When I was a teenager, I was a massive Lord of the Rings fan. I would count down to the release of each movie, see them multiple times in the theater, and could pretty much recite Fellowship of the Ring from memory. I read the books over and over, my internet usernames were all elf-inspired, and I dreamed of one day owning a replica of the Evenstar.
I loved Arwen, but my favorite female character (not that there were many to choose from) was Eowyn. What a badass she was. To my teenage mind, The Lord of the Rings didn’t have many female characters, but the ones that existed were awesome.
Then I made the mistake of rereading the books in college. Suddenly I wondered why everyone was male, except for a couple of elegant elves who were mostly off-screen and a hobbit who exists to get married. I was disturbed by the racist tones that ran through the whole thing. But most of all, I was heartbroken by Eowyn.
Because Eowyn, as she exists in the books, is not a badass feminist figure. Not by a long shot. She does several badass things, disguising herself as a man to ride with the Rohirrim and defying and killing the Witch King to protect Theoden. But the book always presents her from a distance, with constant references to her “fairness” and her “beauty,” as though she is something to be seen, rather than a person who acts. And in the end, her fighting, her defiance, is presented as unnatural. She’s a delicate and beautiful lily, warped by necessity, and as soon as she sets eyes on Faramir, “her heart changes.” She declares that she will be a shieldmaiden no longer, and instead dedicate herself to being a healer — a far more suitable female pursuit. It’s almost as though she fought the Witch King because the legend needed someone weak and otherwise unlikely to do it (after all, no MAN can kill him), because the world was wrong and it needed something similarly wrong to do it, something that left Eowyn utterly broken and scarred and as hard as steel. And once the world is healed, she can heal too, and be the womanly figure she was always supposed to be.
The release of The Hobbit was equally sad for me. I wanted to enjoy it. I wanted to love it. But all I could think was why, barring a somewhat forced appearance of Galadriel, did not a single female face appear in the movie. Never mind significant female characters. Never mind flat or stereotyped or useless female characters. None. A huge cast of main characters, and all of them were male. My thirteen year old self would have just accepted it as normal (in fact, I did, when I read the book for the first time). Now, I have to wonder why this was considered a good, normal thing.
I still love many things about The Lord of the Rings. Its perspective on good and evil is incredibly simplistic, but it has some compelling elements, and the movies manage to avoid a lot of problems I found in the books. But as I read the books, I can tell that it clearly wasn’t written for anyone like me. The female characters weren’t intended to be characters. They were not intended to be people with independent roles in the story. And I have to wonder — why did I miss these things at 13, or 15? Had I just been trained to see these things as normal? Or was I so desperate to see fantasy and adventure stories with any female characters that I was more than willing to overlook the problems in what I was seeing? These women were warriors and elf princesses, with pretty fantasy dresses and awesome horseriding skills and swords. It was great to imagine being them, and to skim over the details in the books themselves that suggested the characters had never been who I hoped and pictured them to be.
And so finding out that I had misread the characters, that Eowyn and Arwen were never intended to be heroines in that way, that in fact their “heroine” status was taken away by the end of the story? That was a heartbreaking moment.