Rethinking Mary Sue

Maeglin the iPod died on my way to work today, so I was left alone with my thoughts for the whole of the hour-plus-long drive home. Amid the maelstrom of my thoughts on mythology and women and Tolkien and feminist revision (related to an end-of-term research paper due this weekend), I got to thinking about Mary Sue. And a couple of ideas occurred to me that I wanted to get out of my head before I forgot and, also, to see what others thought of them.

Point the First. To what degree are Lúthien/Beren and Arwen/Aragorn a male version of the Mary Sue fantasy? I’m not talking about character traits–the idea of both characters but especially Lúthien as a “canonical Mary Sue” is nothing new–but rather the influence the male characters have on these ethereal female protagonists as compared to the influence that female characters in fan-authored Mary-Sue stories have on the male canon characters.

I’ve often seen Mary Sue defined in this way: not as having purple eyes or a six-syllable “Elvish” name or possessing a unicorn but as the force she exerts on the personalities and motivations of the canon males. For example, Leilamelaniewë joins the Fellowship and, suddenly, Legolas is lovesick and emasculated; Aragorn is driven into a homicidal, envy-induced rage; and Boromir forgets the Ring and Gondor to pen love sonnets while his sword grows rust.

By the same token, are not Aragorn and Beren similar to Mary Sue as fantasies of male influence upon women? Think about it: part of the outrage against Mary Sue is the exaggerated influence she has on men who should be well above such frivolities; they are warriors and princes with kingdoms to defend, not carefree playboys with nothing to lose if they dash off to marry Leilamelaniewë while Sauron achieves world domination. Likewise, both Arwen and Lúthien should be above the influence of their respective mortal suitors. They, too, have a lot to lose. Both Beren and Aragorn are presented as somewhat bedraggled and beneath the ethereal and impossibly beautiful women they woo. Not only do Arwen and Lúthien “fall” for Aragorn and Beren, but they go so far as to forsake their immortality. Just like Legolas forsaking his father’s kingdom or Aragorn his crown, these women relinquish a birthright, a defining point of their identity for love of a man.

It’s no secret that JRRT liked to imagine himself as Beren and Edith as Lúthien. What a fantasy! To believe that you are loved enough by a woman that she would give up everything in the name of that love! … her family, her heritage, even her claim to life everlasting.

Yes, it sounds to me more like something out of the pen of a moon-eyed teenager than a curmudgeonly linguistics professor!

To make matters even more interesting is the opposite scenario of an Elven man smitten with a mortal woman. As part of Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, Andreth recounts her failed love affair with Finrod’s brother Aegnor, and Finrod says that he rejected her because,

This is time of war, Andreth, and in such days the Elves do not wed or bear child; but prepare for death – or for flight. Aegnor has no trust (nor have I) in this siege of Angband that it will last long; and then what will become of this land? If his heart ruled, he would have wished to take thee and flee far away, east or south, forsaking his kin, and thine. Love and loyalty hold him to his.

Which makes me ask, what of the kin of Lúthien and Arwen? These are very different standards, and the choice of Aegnor seems relatively easy compared to the choices and fates of Lúthien and Arwen, both of whom suffered immensely to outlive their beloveds. That an immortal prince would fall for a woman “beneath” him is very much a typical fairy-tale fantasy a la Cinderella. But Tolkien didn’t write it that way … for Andreth.

So, is this a male fantasy, to have beautiful and powerful women forsake it all for love of a man? Is it similar to the Mary Sue fantasy in this regard?

Point the Second. Is Mary Sue herself something of a feminist figure? I know that some will immediately leap up to point out that there is much about Mary Sue that defies feminism, but, again, I’m not looking at individual traits or behaviors but rather the force she has over the male characters and, in a sense, how her embellishment places her as an equal to them.

It seems to me that, if young women wanted to insert themselves as love interests into a story, imprisoning themselves in Barad-dûr to await rescue by their chosen hero would be one way to go about it. That they’re taking the journey with the male heroes, granting themselves powers that put themselves as equals or betters to already souped-up canon characters, suggests something different.

So, am I completely crazy in all this?

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24 Responses to “Rethinking Mary Sue”

  1. Rhapsody says:

    Hmmm, love and feminism, making tough choices or being bereft of making the choice.

    When reading Finrod and Andreth, the pain that just jumps of the page comes mostly from Andreth who is left no choice and no option to discuss this matter of love for Aegnor with the elf in question. Yet this strong wise woman (a feminist perhaps?) does not persue a chance, she engages the debate with his brother instead. I do think it says more about Aegnor than Andreth. Feminism to me, is all about being able to make choices and decisions without telling a man or a man (or anyone else) withholding me from doing so. This is basically denied to Andreth, so that makes her case not the same as Luthien and Arwen, except for that Aegnor never prompted her. Would that make Beren and Aragorn supporters of feminism then? Arwen had a lot of time before she even got engaged to Aragorn, she contemplated this for a long time whereas with Luthien it feels more rushed. So yeah perhaps Aegnor was more that old fashioned elf who for his own reasons never consulted Andreth about the concequences their love would have for both. I have plenty of theories on this as to the why, might be one day captured.

    When looking at Arwen and Luthien: their ultimate choices be they romantic at heart or not are well considered by them personally. Perhaps they are even more idealised through the male author’s lens, however looking at how both women came to make them, they are feministic at heart.

  2. Rhapsody says:

    Eugh, sorry, being distracted here: I meant..
    Feminism to me, is all about being able to make choices and decisions without being told by a man or a man (or anyone else) withholding me from doing so.

  3. Elleth says:

    Rhapsy wrote: When looking at Arwen and Luthien: their ultimate choices be they romantic at heart or not are well considered by them personally.

    I am just re-reading the Lay of Leithian, and while the concepts presented in it may be debatable in light of later renderings of the legend, that is another can of worms…
    What I remember most are the stanzas

    ‘[…] the deathless in his dying shared / and fate them forged a binding chain of living love and mortal pain.’

    – so it’s debatable if Lúthien’s following him and her ultimate choice of forsaking immortality wasn’t already predetermined, which then of course implies the lack of free choice that you derive her strength from. (I don’t doubt her strength, for that matter. Lúthien drove Sauron into surrender, healed Beren, followed him to Angband, enchanted Morgoth(!) and so on and so on.)
    In the same vein, I’m not sure if the ‘fate’ component in this case completely allows calling Beren and Lúthien (and Aragorn and Arwen, for that matter) a male fantasy, though of course it does apply in part considering the author is a male, and this is a very personal story, see JRR Tolkien telling his son that his mother ‘[…] was (and knew she was) my Lúthien.’ Beyond that, though, I think it also expresses a great deal of admiration, seeing how Edith/Lúthien was idealized.

    Dawn wrote: It seems to me that, if young women wanted to insert themselves as love interests into a story, imprisoning themselves in Barad-dûr to await rescue by their chosen hero would be one way to go about it.

    There are, sadly, enough stories of that kind, which cater more to the typical damsel in distress stereotype rather than to the (reasonably strong) 10th Walker, in which the girl becomes a liability and needs the hero to come and rescue her despite her apparently speshul powers. Likewise, the 10th Walker fanfics sometimes (I don’t want to generalize here, I’m sure there are enough others, and it has been a few years since I read any of these stories) have the girl in question doubt herself, for all her apparent powers, because the male love interest is at first not showing interest, and she only acknowledges her self-worth when he has fallen for her. Human nature, sure. Feminist, no. And honestly, I do doubt that there are many Mary Sues written with the express intention of proclaiming feminist values.

  4. Dawn says:

    Rhapsody: Great points about the choices of Luthien and Arwen; I hadn’t considered this as part of my initial musing, but it fits into the broader ideas I’ve been thinking on lately with regards to how women are depicted in JRRT’s writings. I agree that their choices are feminist. In the case of Luthien, is there a character more suppressed by patriarchal interests, first her father’s and then Beren’s, both of them so quick to tell her what she needs to want and do? I’m not so certain about Arwen–I know that movie!verse Arwen is depicted much the same, though I don’t know how based in the texts that is–but both women, in the end, do what they want, cognizant of the consequences. Yay them! 😉

    Which makes me now wonder: What do the differences between Arwen/Aragorn & Luthien/Beren and Andreth/Aegnor say about the author? That he seems to value loyalty to one’s family and people when it’s the man being called to make the sacrifice, but when it’s the women, it’s assumed they give in to their hearts. (Unless JRRT didn’t approve of Aegnor’s choice, but I don’t get that impression.)

    Elleth: Interesting point about fate! Honestly, I don’t know enough about the canon of either couple (especially Arwen/Aragorn) to feel like I can comment further on this, so I thank you for bringing it up! *adds to stew in crackpot* In my broader musings, it will certainly earn a closer look!

    The male fantasy in this case is the author’s fantasy. Women are always accused of turning stories into female fantasies through the introduction of romantic idealism like both of these stories. However, I’m increasingly feeling like an even more interesting question–as I noted to Rhapsy–is what the gender-based differences in the outcomes of various Elf-mortal romantic relationships says about how JRRT perceived women. Arwen and Luthien are allowed to follow their hearts, but Aegnor is constrained by tradition and duty. Yuck!

    Thanks to for the elaboration on Mary Sue. I haven’t read much Mary Sue; if I take this topic out of the crackpot, I expect I’ll have to ask for some decent recommendations! Or just spend more time on ff.net. 😉

    As for intent, I don’t think authors would have to have a feminist intent to write a feminist story. To me, the important point would be creating a female character in a verse where there is a dearth of women and making her powerful, on par (or even greater than) the canon males and involving her in affairs beyond homemaking and as a love interest. (Or using her spunk as a cautionary tale, i.e. Aredhel.)

  5. Rhapsody says:

    Lady Elleth: – so it’s debatable if Lúthien’s following him and her ultimate choice of forsaking immortality wasn’t already predetermined, which then of course implies the lack of free choice that you derive her strength from. (I don’t doubt her strength, for that matter. Lúthien drove Sauron into surrender, healed Beren, followed him to Angband, enchanted Morgoth(!) and so on and so on.)

    I never called it her strength nor am I talking about strengths, My whole point resolves about a female character (being it idolised or not, getting the option to explore a choice or getting a shot at love). I do think she at least got the option to fall in love or to answer to a love. Especially this compared to Andreth: she even didn’t get that. Looking and delving deeper into man/elf unions, poor Mithrellas was being pitied and was taken by Imrazhor as his wife. Damn skippy, ain’t she lucky to come across that black Numenorean! My issue with Andreth her being (and being recognised as such) as a strong wise woman is being denied such a thing compafred to Tolkien’s favourite heroines… For both Arwen and Luthien that still is a choice given to her (be it that they go on an adventure or say to her luv, you can get it if you succeed in storming that castle for me) To both it is a chance she is getting (which is feminism to me in a way compared to other cases), then there is Melian enchanting an elf, not that he got that much of a say in it, or Eöl and Aredhel for that matter.

    I do think that Andreth never even got close to that point. Reading the essay between Finrod and Andreth, it seems to boil down to cultural differences between two races, but what does it say that a man/edain like Beren will at least give Luthien the chance to explore something whereas a Noldo elf like Aegnor deems himself to be above that? Or he has other issues, his cause is presented as noble, he choses for her not to drag her into misery. How noble, let the girl decide for herself please. 😉 Would that make Andreth the not only Mary Sue female character then? What makes that of Eöl, an elvish Gary Stu?

    Also I do not know how and where the stanza’s appear, is it at the end when Beren has died, are the stanza’s when he first sees her?

    Dawn:Which makes me now wonder: What do the differences between Arwen/Aragorn & Luthien/Beren and Andreth/Aegnor say about the author? That he seems to value loyalty to one’s family and people when it’s the man being called to make the sacrifice, but when it’s the women, it’s assumed they give in to their hearts. (Unless JRRT didn’t approve of Aegnor’s choice, but I don’t get that impression.)

    I am not certain, I have always pondered and wondered about Finrod’s motivations in that essay (which gave me that heckuva plotbunny that I put on ice). But yes, I do wonder in a way how much the Elves – Noldo in particular – estimated the Edain and their wise woman particulary. Perhaps she was too outspoken? Or Aegnor didn’t see what Caranthir or Finrod later on saw in the Edain? Should we be worried in a way that being an edain male, you cannot stand up to female half-elves (which Luthien in a way is as well) and that they simply can be commanded around so easily? You want my hand, reclaim the throne of Gondor first? Also, since the betrothal was in Lorien what role did Arwen’s grandparents play in all of this? I don’t think this was all Elrond being patriachial compared to Thingol obviously playing that role for some reason.

    As for intent, I don’t think authors would have to have a feminist intent to write a feminist story.

    No but those who think that feminists are ugly harpies they will always and without a doubt read into that, no matter what 😉

  6. pandemonium_213 says:

    First and foremost, I thoroughly despise the term Mary Sue and feel that its connotations discourage many writers from taking a chance and writing original female characters within any fandom. I realize that this unfortunate label applies to a “type” but the difficulty arises when self-appointed keepers of That Which Must Be Written™ in fandom read of any non-canonical female character and screech with the timbre of a troop of monkeys on acid:

    Mary Sue! Mary Sue!

    Those of us who have thicker skin than others forge ahead and write OFCs. Every one of my OFCs would fail that blitheringly insipid “litmus test” (as would Lúthien and about 90% of fictional female characters in published, copyrighted literature). Does that stop me? No. To a Keeper of Righteous Purity in fan fic who would shriek at my audacity to dare to write a female character, I say, “Go ahead, punk. Make my day.”

    Never mind me. I’m a cranky old broad. But that screamed said, I understand that such lexicon, no matter how winceworthy, is necessary to find common ground in this discussion.

    No, you’re not crazy to interpret the scruffy “wild man” getting the gorgeous woman as being a male fantasy. And let’s not forget the spongeworthy Man who comes in from the cold hauling around a kickass ancient shield and wearing some armaments, all smelling of the sea and mortal sweat, thus wowing the Faerie Princess’ father, the regent of the Hidden Magic Kingdom, so much that he says, “Here! Take my daughter. Please!”

    The tale of Andreth and Aegnor stands in stark contrast to the above. Yep, the mortal guys get the lovely elf-maids (although through difficult quests for Beren and Aragorn) but does the mortal woman get the handsome dude with the funky hair? Fergeddaboudit. Then there’s the woman who does get the “elven-fair” mortal man. But wait! He’s her brother…gaaaaah!

    There’s a lot here that makes me squeamish. Not only the least of which is a whiff of anti-miscegenation, let alone the male fantasy.

    On Point the Second. Although I would agree with Elleth that a classical — I can’t barely write it — Mary Sue would not be construed as a card-carrying member of NOW or would be expected to handily recite the entire body of Germaine Greer’s writings, I disagree that such a literary creation can be necessarily dismissed out of hand as “not being a feminist statement.”

    Looking back at my callow youth from my current standpoint as a feminist (who has faced discrimination and professional harassment because of my gender), I’d say these fantasies are a form of empowerment for young women, a way of exerting control in a fantasy world when they are facing all sorts of turmoil in real life. Even if a girl or a young woman does not write these down as stories, these fantasies are so common as to be archetypes. And who knows? There may be an evolutionary driver behind them!

    Now on to the curmudgeonly linguistics professor. I’m afraid it’s difficult for me to parse out the author’s attitudes from the characters I read. Call me a little oversensitive, but that’s what happens when one is told by one’s spouse’s major professor that it “was a waste for a woman to go to graduate school.” Among other things, that makes it difficult to chuckle and say, “Oh, that crusty ol’ don!” when I read stuff like this:

    From Letter 49 to C.S. Lewis

    The last Christian marriage I attended was held under your system: the bridal pair were ‘married’ twice. They married one another before the Church’s witness (a priest), using one set of formulas, and making a vow of lifelong fidelity (and the woman of obedience); they then married again before the State’s witness (a registrar, and in this case – adding in my view to the impropriety – a woman).

    From Letter 53 to Christopher Tolkien:

    I wonder (if we survive this war) if there will be any niche, even of sufferance, left for reactionary back numbers like me (and you). The bigger things get the smaller and duller or flatter the globe gets. It is getting to be all one blasted little provincial suburb. When they have introduced American sanitation, morale-pep, feminism, and mass production throughout the Near East, Middle East, Far East, U.S.S.R., the Pampas, el Gran Chaco, the Danubian Basin, Equatorial Africa, Hither Further and Inner Mumbo-land, Gondhwanaland, Lhasa, and the villages of darkest Berkshire, how happy we shall be…

    …But seriously: I do find this Americo-cosmopolitanism very terrifying.

    The bold faced type is my emphasis. Granted, the second riff is sardonic in tone, but evidently American feminism (and sanitation! “I say, old sport, let’s do with a bit of old-fashioned sewage and get cholera!”) will be the downfall of civilization in JRRT’s mind. That and the boogie woogie (this is mentioned in another letter). And before anyone apologizes for JRRT as “a man of his times,” I would like to point out that my maternal grandfather, an attorney, was 8 years Tolkien’s senior and had far more enlightened views on women’s suffrage, believed that women should be as well educated as any man, that they could wear trousers, cut their hair short, etc. That is, JRRT would have considered my grandfather a feminist.

    I do agree with JRRT that Americo-cosmopolitanism is terrifying, and I say that as a citizen of the USA.

    Heh. Well, that’s what you get for allowing a foul-mouthed old trollop* like me into this joint.

    *Gandalf’s Apprentice, copyright. Used with presumed permission.

    • KhamulsBurntFalafel says:

      Dear Pande, can I just copy this comment on a poster and frame it on my wall? Because, 6 years after it was published, it expresses my feelings perfectly. Thank you!

  7. Oloriel says:

    Just a short thought:

    Arwen and Luthien are allowed to follow their hearts, but Aegnor is constrained by tradition and duty.

    That depends on just what you mean by “allowed”. By the storyteller, or by their in-story environment? Because if you mean the latter, neither Arwen nor Lúthien are actually allowed to follow their hearts without some serious limitations (such as waiting until their guy has shown his worth). Lúthien, in fact, isn’t allowed at all; she just takes the right and works hard until things turn out the way she wants it (… well, except for the loss-of-hand), at least for a while.
    One might actually say that Arwen and Lúthien win over Aegnor, who, poor man, is so caught up in his tradition and honour and duty that – unlike, say, Lúthien – he doesn’t manage to release himself from their snare. And might that not be what the mysterious “Leithian” in the title is all about?

  8. Moreth says:

    Hmmmm – your ‘Point the Second’ seems to me to have two aspects. Firstly ‘the force she has over the male characters’ and then ‘how her embellishment places her as an equal to them’.

    The second I would agree is probably to some degree feminist – “I’m as good as you are…(even if I need odd coloured eyes and strange powers to be so!)”.

    The first (which is essentially a Femme Fatale) is far more problematic for me!

    Let me put it like this: If a writer has a woman who is physically strong, extremely competent and a genius in her field (and possibly even stunningly beautiful – although that’s pushing it!), I could see it as a feminist character. If every male in the vicinity then starts falling madly in love with her… sorry, that just makes me roll my eyes and back away.

    Okay, that’s probably the reaction of a woman who has worked in ‘a male-dominated environment’ all her life. (The thought of all the men declaring undying love while I try to give a presentation on technology is… distressing.) But I think the point holds – feminist icons whose power is derived from sexual attraction are problematic, because it doesn’t translate into any advancement of women in the Real World. So, to the extent that ‘Mary-sue’ (or La Belle Dame Sans Merci) has power over the male character because she’s ‘hawt’ – no, I can’t say I see that as a great feminist trait :/ (Not that I mind people writing it, but I don’t think it’s making huge strides towards easing women’s life in the board room ;P)

    Re. Aegnor. It made me think of (the slightly incoherent) Letter 43 : “A man has a life-work, a career, (and male friends), all of which could (and do where he has any guts) survive the shipwreck of ‘love’.”

    A woman’s job, it seems, is to run around after the man… [Sarcasm on] I will refer you to my husband for comment! *Snigger* [Sarcasm off]

  9. Dawn says:

    My apologies for taking so long to reply to comments on this post. I can only blame a workload last week that can be best summed up by *omgwtf*. Thank you all for sharing your ideas; you’ve given me lots to think over in the past few days!

    Rhapsody: I think you make good points about the choices that Arwen and Luthien make. Especially Luthien, I’d say that she is a feminist. She directly flouts male “authority” all of the time. She recognizes her right to choice and happiness as being greater than that which Thingol and Beren would impose upon her. I’m less sure about Arwen, but only because I have a hard time separating out the canon, fanon, and movie!verse about her, being less than familiar with her character. With regards to Andreth, I don’t think she’s any less feminist than Luthien. I think that her pain and her anger is so apparent in Athrabeth; she feels that she was denied, unjustly, a choice, and she is angry about that. This source is one of my favorites if only because of that raw, palpable emotion that I can perceive in her character, which is rather unusual for Tolkien, who wasn’t the best when it came to writing women. (I like less the suggestion that her womanly anger is the cause of her blaspheming against what Finrod sees as an obvious truth, and that her skepticism is a bad thing. If only the darned lady was less emotional, she’d be capable of the same sort of enlightenment as Finrod and his male, unemotional certainty about truth! She’d “get it”! What hooey.)

    I think what all three women show is that Tolkien’s world is undeniably a patriarchy. Andreth’s anger is feminist in nature, but Athrabeth focuses on the consequences of that anger to her belief in Eru and his appointed afterlife. Luthien is probably the most powerful Elf in The Silmarillion–she bests Melkor, for pity’s sake!–so she should be subject to no one’s will on Arda but her own, much less Thingol and Beren, of all people, who both prove themselves fallible to the point of incompetence at times. So I think that any woman in Tolkien’s world who sets her foot down and says, “I can make my own choices,” is relatively feminist, given the world’s tendency (I’m being nice) toward patriarchy and the author’s own turn-of-the-century (not saying which century ;)) view of women.

    I have always pondered and wondered about Finrod’s motivations in that essay

    I’ve always personally felt like Athrabeth is less about Finrod than JRRT, like the piece is a chance for JRRT to talk a bit about the “moral of the story” and shoot down some of the arguments that can be made against it. Finrod is, of course, a natural candidate to act as his mouthpiece. I could be completely off in that, but it’s always the feeling that I’ve gotten.

    Should we be worried in a way that being an edain male, you cannot stand up to female half-elves (which Luthien in a way is as well) and that they simply can be commanded around so easily?

    I feel like it’s not so much about their mortal nature but, perhaps, the combination of their mortal nature and their maleness. The message I take from the three pairings under discussion here (I didn’t bring up Mithrellas since I know next to nothing about her, but if I take this post out of the crackpot, I will be researching her as well) is that males can earn–through their deeds and their natural charisma–the hands of women like Luthien and Arwen. Women don’t get that chance. We see few mortal women that can compare to Andreth, yet she never gets the chance to earn her own reward by proving herself worthy of Aegnor. That option is never even put on the table. I think it shows how Tolkien perceived the importance of a woman’s actions versus a man’s: the male fantasy that, if I work hard enough and show enough courage, I can be worthy of not only the love but the sacrifice of an immortal woman who should be well above my station. A Cinderella story in reverse, if you will. 😉 The women, on the other hand, seem stuck with hoping that a guy will decide they’re worthy of his love. If not … witness Andreth.

    Pandemonium:

    First and foremost, I thoroughly despise the term Mary Sue

    I am in absolute agreement with you on this. I think this post is the first time I’ve used the term in writing about fandom without “sarcastic quotations” for at least a couple of years now. 😉 And the idea that OFC = Mary Sue = Should Not Be Written is deplorable. What is that saying? That we can’t envision women being interesting or important enough to write about? Not when there are boys’ adventures to write about instead!

    I use it here because I want to invoke not necessarily the stories that earn that label but the particular reaction by a particular group of people who wield it like it has meaning. Their argument is that 1) Mary Sue is entirely a fantasy aimed at the gratification of adolescent women and 2) she serves no purpose other than allowing these young women to parade their fantasies for the world to see. My argument to that is 1) no, clearly, men engage in the same fantasies; if Beren can win Luthien, then there’s no reason why a tenth-grader from Liberty High School can’t win Legolas (because the first thing canatics will cry–to justify their misogynism and cruelty–is that it’s not the story or the writer but the canonical impossibility of Legolas falling for a young woman clearly beneath him. But if JRRT got to not only parade but publish and get paid for his own little self-insert boy-gets-the-girl-against-all-odds fantasy, there’s no reason why tenth-grade Morgan can’t parade hers.) 2) I think “Mary Sue” does serve a purpose in allowing young women to write about themselves in situations where they can possess both power and control, so it’s no longer so easy to send her away or excuse asshattery against writers of “Mary Sue” stories based on her pointlessness and frivolity alone.

    (Sorry for all the shrieky italics. Those are not aimed at you [Pandemonium] but at the canatic that I know will one day stumble upon this. To the unspecified “you”: If, reading this, the blinding white buttocks of the man that Virgil is hauling out of the water in the graphic at the top of the blog have a strange red tint to them, you could be that canatic!)

    Now what were you [Pandemonium] saying about cranky broads? 😉

    Very good point about Idril and Tuor. I’m a bit embarassed, actually, that I missed mentioning them altogether. Ah well, that’s why I put this post in the Crackpot category!

    And I’m totally in agreement with you about “Mary Sue” being a form of female empowerment. When I think about a parallel in the world of male characters, the rash of male superheroes comes immediately to mind. They have magical powers, seemingly limitless capacity, really ripped muscles, and they always get the equally sexy girl. And the really sweet wheels. And most of them start out as … nerds! And their archenemies tend to be depicted as bullies. Hmmm …

    But when male fantasies come parading out into public, they are bestsellers or blockbusters and develop a “deplorable cult” following. When female fantasies follow the exact same formula, they get dismissed as useless, frivolous wish-fulfillment fantasies that should, at best, be hidden to die a slow death in a notebook or hard drive somewhere but, preferrably, not be written at all. (Even more maddening are the patronizing mother-knows-best female writers who argue that Mary Sue is detrimental to young women because, while they’re wasting their time on her, they could be practicing “real fiction” that they could publish someday! That popping sound you may have heard was my head exploding as I put it through the monitor at even seeing myself write those words.) It–and I’m going to be really eloquent here–completely sucks.

    Thank you for the quotes from Letters, too. You may not have intended to, but you shored up some of my points about Tolkien-formula fantasy for a paper I was writing this weekend from a feminist perspective. JRRT foresaw it: Step One in my plans for world domination! 😉

    I think one could argue that JRRT was a man of his times, but clearly, he inclined to the uber-conservative ideas of those times rather than representing even the mainstream (much less liberal!) views of the same era. (Sadly, I think at least a quarter of the population of our own country probably still would read those quotes you just gave and blink innocently and say, “What was the problem again?” Or, worse, might sneer at his liberalism! “Them Africans are of Cain’s race and done earned that there cho-lair-ah! God’s will be done!”) I don’t think that JRRT’s being born more than a century ago means that we can’t be angry over how he depicts women and people of color. I am more than capable of saying, “I enjoyed the story but …”

    Oloriel: I’m looking at them as being allowed by their storyteller. I’ve already elaborated to Rhapsody about why I think all three pairings under discussion here show that–despite the claims of some texts (yes, I’m looking at *you*, Laws and Customs!) that at least the Eldar valued gender equality–Arda is actually very patriarchal, so I won’t repeat myself here (as this comment is now much longer than the original post!) except to say that I agree with your perceptions of what Luthien was and was not allowed in her world.

    I think Aegnor got the worst deal of the three Elves under discussion here, for sure. However, I think Andreth got the worst deal of all: Aegnor–whether constrained or not by tradition–still had more of a choice than Andreth, who doesn’t even seem to have had the chance to talk with Aegnor about the decision he made. She had to hear it secondhand from his brother … meh. Who, to add insult to injury, included it as part of religious propaganda aimed at her. Double meh!

    Moreth: I take your point on La Belle Dame sans Merci. :) I have mixed feelings about it, at the end of this discussion. I agree with you that such a depiction is not the feminist ideal by any stretch of the imagination. However, I still wonder if its still better than other directions stories written by (usually) young women could take. Rescue fantasies, for example, where the girl is noteable mostly for her helplessness. Apparently, those stories exist too, to a large degree, among the ranks of “Mary Sue.” I wonder, too, if even I-own-you-’cause-I’m-hawt might be more likely than, say, rescue fantasies, to lead to something even more empowering? I don’t know. But it seems to me that the idea that young women can be romantic/sexual equals to males is better than having them all stand around, pie-eyed and hands clasped anxiously, while they wait to see who Johnny Quarterback asks to the prom.

    I don’t know. I’m still forming ideas on a lot of this. I hope to have my opinions shape themselves more if I actually pursue researching this and read some of the Mary Sue that everyone hates so much! :)

    Also, I want to add as an endnote to this hugely long comment, that when I say things about one thing being “better” than a rescue fantasy (et cetera), I am not passing judgment on young women who enjoy these fantasies or want to write these stories. To each her own, and I’d sooner each writer find and use her own voice than tailor her words to what I find empowering or enjoyable or apply some “feminist ideal” as a litmus test to determine the worth of a work. A literary world censored by Dawn Felagund would be a really scary place! 😀

  10. Helen says:

    To me, Mary Sues have always seemed like a feminist thing, but my view of feminism is very different to yours. I see feminism as a way for women to evade responsibility and project their fantasies onto the world.

    Aragorn and Beren as Mary Sues don’t really work. If anything, it is the ladies in question that act as Mary Sues, being perfect, having total control over men not previously known for their foolish adoration of women.

    Each gives up a lot, but think what it is they surrender. Immortality is quite a burden and Lothlorien suffers an immortal summer until Galadriel releases it and goes into the west. Lost Beleriand, on the other hand, and also Rivendell, allowed the seasons to progress naturally. Arwen grew up with change and decay around her. What she really gave up was not immortality (remember that men too were immortal in spiritual terms), but her family. If she were a man, this would be seen as her journey to adulthood. Because she is a woman, we see it as a tragedy, perhaps because, to many, women are not supposed to be independent.

    In my view, the greatest sacrifice in Middle Earth is that which Elrond makes, to relinquish his daughter and leave knowing he will never see her again.

    As for Tolkien, he wasn’t making a Mary Sue of himself, he was comparing his wonderful wife to the most perfect woman his words could conjure. It was an act of worship, not an attempt to make himself seem special.

  11. Helen says:

    Which makes me now wonder: What do the differences between Arwen/Aragorn & Luthien/Beren and Andreth/Aegnor say about the author? That he seems to value loyalty to one’s family and people when it’s the man being called to make the sacrifice, but when it’s the women, it’s assumed they give in to their hearts. (Unless JRRT didn’t approve of Aegnor’s choice, but I don’t get that impression.)

    It’s always seemed to me that Tolkien considered women to be stronger-willed than men. Galadriel refuses the Ring, Arwen makes her banner for Aragorn, a certain shieldmaiden goes to war despite a specific command not to. In no case that I can think of does Tolkien condemn a woman for exerting her will. on the other hand, many a man, including Denethor, is shown as too quick to surrender to despair or turn back in the face of any obstacle. As a child, I loved Tolkien because, unlike most female fantasy characters, his actually achieved something, instead of needing to be rescued.

    From reading his letters, I get the impression that Tolkien’s hatred of feminism has the same cause as mine, the fact that feminism degrades women, making them second-class men, not first-class women.

  12. dracoena says:

    *waves* Hi, it´s me again! I´m going to be a bit more polemical this time. *barricades against avalanches of rotten tomatoes*

    (I excuse myself in advance for maybe touching points that were best raised in other threads of your blog, but I read all those entries yesterday and they´re a bit muddled in my mind. Sorry!).

    About the discussion: Can´t we return all those arguments? I mean: Arwen and Lúthien have the guts to break tradition, choose mortality and embrace the unknown, while Aegnor is not even brave enough to tell Andreth to her face that he´s not seeing her anymore. Those whiny, puny he-Elves! 😛

    About the original topic: Of course literature is full of male wish fulfillment. I agree completely. Or, put in another way: literature has a great deal of human wish fulfillment, and the part of humankind who usually wrote literature was male.

    About the underlying subject: Er…
    Actually, I have written and read about women who are not powerful. I have written and read about women who live subjected to a male-dominated society. I still do. And I enjoyed -enjoy it.

    Why? First, because of the same reason why women like to write and read slash, inhabitants of modern cities like medieval fantasy universes and people with boring lives like adventure novels. Being human means being curious about what you have never experienced. Being a human who reads and writes means being *doubly* curious about what you have never experienced, since you have the best tools at your disposal to try to envision it. And discrimination or negative gender role models is something I have never experienced (And if I have, I haven´t noticed yet -there are so many weird traits in me that put off people that I have stopped trying to discover their nature and origin :P).

    But second, and more importantly, I enjoy it because that´s where the literary genre one cultivates comes into the spotlight. And what´s my main genre? Historical fiction.

    Now, most societies from the XXth century backwards, are definitely “sexist” (quotation marks are because the term carries today negative connotations that for them simply did not exist). And many other things as well. To write a character from those societies who was nuanced about women, other religions, other castes, other cultures or even the ppl who lived the neighbouring town is a) sheer bad writing, b) sheer ethnocentrism and lack of imagination, or c) sheer greatness if you manage to create a realistic background for those beliefs, nuance them, underline the exceptionality of the genius who could individually (or collectively, why not?) come to such conclusions, and depict the conflict with the surroundings.

    C), of course, is in minority. A) and b) are both very widespread, though, and makes a writer of historical fiction hate PC-ness like the pest. It makes her/him jaded, too (not to mention if she happens to be an ancient philologist as well and has to deal with Plato, Aristotle and their ilk *cough*). Reading ancient, medieval, etc texts, you find lots of things that make your hair stand on end, and not precisely because of their ambiguity (“Just as the pine tree supports the frail wisteria, so man is essential to woman, who in the nature of things obeys first a father, then a husband, and lastly a son.”(Japan, fifteenth century). ) But I feel that if I´m not able to go beyond the stage of “What a &%€#%!!!!, I will never be fair to texts and learn to enjoy reading.

    Also, I find certain premises unfair. Today, we tend to think that everything which doesn´t adjust to our standards of what´s good and proper (especially the equality of sexes, cultures and human beings in general) is an aberration and shouldn´t exist or be considered, with which I, of course, agree- until it starts to have retroactive power and begins censoring literature and events that pre-date those tendencies (I´m not getting into the thorny subject of modern cultures which are different from ours). And this, in turn, seems to lead to the conclusion that all the millions of women who lived before the beginning of the feminist movement in the XIX century were worthless people who lived worthless, subjugated lives and do not deserve to be mentioned, explored or read about. If you are going to write a novel about a medieval woman, please do our guts a favour and make her have modern thoughts. We don´t want to see her fawning over a man and thinking herself inferior.

    For me, it´s the opposite: those women who were raised to fawn over men and think themselves inferior are fascinating precisely because they *had* a life, and they had to live it, building themselves a niche and overcoming obstacles that for us are unthinkable. In the particular case of Japan (which I am most familiar with of late), maybe the most fascinating of all are the women who used their sons as footholds in the world of men. Mothers were in charge of the upbringing of their children, and this, coupled with the enormous stress on filial reverence, created very strong attachments that survived until adulthood. On plus, this concept of ruling the inside of the house while they were not allowed outside, and how what they did inside could reflect on what happened outside, a space where they were not physically present -fascinating!

    And the same goes for peasants, or slaves, or whatever. They were people who had lives. Those lives were more difficult than ours, and therefore, for me, more fascinating. And putting modern substitutes in their place is, to me, usually cheap and irritating. (In fact, I´m irritated with myself because I´m falling into something similar of late… not about women, though).

    What does this have to do with Tolkien? Well, I, for one, think that his work has an historical nature, and that he intended it to be so. He wanted to recreate an ideal past of heroes, and battles, and mythological creatures, and he was very sensitive about anything that could be jarring to his Pagan/medieval-y picture. He shares this trait with historical fiction.

    HOWEVER – he blew this himself. I feel it´s because he went too far in his idealisation, inserting ideologies and social structures that seemed acceptable to *him* and his religious morals, no matter if it clashed with the traditions he was supposed to depict. Anyone is free to do that, of course -but by doing it, he laid his world open to criticism, alteration, and endless ethical controversies. If he feels entitled to change the given rules of medieval-ancient (and human!) society as he wishes (the good guys do not adore any gods, the Eldar marry only once and they die when raped, just to mention the most controversial), then anyone can blame him for the things that he added to the picture, the things he did *not* add, and the things he took away. Or, in other words, if his Elvish society had been depicted as a true-blue, old Pagan or medieval society, only the most radical readers would have blamed *him* for his treatment of women. But he was the one who said that everyone, men and woman, was equal, and then upheld it just when and if it fitted in the Heroical Pagan Legend of the moment (and being Heroical Pagan Legends, it usually *didn´t* fit, of course….)

  13. Rhapsody says:

    Great comment Dracoena, however having read a lot about 14th century of my country, not every noble woman lived a subdued life, at the beck and call of her husband or sons. Another misconception is piousness (oh on the contrary!). There are quite some women back then who were very powerful and within the boundaries of religion still pursued ‘modern’ ambitions or held powerful posititions fuelled of course by feuds between families and fractions. So how would you approach such a thing if even history herselfs shows her own contradictions?

    Secondly, to me Tolkien wrote fantasy and to approach his work as a historical fiction does not resounds so well with me, especially since he also infused morals of the 20st century in his works. So his works aren’t purely medieval, but a mixture of many centuries at the same time…

  14. dracoena says:

    Great comment Dracoena, however having read a lot about 14th century of my country, not every noble woman lived a subdued life, at the beck and call of her husband or sons. Another misconception is piousness (oh on the contrary!). There are quite some women back then who were very powerful and within the boundaries of religion still pursued ‘modern’ ambitions or held powerful posititions fuelled of course by feuds between families and fractions. So how would you approach such a thing if even history herselfs shows her own contradictions?

    Of course, there are exceptions. Of late my saga has been involved with one of them, Hojo Masako (1156-1226), a woman who was enormously powerful. But those anomalies also have their history and their connotations. Many of them were in an absolute or relative position of concealment, influencing events from a discreet second plane. For that, they needed to develop abilities that were different from those of a man who was intended to take part in politics.

    On the other hand, some *did* take an open, prominent role. But, since the equation feminity/power was not understood or had very negative connotations in most societies, this generally had large implications on the woman´s psyche and behaviour. Brief, the woman was forced, in a larger or smaller measure depending on the culture, to behave and think like a male. And what is more curious and, for our mentality, disconcerting, is that this woman did not think that other women should have the same rights as she. In fact, it was very frequent that she thought about women in similar terms as other men. I think that´s fascinating, too.

    In any case, I admit that generalisation is not a good procedure. While we can admit that most ancient (and not so ancient) societies were sexist, the degree and the possibility to change the rules or allow for exceptions is widely different from one culture to another. In ancient Egypt, one woman managed to rule by taking a man´s dress and attributes and being depicted with a beard. In classical Greece, that a woman would rule or play a part, even a tiny one, in politics, was simply impossible, and there was no place for a single exception. In Japan, there was the memory of an ancient time in which women had ruled just like men, but historical and cultural developments changed the deal. The country came to be ruled by the warrior class, and that a woman could be a warrior leader was ludicrous. In contrast to this lack of public notoriety, many were very influential in the domestical sphere, even to the point of using their sons as footholds into the world of men. As for medieval Europe… I must confess I know less about that place and period, but I have the idea that the situation was not the same. Important women brought large dowries to their husbands (even kingdoms!) which could be used as leverage and often forced the men to take them in account. The same happened in the Roman Empire (while Republican Rome had been almost as woman-unfriendly as Greece, with the exception that they did allow for some inside-the-house female influence)…

    Secondly, to me Tolkien wrote fantasy and to approach his work as a historical fiction does not resounds so well with me, especially since he also infused morals of the 20st century in his works. So his works aren’t purely medieval, but a mixture of many centuries at the same time…

    Er… that´s what I was trying to say. I just put it in two paragraphs and didn´t even manage to lay it clearly even then. :(

  15. Dawn says:

    Wow, okay, clearly I need to do better in rounding up my posts here on my LiveJournal! I’m thrilled that this post is back to life because, in its current incarnation in The Crackpot, I appreciate any and all thoughts on offer about my ideas here. :)

    Helen: I’m going to take both of your comments in one swoop.

    First of all, “feminism degrades women”? How so, exactly, does a system founded on equality “degrade” the very people whose equality it asserts? What would you suggest as an alternative?

    As expressed in my reply to your other comment on “Storytelling,” lying in the mud and letting someone else trample on you is not empowerment, no matter how much you may want to believe that your stoic, suffering silence is a sign of strength. Yes, sure, plenty of people like to assert that women who silently struggle and bear their burden are stronger than those who speak out and, when stepped on, shout, “Get off, that hurts!” These people like to say that women who speak up for themselves are making themselves into victims and are, therefore, weaker than those who never speak up for themselves. Bullshit.

    The problem with this idea is that it is created and encouraged by the very people who benefit from keeping you as a second-class citizen: without full rights to your body, without equal pay and respect as your male colleagues, subject to your husband, et cetera. Of course they encourage this viewpoint! It wipes half their competition off the map in a single swipe! And it lets them have their cake and eat it too: Avow a concern for equality without actually doing anything to effect it. “Of course I care for gender equality! Don’t be silly, this is the 21st century! The problem, now, is those damn whining women with their imaginary problems. It takes far, far more courage to just keep pushing and trying to better oneself as it does to complain.”

    However, if you truly believe in equality then, surely, you believe that women have the right to speak up when something is hurting them. We give men that right. (Though class and race and other factors work to silence some men as well.) Rich white guys have no problem whining about their problems. It’s why our system favors them: because they whined that system into place!

    Or: consider that a man that allows others to take advantage of him without speaking up is generally thought of as weak, a wimp. A man who defends himself is thought of as assertive and courageous. If you believe in equality, then why would you assess the same actions taken by women any differently?

    As for the Tolkien-related issues:

    Aragorn and Beren as Mary Sues don’t really work. If anything, it is the ladies in question that act as Mary Sues, being perfect, having total control over men not previously known for their foolish adoration of women.

    This comes down to a difference in defining “Mary Sue.” I am viewing Mary Sue as a character that the writer uses to project an idealized self image, not someone who maintains total control. (By that standard, Melkor is a Mary Sue.) That is why female Mary Sues usually have such control over men: Because to a population of writers who are largely adolescents, romantic success is a mark of self worth. By this definition, I think it is possible to see characters like Beren and Aragorn serving the same function for their author as Mary Sue serves for hers.

    What she really gave up was not immortality (remember that men too were immortal in spiritual terms), but her family. If she were a man, this would be seen as her journey to adulthood.

    Would it? We don’t have any examples of men relinquishing immortality (or even wishing to relinquish it, as Aegnor might have if he had made good on his love for Andreth). There does certainly seem to be a precedent, however, for all of the incarnates not to see death as a gift, as it was intended. Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth makes that really clear but without even going to such obscure sources, Numenor’s whole problem arose from coveting immortality where it was not due. So I don’t know that all but the very wise (or very old) would see relinquishing immortality as a journey to adulthood; I think that all would regard it somewhat as a loss.

    As for Tolkien, he wasn’t making a Mary Sue of himself, he was comparing his wonderful wife to the most perfect woman his words could conjure. It was an act of worship, not an attempt to make himself seem special.

    Have you ever read anything about Tolkien’s wife? (Other than the widely known fact that she inspired his creation of Luthien.) I didn’t know much either until Pandemonium sent me the chapter about her in The J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide, which included excerpts as well from Carpenter’s biography. Edith was not regarded as anything close to an equal by her husband. She was not an intellectual equal at all. However, she was a brilliant musician and had always aspired to either teach piano or perform as a soloist, but when their children were born, these aspirations were lost because, as a middle-class wife, her first duty was to her family, not to her personal ambitions. She was unhappy throughout her life as a result. She felt out-of-place in her role as an Oxford wife; she felt out-of-place as a Catholic (JRRT pressured her to convert from Anglicanism); she was often lonely and resentful of her husband’s time with the Inklings.

    So, if creating a storybook character about one’s wife and then proceeding to ignore or dismiss her personal and intellectual needs is “worship,” then I’ll gladly take my very non-worshipful marriage, where I do most of the creation of characters (none of whom are based directly on my husband) and my husband makes the very radical acknowledgement that my happiness is based on more than keeping a clean house and wiping up after children. He even lets me write! And publish that writing, when I want!

    I am being sarcastic, but my point is that Edith Tolkien and her marriage have become too strongly entwined with the storybook version that we all know, in my opinion. No, none of us were there, and I would not even go so far as to say that she was mostly unhappy in her marriage. But it seems pretty plain to me–and these are not radical feminists writing these books but Tolkien scholars inclined, as we all are, to see the best in our literary hero–that what few facts we know about her and her marriage suggest some disturbing things about how JRRT viewed women.

    So pardon me if I don’t put much weight behind his assessment of feminism either.

    It’s always seemed to me that Tolkien considered women to be stronger-willed than men.

    While working on my last research paper, I found an interesting article about women and power in JRRT’s writings. I, personally, don’t agree with it, but it makes an interesting read and offers a defense of the point you make here. If you’d like it, let me know and I will send it to you.

    In no case that I can think of does Tolkien condemn a woman for exerting her will. on the other hand, many a man, including Denethor, is shown as too quick to surrender to despair or turn back in the face of any obstacle.

    Have you read The Silmarillion? 😉

    Seriously, there are a ton of cautionary tales about women overstepping their bounds. Aredhel is the prime example: She denies the authority of her brother and ends up possibly raped and certainly in a marriage that she didn’t wholly intend. She then denies the authority of her husband and ends up dead, their son destroying the realm in Beleriand that most closely represents Valinor. Morwen and Niniel defy the wisdom of Good King Thingol and go in search of their son/brother, end up wreaking all sorts of havoc; one ends up dead and the other stricken with amnesia, running naked through the woods, and into the arms of the brother she doesn’t recognize until she’s about to bear his child. Nerdanel was as close to an equal as one could get to Feanor–she even had her own thoughts independent of his Valarin conspiracy theories–and she ended up losing not only her husband but all of her children. Need I go on?

    You mention Eowyn, and she is an interesting case. Yes, she marched off into battle and her gender, literally, was the reason that the Witch King was defeated. However, upon return, what happens to her? She is not happy, despite all that she is done, until she is settled with Faramir, who I believe she credits along the lines of “taming a wild woman of the North.” Arwen follows her heart and ends up in bitter grief. Galadriel begins as a cautionary tale and ends as a lesson about giving up all thoughts of being uppity and rebelling; why would Lothlorien make her happy over the long-term when she can return to Valinor and live under the rule of her father, who lives under the rule of Manwe? (Note that Celeborn is permitted his ongoing happiness in Middle-earth.)

    I will admit that JRRT does better than some–even many–male fantasy authors in how he depicts women. But his depictions of women are far from flawless and, often, quite the opposite of empowering. (I won’t even go into how many women exist, unnamed or named only in a footnote, as “wife of So-and-So” or “mother of So-in-So Important Man” and what that implies about how he viewed women and their importance beyond hearth and home.)

    This reply is going on much longer than I intended so, Dracoena and Rhapsy, I will reply to you in the next. :)

  16. SurgicalSteel says:

    Dawn, I was fuming a teensy bit about Helen’s comments (feminists as second-class men) and thinking about commenting in response. You said it far more eloquently than I could have, though.

    Being a married woman working in a male-dominated profession doesn’t mean I’m shirking any responsibilities – if anything, I’ve taken on more of them. I still do most of the ‘housewifely’ things – cooking, cleaning toilets, dusting, laundry, etc. My responsibilities as a surgeon don’t mean I’ve given those up – it just means that on top of all of that, I’m responsible for the lives and health of my patients.

    And for anyone who doubts that Tolkien inserted himself into his works, I give you Alboin in ‘The Lost Road:’ the philology student who travels through time to Numenor just before its fall. JRRT wrote a ‘boy dropped into ME’ story.

    Anyway. What I really meant to say was: WORD.

  17. pandemonium_213 says:

    From reading his letters, I get the impression that Tolkien’s hatred of feminism has the same cause as mine, the fact that feminism degrades women, making them second-class men, not first-class women.

    I have to say that Dawn and Surgical Steel responded to this benighted sentiment with far more restraint than I will. Such inflammatory language does not deserve a measured response.

    So, Helen. What is it that you hate about equal rights? Because equal rights, in fact, are the core of feminism. The central tenet of feminism holds that women have equal political, economic, and social rights to men. That’s it. Feminism is not defined by right-wing-inked cartoon caricatures depicting radicalized leftists from women’s studies departments in elitist academia (not that there’s anything wrong with that) although such might be incorporated under feminism’s wide umbrella. Feminism includes rights for all women — single, married, straight, lesbian, women who work outside the home, stay at home mothers, brown women, white women and the list goes on. Feminism has given you, Helen, the right to vote.

    In order to examine just how inflammatory your remarks are, let’s try a little exercise of word-swap, shall we?

    hatred of feminism equal rights has the same cause as mine, the fact that feminism equal rights degrades women Negroes, making them second-class men whites, not first-class women Negroes.

    I have deliberately used the outmoded “Negroes” because your comments are analogous to one who has just barely stepped away from Jim Crow laws.

    You’re free to regard me as a ball-busting feminist. I’ve been called worse. Like Dawn and Surgical Steel, I have long worked in a field dominated by men, and I would imagine that women who repeatedly bleat that “I am not a feminist” would claim that I have stolen jobs away from well-deserving testicles. However, when you paint feminists as “second-class men,” you splatter your bilious paint on my 94-year-old mother, an educated woman who was a stay-at-home mother and who fervently believes in women’s rights. See, my mother remembers when women were given the right to vote in the United States; she remembers when her mother got to vote for the first time. Women’s rights actually mean something to her as opposed to latter day apologists who parrot Phyllis Schlafly and her sycophants of the Eagle Forum.

    As for Tolkien, Dawn has parsed that out rather nicely.

  18. Dawn says:

    Okay, I am returned to finish replying to comments. Thank you to all who have participated; this discussion has reached levels of awesomeness that I did not expect! 😀 Please feel free to keep bringing up points related to the post and comments.

    Dracoena:

    Can´t we return all those arguments? I mean: Arwen and Lúthien have the guts to break tradition, choose mortality and embrace the unknown, while Aegnor is not even brave enough to tell Andreth to her face that he´s not seeing her anymore.

    Sure, that’s a possible perspective. This would naturally depend on the reader and how she or he viewed the values JRRT seems to be advocating in his books. Personally, I do think that Aegnor was wimpy in his decision but this reflects more my own low valuation of war and violence and loyalty to a nation/sovereign (as opposed to love and loyalty to one with whom one has a strong interpersonal relationship, i.e., yes, I would proudly choose my husband over service to my country 😉 ) than anything that I think JRRT intended me to take from the stories.

    At the risk of becoming one of those people I dislike, who make a big show of pulling out the Great Ouija Board of Descrying Dead Authors’ Intent, I think that the fact that Aegnor’s actions are supported by Finrod show that JRRT probably meant the Andreth/Aegnor subplot to be a tragic one from both perspectives, not as one person chickening out and wronging another. Finrod generally acts as a vehicle for wisdom and morality where other characters–both mortal and Elven–fail dismally, so his support of his brother and his rather patronizing “there there, dear” treatment of Andreth, to me, is illustrative of what JRRT meant to be taken from that story.

    But, as noted, the man is long dead and ain’t talking, so I could be completely wrong on that. 😉 Do you (or anyone else) have any alternative perspectives? What do you think JRRT meant to say in that story; how did he mean Aegnor to come across to readers?

    On history and historical fiction …

    I definitely agree with you on judging historical writings by today’s standards. I read and study medieval (European) literature. Critiquing the Gawain poet for not giving Lady Bertilak work outside the bedroom home is ridiculous, for example.

    I do, however, find medieval literature on through the present extremely useful as a way to understand how women and gender roles were perceived and treated. Furthermore, that this body of literature serves as a significant part of the English-language/European canon, forming the basis for archetypes that continue to be used in stories today, I do think that it’s important to understand how views of women and gender roles that we view as outdated continue to influence the development of literature today and, in some cases, to realize the need to buck these archetypes in the interest of fairness. This is not relevant to historical fiction, of course, where part of the point is to set a story in a world where such perceptions and roles are an acceptable part of the culture, but in other genres where the writer isn’t necessarily interested in showing a misogynist culture but, in perpetuating certain archetypes, nonetheless continues a flat or outright misogynist view of women that’s roots are deep in our literary and historical past.

    For example, to pick on my least favorite fantasy novel yet again, Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannara has exactly one “on-screen” female character. If you haven’t read the novel (don’t), it is basically a retelling of LotR. It was published in 1977, and Brooks is from the U.S., so he doesn’t have the excuse of writing in a time or place where misogynism was acceptable (as even JRRT can, to an extent, use that excuse). Yet his depiction of women is horrible. The single on-screen female character exists to 1) be rescued by men and 2) serve as a temptation to the male hero (think Aragorn), with the result that he almost allows Evil™ to overtake the city he rules in order to “save the woman he loves.”

    These ideas–of women needing rescue and acting a temptation and agent of downfall to male accomplishment–are ancient archetypes. So while I can’t hold it against the authors of the medieval Arthurian cycle, for example, for placing Guinevere in both roles, and insist that medieval Arthurian literature is poor because of that, then I still think it’s important to study gender and gender roles in medieval literature (and earlier) and understand how they influence what is written today and–most importantly, perhaps–understand how placing women in roles that seem natural or second-nature to us as writers is not because of anything inherent/biological in women that suits them to those roles but because of deeply ingrained cultural expectations that that is how women should appear in fictional writings.

    And this, in turn, seems to lead to the conclusion that all the millions of women who lived before the beginning of the feminist movement in the XIX century were worthless people who lived worthless, subjugated lives and do not deserve to be mentioned, explored or read about.

    Really? My experiences tend toward the opposite: People believe–and I agree–that women who “made a name for themselves” in times when gender was an immediate disqualifier, either by pen or by deed, deserve all the respect we have to give them. No, medieval literature isn’t chock full of female authors. But those we do have: What an accomplishment their very existence is; what a testament to the strength and deserved equality of women! Blaming ancient, medieval, even Victorian women for a lack of accomplishment is, imho, extremely sexist, because it puts the burden of their “failure” on their shoulders and not those of the men who built the societies that oppressed them. This is just as distasteful as calling African slaves in the U.S. “worthless” because–despite a system that aimed at keeping them illiterate, subservient, and utterly dependent on their “betters”–they could not equal whites in terms of intellectual/economic accomplishment.

    I’m with you that people mandated inferior by society and how they nonetheless found ways to exert their power and shape their worlds are fascinating and they deserve exploration in literature. They are, after all, the reason we can have this conversation at all. :)

    On Tolkien, I agree somewhat. I definitely agree with your assessment of the purpose of his work being mythical/historical, as well as whence he drew his inspiration in terms of myth/history, and the fact that what he says (the Eldar had a gender-equal society) and what he shows (they most certainly did not) are often at odds with each other. (Which, to be fair, could have something to do with the fact that he didn’t publish these sources himself! :) )

    I do draw the line at classifying his work as historical fiction. It’s fantasy, and I think fantasy authors have to answer for their choices just as authors of “contemporary” fiction do. If he wanted to create a society with gender inequality, power to him. I’m the last person who is going to insist that all authors must write to so-called “PC” standards. But he is also responsible–being an author who wrote and published in an age cognizant of women’s rights, possibly even more so than many of us today in our “post feminist” world (witness Helen in the comments above yours)–for what his choices say. If he wants to make misogynist choices, then those choices are misogynist. He doesn’t get to use the excuse of historical fiction to sweep criticism of such choices under the rug.

    Rhapsody: You make a good point about how behavior during a certain time period can not always be grouped neatly under a single umbrella. I think it’s important to remember that these are still people with all the complications, contradictions, and complexities that all human beings show! (And I certainly think this applies to Tolkien-based stories too, i.e., L&C is not hard-and-fast rules about how to write Elves but the cultural values of a single place and time.)

    Dracoena (part two):

    And what is more curious and, for our mentality, disconcerting, is that this woman did not think that other women should have the same rights as she.

    I am taking African-American Literature this semester and, along these lines, I was recently reading about how, just before the abolition of slavery, some free blacks in the North would often assert their freedom and personhood independent from enslaved blacks in the South. In other words, they deserved equal rights but slaves did not. I wonder if, broadly, these sorts of trends show more about individual preservation than anything else: If a woman or former slave must avow her/his superiority to others of her/his group in order to preserve her/his rights and freedom, then s/he usually will.

    In Japan, there was the memory of an ancient time in which women had ruled just like men, but historical and cultural developments changed the deal. The country came to be ruled by the warrior class, and that a woman could be a warrior leader was ludicrous.

    There is a feminist theory that this happened a lot in ancient times, that societies were woman/goddess-centric until warfare forced an increased valuation of male contributions on the battlefield. And it’s a paradox that I, as a pacifist, am certainly familiar with: If at odds with someone stronger than me and willing to use violence, then my life or way of life will not last for long. :)

    SurgicalSteel: I totally hear you on the idea of working outside the home more often than not adding responsibilities rather than eliminating them. I mean, in a way, being a housewife would be perfect for me: We have no kids, so when the vacuuming and laundry were done, I could write! :) But, not only is this economically unfeasible (my husband is a high school teacher … ’nuff said) but it is not a burden that I feel comfortable putting upon him. We are equals in our marriage, which means to me that it works both ways. (And this wouldn’t be such an easy choice to make if I actually worked in a job that I liked and found personally fulfilling. In other words, ask me again in four years, and I doubt I’d be so gung-ho to get paid for scrubbing toilets in order to be a “professional” writer! :D)

    By the same token, my husband has strong words to describe those of our male friends who are so “helpless” (his words) that they cannot boil a pot of water to make soup or operate the washing machine in their wife’s absence.

    Pandemonium: I think you hit the proverbial nail on its proverbial head by pointing out the generation behind ours that understands what it means to earn equal rights. For all my passion and bluster, I was born after Roe v. Wade, Donna Reed was presented as archaic Nick-at-Nite fare, and women’s suffrage fell closer to the Civil War in the history textbooks at school than it did to the first Gulf War, which was the first major historical event that I remember really well. I grew up with an assumption of equality and very little understanding of how much so many gave up so that I could have it.

    It occurs to me, in reading your comment in light of Helen’s, that there was female opposition to women’s suffrage as well and for many of the same reasons that women oppose feminism today. But, I think, one of the wonderful things about feminism is that it opens women to freedom to choose however they want! If they never want to be involved in politics and want to assume a traditional role, that’s perfectly okay. I wish anti-feminists would consider whether they’d prefer a right to choose their life course or have it dictated to them. Feminism allows the former, as you point out in your comment; anti-feminism does not.

  19. dracoena says:

    What do you think JRRT meant to say in that story; how did he mean Aegnor to come across to readers?

    Hmm.
    To say the truth, I wasn´t even viewing it from that perspective. I don´t care much about what he thought of Lúthien and Aegnor (not least because I would have to read all his letters and notes to even begin to have an idea! :P). It´s about what I think of people (or Elves) who behave as Tolkien describes. If Aegnor comes across like that – I don´t think any number of footnotes would make me view it differently. And if Tolkien had more or different ideas in mind that those that finally came across… well, that has happened to me plenty of times as a writer and I know it sucks. But that´s the risk of writing for an audience!

    These ideas–of women needing rescue and acting a temptation and agent of downfall to male accomplishment–are ancient archetypes. So while I can’t hold it against the authors of the medieval Arthurian cycle, for example, for placing Guinevere in both roles, and insist that medieval Arthurian literature is poor because of that, then I still think it’s important to study gender and gender roles in medieval literature (and earlier) and understand how they influence what is written today and–most importantly, perhaps–understand how placing women in roles that seem natural or second-nature to us as writers is not because of anything inherent/biological in women that suits them to those roles but because of deeply ingrained cultural expectations that that is how women should appear in fictional writings.

    Hm. Yes, that curious, especially in some modern fantasy. (Paired with the -opposite- male wish fulfillment of the powerful and sexy woman who beds all the men… the way to keep THAT apart from the traditional female Mary Sue is that Mary Sues are usually beautiful, while those are just scantily-clad and sexy). I write historical fiction, where there´s a lot of women (“they´re half of a city´s population”, as Aristotle observed regretfully) and they really have little space to wiggle in. But I think I have succeeded in not making them stereotypical, for I hate stereotypes. And I hate stereotypes just because of what they ARE (=boring and cheap), so if you stop and consider also what they IMPLY…. :(

    Really? My experiences tend toward the opposite: People believe–and I agree–that women who “made a name for themselves” in times when gender was an immediate disqualifier, either by pen or by deed, deserve all the respect we have to give them.

    Well, when I spoke about the million of women, etc, I was rather referring to those that didn´t manage to become an exception to their times, but those who had just been like everybody else and struggled with their lives. (Most of us would be like them if we lived in their time). Though in my writings there are important historical characters, most are people who didn´t change anything. I am just fascinated by how they lived.
    (Sometimes, even those women were brought to some kind of spotlight, too… in one of the branch families of the clan I´m writing about, there is one who married her great-uncle -the age difference is “only” about 20 years if I remember correctly, though- who, as the seventh son, had been raised as someone who would never have to marry, or rule anything, or have serious responsibilities. As a result, he and his brother -the fifth-son- are just unable to behave as anything other than clueless bachelors, and she (who connected them to the Important Family) soon has to shake herself out of her tender 12 years and start managing things.
    Another, less innocent situation of crisis happens in another branch family, where the father is in a kind of listless state since the death of his first wife, and his daughter has taken control of everything and makes her stepmother´s life a hell because she suspects her of wanting to displace her younger brother in favour of her own son. That daughter is shown in more of a negative light -because, this being set in a historical period, what she does has crossed many social lines and can´t possibly have a return path. But what she did was brought by an uncertain and desperate situation.
    The rest of the women (except the historical character I mentioned above) can be more or less strong, but they don´t really overstep social bounds. Still, even if they don´t -well, their lives are interesting. I´ve been writing for over a year and a half about them and I´m not tired yet!

    I do draw the line at classifying his work as historical fiction. It’s fantasy, and I think fantasy authors have to answer for their choices just as authors of “contemporary” fiction do. If he wanted to create a society with gender inequality, power to him. I’m the last person who is going to insist that all authors must write to so-called “PC” standards. But he is also responsible–being an author who wrote and published in an age cognizant of women’s rights, possibly even more so than many of us today in our “post feminist” world (witness Helen in the comments above yours)–for what his choices say. If he wants to make misogynist choices, then those choices are misogynist. He doesn’t get to use the excuse of historical fiction to sweep criticism of such choices under the rug.

    That´s why it´s so important to establish how much could have been his choice, and how much could have come from other constraints. I did not say that Tolkien´s work was historical fiction (sorry if people understood otherwise!). But back when this “medieval-based fantasy” did not really exist as a genre, many points, many lines that are clear for us now did not exist either. Tolkien, in fact, did not even think he was writing “fantasy” as we understand the word now. He thought he was giving England its lost mythology. He thought that Arda was our world in the past. He felt that, through a language study, he was capable to build past worlds exactly as they had been before their memory became lost. There are just so many reasons why he can´t be viewed in the same light as Weis or Salvatore.
    Therefore, I am sure that Tolkien thought that he was depicting past legends as they had been or should have been, and that there was no place in them for certain things (like, modern, untraditional, anachronistical things). That feeling of constraint is what brings him close to a historical writer. But of course (just like historical writers) he was so influenced by his own time and ideology, that in the end his choices were closer to what HE did or did not find appropriate than to what he thought that the ancient people of legends would or wouldn´t have done.

    Now, what I´d love to know is if, or to what extent he was aware of this. Today it´s clear: a fantasy writer is conscious that he/she´s inventing a world which is not real and never was so. And they know that their choices are theirs to make, and that they are just choices, based on literary, marketing reasons or just on taste.

    I am taking African-American Literature this semester and, along these lines, I was recently reading about how, just before the abolition of slavery, some free blacks in the North would often assert their freedom and personhood independent from enslaved blacks in the South.

    This reminds me of slaves of Antiquity (I´m more familiar with them! :)) As Pierre Vidal-Naquet put it, whenever they revolted, they*always* had slaves. The society was just divided that way, and they couldn´t understand it otherwise. They could *stop* being slaves, but of course, there still had to be slaves around or how would the free people manage?

    There is a feminist theory that this happened a lot in ancient times, that societies were woman/goddess-centric until warfare forced an increased valuation of male contributions on the battlefield. And it’s a paradox that I, as a pacifist, am certainly familiar with: If at odds with someone stronger than me and willing to use violence, then my life or way of life will not last for long.

    You know, that belief is not entirely ideologically innocent… As far as I know, it was first propugnated by certain XIX century (German?) scholars. For the ideology of linear progress that scientifics rabidly adhered to back then, that a matriarchal system had been in place *before* the patriarchal one was the definite way to prove that it was a more primitive stage of mankind and therefore, inferior. (It was a state where humankind were like children, drawn towards their mother´s womb, or somesuch … I´m look up the name of the guy who said that when I come back from Carnival)

    Then, it has been put in question, too, because those famous theories of matriarchates existing in the Mediterranean before the arrival of the Indoeuropeans have not really been proved. (In Asia, there were such matriarchal societies, but for the most part they coexisted with patriarchal systems, instead of happening *before* them.)

    As for Japan… it might have been an exception, but it can´t be fully proved. The first notice we have about Japan is in a Chinese chronicle that speaks about a tributary queen of Yamatai (a kingdom situated on the South of Japan), but maybe if the chronicle had been written 20 years earlier or later it would have been a king. In fact, some scholars identify that queen with the Empress Jingu, who was recently demoted to “Regent” because it was considered that she was just ruling on behalf of her son Oujin (better known as the god of war Hachiman), never having been installed as Empress on her own right.
    Also, the reason why Empresses were on the wane with the passing centuries seems to have been rather a matter of blood than war. In the early times of the Court, the royal family was endogamic. Imperial Princes married Imperial Princesses, and so when an Emperor died, his wife was an ideal sucessor. But when the Fujiwara clan took power, they devised a system according to which Emperors could only marry the women of the Fujiwara clan, assuring them of an eternal kinship with the ruling family. The result were that the wives of the Emperors did not have royal blood, and therefore could not rule anymore.
    (As for the sucession being taken by a daughter -with all those rivalling consorts having children, it was almost impossible that there wasn´t a male around. It happened twice or thrice, though, even after the sucession-by-the-wife had become extinct).

    In any case, what is true is that there could be Empresses in Japan, even when the Court could go to war. But in the specifical warrior government, who took pride *just* in being a warrior government, it was impossible.

    But, not only is this economically unfeasible (my husband is a high school teacher

    Whoa. Cultural differences! Here, being a high school teacher is a very good job. In fact, before it suddenly became fashionable to discuss teenage violence in all the media, they were one of the most envied workers around here.

  20. MithLuin says:

    I should know better than to even enter this discussion at this point, but then….I’ve always been good at rushing in (yeah, I’m foolish that way).

    However, I’m increasingly feeling like an even more interesting question–as I noted to Rhapsy–is what the gender-based differences in the outcomes of various Elf-mortal romantic relationships says about how JRRT perceived women. Arwen and Luthien are allowed to follow their hearts, but Aegnor is constrained by tradition and duty. Yuck!

    It was more about immortality than anything. Elves marry for the duration of the world. Aegnor knew he wasn’t strong enough to marry her and then have her soul depart forever beyond the circles of the world – out of his reach. Elves can be slain by grief, and there would be no relief from it. He would, literally, be heartbroken for all eternity. Whoever pointed out Elrond’s grief at losing Arwen as being the saddest thing Tolkien wrote…this love story would have ended that way.

    Aegnor did not ask Andreth about it, because he was pretty sure she’d say yes. And that was not something he could do. He did not marry any other, and neither did she, but they also did not bind themselves to this level of grief. It’s a sad story, but they could both bear it. As Finrod tried to explain, there had to be some ‘doom’ behind it to make it work.

    Luthien was able to beg Mandos to let her not be parted from Beren forever. (Forget her defeating Sauron and enchanting Morgoth – that is *far* more impressive!) That whole ‘she died indeed’ thing is very, very significant. Arwen and Luthien altered their fates to share in the final fate of their lover. A huge sacrifice…but for them it was at least a choice.

    Aegnor had no option to do that. He could no more make himself mortal (or Andreth immortal) than he could turn himself into a rabbit. He made his choice, but it was not simply being enslaved to duty. It was understanding of fates, and what it would cost him. He loved her from afar, because that was all he could do.

    Very elvish. It’s a culture clash, and Andreth is not impressed with this. She would have liked to have just lived their lives and dealt with the inevitable heartache. But if we side with her, we simply betray our mortal viewpoints ;).

    There is something about roles of males and females in the different ways these stories turn out. One difference is that it is quite clear that men do the pursuing, and put the choice to women. By never offering Andreth any choice, Aegnor closes the possibility of a relationship…in other words, he stops pursuing her. So, it is significant that mortal men do not have the same cultural restraints against seeking a cross-cultural union, and are able to bring the relationship to a point where they offer the choice to the women. And it is the elvish women who break with culture and assume the risks, which Andreth makes clear would have been the obvious choice for her. She would have taken a one-night stand, if that was all Aegnor was offering.

    Personally, I do respect him for not taking advantage of that. I tended to judge Mithrellas rather harshly, though I do understand now that she likely didn’t realize what she was getting herself into. In other words, it was a mistake. Aegnor saw the mistake before he made it, so he chose to honor Andreth as best he could (though she hardly *felt* honored!)

    One comment on Tolkien the anti-feminist….his lectures were very popular with women, and he made a point of tutoring female students. So, if you look at what the man *did*, you can hardly say that he was against the education of women or anything like that. He always spoke very highly of what his mother taught him as a child (despite her inability to explain to him why he couldn’t say ‘a green great dragon’). I know there are/were many professors out there who thought female students were wasting their time, but he wasn’t one of them.

  21. Tolkien didn’t disprove of Aegoner’s choice, but I don’t think he’d have disproved of him making a different choice either.

    I think at least part of the reason that all the Human-Elf romances that succeed in producing offspring are all Male-Human and Female-Elf if because it’s ultimately a Human royal family that was supposed to spring from the Half-Elven. And thus that’s what the patriarchal nature of his societies demanded.

  22. What is considered defining about a Mary Sue is her ability to have this effect on multiple men in a story, sometimes seemingly all of them (and maybe also some Women who may or may not usually be depicted as Gay/Bi).

    And there indeed many male character who seem to have every woman they meet falling for them, but not in Tolkien. Beren has this effect only on Luthien. Aragorn also has Eowyn to some extent, but that’s it.

    And this having multiple people fall for her is what usually is believed to make a Mary Sue so unrealistic. But I have a friend who has exactly that problem, all of her male friends have a crush on her to some degree.

  23. Dawn says:

    That’s a really great and interesting point about why Elf-mortal pairings are always a female Elf and male mortal.

    I define “Mary Sue” differently: as a female character whose influence is so strong as to pull canon characters out-of-character. It really has little to do with the number of characters affected for me, although I do agree that the quintessential Mary Sue has everyone falling head-over-heels! :)

    I don’t think that we can accurately judge any of Tolkien’s male characters by your criteria (which probably explains why I’m more comfortable assigning the label to a Beren or an Aragorn where you seem not to be) simply because we don’t see many woman characters. It’s not like we have a bevy of princesses and noble ladies (or even commoner women) in contact with Beren and Aragorn. The women Aragorn comes into contact with in LotR are … Galadriel, Arwen, Eowyn, and Ioreth? I might be missing one or two, but I ain’t missing a lot. And of those four, two fall in love with him.

    Beren is in contact with Melian and Luthien. And Thuringwethil! :) He spent most of his life living as an outlaw, so presumably he did not have much contact with women at all. (The same can be said of Aragorn.)

    The issue for me, then, remains the power of these men to influence seemingly sober-minded noblewomen who have been content with their lives for hundreds if not thousands of years to suddenly upend everything–even their immortality–for love of those men. It certainly suggests that the much-derided “Mary Sue” character may not be a female literary convention but a human one, and that both men and women have fantasies of having that kind of power over another.

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