Was JRR Tolkien a Misogynist?

By: Suzannah Rowntree

Published: July 24, 2020
Topics: ,

I know, I know what you’re thinking. “Oh my goodness. Who would even ask a question like that? Aren’t we allowed to have ANY nice things?”

Believe me, I’m not asking this question out of a perverse desire to ruin your appreciation of the last century’s finest work of literature. But this assumption cropped up in a Youtube video I watched recently, and I couldn’t help myself. As a Tolkien lover, a fantasy author, and a history scholar, I’ve got to explain what everyone I have ever met gets wrong about Tolkien’s female characters, especially everyone’s favourite shieldmaiden. If you think you know Eowyn of Rohan, think again. You best put seatbelts on your ears, listeners, cause I’m going to take them for the ride of their lives. I’m Suzannah Rowntree, and I’d like to welcome you to a specially festive and monstrously nerdy episode of the Monstrous Regiment Podcast.

Before I move on, I just want to invite you all, if you have any questions, to drop them in the comments for this video and I’ll look forward to answering them toward the end of the episode.

In a three-part video essay on Peter Jackson’s dreadful Hobbit films, prominent YouTuber Lindsey Ellis takes several minutes to discuss Tauriel, the extracanonical female character which Jackson and co added to their films. She makes the excellent point that the addition of Tauriel to the HOBBIT films is an example of cynical tokenism, intended merely to sell more tickets to female audiences, not to provide an interesting or important female character.

“Nor,” she goes on, and this is going to be a pretty lengthy quote, “nor does it fix the underlying issue of the way that Tolkien wrote women, or in the case of HOBBIT, didn’t. Fantasy in general has a women problem, because history is patriarchal, and since most fantasy is based on history, authors want to write patriarchal societies – but they don’t really want to think or go into how or why these structures came to exist. On the one hand you have something like Skyrim, which is about as egalitarian as a fantasy world is going to get;… and then you have works like A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE, where the patriarchal aspects of the society are both acknowledged and integrated into the narrative consciously…and then of course the benign sexism of Tolkien where women are fair maidens, sometimes powerful maidens like in the case of Galadriel, but we don’t really get to see it, because you know, she’s got to restrain that. Eowyn gets her moment of awesome but when Faramir reads her a poem, she decides she’s done with being a shieldmaiden and becomes a good waifu…But more common in recent fantasy, at least, fantasy written by men, is the version where there’s an implied patriarchal structure given the utter dearth of women in positions of power, but no one really talks about it. And that angle, the one where there’s like a token strong lady, that’s kind of how I feel they went with Tauriel’s inclusion in these movies. And it’s not just that she’s there, it’s that she feels so out of place. No one in-universe points it out, because Tolkien didn’t really care, but women have pretty strict gender roles in Middle Earth. Women don’t do battle, that’s why Eowyn stepping out of her lane was worth remarking upon….Eowyn disguised herself as a man because she HAD to, because women don’t do battle in Tolkien’s universe.”

And I can’t tell you how strongly I disagree with most of what was said in that quote. The big misconception that I’ve come across over years of being either active within the Tolkien fandom or just quiet on the sidelines, is this assumption that Eowyn of Rohan had to defy a patriarchal society in order to ride to war. So today I’d love to tackle this misconception, or rather series of misconceptions, in order to explain just why it is that we get Eowyn completely wrong if we assume that her society, or that the man who created both of them was sexist.

Misconception #1: Women didn’t fight in historical cultures, because those cultures were patriarchal.

OK, so first of all I don’t want to deny that history has traditionally seen a fair bit of patriarchalism, to varying degrees, throughout. In some cases the patriarchalism is a lot worse than you dreamed of, like in Renaissance Venice where at one point up to 80% of the daughters of the aristocracy were forcibly imprisoned in convents for their whole lives, for little reason apart from family prestige. In other cases, it was a lot better than you think. This seems to have been particularly true in the early to high middle ages. I am writing a historical fantasy series set during the Crusades, and in my research I’ve come across more strong, influential women than you could shake a stick at. Feudal societies were societies of endless petty warfare, which meant that in particularly unstable locations, women could and did outlive multiple husbands – I’m talking two, three, even four husbands – acted as ruling queens and countesses, and participated in warfare.

Noble women often directed siege warfare while their men were away. For example, in 1178 when Saladin attacked the kingdom of Jerusalem, the Hospitaller knight Raymond recorded that Jerusalem was emptied of men: “We put the defence of the Tower of David and the whole city in the hands of our women.” This was not an isolated circumstance. One medieval author, the fifteenth-century Frenchwoman Christine de Pisan, insisted that women should learn about siege warfare:

It is also fitting for her to have the spirit of a man. This means that she ought not to be educated entirely indoors, nor in only the great feminine virtues. […]Her men should be able to rely on her for all kinds of protection in the absence of their lord, in a situation where anyone would offer to do them any harm. […S]he ought to know how to use weapons and be familiar with everything that pertains to them, so that she may be ready to command her men if the need arises. She should know how to launch an attack or to defend against one, if the situation calls for it. She should take care that her fortresses are well garrisoned.

Christine de Pisan spent much time arguing against the way women in her culture were viewed, which means that we can’t necessarily take her as representative of her culture. However, many medieval women, when it came down to it, must have had some military training and even experience, since we do have regular accounts of women fighting alongside men in battle.

During the siege of Acre during the Third Crusade, we have several records of this happening. After one skirmish, the Muslim historian ibn al-Athir reports, “Among the prisoners were three Frankish women who had fought from horseback and were recognised as women only when captured and stripped of their armour.” Afterward, according to the historian Imad ad-Din, they were sold as slaves. These must have been noblewomen, because they could afford horses, armour, and weapons – the horse alone was worth many times the value of an ordinary peasant’s farm. Clearly these women were not just capable of using these weapons, but they also had the economic security and independence to risk these veryexpensive resources.

But it wasn’t just noble ladies who fought. During the same siege, the historian Baha al-Din records a desperate Saracen attack on the Frankish defences:

An observant old soldier who penetrated the trenches that day told me that on the other side of the parapet was a woman dressed in a green mantle, who shot at us with a wooden bow and wounded many Muslims before she was overcome and killed. Her bow was taken and carried to the Sultan, who was clearly deeply impressed by the story.

I include these examples just because they’re two of the most detailed, and they’re ones I’ve learned about in my own reading. Now, the fact that these historians found these examples noteworthy shows that there probably weren’t a lot of women taking part in battle in these campaigns. Women did periodically take part in medieval warfare, but not in equal numbers with their men.

Which brings us to the second part of the misconception. Was it purely because of patriarchalism that women didn’t partake? And I would say that the answer is a laughably obvious No! Even these days, most militaries haven’t successfully integrated women into combat roles. And the reason for that is that the female body is different to the male body. It is equally sacred and equally precious – but it’s just different. Women have less upper-body strength than men do, and that’s just a fact. Things like this are important in combat situations, and can have a huge impact on the effectiveness of your troops. Add to this the fact that women tend to be more vulnerable to sexual assault in the aftermath of battle, and it makes sense that by and large, women who have a choice will prefer not to get involved in battle if they can help it. War was never meant to be fun. A while back I did a Bible study, trying to figure out what the Bible has to say on the topic of women in the military, and I discovered that while the Bible never prohibits women from being in dangerous situations or taking part in battle, it does encourage men to put themselves in harm’s way in as an act of service for the women of their society. The assumption is that war is, in the words of the Song of Roland, “grim and terrible and rude”.

So even today, women don’t usually participate in combat on a regular basis. And this is a big deal, because war has changed a huge amount since medieval times. And the biggest change in the history of war over the last eight thousand years or so of world history, was the invention of the firearm. Firearms superseded other weapons not just because they were more powerful, not just because it was less trouble to train people how to use them, but also because they were a powerful equaliser. Before the invention of the firearm, warriors needed to train from childhood. They needed a fortune’s worth of expensive equipment. And they needed to be as big and strong and fit as possible, because this would give them an edge in battle. The invention of the firearm did away with all this. With a firearm, a starving cripple who had never handled a weapon before could kill Sir Miles Gloriosus with one little motion of the finger. This one change paved the way for the disappearance of the feudal aristocracies, because it meant that peasants actually could resist a fully-armed, fully-trained warrior with effective lethal force. This was also significant for women – it made it far more possible to include women in combat in the first place.

So when we look at medieval societies, number one, they were not devoid of women learning to fight in battle, and number two, the reason why women warriors were not more common had less to do with patriarchalism than with the fact that women aren’t physically well adapted to this role, which even after the invention of the firearm still isn’t all that common.

So, if you’re writing a fantasy that doesn’t have a lot of women in combat, then you’re not upholding a patriarchalist worldview – you’re just writing a realistic story set in a pre-industrial society.

Misconception #2: Women have strict gender roles in Middle Earth – fair maidens who don’t fight.

Look, I’ve read lots of stories where the women have strict gender roles, and Tolkien doesn’t write this way at all. Sir Walter Scott comes to mind, as does GA Henty – both authors I thoroughly enjoy reading. This was definitely a feature of Victorian literature – and while Tolkien, who was born in that period, doesn’t buck that trend particularly hard, he does buck it. He did not look to the Victorian age for inspiration for the gender roles in his invented universe, but to medievalism and also to his own ideals. Of the Elves, he wrote that their men and women were equal in nearly all matters and, “There are (…) no matters which among the Elves only a man can think or do, or others with which only a woman is concerned.” Among his female Elves are Galadriel, who in her youth was quite an athlete, while her cousin Aredhel was a hunter. Tolkien specifically noted that Elf women often gravitated toward healing professions while the Elf men were more likely to become warrior. And the two professions didn’t get mixed because they were incompatible on a spiritual level – if healers fought, they would lose their gift of healing. But, Tolkien also made sure to note that some Elf men didchoose to be healers rather than warriors, and that it was the same for them – they had to make sure they didn’t fight.

If you read up on Tolkien’s Elves, you’ll realise that in many ways Elven society represents Tolkien’s ideals, especially when he’s writing about Elves in the Blessed Land, which is the case here. So we can take it as read that whatever the flaws in his own application of the principle, in principle Tolkien did believe in the equality, though not the equivalence, of the sexes. He didn’t have a patriarchalist ideology.

Meanwhile, Tolkien’s human characters include numbers of women who seem to be modelled on traditional medieval women. In a letter dated 1963, Tolkien wrote to one reader, “Eowyn was not herself ambitious in the true political sense. Though not a ‘dry nurse’ in temper, she was also not really a soldier or ‘amazon’, but like many brave women was capable of great military gallantry at a crisis.” Eowyn isn’t the only human woman in Tolkien’s mythos who steps up to lead her people at a moment of crisis: there’s also Haleth from the Silmarillion. These examples are relatively rare in Tolkien’s work, because he was taking his inspiration from history, but one, it doesn’t mean that he himself was sexist, and two, it doesn’t mean that Eowyn’s culture was sexist. I’m going to tackle that in a minute.

Misconception #3: The Lord of the Rings is sexist because it has very few female characters.

So we just finished talking about the fact that even today, after the invention of the firearm, to say nothing of an array of ladies’ sanitary products, it’s still fairly uncommon to see women participating in combat. And this isn’t because of patriarchalism so much as it’s about technology and sacrifice. There’s a very big theme in The Lord of the Rings about sacrificing yourself, about enduring horrifying hardship to the point that your life is basically ruined by PTSD, as Frodo’s is, specifically so that the people you love, both male and female, don’t have to face it themselves. The fact that Frodo wants to do this for, like, Farmer Maggot or Gaffer Gamgee, doesn’t make the farmer or the Gaffer somehow less as people. So I don’t see why it should make Lobelia Sackville-Baggins or Lady Arwen somehow less as people either. There are few female or elderly or disabled characters in The Lord of the Rings specifically because this is not their story! It’s a story about, basically, a small hand-picked band of commandos undertaking a suicide mission into enemy territory. This is The Guns of Navarone, not Pride and Prejudice.

Misconception #4: Nobody talks about patriarchalism in LOTR and Tolkien himself didn’t care about it.

On the contrary, I think Tolkien does talk about it. He touches on it very briefly, because this is not a book about oppressive cultural structures or about the status of women in Middle-Earth. Not absolutely every issue in a fantasy culture is going to be able to hog the spotlight in your novel! Books are always selective, and just because women’s issues aren’t at the forefront of The Lord of the Rings doesn’t mean they don’t exist or that Tolkien doesn’t care. It just means that they don’t belong in the story he’s telling. Maybe some character might mention them in passing, but it’s not the focus on the story.

And in fact, someone does mention them in passing – specifically, Eowyn does. When Aragorn is trying to convince her not to follow him to the war, Eowyn objects with these words:

“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.”

Clearly Eowyn, just like most medieval women, has come up against at least some form of sexism, and isn’t afraid to call it out. Tolkien even brings it up again later, when Aragorn points out to Eomer that while he could ride out with his men and hit things anytime he was feeling stressed out about the state of the kingdom of Rohan, Eowyn couldn’t…and that was why it hit her so hard. So yes, there is discussion of gender roles in The Lord of the Rings, and overall strict gender roles are treated as being oppressive.

Misconception #5: Eowyn was primarily motivated by sexism in her culture

So we’ve established that Eowyn was familiar with being told to stay in the kitchen, and wasn’t amused by it. However, I think we make a huge mistake about Eowyn’s character when we take this as being her sole or even her primary motivation. Yet so many people do, and it has always made me scratch my head.

Fact: You have to be thoroughly trained, from a young age, in order to wield pre-industrial weapons. Eowyn describes herself on multiple occasions as a “shieldmaiden”. This is part of her identity. She is a well-equipped, well-trained warrior woman. And this training and equipping has obviously been carried out with the full approval of the powerful men in her family. In a really sexist culture, this would never have happened.

Fact: No national or military leader ever survives a crisis of confidence on the part of his people. The medieval Egyptian concubine Shajar al-Durr was only the second woman in Muslim history to rule a Muslim state, and she lasted barely three months before being forced to step aside in favour of a male sultan, purely because of sexism. In Rohan, when Theoden asks his people who should lead them while he is away at Helm’s Deep, the response he gets is something along the lines of “is this a trick question?” Theoden’s men instantly suggest Eowyn for the job. They clearly have complete confidence in her as a military and civil leader. And this appointment is something that never would have happened in a really sexist culture, because in a really sexist culture women aren’t trusted to pick out a hat, let alone lead the nation in a time of crisis.

OK, and here’s the really fascinating bit. So Theoden agrees that Eowyn is the obvious choice to lead the people while he’s away with most of the army at Helm’s Deep. He then carries out a curious little ceremony which meant nothing to me until I read a little book titled Mediaeval Feudalism by Carl Stephenson. Stephenson begins his book with a recap of an essay by the Roman chronicler Tacitus, dealing with the ancient Germanic tribes and the customs which would later become medieval feudalism. According to Tacitus,

“Their assemblies are military gatherings. Except when armed, they perform no business, either private or public. But it is not their custom that any one should assume arms without the formal approval of the tribe. Before the assembly the youth receives a shield and a spear from his father, some other relative, or one of the chief men, and this gift corresponds to the toga virilis among the Romans – making him a citizen rather than a member of a household.”

Stephenson goes on to discuss how this ceremony morphed into the medieval dubbing ceremony:

“The same ceremony reappears under the Carolingians. In 791, we are told, Charlemagne caused Prince Louis to be girded with a sword in celebration of his adolescence; and forty-seven years later Louis in turn decorated his fifteen-year-old son Charles ‘with the arms of manhood, i.e., a sword.’ Here, obviously, we may see the origin of the later adoubement, which long remained a formal investiture with arms, or with some one of them as a symbol….”

Stephenson mentions the ceremonies and oaths that later got attached to this ceremony, but in its simplest form the ceremony included “at most the presentation of a sword, a few words of admonition, and the accolade.”

Okay. So we all remember that Tolkien was a medieval scholar with a special interest in the Germanic tribes of late antiquity and the early middle ages, right? He had all this background in his head when he was writing this passage where Eowyn is appointed to lead Rohan in the king’s absence. Tolkien writes:

“It shall be so,” said Theoden. “Let the heralds announce to the folk that the Lady Eowyn will lead them!”

Then the king sat upon a seat before his doors, and Eowyn knelt before him and received from him a sword and a fair corslet.

I thought this was so great when I re-read the book a couple of years back. This little detail meant nothing at all to me until I’d learned about all the history behind it. What Theoden is doing, basically, is he’s officially made Eowyn a knight of the riddermark. Eowyn just got dubbed a knight. By the patriarch of her clan. And nobody cracks a boo.

See, this is what I’m talking about. No one is holding Eowyn back here. No one is trying to force her to conform to some traditional Victorian gender roles. She’s been trained, she has a vote of confidence from the powerful men in her society, and now she’s been made a knight. She might not live in a 100% egalitarian society, but her society is arguably more egalitarian than actual medieval societies were. I’ve heard of medieval women fighting as knights, but being dubbed as knights? Never.

So this is the part where most people might wonder, “But hang on, if she had no glass ceilings to smash, then why did she despair to the point of running off to seek death in battle?” The answer is pretty simple, and Tolkien makes it completely clear. Eowyn is a proud medieval-style aristocrat in a society that values courage in battle, and she’s been stuck at home watching while her kings shirks his duty, succumbs to fear and despair, and sits at home mouldering in his hall while his kingdom falls to pieces around him. The gender roles in her society, even though they aren’t set in stone, do contribute to this malaise, because as a woman who isn’t part of the regular army, Eowyn doesn’t have the same warlike outlet as her brother does. But the root of the malaise is that her national and aristocratic pride has been injured; it’s not that the men in her life are trying to hold her back, but they’ve turned into wimps and she’s not in a place to single-handedly fix it. And that’s the reason she falls so hard for Aragorn, and that’s the reason she rides off to the Pelennor Fields.

I also want to draw attention to what Eowyn says to Aragorn when she’s objecting to being fitted into traditional gender roles. She says, “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.”

This is not quite what a modern woman would say – in fact it’s a very medieval sentiment, to say, “I’m an aristocrat, I’m not a servant.” In the medieval world, class divisions and blood heritage were far more important than gender roles. This is why, when a king died without male heirs, the people would be happy to crown his daughter as a ruling queen rather than to elevate some lowborn knight to the throne. So, for Eowyn, the argument is not, “I’m a woman with every bit as much of a desire to do something important with my life,” the argument is, “I’m not one of those servants, I was born and trained as a warrior because I’m part of the warrior class.” This isn’t exactly a sympathetic argument to modern ears, but it’s extremely authentic to Eowyn’s culture and status. Again, the main thing that’s bothering Eowyn is not the gender roles, and it’s not her unrequited feelings for Aragorn. It’s her aristocratic pride. And this tells us something about her culture as well – it tells us that for the Rohirrim, it’s expected that everyone from the warrior class will be a warrior, whether men or women. The big divide in their society is not between men and women, it’s been those who fight and those who don’t. And this is why it’s so natural for them to choose her as their leader.

Misconception #6: Eowyn had to disguise herself as a man to go to war because of gender roles


Why is it always gender roles?

So it might have been partly gender roles. I’ll give you that. But that is to entirely ignore the massive elephant in the room, which is that literally, what, a week and a half ago, Eowyn was appointed as the regent of a kingdom! She’s a world leader now! She has responsibilities! It’s obviously not that she’s not supposed to fight – she’s been trained, she’s been knighted – it’s that she’s supposed to fight a different battle. And sure, the reason the men around her are trying to keep her out of the suicide charge is because she’s a girl, and they want to spare her that. But Tolkien hints that she’s got an understanding with the army’s mashal, Elfhelm – so clearly one man, at least, sympathises with her and is helping her hoodwink her uncle. Again: gender roles might be a small part of it, but the most important thing is that Eowyn has just deserted the military command she was given by her king. And in a feudal society, that’s pretty serious!

Misconception #7: Eowyn’s decision to stop being a shieldmaiden and become a healer happens because Tolkien wanted to reinforce traditional gender stereotypes.

OK, so this line of reasoning goes, “Eowyn got out of line by deciding to take on a masculine role, and so in order for the happy ending to occur, she has to be stuffed back inside that feminine healer stereotype.” And once again, I think you can only manage to arrive at this conclusion if you ignore the whole context of the chapter, and the book, and the universe in which this story takes place.

So The Lord of the Rings is a very male-dominated book. No contest. And Eowyn is probably the most important female role, which means that when she meets Faramir at the end and they fall in love, it’s this very startling moment where this romance suddenly blossoms in the middle of a book that otherwise focuses, almost claustrophobically, on relationships between men.

In fact, let’s talk about this for a moment. Because it’s a fact that all the most important relationships in this book are male-male. And it’s no surprise that in the fan culture, this has given rise to immense quanitites of slashfic – fan fiction about homosexual relationships between the characters. Historically speaking, there’s actually a link between highly patriarchalist cultures and homosexuality – ancient Greece and eighteenth and nineteenth-century Germany come to mind. This is logical. If you have a culture in which women are excluded or disdained, then the most important relationships a man has will be with his other male friends. And as Bojidar Marinov points out, men don’t really want to pursue romantic relationships with their inferiors. So one of these traditionally masculine cultures has always been the military. For instance, in his own day, the militaristic and toxically masculine Kaiser Wilhelm II was something of a gay icon, lusted over by coteries of homosexuals in the military – much to the Kaiser’s surprise; he thought they were just army buddies.

Anyway, the reason why The Lord of the Rings – and The Hobbit – focus so closely on male characters and male relationships is that they take place in a time of war, during a quasi-historical setting when it was a lot harder to successfully include women in combat roles than it is now. The Fellowship is an all-male, militarised society active in war zones, which is why the most prominent female character in the book is the one who who is most militarised, with training, rank, and combat experience. The other women in the book very much fit into the same kind of role that women filled during Tolkien’s own war experience in World War One: they are nurses (like Ioreth), female heads of state (like Galadriel), or the sweethearts left behind (like Arwen or Rosie). As a result, relationships between men and women in The Lord of the Rings are extremely sparse. And the romance between Faramir and Eowyn at the end of the book is the only prominent exception.

But, I believe that this is not because Tolkien had the urge to put Eowyn back where she belonged. Remember, we’ve already established that equality was one of his ideals, and that for him, healing was a noble profession which both men and women could engage in. By the way, can we just stop saying that Eowyn gives up war so that she can become a good wife? That’s not what she or Tolkien said: she gives up war so that she can become a healer.

Anyway, like any good author Tolkien is very intentional about what he includes in the book, and this relationship between Faramir and Eowyn is in here for a very specific reason. Look where it occurs: it happens in this one, self-contained chapter at the end of the book right when Sauron has just been destroyed. And it’s this extraordinary, lush, romantic, celebratory moment in the story. What Tolkien is trying to tell us is that Sauron has been defeated, the war is over, and now Middle Earth can heal, and everyone is about to enter this new age of the world full of peace and fertility and rejoicing. It’s an incredibly transformative moment and Faramir and Eowyn are the perfect symbol of a man and woman of war who have suffered incredible hardship, coming together, finding healing, and realising that they don’t have to fight anymore.

And this is symbolic of something that is going to continue throughout the entire rest of the book, primarily for the male characters. The all-male military Fellowship breaks up, in many cases to forge new relationships with women. People talk about Eowyn’s declaration to become a healer as if she speaks the words and poof! She magically transforms into a doormat. No! Look at the context. The context is that all the people of Middle Earth are now free from the rigors of war and can start the work of restoring and rebuilding.

This is made explicit at the very start of this romantic chapter, when Eowyn has a conversation with the Warden at the Houses of Healing, and they specifically discuss the relationship of war and healing.

“It is a thing passing strange to me that the healing hand should also wield the sword. It is not thus in Gondor now, though once it was so, if old tales be true. But for long years we healers have only sought to patch the rents made by the men of swords.”

To which Eowyn responds that “those who have not swords can still die upon them.” She thinks that everyone should be able to defend themselves, and points out that although she’s healed in body, it doesn’t do her much good with the enemy still out there. This sets up the context for the entire rest of the chapter, as well as Eowyn’s later decision to give up war and be a healer. She only does this once Sauron is definitively destroyed, and she does it in the context of a global transition from war to peace. Tolkien isn’t trying to tell us that good women stay in the kitchen – what he’s actually saying is that in this new world, greatness for both men and women will now be defined as healing ability and not by warlike valour. Faramir, Eowyn, and Aragorn have all proven themselves as warriors. The question now is, can they prove themselves as healers? Are they able to lead in times of peace, not just in times of war? And the answer proves to be yes.

Look at Sam, for instance. We don’t laugh at Sam Gamgee for going home, hanging up his sword, getting married and becoming a gardener. So why should we laugh at Eowyn for doing the exact same thing? Moreover, remember who it is that she marries. Earlier in the book, Faramir has this whole speech where he says, “I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.” Why is it sexist for Eowyn to give up war, but not for Faramir to point out that war isn’t the most important thing in life?


Which brings me to my conclusion, which is the misconception which I think underlies all the feminist critiques of Tolkien. It’s a lie which both feminists and patriarchalists have bought into, it’s the lie which nearly kills Eowyn until she’s able to see past it. That lie is that military glory is the only kind of glory there is. I don’t see The Lord of the Rings as sexist, because I don’t believe that an absence of female characters in combat roles equates to sexism. It only makes sense to level this accusation at Tolkien, if we’re going to measure human worth purely based on combat ability. And while some women under some conditions can be effective in combat, even in pre-industrial societies – I’m thinking of the Lombard warrior princess Sikelgaita, for instance – I just don’t see why anyone’s human worth should be measured according to how good they are at destroying things.

If you’ve spent even five minutes reading Tolkien, you should know that his ideals were very peaceful and domestic. He believed that power, force, and authoritarian top-down power structures were evil by definition and could never be used for good – that’s what the One Ring is a symbol of. He believed that weapons and warriors were necessary to fight evil, but like all Christians, he looked forward to a time when swords would be beaten into ploughshares. He believed that both men and women were created for peace, fertility, and creativity, not for destruction and power. He utterly refused to measure anyone’s human worth and dignity according to their size, power, or combat readiness. And it was this, far more than traditional gender roles, which informed his writing about women.

“Many are the strange chances of the world,” said Mithrandir, “and help oft shall come from the hands of the weak when the Wise falter.”