May. 29th, 2013

underthewillows: (Default)
By which I mean to say that, although he wouldn't recognise the term if he fell over it and that he was bound by his upbringing and cultural assumptions of a particular time and place, Tolkien was not a gender essentialist.

Arising out of a question I saw online about female Elves as warriors and participating in battle, and seeing as how the next instalment of "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" is going to introduce a female Silvan Elf, Captain of the Guard in Mirkwood, let me quote from “Laws and Customs among the Eldar”:

There are, however, no matters which among the Eldar only a nér [male] can think or do, or others with which only a nís [female] is concerned.

Tolkien is not anti-female or a misogynist when he doesn’t have women warriors. What is not sufficiently appreciated is that he is vehemently anti-militarist. Look at his description of Faramir, look at the words he puts into Faramir’s mouth. Look at what he says about the Rohirrim - that they are less wise because they glorify battle and warriors and the military caste as the ideal. Tolkien is not punishing or demeaning Eowyn by having her stay behind instead of ride out with Théoden’s army, or treating her as “only” a woman.

Tolkien, unlike many of his peers, did not rush out to enlist in the Army straight out of school or university during the First World War - and there was a lot of social pressure on men to enlist; you may or may not have heard about the white feathers women would hand out to men not wearing uniform - take it away, Wikipedia:

"In August 1914, at the start of the First World War, Admiral Charles Fitzgerald founded the Order of the White Feather with support from the prominent author Mrs Humphrey Ward. The organization aimed to shame men into enlisting in the British Army by persuading women to present them with a white feather if they were not wearing a uniform."

A white feather is a symbol of cowardice, that's why the author A.E. Mason called his Edwardian adventure novel about a man redeeming his honour when his friends and fiancée mistakenly think he's a coward and each send him a feather as a sign of scorn and mockery The Four Feathers .

C.S. Lewis joined up in 1917 when he was nineteen precisely because, when he won a scholarship to university, the Master of the college he was going to attend informed him that that, with the exception of one boy with health problems, everyone who had won a scholarship had joined the British Army in order to fight in the First World War. Even though as an Irishman, he was not subject to conscription since Ireland had been excluded from the Military Service Bill of 1916, the expectation was that of course every man would voluntarily enlist without needing to be forced.

Tolkien didn't do this. He deferred enlisting (to the shock of his relatives) until 1915 when he was twenty-three and had finished his degree and only joined up when he was satisfied he could provide for his newly-married wife. He hated his time in the army, and twenty-odd years later when his sons were serving during the Second World War, he hated that this had happened to them as well. It’s not because he wasn’t a patriot or because he didn’t value the work of the armed services; it’s because he didn’t think that war in itself was particularly great. An army may be a necessary evil, but the idea of glorification of military prowess in itself and for itself was something he was opposed to.

That’s why Galadriel says (emphasis mine) “But do not think that only by singing amid the trees, nor even by the slender arrows of elven-bows, is this land of Lothlórien maintained and defended against its Enemy”. That’s why Elrond is the greatest healer: because he has given up riding out to war and battle and killing, even as a hunter.

If you think about it, it’s really a much more sophisticated view of what constitutes a strong character (male or female) - not the sword-wielding warrior or shieldmaiden galloping around on a horse, but the ones who pick up the pieces after the battles - the healers, the people who make sure there are enough beds and food for the refugees displaced by war, the peacemakers.

Again, from “Laws and Customs among the Eldar”:

And the Eldar deemed that the dealing of death, even when lawful or under necessity, diminished the power of healing, and that the virtue of the nissi in this matter was due rather to their abstaining from hunting or war than to any special power that went with their womanhood.

Which is to say, it’s not because women are specially “nurturing” or because of any typical feminine or female characteristics that they are good healers, it’s because they refrain from killing. A male Elf who does the same is as good a healer. Contrariwise, a female Elf who hunts or fights is not as good a healer. I've seen too many wish-fulfilment pronouncements by women who should know better about how if only women were in charge, there would be no more war/inequality/poverty/what have you - come on, was Margaret Thatcher a fluffy bunny lady? No woman or girl has ever bullied, harassed, been cruel to or used her power against another woman or girl? This is the equal and opposite error to putting women on pedestals: if the male mistake is to idealise "the angel in the home" (and its concomitant, that a woman's - generally sexual - 'fall' or sin is worse than the same deed by a man because women have 'so much further to fall'), then the female mistake along this line is to sink into a dream of a matriarchal never-never land where women by virtue of their femaleness have sparkly fairy princess magical powers and only nasty, brutish males are violent and self-seeking. We're all of us trying to work our ways through this fallen world.

Females are not special precious snowflakes who are too soft and gentle for this cruel world and are more fitted for the “womanly arts”, because there aren’t any specific “womanly arts”, although there are natural inclinations and customs where one sex does certain tasks or follows certain trades; it's more likely that female Elves are weavers, for instance (and don't forget, Athena is the goddess of weaving as well as wisdom and war, and weaving has connotations of magic) while male Elves are smiths and craftsmen, but that's not because "women are genetically predisposed to the softer arts".

Male Elves do the cooking, for instance, because they like it - “Yet the cooking and preparing of other food [food other than lembas, which is a sacred or ‘magical’ food, the making of which is reserved by ancient law to women] is generally a task and pleasure of men” - so Celeborn rather than Galadriel is going to be the one overseeing the kitchens in Lothlorien when it comes to preparing banquets and the like.

I also like the idea that, after a hard day in the forge, Fëanor still had to put the dinner on the table for seven kids plus the missus. And that Nerdanel often went to her parents' home, after a row with him, for a bit of fussing over her and a good home-cooked meal like Dad used to make. And Finwe spoiling Fëanor rotten after he had yet another fight with his half-brothers by cooking all his favourite meals for him. And the seven grandsons all swore nobody made an apple tart as good as Grandad's (because in Valinor, it wasn't "Mom and apple pie" but "Atya (Dad) and apple tart"). And Galadriel can burn water, which is yet another reason why Celeborn's courtship was successful, because he's got a light hand with pastry and he made the fluffiest, airiest sponge cakes for tea-time treats in Doriath: the exiled Noldor gossiping about "How the heck did a backwoods hick like him manage to end up with her?" "Are you joking? Have you tasted his Bakewell tarts? I'd marry him myself!"
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