Sunday, 9 November 2014

Why couldn’t we have had a movie about Lúthien?

I gather the Tolkien family have put their foot down and said “no” to any more Middle-Earth movies after The Hobbit is completed. I’m disappointed, but only mildly. The days are now past when any attempt to depict high fantasy on screen was bound to fail ignominiously. I don’t begrudge the Tolkiens their decision – apparently their father’s fame has been the bane of their privacy for half a century, not to mention that the movie companies have been very stingy about passing any of their profits on to his estate. And I understand completely why Peter Jackson and Weta Workshop went for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit first. But I think Tolkien himself was a bit embarrassed by The Hobbit. It wasn’t originally supposed to be part of the mythos at all – he just helped himself to the name of a character (Elrond) and a place (the lost city of Gondolin) to give it a bit of atmosphere, and then filled out the connections over the twelve years it took to write The Lord of the Rings. (Which then took six more years to publish. And George R. R. Martin fans complain about waiting five for A Dance with Dragons.)
Those two were the only Middle-Earth books J. R. R. Tolkien got published in his lifetime. All right, those and a small collection of verse under the title The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. His son Christopher is still, I think, collecting and transcribing the giant mass of manuscripts he left when he died, some of them going right back to his time in the trenches of World War I. The first published was The Silmarillion, a collection of the whole mythos condensed down to one chapter per story, which many people understandably find tough going. Jackson has had to stretch and pad out The Hobbit to make three movies of it; The Silmarillion would fill at least a dozen.
Of all Jackson’s padding, the single element that has raised the most fan complaints so far is the most necessary one: the invention of the female elf-ranger Tauriel among Thranduil’s people in Mirkwood. I have a sneaking suspicion Jackson is going to kill her off in the third movie. The Hobbit was a boys’ adventure story, and like many boys’ adventure stories of the time it had no female characters. The Lord of the Rings has seven named female characters, eight if you count Shelob the spider. Two, Lobelia Sackville-Baggins and Ioreth of Minas Tirith, are old-lady stereotypes. One is Rosie Cotton, who doesn’t show up until Sam Gamgee needs a happy ending. The remaining four are all idealized models of femininity – Goldberry, Arwen Evenstar, Galadriel, and Éowyn of Rohan. Goldberry, like Tom Bombadil her husband, appears only in a disconnected episode near the beginning; her character is too sketchily drawn to tell us much about her author’s values. Arwen, Galadriel, and Éowyn each warrant further investigation.
Arwen was written into the story very late, as a love-interest for Aragorn when he became the lost heir to the throne of Gondor. That was itself quite a late development. Aragorn was originally to have been a hobbit. When he became a human Ranger, Tolkien created Éowyn to pair him up with. But when he rose to the position of King of Gondor and Arnor, apparently only an immortal being would do for his Queen. Keep that thought in mind, because I’m going to use it to prop up a slightly outrageous suggestion later on. One of the many changes Tolkien wished he’d had time to make was to give Arwen more of a presence on the page. Most of the material he came up with for her was shoved into the Appendices like an afterthought. It re-uses several ideas from the story of Lúthien and Beren, which of all the tales that went into The Silmarillion was probably the one Tolkien devoted the most time and sweat to – perhaps as much as he put into The Lord of the Rings itself. In particular, Arwen voluntarily renounces immortality to be with Aragorn. In the main text of the book she has no lines and does practically nothing. Critics who have not read the story of Lúthien have thereby been forgivably misled into thinking that Tolkien’s ideal of femininity was fundamentally passive. We shall see later how grave is their error.
Arwen’s maternal grandmother Galadriel is a being of great power. In The Lord of the Rings she, rather than her consort Celeborn, is evidently the one who makes the decisions in their country. She overrules his misgivings about Gimli, for a start. Again, keep that in mind. She wears one of the Three Rings of the Elves. She can read minds and see dimly into the future, and Lothlórien seems to be attuned to her will, as Rivendell is to Elrond’s, Mordor to Sauron’s, and the Withywindle to Tom Bombadil’s. She is feared in Gondor and Rohan, where men like Boromir and Éomer believe her to be a wicked witch. And here’s the fascinating thing: they’re right. She fits nearly every aspect of the fairy-tale Wicked Witch trope. She has magical powers, she lives deep in the forest, she’s ambitious, she draws travellers in and determines their destiny. Yet Tolkien chides her detractors’ fears as ignorance, holding her up for us to admire. In The Silmarillion we learn that in her youth she was a leader of the nation of elves who rebelled against the gods and left Valinor beyond the Western Sea to build kingdoms in Middle-Earth. She with her brothers led her people across the Grinding Ice, on foot, after Fëanor’s faction burned their ships and abandoned them. On the other hand, when Frodo finally offers her the means to ultimate power she “passes the test” by renouncing her ambition and accepting that she will “diminish, and pass into the West, and remain Galadriel.” The male rulers of Middle-Earth must face the same temptation, but the element of diminution is more explicit for her than for them.
Éowyn confronting the Nazgûl: “I am no man”
And then there’s Éowyn. Her stand against the Nazgûl is one moment that Peter Jackson got gloriously right, though it would have been even righter if he hadn’t given the show away earlier on. As I said, she was originally to have been Aragorn’s love interest, and some traces remain in the book of that phase of composition. In the finished work, her love for him is unrequited, and she falls into despair. But here again Tolkien subverts a classic trope from the heritage he drew on. In mediaeval romances, in folk-tales and ballads, ladies who despair of love pine away and die picturesquely. Éowyn makes a rather different choice, to say the least. Furthermore, it’s not so clear that her trouble is lovesickness as such. Éowyn chafes at the limits imposed on her life by the gender structure of the Rohirric court, and sees marriage to the King of the West as her ticket out of there. Gandalf diagnoses her trouble as follows, and remember that Gandalf is basically never wrong:
“My friend,” said Gandalf [to Éomer], “you had horses, and deeds of arms, and the free fields; but she, born in the body of a maid, had a spirit and courage at least the match of yours. Yet she was doomed to wait upon an old man, whom she loved as a father, and watch him falling into a mean dishonoured dotage; and her part seemed to her more ignoble than that of the staff he leaned on.”
Can I just take a moment to point out how much more insight into women’s experience is packed into that little paragraph than can be gleaned from the entire works of Tolkien’s sexist buddy C. S. Lewis? But Éowyn, like Galadriel, can only find peace by surrendering her high ambitions, which in her case means falling in love with Faramir of Gondor, who not being royal is strictly below her in station (and yes, that’s another thing to keep in mind). And when she does use her agency to the fullest, she does so by adopting masculine methods and codes. She puts on armour, rides into battle, and calls herself “Dernhelm”. The charge that Tolkien saw femininity as essentially passive remains open.
Which is why I now turn to Lúthien, who is alluded to only sparingly in The Lord of the Rings. If you’ve seen the movies but not read the book, you may have missed her altogether. I can’t remember whether the sole on-screen mention of her made it into the theatrical release at all; as I recall it went something like
[sings quietly to himself] That is a fragment of the lay of Lúthien, the elf-maiden who fell in love with a mortal man.
A hobbit:
What happened to her?
She died.
Lúthien and Beren’s story is found, much condensed, in Chapter 19 of The Silmarillion. It is derived from a long yet incomplete poem titled The Lay of Leithian, published by Christopher Tolkien in 1985 in a collection called The Lays of Beleriand. It’s presumably not a coincidence that Leithian sounds like Lúthien, but they are not the same word: Tolkien translated leithian on his title-page as “Release from Bondage”. Let me start by admitting that there is much in Lúthien’s story that feminist criticism will rightly take issue with. Lúthien Tinúviel is idealized to the skies, with a constant emphasis on her beauty. From the moment she meets Beren her only motive for everything she does is her love for him, despite the fact that his method of courting her is dubiously consensual (he follows her around watching her dance in the woods, until one night he just comes up out of the shadows and kisses her). And the Lay would fail the Bechdel test, because although there is another female character, that being Lúthien’s mother Melian, and although they do converse at one point, the topic of their conversation is Beren. But the third stanza of the dialogue gives you a small indication of where Tolkien is going to take Lúthien’s character.
“O mother Melian, tell to me
some part of what thy dark eyes see!
Tell of thy magic where his feet
are wandering! What foes him meet?
O mother, tell me, lives he still
treading the desert and the hill?
Do sun and moon above him shine,
do the rains fall on him, mother mine?”

“Nay, Lúthien my child, I fear
he lives indeed in bondage drear.
The Lord of Wolves hath prisons dark,
chains and enchantments cruel and stark,
there trapped and bound and languishing
now Beren dreams that thou dost sing.”

“Then I alone must go to him
and dare the dread in dungeons dim;
for none there be that will him aid
in all the world, save elven-maid
whose only skill were joy and song,
and both have failed and left her long.”
The Lay of Leithian 1236–55
Let me remind you what Andrea Dworkin said about the women in fairy-tales:
Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Rapunzel – all are characterized by passivity, beauty, innocence, and victimization. They are archetypal good women – victims by definition. They never think, act, initiate, confront, resist, challenge, feel, care, or question. Sometimes they are forced to do housework.
Andrea Dworkin, Woman Hating p. 42, italics original
Lúthien, however, does all those things. Rapunzel is particularly apposite here. Her story has been rewritten not once but many times so that she cuts off her own hair and uses it to escape from the tower. Well, guess what? One of those rewritings calls her Lúthien. No, seriously.
See, Lúthien’s father, King Thingol of Doriath, is convinced that the only way his daughter could have fallen in love with a mortal was if she was under some kind of spell or madness. Unfortunately he has promised her that he won’t have Beren either killed or imprisoned (“blade nor chain his flesh shall mar”), so instead he sends him off to fetch a Silmaril. The Silmarils are the one common thread uniting the disparate stories that make up The Silmarillion, hence its title. To cut that long story short, they were three magnificent luminous jewels made by the elven craftsman Fëanor, which were stolen by the Dark Lord Morgoth, to set in his iron crown. Which he is still wearing at the point when Thingol sends Beren to get one. And now, since Lúthien, far from showing any signs of coming to her senses, is threatening to go off wandering into the dungeons of the Lord of Wolves, Thingol has her locked up in a tree-house at the top of a giant beech-tree called Hirilorn.
There Lúthien was bidden dwell,
until she was wiser and the spell
of madness left her. Up she clomb
the long ladders to her new home
among the leaves, among the birds;
she sang no song, she spoke no words.
White glimmering in the tree she rose,
and her little door they heard her close.
The ladders were taken and no more
her feet might tread Esgalduin’s shore.
The Lay of Leithian 1380–89
So she casts a spell, to this effect:
Now long and longer grew her hair,
and fell to her feet, and wandered there
like pools of shadow on the ground.
Then Lúthien in a slumber drowned
was laid upon her bed and slept,
till morning through the windows crept
thinly and faint. And then she woke,
and the room was filled as with a smoke
and with an evening mist, and deep
she lay thereunder drowsed in sleep.
Behold! her hair from windows blew
in morning airs, and darkly grew
waving about the pillars grey
of Hirilorn at break of day.

Then groping she found her little shears,
and cut the hair about her ears,
and close she cropped it to her head,
enchanted tresses, thread by thread.
Thereafter grew they slow once more,
yet darker than their wont before.
The Lay of Leithian 1510–29
Most of it she uses to make a magic cloak which will hide her from prying eyes and allow her to cast charms on people. A little is left over.
...Then swift she takes
the threads unused; of these she makes
a slender rope of twisted strands
yet long and stout, and with her hands
she makes it fast unto the shaft
of Hirilorn. Now, all her craft
and labour ended, looks she forth
from her little window facing North.

Already the sunlight in the trees
is drooping red, and dusk she sees
come softly along the ground below,
and now she murmurs soft and slow.
Now chanting clearer down she cast
her long hair, till it reached at last
from her window to the darkling ground.
Men far beneath her heard the sound;
but the slumbrous strand now swung and swayed
above her guards. Their talking stayed,
they listened to her voice and fell
suddenly beneath a binding spell.

Now clad as in a cloud she hung;
now down her ropéd hair she swung
as light as squirrel, and away,
away she danced, and who could say
what paths she took, whose elvish feet
no impress made a-dancing fleet?
The Lay of Leithian 1558–83
Some smartarse on the internet a while ago joked that “Release from Bondage” wasn’t a very good title because “we never even get to see Lúthien tied up”. Because, you know, the Damsel in Distress (another standard trope) gets tied up by the villain and then released by the hero. The Lay does do the Damsel in Distress thing, of course – but with the genders reversed. Beren has been imprisoned by Thû, the Lord of Wolves, whom Tolkien will later rename “Sauron”. The companions he had recruited have all been killed by the time Lúthien gets there, while she is accompanied only by a magical wolfhound named Huan, who is fated to fall in battle with “the mightiest wolf of all” and cannot be harmed by anything else. So she stands at the door of Thû’s tower singing to lure the wolves and werewolves out, and Huan kills them, one by one. He even solidly trounces Thû himself in wolf form. Next time you watch The Lord of the Rings on DVD, remember that the Dark Lord was once defeated in combat by a dog.
Lúthien unchains Beren and gets him out of the dungeon, and they travel in the woods for a while. Then Beren tries to say goodbye to her so that he can fulfill his oath to Thingol. She has other ideas.
There sudden sad grew Beren’s heart:
“Alas, Tinúviel, here we part
and our brief song together ends,
and sundered ways each lonely wends!”

“Why part we here? What dost thou say,
just at the dawn of brighter day?”

“For safe thou’rt come to borderlands
o’er which in the keeping of the hands
of Melian wilt thou walk at ease
and find thy home and well-loved trees.”

“My heart is glad when the fair trees
far off uprising grey it sees
of Doriath inviolate.
Yet Doriath my heart did hate,
and Doriath my feet forsook,
my home, my kin. I would not look
on grass nor leaf there evermore
without thee by me. Dark the shore
of Esgalduin the deep and strong!
Why there alone forsaking song
by endless waters rolling past
must I then hopeless sit at last,
and gaze at waters pitiless
in heartache and in loneliness?”

“For never more to Doriath
can Beren find the winding path,
though Thingol willed it or allowed;
for to thy father there I vowed
to come not back save to fulfill
the quest of the shining Silmaril,
and win by valour my desire.
‘Not rock nor steel nor Morgoth’s fire
nor all the power of Elfinesse
shall keep the gem I would possess’:
thus swore I once of Lúthien
more fair than any child of Men.
My word, alas! I must achieve,
though sorrow pierce and parting grieve.”

“Then Lúthien will not go home,
but weeping in the woods will roam,
nor peril heed, nor laughter know.
And if she may not by thee go
against thy will thy desperate feet
she will pursue, until they meet,
Beren and Lúthien, love once more
on earth or on the shadowy shore.”

“Nay, Lúthien, most brave of heart,
thou makest it more hard to part.
Thy love me drew from bondage dear,
but never to that outer fear,
that darkest mansion of all dread,
shall thy most blissful light be led.”
The Lay of Leithian 2930–81
At this point they are interrupted by a couple of the sons of Fëanor, who claim the Silmarils by right and have sworn to kill anyone, good or bad, who attempts to take them away. But after that little incident has been dealt with Lúthien has another suggestion. Beren is probably not going to manage to get hold of a Silmaril, so—
“...why then go?
Why turn we not from fear and woe
beneath the trees to walk and roam
roofless, with all the world as home,
over mountains, beside the seas,
in the sunlight, in the breeze?”
The Lay of Leithian 3178–83
Tolkien seems to have equal sympathy with both of them here. On the one hand keeping oaths is really, really important in Middle-Earth. On the other hand, Lúthien is talking pretty good sense. Failing to convince her, Beren sneaks away while she’s asleep. He reaches Morgoth’s great fortress, Morgoth being Sauron’s old master, the original Dark Lord. Just as he’s about to march off into it alone, he hears something behind him.
“A, Beren, Beren!” came a sound,
“almost too late have I thee found!
O proud and fearless hand and heart,
not yet farewell, not thus we part!
Not thus do those of elven race
forsake the love that they embrace.
A love is mine, as great a power
as thine, to shake the gate and tower
of death with challenge weak and frail
that yet endures, and will not fail
nor yield, unvanquished were it hurled
beneath the foundations of the world.
Beloved fool! escape to seek
from such pursuit; in might so weak
to trust not, thinking it well to save
from love thy loved, who welcomes grave
and torment sooner than in guard
of kind intent to languish, barred,
wingless and helpless him to aid
for whose support her love was made!”
The Lay of Leithian 3342–61
Eventually, disguised as messengers from Thû, they make their way into the fortress. At the entrance they are confronted by Carcharoth, the mighty wolf destined to slay Huan (having been bred and trained and magically enhanced by Morgoth for that very purpose). Lúthien charms him to sleep, and they slip past. When they reach Morgoth’s throne room, Morgoth is suspicious. He casts a spell of his own that undoes Lúthien’s disguise. She offers him her services as a minstrel. Morgoth declares he can think of a better use for her, whereupon she sings a song of such enchantment that it puts everyone to sleep except herself and Beren.
Let me pause there for a second. Lúthien puts Morgoth to sleep. Morgoth. Morgoth is the most ancient and powerful of the gods, the source of all evil, the one who rebelled against the Creator at the beginning of time. Lúthien just overcame Satan himself with a lullaby.
Then Beren finally steps forward and does something useful, in that he cuts one of the Silmarils from Morgoth’s crown. On the way out, however, they find that Carcharoth has woken up again. He bites off the hand in which Beren carries the Silmaril – and there we run out of poem. The rest of the story we can fill in from The Silmarillion. They return to Doriath, where Thingol reminds Beren of his oath. Beren replies “There’s a Silmaril in my hand right now,” and holds up the stump of his wrist. Meanwhile the Silmarils have a special power such that any evil creature touching them suffers horrible burning pain, and with this happening in his stomach Carcharoth goes mad and starts ravaging the countryside. Beren, Huan, and some Elves go and hunt him down, but Beren and Huan are both killed in the confrontation. Now when Elves get killed they turn up in the Undying Lands none the worse for wear, and most can eventually return to Middle-Earth if they want to, but that doesn’t work for mortals. So Lúthien goes to Valinor and pleads to Mandos, the god of Fate, to have Beren resurrected (and yes, she works her enchantment on him too). The gods rule that she must live either an immortal life without Beren or a mortal life with him. She chooses the latter.
Lúthien is the bravest character in Tolkien’s works, of any gender, bar none. No-one could deny her agency, or that’s what I’d have thought if I hadn’t heard Peter Jackson’s Aragorn sum up her story as “She died.” And there’s no hint of her having to become masculine to do any of it; she works by magic and music, wearing a long blue dress with flowers on and little silver dancing-shoes. One might still argue that it was the more female-negative Lord of the Rings that Tolkien chose to publish, but that’s not how it happened. Tolkien tried to interest his publisher in The Lay of Leithian, and got an answer that boiled down to “It’s pretty, but it’s not going to sell. Now, about that Hobbit sequel...”
I am actually quite upset right now that we are not going to see this woman in a movie.
Lúthien’s confrontation with Morgoth helps ease some of the concerns I mentioned earlier. Her acceptance of death might still be seen as self-negation, but it would be truer to her character to read it as an ultimate act of courage. What’s mortality to someone who has beaten the Devil himself? (The Silmarillion tells us that Elves envy humans our eventual escape from the long weariness of time.) And it’s clear that she must have consented to Beren’s wooing, appearances aside, because no-one, no-one, holds Lúthien for long if she doesn’t want to be held. Indeed Tolkien makes that point explicit fairly early on.
Thus Lúthien, whom no pursuit,
no snare, no dart that hunters shoot,
might hope to win or hold, she came
at the sweet calling of her name;
and thus in his her slender hand
was linked in far Beleriand;
in hour enchanted long ago
her arms about his neck did go,
and gently down she drew to rest
his weary head upon her breast.
The Lay of Leithian 800–809
I’d like to draw your attention now to a trope very common in fantasy, science fiction, and adventure stories. “Moviebob” Chipman describes it as
...the deeply ingrained, centuries-old traditions in myth, fiction and legend that associate the classically masculine with strength and heroism while the classically feminine represents evil and weakness. Don’t look at me like you don’t know what I’m talking about, folks. A lot of character tropes, clichés, formulas and shorthands are coded male or female. It’s not reflective of reality, especially now; it’s not good, and it should definitely change; but it goes back really deep. Pandora’s box, Adam/Eve/apple, decades upon decades of male villains we know are villains because they affect effeminate and/or gay mannerisms or visual signifiers – this isn’t news. Bells should be ringing.
Bob “Moviebob” Chipman, Pink is Not the Problem
Chipman goes on to show by a couple of movie examples that “female-coded” and “male-coded” are not necessarily the same as female and male. In 300 we have the ultra-macho Leonidas pitted against the mincing, preening, bejewelled Xerxes. In The Hunger Games Katniss Everdeen, whom Chipman likens to “John Rambo in a sports bra”, squares off against the painted, frilled, decadent élite of the Capitol. Why do I bring this up? To point out that Middle-Earth uses the opposite coding. Good is embodied by the slender, beardless, elegant, jewel-wearing Elves; evil by the muscular, aggressive, foul-mouthed, unwashed Orcs. Women are never bad – the only female antagonists in the whole setting are two monstrous spiders, Shelob and Ungoliant. Some association of masculinity with courage remains in The Lord of the Rings, but as we’ve just seen, the bravest hero Tolkien ever imagined was a girly girl.
And it seems to me that this is a phenomenon in search of an explanation. Tolkien was a traditional Catholic living and working in academia, which was then as male-dominated as only some blue-collar trades are now. Politically he was proudly reactionary, though I think the single biggest reason for that was that in his day preserving the natural environment was a conservative cause. His close associates were men like C. S. Lewis, who pictured God as a hypermasculine Lion and evil as a woman in authority. Like Lewis he grew up without a mother. He died in 1973, with second-wave feminism just barely dawning, and that in the part of the political ecosphere which he viewed with the gravest suspicion. Where did this respect for women come from?
From here on I’m going to be using Tolkien’s works, along with some details of his biography, as a window into his personal psychology. In case it’s unclear, I’m not under the delusion that this is what literary analysis is supposed to be about in general. It’s just one use to which literary analysis can be put. But I’m forming a hypothesis about him, you see. And one thing I’ve noticed is that he doesn’t seem aware of other men’s attitudes. One of the mediaeval works he studied with great attention was Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. For reasons not particularly germane to this discussion, the protagonist Sir Gawain finds himself being chatted up by a beautiful lady who happens to be married to the lord of the castle he’s staying at. Tolkien puzzles over the poem’s description of the lady as Gawain’s “enemy”, and when Gawain at the end delivers a speech denouncing women in general Tolkien attributes this to Gawain’s own extravagance of character. To me both are clearly expressions of that particularly nasty brand of patriarchy that casts sexual feelings as evil and then blames women for inspiring them in men. But it doesn’t occur to Tolkien that someone might think that way. Men in his own writings love women devotedly and faithfully. Even the two villains whose evil lusts prompt them to betray their kings, Wormtongue in The Lord of the Rings and Maeglin in The Silmarillion, each obsess over one woman (Éowyn and Idril, respectively). There are no young rakes sowing wild oats in Middle-Earth.
The Tolkiens’ grave, inscribed with “Luthien” and “Beren” as well as their own names
In this it appears that Tolkien was simply writing what he knew. At age 16 Tolkien fell in love with his neighbour Edith Bratt, who, to the great consternation of his guardian Father Francis Xavier Morgan, was an Anglican. When it became evident that this was no short-term infatuation, Fr Morgan forbade Tolkien any further contact with Bratt on the pretext that she was distracting him from his studies. Tolkien, who felt he owed a debt of gratitude to Fr Morgan for taking him in when his mother died, obeyed. When Fr Morgan’s guardianship legally ended on his 21st birthday, he wrote to Bratt asking to be reunited. She had by then accepted a proposal from someone else, but she broke off the engagement to marry Tolkien. Fr Morgan had presumably hoped that Tolkien would hook up with a nice Catholic girl instead, but there’s no evidence he ever so much as looked at any other woman as long as he lived. Bratt was a pianist and dancer in her youth; when she died in 1971 Tolkien had the name Luthien inscribed on her headstone. Beren was added under his own name when he joined her two years later.
Can Bratt be credited with Tolkien’s comparative enlightenment? Perhaps partly, but only partly. We have a control case in C. S. Lewis, a misogynist who complained about women intruding into male conversation and bringing the intellectual tone down. Even after he himself met and fell in love with the fiercely intellectual Joy Davidman, he still complained about uneducated women intruding into male conversation and bringing the intellectual tone down. Lewis spent a lot of time with the Tolkiens in the 1930s, and there’s little doubt in my mind that Edith Tolkien, who had no tertiary education, was his target. Tolkien’s biographer Humphrey Carpenter reports that she rather resented his intrusion into their life; it’s not hard to see why. My point is that in Lewis’s case, though Davidman certainly made a difference, she didn’t transform his whole attitude as thoroughly as we would have to hypothesize Bratt did for Tolkien. I do suspect that Tolkien attributed the contrast between his own immersive imagination and her practical outlook to an essentialistic polarity between the genders, as it shows up in the estrangement of the Entwives from the Ents in The Lord of the Rings.
Another datum for your consideration. In 1969 Henry Beard and Douglas Kenney of the Harvard Lampoon (and later the National Lampoon) wrote a short parody entitled Bored of the Rings. I’ve seen this praised as “hilarious”; I can only suppose that a lot of the humour rests on topical references which I, born in 1978, shouldn’t expect to understand. Unusually off-target, even for this book, is the sentence where the Aragorn character meets the Éowyn character and chats her up while “trying to look down her halberd”. A halberd is a weapon, a sort of combined spear and battle-axe. I presume Beard and Kenney meant that he was looking down her hauberk, her mail-shirt. But men in Middle-Earth don’t do that either. Only Orcs and Morgoth seek bodily pleasures from their fellow sentient beings without emotional attachments. Aragorn doesn’t look down Éowyn’s hauberk, and – stay with me here – neither does Tolkien. Here are his descriptions of women from The Lord of the Rings:
In a chair, at the far side of the room facing the outer door, sat a woman. Her long yellow hair rippled down her shoulders; her gown was green, green as young reeds, shot with silver like beads of dew; and her belt was of gold, shaped like a chain of flag-lilies set with the pale blue eyes of forget-me-nots... “Come dear folk!” she said, taking Frodo by the hand. “Laugh and be merry! I am Goldberry, daughter of the River.”

In the middle of the table, against the woven cloths upon the wall, there was a chair under a canopy, and there sat a lady fair to look upon, and so like was she in form of womanhood to Elrond that Frodo guessed that she was one of his close kindred. Young she was and yet not so. The braids of her dark hair were touched by no frost; her white arms and clear face were flawless and smooth, and the light of stars was in her bright eyes, grey as a cloudless night; yet queenly she looked, and thought and knowledge were in her glance, as of one who has known many things that the years bring. Above her brow her head was covered with a cap of silver lace netted with small gems, glittering white; but her soft grey raiment had no ornament save a girdle of leaves wrought in silver.
So it was that Frodo saw her whom few mortals had yet seen: Arwen, daughter of Elrond, in whom it was said that the likeness of Lúthien had come on earth again; and she was called Undómiel, for she was the Evenstar of her people.

On two chairs beneath the bole of the tree and canopied by a living bough there sat, side by side, Celeborn and Galadriel... Very tall they were, and the Lady no less tall than the Lord; and they were grave and beautiful. They were clad wholly in white; and the hair of the Lady was of deep gold, and the hair of the Lord Celeborn was of silver long and bright; but no sign of age was upon them, unless it were in the depths of their eyes; for these were keen as lances in the starlight, and yet profound, the wells of deep memory.

Grave and thoughtful was her glance, as she looked on the king with cool pity in her eyes. Very fair was her face, and her long hair was like a river of gold. Slender and tall she was in her white robe girt with silver; but strong she seemed and stern as steel, a daughter of kings. Thus Aragorn for the first time in the full light of day beheld Éowyn, Lady of Rohan, and thought her fair, fair and cold, like a morning of pale spring that is not yet come to womanhood.
And here’s Lúthien in The Lay of Leithian:
Such lissom limbs no more shall run
on the green earth beneath the sun;
so fair a maid no more shall be
from dawn to dusk, from sun to sea.
Her robe was blue as summer skies,
but grey as evening were her eyes;
’twas sewn with golden lilies fair,
but dark as shadow was her hair.
Her feet were light as bird on wing,
her laughter lighter than the spring;
the slender willow, the bowing reed,
the fragrance of a flowering mead,
the light upon the leaves of trees,
the voice of water, more than these
her beauty was and blissfulness,
her glory and her loveliness...
The Lay of Leithian 23–38
The phrase “lissom limbs”, which occurs several times in the poem, is the closest Tolkien ever comes to the fixation on women’s bodies typical of male writers and artists. His successors Terry Pratchett and George R. R. Martin both pay keen attention to their female characters’ breasts, albeit self-deprecatingly in Pratchett’s case. His fellow conservative Christians of the mid-20th century are less direct, but C. S. Lewis in particular put lengthy nude scenes into much of his adult fiction, especially Perelandra, his favourite. The same can be said of his predecessors in early fantasy adventure stories; the climax of H. Rider Haggard’s She has the immortal Ayesha perform a ritual of eternal life which just happens to require her to be naked. We find the same thing in the mediaeval romances which Tolkien drew upon for inspiration. In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight the Lady enters Gawain’s chamber for the final temptation with hir brest bare bifore and bihinde eke, which his own translation renders “her breast bare in front and at the back also”. None of this has rubbed off on Tolkien.
One more thing to ponder. You remember those points I suggested you keep in mind? As a simple Ranger Aragorn would have been paired with Éowyn the warrior princess, but as the King of Gondor and Arnor he had to marry an immortal being. The two earlier unions of mortal and immortal in The Silmarillion likewise both join male mortals (Beren and Tuor) to female immortals (Lúthien and Idril). Lúthien’s own father Thingol was an elf, but her mother Melian was a minor goddess. Galadriel outranks Celeborn. Éowyn, daughter of kings, marries Faramir, younger son of a non-royal official. In general, men in Middle-Earth marry up. Even Rosie Cotton, who doesn’t have any particular rank, sasses Sam and tells him what to do. If this indicates anything about the mind of their author, it’s an attraction to dominance.
Yes, my hypothesis is about Tolkien’s sexuality – but by that I don’t mean his gender preference. I think we can safely say he was attracted to women, though I’m not sure we can safely say he was exclusively attracted to women. He does seem to like stern and noble dark-haired beardless men; and then there’s the dynamic between Sam and Frodo, which was if anything slightly toned down in the movies and feels too vividly drawn not to have been from life. But if he did have romantic feelings for a comrade in the trenches or some such, then he managed to deny them to himself and frame the relationship as purely platonic. Or maybe that’s just me projecting my own past experience onto him. No, I’m suggesting there was something unusual, or at least unusual for a man, about the way he experienced sexual desire.
For background you might want to skip back a few posts. Last month I discussed some research showing that there are different styles of sexual attraction. Some people feel the full force of it only when they get to know someone pretty well; they’re attracted to the whole person rather than any particular feature. Any unattractive feature, however, is a deal-breaker. Many indeed can train themselves into monogamous desire, simply by reading “This person is not my True Love” as an unattractive feature. Also, they tend to value emotional connections over physical pleasure, and (I didn’t mention this last time) they tend, statistically, to be attracted to dominance. Last time, I coined the word “Deep” for these people. Others are by contrast “Shallow”, which is to say even one attractive feature another person might have is enough to turn their “good to go” light all the way on, and no less-attractive feature can then turn it off. They focus on bodies and bodily sensations, and absent moralized commitments of one kind or another they tend to seek a variety of sexual partners. They have a bad habit of overestimating how mutual their desires are. I told you that women tend to be Deep and men tend to be Shallow. But I also said that, here as elsewhere, it is an error to essentialize, to mistake “tend to be” for “are by nature”, to frame gender as a simple binary. There will be exceptions, I suggested, to the general rule that men are not Deep. And I think we just found one.
Finally, how does Tolkien’s Deep sexuality help explain his anomalous respect for women? I certainly don’t intend to suggest that we Shallows can’t respect the people we happen to be attracted to. But it does require a rather specific ethical stance. You have to avoid two opposite pitfalls. On the one hand, you must realize that you are not entitled to have your sexual feelings satisfied just because you feel them. On the other, it’s dangerous to reject those same feelings as immoral, because when you fail to turn them off (and you will) the next step down that path is blaming the people who “made” you feel that way. It’s not really all that difficult; you just have to remember that your desires are your desires, and no-one but you is responsible for them. Tolkien’s cultural background was awash in messages pulling woman-attracted Shallows towards both of those pitfalls. C. S. Lewis stumbled into both of them. Tolkien, being Deep, did not see sexual signals where there weren’t any and did not lust after strangers or casual acquaintances. Being a man, the messages uselessly warning women to be very diligent about not “tempting” men also passed him by.
Anyway, if you happen to run into any fantasy geeks arguing that Tauriel is false to Tolkien’s vision, a politically-correct sop to feminist demands – tell them about Lúthien. Tell them about the time she rescued her lover and defeated Morgoth. Ask them if they would want to watch that movie. Ask them if they would protest when the movie-makers inevitably beefed up Beren’s part in the fighting at her expense. Because you know that would happen.


  1. I can still remember the moment in my life when I perceived the C S Lewis patriarchy. It was a tad devastating.

  2. Incredible, surely Tolkien referencing the work on his grave is enough support for a film adaption Mr Jackson? Really keen to read The Silmarillion now, sounds like it's much more than filler source-material for an action packed Hobbit "trilogy".

  3. What a great post! I really enjoyed reading that! The part about " Deep' and 'Shallow" attraction is fascinating and makes perfect sense when applied to Tolkien. I always thought he might have been asexual or somewhat asexual. GREAT BLOG! I'm off to read more now. Well done.

  4. Fascinating. Thank you for sharing this; it's given me a lot to think about re Tolkien and Lewis.