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Kara Gardner - Macho Men & Warrior Princesses

Two recent articles on TheOneRing.net have focused on Tolkien’s women characters. This is a sticky issue, and one that takes some courage to tackle. In their hurry to defend Tolkien, Counterpoint writer Anwyn and a recent Special Guest are both anxious to distance themselves from feminists. In contrast, I would like to announce at the outset that I am a staunch feminist and proud to be one. I have also read LOTR every year since I was nine years old and consider Tolkien my favorite author. Just as I can find Aragorn’s coronation stirring without wanting to live in a monarchy, I can also enjoy LOTR while recognizing that Tolkien’s views on gender are not precisely my own. I would like to go farther than this, however, and suggest that Tolkien’s works can actually provide us with a model for masculinity that is strongly pro-feminist. Tolkien reminds us that the most honorable tasks for a man are creating, healing and protecting. These ideals can serve as a desperately needed model in an age when masculinity is increasingly equated with homophobia, bulging muscles and random violence.

Both recent web articles point out the role of women as inspiration for Tolkien. Anwyn writes that "it’s only natural that Tolkien would paint women into his mythos as he saw them in his own world: to be placed on a pedestal, to be drawn on for support in times of trial, to be looked up to as a cherished ideal." The Guest writes, "[Aragorn is] fighting for the women of Middle-earth and for the things that the women represent." Although I agree that this is an element in Tolkien’s work, I don’t believe that it should be used in his defense for two reasons: First, the history of our century teaches us the dangers of treating women as ideals in need of protection. In very recent history, Southern lynch mobs murdered black men to "protect" white women from rape. Women were excluded from juries to protect them from the graphic details of trials. During the Vietnam War, women were protected from the draft, but this protection often meant that they were not allowed to actively object to the war, only to support and nurture those who did. Finally, while an artist’s muse might inspire his work, she is never allowed to be an artist herself. It is important to remember that someone who is protected cannot take risks, and that to treat someone as an ideal is to deny their essential humanity along with their right to fail and make mistakes.

Second, I believe that Tolkien was explicitly aware of the dangers of over-idealizing and over-protecting women. Éowyn, for example, falls into despair because she is trapped in the role of waiting on Théoden and must leave the defense of her principles to men who fall short in their task. Furthermore Arwen, arguably the most idealized of Tolkien’s characters, is allowed profound doubts and failings. Her weakness and regret at Aragorn’s death gives her sacrifice poignancy and courage that it would never have if she were simply an ideal type. Despite my objections to treating women as the object of protection, I find that fighting to protect and preserve rather than to conquer and destroy is one of the strongest messages in Tolkien’s work. This is not to imply that Tolkien is reactionary. His characters do not fight to preserve the world unchanged but rather to save what they can "so that those who live after may have clean earth to till." Tolkien’s heroes fight because they must and not for glory, honor or abstract ideals. The two exceptions to this rule are Éowyn and Boromir. Boromir is concerned with personal glory, while Éowyn sets out in search of honorable death in battle. I believe that these two characters serve to highlight the two most strongly feminist characters in the LOTR: Éowyn the Healer as opposed to Éowyn the Warrior and Boromir’s foil, Faramir.

Treating Éowyn’s decision to hang up her sword as a pro-feminist decision will no doubt seem misguided. The fact that we treat Éowyn the warrior as the stronger character, however, shows the degree to which our culture equates violence with power. Éowyn’s decision should remind us that healing can take more skill than fighting and living can take more courage than dying. I do not mean to embrace by analogy the backlash argument that women won their rights in the 1970’s and should now exercise their right to be housewives. Éowyn does not give up the freedoms she has won, nor does she decide that she was wrong to fight. Her actions parallel the choices of many male characters. Sam, for example, turns to gardening and raising children when his role in the war is over. For men and women alike building and healing are ultimately as important as wartime courage.

The second strongly feminist character in LOTR is Faramir. I’m sure that it will also seem odd to take the man "who tamed a wild shieldmaiden of the North" as a model for a pro-feminist man. Faramir is important, however, as a contrast to his brother Boromir. Compare what Faramir says about his culture and his brother to the model of masculinity that modern media present: "We now love war and valour as things good in themselves, both a sport and an end; and though we still hold that a warrior should have more skills and knowledge that only the craft of weapons and slaying, we esteem a warrior, nonetheless, about men of other crafts. …So even was my brother, Boromir." In contrast to his brother, Faramir says, "I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend: the city of the Men of Númenor."

Faramir embodies an ideal of manhood that is centered on protecting and understanding and doing useful and creative work. This ideal is an excellent antidote to the Steven Segal archetype -- a man who is manly because he flexes his muscles, beats up people who disrespect him and slaps women’s butts. Consider the fact that the movie tough-guy is almost always fighting for revenge. He is usually out to pay someone back for his murdered partner/buddy/family/wife, but those people are already dead and safely (except for the occasional flashback) out of the way. Faramir, on the other hand, is fighting to protect his home from a present threat. While he is a warrior hero to his people, he is also a soft-spoken scholar-geek with the courage to love a strong woman like Éowyn and win her love with patience and kindness. Faramir’s brand of courage makes pop-culture toughness look like little boy posturing by comparison.

Ultimately, I think that it pays to be cautious about much of what Tolkien says about gender but not to reject his core message. If, like Tolkien, we reject the idea that violence and manliness are one and the same, then The Lord of the Rings begins to look like a model for a feminist society. Tolkien’s books are filled with warriors, martyrs, scholars, craftspeople, builders, poets, musicians, healers, rulers, gardeners and parents. These are all roles that both men and women can embrace.

–Kara Gardner

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