Symbolic Femininity in Lord of the Rings

by Jul 4, 2006Critical Viewpoints

On the surface, Tolkien’s trilogy appears very phallocentric. Sure, Galadriel exhibits some gauzy power, and Eowyn strikes her blow for the First Wave, and Arwen. . . gets married or something, but you can’t ignore the fact that there are no women in the Fellowship. Characters like the River Daughter and the missing entwives are mentioned at times, but for the most part the narrative looks like a storm of phalluses ("hallelujah, it’s raining swords, bows, axes, staffs, and towers") with maybe a vague suggestion that every now and then the winds shift and people get born female.
Typical fantasy fare, right? Testosterone everywhere and chicks only when some male character needs a wife, mother, or object of desire. Except. . . back away from the literal and check out what happens. Setting aside the paucity of actual females in the text, there sure is a lot of symbolic femininity.
The most obvious example is the hobbits. Must we be reminded every time a hobbit draws his sword that said sword is laughably stumpy compared to those of Men? Perhaps there’s an agenda there? Also, of course, there’s the hobbits’ passive domesticity. The Shire is like a cushy multiplexed womb, all verdant rolling hills and snug hobbit holes, and hobbits don’t leave to go to wars: Who would care for their flower beds while they were gone?
Additionally, consider the hobbits’ advanced emotional intelligence. Frodo and Sam, Merry and Pippin–these guys adore each other, and they have no homophobic self-consciousness about showing it. When hobbits love? They emote. Right out in your face.
It’s no coincidence that Eowyn and Merry end up in the same situation, told by the patriarch that they’re too weak to go to the big boys’ war, they’ll just get in the way and have to get their little selves rescued by someone with more important things to do. But as it turns out, being wee enough to sneak up behind a ringwraith and stab him in the back of the knee isn’t such a bad thing, and the fatal error that ringwraith makes can only be capitalized upon if Eowyn is there to take his arrogant self out. Peter Jackson directs Eowyn’s scene of triumph perfectly. She’s terrified, cradling a broken arm, but he will not touch her uncle, her king. After separating the phallic neck of the wraith king’s steed from its body, she stands her ground against the embodiment of every male person who ever snubbed her. When he says no man can kill him, Miranda Otto’s disgusted expression is very "oh my god not THIS again," because the guy has completely ignored the fact that other folk live on the earth besides men. He really believes that if a man can’t kill him he’s destined to ponce around and wreak havoc with impunity forever. And why would Tolkien have Eowyn scoff that line out loud anyway if not to emphasize the gender politics of the situation?
Which brings us to the ring, a feminine symbol itself. Hovering over these phallic power struggles, the towers and swords and wizard’s staffs, the ring’s immense power remains impervious to manly forms of disempowerment. Slice off orc heads ’til the entwives come home, but that won’t defeat Sauron. It doesn’t even annoy him that much–they’re disposable orcs anyway. So what does beat him? A girl takes out his first officer and some wussy hobbits pass right beneath his giant single eye and burn up his pretty.
But let’s not forget that Frodo drops the game-winning pass at the goal line. The ultimate message? No one can combat evil alone. When he goes power mad and acts like Isildur–like a man–he’s lost. Sam and Gollum (the latter of whom, we must recall, only survived to that point because of mercy shown by Bilbo and then Frodo, mercy being a virtue associated more with a feminine value system than a male one) have to drag Frodo back from the abyss. If they aren’t there, Middle Earth is toast.
So we learn: Don’t be so arrogant as to think phallic power is enough; in fact, it’s particularly vulnerable to temptation that seems to promise more power, like that of the ring. Middle Earth needs a balance of femininity and masculinity to combat Sauron’s singleminded, self-interested quest for power.


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