Tolkien on Women and Salvation
March 24, 2013
For most of medieval literature, there were no female elves. Tolkien was criticized by fairy-genre purists for having female elves in The Lord of the Rings because it was considered redundant. To the pre-modern mind, there were men, and the mystery of the female was represented by elves and fairies. The male elves represented women, so it breaks the genre by creating female elves. It’s like making chocolate out of chocolate.
Tolkien was the master of the genre, and knew which rules he could break and which ones to uphold. But given the liberties he took with the genre, I find his use of women and elves in that epic tale fantastic. The same rules were broken by another, C.S. Lewis who had Father Christmas show up in Narnia. If Aslan is the Christ, then Father Christmas would be Father Aslanmas… but Lewis, like Tolkien was transcending his genre in the same way. They were pointing to something higher than the boundaries even of fairy tale.
This from Tolkien on the Virgin mary:
“Our Lady, upon which all my own small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity is founded.”
To fully understand the Lord of the Rings, one must first understand that Tolkien was a devout, pre-Vatican II Catholic who faithfully attended the Latin Mass. As a Protestant, it’s difficult to view Mary like a Catholic. She is called “the Coredemptrix” which they believe tells of her unique role in participation of the redemption of man through Christ. So you’ll find elves in LOTR constantly co-redeeming mankind throughout the epic. It’s not specifically about Mary, because even in the language of story, Mary is just a conduit, to be blunt. It is the female mystique that represents the mystery of God, beauty and longing for glory.
Tolkien never publicly spoiled the spell of LOTR, he was even careful to ascribe future edits of the work to a failure in Bilbo’s memory when he put pen to paper. But in a private letter, Tolkien spills the beans:
“The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like “religion”, to cults or practices, in the Imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.”
This is telling, because he protected the story’s religious elements by removing religion from within the narrative. It’s also what freed him up to make female elves… for elves no longer symbolized women, but symbolized what Mary stood for to a Catholic, a coredemptrix. Similarly, it was Dr. Michael Ward in his book Planet Narnia who explains why Father Christmas can show up in a land with Aslan, because the entire book was more about Jove or Jupiter, the Christ figure of the universe who changes winter to spring in any land, not just Narnia. There is no need to have religious characters soap boxing within a fictional narrative, because the whole story is the soap box.
In Middle Earth, like in our Earth, all of mankind is low, prone to the weaknesses of the male species. Man is proud, greedy, and cannot resist overt power. This is embodied in Boromir. Every man who is tested by The Ring fails, but Aragorn is the only one to turn it down when offered the ring by Frodo. Why? Aragorn was raised by elves. He inherited their suspicion of men, and it tormented him. The elves, or the women of fairy tale provided him the humility that made him resist the power of low men and made him the only worthy king of men. Being a ranger, he was still a man’s man, so he also embodies the humanity of Christ, triumphant on Earth.
A further symbol of the redemption of man, is that Arwen, an elf, gives up mortality to marry him. This is the Christ who marries the church. It doesn’t cost Aragorn anything, but it will force Arwen to experience death. When the beauty of the higher things redeems the lower, it injures the higher thing.
Tolkien’s view of women personally? No higher praise could be given to his wife, Edith Mary Tolkien where her tombstone read: “Luthien” while J.R.R.’s read: “Beren.” These are the elvish names for Arwen and Aragorn. After 50 years of marriage, Tolkien claimed he could still remember how Edith sang and danced while he sat on the grass, spellbound. This is also how Aragorn first meets Arwen in the Appendix of LOTR.
Legolas and Gimli
It’s a long story, but elves and dwarves are long rivals in Middle Earth. Elves are considered high while dwarves are considered low, not only in stature, but their own creator Vala Aulë offered to destroy them before they ever awoke. But the creator of all, Ilúvatar, offered to adopt them as his own with the condition that they were awaken after the Elves. That’s Jacob and Esau, but off topic for the purposes of this post.
By the beginning of The Two Towers, Legolas and Gimli have struck such a rich friendship that when Eomer the Rider of Rohan threatens to kill Gimli, Legolas points an arrow at him and says, “You would die before your stroke fell.” Gimli the low is defended by Legolas… womankind. It is Gimli who is completely smitten by Galadriel upon meeting the highest elf of all. It’s no coincidence that the highest elf is a female. At the end of the age, it is Legolas who builds a boat and brings Gimli with him to the Grey Havens (heaven).
Frodo and Arwen
When Frodo is sure to die by a mortal wound from a Morgul Blade (the weapon of the most powerful of men, the Witch King) Arwen shows up just in time to save him. (Correction: since I posted this, reader Jenni Noordhoek corrected me that it’s not Arwen who waves Frodo in the book, it’s Glorfindel who saves Frodo. But the point still stands, because it’s an elf who rescues Frodo.) When Arwen gives up her own immortality, she gives Frodo her place on the boat to the Grey Havens. Enough said.
Eowyn and Theoden
When King Theoden is crushed by his horse from a blow by the Lord Nazgul, it is Theoden’s niece Eowyn who stands between the King and death. The Lord of the Nazgul is the most powerful man, brought down by a woman who was forbidden to join the battle. She wears the armor of a man to participate. Eowyn is womanhood militant on earth, forced into battle.
Shelob and Sam
Contrast the soaring beauty of elves with Shelob. Older than Sauron, she is the last daughter of Ungoliant (the devil) known as the giant spider Shelob. There is no character described by Tolkien as more gut-wrenchingly foul than Shelob. Female gone wrong is a horror far worse than even that of the greatest failings of mortal men. The oldest, most powerful female of Middle Earth is defeated by the lowest, most humble male character: Frodo’s gardener, Sam.
Female as the North Star
The three great females of LOTR are named after lights and stars. Stars are fixed ideals by which we can guide a ship, measure the size of the universe and keep from getting lost in the woods. Their names: Galadriel, the Lady of Light, Arwen, the Evanstar and Luthien, the Morning Star. Each of these characters play a role in guiding men. Even Galadriel has Gandalf’s number. He may be a wizard, but he is subservient and knocked off his feet by the highest elf.
Tolkien was criticized by feminists for his lack of female characters in his books. I don’t have go into how thin that view is, but I believe it proves how Modernity forces us to not only miss what would be obvious to a pre-modern mind, but by addressing those false problems it ruins good story telling technique. Women weren’t short changed in Tolkien’s world, they were the firm backbone of that entire work, elevated to the highest place in a Catholic, pre-modern, story-teller’s mind: the magic redeemer of fallen men.