My sister recently sent me a link to a talk by Patrick Rothfuss, the author of The King Killer Chronicle. He was speaking at a book event, and he commented on the need to halt the perpetuation of sexism in fantasy, and particularly on the conspicuous lack of women in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. You can watch his comments here:
Rothfuss is correct in suggesting fantasy as a genre has perpetuated female stereotypes. He’s also right about The Hobbit: the book lacks any active female characters. Belladonna Took—Bilbo’s mother—is the only named female character, while Kili and Fili’s mother only gets a mention, and the generic women of Lake-Town huddle with their children after the attack of the dragon.
I agree with Rothfuss’ point about fantasy, but I thought it a little odd that he offers his comments about Tolkien as though he’s revealing a well-kept secret. It’s possible that some people might have been misled by Peter Jackson’s introduction of two major female characters in his Hobbit trilogy, in which Galadriel, already familiar to fans of Lord of the Rings as the Elven Queen, proves herself a forbidding member of the White Council, and Tauriel, a feisty Elven warrior, has a smoldering attachment to Kili the dwarf. Given this pseudo-romance between an elf and a dwarf, perhaps it’s Peter Jackson we need to forgive, not Tolkien. Such a liaison would never, never—and I can’t stress this enough—never happen in Tolkien’s universe.
I’ve read Tolkien’s The Hobbit more times than I can count, and I’ve taught the book for well over a decade. I don’t remember when I first realized the book lacked any female characters. Maybe I always knew; it just took awhile to register.
However, it’s a point that gets made every time I teach the book—if not by me, then by a student, usually with a knowing shake of the head. My children’s literature courses are generally populated by female students, so I do feel I owe them an explanation, at least.
Tolkien, I tell them, was never a modern, neither as a writer nor as a man. He was a medieval at heart. He was also a medievalist, but that was his job. Tolkien died on September 2, 1973, but I don’t think he ever truly entered the twentieth century. He hated the industrial transformation of the English landscape, and as an Oxford professor and philologist, he spoke openly against the modernist movement in literature. His definition of English literature, in fact, didn’t extend much beyond Chaucer. He was a devoted father and husband, something which sometimes baffled his friend C. S. Lewis, the nearly lifetime bachelor, Christian apologist, and author of the Narniad.
I don’t think Tolkien necessarily wrote to exclude women from his books, but I think he inherited an understanding of and an attitude towards women that came from an earlier time. His legendarium shows it. At the same time, Tolkien’s body of work includes important female characters, not the least of which is Luthien, the elf maiden of the Tale of Beren and Luthien, who falls in love with Beren, and together they cut a silmaril, a precious Elven gem, from the iron crown of Morgoth—the dark lord of Middle-Earth’s first age. Such women play a crucial role in Tolkien’s mythology, and patriarchal constructions of women aside, it’s still a woman, Eowyn, in Lord of the Rings,who kills the chief of the Nazgul by driving a sword into his face.
And yet, why are there no women in The Hobbit? I never have an entirely satisfactory answer. There just isn’t one.
Having said that, I always emphasize the role of Bilbo’s mother in his development as a burglar and adventurer whenever I teach the book. Bilbo’s yearning for adventure comes from his mother’s side, while his longing for food, fire, and a comfortable armchair comes from his father’s.
One of my favourite passages early in the book is Bilbo’s first recognition of this Tookish nature, just after the dwarves sing their song for the first time:
Then something Tookish woke up inside him, and he wished to go and see the great mountains, and hear the pine-trees and the waterfalls, and explore the caves, and wear a sword instead of a walking-stick. He looked out of the window. The stars were out in a dark sky above the trees. He thought of the jewels of the dwarves shining in dark caverns. Suddenly in the wood beyond The Water a flame leapt up – probably somebody lighting a wood-fire – and he thought of plundering dragons settling on his quiet Hill and kindling it all to flames. He shuddered; and very quickly he was plain Mr. Baggins of Bag-End, Under-Hill, again. (Tolkien, J. R. R. The Hobbit. New York: Harper Collins, 1999. 16.)
Tolkien may not have given us any women in The Hobbit, but he gave the twentieth century a new way of understanding fantasy, first with the publication of The Hobbit in 1937, and second with the delivery of his essay “On Faerie Stories.” Writers such as Ursula Le Guin, Robin McKinley, and J. K. Rowling—just to name three—took that genre and populated it with female characters that Tolkien never could. Was Tolkien a sexist? I don’t think so. Would he have recognized the Oxford of the 1940s and 50s as a bastion of institutionalized sexism? I doubt it. Did he write to exclude women? I think he wrote an idea of women into his mythology that grew out of his understanding of medieval and chivalric romance. And to be fair, he wrote his male characters out of the same tradition. They are noble, strong, and sometimes flawed, but the hobbits are those characters who are most human and literally closest to the earth.
To bring it back to Patrick Rothfuss’ comments, does fantasy as a genre perpetuate gender stereotypes? It does—at least some of it does. I tend not to read such fantasy if I can help it. But I don’t think it’s a problem with the genre. I can think of any number of strong female characters I’ve encountered in my reading: Tenar from Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle, Alana from Tamora Pierce’s Lioness Quartet, Rowen from Thomas Wharton’s’ Perilous Realm series, Sonea from Trudi Canavan’s Black Magician series, and Katniss from Suzanne Collins The Hunger Gamesseries.
Do I wish that Tolkien had done something different? Not really. I recognize his portrayal of women for what it is, but I don’t hold it against him. Without him, I would have never discovered the power of fantasy in the first place, or come to love the genre and to follow it in all its multitudinous forms. By the way, I learned that word from Tolkien.