What does it mean to be a woman?
The question has taken on a new urgency in recent years, but it is by no means a new problem. The debate over the essence of women and their equality to men has raged since time immemorial – the only thing innovative about the current iteration is the way that the ancient battle of the sexes has been reframed to focus solely on the accumulation and exercise of power. Based on this premise, the traditional “feminine” virtues, such as gentility, humility, or chastity, are inherently less desirable than the more “masculine” traits of dominance, arrogance, virility, and the like – to the point that anything associated with traditional womanhood (particularly motherhood) must be rejected so that women can finally“take a seat at the table” and achieve equality with men.
This assumption is so deeply imbedded in modern consciousness that depictions of “strong women” invariably involve defying societal expectations by being more fierce, more manipulative, or even just more crude than the men around them. Even when women are depicted within a domestic sphere, docility is still portrayed as a mask which allows them to exert greater control over others – a woman’s true power comes from subverting “traditional spaces”, not embracing them. Few writers in recent times have categorically denied this characterization of women, and, perhaps ironically, the most famous and successful of these was a man – J.R.R Tolkien.
The trinity of women who appear in Tolkien’s popular The Lord of the Rings pose significant problems for modern audiences. Although they all exercise significant influence over the world of the novel, they consistently reject masculine attitudes and attributes. When creating his film adaptation, Peter Jackson attempted to “empower” the gentle princess Arwen and give her greater “agency”, but in trying to fit her into the mold of a sexually liberated action heroine, he ended up merely objectifying her. Critics have likewise struggled with the denouement of the shieldmaiden Eowyn’s quest to establish her glorious legacy, for even after she performs her great deeds in battle, she finds ultimate satisfaction in marriage and motherhood. But Tolkien’s most challenging figure to the feminist narrative is that of Galadriel, the most powerful leader in Middle Earth whose greatest contribution to the defeat of the Devil was not in facing off with him herself, but in sacrificing her pride and embracing her femininity.
Galadriel only appears briefly in The Lord of the Rings, but her influence is felt throughout the novel. From her first appearance she proves herself a woman of great wisdom and experience, but it is clear that she also wields enormous control over everyone and everything in her environment and is used to being obeyed. Her most significant scene is a confrontation with the protagonist Frodo Baggins over the One Ring, a symbolic representation of the will to dominate others. Terrified that the Ring will corrupt his companions, Frodo offers it willingly to Galadriel for her own use. After a deep interior struggle against the temptation, she ultimately refuses. The imagery of the scene, though, indicates a deeper significance to Galadriel’s choice than simply removing her as the current obstacle to Frodo’s quest. And indeed, within Tolkien’s extended writings we find that Galadriel’s entire life has been ruled by the siren call of power –and that her many efforts to seize it directly led to the existence of the evil that now threatens to consume the whole world.
Being a philologist, Tolkien tended to use names to underscore themes in his storytelling– and like Charles Dickens, he often wasn’t subtle in his intent.
Within his legendarium, we find that Galadriel’s birth name was Nerwen (literally “man-woman” in Elvish). As tall as a man and strikingly beautiful, she became an accomplished athlete and scholar – and consumed with a desire to rule her own kingdom. She was the only woman to join with a group of princes bent on the exploration and colonization of Middle-Earth, but after participating in a civil war which resulted in genocide, they were all exiled. Even after being pardoned, she refused to return home and instead founded her own kingdom where she reigned over centuries of peace, prosperity, anda cultural renaissance – a more picture-perfect feminist icon Tolkien could not possibly have conceived.
But in Tolkien’s world, the greatest sin is attempting to impose one’s will on the world by force. At the height of Galadriel’s reign, the Rings of Power were forged by her most talented smiths as magical tools to ward off the very decay of time. But even the benevolent subversionof the natural order which the Rings enabled was sufficient to render their wearers vulnerable to the manipulation of Sauron, a servant of evil who secretly created the “One Ring to rule them all”. Her kingdom fell to chaos and her people were scattered to the winds – in The Lord of the Rings, we find her and her husband in hiding among the last remnants of a lost civilization.
When she changed her name is unclear, but when she refuses the Ring, the former queen pointedly remarks that now she will “diminish, and go in the West, and remain Galadriel.” Tolkien tells us elsewhere that “Galadriel” is not a title, but a nickname from her husband meaning “woman of the trees”. Unlike her birth name, it represents both her identity as a wife and mother and her desire to live in harmony with the natural world (in direct contrast to her previous and ongoing attempts to manipulate it). In resisting the One Ring, Galadriel rejects the feminist paradigm of power and embraces the belief that true strength is found in humility and self-sacrifice. In declaring herself “Galadriel”, she proclaims that her greatest glory has been found in fostering life, both through motherhood and by healing the wounds of the world – many of which she caused herself in her prideful quest for control.
After making this declaration, Galadriel’s focus shifts to mending the rifts between members of the Fellowship and fortifying them for their trials ahead. Her encouraging words reflect a deep understanding of each person’s virtues and potential acts of heroism, and her gifts later prove invaluable not only to fulfilling the Quest, but also to restoring the physical world after the ravages of war. And as the Fellowship departs her land, she quietly but joyfully receives praise of her daughter and granddaughter – the latter will eventually marry the restored king of Middle-Earth and symbolically unite all the beauty and nobility of the old world with the purity and infinite promise of the new. In these explicitly feminine roles, she empowers others to bring about greater peace and healing than she ever accomplished alone.
Unlike most modern writers, Tolkien understood that power cannot and should not be considered the central focus of human existence.
In all his stories, greatness is achieved not by imposing one’s will on others, but in sacrificing one’s will to a higher one and learning to live in love. Men and women are always portrayed as equally capable of vice and virtue and their actions have equal consequences for good or ill – but he does not shy away from acknowledging that the sexes are designed to express love differently, and that these differences have substantial impact on the ways they relate to and interact with the world. Galadriel was a particular favorite of Tolkien’s, and he returned to her story again and again throughout his life. For him, as for us, she represented the eternal truth that women’s unique capacity for giving and nurturing life is not, as modern feminism would have it, a burden to be escaped; rather, it is privilege to be embraced and celebrated.