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Exploring Lewis and Tolkien’s Portrayal of the Feminine

Forums Fiction General Writing Discussions Exploring Lewis and Tolkien’s Portrayal of the Feminine

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  • #147232
    Martin Detwiler
    @karthmin

    The differences between Lewis and Tolkien, with specific regard to the thematic presentation of the feminine in their fiction, is something that has fascinated me ever since the comparison popped into my head. That initial premise was followed by an analysis of their works that I found quite interesting. I’m curious to hear all of your thoughts on this as well.

    This is not intended to start a Lewis vs. Tolkien debate. I love both authors very much and consider them to be my primary literary inspirations.

    Anyway, without further ado.

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    As I compared the various positive female characters in Lewis and Tolkien, I couldn’t perceive much of a difference in thematic placement or emphasis. It is there, I realize now, but my initial considerations didn’t yield many results. It wasn’t until I turned the question upside down and asked about the negative female characters in their fiction that I was suddenly presented with a bunch of clear differences that led me down a long and complicated rabbit hole to some fascinating observations.

    When I compared negative female characters in the works of Tolkien and Lewis, I found that there are very few thematically significant negative/evil female characters in Tolkien’s fiction, but examples pop up quite prominently in Lewis’ works.

    For example, in Tolkien’s entire creation of Middle-Earth, there are only four negative female characters. Ungoliant is the most thematically significant, playing the role of cosmic devourer of light. She is a mysterious agent of malice and chaos taking on the form of a giant spider. Shelob, a dim shadow of her foremother Ungoliant, plays a very similar role in LotR. The third unsavory female character is Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, the personification of petty theft and myopic bitterness (although it is well worth making note that even Lobelia, in the face of real evil, resisted quite valiantly, proving that she is not a perfect negative). The last example of the negative feminine in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth barely deserves a mention, as she is merely the imagined possibility of an evil Galadriel. Nevertheless, the vision of a Ring-wielding Galadriel proves that Tolkien was at least aware of the potential of the feminine becoming altogether negative.

    Of these four, the most thematically significant are Ungoliant and Shelob; for all intents and purposes, they play the same role and can be conflated without issue. I believe they are symbolic of the devouring mother, to make use of a Jungian archetype that Jordan Peterson sometimes makes reference to. The devouring mother is the epitome of femininity gone wrong – instead of giving birth and nurturing offspring to become independent and successful, the devouring mother overtakes the life of her own offspring and sucks it out of them (in Shelob’s case, quite literally; in Ungoliant’s case, rumor has it she ate the life out of her own self). This is femininity gone wrong.  But, interestingly, that’s as far as Tolkien goes with the negative feminine. All the other instances of significant female characters in Middle-Earth are overwhelmingly positive. And for what it’s worth, the really big bad characters are all male.

    In contrast, the perennial personification of evil and temptation in Lewis’ Chronicles is female. It’s not even subtle. From the get-go, Queen Jadis escapes a dying world and introduces evil to the pristine newness of Narnia, slipping into the role of Satan in Lewis’ symbolic parallel to Biblical history as if she was made for it. Now, it is worth remembering that a man, Uncle Andrew, is the ultimate reason that she was able to travel between worlds; and even more than that, Digory is personally responsible for ringing the bell that woke her. But for all that, The Silver Chair reintroduces a female personification of evil, and with this second iteration, a serpent is blatantly thrown in as her true form. The biggest, baddest characters in Lewis’ Narnia are female. Not even Tash, the false god of the Calormen, plays such a pivotal symbolic role.

    As soon as I realized this, I knew that Tolkien and Lewis were approaching gender in their stories quite differently from one another. I knew from Lewis’ other works that he was not a misogynist, but was an appreciator of what femininity brings to the world – life, cultivation, compassion, and beauty, among many other things. For example, Perelandra (Lewis’ imaginative recreation of an Edenic setting) features a sinless female character being tempted by a thoroughly evil male character.

    Which brought me back to thinking more closely about Lewis’ Chronicles. In these works, I feel like the female aura is almost bipolar – varying from domestic healer on the good side, to temptress on the evil side. As stated at the outset, the most succinct personification of evil comes in a perennially female form. The idea of an Evil Queen is not the only image Lewis uses for evil (think of Tash, the Calormen, and the Telmarines), but it is still pertinent that from the outset, Queen Jadis is put in direct opposition to Aslan.

    This gendered moral polarity is not maintained throughout the lesser characters within the series – women are just as likely to be good (or evil) as men are. In fact, although Susan ultimately walks away from belief in Narnia, it is Edmund who commits the ‘greater’ sin of treachery (narratively, it is treated as a greater error because the absolution of his treachery results in Aslan’s death). Polly, Lucy, and Jill, are all important main characters who fill roles, fundamentally, as good characters. Other significant positive female characters are domestic (Mrs. Beaver), healers (Lucy), and/or love interests (Ramandu’s daughter).

    Most of the characters in Chronicles ride a line between good and evil, and their arcs are examples of individual character growth, rather than cosmic principles. The only plausible explanation for Lewis creating a specifically female personification of evil (twice!) is that he was a thorough medievalist, and loved And, guess what? In medieval literature, the motif of the Evil Queen is quite thoroughly entrenched.

    Taking that motif and tumbling it through the throes of the hodge-podge mythology that Lewis concocted, it’s easy to see why it all begins with Jadis. I find no reason to think that he meant anything sinister or demeaning by it. Rather, by examining the full and diverse cast of characters throughout the whole series, I have determined that the focus of Lewis’ work tends to stick very close to the inward process of individual change.

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    By contrast, Tolkien painted with far broader strokes to showcase his worldview, as we’ll explore below. His female characters appear to be contributing to an overall picture of the thematic emphasis and purpose of femininity as a cosmic principle (in concert with masculinity).

    I have concluded that for Tolkien, femininity is the cultivator/redeemer of the world through beauty. This likely stems at least in part from Tolkien’s Catholic belief in Mary as the pinnacle of the feminine archetype. Conversely, the masculinity is either a destroying influence through power (if evil), or a guarding, cleansing, and healing influence (if good). We often seen the masculine and feminine working together to bring redemption/goodness to Middle-Earth.

    The feminine fingerprint in Middle-Earth is not violent or interventionist. Instead, it is healing, preserving, and cultivating. Melian does not storm the gates of Nargothrond, but sets up a defensive, impenetrable girdle of mist and confusion that keeps all evil out of her husband’s kingdom. Even Luthien, her daughter, who actively intervenes against evil by entering Nargothrond with her lover Beren, does so via subterfuge; and her showdown with Morgoth himself is perhaps the most beautiful example of ‘redeeming’ the world through beauty. Luthien sings to Morgoth, and the sheer beauty of her song lulls him into unconsciousness.

    That is Tolkien’s ideal of femininity in the face of evil. Fighting violence and destruction with pure beauty – and winning.

    Goldberry and Tom Bombadil are then, perhaps, a perfect microcosm of the male-female dynamics which Tolkien invested into Middle-Earth. Tom guards his self-appointed realm, and in so doing empowers Goldberry with the space to work her essentially feminine magic of preservation and cultivation.

    Galadriel, too, maintains her realm against the darkness, making fair Lothlorien perhaps the nearest approximation of Valinor in Middle-Earth. And half a step behind her, playing a supporting and empowering role in her cultivation? Her husband Celeborn. In addition, the ring of power she wields is an empowering influence that was created by a man. The masculine, in Middle-Earth, empowers the feminine to fully engage with the redemption of the world.

    Arwen is possibly the weakest example of these dynamics. However, she still acts as the mainstay of Aragorn during his long vigil as a guardian and ranger, and only enters his realm after he has cleansed and healed it, thus making it a fit place for her femininity to have full effect.

    Showing this same dynamic in disintegration, consider the ents and the ent-wives. The ent-wives loved cultivation, while the ents loved shepherding the forests, wandering far and wide. Unfortunately, they were not able to combine their roles, but separated so that they could cultivate and shepherd, respectively. Apart from the male presence, the ent-wives pass out of the story (symbolically, at least). Meanwhile, apart from the female presence, the ents begin to fall slowly into decay, having lost the life-source of cultivation. Nevertheless, the males are still able to enact a bitter price against Saruman in their cleansing male role. They still guard and cleanse, but cannot do so forever. They are falling asleep without the preserving, cultivating presence of the feminine.

    And before you start with, “But Eowyn!” (the only real possible counter-example I can think of), consider that she begins her arc from a place of bitterness and discontent, exacerbated by the caging and disempowering atmosphere of failed and perverted masculinity (represented by her uncle Theoden and his counselor Wormtongue, respectively). And by the end of her arc, she has found peace with herself (and her femininity), and moves smoothly and readily into the role of cultivator/redeemer of Ithilien alongside her husband Faramir.  Yes, she (quite literally) fills a masculine role during the battle of Pelennor Fields, and it’s that very mask which creates the perfect situation for the downfall of the Witch-King of Angmar; but by the end of her arc she has moved beyond the need to take up the masculine mask, and lays down that mantle willfully. Why? Because she found healing at the hands of Aragorn, and in Faramir discovered an atmosphere of empowering masculinity: love that did not seek to possess, but to treasure. In this atmosphere she thawed, blossomed, and was able to fulfill her role as a cultivator of the world (restoring Ithilien with Faramir).

    If I had the memory and time for it, I’m pretty sure that these same dynamics could be drawn ad nauseum all the way back to the beginning of the Silmarillion. But I do not have the time nor the memory for that endeavor. Suffice it to say, that’s my best crack at the thematic significance of the feminine (and masculine) as seen in Middle-Earth. Do any other examples come to mind? Counter-examples? I’d love to hear them!

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    There are massive, fascinating differences in the way these two authors interacted with femininity in their fantasy, and I am here for it. Let me know what you think! I’d love to hear any of y’all’s thoughts, additions, subtractions, divisions, or multiplications.

    -Ka

     

    #147298
    Daeus Lamb
    @daeus-lamb

    Cool discovery!

    I just have to say, there’s actually a negative female character in unfinished tales. She’s the wife of one of the Numenorian princes and they grow apart (both of their faults) and she basically raises her child to hate the father. 😛

     

    #147314
    Martin Detwiler
    @karthmin

    @daeus-lamb Oh neat! I read Unfinished Tales so long ago that the details are pretty fuzzy. Good catch!

    I wonder if one could make a case that Eol’s wife is a negative example as well. I’m having a hard time remembering the exact details of that situation… was all the bad on Eol’s shoulders?

    #147404
    Bethany
    @sparrowhawke

    @karthmin

    Great insights! I really enjoyed reading that.

    "Can't have dirty garbage."

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