I am in the midst of reading The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, which I have never read in full. They are very illustrative and have spurred many ideas for future HL posts (and I am only one-third through!), but I encountered one statement the other day that refuses to rest in my mind until I write about it.
JRRT was more than a “man of his time” where his regard of women is concerned. A self-described reactionary, many things from his personal life and his writings point to the fact that he was a rampant sexist in excess of what one would expect even from a man who was well into adulthood before women earned the vote in his country. Yet whenever the question of JRRT’s sexism comes into a discussion, someone trots out Lúthien as an example of how, though not all of his books provide fair depictions of women, his sexism clearly wasn’t entirely unmitigated. Lúthien, after all, is not only gorgeous but has enough super-magical powers to outsmart the Dark Lord, bring Beren back to life, and move Námo Mandos to mercy. She’s a superhero in a cape woven from her own hair. JRRT’s defenders like to point to her as evidence that he valued women’s strength and independence (because, no matter what you think of the Beren and Lúthien story, she clearly possessed both).
I don’t normally put much stock in an author’s intent, as I think I make clear here on a fairly regular basis. Texts must stand on their own, independent of what their authors wished them to say when writing them. In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever started a sentence with that loathed phrase beloved of canatics: “Tolkien clearly intended …” So this will be a first.
In 1951, JRRT had finished The Lord of the Rings and was corresponding with Milton Waldman in hopes that Collins would publish LotR along with The Silmarillion. In Letter #131, JRRT describes his opus, from the Music of the Ainur to the conclusion of LotR. In discussing the Tale of Beren and Lúthien, we get this revelation:
It is Beren the outlawed mortal who succeeds (with the help of Lúthien, a mere maiden even if an elf of royalty) where all the armies and warriors have failed: he penetrates the stronghold of the Enemy and wrests one of the Silmarilli from the Iron Crown.
Firstly, a show of hands as to who thinks Beren did most of the work in retrieving that Silmaril? Beren would be in a wolf’s belly if not for Lúthien, to say nothing of her later “help,” without which he would also have been dead, many times over. (Impressive for a mortal.) But what struck me here as particularly revealing of JRRT’s attitude towards women is his note that Lúthien is “a mere maiden even if an elf of royalty.”
The sentence before this clarifies what JRRT sees as the significance of this particular story:
Here we meet, among other things, the first example of the motive (to become dominant in Hobbits) that the great policies of world history, ‘the wheels of the world’, are often turned not by the Lords and Governors, even gods, but by the seemingly unknown and weak … .
So, in short, the fact that Lúthien is descended from one of the Powers that JRRT celebrates as exceptionally wise in the very same letter means nothing. (Of course, that Power is also a woman.) Neither does her heritage as the daughter of Elwë, one of the Elves selected as ambassadors to Aman. All of these facts–and her deeds–are attenuated by her status as a “mere maiden,” and the heroics that so many of her fans embrace and cite as evidence that JRRT understood women as competent beings, even a little bit.
(Here we go.)
Tolkien clearly did not intend this. Based on what he told Waldman, he wanted her story to serve in the same capacity as Sam and Frodo’s, illustrating how even the weak can overthrow the powerful. He assumed that his readers would understand this based on her femaleness alone.
Nor do I think that the published story can in any way be defended as a change of heart in favor of recognizing a clearly powerful character as such, rather than a product of her circumstances that serves as an apt vehicle for one of his most valued themes. According to Douglas Charles Kane1, paraphrasing Christopher Tolkien’s notes in The Lost Road, the published Beren and Lúthien story was based on two texts, completed in 1951, the same year that JRRT wrote to Milton Waldman. In short, the story was likely fresh in JRRT’s mind, and the published Silmarillion shows no major edits in favor of shifting Lúthien from a weak to a powerful character. (Furthermore, the basic structure of B&L was among JRRT’s earliest works in The Book of Lost Tales.)
Lúthien is certainly the best evidence that JRRT wasn’t a complete and unapologetic sexist, and I’ve seen it used as such many times. I’ve probably even used it myself in presenting The Silmarillion as a work that presents women more fairly than do The Hobbit and LotR. This quote not only debunks that idea but flips it on its head. When we see Lúthien, after all, we are not supposed to see one strong enough to overcome impossible odds in pursuit of her goals. We are not supposed to see a hero who earned her place as a cornerstone in the legends of her people. Nope, she is a mere maiden. She proves to the rest of us that, on occasion, even the inherently weak can “help” the privileged and powerful accomplish good things.
1. Douglas Charles Kane, Arda Reconstructed, p. 173.