Lord of the Rings as Chick Lit

I proclaimed my geekdom (again) by “liking” LotR, The Hobbit, and Peter Jackson on Facebook.  Plus, I got all teary when I watched a video from the set of The Hobbit.

My one gripe with Tolkein – and it’s not a unique one – is the lack of chicks in these stories.  Here he created a vast mythology, encompassing multiple ages, cultures, and peoples – but his women seem to be an afterthought.  It’s as though he figured that in any medieval setting, we’d just assume the women were stuck inside embroidering while the world ended.  What gives, J.R.R.?

Samuel Beckett (stay with me now) strenuously objected to casting women as Vladmir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot.  The justification I’ve heard for this is that he wanted the play to be about a human situation and – like it or not* – in our society the default human is male.  That is to say, Lord of the Rings isn’t just about “warrior-bonds** between men,” it’s also about a human struggle to maintain hope in the face of despair.  It follows that women don’t need to limit themselves to identifying with Eowyn – we’ve also got the full company of the Fellowship.  Which is nice, really – they get more screen time.

It seems like people often limit themselves to identifying with characters of the same gender.  I wonder why?  I like Eowyn because she, as a woman, takes the risk of fighting in the guise of a man, but I also like Boromir because he struggles with knowing which is the right course of action.  I know at least two men who love Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching books, which have a female protagonist – so I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in being able to identify with opposite-gender characters.  I still believe that it’s important to have strong female role models in literature (and film and theatre), but after all, Tolkein created a vast mythology, encompassing multiple ages, cultures, and peoples.  Maybe I should give him a break.  Maybe it’s enough that he created strong human characters.

*I don’t.
**Genuine or parodied.

8 Responses to Lord of the Rings as Chick Lit

  1. Nicely put as usual. I wonder if Tiffany Aching is popular with certain gents (mine being one) because her character is rather logical and direct. Possibly more guy-ish, which is not surprising seeing as how she was written by a man.

    How many guys out there like Jane Eyre?

    (p.s. if none of that made sense, blame it on the caffeine!)

  2. Lol, it makes sense to me. Tiffany isn’t a “girly girl.” If she was, these gents might not think she was so cool. Likewise, I’m not likely to love a book about a guy who’s only concerned with cars, fights, and getting laid.

    But I also wouldn’t be interested in a female character who only cares about designer clothes and lipstick. I think that all is hard to chart, because it’s partly about interests and personality, partly about gender – and both our interests/personalities and the interests/personalities of the characters are influenced by our and society’s gender-based expectations…

    The recent Jane Eyre film was recommended to me by a guy, and I have another guy friend who loves Pride and Prejudice – but that’s hardly an extensive survey. Any gents want to chime in?

    (There, and if that doesn’t make sense, I can’t even blame caffeine!)

  3. Great read, my friend! I must admit that I didn’t miss the females in the book (or movie since they dropped the only really cool one and Tom entirely) as I have always identified closely with Sam. I am *so* not a girly girl and cannot identify with those delicate flowers. I appreciate Tiffany because she is such a wonderful mix of gender/sex characteristics. I get exactly where she is coming from – one the best literary characters ever for me. Another good one…Thursday Next from the Jasper Fforde series.

  4. Thanks! :)
    Totally agree re: Tiffany. She rocks. I love Terry Pratchett for making the heroes of his books the characters who do the jobs that needs to be done, even if they’re hard, rather than the characters who are all frilly and glamorous.
    Yes, Thursday Next is awesome. I started that series and have been saving it for plane flights and other dire circumstances… ;)

  5. I haven’t read Tiffany Aching, but I agree that Thursday Next is an awesome character that I think both men and women could identify with.

    As a female who has role played male characters in Dungeons & Dragons, I don’t think you’re alone in feeling something in common with opposite-sex characters. However, I have also noted your observation – that readers often limit themselves to connecting with characters of the same gender. I wonder why this is? Maybe part of it is that, in our modern publishing industry, authors have to know their target audience and cater to them. A book meant for women to read will often have a female main character. It is possible that a man could like this character, but the rest of the book would be geared toward a typical female reading that genre. Maybe that means romance, or lots of makeup and gossip, or whatever is standard for the genre. I think that might deter a male reader, and therefore keep him from identifying with the character. It’s kind of sad that it ends up working this way, that many people type cast the kind of character they are going to follow. A lot of authors I’ve read seem to be capable of making a book that could be enjoyed by everyone, but they end up needing to write to a specific following. Genre writing sells and they need to make a living, you know? I was kind of thinking of the Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs here. Mercy’s a strong female character, practical and brave. A lot of people could feel something by reading of her strength of heart. But, I think the romance and sensuality meant to entertain the women likely to buy the book might make it a little inaccessible to the men.

    It’s funny you should mention that you wouldn’t be into a girly girl character who only cares about lipstick and such. I would have thought the same thing about myself until about a week ago. Long descriptions of designer clothing? I have no need for it! The different names of nail polish? Not my language! But then I read Karen Marie Moning’s Fever series. Not high literature, I know, but a fun ride none the less. The main character starts out as this Barbie, all blond hair and high heels. I was sure I’d hate it. But, it turns out that something so light can be important in a very dark book. I still didn’t like the girliness, but I appreciated that there was a character trying to hold onto something positive and bright when everything was hopeless and bleak. And she changed. With some characters, it’s not a huge leap of the imagination that they are able to survive in their circumstances. If a character starts out soft, sitting by the swimming pool in a bikini having a drink, it is a lot more interesting to see where she finds the fortitude and drive to adapt throughout the story.

  6. Sorry, this ended up being a long comment. Here’s part 2:

    So The Lord of the Rings. I agree he could of added a few more women. I can only think of a few things that might have led to their omission. Well, not omission, since that sounds like he’s actively excluding them. I feel more like he just forgot to involve any of them.

    If I’m not mistaken, the four hobbits were based on himself and his three close friends in WWI. In them, I feel we get the most human experience – the fear, the undying hope, the sense of discover, the burden of responsibility. If this was inspired by his experiences, surrounded by male soldiers, I can see why he didn’t immediately sprinkle some women in there. Writers tend to go along with their vision for the story, and if his vision was tempered by memory, he might not have wanted to change it much. It wouldn’t have felt right.

    I’m sure you’ve read about how LotR characters can be identified as the archtypes in Campbell’s Hero of a Thousand Faces. These types are neutral, but, like you said, the default for our culture is male. Tolkien was male, so his characters ended up male. Maybe he thought only men would be reading his books, and that they would identify better with male characters. It didn’t have to be that way, but that’s how it turned out, maybe just as an oversight. Maybe all the powerful people he knew were male and that seemed like the most logical way to go about it for him. Wasn’t he a university professor for most of the middle part of the 20th century, most likely surrounded by other male faculty members?

    I think that LotR draws from a lot of different stories and mythologies, and many of those stories had mainly male characters in them. I love to find the themes of Beowulf in LotR. So much of that story was about what it means to be a hero, and what it means to be a king, and what responsibility is. Love it, and it’s definitely something worth basing an epic trilogy on. Even in Beowulf there was only one woman. Queen Wealthoew’s role was small, but she still had some important parts, like showing how a guest is honored with drink (and showing us that serving respectfully was nothing like the guys in the bar slapping some lusty wench’s butt when she brings their mead) and defending her son’s inheritance. She kept it together and showed some diplomatic balls. If Tolkien was going from examples like this, I can understand that his women played small, but crucial parts. Galadriel gave Frodo the star that was his light. The witch king could not have been killed by a man, but Eowyn took it down.

    If all his experiences and inspirations pointed to male characters, I don’t think he can be blamed for lining up a mostly male cast.

    If you want to read a female character by JRRT, read about Beren and Luthien in the Silmarillion. It’s one of my all time favorite stories, and Luthien gets to have some adventure and kick some butt.

  7. Megan,
    Love your comments!! No apologies for length. Yes, those are all very good reasons for Tolkien to have populated his ‘cast’ the way he did.

    That’s also a good point about the ‘barbie’ character! In Handling Sin by Michael Malone, the protagonist is a middle-of-the-line, middle-America, suburban dad, and I thought I’d never get into the book. But he ends up going on a crazy quest, and the book is an absolute blast. So there are always exceptions and good uses for all sorts of characters.

    Yes, I also agree that authors typecasting their characters is part of the equation. Maybe it’s changing, though? When I was in high school, I read a lot of fantasy and I remember feeling a lack of good female protagonists. Now, there’s Graceling and Fire, there’s Hunger Games, there’s Wither – a whole host of new, strong female protagonists in fantasy and speculative fiction. Of course, there are also gossip girl type books, which I haven’t read but assume are more stereotypically “girly.”

    So, I guess another question is, now that there are kick-arse female characters out there, are guys buying and liking Graceling and Hunger Games? I’d say, just based on the covers, that those books are being marketed with at least the possibility of a male as well as female audience in mind…