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30 June 2009 @ 03:18 pm
The Problem of Ancalimë  
My brother and I have been spending the past few days re-watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Which is an interesting experience in and of itself, surprisingly lacking in recriminations against Peter Jackson (excepting the elves at HD scene, which was totally unacceptable, especially when the sons of Elrond and the Dunedain could have easily been used for the same role and been far less thematically damaging), constant digressions about how frakking awesome Galadriel was (House of Finwë FTFW), giddy fangirlism of Glorfindel, an impromptu romp through the HoMe series, and finally, sad nostalgia during every battle scene considering how much more epic everything in the First Age must’ve been. And yes, every ridiculous stunt Legolas pulls in the movie just goes to show how much more awe-inspiring Maedhros et al had to have been.

Anyway. This re-watching made me remember just how influential a fandom everything Tolkien related had been to me, and left me rethinking some of the conclusions I had come to concerning it. So what follows is, in short, a look at the gender issues involved in parts of the story (especially where the Eldar are decidedly not consistent), what exactly is going on with the Númenorean Kings (yes, this is me discussing – and perhaps appreciating even above the Noldor – the Edain; shocking, but true), and recasting my opinion of Lúthien Tinúviel in light of some of what is written in the tale of Aldarion and Erendis.

I’ll start with Arwen, because as often is the case, she’s where my feminist digressions begin. For those of you with whom I haven’t discussed Tolkien for about half a dozen years, I’ll explain my problems with her, with the comparison between her and Luthien, and with the discrepancies between book and movieverse!Arwen. The final point is probably where I most differ from other purists. Though I probably don’t even begin to qualify as a purist, shut up.

When I first read the book, I missed Arwen. Literally. When she shows up at the end to marry Aragorn, I’m wondering where the frak this relationship came from, because I sure as hell didn’t see it. Some of that is probably my old high school inattentiveness, but still, her complete passiveness in the book really bothers me.

Thematically, I understand it. The Eldar are leaving Middle-earth; they are intentionally portrayed as no longer having much of any agency outside of giving counsel; Legolas was therefore the least effective of the Walkers, etc. So it follows that Arwen sit out the war – the feminine passive, as opposed to Eówyn’s feminine active like whoa – with the rest of her people, since she herself is still an Elf. Sort of.

Still, I don’t like it. At all. I don’t like it because of the constant favourable comparison between Arwen and Luthien. Arwen is not Luthien. Arwen is nothing like Luthien. Luthien would never have simply stood aside while Beren strove to prove himself to Thingol. Luthien was agency incarnate… she forged her own destiny, challenged every rule, every law, every source of authority, every step of the way. She made Mandos listen to her; she made Morgoth listen to her. She almost single-handedly succeeded where every Eldarin man had failed. (Yes, Beren gets credit as well, but the point is that he here occupies the supportive, secondary role more commonly associated with the heroine. Role reversal FTW.)

It is this, and not her beauty or her ultimate fate, that makes Luthien such a compelling character, I believe.

Arwen is… not Luthien. Not unless we are truly expected to believe that the most important thing about Luthien, the one thing that needs to be reproduced to be able to make that comparison, is the beauty and perhaps a sort of quiet courage.

So for this reason, I actually prefer movie!Arwen (in FotR, at least), who despite all problems in the character, actually has a character, and one that one might begin to compare to Luthien.

So I turn from this character to Galadriel High Queen of the Noldor of Lothlorién, who, in her uncanny, ambitious, and wise beyond words glory, is probably my… fifth? favourite character in the Ardaverse.

And now, looking at this character, I start having serious issues with Tolkien.

Morgoth’s Ring. Laws and Customs of the Eldar. I’m not going to do direct quotes, because all I had with me at the moment is UT, which is where I ultimately want to end up with this post, but. But. The Eldar, male and female, are supposed be roughly equal in all things – granted, males favour some activities, and females other, but they are stressed to be valued equally. Why, therefore, the obvious patriarchy?

House of Finwë.

In versions where Gil-Galad is the son of Fingon, I can accept the way in which the High Kingship is passed down, minus the bit of weirdness of Turgon taking the throne for a bit. However, where Gil-Galad is Orodreth’s son, I cease to understand. Fingon leaves no heir; why does the High Kingship not pass to Idril’s descendents (unless the human blood is a problem), and thus remain within the House of Fingolfin, rather than skipping to the House of Finarfin? In any event, why the hell doesn’t Galadriel get the crown after Gil-Galad’s death, seeing as how she is every bit as much a member of the House of Finwë as any of her uncles, cousins, or brothers, and likely a more capable leader than all but… two? three? of them (Finrod certainly, I'd argue Maedhros, possibly Turgon, and I laugh at just about all of the others).

It bothers me, particularly because Tolkien comes right out and tries to claim that gender equality is a given among the Eldar.

Thinking on this always makes me think more favourably of Númenor, so I went back the other day to check out everything available on the Numenorean Queens – all two and a half of them – and rediscovered a couple characters I’d overlooked.

Tar-Ancalimë FTFW.

Actually, to be honest, she’s kind of scary. She’s kind of incredibly scary, and I still haven’t decided exactly what to make of it. Ancalimë, first Queen of Númenor, is presented as a child of a broken marriage who, through her own contrariness, manages to undo a lot of the work her father had done. I love the touch of feminist critique that Tolkien brings to his own works concerning Erendis and Ancalimë, but there are elements in it that are extremely disturbing.

My biggest criticism of the Silmarillion (wives of the sons of Fëanor, where, much less who, are you?), voiced by Erendis, and thus Tolkien:

“Thus it is, Ancalimë, and we cannot alter it. For men fashioned Númenor: men, those heroes of old that they sing of – of their women, we hear less, save that they wept when their men were slain” (UT 207). She says more, of course, but this is what jumped out at me most, not simply because it’s so true, but because it has made me recast my criticism of Luthien Tinuviel. But more on that later.

Why is this troubling to me? Because right here is as honest, painful a criticism as can be made, and I look at the characters who are making it, and I wonder exactly what is intended to be read from this. Erendis and Ancalimë are both powerful women deeply – fatally, in Erendis’ case, and in more ways than one – wounded by the patriarchal society in which they live. A patriarchy so pervasive that the original rule concerning women inheriting the sceptre was that if they did not marry by a certain time, they would have to step down. And they don’t overcome it. At all. Erendis self-destructs, and Ancalimë, now distrustful of all men because of her mother's influence, strikes out at everyone around her, going so far as to deny her women and then her granddaughters the right to marry. Pursuing her own incredibly dysfunctional marriage, seemingly out of spite.

So there you have it – the old stereotype of the raging misandrist feminist who is more an object of scorn than anything else. Am I supposed to be sympathizing with such a character (I do regardless, obviously, as I do with the House of Fëanor), and in the midst of such rabid hatred, how now might one interpret Erendis’ criticism of the stories of the heroes of old? Is it meant to be just another example, like so much else in the story, of a woman blinded by hatred and rather insane, or… a legitimate criticism?

It is a legitimate criticism, nonetheless; I’m simply not certain that Tolkien himself intended it is much, and it does seem somewhat problematic that it would be brought up in such an ambiguous light.

Oddly enough, I’d never actually taken this criticism into account when I tried to decide how I felt about Lúthien (as it is, I vacillate without warning between adoration and rage). On one hand, all of the old fairytale tropes are shattered in her story. The Princess rescues the Hero from the Monster, first and foremost. The Hero then attempts to dissuade her from his Quest, and fails. Quite miserably. Under her power more than anything else, they then manage to accomplish more than any Elvish male ever has before well, Maedhros managed to get into Angband, but I don’t think that counts, and then the ultimate choice falls to her and her alone: Valinor or mortality.

(To be completely honest, yes, there is a large degree of idealization going on in the character, but this is an epic mythology of a higher age. She is no more idolized than any of the Noldorin Kings, and considering her self-destructive obsessive tendencies, hardly more perfect than some of them.)

On the other hand, here we have the most powerful living weapon the Eldar have, and she sits out of the entirety of the First Age until one mortal man arrives, and then, as if her agency is tied entirely to his being, she becomes active. And then, after he fades from the story, she does as well, as if the only thing that ever mattered with the character was how she related to her spouse.

This is a flaw. This is an enormous flaw, but one of the story, not the character, I’ve come to decide.

From an in story perspective (from an out of story one, the culprit is clearly the gender problems of the time period and the teachings of the Catholic Church), this is… exactly what Erendis says it is. It is story told by men, recounted, possibly orally, over generations by Eldarin and then mortal men, because women are by and large not the tellers of tales. Even among the Noldor, the women love histories, as is told in L&C, but it is the men who are the chief poets, and thus it is their stories that get passed down and then subtly perverted by mortals.

I’m uncertain as to why I never before considered the absence of a voice and inability to tell one’s own tale in Lúthien’s case, since I’ve attributed it to the Fëanorian legacy many times (those who have survived to tell the tale are largely those who would have no incentive to be remotely sympathetic to the circumstances of the House of Fëanor, considering which… his eldest sons come off surprisingly well), and thus wondered just what was left out in the retelling.

In Lúthien’s case, everything apart from her tragedy, I would imagine, which does not necessarily mean that she was sitting idly in Doriath, awaiting her Destiny, but that, as Erendis says, “of their women we hear less, save that they wept when their men were slain.”

TL;DR: Lúthien’s hard-core awesome and I’ve finally decided I love her, though the Fëanorions (and Finarfinions and Finarfiniel) still come first.
Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful
Cygna-hime: Lonely Dreamers--hiragizawacygna_hime on June 30th, 2009 08:19 pm (UTC)
You make many very good points, here. I haven't read all (or even most) of the Tolkien miscellany, but I have always been by turns annoyed and interested by the women who do appear. Especially Galadriel, because she is made of win. And should completely be High Queen of the Noldor, considering that, whoever's son Gil-galad was, she is the only surviving member of her generation, and the only pure-Eldarin member of the House of Finwe still on the Hither Shores. I find it interesting that her daughter marries Elrond. It looks very like the old tying-the-lines-of-succession-together gambit. Maybe the Eldar are too long-lived to think that way, but...

Interesting discussion of Luthien. I never found the absence of the rest of her story very annoying, since the genre is such that the only character in the Silm whose whole story and whole life we really get is Turin, of all people. Literally everyone else is patched together from mentions here and there, of battles they fought in or children they had, as though that was all their lives. So Luthien not coming onstage until the suitably epic-romantic bits of her story picked up does not bother me particularly. Besides, she is, as you say, agency incarnate.

She is also the classic hero: the semi-divine, the demigod who has by nature power enough to challenge the gods and fragility enough to die. Beautiful though she is, she's no Helen, a prize to be fought for and over. She knows what she wants and goes to get him, and no father, husband, or god is going to stop her. ♥

I'm inclined to think that Tolkien meant Erendis's words to be a valid criticism, but I'm not sure how much of that is rational and how much is the fact that it *is* a valid criticism, and I *like* Tolkien, and thus I *want* him to have seen that, so that I can respect him. So: I will consider rationally. Tolkien gives a character this statement. Where would it have occurred to him that this statement could be made? Well, from the epics he had read, for one. And in my opinion and experience of feminist critique, the fact that he noticed something missing suggests that he meant Erendis to be speaking the truth.

In my opinion, the biggest single problem feminism, particularly literary feminism, has ever faced is people not noticing the problem. (I am informed by several conversations with my father, who simply does not notice that the numbers of men and women in fiction are way off, that women are viewed primarily or only in relation to men, that I am not exaggerating.) I think that for the idea to have occurred to him, Tolkien must have then accepted it as valid criticism. It's an argument that, in my experience, once it occurs to people at all, tends to carry the day. The only real opposing position is not to have noticed (because it is objectively, obviously true, and Mr. Serious Historical and Literary Scholar could not have failed to discover this once he addressed himself to it).

So, I conclude that Tolkien's treatment of women was deeply flawed, but not because he wasn't trying to think about it; rather, because only the last decades have given us the tools to make any kind of acceptable resolution. (Not that we have done so, but now it's possible.)
Rhaella: Julia - Cowboy Beboprhaella on June 30th, 2009 08:38 pm (UTC)
I've been see-sawing with Luthien for a long time... love to hate to love to confusion, and I've had some serious arguments concerning female idolization and the character, and just how powerful (or harmful) of a feminist statement she actually makes. Hence my serious problems with the character. The fact that Fëanorion partisanship seems to have made me racist against Sindar doesn't help, oh my God, what.

I too... would definitely love the think that Tolkien meant it legitimately. But then... well, I made the mistake to check out "women" in the back of the Letters of JRR Tolkien, and... um, well. He came off as a bit of a raging misogynist. My favourite parts were that women don't actually find sexual humour funny, and that women are ultimately receptive; with some rare exceptions, an intelligent woman can understand anything her male teacher imparts to her, but can go no further. And I'll admit that yes, this is quite a step up from a lot of what was being said at the time, but there's so much there that's still problematic, and his angry Catholicism didn't help.

Galadriel FTFW, yes yes. <3 Seeing characters like her, like Eowyn to a lesser extent, and like Luthien... it's a bit of a two-sided sword, because the ways in which Tolkien succeeded along gender lines just makes his failings that much more obvious and hard to accept. For me, at least.