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?