Does This Lord Of The Rings Family Tree Teach Us Anything About Gender Representation In Middle Earth?

Posted by February 24, 2012 Comment

Somebody has got a lot of ambition… and used to have a lot of free time on their hands.

Over at The Lord of the Rings Project you’ll find Emil Johansson‘s labour of love, a colossal family tree listing an absolutely ridiculous number of Middle Earth characters and tracing their bloodlines. Because the “Everybody In” view is verging on the confusingly complex, you also have the option to sort by ethnicity with tabs for Dwarves, Hobbits and, essentially, everybody else.

Of course, there’s a scattering of characters who aren’t related to any of the others, but you’ll soon get an idea of how important family is to the structure of JRR Tolkien‘s world, particularly with the Dwarves and Hobbits.

There are currently 817 characters in the tree, but the project is ongoing and I’m sure there’s plenty more branches to nail on.

Perhaps the most interesting tab shows you a bar chart breakdown of characters by race and gender. Here it is, as of February 23rd 2011:

Looks like when Tolkien said Men, he pretty much meant it.

Now, until the tree is complete, I wouldn’t want to draw a final conclusion from this but it’s looking pretty much like a manly landslide. There’s a chance, perhaps, that the characters are being entered in some order that favours a bias to males, but I can’t imagine what that would be.

So, it looks like that, in Middle Earth as it is in so many other adventurelands, there’s more space for boys. Of course, anybody who counted the number of penises in The Fellowship would have predicted this, but it’s interesting to see how far out the imbalance reaches. We’ve got a 4:1 ratio of Hes to Shes even when extending into the supporting roles.

Now, if we think of Middle Earth as being, essentially, like Earth and consider the narrative events portrayed everything makes a certain sense. How many women took up arms in The Crusades? How many women went on missions behind enemy lines in World War 2? It’s not that they wouldn’t or couldn’t but that, for any number of reasons, they didn’t.

Sill, counting the number of female roles doesn’t necessarily give us any insight in to their representations. But there are some interesting places we can look for that, I think, and some surprising arguments to be uncovered.

In 2003, Tea Party chum and born again Christian conservative Christine O’Donnell published her essay The Women of Middle Earth. Here’s a few bits and pieces, though the link will take you to the whole thing, for context.

Tolkien’s portrayal of women in Lord of The Rings is bold and courageous. The bittersweet complexities of true womanhood are daringly depicted in each of the female characters. If these women are such fascinating and rich characters, why weren’t they given more page time? Brad Birzer, author of Sanctifying Myth, Understanding Middle Earth, points out that Lord of the Rings was written from a hobbit’s perspective. Saying that the lack of women in Lord of the Rings makes it anti-woman is like saying that Rob Reiner is a chauvinist for the lack of women in the film Stand by Me. To toss in a female character simply to appease the misguided demands of moviegoers would severely take away from the film’s legitimacy.

There’s the gentle and hopeful Arwen in whose presence everything becomes peaceful. There’s the tumultuous, restless Eowyn, whose free spirit leads her to triumph over her greatest foe. We have the regal matriarch Galadriel whose strength of mind has created a timeless haven for her people. Finally, there’s Belladonna Baggins, a hobbit who is mentioned in just four lines out of thousands of pages. Yet, it is from her bloodline that Bilbo Baggins inherits his atypical adventurous streak. This whisper of her presence ignites what has become a legend.

Tolkien’s most popular female character is Arwen, the elven princess in love with the warrior Aragorn. In Tolkien’s writings, the immortal character of Arwen presents the softer virtues of femininity: she’s beautiful, gentle, and longsuffering. Everything about her is pure. Waiting for her beloved to return from his quest, she demonstrates faith and devotion, believing beyond all doubt that they will be reunited. In Arwen we see a tragic, romantic heroine, for Aragorn’s return means she must leave her people and face the knowledge that her mortal lover will someday die. Through her character, Tolkien shows us the challenge and the value of virtue and sacrifice.

I cannot understand why film critics praise Peter Jackson for his more masculine, modern adaptation of the elven Lady. Recall, if you will, the scene in Fellowship of the Ring in which a Ringwraith stabs Frodo. In the book, as Frodo escapes to Rivendell, the elven lord Glorfindal sends Frodo alone riding Asfaloth, Glorfindal’s white horse. The horse races across the ford with Frodo on his back just in time for a flood to engulf his pursuers. Later we learn that Elrond, the Elven King and Arwen’s father, summoned the flood.

Yet, in the film, Peter Jackson causes Arwen to perform the heroic tasks of Elrond and Glorfindal, making her appear more a stereotypical warrior princess like those popular with today’s audience. It is as though he is introducing her character as a warrior so viewers won’t notice that she becomes a passive heroine later in the story. It’s as if Jackson is justifying her later passive portrayal that is true to Tolkien’s Arwen.

Some critics claim that Tolkien’s serene version of femininity is offensive to the modern female viewer. As a modern female viewer, I find the assumption itself offensive. Just because women can be warriors doesn’t mean they have to be. Everything about Tolkien’s Arwen is tranquil, serene, calming. These qualities are part of the charm of the womanhood she expresses. There are many types of women in the world. Arwen represents one of them. She represents a pillar of calm that is a source of strength for her man. Her great contribution to the war is the strength she provides to the future King.

Yes. So there is that point of view.

I’m not a woman, so my point of view on this is perhaps off-centre, and some would say irrelevant. Still, it’s the discussion I saw sitting there, waiting for us in the family tree and its charts.

So, if it’s a discussion, let’s have it. I’m sure you can do better than me.

Thanks to Geekologie for the link.

(Last Updated February 23, 2012 8:45 pm )

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