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Aragorn – a feminist’s nightmare?
This essay has annoyed some people in a way that I did not intend. Please read this carefully. I am not, repeat: not saying that Tolkien was a misogynist. I am asking, and this is a serious question, whether he had a purpose in mind when he portrayed Aragorn (and Aragorn only!) in this way. Dreamflower keeps reminding me that Tolkien mostly identified with Faramir. Aragorn and Faramir are two different, contrasting models of manhood, and one might wonder why Faramir gets the woman the author initially intended for Aragorn. I mostly wrote this piece to stimulate some debate and would be interested to hear people's views.
MEFA 2010 First Place
Women are far and few between in Lord of the Rings, and Tolkien shows us little of their lives and concerns. That is understandable, given that the tale deals chiefly with war, in which women would have had no active part, and I wouldn’t shout “misogyny” for that reason. But Aragorn! Aragorn’s attitude to women simply sucks.
Éowyn, in spite of her infatuation with him, sees this very clearly: “All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more.” (ROTK, The Passing of the Grey Company) This was spoken in bitterness, but it wasn’t far off the mark. Throughout the story, Aragorn indicates that to his mind women are serviceable and decorative objects. Aragorn may be gallant at times, but even in his gallantry it is evident that he thinks of women as things. Let’s consider two key passages:
In the appendix A of ROTK we hear of the first meeting between Aragorn and Arwen. What does he have to say? “Often it is seen that in dangerous days men hide their chief treasure. Yet I marvel at Elrond and your brothers; for though I have dwelt in this house from childhood, I have heard no word of you. * How comes it that we have never met before? Surely your father has not kept you locked in his hoard?” While the comparison between Arwen and Elrond’s treasure hoard is intended to be flattering, it shows that Aragorn thinks of her as an object in the possession of her father and, to a lesser extent, her brothers. That she has been locked away is the only reason he can think of for not having met her before; the idea that she might have an independent live doesn’t even occur to him. *
He makes a similar comment, this time about Éowyn, in the chapter Many Partings in ROTK. When Éomer announces the engagement of Éowyn and Faramir, Aragorn says: “No niggard are you, Éomer, to give thus to Gondor the fairest thing in your realm!” He refers to Éowyn as a “thing” that is transferred from the possession of her brother to the possession of her husband. This about the woman who slew the witch king! Note also that the only quality he mentions here is “fair”. Éowyn’s courage and success in battle do not concern him, only her looks. Likewise when Éowyn is in the Houses of Healing, he is distressed by her state of injury “for she is a fair maiden, fairest lady of a house of queens.” (ROTK, The Steward and the King).
Oh, yes, beauty. When he first meets Arwen, he is captivated by her beauty, and when they say their last farewell, he calls her “fairest in the world.” In one hundred-and-twenty-two years of marriage, he doesn’t seem to have learned to appreciate any other quality in her. Faramir admires Éowyn’s valour and is touched by her vulnerability, Sam’s affection for Rosie appears to be based on a long-standing friendship, but for Aragorn it’s a pretty face all the way.
Faramir looks forward to his marriage with Éowyn in terms of what they will achieve together in the restoration of Ithilien (“...let us dwell in fair Ithilien and there make a garden. All things will grow with joy there, if the White Lady comes.” ROTK, The Steward and the King). But Aragorn never gives any indication that Arwen will contribute to the rebuilding of Gondor in any way apart from providing him with an heir. Her purpose, apart from being breeding stock, is to be decorative.
Other women don’t fare much better, either. In ROTK, The Houses of Healing, Aragorn mocks Ioreth as being a chatterbox (“run as quick as your tongue”), because she has dared to speak five or six consecutive sentences in his presence, most of which were concerned with ascertaining she was thinking of the correct herb. Given Ioreth’s age, it also seems very insensitive to tell her to run.
In appendix A we hear that on leaving Rivendell, Aragorn “took leave lovingly of Elrond”, but to his mother he only “said farewell” along with “the house of Elrond”. Why is the foster father thus distinguished, but the mother not? Why did Gilraen not get a loving farewell, but was lumped in with all the other folk living at Imladris as if she was of no special significance to Aragorn? When Gilraen, feeling the approach of death, says: “I have given hope to the Dunedain, I have kept no hope for myself,” does she maybe indicate that while Aragorn is set to fulfil his destiny, he has failed her personally as a son? He does go away and leaves her to die alone, without making any arrangements to provide for her comfort and company.
How is Aragorn’s manner towards Galadriel, the most powerful female in Middle-earth and indeed one of the most powerful people full stop? He speaks to her in a businesslike tone that is at least not condescending, but shows no particular reverence. When Galadriel gifts him with the sheath and asks if she can do anything else for him, his reply is: “Lady, you know all my desire, and long have you held in keeping the only treasure I seek. Yet it is not yours to give me, even if you would.” I note as an aside that once again Arwen is spoken of as an object (“treasure”) and as not being in charge of her own life (“held in keeping”). Most crucially, though, this reply strikes me as rude, because it means as much as You have nothing to give me that I care to have. As if Galadriel hadn’t just provided him and the whole fellowship with shelter, food, clothing, transport and some handy magical gadgets. Then he continues as follows: “O Lady of Lorien of whom were sprung Celebrian and Arwen Evenstar. What praise could I say more?” This to Galadriel! With all she has done and achieved in several millennia, Aragorn thinks the best he can say about her is that she has a very pretty granddaughter.
But let us return to Éowyn. In the conversation between Aragorn and Eowyn, it is the man who defines (and thinks it is his right to define) what the woman's duty is, and it is the woman who questions his right to do so and insists on her right to define such things for herself. She actually asserts her right to decide whether or not duty must be the overriding principle by which she constructs her self-concept, in defiance of the man who tries to put duty down as the law for her. Eowyn argues that while the task might have been given to a man, it has de facto been given to her. The operative term here is “been given.” It wasn’t her own choice, but a role appointed to her, by men. What Aragorn does is demand that she submits to the role chosen for her by others. What Eowyn does is demand that she would choose her role herself.
The other thing that Eowyn questions is why it is considered a man's duty to ride into battle and a woman's duty to "wait on faltering feet." She rightly points out that men have chosen for their duty that which gives them honour and social status, whereas the duties assigned to women (by men) are those for which they cannot expect to receive much in the way of a reward and acknowledgement.
So, Eowyn gives us a whopping speech that would count as at least proto-feminist and - and this is the crucial point - the author vindicates her by the way the plot develops. If she had listened to Aragorn, who'd have slain the witch king? In a way, Tolkien includes with this plot line the very discourse of feminism that dominated much of the early part of the twentieth century. Aragorn represents the traditional, paternalist view, Eowyn the liberal, feminist one. But by turning the story the way he did, I think Tolkien is taking sides with Eowyn. If he had really wanted to endorse the paternalist stance, he would have made her fail. But she not only succeeds in battle, but also in romance, and her romance, not Aragorn’s, is the one that is filled with warmth and depth.
Did Tolkien mean to portray Aragorn as sexist? Is it just chance? Is it the standard fantasy/fairy tale cliché? Or is Tolkien himself making a stand for a more progressive model of manhood and womanhood, by contrasting the “traditional” pair Arwen/Aragorn with the “modern” pair Eowyn/Faramir? Can anybody find an example where Aragorn does speak of women more respectfully? Does anybody want to hit me over the head for criticising their favourite character? Go ahead!
* As a side note, it strikes me as odd that Aragorn has never even heard Arwen being mentioned. Surely her father and brother talked of her occasionally? "Here's a letter from your sister," something like that?
Just in case anyone feels like saying that LOTR was written before the feminist movement: Mary Wollstonecraft's "Vindication of the Rights of Woman" was published in 1792. The first feminist mass movement arose during the last third of the nineteenth century.
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