July 2nd, 2007

contemplative

Tolkein summarizes feminism

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.