What the Valar Reveal about Gender Roles in Tolkien’s Legendarium

A couple of weeks ago, I was having a conversation with a fellow SWG member about sexism in Tolkien’s legendarium. The LotRProject statistic that only 18% of the characters in the legendarium are women is well-known, but he pointed out that the Valar are split 50-50 in terms of sex. This is an interesting point and one I hadn’t considered before in light of what it shows about gender roles and sexism in the legendarium.

The Valar are interesting as a case study to begin with because they have a prototypical status, both in terms of illustrating Eru’s intentions (being Eru’s direct creation, and the creations most closely associated with Eru) and in establishing cultural norms for certain groups, such as the Eldar, Dwarves, and Númenóreans, with whom they had prolonged contact. Even among the groups with whom they were not deeply involved–the Avari, for instance–even the fleeting contact that they managed to have may have exerted an influence. Their omnipresence relative to other groups in Arda makes it possible for the cultural norms they establish to have far-reaching influence.

Their 50-50 split in terms of sex, on the surface, didn’t seem particularly unusual to me. After all, as Children of Eru, the Valar exemplify the natural order as established by Eru. Since we know that Arda was meant to be equivalent to our world, and we know that humans are roughly 50-50 in terms of sex then, that alarming 18% statistic notwithstanding, we can assume that the normal state of affairs for the Children of Eru is likewise roughly 50-50 for biological sex. The 50-50 split of the Valar confirms this.

What is interesting, though, is that the Valar were not intended to occupy Arda. The Ainulindalë tells us that those who descended to Arda chose to do so. Among the ur-culture of the legendarium, then, women and men had equal interest in shaping a world subcreatively. This is a good thing, right? The original state of affairs suggest that women and men have equal desire and affinity for the kind of subcreative work that Tolkien valued.

It is a good thing–it justifies the work many of us fanfic writers have done in trying to make the voices of Arda’s women heard as “canon”–but a deeper look also shows it to be much more complicated than that. Once we get to Arda, this equality quickly evaporates. Among the Aratar–the Valar “of chief power and reverence”–men dominate. The Valaquenta identifies the Aratar as Manwë, Varda, Ulmo, Yavanna, Aulë, Námo Mandos, Nienna, and Oromë. Three of them–or 37.5%, just over a third–are women. Melkor originally belonged to their number. If we add him back in, the number of women among the Aratar drops to an even third (33.3%).

How should one interpret this? So women and men had equal interest in working in Arda, but the men did the better work? Or the more skilled and powerful men had more interest in descending into Arda, whereas the skilled and powerful women tended to stay behind with Eru? Or the men, as a whole, were more skilled and powerful than the women? Or some cultural force elevated the men (or the value of men’s work) or diminished the women (or the value of women’s work)?

No matter the explanation–and I’m not sure that I can argue definitely for one over the other (although I encourage those who think they can to have a go in the comments)–this is troubling because, again, the Valar can be viewed at prototypical or, at the least, highly influential throughout Arda. Either inequality is part of the natural order as created by Eru or the Valar were modeling it and possibly passing on a toxic cultural trait to other societies throughout Arda. This kind of makes the sexism-presented-as-equality in Laws and Customs among the Eldar actually make some kind of sense.

Another way to look at whether the Valar model equality is to look at who is actually doing stuff or being talked about in The Silmarillion. To measure this, I counted up the number of times each Vala is mentioned in The Silmarillion. I did not count mentions in the Index and other Appendix materials. The chart and graph below show the data. I did not include Melkor on the graph or in the averages because 1) he is an extreme outlier and would have skewed the data and 2) his role as the chief enemy also sets him apart from his less antisocial brethren. (Also, Tolkien did not consider him one of the Valar.)


Importance of Valar in The Silmarillion by Sex and Status

 


 

Once again, the guys dominate. Here are some observations:

  • Even the woman with the most mentions in The Silmarillion (Yavanna, with 58 mentions) has fewer than the average for the men (59.6 mentions).
  • Varda’s stats strike me as particularly egregious. She is identified as being held “most in reverence and love” by the Elves in the Valaquenta, yet she is only mentioned 34 times, fewer times than all of the male Aratar. Manwë, her husband, receives four times as many mentions.
  • Yavanna achieved perhaps the greatest act of subcreation in The Silmarillion when she sang the Two Trees into existence. (Tolkien considers Varda’s stars the greatest [see below], but surely the Two Trees are a close–a very close–second.) She is the only female Vala who can hang with the male Aratar on my graph, and she still cannot touch Manwë and Ulmo in terms of attention in the text and is mentioned only one time more than her husband Aulë, who while accomplished, is hardly achieving at Yavanna’s level. Tolkien lists Yavanna before Aulë in the list of the Aratar, but the attention he pays her in the texts does not accord with her status.
  • But impressive acts of subcreation aren’t a guarantee of actually getting page-time in the book. I come back to Varda again here: Tolkien calls her creation of the stars the “greatest of all the works of the Valar since their coming into Arda” (The Silmarillion, “Of the Coming of the Elves”). Yet she is neglected compared to all of the male Aratar.
  • The only male Vala whose mentions are in the single digits is Irmo. Interestingly, Irmo’s specialty (healing) is typically a woman’s role.
  • Should we even discuss the poor Valier who are not among the Aratar? These four women put together cannot come close to even Tulkas, who chases things around and punches them. But we barely even know what these four women do. Their few mentions in the text assign them perfunctory roles or discuss who they are married to. Something surely motivated them to descend into Arda and get their hands dirty, but we never really learn what that is.

As I noted at the outset, the obvious sexism among the Valar sets a poor precedent for the other peoples of Arda, who very often hold them as exemplars. But the Valar are prototypical in more than one way: If you do the exercise above for any group of characters in the texts, you will come up with similar results: Male characters receive the page-time. Women do not.

This would not be a post by Dawn if I did not mention loremasters and narrators and how that influences all of this. The Valaquenta is explicitly an Elvish text; it is subtitled “Account of the Valar and Maiar according to the lore of the Eldar.” So, one could argue, we are not seeing the Valar as they were but as the Eldar (or, more accurately, the Eldarin loremasters) were seeing them.

How accurate were these Eldarin loremasters? It’s hard to say. Since, to the best of our knowledge, they were all men, they could have taken the same approach as have many male chroniclers throughout history, giving preference to the kind of activities typical to men while overlooking those typical to women. (Which would explain why Tulkas gets the attention he does while Vairë is only mentioned twice.) But most of the activities of the Valar have little to do with these stereotypically masculine roles. For example, Ulmo, Yavanna, and Oromë all venture into Middle-earth; we only hear in detail what Ulmo and Oromë do there. So I have a hard time laying this one entirely at the feet of the loremasters. And even if I do, who very likely taught the loremasters much of what they know? The Valar.

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28 Responses to “What the Valar Reveal about Gender Roles in Tolkien’s Legendarium”

  1. Brooke says:

    I’ll leave a longer comment later, when I have more concentration to pull together thoughts on this all, but I do have thoughts about the last bit.

    I know that at least in anthropology, it didn’t matter so much if the role was stereotypically male or not, the men in a given society would be covered in a great deal of detail while women were basically given a small chapter at the back of the book, because it was assumed by the male anthropologists that they just weren’t that important and would do the same things. Even in societies were women fulfill roles that are more often seen as masculine, it’s ignored. But if a male fulfills a stereotypically female role, it’s at least mentioned (often in a sort of disgusted way, but there is at least a record, no matter how bigoted it is).

    Also, I find it interesting the differences between mentions of male Valar versus female Valar in the Silmarillion versus mentions in LotR. A quick glance through the appendix shows:
    Varda – 16
    Oromë – 6
    Aulë – 4 (1 page, but the entire passage is in the index about him and the dwarves)
    Manwë – 1 (in “languages of Manwë”)

    The rest weren’t mentioned by name. Even though there’s 3 male Valar versus one female, Varda has almost twice as many mentions as the other three combined. I find that very curious, especially if we look at it from the point of view of loremasters and other important people passing down information. Varda seems more important because the elves mention her more and the hobbits take that up to be rescued. Aulë is mentioned with dwarves, and Oromë mainly with Men. Is it the influence of Galadriel (who probably didn’t like the loremaster’s somewhat sexist slant in-universe) and the Sindar (who seem to have always had a tendency towards her)?

    It’s at least interesting to wonder about. I’ve sometimes seen a tendency in fanfiction to write the Sindar as having more strict gender divisions and the Noldor as the reverse, but I’ve always wondered if that might not be switched. After all, the Sindar were fine passing their royal line through the female line, which the Noldor apparently weren’t.

    And if that’s the case, is it the result of increased distance from any Vala or Maia except for a female one for a large portion of the early history? (And that makes me want to write a fanfiction where Melian leaves to explore and ends up marrying Thingol because she realizes that if she stays in Valinor she’ll eventually end up in a more subservient role, where is she marries him, she can improve the status of her gender in the groups remaining in M-e.)

    I’m all over the place with this, but hopefully some of this makes sense. I think I need pain meds and sleep.

    • Dawn says:

      I know that at least in anthropology, it didn’t matter so much if the role was stereotypically male or not

      Interesting. I’m assuming this is in reference to Irmo? I don’t actually know that his feminine role (healing) has to do with the few mentions he has in the Silm; it just seemed too perfect not to mention. There are other possibilities: The Fëanturi in general seem to be neglected, but this makes sense given the nature of their work, which is likely wholly or mostly off-limits to those who are maintaining a written record. Most of Namo’s mentions come in the context of his work as a judge or mentions of “the halls of Mandos.”

      Even though there’s 3 male Valar versus one female, Varda has almost twice as many mentions as the other three combined.

      Thanks for this! If I ever expand this into something longer (maybe for LotR_Comm’s essay challenge …), this is definitely something worth addressing. I agree with you on the reason why Varda appears more often in LotR. I think the difference between LotR and the Silm is that the Valar are still in an active role in the Silm. As you note, by LotR, the Valar exist at a remove, more like typical gods who are called upon in prayer but are not seen directly intervening in the world. How to interpret the apparent ascension in importance of Varda? Why Varda and not Ulmo or Oromë, who also directly intervene with the Elves? Perhaps there is finally recognition of Varda’s achievement in making the stars and her power as the Queen of the Valar. In any case, this seems to have been passed down via oral tradition, since the written record doesn’t pay her much attention, which is itself interesting. It makes me wonder how much of the sexism we observe is the product of those in power and controlling the historical record, versus what is actually being practiced by the average person.

      (Now it is my turn to hope that I am coherent because a whole new train of thought just started, and I am trying to follow it without writing a novel back to you! :) )

      I’ve sometimes seen a tendency in fanfiction to write the Sindar as having more strict gender divisions and the Noldor as the reverse

      This is odd to me for the reason you cite. Two words: Melian and Luthien! :)

      I tend to view the Eldar who went to Aman as having the most unequal society. For one, they are most directly under the influence of the laws and customs of the Valar, which I think I show here are rather unequal. For another, in the protected realm in which they live–and do correct me if I’m wrong, since I am no anthropologist–it seems they could afford to practice inequality. I am thinking, for instance, of Bushido, which I just read for the class I’m currently taking, and how Nitobe notes how it is only among the privileged classes where sexual inequality is the norm. Living in a far less protected environment where basic survival is a real thing, I’d think the Sindar similarly could less afford to care who occupies what role, as long as the best person (i.e., the one most likely to ensure the family/community’s survival) is in it.

      Clearly, Thingol holds some patriarchal views, but I think it is perilous to assume that this was true of the Sindar as a whole or even of the Sindar of Doriath. And Thingol, after all, had the most contact with the Valar …

      At the other extreme, I view the Avari as practicing equality, even learning toward matriarchy.

      And that makes me want to write a fanfiction where Melian leaves to explore and ends up marrying Thingol because she realizes that if she stays in Valinor she’ll eventually end up in a more subservient role, where is she marries him, she can improve the status of her gender in the groups remaining in M-e.

      I just love this idea.

  2. Brooke says:

    *I meant to edit out that first sentence, because I ended up leaving this alone for a couple hours and coming back to finish it. Ignore that!

    • Dawn says:

      No worries! If you ever need me to edit a comment, just drop me a line; it only takes a second for me to do so. :)

  3. pandemonium_213 says:

    These four women put together cannot come close to even Tulkas, who chases things around and punches them.

    Heh. That made me chortle!

    Briefly, the bar graph represents a very interesting exercise in-universe, i.e., influence of Eldarin loremasters and potentially, the Valar, but these findings (and similar) inexorably bring me back to what Humphrey Carpenter wrote about Edith Tolkien in his biography of JRRT. There’s some eye-opening stuff right there, Tolkien’s support for his female students notwithstanding.

    • Dawn says:

      I wholly agree. That has always been in the back of my mind, ever since you first called it to my attention, and it is impossible now for me to look at things in-universe without thinking of it. What I keep coming back to whenever I compare how JRRT writes male and female characters is that he seemed to struggle with seeing the women as interesting, fully realized people. They were either names on a family tree or, as many critics have noted, so high on a pedestal as to have regular nosebleeds. With the Valar, the male characters who appear most often in the texts seem to do so because, in addition to their assigned major role, he also has them popping up to play small roles in scenes throughout the book. Ulmo, for instance, drags Tol Eressea around in the sea, appears in Finrod and Turgon’s dream, and counsels Tuor. We don’t really see the Valier in those kinds of “everyday” roles: They are either doing something completely extraordinary (Varda’s stars, Yavanna and the Two Trees) or are almost completely ignored (the non-Aratar Valier). The idea that Yavanna might have slipped messages to the Elves or Varda might have taken an important character or two under her wing in an apprentice role seems never to have occurred to him. I just pick up on such a disconnect from women in his writing.

  4. Angelica says:

    Very interesting!

    In-universewise, I found it quite shocking that the Valier with the fewer references is Vaire – just 2! – when she’s the one in charge of recording history and trying to make sense what’s going on, I see her like Clio, the muse, history as a form of art. Maybe, not paying enough attention to her is the reason why the Valar keep making the same mistakes over and over!

    • Dawn says:

      I found that surprising as well, if only because Tolkien seems to pay a lot of attention to the loremasters and philologists among his characters, and Vairë certainly seems to fit the bill for the former better than any of the other Valar. Her role–unlike that of similarly neglected characters like Nessa and Vána–is also rather clearly delineated.

      I noted to Brooke that the Fëanturi seem to be neglected, except for Námo, whose role extends beyond his care for the dead. Vairë isn’t one of the Fëanturi, but she is associated with them and her work takes place in a location similarly off-limits. Perhaps this is why there is seemingly so little interest in her. (Because I can’t fathom a lack of interest otherwise. I mean, I wrote a whole daggone novella around the concept of her tapestries! I think she is one of the coolest of the Valar.)

      • Brooke says:

        Still working on replying to the comment above to me, but I wonder if there wasn’t a certain level of almost fear that kept Vairë, Irmo, etc, from being written about that much by the loremasters? Námo has a smaller amount of mentions than I would expect him too as well, and there’s a large part of me that wants to assign that to them being in a similar position to that in many real life mythologies, where one doesn’t speak of the rules of the dead or the ones who are connected to them – and with Vairë being his wife…

        I do think it’s somewhat telling that the only elf we even hear of really interacting with Vairë is Míriel.

        (I spend a lot of time thinking about Vairë and why she doesn’t get much attention. She’s notable as one of the few of the Valar to ever show up in a my fanfiction, and probably the only one to consistently display sense, so I have to like her. :P)

  5. The_Wavesinger says:

    Coming late and uninvited to the discussion by following a lot of random links and arriving here by mistake :D, but…it occurred to me that the gender bias might have been started by the Valar. Tolkien himself stated somewhere, I think, that the Valar did make mistakes regarding Eru’s will (correct me if I’m wrong, I can’t find the relevant quote), so it could have been possible that they perceived females as weaker beings, for some reason, (completely misinterpreting Eru’s will :D) and the weaker among them took on female forms. (A looooong stretch, I know)

    The passage

    But when they desire to clothe themselves the Valar take upon them forms some as of male and some as of female; for that difference of temper they had even from their beginning…

    seems to be evidence against this (again, correct me if I’m wrong!), but (ignoring Christopher Tolkien’s editing) how do the Eldar know what really goes on in the Valar’s minds? The sub-creative acts that you mentioned (the Two Trees, the stars) probably destroy this theory, but then, I’m just stretching :D.

    Another point of interest is that only female Valar seem to be actually involved in creation, except Aulë and the Dwarves. You have Manwë and Ulmo and Oromë and their power, of course, and they supposedly helped in the creation of Arda, but only Varda’s, Yavanna’s, and Aulë’s sub-creative acts are explicitly mentioned in the text…but again, I’m horrible at keeping track of the Valar, so it’s quite possible that I overlooked something.

    • Dawn says:

      I am glad you stopped by and commented. You are very welcome here always! :)

      You make good points, and I agree that we don’t know why inequality entered the “order of things” where the Valar were concerned. We know that equal numbers of men and women chose to descend into Arda, and that’s the earliest information we have. This certainly suggests a baseline state of equality. Then we are told that only a third of the Aratar are women. I wonder: What happened between the two that we fell from perfect equality to a rather dismal state of inequality?

      One thing I considered that seems kind of in line with your ideas: Who exactly designated those nine characters (eight Valar + Melkor) are Aratar? We learn the list of Aratar in the Valaquenta, which is of explicitly Eldarin origin. Perhaps the Eldar designated the Aratar, and as you note, we don’t know to what extent their observations of the Valar reflect actual reality. For example, it is likely that many of the loremasters were Noldorin. It is reasonable to assume that they’d assign a more important role to Aulë than to characters more affiliated with nature: Yavana, Vána, and Nessa come to mind. It may be, for instance, that Nessa had a more important role than just dancing and deer and becoming Tulkas’s wife, but the Elves may not have understood it or even had access to it. This is similar to how I noted to Brooke that the Fëanturi and those associated with them (like Vairë) seem to be neglected. (Námo’s mentions in the text refer to him in his role as a judge and doomsayer or as possessives, i.e., halls of Mandos, Doom of Mandos.) I don’t think anyone can argue that they characters had an unimportant role; I think it is more likely that the Elves just didn’t have access to these Valar or their work, or perhaps there was a reluctance–even a taboo–associated with speaking of these matters. This could be true of other characters as well.

      only female Valar seem to be actually involved in creation

      This is a really good point. Along the same lines, I attended a talk at a conference earlier this year on gender and the Ainur, and the presenter brought up the point (which I had managed to never notice) that the few examples of Ainur who have children are female: Melian and Ungoliant. The men, however, are more active in the story and, while I haven’t run the numbers, I think it’s safe to say that they have more speaking roles. It’s possible that this reflects the sexism of the Elves who wrote down the stories, which either originated with the Valar or with the Eldar. I think it tends to show JRRT’s own difficulty connecting with women as relatable, writable characters.

      • The_Wavesinger says:

        …we don’t know to what extent their observations of the Valar reflect actual reality.

        Exactly! The Valar operate on a completely different plane than Elves and Men, and it’s quite possible that they don’t understand, or choose not to understand, that the Valar don’t operate the way they want them to. Elves are, after all, glorified humans, and humans have a long history of projecting their own beliefs and customs onto their deities…

        The men, however, are more active in the story and, while I haven’t run the numbers, I think it’s safe to say that they have more speaking roles.

        I think it tends to show JRRT’s own difficulty connecting with women as relatable, writable characters.

        One thing I noticed is that even when it’s the female character doing something, Tolkien tends to focus on the male character, especially in the Beren and Luthien story, and in The Fall of Gondolin, which is extremely frustrating (and, of course, results in fic writing…). The female characters are, I think, intended to be accessories, but somewhere along the way, they started to actually do things, so obviously those things had to be moved off-page *insert eyeroll* .(I have a long-winded ramble about how Tolkien’s worldviews and his actual portrayal of Arda were completely opposed to each other somewhere on my laptop, but that’s a topic for an essay, if I ever managed to dust it off and fix it up)

  6. Tyelkormo says:

    Alas, I’m a bit late, but would like to point out just a pet peeve of mine: You write:
    “Even the woman with the most mentions in The Silmarillion (Yavanna, with 58 mentions) has fewer than the average for the men (59.6 mentions).”

    But after you excluded Melkor before as an outlier, realizing the skewed distribution, but then simply took the rest of the data as-is and built an arithmetic mean – I’m sorry, but the distribution is still massively skewed, and as such, that’s not really a useful operation. It would be more appropriate to use the median, which – regardless of whether we only look at Aratar or all male Valar puts Yavanna slightly above the median for the male Valar. Not that that changes much, but it hurts a valid point to make use of questionable statistical operations…

    • Dawn says:

      I don’t agree that there are outliers on the order of Melkor that make the use of a mean “questionable.” Yes, there are extremes–at both ends. But for the men, the two measures are fairly close, indicating a fairly equal distribution of data (although the sample size [7] is terribly small.)

      Mean = 59.6
      Median = 53

      On second look, it is the women whose data is less evenly distributed due to outliers:

      Mean = 17
      Median = 8

      Overall:

      Mean = 38.2
      Median = 29.5

      Again, while they are not the same and so don’t show an even distribution, I also don’t think they indicate anything that is “massively skewed.”

      All that said, I agree that anything further that I do with this would be helped by presenting both averages, since looking at the graph does tend to provoke a “whoa wtf?” kind of reaction. :) However, they show basically the same thing, and the only point I make in the post that is negated when using median versus mean is the one about Yavanna (which isn’t one that I’d carry over into a more formal presentation of this topic anyway).

      • Tyelkormo says:

        Dawn, the problem is not just outliers, it’s sufficient that the distribution is significantly skewed, and it is. There’s two data points above the mean, if we look at only men, more than twice as many on the other side. What’s more, both data points above the mean are massively above it.

        But again, I was just nitpicking :)

        • Dawn says:

          I think we are looking at this differently. I am looking at the similarity between mean and median to indicate an even distribution. It has admittedly been a long time since I had experimental design and statistics. I will dig those materials out before I do anything further with this, if I decide to present a mean, to see if there are tests beyond what I recall (the convergence of the mean and median).

          And, ultimately, I have no problem with using median. It is the less finicky “average.” I was just being bull-headed and taking issue with qualifiers like “massively skewed.” :) I don’t agree with that, even if I think your main point is sound.

          • Brooke says:

            Ugh, statistics. 😛

            Keeping in mind that I’m currently in the midst of reviewing my statistics myself (it’s been almost a year since I used that, though now I’m getting ready to do more), I don’t see any problem with using the mean. Assuming I’ve calculated it right, there’s only one male outside the standard deviation (Manwë) and one female (Yavanna) – and those are both within two standard deviations. And if we remove those, we actually end up with a mean of 46.83 for the men, and 10.16 for women. So for men the difference in means from the median actually remains about the same (6.___). The real difference, like you said, is in the women’s distribution. It’s not an even bell curve by any measurements.

            I would probably present both numbers, but I’ve got it beaten in to my head that if I want to publish my qualitative work in this country, I need to add all quantitative stats I can (and I’ll leave out my feelings on that, as a tiny little ethnographic centered anthropologist). But there are more tests that can be run about mean and median, I think, besides convergence. If you want I’ll drag out my old notes and look, because those are basically the only measures I used in my research.

          • Dawn says:

            Ah, apparently I’ve discovered how deeply my newly nested comments will nest! Brooke, I cannot reply to you directly, so I am replying to myself and hoping you see it. (I’m guessing you are following comments and so will! :D)

            Thank you for the further details on the stats. The data isn’t perfect but data rarely is. I did eyeball the median when compiling this, using the fact that the mean and median are fairly close to indicate that the mean wasn’t wholly inappropriate to use, but should have presented it along with the mean. I will definitely do so for anything future I do with this data. (I may have found a home for the essay I have almost finished based on this, so yours and Tyelkormo’s comments are timely and much appreciated.) As I noted above, to look at the graph does provoke a “whoa wtf” reaction in anyone who even minimally understands measures of central tendency.

            I thought about running the SD but honestly no longer have the ability to do so “off the top of my head” and was at work without my stats book. (I chuckled when you said it has been a year since you had stats. I had it in … 2001? Yikes. I’m getting old! :D) Since this was a quickie presentation of data that I compiled while working on a larger project and presented to hear people’s thoughts on it, I decided against waiting, especially since “waiting” very often means that an opportunity to finish or post something just doesn’t happen!

            I am probably one of the rare humanities grad students who actually enjoys quantitative stuff. My mom tells me that my brain is in sideways. One of the classes I have thought about taking once Ye Olde MA is done this spring is a course on stats since it’s been so long and I can [clearly!] use the refresher.

          • Tyelkormo says:

            Have to do as Dawn here. Brooke, while it is correct that there is only one value outside the standard deviation, that’s because given the low sample number (and massive value for Manwe), the standard deviation is massive. If we look at just the men, The SD is ~40 and the coefficient of variation about 70%….

            While nominally, the skewedness may look acceptable on paper, the only reason for that is this massive variance, which leads to the standard error of the skewness to be practically as high as the skewness factor itself. If we look at that coefficient of variation, the specific value for the mean becomes rather meaningless…

            Assuming a normal distribution is, given the low sample number, probably in general not the best idea. Here’s what one web tool had to say looking at the data from the men:
            “The distribution is normal with a confidence of: 47.05% (Anderson-Darling normality test)”

            But looking at ALL entries makes it even worse:
            “The distribution is normal with a confidence of: 4.75% (Anderson-Darling normality test)”

            And for the women alone, the confidence is 1.71%

            Website I used: http://www.xuru.org/st/ds.asp

            I don’t think that parametric methods are really the way to go here…

          • Brooke says:

            I am following comments and do see this, Dawn.

            I actually really love and enjoy quantitative method! I tutored Statistics, actually. I just dislike it when there’s an overemphasis placed on it to the point where the stats overshadow other things. For example, when I did my research last year, I found that upwards of 80% (and in some journals over 90%) of articles in American Criminal Justice journals used quantitative methods. Sometimes, qualitative research ranked as a lower percentage of articles than book reviews or theory articles. I refuse to accept that as a good split of research types (thankfully, my CJ professor allows me to do qualitative research too, because he does think qualitative research has value).

            Tyelkormo, I actually assume that it’s not a normal distribution – I think that women probably skew far lower in mentions in general, and men have the opposite tail (though less extreme, imo). I even said that “It’s not an even bell curve by any measurements.” as regards the women. But I feel that by calculating both the mean and median, we can see if either group really skews that far apart – and the mean and median for males is too close for me to think that taking out the top one or two really makes that large of a difference. They are far apart for women, which in effect means that taking out Yavanna, we’re left with just as large or a larger difference with men as with her in there, even if we exclude the top male Valar.

            But with this low of a sample number, I’m not sure there is a better method statistically for determining it than just reporting both measurements.

  7. maeglin says:

    Hi, Dawn!

    I certainly agree with your main idea: that Tolkien sold women short and generally neglected their contributions. And your bar chart is very interesting and quite compelling :). But I still think you’re leaving something very important out of this discussion. With only two exceptions (Ungoliant and the barely-there Thuringwethil), the named “bad” Ainur, whether originally evil or those that get corrupted, are uniformly male. JRRT’s female characters (whether Ainu or encarnate) don’t seem prone to the type of dramatic Fall that his male characters go through again and again. And he was very explicit that his stories were at bottom tales of such falls. Surely this matters, no? In other words, “equal time” is not always a good thing!

    • Dawn says:

      I’d say it depends. As you say, all of Tolkien’s stories concerned those Falls-with-a-capital-F, and he believed that the Fall was an essential story element, per his letter to Milton Waldman. I can see where you’re coming from with your interpretation that this means that women were less prone to the apocalyptic kinds of flaws that some of the men had (namely pride and not accepting their place in the order of things). However, there is also the fact that no Fall means no story in Tolkien’s mind! :) One could say that he is making a statement that a world dominated by women would be a better place. One could also say that, to him, women’s personalities and women’s stories aren’t interesting enough to make stories out of.

      My impression of Tolkien’s work has always been that he didn’t “get” women. He didn’t seem to understand that we are human beings, much more alike to men than we are different. Many scholars of the Tolkien-and-sexism question have noted how he puts women on a pedestal. I think that what you’re observing is evidence of that.

      The fact is, though, that women are equally flawed as men. We are equally liable to fall for various reasons related to the reasons that characters like Melkor, Sauron, Feanor, and Saruman fall. (And not just off the pedestals on which he places us! :)) That he didn’t represent this in his fiction–maybe didn’t even see it as a trait of women–isn’t necessarily complimentary to me and seems to come from the same place as the reason he wrote almost nothing about the non-Aratar female Valar and wrote almost nothing about what Yavanna did in Middle-earth (but wrote tons on Ulmo and Orome) and never even let Varda, the most powerful of the Valier, speak: We are different, meeker, less contentious, less active, less motivated to want to change our world and therefore less prone to Fall–but ultimately, less interesting.

      • maeglin says:

        Hi, Dawn. Thanks for the thoughtful reply!

        I do agree that JRRT tended to put his female characters on pedestals, which must be annoying. Certainly he doesn’t have many complex, well-developed female characters — also no doubt annoying!

        I guess the only “defense response” to such arguments is: it’s very VERY hard to write fully developed characters of the opposite sex! Obviously I’m unqualified to judge male authors’ ability to write female characters that seem totally realistic to their female readers. I imagine there are few who do it well. But the same applies going the other way! This sort of thing is especially evident when authors portray opposite-sex characters’ internal thoughts. And of course that happens a great deal in Tolkien fanfiction, where most of the authors are female but most of the available canon characters are male. I don’t take this as sexism on the part of female authors though! I see it as just another manifestation of one of the unfortunate facts of life – that even men and women who DO love and respect one another as equals often find it hard to understand one another. And since this is often hard even for people who’ve lived together for many years, expecting a fiction author to truly capture how the opposite sex experiences the world is an awfully tall order :).

        Using myself as an example: I don’t feel I’m equipped to do female characters proper justice in my stories (which are mostly dialogue or internal monologue), and so I rarely write them. I hope my readers don’t take that as evidence of sexism. Truly it’s not! And perhaps this concern is the reason I feel inclined to defend JRRT (somewhat) on this issue.

        Long story short – I do agree he IS sexist, but I’d say he’s not as sexist as you argue he is :).

        • Dawn says:

          That’s a good point, although I’d extend it further and say that any character different from oneself is difficult to write. Most of the time, our audience is very like ourselves: My Western middle-class literate readers aren’t going to notice so much if I get the internal thoughts wrong for a pre-colonial Igbo character living in an oral culture. And I can guarantee there are no Elves reading my stories to worry me over whether I get the Elven perspetive right! :) This isn’t the case with biological sex, where I can pretty much guarantee (even in a fanfic community that is >90% women!) that at least a man or two will read my stories. But I’d also say that this is part of the challenge of characterization and distinguishes those who are good at it from those who aren’t: the ability to empathize with another person, another perspective enough to believably (even if not *perfectly* believably) occupy that person’s point of view.

          Personally speaking, I will give a huge break to male writers who maybe don’t write women that feel believable to me. (And of course, I am one woman, so I cannot reliably speak for all women either, and it may well be that other women relate to the character’s experiences.) What I’m less inclined to pardon is reliance on stereotypes: women who are weak, passive, shrill, nagging, overemotional, superficial, stupid, and obsessed with marriage and children to the exclusion of other characteristics, or a story where all female characters display these characteristics. I think the important difference here is that this is not simply bad characterization–something that can be dodged with a click of the BACK button–but perpetuates stereotypes that have done and continue to do actual harm to actual women and the opportunities we are presented (or not).

          Regarding fan fiction writers, I think the audience is of prime concern here. The preliminary results of my Tolkien fanfic survey showed that 91% of readers and writers identify as female and only 3% as male. (The rest were nonbinary or chose not to respond.) That is huge. We are mostly women writing to an audience of women, and we know that, and we write accordingly. A lot has been written about, for example, how slash represents the interests and concerns of [mostly hetero] women more than it does the actual experiences of gay men. I do wonder how Tolkien fan fiction and fandom would change if even 20% of participants identified as male.

          The same point about audience could be said of Tolkien, of course. He was writing heroic literature for an audience that he probably imagined as primarily educated males. He was writing to their interests, not to the interests of women, educated or otherwise. I suppose the question comes down to whether that was a neutral choice. Regarding the fanfic writers, I’d say that theirs is a more neutral (less sexist, though not entirely problematic) choice for the simple reason that the stereotypes of men promoted in Tolkien fanfic don’t reinforce negative beliefs about men in the real world in such a way that men and their opportunities are harmed. How women have been depicted in both art and pop culture, on the other hand, certainly does reinforce negative stereotypes that validate continuing sexism (we are more passive, less natural leaders, more emotional, more fragile) in the real world. To bring this back to the original topic of the Valar, we certainly see those ugly stereotypes rearing their heads there: Half of the Valar to descend into Arda were women, but only a small fraction of them did anything of distinction (compared to a majority of the male Valar). Why is that? I keep coming back to JRRT’s letter to his son Michael where he says that only extraordinary women ever manage to develop beyond what they are given by their male teachers. Ouch.

          Of course, I’m not naive to the fact that JRRT occupied a very different world than ours in the year 2015. I suppose, to wrap up this super-long comment, that my reason for writing about gender issues so often is less to gripe at Tolkien for not being hip to 21st-century values than it is to engage fellows fans of his work in order that we are all conscious of how his work has perpetuated stereotypes in our popular culture that have made it difficult for certain groups to attain equal access to opportunities. I find some Tolkien fans (NOT you–I always enjoy your comments on my work and our email exchanges!) so defensive on this subject and willing to twist into pretzels to somehow prove that Tolkien was a guy totally ahead of his times with respect to modern values and wasn’t sexist/racist/whateverist at all: what I call the but!Eowyn argument. I recently had to block a guy who started spamming my blog with irrelevant posts motivated by his anger toward my opinion that, yes, Tolkien was sexist and, yes, it does matter to me as a fan of his work. His was not an isolated or even unusual reaction. That disturbs me more than the sexism in the original work.

          • maeglin says:

            Hi, Dawn! I do appreciate your thoughtful replies! No need to spill any more pixels on this – I consider myself well-answered :).

  8. Duke Nikolaj says:

    I realize that this is a year-old conversation, but I wanted to mention how much I enjoy the insights from everyone.

    In regards to the elves’ reverence of Varda above all others, I don’t think it was mentioned here how, upon first awakening, their first sight was the field of stars in the sky (creations of Varda). My own lens leads me to see this as part of a larger thread of Women as Mothers in Tolkien’s works. As everyone mentions, the Valier who receive more attention are Creators, mothers of great works. And the birth of the elves and their immediate bond with the stars is like the bonding of a mother and child after birth. And in the Valaquenta, Varda can hear even into the depths of Melkor’s dwellings (wherein lie countless imprisoned Children). She is the one to whom they cry out when in peril, as children cry out for their mothers.

    For me, above even the Valier, Galadriel stands out vividly as approaching an exception to Tolkien’s male-dominated world. She’s not given nearly enough presence, and she’s even described as more like a man than other women in the texts, but with her character, I think Tolkien began something that could have been more extraordinary and compelling than any of the male characters. A woman of immense power who outlasts all the men around her, in a system set up to make her docile. So interesting! It’s a shame she’s a bit leashed by her later roles as Mother and Wife. It could also be, as mentioned here before, that male loremasters edited out her larger contributions in the shaping of history. We know they’re there! I want to see more Herstory!

    Do I think sexism is abundant in Tolkien’s work? Of course. I think in his own way, he held a reverence for women as mothers and companions. It doesn’t make it right or equal, and it’s certainly marginalizing. I would never “let him off the hook” for the underrepresentation. But it’s a small comfort to think he was giving women any sort of power (even if I have to use my imagination to fill in all the gaps) in a time when so few were even acknowledged as interesting.

    • Wierdalien says:

      I think its important that he gives women the power of creation, because lest we forget what he is trying to do with this tome. It is to create middle-earth’s bible. The bible has a true derth of female characters and I wonder if it was a active decision to write his characters in this way? Throughout history, going back a point, it has always been so incredibly common for women to be the creators and the mothers and the men to be the warriors and destroyers. The problem is that war and destruction and death make far more compelling stories than domestic chores. Hell common male characters in oral tradition stories such as the Greek tragdies never make themselves food, which they must have to live, they just go around killing things because that’s compelling. Imagine the quentasilmarilion as 24. Do you ever see Jack Bauer take a leak? No because that isn’t compelling. 300(movie) would it be as interesting and exciting if those ridiculous rhinos and ‘immortals’ weren’t init? No to all of those and JRRT understood that power of compelling story. War and blood and guts is interesting. Home isn’t. But alot of the important kicks forward in the story are caused by women. Not all, for example the kinslayings, but many and I think it counts for something that they are not common, but they aren’t relegated to just handing out tea in downtime that the few mentioned are massively important to the story.

  9. Wierdalien says:

    I have one point to make, you cut off the conversation about gender, and the quote about the valar gender, early specifically the next section that expands on the general point about biosex. ‘But when they desire to clothe themselves the Valar take upon them forms some as of male and some as of female; for that difference of temper they had even from their being, and it is but bodied forth in the choice of each, not made by the choice even as with us male and female maybe shown by the rainment but is not made thereby.’

    In other words the Valar may choose to be Male or Female because They FEEL Male or Female NOT because they ARE physically as can humans have a different feeling of gender than our physicality would suggest.

    1920s catholic people. 1920s catholic. Even if he struggles with writing women, which as aman I completely get, that is impressively forward.

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