He is obviously struggling with some Daddy issues, but he just didn’t…convince me. Tauriel and Thranduil are much stronger characters. Evidently Jackson is trying to posit them as two ends of a spectrum that Legolas has to choose between: will he follow his heart and tread the unconventional, brazen path of the much younger Tauriel, or listen to his far more ruthless and seemingly cold-hearted, ‘ill tempered’ father?

Frankly, I didn’t care.

 The Woodland Elves

It’s obvious that Jackson has taken material from The Silmarillion and for that alone, the Mirkwood Elves were a success in my eyes. There’s references to ‘lowly Silvan Elf’ (which is what Tauriel is), reminding us that these seemingly perfect beings have their own hierarchies and class system, and that history has turned on these distinctions for them. Even outsiders know that the ‘Woodland Elves’ are different from their brethren outside of Mirkwood. ‘They are less wise and more dangerous’.

I would dispute that, though. I don’t think Thranduil is ‘less wise’ than his fellow Elf rulers, but more on that later.

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