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Tolkein summarizes feminism - The Life and Thoughts of Zach

Jul. 2nd, 2007

12:39 am - Tolkein summarizes feminism

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I went to sleep early but then got insomnia so I picked my book back up for a bit. I've been working slowly through the Lord of the Rings since I came to Australia in January. This passage struck me as amazingly progressive for the time it was written:

"Lord," she said, "if you must go, then let me ride in your following. For I am weary of skulking in the hills, and wish to face peril and battle."
"Your duty is with your people,' he answered.
"Too often have I heard of duty," she cried. "But am I not of the house of Eorl, a shield-maiden and not a dry-nurse? I have waited on faltering feet long enough. Since they falter no longer, it seems, may I not now spend my life as I will?"
"Few may do that with honour," he answered. "But as for you, lady: did you not accept the charge to govern the people until their lord's return. If you had not been chosen, then some marshal or captain would have been set in the same place, and he could not ride away from his charge, were he weary of it or no."
"Shall I always be chosen," she said bitterly. "Shall I always be left behind when the Riders depart, to mind the house while they win renown, and find food and beds when they return?"
"A time may come soon," said he, "when none will return. Then there will be need of valour without renown, for none shall remember the deeds that are done in the last defence of your homes. Yet the deeds will not be less valiant because they are unpraised."
And she answered: "All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more. But I am of the House of Eorl and not a serving-woman. I can ride and wield blade, and I do not fear either pain or death."
"What do you fear, lady?" he asked.
"A cage," she said, "To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire."
I love that not only is she making her own free choice to take on a traditionally male task but she's doing so as the highest ranked man in the land is telling her that it is her noble duty to tend to the home front. She is literally facing up to a patriarch who is well intentioned but completely entrenched in the traditions of gender roles in his society. It doesn't matter that he means well, his good intentions still deny her her freedom of choice and she won't accept that. Powerful.

Current Mood: contemplativecontemplative

Comments:

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From:hecateuse
Date:July 1st, 2007 03:47 pm (UTC)

Spoiler alert?

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Yeah, that's all well and good--and Eowyn's definitely an admirable feminist character... but it's not like she gets permission to go fight after all. She winds up hiding behind her armor among the crowd, so her patriarch doesn't know she's there... and then saves the world at the last minute simply by being female and brave. Nice, but still a bit of a cop out. Why doesn't she save the world by being smarter or stronger or better at riding?

I'm sure a lot of analysis has been written about the female characters in LotR, and Eowyn's undoubtedly the most liberated of the bunch. Except maybe Galadriel, but elves sort of don't count since they are playing by different rules.
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From:zarfmouse
Date:July 1st, 2007 04:05 pm (UTC)

Re: Spoiler alert?

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Yah, I hadn't turned the page yet when I made the post. The very next passage was definitely annoying in that after that very powerful speech she's all whiny begging for permission to go.

Still an impressive speech "for its time" and in a book that is so male dominated. I'm impressed that Tolkein even had those words in him, even if he didn't turn out to be promulgating a subversive feminist message with his story.

I'm still reading so we'll see how I feel when it all plays out. I only vaguely remember this aspect of the movie and I understand that her character was quite altered in the movie.

While not completely subversive, maybe there's a realistic message in there about words not being enough in the struggle for equality. You can say all the inspirational and emancipating words you want but in the end you've still got to take direct action against centuries of expectation because the king isn't just going to grant you equality. Getting to choose the man's job is a lot harder than knowing you deserve it.

It'll be interesting to do a bit more thinking about the women of LOTR. I'd kind of written the book of as being fundamentally ignorant of gender issues until I hit that passage.
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From:samwize
Date:July 2nd, 2007 04:32 pm (UTC)

Re: Spoiler alert?

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And don't overlook the fact that while she is bound by her society, so too is her lord. He can't arbitrarily say "Yeah, all you guys out there? All you tough warriors who grew up being told what was expected of you and what was expected of your sisters, wives, and daughters? Yeah, I'm changing the rules now."
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From:boannan
Date:July 3rd, 2007 01:56 pm (UTC)
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Eowyn comes off IMHO as a flighty, "high-blooded" woman with her head in the clouds. She's an honor-hound who has no real idea what honor is - she just wants to play with the big boys and why why why won't they let her?

Can you tell I don't like her? :) I _especially_ don't like her in the movie, though I think the movie got her just about right.

I'll tell you I think Sam is where it's at in terms of gender studies. Galadriel is basically a powerful man-elf, and Arwen...well don't get me started on Arwen. ;) But Sam cooks, cleans, and emotionally labors for Frodo all through the book. I think he's sort of set up as one of the most important "female" roles.
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From:culfinglin
Date:July 3rd, 2007 10:35 pm (UTC)

Re: Spoiler alert?

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this is such a complicated topic.

first, the trick with LoTR is to remember that it is not a novel -- it's a saga, complete with interlacing narrative and all the other conventions of a saga. sagas aren't particularly known for their depictions of gender roles.

that said, you can find many examples of strong women in his other, earlier, and later works (well, i guess 'earlier' and 'later' cover everything, don't they?). emeldir, beren's mother, is called 'the manhearted,' haleth is also described as strong; luthien is an extremely strong-willed character who rescues her beloved from Melkor; then there are the two spiders, ungoliant and shelob (wow, lots of freudian issues revealed in those two)… plenty of strong, unconventional women.

third, there's the very odd for his time way tolkien merges feminine and masculine qualities in his heroes. sam is very feminine; as is aragorn, and faramir -- compare them to boromir.

fourth, tolkien defines true power very differently than one might expect him to, and it's not in the traditional sense of the word. i don't know if you've finished the book yet, so i have to stop now. :)
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From:culfinglin
Date:July 3rd, 2007 10:19 pm (UTC)
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eowyn was added to the story, after tolkien's daughter complained of no women in it. (i can look up the reference in his biography and letters when i get home, if you like.) tolkien saw her point, and wrote eowyn in.

galadriel's also quite a strong character, though you don't see much of her in LOTR, but in the silmarillion, she's very strong. she's one of the leaders of the rebellion against the gods.
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