Reading The Lord of the Rings

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Tolkien’s Women
In Reading The Lord of the Rings, ed. by Robert Eaglestone (New York and London: Continuum, 2005), pp. 101-10.

It is a commonplace that the women in Tolkien’s fiction are disappointing. Some damn his fiction for its old-fashioned, misogynist depiction of women (e.g. Partridge (1983), Wood (2000), Frederick et al (2001)). Some defend it as a product of its time (e.g. Crowe (1992): 272). Some defend it as a product of a more distant time, the medieval period that occupied Tolkien not only in his professional life but also in the creation of his fiction (e.g. Ringel (2000): 165-6, Donovan (2003): 106, Crowe (1992): 272). That is, it can be argued that Tolkien’s fiction merely reflects the position of women in the types of society that he depicted. In the case of the Riders of Rohan, for example, Tolkien presents a society very like the Anglo-Saxon world most famously depicted in Beowulf, a society in which women have traditionally been seen as decorative but ultimately powerless, as pawns in a man’s world (Hill (1990): 239).

In this essay I shall argue that this latter view, at least, is not valid. Tolkien underestimated the women depicted in texts like Beowulf, and so women in Rohan are, I believe, more marginal than those in Beowulf. Yet Tolkien should not be singled out for blame for the limits he placed on women. The best nineteenth and early twentieth century scholarship left no room for active women in Old English poetry, and late twentieth and early twenty-first feminist criticism of Old English literature continues to create an image of the powerless, voiceless, and hopeless woman who can do no more than weep. In what follows, I shall briefly outline the links between Tolkien’s Rohirrim and the Anglo-Saxons and then argue in detail against a traditional reading of Wealhtheow, the queen of the Danes in Beowulf. I shall then examine how Tolkien drew upon this reading and re-read it for his own purposes in The Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien denied a direct equivalence between the riders of Rohan and the Anglo-Saxons (Shippey (2003): 123). Nevertheless, the riders of Rohan are clearly modelled on the heroic society described in Old English poetry—a literature that Tolkien knew better than most—and the modern reader can derive a fairly good sense of the spirit of that literature from reading The Lord of the Rings. For example, while the importance placed on horses in Rohan does not figure in our records of Anglo-Saxon England, the close, personal relationship between King Théoden and his men and the emphasis on earning glory in battle before death coincide neatly with, for example, the relationship between Byrhtnoth and his men and the priority placed on glory rather than survival in The Battle of Maldon (e.g. TT 512, 515; RK 818, 829). The relationship persists in more particular details, too. For example, the Rohirrim speak and name themselves using the Mercian dialect of Old English (Shippey (2003): 123). They privilege a relationship between maternal uncle and nephew—the ‘sister’s son’—that is marked in Old English texts: Beowulf, like Éomer, is the son of his king’s sister.1 They appear to share a common poetic tradition, for Aragorn quotes part of the Wanderer to illustrate Rohirrim poetry (TT 497). Finally, Beowulf’s meduseld ‘mead-hall’2 corresponds in name, importance, ceremonial function, and many other particulars to Théoden’s ‘Meduseld’ (e.g. TT 496).
The parallels are many and have been noted many times before, as have the parallels between the role of women in these male-oriented societies. For example, Éomer states that women will mourn for Théoden (RK 825), as Hildeburh does for her male relatives in Beowulf, and Éowyn passes the cup around the mead-hall, as Wealhtheow does in Beowulf (620-41, 1162b-96). Éowyn’s role is explicitly meant to be the classic feminine role of helpless, passive waiting for the active male to achieve glory in battle (RK 767, 848-9). Yet Éowyn famously rejects this role, despite her king’s orders, for a limited but significant time. It could thus be argued that, far from being old-fashioned in his portrayal of women, Tolkien has been radically modern in depicting a woman who dares to do what would have been unthinkable in the culture upon which he based the Rohirrim.
The problem with this argument is that female helplessness and passivity are easier to find in scholarship about Old English poetry than in Old English poetry itself. The traditional passive female of Old English poetry is not as old as we might think. She is Victorian, not Anglo-Saxon. Where did she come from? Although assuredly not the only source, a major contributor to our understanding of women in Beowulf is Frederick Klaeber. Like all readers of the poem, Klaeber read Beowulf according to his own view of the world; unlike most, however, his reading of the poem, first published in 1922, has shaped almost every other reader’s view ever since and continues to define the shape and meaning of Beowulf today (Bloomfield (1999): 130).3 His version of the poem remains the standard scholarly edition for literary scholars and translators and thus remains the indirect source for archaeologists, historians, and art historians, as well as the general public (Bloomfield (1999): 129-30). Tolkien knew Klaeber’s work well and valued it (Drout (2002): 103).
Klaeber was a great scholar, and it is helpful to have one’s view of a difficult text shaped by such a reader, but some of his views reflect his own time more than the time depicted in Beowulf. For example, Josephine Bloomfield analyses five words associated with Wealhtheow; these possess a range of meanings including ‘generous’, ‘fitting’, ‘glorious’, ‘persuasive’, and ‘friendly invitation’, but all are glossed by Klaeber as ‘kind’ or ‘kindness’. As a result of this insistence on kindness, ‘we see Wealhtheow’s motivations regulated and her role transformed from peace weaver and power-broker to tender maternal care-giver’ (Bloomfield (1994): 184). Bloomfield contends that Klaeber’s ‘likely world view’ included women who were ‘biologically, intellectually, and emotionally capable of serving only as wives and mothers’; as a result, he was, ‘perhaps unconsciously, forced to “rewrite” her, to create her as a person guided by sentiment rather than by the realities of tribal politics, in order to make her intelligible to him as a “good” mother’ (Bloomfield (1994: 202). The Wealhtheow that most modern readers experience consequently reflects not only Anglo-Saxon ideas of women but also nineteenth-century German ideas of women.
Tolkien read Beowulf along with Klaeber’s interpretation of it, and the Anglo-Saxon culture that he reflects in his Rohirrim can be seen to reflect Klaeber’s nineteenth-century German values as well as his own twentieth-century English values: like all readers, Tolkien saw patterns of behaviour consistent with his own values. I, of course, do the same. Assuming that neither Klaeber, Tolkien, nor I do violence to the text, however, it is useful to see how different a picture we can derive from the same text. In the next few paragraphs, I shall describe the roles traditionally assigned to women in Old English poetry. Our assumptions about these roles may tell us more about our own expectations than they do about women in Anglo-Saxon England, for Old English poetry allows women more power than critics even now allow—or, more accurately, ascribes powerlessness more equally to both men and women. This is not to say that women are equal to men, but that no clear-cut dichotomy of power and powerlessness exists between them. Although it requires a fairly long excursion into Old English poetry, it is necessary to explore this point thoroughly, for this state of affairs did not suit Tolkien’s purposes.
The traditional roles attributed to women in Old English poetry include those of hostess, peace-weaver, and ritual mourner.4 We see all of these in Beowulf: Wealhtheow acts as a hostess, welcoming Beowulf and his men into the hall; Freawaru, her daughter, will soon be a peace-weaver, since she has been promised in marriage to a neighbouring kingdom as part of a peace-treaty; and Hildeburh mourns the death of her brother and son in battle. It seems natural, from a modern perspective, to assume that these roles are marginal—that a hostess is a servant, that a peace-weaver is an objectified token of male exchange (Rubin (1975), Fee (1996)), and that a mourner is a passive victim (Chance (1990): 251). It is possible to explode each of those assumptions, but given the limited space available I shall focus my attention on the role of the hostess, which is the most prominent of the three in The Lord of the Rings.
A twenty-first century audience expects little of a hostess, and the view of Wealhtheow is consonant with such expectations. Many readers see her as merely decorative and excluded from the central conflicts engaged upon by men. This conception of the hostess is, however, incomplete. To understand it fully, it is necessary to recall the early part of the poem. Hrothgar was in a desperate situation, for the monster Grendel had been eating his men for twelve years, thus damaging his reputation as a defender of his people.5 His people’s reputation as strong warriors had also been undercut; Beowulf’s comment that Grendel found no need to fear the Sige-Scyldinga ‘victorious Danes’ (597b) hints at their loss of reputation. Beowulf’s promise to do all that Hrothgar and the Danes could not thus puts Hrothgar in an uncomfortable position. Beowulf apparently realizes the problem, for he enters Hrothgar’s realm respectfully and positions himself as a suppliant: he begs for permission to fight Grendel (426b-32). In private, Hrothgar is eager to welcome him (372-90a), but in public he carefully revises Beowulf’s reasons for travelling to Heorot: Beowulf says that he has heard about the plight of the Danes and come to rescue them (409b-14), but Hrothgar says that Beowulf has come to repay the favour that he did for his father and to honour the oaths that he swore (457-72).
Hrothgar thus attempts to subordinate Beowulf to his authority by reminding him of past obligation. The poem never indicates that Beowulf accepts this obligation; indeed, Beowulf’s next comments suggest that his intention is rather to demonstrate his own people’s superiority (601b-3a). This statement is the immediate context and perhaps the provocation for Wealhtheow’s first appearance in her role as welcoming hostess: she approaches Beowulf, offers him a cup of mead, and publicly announces that her wish has come true (612b-28a). Modern readers can underestimate the significance of this act, for such drinking is not merely entertainment or slaking of thirst, especially since, in this case, at least, drink has already been served (494b-6a): drinking from the king’s cup is tantamount to making a pledge to him (Robinson (1985): 75-9, Damico (1984): 54-6). In addition, Wealhtheow’s statement of faith in the hero not only flatters but demands that he live up to her expectations. That is, like Hrothgar, Wealhtheow attempts to inscribe Beowulf into a place in the Danish court and make him subordinate to its order. Her actions are part of the Danish hierarchy’s efforts to assert their control over a powerful newcomer. Hrothgar’s attempt may or may not have been successful, but Beowulf accepts Wealhtheow’s imposition of obligation and formally pledges to fulfil her wishes or die in the attempt (632-8; cf. Damico (1984): 67-8, 93-4). Wealhtheow is thus not simply a waitress or greeter; she is a political force in her own right, influencing loyalty, status, and honour within the Danish court in a way that complements her husband’s own power.
Later, however, Wealhtheow becomes a political force that opposes her husband’s power. During the celebrations following the death of Grendel, Wealhtheow publicly addresses first her husband, who seems to have planned to adopt Beowulf as his heir instead of their sons; second, indirectly, Hrothulf, her nephew; and third Beowulf himself (1168-1231). Her complex speech can be simplified as follows. To Hrothgar she says: ‘Celebrate and be generous to the Geats, but do not forget what you yourself have received. I have heard that you want to adopt Beowulf. Enjoy what you have and then leave the kingdom to your children when you die.’ To Hrothulf she says: ‘You will do what is right and support my sons, because of what we have done for you in the past.’ To Beowulf she brings another cup, rich gifts, and another speech: ‘Here is another gift. If you treat my sons well, I will reward you well. Such good deeds have made you famous. There is no weakness in this place. Men follow my commands.’ The unstated threat between Wealhtheow’s compliment to Beowulf and her statement of men’s obedience to her (‘You may be famous but I have the power to oppose you’) is particularly notable. We see here Wealhtheow not only commanding her own men in the hall but also determining the succession. Importantly, she does this not only in accordance with her husband’s agenda, but also in opposition to it.
Many readers have felt uneasy about this speech, and it is interesting to observe that Wealhtheow has been accused of undermining Hrothgar’s authority, destroying opportunities for peace, or, more commonly, being pathetic or ineffective (Damico (1984): 127, Irving (1989), 74, Horner (2001), 77-81, Renoir (1975): 229-30; cf. also Overing (1990): 90-101). That is, modern readers of the poem reject Wealhtheow’s political power as either destructive or absent, even though the poem does not comment negatively upon Wealhtheow’s actions and Beowulf is not, after all, adopted. Even if one rejects Wealhtheow as a failure, however, she is not alone.6 Hrothgar notably fails to defend his people from Grendel, and Beowulf predicts that Hrothgar’s attempts to secure peace with the Heathobards will also fail. Beowulf fails to prevent his kings’ deaths (first Hygelac, then Heardred); he also fails to end the ongoing hostilities with the Swedes. It is a commonplace to see women in Beowulf as helpless to change the world around them, but the poem demonstrates that even the greatest kings and heroes share in this helplessness.
Wealhtheow is also not alone in her physical passivity. Although it is easy to stress the binary oppositions between male and female characters in the poem, doing so risks missing that there are other ways of grouping characters in the poem. For example, in comparison with Beowulf, Wealhtheow and the other women in the poem are passive. However, in comparison with Beowulf, every character in the poem is passive. No one else wrestles with Grendel; no one else dives into the mere; no one else volunteers to fight the dragon alone. By Beowulf’s standard, for example, Hrothgar is indistinguishable from Wealhtheow. Like her, he is physically passive, incapable of the physical action that is seen to be the particular domain of men as opposed to women.7 Yet he is acclaimed as a good king (863b), and he achieves great deeds through his words: the building of the hall, the creation of political alliances, the distribution of treasure, and the ordering of a peaceful society. Wealhtheow, too, achieves deeds through her words.
That is, even in Old English heroic literature, focused as it is on men and martial deeds, there are many ways to be ‘active’. Excellent sword-work and great physical strength, although highly prized, are not the only routes to success, and in some cases physical heroism would be neither appropriate nor successful. This point is central to The Lord of the Rings, both in the main story of the destruction of the ring and in the episodes that echo it.
Tolkien inherited a view of women in Beowulf rather different from the one for which I have argued here, a view which, as mentioned earlier, derived from a traditional, patriarchal understanding of the roles of women. In what follows, I shall argue that Tolkien was complicit with this view of women in Old English society. In doing so, however, I do not reject his fictional work as misogynist. Rather, I see the contrasts between Tolkien’s character, Éowyn, and the Old English queen upon which she was at least in part modelled as evidence of a view that ultimately seeks the transcendence—or even the deconstruction—of such dichotomies as strength/weakness, activity/passivity, and effectiveness/helplessness.
The power exercized by Wealhtheow in Heorot does not appear in Edoras. Tolkien does not include even Klaeber’s Wealhtheow, a sentimental queen focused exclusively on her children. This absence is significant. Jane Chance has argued that the end of the Lord of the Rings shows the ‘return of female difference to balance harmoniously with the masculine’ (Chance (2001): 61), and it is striking that male characters without female counterparts often fare poorly in Tolkien’s work (Gollum, Saruman, Sauron, Boromir, Denethor, the Ents, arguably Frodo himself), while heterosexual couples embody the positive forces of Middle Earth (Tom Bombadil and Goldberry, Galadriel and Celeborn, Aragorn and Arwen, and Sam and Rosie). Théoden lacks this balancing, feminine principle, but, for the purposes of this essay, it is more significant that he lacks someone to play the roles that Wealhtheow fulfils in Beowulf. He lacks someone who might goad, counsel, or compete with him for political control. If he had, the story of Wormtongue would necessarily have been quite different, for the danger posed by Wormtongue is dependent upon the alienation of the king. Yet even Klaeber’s Wealhtheow was not quite marginal or powerless enough for his story, and so Tolkien does not include one.
Éowyn is not Wealhtheow; she is, if any character in Beowulf, Freawaru: the daughter (or sister’s daughter) who could have been married to the visiting hero but is not in the cases of both Beowulf and Aragorn, although for different reasons.8 Freawaru may be a cup-bearer like her mother (2020-21) but she is not yet a queen and does not possess a political voice. Similarly, in contrast with Wealhtheow’s speeches to Beowulf, Éowyn’s interactions with Aragorn are personal, not political (TT 511); in fact, she bitterly resents her political duty (RK 767). If Éowyn had done what she was told, she, like Freawaru, would have been truly marginal as her society faced threats of destruction from both internal and external threats—from Wormtongue’s insidious advice and military attacks by Saruman and Sauron. A Wealhtheow in Théoden’s court might have been able to oppose the imprisonment of Éomer, for example (TT 505), but Éowyn can only watch and wait in sorrow and fear.
Although Éowyn soon demonstrates that she can do much more, she shares the essential identity of the traditional marginal female. It is important to Tolkien’s overall theme that she should do so. One of the very modern ideas in his plot is that it is not the impossibly heroic and superhuman Beowulf-figure, Aragorn, who has the power to defeat Sauron; rather it is Frodo, a hobbit, someone even smaller and weaker than the average man, who must do the deed. The deed and the character are heroic, but not in a traditional way, and ultimately Frodo triumphs not because of great strength or skill but because he receives aid from his equally sub-heroic helpers, Sam and Gollum (cf. Chance (2001): 72). Such a figure is unthinkable in and absent from Beowulf, but in The Lord of the Rings he becomes the centre. Great heroes merely serve as a diversion.
This well known central plot is prefigured in the battle of Éowyn against the Lord of the Nazgûl (RK 823-4). While great male heroes like Gandalf, Théoden, and Éomer struggle with increasing despair against the besieging army from Mordor, the key opponent, the Witch-king of Angmar, is immune to the greatest heroic action. He can only be killed by someone who is not a man, not a hero. Again, like Frodo, Éowyn does not achieve this crucial deed because of great strength or skill: she possesses these, but ultimately she triumphs because of the help she receives from another sub-heroic hobbit. Her great heroic deed does not make Éowyn the same as or equal to male heroes, even if ‘her deeds have set her among the queens of great renown’ (RK 849, emphasis added): her marginal position is essential—and not simply because of the demands of the prophecy within the plot of the text. If she were not marginalized and assumed to be powerless, her action would not resonate with the central story of Frodo and Sam.
It is intriguing to note that there is another Old English poem in which this reversal of central male action and marginal female action occurs: in Judith, the widow of the apocryphal Bible story who seduces a general is transformed by the Old English poet into a chaste maiden endowed not only with the traditional attributes of women in Old English poetry (brightness, jewellery, etc) but also the traditional attributes of heroes: she displays courage and skill as she beheads the enemy of her people. More significant than the parallels between the descriptions of Judith and Éowyn, however, is the function of her action in the plot. Judith’s beheading of Holofernes, the Assyrian general, takes place in secret, outside the arena of war, but it determines the outcome of the war between the Hebrews and Assyrians. In the same way, Éowyn’s ‘beheading’ of the Witch-king takes place outside the knowledge of male leaders of armies and outside the ‘main’ battle, but it is arguably the most significant factor in the victory on the Pelannor Fields.
Comparing Wealhtheow to Éowyn reveals that Tolkien’s portrayal of women in Rohan, at least, is not simply derived from early, unenlightened, male-oriented literature. Tolkien saw in Old English poetry what he wanted to see, and he probably believed—like Klaeber and many feminist critics of Old English poetry—that passivity and helplessness characterizes women in Beowulf. He did not destroy, invert, or even question the patriarchal system that relegated women to a marginal position in his fiction, as modern feminist readers may have wished. Thus Éowyn renounces the role of warrior of which she had demonstrated herself capable and embraces traditional female roles (wife, healer), to the disappointment of many readers.
At the same time, however, Tolkien’s fiction proclaims that male power is not the only way to achieve victory, and, in fact, is incapable of winning the most important contests (cf. Drout (1996)). In making this point the expectation of female helplessness proved as useful to Tolkien as it was essential to the fictional heroine of the Old English Judith. For Judith, these expectations provide a disguise that allows her to penetrate the enemy camp and carry out an assassination. For Tolkien, these expectations provided a framework within which to pursue a different idea of strength and effectiveness. Tolkien assigned value to the marginal and apparently ineffectual, and he gave her (and him) a role at the centre of his story. In her own, small way—indeed, because her way was small—even a woman could win a war, while an even smaller person could save the world. As we live our modern lives, we may choose to feel patronized by Tolkien’s women, but, unless we can claim to be a Beowulf or Aragorn (a route not open to normal men, either), Tolkien’s message may not be so disempowering as has been thought.
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Bennett, Helen (1992), ‘The female mourner at Beowulf’s funeral: filling in the blanks / hearing the spaces’, Exemplaria, 4.1, 35-50.
Bloomfield, Josephine (1994), ‘Diminished by kindness: Frederick Klaeber’s rewriting of Wealhtheow’, Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 93, 183-203.
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Chance, Jane (2001), The Lord of the Rings: The Mythology of Power (rev. edn). Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.
Crowe, Edith L. (1995), ‘Power in Arda: sources, uses, and misuses’, in Patricia Reynolds and Glen H. GoodKnight (eds), Proceedings of the J. R. R. Tolkien Centenary Conference, Keble College, Oxford, 1992 (combined issue of Mythlore 80 and Mallorn 30). Milton Keynes: Tolkien Society; Altadena, CA: Mythopeoic Press, pp. 272-77.
Damico, Helen (1984), Beowulf’s Wealhtheow and the Valkyrie Tradition. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Donovan, Leslie A. (2003), ‘The valkyrie reflex in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: Galadriel, Shelob, Éowyn, and Arwen’, in Jane Chance (ed), Tolkien the Medievalist. London and New York: Routledge, pp. 106-32.
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North, Richard, ‘Beowulf and the Aeneid: four episodes’ (paper given to the London Old and Middle English Research Seminar, 24 Nov 2004).
Overing, Gillian R. (1990), Language, Sign, and Gender in Beowulf. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.
Partridge, Brenda (1983), ‘No sex please—we’re hobbits: the construction of female sexuality in The Lord of the Rings’, in Robert Giddings (ed), J. R. R. Tolkien: This Far Land. London: Vision; Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble, pp. 179-97.
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Welsh, Andrew (1991), ‘Branwen, Beowulf, and the tragic peaceweaver tale’, Viator, 22, 1-13.
Wood, Tanya Caroline (2000), ‘Is Tolkien a Renaissance Man? Sir Philip Sidney’s Defense of Poesy and J. R. R. Tolkien’s “On Fairy Stories”’, in George Clark and Daniel Timmons (eds), J. R. R. Tolkien and His Literary Resonances: Views of Middle-earth. Westport, CT and London: Greenwood, pp. 95-108.

1 This is ‘common knowledge’ in Beowulf studies (Glosecki (1999): 44 n.63). For discussion see Bremmer (1980).

2 Beowulf 3065b. Citations from Beowulf are taken from Mitchell et al (1998) and will be cited parenthetically by line number. All translations are my own.

3 More than 90% of the glosses and emendations accepted today are Klaeber’s own or accepted by Klaeber (Kelly (1983)).

4 For major discussions of these roles, see Enright (1996), Sklute (1990), Bennett (1989), Welsh (1991), Mustanoja (1967), and Bennett (1992).

5 His protective role is repeatedly, perhaps ironically, stated at 371b, 428a, 456b, 663a, 1044a, and 1321b.

6 Cf. Lees (1997): 152: ‘women, as well as men, produce and use culture, sometimes in similar ways, more often in quite different ones’.

7 Cf. the very negative reading of Hrothgar in Irving (1989): 52.

8 Richard North has argued that the offer which Wealhtheow contests is the adoption of Beowulf via the hand of his daughter in marriage: ‘Beowulf and the Aeneid: Four Episodes’, paper given to the London Old and Middle English Research Seminar, 24 Nov 2004.

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