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.

31 Responses to “Tolkien on Women and Salvation”

  1. Great post! (Actually Doug, from the tone of your various FB posts I had thought you Catholic.)

    • tennapel Says:

      A lot of people think I’m Catholic. I have a deep respect for that religion, and many of the great thinkers I study are Catholic.

      • Ed Says:

        I think Doug isn’t ready to come out of the Catholic closet. C’mon Doug, your sons already go to Catholic school (didn’t they do their First Communion?)

      • tennapel Says:

        My kids went to an Episcopalian school but are home schooled now.

        I’m all too aware of some key differences between Catholics and protestants that would keep me from converting. I’ve got seriously devout Catholic friends and we go over those differences regularly, in the spirit of a friendly debate, of course. But where I differ from most in opposition of the Catholic Church is that I can see the beauty, successes and greatness of a religion that’s not my own without demonizing, degrading human beings even when our differences are deep, serious and absolute. I have more in common with many devout Catholics than I do with my fellow non-Catholics and evangelicals.

      • Ed Says:

        Well, an increasing number of Protestants are becoming Catholic. Just look at the Crystal Cathedral!

        There’s also the Eastern/Greek/Russian Orthodox churches, the Oriental Orthodox (not to be confused with the former), the Maronites, the Assyrian Churches of the East, the Copts, etc. which also have a lot of history and tradition.

      • Same here! I consider myself a “Catholic friendly Christian.” I’m drawn to a lot of things about the Catholic church and have a lot of respect for it but there are deal breakers that would keep me from ever joining.
        Also, don’t like the term “protestant” because I don’t feel like my faith is in protest of anything. My faith is my faith, it’s defined by what it is not what it isn’t.
        Great read sir!.

      • Thank you Doug. I truly appreciate you and this post. It has given me a glimpse into the deep well of Tolkien’s love for the Virgin Mary. On the topic of Catholic influence: some have suggested that the lembas bread of the elves is inspired by, or perhaps an image of, the bread of the Eucharist, i.e. the Blessed Sacrament. Tolkien received Holy Communion daily at Mass, and once told his son in a letter, “Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love upon earth: the Blessed Sacrament…. There you will find romance, glory, honor, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth, and more than that” (Joseph Pierce, Tolkien: Man and Myth, a Literary Life, p. 208)

      • Sam Says:

        Hard to believe you’re not Catholic. You quote Tolkien and Chesterton far more than you quote Tim LaHaye or Pat Robertson.

  2. Benjamin Says:

    What remarkable timing.
    Just the other night I was reading letters from Tolkien, one of them being to his son Michael. It was about relationships and marriage. (Well, not the same topic I suppose.) He spoke of differences, saying men were more likely to view relationships romantically, even though women were more sentimental.

  3. Kathy Fullerton Says:

    Doug, I don’t know if you are interested in discussions on the role of women in the modern Church, but here is a blog that has been focusing on this recently.

  4. Crystal Nielsen Says:

    I’ve only read LOTR once (yeah, I know), but I find this analysis interesting and thought-provoking. I’ll have to consider it the next time I pick up the trilogy.

  5. andrewbatter Says:

    Nice post, Doug. I’m going to share this with my buddies, who are more into LotR than I am, and see what they think.

  6. Fascinating. Very interesting perspective!

    I’ll point out though that Arwen did not rescue Frodo when he was injured by the Nazgul in Fellowship. Glorfindel did. Arwen was only in the movie. (there are some reasons why she would never have been able to do what Glorfindel did in the book because Glorfindel is a much older, more powerful elf of much storied history – but for simplicity and coherence they changed it for the films)

    • tennapel Says:

      True about Glorfindel. Thanks of for the correction. When quoting LOTR it’s hard to put the movies out of mind. But it was still Arwen who gave up her seat on the life boat to Frodo.

  7. marji4x Says:

    Thanks so much for posting this! I’ve always felt Tolkien-as-mysogonist was wrong but could never articulate it very well. Also I just read Planet Narnia recently and was delighted to see that reference in here :D

  8. Pat P. Says:

    Regardless of what you think about the Catholic Church, you have to admit that without it, Christianity as we know it probably wouldn’t exist. After all, it gave us the Bible and shaped our most important beliefs (the Trinity, the Virgin Birth, the bodily resurrection of Christ, etc).

  9. […] books, the author originally fielded complaints about the female characters he used. Click here to learn more about why the complaints were made, and to learn more about Tolkien`s use of female […]

  10. Jeff C. Says:

    Very nice post, however Beren and Lúthien are entirely seperate charecters from Aragorn and Arwen. The former do represent a similar dynamic in the Silmarillion.

  11. A. Landers Says:

    Doug, this comment is well thought out. One correction that you might want to note. You say above that Luthien and Beren are the Elvish names for Arwen and Aragorn. This is incorrect in several ways. Arwen is an elf – her full name is Arwen Undomiel. Aragorn is a man whose Elvish name is Ellesar. Luthien and Beren are different people altogether from Arwen and Aragorn. Luthien was an elf maid in the first age of Middle Earth. She was the daughter of Thingol. She fell in love with Beren, a mortal man, and just like Arwen in the third Age – she forfeited immortality to be with the man she loved. Luthien and Beren were the first Elf and Man to marry in Middle Earth. Arwen and Aragorn were the third and last. The story of Luthien and Beren is found in the Silmarillion.

    • tennapel Says:

      Thanks for that important correction. As you can see, the details in my mind get pretty scrambled up. But still, a great tribute to his love by calling her Luthien.

    • marji4x Says:

      Arwen was thought of as Luthien reborn by her people, though, and the Beren and Luthien story is an important one for the couple, as an inspiration and theme for their relationship. I think Aragorn even calles her “Tinuviel” at one point when he first sees her because she reminds him of the legend. There are definite thematic ties between them.

  12. mrdavidrowe Says:

    A couple of things:
    – The ‘elves as womanhood/coredemtrist’ idea definitely works (you can even add how Galadriel supposedly interceded before the Valar to allow Gimli’s journey into the West), and this also explains them relentlessly being described as ‘fair’.
    – I’d be interested in your thoughts on ‘when Elves go wrong’ in light of that – eg. is Feanor ‘unLadylike’ (in the sense of Our Lady)? And also, is the Elves passivity part of Tolkien’s view of women?

    Ps. Beren & Luthien are Aragorn & Arwen’s heroic ancestors (who stole a silmaril from Morgoth), not alternative names for them.
    Pps. I’m Anglican, and therefore catholic AND protestant, whilst also being neither :)

  13. Fascinating article! You are correct to say that when reading Tolkien one must take into account his background, especially his devout Catholic faith.
    Many of the connections you make I had never thought of before.
    Thank you for posting this!

  14. Kim Says:

    I know it’s been pointed out already that it was Glorfindel, not Arwen, who helped Frodo escape the Nazgul. Here is how Glorfindel appears to Frodo and the Riders as they enter the ford, “a shining figure of white light”. Sounds like a star to me. So I think it works with your idea of the feminine elves, since they are associated with stars.

  15. Lindsay Says:

    Hey Doug, this is verrrry interesting. I have to ask, what provoked you to write this post?

    • tennapel Says:

      Mostly I decided to write this post just by reading Tolkien. The themes come in over and over and when I looked on the internet to see what others said about Tolkien regarding the use of women in his fairy tale, it was mostly to complain about a lack of females present in the story… which proves that all of those critics aren’t understanding where Tolkien was coming from. So this post is to set the record straight.

  16. […] Tolkien on Women and Salvation – A look at how J.R.R. Tolkin’s Catholic worldview influenced the role of women in his epic fantasy The Lord of the Rings. It’s interesting how the prevailing culture of the time believed he made too much of women, and now some believe he made too little. […]

  17. Mark Says:

    “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.”

    I have no expertise in this area at all, but this doesn’t jibe with my casual reading of the classics, whether historical works (Spenser’s Fairy Queene or Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, both of which feature the sort of Queen of Elfhame character type) or early fantasy works (The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Dunsany). And the Irish elf-ish types that appear in the Mabinogion include women. Poking on Wikipedia shows female elves throughout all branches of folk lore and mythology. Am I missing something?

    (I enjoyed the analysis all the same!)

  18. Luke Green Says:

    the bit in the movie where Arwen “gives up her immortality to save Frodo” That’s not how it was in the book either. Glorfindel did not give up his immortality to save Frodo, he simply carried him to Elrond who’s healing skills prevented Frodo from dying. No one sacrificed anything to save Frodo.

    The whole give up immortality “I choose a mortal life” is not how it works in the books. So that point is still a little off.

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