Wednesday 23 January 2019

Galadriel and Eowyn Tolkien's exceptional women, and why they 'work' for him (but seldom for other authors)

There are two 'dominant' women characters in Lord of the Rings, Galadriel and Eowyn. Three generations of readers testify to the fact that they 'work' narratively - and in this respect they stand-apart from the many thousands of dominant women characters that have become such a tiresome cliche in recent decades (in fiction, on TV, at the movies - and in 'news' stories) who strike the reader as contrived, incoherent, preachy - mostly just plain Unconvincing.

Aside from Tolkien's far greater skill, the main reason why Galadriel and Eowyn work and so many others fail is that G & E are both presented as exceptional.

Galadriel is second only to Elrond as the most dominating person among the free people's of Earth; and she even has a kind of priority over Elrond in being older, having been born in Valinor - and therefore having the greatest personal 'magical' power (and from being his mother-in-law!).

However, Galadriel is presented as exceptional. Within the Lord of the Rings this exceptional nature is implied by her being the only women of the White Council, and among a handful of the most beautiful women of all time. Further, in the Unfinished Tales and Silmarillion it is emphasised that she was even more exceptional; in being a woman of 'Amazonian' stature and strength - similar in combat ability to all but the very greatest elf warriors.

But Tolkien never asserts that this makes Galadriel typical of 'women' - on the contrary she is an unique phenomenon, and marked out as such from birth. She is the female complement to Feanor - both High Elves who attained god-like stature due to their attributes.

By contrast, modern authors generally imply or actually assert that exceptional women such as Galadriel are numerous - either in actuality or in potential; or would be numerous, if not oppressed; or should be normal if women were properly motivated - by which they mean pursuing success in the public realm rather than in the family context.

Galadriel is indeed married to Celeborn, and had a daughter. This merits analysis. Celeborn is officially the ruler of Lothlorien (one of only two large elf kingdoms, the other being Mirkwood) - and described (in LotR) as the greatest of the elves of middle earth; because he is a Sindarin elf, born in middle earth - but as such of lesser wisdom and authority than the High Elves. He is a member of the White Council, along with other Sindar such as Thranduil of Mirkwood* (who he outranks in age and experience, and because of his wife), and Cirdan the shipwright - but while Galadriel defers to Celeborn in public, she is clearly a personage of greater stature than her husband.

Anyway, Galadriel is married and a mother - and the greatest female power in history; and there is no other like her among the Children of Illuvatar.

What about Eowyn? She is a warrior, who does the great feat of slaying the Nazgul's flying beast; then (after Merry has made her sword effectual) the Witch King and Chief of the Nine; one of the greatest heroic feats in the entire history of Middle Earth. Clearly, an exceptional woman - and she is an ordinary mortal Man, and her success is in the realm of pure fighting, which is a masculine domain.

However, it is neither implied nor claimed that Eowyn is the match of the male Riders of Rohan in strength or swordcraft - as she could not have been; and her great feat was not the product of her being a great warrior, but the product of amazing courage fortified by her love for Theoden; a feat perfomed to protect her uncle and adoptive father.

Courage, yes indeed; but also a desperate, reck-less disregard of her own life. Because - like many and probably most real-life exceptional women, women of genius - Eowyn is (until she loves Faramir) somewhat crazy. So she is Not presented as a 'role model' or template for how 'women in general' ought-to live - indeed when healed in body and spirit; Eowyn quite explicitly abandons her life as shield maiden, and man-in-disguise.

So, what can we learn? In Tolkien as in real life, there are exceptional women of high attainment in the public realm - and also that such women are exceptional, they are rare. Furthermore, when they are mortal Men (not semi-divine elves), such women are often somewhat crazy, extremely odd - and recognised as such.

So there are real warrior queens, like the English national heroine Boudica (Boadicea); and like Boudica they are often damaged, crazed persons. There are also rare and exceptional women who are truly great political leaders - like Queen Elizabeth I - but she was also an extremely strange person, and by no means a model for women-in-general.

There are many women genuises, especially in literature; but again they are rare and (almost always) somewhat crazy, in one way or another.

(Don't take my word; try for yourself - First make a list of the best-ever women literary authors - novelists, essayists and poets (there aren't any great women playwrights); and then evaluate them biographically for craziness, chaos, weirdness, extreme eccentricity etc.)

So Tolkien's ability to include powerful and exceptional women who accomplish greatly in traditional realms of masculine attainment - and to do so absolutely convincingly in narrative terms; is simply that Tolkien knows such women exist, but he never tries to pretend that they are anything but exceptional.

Tolkien does not try to pretend that such women ever have been, are, could be, or should be, anything other than very uncommon.

*Note added 5 August 2023: On further consideration, Thranduil seems Not to have been a member of the White Council; because in The Hobbit the King of the Wood Elves of Mirkwood (i.e. Thranduil) did not participate in the deliberations and actions of the White Council is forcing the Necromancer (i.e. Sauron) from his stronghold in Mirkwood (i.e. Dol Guldur).  


Lucinda said...

From my observations, women don't value exceptionality among women the same way men do, and they tend to collectively punish individual women who step out of line. Men are far more interested in exceptionality among men and women. Whereas women seem to be more suited to enforcing norms.

It's hard for me to get my head around this. I just know that my actual experience with women themselves, including myself, tells me that women feel that exceptionality among women is immoral, and that they enforce it. I don't know how this fits with the idea of the queen bee and female competitiveness.

I am socially punished by women for acknowledging that women care more about being normal rather than eccentric. In order to be normal, I'd have to pretend that I care more about being considered exceptional than being considered normal. It's very weird.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Lucinda - My impression is that women react very badly from being told they can't (or even shouldn't) do any particular thing; even when they don't actually want to do it.

So (evil) feminism seems to work by telling women that they are being excluded from this or that - by a conspiracy of men (and a peer-group conspiracy of a kind that doesn't exist among men (who mostly compete with each other - or cooperate in hierarchies) but is normal among women).

So women can get very angry about being excluded from frontline combat situations in wars; despite that it is only very rare and unusual women who actually want to take part in such activities (and indeed, the majority of men would certainly prefer not to be in such situations).

Or professional mathematics, physics, engineering; a small minority of women actually want to do these things (even when they are good at them), but can get very angry if they believe they are being kept-out (which, of course, they aren't; quite the opposite for the past 20-30 years).

Yet, from a task-functional perspective, the fact that only few and exceptional women want to be in a situation is exactly why they ought to be kept out! - since the mixed sex situation has (nearly always) so many dys-functional aspects that it is to be avoided, unless (as always) in exceptional circumstances, when functionality is a priority that over-rides the problems of mixed-sex groups.

(Task functionality being, itself, a mainly masculine desire - and pretty rare even among men - but these ought to dominate the leadership group if perfoming a functional is genuinely intended.)

The men who are genuinely interested in functionality, and who have gathered in self-selected groups of other such men, nearly always experience the presence of women as disruptive to functionality; since 'women' (as a group, again there are exceptions) tend to hijack the functionality into 'social dynamics'.

(With rare exceptions) Women (by choice) make the functional male environment into a socal female environment (with its bonding rituals, and a kind of egalitarianism, and psychodramas). This is the nature of modern bureaucracy - it has no intrinsic function; all bureacracies are mostly the same - and the main activity is 'office politics' with its peer alliances (friendship groups) and psychodramas.

Of course - none of these 'public space' activities really satisfy - becaue what is *really* most-wanted by most women is the family.

Lucinda said...

"Task functionality being, itself, a mainly masculine desire". This is so true, even of something as seemingly basic as survival. The best men are more successful than women at bringing about female survival, and they recognize this as an important task functionality. On the other side of it, rationalistic, inexperienced men can come to all sorts of wrong conclusions about women's motivations because they assume women are as self-interested as men, specifically with regard to basic survival and prosperity.

Men pursue group-interest as a necessity of their self-interest, whereas women accept self-interest as a necessity of their group-interest. This is precisely why women are so ill-suited to task functionality. The same thing that makes them very good as committed wives and mothers (and as SJW activists) is their ability to easily and naturally give all that they have and are for the goal of the group, enforcing moral(?) norms/ideals. But this makes them terrible at considering various real-world details and exceptions, even when their life is on the line.

This maybe explains the paradox of Feminism. Women are group-oriented, so when Feminism tells them they need to be more self-interested, they can only understand that as an instruction to focus in on being a member of the woman-group in competition with the man-group. But the man-groups are many and only exist subordinate to individual men's particular goals.

When I was a single woman, I spent a lot of time striving to be more manly/virtuous. But it was motivated by a primary desire to be what my society 'needed' me to be, a motivation that makes manly virtue an impossibility for a woman, because manly virtue involves conquering the short-termist self-interest in favor of the long-term self-interest. The corresponding womanly goal should be to prioritize the best group-interest. Which as you've pointed out, is the family.

Anonymous said...

Do 'we' know enough about the language(s) of the prophecy to know how much the trickiness lies in number (Merry and Eowyn being two, not one) and how much in race and sex (Halfings not being simply Men, and a Woman not being a 'Man' in the sense of a male human being), or in what combination - or selection - of these?

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - I'm not in any serious doubt that the prophecy was assumed to mean the race of Man - but turned out to mean male Man.

Also - I understand that it was *really* Merry that killed the Lord of the Nazgul, although Eowyn got most of the credit!

We are told by the omniscient narrator that Merry's blade was specifically Numenorean-designed to destroy/ disperse-permanently the Nazgul, by counteracting the enchantment that held them together - so Merry's blow sufficed to kill.

However, the characters in LotR do not seem to know this information (probably not knowing the specific design of Merry's sword), and *seem* to assume either that Merry merely distracted the Nazgul and Eowyn killed him; or else that it was some kind of joint effort (Merry's sword *enabling* Eowyn's blow to kill).

Anonymous said...

Your fine account of Galadriel got me starting to brood upon the intricate interrelations of Galadriel's Phial containing the light of the Elven Silmaril borne by the half-Elven Eärendil brought to bear in Book IV, chapters 10-11, with Frodo crying "Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima!" (which the Tolkien Gateway article translates as "Hail Eärendil, brightest of stars!") - though he "knew not what he had spoken; for it seemed that another voice spoke through his, clear, untroubled" (whose? Galadriel's?)) and then Sam saying "Galadriel!" then hearing "the music of the Elves as it came through his sleep" and himself crying "in a language which he did not know":

A Elbereth Gilthoniel
o menel palan-diriel [...] -

addressing Varda in Sindarin! There seem, among other things, interesting analogies here between Galadriel and that other exceptional female being - the Aini become Valie, Varda.

David Llewellyn Dodds

Jonathan said...

Bruce, your comment of 6:55 really ought to be a separate's better than the actual post. I've already cut-and-paste it into my file of quotations.

Bruce Charlton said...

Jonathan - OK, will do.