The women of Lord of the Rings

Somebody once advised me that the Lord of The Rings “is like totally cliché.” I conceded that since pretty much everyone has copied it, it probably is.

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It’s cliché don’t you know

The same person also pointed out that there are undertones of sexism and even racism in the great tome. I guess some … and I suppose the academic term would be ‘post colonial’ criticism is inevitable.

So I thought I’d check out at least one of these criticisms … Is the Lord of The Rings Sexiest?

Well, it’s certainly true that Tolkien couldn’t write female characters to save his life. (Or perhaps more accurately he could, but just didn’t bother.)

True enough, the guy possessed an intellect of epic proportions. A veritable goliath of the mind, Tolkien forged entire worlds out of words and imagination, invented species, peoples, histories, and pretty much kick started the whole epic fantasy genre. But ask him to figure out why the missus’s knickers are in a twist and I’d wager you’d get a blank look.

The truth is there is only one decent female character in Lord of The Rings – Éowyn.


Am I the only one who thinks its messed up that Aragorn went for the elf instead of this?

If you disagree and say, ‘oh but what about that elf queen, Galadril? She’s female and brilliant!’ you may as well stop reading now. Galadril was practically a half god, immortal super being. She may as well have been an asexual twenty foot tall, fire breathing preying mantis. And if you mention Aragorn’s elfin crush, well, can I just say, I’m talking about the book not the films. Believe it or not, Liv Tyler barely appeared in the book.

Yup, there’s only one good female character in the whole trilogy. Of course the problem that some people point to here, is that Tolkien only manages to make her decent by making her a complete Tom Boy. Would it be too much to say, he basically writes another male character and then simply sticks him into a skirt?

Okay that’s overly harsh, we’ll stick with Tom Boy and as I said, she is a good/great character. So that’s one.  But if you were to compare Tolkien to the man often regarded as the modern Tolkien, George RR Martin, you’d see the difference a few decades makes. George’s books are populated by a plethora of very strong, multi faceted and above all, believable female characters. Just look at the likes of Cat, Cersei, Dany and the naïve but very underrated and to my mind brilliantly written character – Sansa. Okay, Arya is the kick ass Tom Boy, but no harm there. No doubt if Tolkien had written ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ Arya would be the only girl in the whole series.

Yeah, one thing I find to be a bit of a cop out, is the way some authors, (particularly fantasy authors) believe that to make a strong female character she has to kick ass with a sword, or be a better shot than all the guys with a longbow, or whatever, i.e. she has to be this …

And that’s where they’re wrong. A woman doesn’t have to be Xena to be strong.

Now that’s not an indictment of Tolkien, but it is most certainly an indictment of some modern authors who repeatedly fall into what I like to call the ‘Xena’ trap. If you ask me they fall into it because it is easy. You’re faced with a conundrum ‘how do I write a strong female character into my world of warriors and dragons? Oh, I know I give her a great big sword and have her bash up a half dozen guys every other chapter. Girl Power!’

Now THATS cliché. I’d rather start with a picture of a woman that I know, say for arguments sake the missus. Now, she’s a strong character, but more importantly, she’s real. She’s not going to beat up Vitali Klitschko, but I bet you any money, if he was threatening something, or somebody she cared about, or loved, she would try to stand up to him all the same. That’s real courage, real strength. Not phoney, Xena strength.

Oh, and before you start, I’m not saying Xena characters are wrong per say, but I’d just be extra careful when writing them. After all, even if your book is fantasy, your characters should still be real.

Anyway back to Tolkien, I’d say yes, one decent female character in a book anywhere near LOTR’s scale and scope, would be a major flaw in a modern novel. But to say the same of LOTR is to ignore the fact that the book was not written yesterday, it is of its time and should be judged as such. The older the book you’re reading, the more detached you are from the author and time in which it was written. Besides, I think most of us can agree that Éowyn’s “I am no man!” assurance rocked big time.

So yes from a modern perspective (and not even including the incessant singing and poetry) there are flaws in Lord of the Rings. If you’re hyper sensitive to such things and are looking out for them, I guess you can point to various passages and themes shouting, “ Racism! Sexism!” or whatever. You could do that all day and I’d say, “Sure, you got a point, but you know what? The book still rules.”

And in answer to the question, is The Lord of the Rings sexist? Well the answer is simple. NO. It’s just male orientated, and at risk of a backlash, in my mind that makes it no more sexiest than a ‘chick lit’ that centers mainly around female characters.


Comments (12)

  1. DM

    “After all, even if your book is fantasy, your characters should still be real.”

    This is so true! i hate when authors write unrealistic characters and then say oh don’t worry about it, its fantasy! And btw I loved Éowyn! But your right there isn’t any other good female characters in it 🙁

  2. Precious

    I agree! Éowyn does indeed rock. Excellent article, please keep em coming!

  3. Damien J

    I liked Lord of the rings but found most of the characters were very one dimensional, Aragorn is a gooodie, Saruman is a baddie etc. And yes there is only one woman in it and she is pretty much – a man in a skirt lol. Personally I think LOTR is over rated give me Song of Ice and Fire any day. GRRM’s character’s are way deeper and more compelling than Tolkien’s

    • Dave

      Perhaps the characters are a little one dimensional, perhaps there is too much back story, perhaps there is too much singing and poetry etc etc. But the fact remains that if there was no Lord of The Rings there would likely be no Song of Ice and Fire either.

  4. StephanieCole

    I still punch the air (in very lady like fashion of course) when eowyn says that

  5. Hobbit

    I LOVE Lord of the Rings! I can see what you mean by Eowyn basically being the only female character. But I love how she can kick butt and she is strong but not just by being able to use a soward. She has faced so much and she still has hope and trust in her people. Also Gilardrial is not half god she is an elf. I don’t think LOTR is sexist either because in that time women wouldn’t go to war or on journeys so you can’t fit that many women into to story. Finally how is LOTR racist?

    • Dave

      I agree, I don’t think it is, but the accusation is often made. I think the issue some people have is Tolkien’s use of different races, eg Elves, Orcs etc. The Elves are good, intelligent, caring, one and all, the orcs are bad, stupid, greedy, dirty – every last one of them. That’s effectively saying that race determines behaviour/personality etc. Personally I think people that make this argument are completely over analysing the story, and need to take a chill pill.

  6. Alex

    I would like to react about your view on the women of the books ^^

    First of all… what is Lord of the Rings? War. You’re not wrong when you say it is male oriented but one may agree that army has never been full of women, even today and when they were present it was always to help (as nurses) more than to fight.
    Let’s examine the few women that are present in Lord of the Rings and as Tolkien create a big cosmology let’s see women’s character in all his books…
    LotR :
    Eowyn : she is a fighter yes, but also a damaged girl who wants to die… Her parents are dead, she saw her uncle being weakned by a traitor, and with the context, she thinks Eomer is certainly going to die as well… There is a little bit of heroism in Eowyn but her attempt to go to the battle is a suicidal move, simple as that. She only see there is much more to live when she meet Faramir and see Eomer isn’t dead.

    Galadriel is not a goddess or whatever you’re trying to say… She’s a elf who learned to be modest and smart. In the Silmarillion, she followed a elf (Fëanor) she hated only because she wanted to rule a country on her own. She even refused the pardon of Valar and she’s stuck on Middle Earth for 2 more Ages… During this time, she worked to do something good for Middle Earth and to become wiser. She finally succeed when she refuse to take the Ring that Frodo is offering her. So at the point of Lord of the Ring, yes, she is mature enough… but she wasn’t always like that, Tolkien is deeper than that 😉

    Arwen: I agree she isn’t the most compelling character but she’s more a character who symbolize the wait that women suffer when their husband are at war… By the way, in the Appendice of Return of the King (the part of the story of Aragorn and Arwen) you can see a little bit of her personnality, she is calm but determined – she denied her immortality for love that’s not nothing – and at the moment of Aragorn’s death you can see she understand the importance of death, something that she never understood as an immortal, she change her mind about Mankind, who she thought were drama queen to not accept death. But even if she’s now scared of death doesn’t mean she won’t strongly face it when her turn will come…

    Ioreth is a nurse at Minas Tirith, she doesn’t do a lot but she’s the one who reveal Aragorn as the king of Gondor as he is the only warrior who still has his ability to heal peole.

    There is no women in the Hobbit but plenty in the Silmarillion… I don’t know if you’ve read the books (as you should ^^) so I won’t specify anything. But there are basically strong-minded sometimes for the bad (too proud) sometimes for the good (protect their own kingdom)…

    To me, Tolkien’s women are great, it show he had a lot of respect for them and when you compare to them to ASoIaF I disagree with you : Martin’s women seems to have more personality but at the end of the day, they only serve to purpose to show how men are cruel and “grey” in Martin’s world : Pratically all the females character have been raped and sometines some of them enjoy it (yes, for sure… women ENJOY rape that’s completely realistic). The chapter when Osha (or Yara for the TV show) is raped by her “lover” but has an orgasm no matter what, still make me feel sick… And I don’t even want to talk about Arya going “serial-killer” mode… But everybody is entilted to their opinions 😉

    PS: sorry for my approximative english, it’s not my mother-tongue language

    • Dave

      Nothing wrong with your English, Alex. I haven’t read the Silmarillion so can’t comment on that, but I will say I don’t think any female character in the 3 books of Lord of the Rings can match the complexity of say Sansa for example.

  7. Lily Sharr

    BTW MAJOR TYPO HERE. You’re saying sexiest, meaning who’s is the most sexy. You are meaning to say sexist, prejudice or discrimination based on a person’s sex.

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