I've been a Tolkien fan since Legolas' actor was in diapers, and I used to play Elrond on TV.
Strong Women in Tolkien
J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit is justly infamous for having not one single female character, apart from a couple passing references to Bilbo's mum, Belladonna. The Lord of the Rings is a little better, with Galadriel, Éowyn, and Arwen, although the latter is relegated mostly to the appendices.
Tolkien was born in the Victorian age, fought in World War I, and spent his life as an Oxford scholar and professor. Women tended to move in different spheres from those where he exercised his military and professional duties. So he wrote about men as the active movers and shakers. When he mentioned them at all, he portrayed women outside of domestic roles as rare exceptions to the rule.
Nevertheless, there are some fascinating and inspiring female characters in Tolkien's Middle-earth. Most of them come from his writings about the First Age, published posthumously by his son Christopher in The Silmarillion and the History of Middle-earth series. Let's take a look at some of these strong women in the man's world of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings:
- Lady Haleth
- Idril Celebrindal
- Lobelia Sackville-Baggins
- Melian the Maia
- Lúthien Tinúviel
- Morwen Eledhwen (Elfsheen)
- Yavanna and Varda (Elbereth)
- Elanor Gamgee
This is not an exhaustive list. I'm skipping Galadriel, Éowyn, and Arwen, whom you know, and concentrating on other, less well-known characters. I've also omitted Aredhel, Nerdanel, and others for whom we just don't have much information.
Haleth is that most rare of Tolkien characters: a strong human woman who doesn't take guff from anybody. She stems from the First Age of Middle-earth, ancient history to The Lord of the Rings.
After her father and brother were killed in an orc siege, Haleth defended their rugged band of woodmen until the Elven cavalry arrived, politely refused the Elf-lord's offer of protection in exchange for fealty, led her people on an epic journey through a deadly wilderness prowled by giant spiders, and founded a new refuge for them in the forest of Brethil on the outskirts of the great Elven kingdom of Doriath.
When the king granted the People of Haleth permission to settle on the condition that they swore to bar orcs from entering Brethil, their feisty leader retorted:
'Where are Haldad my father, and Haldar my brother? If the King of Doriath fears a friendship between Haleth and those who have devoured her kin, then the thoughts of the Eldar are strange to Men.' (The Silmarillion)
Aragorn's distant forebears included the People of Haleth, although the lady herself never wed.
Idril Celebrindal is my personal favorite, a wise woman, a prophetess, daughter of King Turgon and grandmother of Elrond. She was the first of three Elves to wed a mortal man, Tuor, and the only one of the three not to die for it. Their son, Eärendil, became a symbol of hope.
The story of Idril and Tuor appears in brief in The Silmarillion and more fully in "The Fall of Gondolin" chapter of The Book of Lost Tales 2. Gondolin was one of the greatest Elf-kingdoms of the First Age, but it was betrayed to the enemy by the king's nephew (who lusted after Idril, his own cousin) and utterly destroyed by dragons, balrogs and orcs.
Foreseeing the coming disaster, Idril had a secret escape tunnel delved from her own house out under the city walls, its exit concealed far out in the valley where the Hidden City was built. She spread word of this refuge to trusted friends, and she and Tuor led a portion of Gondolin's people from the city's sack, rescuing them from death or enslavement.
Idril and Tuor gathered together the surviving exiles of Gondolin and of Doriath, after it also fell. They at last sailed west to Valinor and never returned, petitioning the Valar to save the Free Peoples of Middle-earth from the forces of evil threatening to overwhelm them. Idril left behind her magical green gem the Elessar, which had healing properties. It eventually passed down Aragorn, who wore it and took it as his king-name.
(Note: while Tolkien mentions Idril arming herself in mail, Arwen's sword Hadhafang, supposedly an heirloom of her great-grandmother, was actually an invention of the films' prop department.)
- "Idril's Foreboding"
Beautiful pencil portrait of Idril; includes some good Idril quotes from Tolkien's writing.
I have to give a shout-out for Lobelia, wife of Bilbo's cousin Otho. Forever trying to get her hands on Bag-end, Lobelia was not well pleased when Frodo was adopted as Bilbo's heir.
Yes, Lobelia was a greedy and conniving old bat who pilfered Bilbo's silver spoons, yes, she was rude to both him and Frodo, but the old lady had spirit. When Saruman fled Isengard and took over the Shire (a chapter dropped from the films), Lobelia took an umbrella to the leader of his "ruffians" and got herself hauled off to jail.
When she died, she left her fortune to Frodo to be used for assisting hobbits left homeless or destitute by the pillaging of Saruman's thugs.
- Lobelia Sackville-Baggins
Quick portrait sketch by Larry MacDougall.
Melian the Maia
While we're making the survey of Middle-earth's races, we must mention Queen Melian, who owes something (I think) to Spencer's Fairie Queene. Melian was a Maia, the same kind of immortal being as Gandalf, a semi-divine species akin to angels.
At the dawn of Middle-earth she fell in love with (or seduced?) the great Elven King Thingol. Together they founded Doriath, a forest realm of which Lórien and the Woodland Realm of Mirkwood are tiny echoes founded by survivors of Doriath's fall.
Melian had great powers of foresight, healing, and sorcery, enclosing Doriath in "the Girdle of Melian" which mazed and confused intruders so that they usually could not penetrate the forest. Her handmaiden was Galadriel, who learned her mistress' arts (including the making of lembas) and used them when she came to rule Lórien.
Queen Melian appears as a background figure in The Book of Lost Tales 2, in The Silmarillion, the Children of Húrin, and in practically all of Tolkien's writings that were not turned into films.
- Melian with Lembas
The queen offering a package of lembas, Elven waybread, imbued with her magical healing powers to sustain the body on long journeys.
- The Meeting of Thingol and Melian
With accompanying Tolkien-quote. (Elwë is another name for Thingol.)
Lúthien is a name you know, even if you've seen the films: daughter of Thingol and Melian, she was the "fairest elf-maid who ever lived," inheriting her father's nobility and her mother's magical powers. Arwen is supposed to resemble her.
More than six thousand years before The Lord of the Rings, Lúthien fell in love with the mortal man Beren. Thingol, appalled by his daughter's choice, mockingly promised Lúthien's to Beren for the bride-price of a Silmaril. These magical gems had been stolen and bound into the crown of Morgoth, the great Enemy of the First Age to whom Sauron was a mere servant.
It was therefore a death sentence, and against Melian's counsel. Thingol never dreamed that his own daughter would break herself out of house arrest and use all her magical powers to aid Beren, healing him and disguising their appearance with illusions, allowing them to sneak into Morgoth's throne room where Lúthien hypnotized Morgoth and his guards so that Beren could liberate a jewel from the Dark Lord's crown.
Thingol relented when they returned, but their newlywed joy was short-lived. Beren died fighting a supernatural giant wolf of Morgoth that penetrated Doriath's defenses. Lúthien died of heartbreak, sang before the thrones of the Valar (the gods), and persuaded them to let Beren return to life for a time in exchange for her own immortality.
Trivia: The grave of Tolkien and his wife Edith bears the epithets "Beren" and "Lúthien."
- Lúthien | Ted Nasmith
This is perhaps the most famous portrait of Lúthien. It's by Ted Nasmith, a well-known Tolkien illustrator who was hired as concept artist for the Lord of the Rings films.
Morwen Eledhwen (Elfsheen)
Morwen, cousin of Beren, was a stern noblewoman who lived during the disastrous final years of the First Age when Morgoth's forces were overunning Middle-earth. There are many versions of her story, but the most readable is The Children of Húrin.
After her husband Húrin was captured by orcs in the Battle of Unnumbered Tears, their lands were seized by the Easterlings, barbarian Men under Morgoth's sway. However, the chief of the Easterlings was terrified her and would not harass her household.
Shrewd and strong-willed as she was, Morwen could not avert the dreadful curse of Morgoth from dooming her and Húrin's children. The travails of the children, Túrin and Niënor, are an epic-length tragedy, but in short: tormented by dragons, unwitting incest, mutual suicide when they learned the truth. During the epilogue, Morwen and her aged husband are reunited at their children's tomb.
Yes, Tolkien can be pretty danged depressing.
- Morwen and Túrin
Great portrait by Marya Filatova, capturing Morwen's personality and steely gaze for which she gained the nickname "Elfsheen."
Yavanna and Varda (Elbereth)
Unlike the races of Middle-earth, the Valar of the Undying Lands are almost equally divided between male and female. These immortal beings are like the gods of ancient mythology, except that Tolkien makes clear that Eru, God, is their creator as well as the world's.
Valië/Valier are the feminine forms of Vala/Valar (singular/plural). The two Valier about whom we know most are Yavanna, the Earth-goddess, and Varda / Elbereth, the "star queen" and wife of Manwë, king of the Valar.
Middle-earth is Yavanna's garden, and she asked for the creation of Ents to protect the forests. The Two Trees of Light were brought to fruition through Yavanna's magic, and when Morgoth killed them, she saved two fruits from them to become the Sun and Moon.
Varda placed the Sun and Moon in magical vessels and set them to sail in the sky so that light would not pass from the world. (The Silmarils, also, preserved a remnant of the Light of the Trees.)
The Elves, who had been born and dwelt for long ages under the stars, prayed to Varda for guidance and aid, and you can occasionally hear the Elves singing to her in the movies (A Elbereth Gilthoniel = "O lady of the stars, star-kindler.")
Did you know that The Lord of the Rings did not originally end with Sam's simple, "Well, I'm back?" Originally, there was an epilogue set about 15 years later on the birthday of Sam and Rosie's daughter Elanor.
Elanor was not only an unusually beautiful hobbit, blessed by Galadriel's gift of magic from her garden to Sam. She was also, from what we see of her, a sharp-witted young lady:
Elanor stood up, and passed her hand lightly through Sam's curling brown hair, already flecked with gray. 'Goodnight, Sam-dad. But—'
'I don't want good night but,' said Sam.
'But won't you show it me first? I was going to say.'
'Show you what, dear?'
'The King's letter, of course. You have had it now more than a week.'
Sam sat up. 'Good gracious!' he said. 'How stories do repeat themselves! And you get paid back in your own coin and all. How we spied on poor Mr. Frodo! And now our own spy on us, meaning no more harm than we did, I hope. But how do you know about it?'
Alas, we only get the one scene with Elanor, but we know that she became Queen Arwen's maid, and inherited the Red Book after Rosie died and Sam took another ship West from the Gray Havens.
Tolkien's friends were right to tell him to drop the Epilogue, which was dragging the story out too much, but I'm sorry to lose the glimpse of Elanor, one of the smartest female characters in Middle-earth, as well as the original ending of the book, with Sam and Rose standing in the door of Bag-end.
- Elanor Gamgee
It's hard to find good portraits of Elanor, but here's a cute one!
Where to Read More About These Characters
I've given you extremely condensed versions of the stories of these female characters. Most appear in multiple versions of Tolkien's writings published in a series of books after his death by his son Christopher. You can skip over the footnotes and just read the good stuff:
Antony on May 27, 2017:
Not really on topic but with reference to the above it is likely that Mithrandir was Ainur and not Maia... Amazing I know, but when Mithrandir was selected to go to Middle Earth this 'rumour' was mentioned... somewhere in the History of Middle Earth volume 4 or 5 as publiched by C Tolkien I think.
E. Brundige (author) from The Shire on January 06, 2013:
Hear, hear! Yes, I nearly included Ioreth as well, and I like how you summarize her role: "a symbol of the old Gondor," the everyday folk of the city. (Something sorely lacking in the films, which apart from the girls tossing flowers to Faramir's company barely gave us a glimpse of the worthy and enduring city folk whom our heroes were fighting to defend. Ioreth and a few other minor characters help us relate to and respect everyday Gondorians.)
I'm not sure if Ioreth is a "strong" character in the traditional sense, but she's a wise woman with a forceful personality, sharper than the master of the House of Healing. I adore how she gives everyone a piece of her mind. The BBC radio play of The Lord of the Rings -- which in my biased opinion far outshines the movies -- has a fabulous older actress voicing Ioreth's lines, making her quite a memorable character for a scene or two.
Thanks for the feedback!
joss on January 06, 2013:
Don't forget Ioreth, the old woman in the Housing of Healing in Minas Tirith. She appears just in the one chapter I think, but has a great deal of personality. She is basically a symbol of the old Gondor, full of folk wisdom and well-respected. She is also one of the few to recognize Aragorn as king, and she utters the phrase, "The hands of the king are the hands of a healer."
I love this article though, especially the art! People label Tolkien as "sexist" without realizing how strong his female characters are. Thanks for writing this!
Mary Strain from The Shire on December 14, 2012:
I'm a total ringer and loved this. I agree that women characters seemed to get short shrift in Tolkien's works, but maybe that's because most of them were about wars. For those hubbers who only know the movies, treat yourself and read the books. As good as the movies are, they will never be as good as the world Tolkien draws with his words.
CZCZCZ from Oregon on December 14, 2012:
This was a fun read, some interesting female characters by Tolkien for sure.
Porshadoxus from the straight and narrow way on December 14, 2012:
I imagine that Tolkien's use of both men and women in his writings was due to being steeped in Norse mythology and history. His use of the genders certainly reflects that era of Norse history.
Paradise7 from Upstate New York on December 14, 2012:
Excellent! Me, I'll always have a soft spot for Lobelia Baggins (of the Sackville-Bagginses), too.
Kitty Fields from Summerland on December 14, 2012:
Weird, as I read these books and don't remember a single female character as mentioned here. LOL. Awesome article and made me want to read the entire series again. Blessings!
Graham Gifford from New Hamphire on December 14, 2012:
I'm a huge fan of Tolkien (one of my German Shorthaired Pointers is named Tolkien), so the moment I saw this hub I couldn't resist. Great topic to write about. You approach you topic in an interesting way, as well. I liked that you included art. Nicely done. Thank you for sharing.
Novel Treasure from US on December 14, 2012:
What beautiful artwork, that is what initially drew me to the hub. Then I read the title. As another female fan of Tolkien and the Lord of the Rings, I found your hub quite interesting. It's nice to see other female fans, and also to read about heroines. Looking forward to reading more of your work. Great addition to the Hubpages community. Voted Up and Interesting!
Puspanjalee Das Dutta from India on December 14, 2012:
Stories of Middle Earth are always being of great interest to me. I agree with you that though the charactersitaion of the novels are beautifully penned by Tolkien yet the female characters are not properly represented in the books. I personally liked the character of Elanor Gamgee. Thank you so much for the great hub and will look forward to read about more supporting characters from the LOTR franchise.
E. Brundige (author) from The Shire on December 10, 2012:
Hee. I used to be active on the Lore Forums on LOTRPlaza, where there were some real experts who could put me in my place. I recall that WK = Bombadil essay from years ago. We used to speculate about what would happen if Bombadil mated with a Balrog, since everyone used to get into intellectual barfights over both of them.
Yes, Tolkien fans are silly.
One of my friends, a geneticist, just put up a headscratching essay on Tumblr, tweaking Tolkien. It all holds together surprisingly well:
I like the idea that the Dwarves only had one gender, and that's why they always seem to be a race apart from all the rest.
Wesman Todd Shaw from Kaufman, Texas on December 10, 2012:
It is really that long?
I was already thinking it would surely be a two hour thing...just from knowing how Jackson does stuff, but three?
Have you seen the Tolkien "conspiracy theories" on the web? Some of those are really clever.
I didn't read them all, and looking at the sections I though, "ridiculous," but I remember reading the one claiming the Witch King was really Tom Bombadil, and after reading it I thought, "no the persons that created this is way into it, and knows their stuff enough to pull these pages off!"
E. Brundige (author) from The Shire on December 10, 2012:
I'll go. I have no illusions that it will be true to the book -- we know what the director's like, and the cast list makes it quite clear he intends to add whole chapters to the story -- but The Hobbit is not quite as dear to me as the grander texts, so I'm a little less likely to squawk in indignation if there's a "Go home, Sam!" moment.
I posted my mixed trepidation/anticipation for the Hobbit saga in an editorial last year:
At this point I want to see the film, but goodness gracious, how can you pad the Hobbit out to three movies and STILL manage to make part 1 almost 3 hours long?!
I'll be going with a couple friends in a few days. One's a stuffy purist, while her husband had no clue why we were chuckling during the Helm's Deep sequence when that boy introduced himself to Aragorn as "Haleth."
Wesman Todd Shaw from Kaufman, Texas on December 10, 2012:
So are you going to go see the new one? I think I probably will...but the notion of "The Hobbit" being made into THREE films...is just scary.
I've seen the two trailers that I know of...and it is clear the film will be very entertaining...but that you are correct in saying "alternate universe."
E. Brundige (author) from The Shire on December 05, 2012:
Le hannon (thank you)! :)
E. Brundige (author) from The Shire on December 05, 2012:
Le hannon! One of my earliest websites was Tolkien natterings, so I thought I'd do another batch while Peter Jackson's off playing with his Alternate Universe Fanfiction adaptation of The Hobbit (with bits of HoME and Unfinished Tales thrown in for good measure).
Much like Xena, the more that popular culture mucks about with the classical mythology we know well, the more opportunities we have to teach and share and untangle some of the confusions introduced by those, ahem, creative adaptations.
Wesman Todd Shaw from Kaufman, Texas on December 05, 2012:
Well you sure beat me to that one! Terrific hub!
You should do a part two of it.
Folks who've read The Silmarillion...are AWESOME!
Music-and-Art-45 from USA, Illinois on December 05, 2012:
Nice article, its been awhile since I had read the Silmarillion or Lord of the Rings but your article has put these women fresh into my memory. Luthien was probably my favorite female character created by Tolkien. Voted up and shared.
Good luck with 30 hubs in 30 days!
E. Brundige (author) from The Shire on December 02, 2012:
I say "raised in the Victorian age," but actually, Queen Victoria died when Tolkien was 9. He was born in 1892 and was a young man during World War I.
His views seem to me a little antiquated even for his period: consider how many women appear in Sherlock Holmes mysteries, for example. "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" set came out between 1891-1893, while "The Return of Sherlock Homes" set are 1903-1904. See "The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist" for a portrait of a typical young woman of the period:
Of course, relying on Doyle for an accurate picture is still relying on fiction, but at any rate his stories show that it was typical for women to have jobs and work outside the home unless they were of the leisured upper class.
William H Taylor from Binghamton NY on December 02, 2012:
I am impressed with your work. I believe that art is a reflection of a society shown through the mind of the artist. This suggests that there were strong women in that time period, and Professor Tolkien was very much aware of them. For the most part though, they played the defender of the home. They were the protectors of the family. I am extending the concept of family here to include the idea of a national family. The roles I would hazard are the men were the aggressors, the attackers. They traveled, assaulted, and destroyed. The women were the defenders of those that were valuable. They were the defenders of community. My history is very very weak. I would like to see how my theory relates to the society of that time. You mentioned he was raised in the Victorian age. If I'm correct women were defending something then, though I am uncertain what.