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.)
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.