Tag Archives: Lord of the Rings

Fantasy Fiction – A Closed Book?

I’ve always been a big reader. I’m one of those people who always has their head in a book, and I do mean always. Just last week I walked into someone getting off a train because I wanted to finish my chapter. But the one genre I’ve never really been able to get into is high fantasy. When I pick up something like The Lord of the Rings, I have to force myself to finish it, and even then it can take me weeks. To put that in context, I once read five books in a weekend, and that was fitted around getting a haircut, going for a meal and going on a long walk with my family. I practically eat books.

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Mmm-mmm, tasty words. (image: giphy.com)

But high fantasy has always been the exception for me. When I pick up a book called something like ‘The Noun of Nouns’, or ‘The Somethingborn’, I can feel my enthusiasm shrivelling up. When I flick through the first few pages – and see maps, character lists, timelines, translations and glossaries, all with apostrophes sneezed all over them – it’s a safe bet to say I won’t be picking that book up again.

And, to be honest, I’m not really sure why that is. High fantasy has some incredible stories, rich and varied world-building and memorable characters. Look at The Lord of the Rings: it’s a story that has endured for decades and completely reshaped the genre. It’s an epic tale of good vs evil and the heroics that ordinary people are capable of. I know I should like it, but a couple of pages after the hobbits meet Tom Bombadil and my eyes glaze over.

Before we go any further, here’s a quick run-down of the different types of fantasy stories. I’ve missed a lot out for brevity’s sake, but hopefully the following definitions might be useful:

  • Comic fantasy: does what it says on the tin – fantasy fiction that’s also funny.
  • Epic or high fantasy: set in an alternate world and dealing with themes and characters on an epic scale. Battles of good vs evil are a pretty common feature. Tends to be very long
  • Gaslamp fantasy: fantasy fiction set in Victorian or Edwardian-inspired worlds. Often crosses over with steampunk.
  • Magical realism: a few fantasy elements incorporated into a real-world setting.
  • Urban fantasy: fantasy fiction set in cities. Can often cross over into YA
  • Weird fiction: basically Cthulhu.

Most other types of fantasy I don’t have any problems getting into. Discworld, one of my favourite series ever, fits comfortably into the comic fantasy niche. I’ve read gaslamp fantasy on and off since the age of about twelve. Magical realism and urban fantasy have some incredible writers in their stable – Neil Gaiman, China Mieville and Angela Carter, to name a few. And weird fiction is one of my favourite things to read, as long as I can keep all the lights on and I’m not in the house all by myself.

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I mean. (image: vsbattles.wikia.com)

But I’ve never had that same draw to epic fantasy. Looking at the basic elements, I don’t really know why. Battles on grand scales are great! Good vs evil? Sign me up! Incredible world-building? Yes please! But apart from a few exceptions (GameofThronesGameofThronesGameofThrones), if you put these elements in a fantasy setting they just lose their appeal for me.

I think a part of this comes from the style in which most fantasy books tend to be written. A lot of well-established fantasy writers draw on historical and mythological text for their source material, and the style can seep into the writing. It’s often very stiff, formal language. You’ll have seen it before: authors will say ‘for’ instead of ‘because’; characters are not ‘drunk’, they are ‘in their cups’, and a lot of things tend to get prefaced with ‘the very’, as in “it was as if the very soul of the land cried out for vengeance”. That’s a style that doesn’t sit well with me, even though it’s true to the old sagas or epic poetry that the stories are based on. I find it very dry and convoluted, and personally I don’t think that’s what you want when you’re describing orcs hacking each other to bits.

But a much bigger part of why I’ve never got into epic fantasy as a genre is because a lot of the time, I just don’t feel welcome there.

When I look at the majority of epic fantasy stories I often find it incredibly hard to relate to the characters. A lot of epic fantasy stories, particularly the swords-and-sorcery type, focus on warriors and wizards battling it out. Most of them are men, and what female characters there are can be fitted into a few very limiting categories: captured princess, quiet healer, booby sorceress or tavern wench. And that’s when they’re included at all. In The Lord of the Rings, the Bible of epic fantasy, there are three speaking female characters. They’re great characters with meaty storylines, but there are still only three of them. Considering The Lord of the Rings was basically a template for epic fantasy for decades, this didn’t get much better. There were some exceptions, of course, but as a general rule women in epic fantasy were there to be rescued or married. They couldn’t go on the adventures – what if their boobs got in the way?

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Heh heh heh. Boobs. (image: giphy.com)

As the genre has progressed this has become less of a problem, but the problem does still exist. Modern fantasy stories often make a huge effort to include diverse and complex female characters who fit a range of roles. However, in the vast majority of fantasy stories, the society in which these characters exist continually holds other women back. The protagonists are exceptions, and we’re never allowed to forget that. This is where fantasy world-building can let its characters down. These protagonists can be brilliantly written and interestingly flawed women, but if all your background characters are demure ladies or cackling tavern wenches, the reader can still pick up a subtle whiff of disdain.

The most common justification for this goes as follows: epic fantasy is based around a specific time and place, namely Medieval Europe (and more specifically, Medieval Europe from about 1150 – 1450). Societal and gender norms were pretty rubbish for women in this period, and it’s often seen as a matter of accuracy for this to be reflected in fantasy fiction based on the period. But there’s two main arguments against this. The first is that epic fantasy’s version of the Medieval period isn’t all that historically accurate. We have plenty of historical evidence of women in the Medieval period kicking arse: Joan of Arc, Isabella of France, Black Agnes and Christine de Pisan, to name a few. There’s further evidence of ordinary women owning businesses, winning court cases and being respected figures in the community. The second argument is this:

…it’s fantasy.

Why should epic fantasy have to be historically accurate? It isn’t historical at all. It’s perfectly fine to use historical settings as a basis, but there’s no real need to stick to them. I mean, if you can include dragons and wizards and magic, why can’t you include female characters who get treated with respect? People say that’s not realistic – well, neither are enormous fire-breathing lizards who talk, sleep on piles of glittery treasure and fly on wings that physically cannot support their weight.

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In reality they would just crawl about like big spiders. (image: bt.com)

And female characters aren’t the only characters that often get shafted by works of epic fantasy – everyone does. Homosexual characters are rarely represented in the classics. There’s all sorts of weird racial stuff going on in a lot of classic epic fantasy as well. But when you have an entire genre that bases its characters on the archetypes you see in centuries-old legends – which weren’t exactly known for their strong characterisation – those are the kind of characters that are always going to be a part of that genre.

It must be said that more modern fantasy has made a tangible effort to break away from these kinds of stereotypes. A Song of Ice and Fire, for all its (many) flaws, includes a variety of female characters in nuanced and compelling roles. N.K. Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy has a mixed-race female protagonist and deals with racial prejudice as well as gods kicking each other’s teeth in. Lynne Flwelling’s Nightrunner series is set in a world where bisexual and homosexual relationships are treated exactly the same as heterosexual relationships. And these are just a handful of books – there are plenty more epic fantasy novels out there which make a conscious effort to move away from the archetypes that have defined the genre for decades.

All of this is a really positive step forward. With more representation in fiction we get better and more original stories – if your fiction all comes from the same group of people, sooner or later it’s all going to be the same. But there’s still a certain amount of gatekeeping that goes on with epic fantasy fiction – just look at what’s been happening with the Hugo Awards. I do wonder if this is reinforced by the way that some of these books are written. The convoluted language, the pages of maps and heraldry at the beginning of every book and the endless appendices can really put people off. It’s often these kinds of books that are seen as the most ‘worthy’ among fantasy fans, and I do have to wonder if that isn’t because they’re so difficult to get into.

But that’s all by the by. While epic fantasy might not always be for me, I’m always willing to give it a chance. And there’s plenty of other subgenres to keep me interested in fantasy as a whole – even if some of them do include weird tentacle-faced monsters.

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Apart from this little hell-angel. (image: imgur.com)
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Strong Female Characters: Eowyn

For those of you that don’t know, Eowyn is one of a handful of female characters from JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The plot revolves around a bunch of hobbits who have to chuck an evil ring in a volcano or the world will essentially end, and Eowyn helps them on their quest in a roundabout sort of way. As I’m sure you all know, The Lord of the Rings was a massive, slow-burning success – I’ve discussed this before, but the books were the source of countless characters, settings and themes that have become staples of modern fantasy, eventually coming to define the genre as we know it. Eowyn herself is a huge part of this, and some scholars and critics have come to regard her as a proto-feminist character.

But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!

 

  1. Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?

Eowyn is another one of those characters who has a significant part of her destiny already laid out for her. She is the Lady of Rohan, directly related to the ruling family – as such, certain things are always going to be expected of her. She’s always going to be responsible for the fate of her country in some capacity, whether she likes it or not, and this would have been at the forefront of her upbringing. Some things are completely out of her control – such as when she has to stay and care for her uncle, Theoden, because she is the only one who can prevent him from falling further under Grima Wormtongue’s influence.

That said, she does a lot to try and get things back under her control. She’s an accomplished warrior and rider – clearly having trained since quite a young age – and this is how she tries to protect and serve her country and her friends, rather than staying at home and looking after Rohan. It’s not much of a choice, but she does choose to stay with her uncle and look after him when she could leave – she wants to protect him as much as she can, even though she knows it’s almost impossible. When he’s cured, she then goes on to disguise herself as a man and sneak off into battle with the rest of her friends, and when she gets there she cleans up like a boss.

giphy eowyn
GET HIM (image: giphy.com)

This is definitely not what’s proscribed for her by her noble birth – it’s made very clear that women in Middle Earth are almost universally expected to take a much more traditional role (with considerably less kickassery involved). As a noble lady she’s inevitably going to have to shoulder some political responsibility just because of the position she was born into – usually it’d be something a lot more like the role of a hostess. Eowyn may not get to choose the responsibility she’s handed, but she does get to choose how she handles it – despite what other people expect of her.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

  1. Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?

We don’t hear an awful lot about anybody’s hobbies in The Lord of the Rings – what with all the battles, they don’t often get a quiet evening to go to a dance class or something – but we can make a few educated guesses. Given Eowyn is a member of the Rohirrim (who are a very horsey lot), it’s safe to assume she enjoys horse-riding, and seeing as she’s trained as a shieldmaiden when this would be unusual for a woman in her position, we can assume she also enjoys fighting in some capacity.

But this is mostly conjecture. Her goals and beliefs are much more clearly defined, and they’re also pretty closely linked. She very clearly believes that she has a real duty to her people, and this informs most of her goals. She wants to stop Grima influencing her uncle, she wants to fight alongside her friends, and she wants to stop Sauron’s armies from advancing because doing so would keep her people safe. On a more personal level, she also dreams of doing ‘great deeds’, and half-believes and half-fears that she will one day be trapped in a more traditional role, and spends most of the novels trying to escape the ‘cage’ in which other men want to place her. That’s multiple goals and beliefs on several different levels, so I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

  1. Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?

By and large, Eowyn is a pretty consistent character. She’s brave, spirited, stern, and can be quite cold – but she’s also extremely determined and sticks to what she wants. Her skills are pretty consistent too; she remains a good rider and fighter all throughout the series.

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Not to mention her excellent hair. (image: giphy.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

  1. Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?

A brave, determined young noblewoman is desperate to protect her people and her friends – and to prove her own capabilities – by any means necessary.

SCORE SO FAR: 4

 

  1. Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?

Eowyn does have a love life, but like many other characters in The Lord of the Rings, it very rarely influences her decisions. She has a crush on Aragorn that doesn’t really go anywhere throughout most of the books, and later gets together with Faramir. She frequently begs Aragorn to let her come with him on all his various escapades, and while you could make the case that this is the result of her love for him, I’m not so convinced. I think it’s much more likely that she asks to go with him as a result of her desire to protect people, and because she doesn’t want to be left behind in her ‘cage’ – although in fairness, you could probably interpret it either way.

For me, I think it’s really Eowyn’s sense of duty that motivates her, rather than romantic love. The reason I say this is that while her uncle Theoden is still under Grima’s control, she stays with him even though she’s in a situation (and a role) that makes her feel like she’s trapped – while she probably could get away by marrying someone, she knows that if she did she’d be abandoning her people to Grima and Saruman’s control. When Grima is kicked out of Rohan and Theoden rides off to battle, she does stay behind to rule Rohan in his absence, because there’s no-one else to do it – it’s only when they try to leave her behind again that she disguises herself as a man and sneaks off to war. At this point in the books, Aragorn is the one trying to leave Eowyn behind, and her frustration with him is pretty clear; personally, I see this as the point where she starts to fall out of love with him, but I suppose you could see her following him off to war as a sign of her devotion. It really comes down to opinion, and seeing as I don’t see it that way, I’ll give her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. Does she develop over the course of the story?

Eowyn doesn’t really change that much over the course of the novels. She’s a pretty static character – brave, determined and a little on the stern side – right up until the end of the last book, when she decides that she doesn’t want to fight anymore and becomes a healer. We don’t really see much of her reasoning for this decision, so it’s a bit out of the blue – she pretty much abandons everything that used to be important to her with very little explanation. I’m withholding the point.

giphy sword eowyn
I’m in trouble. (image: giphy.com)

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Eowyn doesn’t really have much of a weakness, either. She’s very stern and cold, but this is often presented as a sign of her strength or her suitability to rule. Her strong sense of duty sometimes works against her, but more often than not it’s used to illustrate just how noble and self-sacrificing she can be. I suppose you could argue that she might be a bit on the reckless side given that she runs off to battle without telling anybody, but I really don’t think this is the case, considering how well-trained she is and how well she manages to keep her true identity hidden. Aside from these – which often work in her favour and don’t really hold her back – she doesn’t really have any weaknesses. I’m withholding the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?

Eowyn isn’t a huge influence on the plot, but she certainly makes her mark. Most of the time she functions as a character who holds things back rather than someone who makes them happen. She holds back the full extent of Theoden’s madness while he’s under Grima’s influence, she creates a lot of tension when she tries to convince people to let her fight, and she keeps Rohan safe while the men are away at war. She’s not always a character at the forefront of the action – more often she’s used as a character to keep things in stasis while the really exciting parts are happening elsewhere.

But of course, the biggest thing she does in terms of the plot is take down the Witch-King of Angmar like a TOTAL BADASS. Because of an ancient and very carefully-worded prophecy, she was literally the only person who could have done this, and if she hadn’t been there he would have slaughtered pretty much everyone. Never send a man to do a woman’s job.

SCORE SO FAR: 6

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

In some ways, Eowyn can be seen as a really progressive character. She’s a noblewoman who’s expected to be demure, passive and retiring, but instead she proves herself to be a strong ruler, an excellent rider and a ruthless warrior. She’s always presented as a strong character and she’s also something of a feminist – there are a few moments in the novels where she confronts other characters on their sexism and goes out of her way to prove that she is just as capable as a man.

But then, when the battle is over, she falls in love with Faramir, marries him, and decides to give up on fighting altogether. There are still a few more battles to be won – admittedly not as many after Sauron’s defeat, but there’s always a few loose ends. However, after spending two books desperate to do great deeds and prove herself as a warrior despite the gender prejudices she faces, she immediately hangs up her sword the second she gets a boyfriend.

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Is it possible to pull a muscle from rolling your eyes? (image: giphy.com)

This is a real setback for her character. It’s not that she found love that’s the problem: it’s that when she found it, she immediately gave up on everything she based her life around, everything that meant so much to her, and everything she spent her life fighting for. This draws on an age-old stereotype about women – the belief that any tomboy will immediately transform into a paragon of perfect femininity when she meets the right man and settles down. It reinforces the stereotype that women still have to put up with today – the belief that all women really want is a good man to marry and make babies with.

But where does this leave all her badassery?

Eowyn is pretty much a reincarnation of the ‘shieldmaiden’ – a character traditionally found in Old English, Norse and Scandinavian folklore. It’s a catch-all term for a female warrior that pops up in a number of different cultures – mostly in folklore and sagas – but unfortunately, nobody knows if they actually existed in real life. A regular feature of Viking mythology in particular, shieldmaidens pop up as young women, break some heads, and then either settle down with a nice Viking boy or die a grisly death.

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And Vikings were GOOD at grisly. (image: painting.history.blogspot.com)

While shieldmaidens can certainly be seen as quite a progressive element because of the fact that they know how to wave a sword around, some scholars think that because of the ways their stories end, they were actually meant as a way to warn women about stepping outside the boundaries of traditional gender roles. Shieldmaidens either go back to their traditionally feminine roles when they accomplish their quests, or keep on fighting (which was still a man’s role in most Scandinavian societies) and die a horrible death as some kind of punishment.

Eowyn falls right into this trap. In The Lord of the Rings, the Witch-King of Angmar is the subject of a prophecy that says no man can kill him. Eowyn is there to fulfil that narrative purpose – she is not a man, and she kills him. Once she does this, she has done the job her character was created to do, and she fades into the background once again. Like her counterparts in the Old Norse sagas, she’s a progressive and interesting character while she is on her quest; once she’s completed it, she steps right back into the cage she was once so afraid of.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, Tolkien based the mythology of Middle Earth on Old English, Scandinavian and Norse folklore – he was actually a Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University. We shouldn’t be surprised that Eowyn’s character draws such clear parallels with the shieldmaidens of the Old Norse sagas, but it does throw her character into a different light. Essentially, she is only allowed to be a progressive character when the story demands it. Her foray into warfare is painted as a temporary endeavour. It’s easy to draw another parallel here between Eowyn’s role and the role of women in the Second World War, which inconveniently took place right when Tolkien was trying to write. Much like Eowyn, when the men were away women were expected to step up and take on the roles they left empty when they went off to fight; but when the men came back, women were expected to go right back to where they were.

It’s pretty clear that this is what’s influencing Eowyn’s character, and this really enforces the stereotype that the main focus of a woman’s life is settling down and having children. Anything else she might do – even if it’s stabbing the Witch-King of Angmar in his actual face – is only a temporary distraction. I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 6.5

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Eowyn simply doesn’t relate to other female characters. We never see her have any kind of interaction with another woman that’s given any kind of substance – at most, we see her delivering a few token lines to her servants or subjects. This is very disappointing considering that there are quite a few female characters in the books with very different roles, but we just never really get to see them interact with each other.

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No such thing as a girls’ night in Middle Earth. (image: giphy.com)

Part of this is due to the way that female characters are written in The Lord of the Rings. There’s no woman in the fellowship, and the female characters that we do meet don’t tend to travel all that much – as a general rule, they tend to stick to their particular area of the map. The result of this is that even though there is more than one female character in The Lord of the Rings, they all effectively exist in isolation. What this means is that they don’t just function as characters in their own right – they come to exist as representations of femininity in their own particular cultures. Eowyn doesn’t act on behalf of all women in Middle Earth, but it’s very easy to see her acting on behalf of all women in Rohan. I’m withholding the point.

FINAL SCORE: 6.5/10

 

Eowyn is a character who takes control of her own destiny, has distinct goals and beliefs that drive her through the series, is consistent in both skills and personality, isn’t ruled by her love life and pushes the plot along – but she still hasn’t passed my test. Aside from her lack of development, weaknesses and relationships with other female characters, she’s a bit too shaky when it comes to gender stereotypes to completely ace this test.

I think that part of this is due to the way that The Lord of the Rings is written, and the mythology that inspired it. As I discussed earlier, a lot of the plot is inspired by Scandinavian legends, which tend to focus on the exploits of men on the battlefield. A lot of it could also be to do with the style in which it is written. The books are written in very old-fashioned language which draws heavily on both Classical and Anglo-Saxon epic poetry, which tends to be a bit too high-minded to really develop the flaws of more than its main heroes. This is a common feature of many myths and legends, which don’t usually discuss the personalities of their heroes and heroines in enormous amounts of detail. It could also be because of the conservative time in which the books were written – as I’m sure all of you know, Britain in the 1930s to 1950s was one of the most socially conservative places in the world, and this would have inevitably influenced Tolkien’s writing.

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Let’s not forget that only one in ten married women had a job back then. (image: pinterest.com)

Regardless of Tolkien’s influences, there’s no getting away from the fact that Tolkien’s female characters are largely background characters. They’re excluded from several stretches of the story – such as the initial journey of the fellowship and several of the main battles – and we only ever see one significant female character at a time. They aren’t treated as unique characters in the same way that their counterparts are, and nowhere is this more clearly emphasised than in the way their stories end. Tolkien’s female characters all get happy endings in the form of happy marriages – even Eowyn, who was terrified of being shut in a ‘cage’ and dreamed of glorious battle.

Next week, I’ll be looking at the Pirates of the Caribbean. Elizabeth Swann, I’m coming for you.

 

 

And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.