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Angel Eyes

Tolkien vs. Benioff and Weiss: Portrayals of women

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This grew out of a post of mine (now deleted) on the Rant and Rave. 

Many of Tolkien’s women are in positions of power and forces in their own right without going mad with it or being sadistic. To give examples, Galadriel is the dominant partner in ruling Lothlorien, is tempted by power and rejects it, Eowyn is a shield maiden who is trusted to defend the weak by her uncle, Luthien helps humiliate Sauron in combat and knocks the devil himself out cold with a spell, and Idril masterminds an escape plan from her city in case it’s attacked and fights like a tiger when her cousin tries to rape her and murder her son.

JRR Tolkien gets flak nowadays for his lack of portrayals of women. But it’s interesting to note that of his portrayals of women in political power they’re typically not power-mad and often forces in their own right. To give examples: Melian creates a barrier to protect her people and counsels her husband to reason when their daughter Luthien falls in love with a mortal, Luthien plays an instrumental role in acquiring one of the Silmarils by humiliating Sauron (yes that Sauron), freeing her husband-to-be along with a bunch of prisoners, and knocking Morgoth out, Feanor’s wife Nerdanel chooses to leave her husband when he goes mad with vengeance (technically he leaves her, she chooses to remain behind at their home), Idril creates an escape plan in case her city falls and fights like a tiger when her cousin comes to rape her and murder her son, Galadriel is the dominant power in her realm of Lothlorien and when tempted by power (the One Ring) she rejects it, and Eowyn, a shield-maiden, is trusted to defend the weak at the Battle of Helm’s Deep. 

So how is it that there are more positive portrayals of women in Tolkien’s work written at least 50 years ago than in the entire Game of Thrones series?

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1 hour ago, Angel Eyes said:

This grew out of a post of mine (now deleted) on the Rant and Rave. 

Many of Tolkien’s women are in positions of power and forces in their own right without going mad with it or being sadistic. To give examples, Galadriel is the dominant partner in ruling Lothlorien, is tempted by power and rejects it, Eowyn is a shield maiden who is trusted to defend the weak by her uncle, Luthien helps humiliate Sauron in combat and knocks the devil himself out cold with a spell, and Idril masterminds an escape plan from her city in case it’s attacked and fights like a tiger when her cousin tries to rape her and murder her son.

JRR Tolkien gets flak nowadays for his lack of portrayals of women. But it’s interesting to note that of his portrayals of women in political power they’re typically not power-mad and often forces in their own right. To give examples: Melian creates a barrier to protect her people and counsels her husband to reason when their daughter Luthien falls in love with a mortal, Luthien plays an instrumental role in acquiring one of the Silmarils by humiliating Sauron (yes that Sauron), freeing her husband-to-be along with a bunch of prisoners, and knocking Morgoth out, Feanor’s wife Nerdanel chooses to leave her husband when he goes mad with vengeance (technically he leaves her, she chooses to remain behind at their home), Idril creates an escape plan in case her city falls and fights like a tiger when her cousin comes to rape her and murder her son, Galadriel is the dominant power in her realm of Lothlorien and when tempted by power (the One Ring) she rejects it, and Eowyn, a shield-maiden, is trusted to defend the weak at the Battle of Helm’s Deep. 

So how is it that there are more positive portrayals of women in Tolkien’s work written at least 50 years ago than in the entire Game of Thrones series?

Tolkien's views were old-fashioned for their time, but it's evident that he respected women in positions of leadership.  He was a medievalist and no doubt based his women leaders on Queens and noblewomen in the middle ages.  A woman had to rely more on soft power than a man would have, but she couldn't be a pushover, either.  People like Kettricken and Ronica Vestrit in Robin Hobb's stories seem quite similar to Tolkien's women, IMHO.

D & D's attitudes towards women are those of the average 12 year old boy.

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Posted (edited)
23 hours ago, SeanF said:

Tolkien's views were old-fashioned for their time, but it's evident that he respected women in positions of leadership.  He was a medievalist and no doubt based his women leaders on Queens and noblewomen in the middle ages.  A woman had to rely more on soft power than a man would have, but she couldn't be a pushover, either.  People like Kettricken and Ronica Vestrit in Robin Hobb's stories seem quite similar to Tolkien's women, IMHO.

D & D's attitudes towards women are those of the average 12 year old boy.

There's also a tragic heroine in Morwen. In The Children of Hurin (chapter 21 of The Silmarillion expanded into a 350-page book); her iron will enables her to survive the occupation of her lands without being bothered by the invaders but ensures that she would not leave even for her son Turin's sake, which winds up being one of the first steps in the cruel fate invited upon him due to the defiance of her husband. If GRRM could write a screenplay for any part of Tolkien's work, The Children of Hurin would fit quite well.

Edited by Angel Eyes

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Posted (edited)

I think GRRM maybe tried to make only grey characters in contrast to Tolkiens black or white ones, so thats probably part why.

We have the She-Bears and Asha for a lighter shade of grey, Brienne pretty much white... Granted none of them has a great deal of power en par with Cersei and Dany.

 

I really hope for book-Dany to have a less horrid  road than show-Dany but it does feel like grasping for straws in doing so.

Edited by Sigella
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Posted (edited)

Tolkien has strong women but they don't veer into dangerous moral territory. It's somewhat of a pedestal effect, but not annoyingly so. I like how GRRM doesnt portray women as morally good just because they are women. He doesn't handle women with kid gloves, and that's pretty feminist in my view. I liked how the risk of power corruption can be universal, and how some women in a fantasy medieval society who want to be on top will have to be just as violent, or in some cases, even more ruthless than men. But still, other women can rise only by their wits. I think GRRM implied one time, that he can get away with writing some women as awful, because he has so many diverse female characters, it will protect him from accusations of sexism. We have to get the ending first to see if that's true.

I don't think it's D&D's fault if people only associate Dany's ending with a be-all, end-all statement on "feminism." It's not their fault if audiences fail to appreciate Brienne, Sansa, Cat, and Cersei's characters. Some criticism of the show ending seems to come from a shallow liberal white feminist lens, i.e. to only focus on gender at the expense of disability, or to only focus on "women at the top." Bran's achievement is just as important as a woman's. At the same time, just because a woman is in charge doesn't necessarily mean things are great. I guess I'm an intersectional feminist and maybe GRRM is too? 

The main thing GRRM needs to work on is female friendships. He loves writing about these for men, building scenes and plots around bro bonding and all that, but women have scaps. Sansa had Jeyne, and he separated them early on. Arianne and the Sand Snakes don't feel as fleshed out as say, Ned and Robert or Jon and Sam.

Edited by Rose of Red Lake

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3 hours ago, Rose of Red Lake said:

The main thing GRRM needs to work on is female friendships. He loves writing about these for men, building scenes and plots around bro bonding and all that, but women have scaps. Sansa had Jeyne, and he separated them early on. Arianne and the Sand Snakes don't feel as fleshed out as say, Ned and Robert or Jon and Sam.

Dany and Missandei is pretty nicely depicted friendship to me.

But other than that I think the closest thing we get is Arya and book-waif and Arya and the whores at the happy port.

 

I do get why - Cersei and Taena/Cat and Lysa-types of friendships has a greater entertainment value than a nice and ”pure” friendships that only amounts to giggling and hugging and supporting each other through thick and thin.

 

The male friendships arent entirely pure either imo, Ned lying to/ arguing with Robert and even some fake breakups along the way. Jon and Sam might look pure at first glance but Sam is pretty sour about the baby swap plus there’s room for drama when Jon learns about Bran going beyond the wall.

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9 minutes ago, Sigella said:

The male friendships arent entirely pure either imo, Ned lying to/ arguing with Robert and even some fake breakups along the way. Jon and Sam might look pure at first glance but Sam is pretty sour about the baby swap plus there’s room for drama when Jon learns about Bran going beyond the wall.

I think that anger and sourness shows how much depth is put into it. They have complexity but stand by each other. It's hard to find that with the female characters. Instead of Lysa and Cat, Brienne and Cat are more interesting but it's so short lived.

12 minutes ago, Sigella said:

Dany and Missandei is pretty nicely depicted friendship to me.

Isn't that more mother/daughter in the books?

13 minutes ago, Sigella said:

But other than that I think the closest thing we get is Arya and book-waif and Arya and the whores at the happy port.

For Arya who has never had women friends I guess this is good. They seem like a collection of side characters, that feel more like acquaintences.

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Posted (edited)
On 4/11/2021 at 12:02 AM, Rose of Red Lake said:

I think that anger and sourness shows how much depth is put into it. They have complexity but stand by each other. It's hard to find that with the female characters. Instead of Lysa and Cat, Brienne and Cat are more interesting but it's so short lived.

Isn't that more mother/daughter in the books?

No friendship is ever completely equal, nor any two individuals/characters either so that isn't a reason to disregard them. 

 

Cat and Lysa (granted they're family/related more than friends but right there we have one of the  highest sourness-scores in the entire story, Cat's disastrous visit to the Eerie is soooooo good) is way more fascinating to me than Cat and Brienne. Cat takes pity on Brienne, Brienne comes to respect Cat's "womanly courage". Yawn. ;)

On 4/11/2021 at 12:02 AM, Rose of Red Lake said:

For Arya who has never had women friends I guess this is good. They seem like a collection of side characters, that feel more like acquaintences.

I wouldn't call the waif an acquaintance nor rate a relationship's worth based on how many pages they get. My interpretation on why Arya doesn't have female friends earlier is based off two things; Sansa and Jeyne bullying and a strong internal feminism. Girls don't play with swords, go on adventures etc, why would she want them around when those are the things Arya wants to do? The waif is finally another girl who trains to be an elite assassin.

Compared to Cersei's bitter dead end-feminism ("if I had been born male") or Dany's Aspacian piedestal (same such as Sansa is well underway onto as well) - Arya's feminism seems to grant her more freedoms than the other. Still however Cersei and Dany has been way more power-succesful while they aren't at all free.

Edited by Sigella
spelling ofc

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Posted (edited)
On 4/10/2021 at 12:20 PM, Sigella said:

I think GRRM maybe tried to make only grey characters in contrast to Tolkiens black or white ones, so thats probably part why.

We have the She-Bears and Asha for a lighter shade of grey, Brienne pretty much white... Granted none of them has a great deal of power en par with Cersei and Dany.

 

I really hope for book-Dany to have a less horrid  road than show-Dany but it does feel like grasping for straws in doing so.

Oh Tolkien can do grey characters. The Silmarillion is full of them, particularly The Children of Hurin. Turin for example is directly based off of Kullervo from the Finnish epic poem the Kalevala. His pride and his temper cause him to exile himself from his foster father King Thingol after killing one of his counselors by accident in a feud (Thingol is no saint himself due to racist tendencies) and even after Thingol pardons him, Turin refuses to return. He cares for no other way of resisting Morgoth than force of arms, and this mindset is the direct cause of the destruction of the city of Nargothrond by the dragon Glaurung.

Edited by Angel Eyes

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2 hours ago, Angel Eyes said:

Oh Tolkien can do grey characters. The Silmarillion is full of them, particularly The Children of Hurin. Turin for example is directly based off of Kullervo from the Finnish epic poem the Kalevala. His pride and his temper cause him to exile himself from his foster father King Thingol after killing one of his counselors by accident in a feud (Thingol is no saint himself due to racist tendencies) and even after Thingol pardons him, Turin refuses to return. He cares for no other way of resisting Morgoth than force of arms, and this mindset is the direct cause of the destruction of the city of Nargothrond by the dragon Glaurung.

I’ve only read lotr and the Hobbits tale, I’m not big on fantasy generally, so it might well be Tolkien was more nuanced than he gets credit for.

But isn’t there an ssm that says that thing about Tolkien? And what Tolkien was or wasn’t isn’t so much the question as what Grrm thinks of Tolkien.

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2 minutes ago, Sigella said:

I’ve only read lotr and the Hobbits tale, I’m not big on fantasy generally, so it might well be Tolkien was more nuanced than he gets credit for.

But isn’t there an ssm that says that thing about Tolkien? And what Tolkien was or wasn’t isn’t so much the question as what Grrm thinks of Tolkien.

Martin is not definitive on Tolkien.

Even in LOTR, there is more nuance in the main characters than a lot of people claim.  Frodo is ultimately a failure;  Sam has a temper and is unjust towards Gollum;  Pippin is a twit to begin with, Merry has to overcome his fear, Aragorn can be quite full of himself at times....

And, yes, the Silmarillion is bascially the unexpurgated version of Tolkien's world. 

Martin certainly writes nuanced characters.  D & D did not, at least once they left the source material behind.

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Tolkien's women are never active characters, they are just helpers/supporters of their men and act on their behalf. Mothers and wives protecting their male kin and acting on their behalf if necessary is tolerated ... but independent thinking/actions not so much. Which is why both Galadriel and Aredhel have to pay for being viragos - Aredhel by being raped and eventually killed by the man who becomes her husband, and Galadriel by her continuous exile in Middle-earth (if we go by that version of the story).

Even the Ruling Queens of Númenor are all dreadful women: Ancalime is poisoned against men by her mother and when she rules she no longer grants Gil-galad any help in Middle-earth; Telperien was proud and self-absorbed and never married; Vanimelde was lazy and disinterested and allowed her husband to rule her and her kingdom. Even in the days when everything was pretty well in Númenor ... the fact that there were women ruling over the kingdom wasn't well, and it shows.

It is wrong to assume that Galadriel or Melian rule Lórien or Doriath - their husbands do. They may be wiser and more powerful on a magical/spiritual level but this doesn't interfere with the legal authority they wield. If it were different, then Thingol would have never been allowed to ruin himself and his family and kingdom with his stupid decisions. His wife would have told him to back down and obey her commands, and there would have been eternal peace and prosperity in Doriath.

This also extends to Lúthien who is just a supporting character in Beren's story. He wants the Silmaril, not she, he insists on the quest and later on the return to Doriath. Lúthien wields great power but she never uses it to do what she want, only to get Beren what he wants. And the power she has - like the power Galadriel - is one wielded through physical beauty, not something she actually does. Galadriel as the Dark Lord would enslave the world through beauty, just as Lúthien used her dance and the desire her beauty created to put Morgoth and his court into a trance.

That is the woman as the companion/servant of the man, not as an active person herself. We also see that with the Valier where they are all restricted to the traditional role of consort/companion (Varda, Yavanna) or caring spinster (Nienna) whereas the men are the ones who leave the home and go out into the world (Ulmo, Orome).

There are countless other examples - the fact that pretty much every woman showing up has nothing better to do than to offer the men something to drink, that women usually stay behind when the men do the really important business (evident in most of the Noldor wives who remain behind ... or the interesting fact that Elwing does not accompany Eärendil when he meets the Valar).

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On 4/12/2021 at 4:48 PM, Lord Varys said:

Tolkien's women are never active characters, they are just helpers/supporters of their men and act on their behalf. Mothers and wives protecting their male kin and acting on their behalf if necessary is tolerated ... but independent thinking/actions not so much. Which is why both Galadriel and Aredhel have to pay for being viragos - Aredhel by being raped and eventually killed by the man who becomes her husband, and Galadriel by her continuous exile in Middle-earth (if we go by that version of the story).

Even the Ruling Queens of Númenor are all dreadful women: Ancalime is poisoned against men by her mother and when she rules she no longer grants Gil-galad any help in Middle-earth; Telperien was proud and self-absorbed and never married; Vanimelde was lazy and disinterested and allowed her husband to rule her and her kingdom. Even in the days when everything was pretty well in Númenor ... the fact that there were women ruling over the kingdom wasn't well, and it shows.

It is wrong to assume that Galadriel or Melian rule Lórien or Doriath - their husbands do. They may be wiser and more powerful on a magical/spiritual level but this doesn't interfere with the legal authority they wield. If it were different, then Thingol would have never been allowed to ruin himself and his family and kingdom with his stupid decisions. His wife would have told him to back down and obey her commands, and there would have been eternal peace and prosperity in Doriath.

This also extends to Lúthien who is just a supporting character in Beren's story. He wants the Silmaril, not she, he insists on the quest and later on the return to Doriath. Lúthien wields great power but she never uses it to do what she want, only to get Beren what he wants. And the power she has - like the power Galadriel - is one wielded through physical beauty, not something she actually does. Galadriel as the Dark Lord would enslave the world through beauty, just as Lúthien used her dance and the desire her beauty created to put Morgoth and his court into a trance.

That is the woman as the companion/servant of the man, not as an active person herself. We also see that with the Valier where they are all restricted to the traditional role of consort/companion (Varda, Yavanna) or caring spinster (Nienna) whereas the men are the ones who leave the home and go out into the world (Ulmo, Orome).

There are countless other examples - the fact that pretty much every woman showing up has nothing better to do than to offer the men something to drink, that women usually stay behind when the men do the really important business (evident in most of the Noldor wives who remain behind ... or the interesting fact that Elwing does not accompany Eärendil when he meets the Valar).

At least Tolkien’s women don’t subscribe to bad is good and good is bad.

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