Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Are there female orcs? or: What counts as women's work in Middle Earth?

I am, once again, whining in my head, and I'm as tired of my own whining as I am of anyone else's. More, perhaps, not least because I can't get away from it; it also makes me extremely annoyed at myself, because it's just stupid shit. So, hey, I'll come whine to you guys! Or not.

You know what time of year it is, don't you? That's right--time to read LOTR. (I'm planning to spend some quality time with the movies and with my needlepoint after school's done, not least because I have two weeks in there before I start the new job.) This year's question: from where do all of the evil beings come? In the trilogy, they're all male, but apparently there's some speculation and notation in the Silmarillion that they reproduce, which implies females around somewhere. The Encyclopedia of Arda is also a useful reference on this and also speculates that they are "created" more than birthed. What's interesting to me about this (at least today) is that it fits in with the rest of the writings about females in the trilogy. I suspect there are many other more learned discussions out there about this subject, but I'm too lazy today to go find them, so you'll have to settle for my opinion--google females tolkien and rummage around if you're really interested in what other people have to say.

The trilogy is notably bereft of ordinary females. There are extraordinary ones around--Galadriel, Arwen, Eowyn, Goldberry--but no common women (and, of course, the whole Fellowship is male). I suppose you could argue that there are heroic males all over the place, too, but part of the charm of the trilogy, for me, is that the hobbits, at least, and arguably most of the other characters (except Gandalf, Aragorn, and possibly the various kings and leaders of men) are ordinary for their kind. They do great things, they act with courage and so on, but the story is about beings rising to the occasion, not about a Spiderman-like creature who comes in to save the day with his superpowers. The great powers that are displayed (e.g., by Gandalf) are part of his kind; he may be an exemplary version of his kind, but he doesn't have something the rest don't have. (You could argue that those are two distinct ways of telling heroic stories--someone becomes heroic by acquiring powers that others of his/her kind do not possess, or someone becomes heroic by utilizing ordinary powers heroically. One could additionally argue that this fits with John Adams' view that it is incumbent upon each of us to be the best persons we can be--to not waste our talents--and incumbent upon us as members of a community to create communities that encourage and enable people to develop their talents fully.)

So, then, where are the common women? What are they doing? Are their tasks--raising children, for example, or keeping the home fires burning--regarded as heroic? Aragorn and Theoden try to convince Eowyn of that--Theoden even puts his/her people under Eowyn's care in his absence--but Eowyn isn't convinced of the worth of that, and Gandalf acknowledges that when he points out that she has the heart of a warrior. In the movies, even, ordinary women are mostly running around in fear and gathering up children to go hide somewhere.

In one way, I never let this absence bother me much--I think that Frodo and Sam could as easily have been female as male, for example, and, if I were more ambitious, I'd attempt a retelling that does that. What seems to be the case, though, is that Tolkien's Catholicism (and its penchant for giving women a binary choice--madonna or whore) might have had some effect here, at least psychologically. It's also the case that there apparently isn't a lot of glory in tending the home fires--I would argue otherwise, in some ways, but only because I think there's a certain amount of glory in necessary tasks.

Perhaps one way to consider this is to ask what happens if one carries out one's tasks in an exemplary fashion, or merely does one's job reasonably well. For men--and not just men in the trilogy--there may be a lot of everyday tasks, and, in times of peace, for example, not a lot of opportunity for heroism; that is, men's everyday work may be every bit as boring as women's everyday work (and, of course, there are categories such as men's work and women's work only when work is gendered and divided in the ways we are told are "normal" or even "proper"--but I wrote half a book about that subject and won't excerpt it here). Sticking with the world of the trilogy, however, there isn't much opportunity for women to be heroic, unless they do "men's" work--i.e., unless they're Eowyn. And, of course, if all women were Eowyn, then a lot of childrearing and the like would remain undone. Here's another consideration: if women do what we think of as their jobs in an exemplary fashion, not only will they not have an opportunity to be heroic, it's also the case that some part of the job will end (i.e., as the children grow and become increasingly independent) and some other part of the job will merely repeat, with little concrete result. (Laundry is a striking example here: it's a task that must be repeated, endlessly, no matter how well one does the task the first time.) At least in jobs that can be considered careers there is some opportunity for advancement, say.

Anyway, I don't know how I got here, exactly, but that's enough for today. My last set of exams starts tomorrow and I have to remember the differences among Diplomats, Chibousts, Bavarians, and the like. I'll leave the discussion of Middle Earth and religion for another day.


Blogger Larry Jones said...

OK, but the thing about being a man, and thus enabled to heroism, is that you think you can be a hero. You may even think you should be a hero. But in real life the opportunities to actually be heroic are so few as to be negligible. Thus a large number of us in every generation become, literally, cannon fodder, as the military is (incorrectly) seen as a way for any doofus to do heroic things. This rarely works out, and there are millions of men living what's left of their lives after they have found out that they will never get to be heroes.

We coulda been contenders, and how sad and disappointed we are when we realize that we never were.

1:09 AM  
Blogger Nieli said...

I agree there weren't a lot of women, but Rosie, Ioreth, Mrs. Cotton and Mrs. Maggott do fill in for ordinary women, I would hope. We get so hung up on Eowyn as shieldmaiden and her unrequited love for Aragorn sometimes and the lack of time for Arwen seems to highlite this. Yet, Galadriel, Goldberry, even the Widow Rumble do bring more inclusiveness then many tales similar - look at King Arthur, except for Morgan LeFay, no woman had any personality at all! It is afterall, an adventure tale in medieval times (ok not really, but close enough)and that was a playground for boys and their swords. Do you want better role models? Read The Silmarillion or Unfinished Tales and Luthien's story, or Haleth's, or Nerdanel's, especially Erendis'. Tolkien got better as he learned how to write his women, but it took time. I would think it difficult going from a boy's school into the army and then the trenches of war, and all that male bonding and then be able to write about women. I give him credit for working at it and attempting more. Just my thoughts.

10:32 PM  
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