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A Reflection on Tolkien's World
Gender, Race & Interpreted Political, Economic, Social & Cultural Allegories

From: Michael Skeparnides

To one that has read JRR Tolkien's "The Hobbit", "The Lord of the Rings", "The Silmarillion" and other affiliate works; the sheer introduction to the wondrous world of Middle Earth-its history and characters seem to suggest powerful allegorical overtones on such matters as the gender issue, race and religion. Despite Tolkien's written insistence in the forward to "The Lord of the Rings" of the contrary; Tokien's work is the product of a visionary who ultimately presents us an alternate world using factors of our own as perhaps a means of contextualizing his themes.
As a trilogy written by a male author, one must acknowledge Laura Mulvey's theories on gender in literature and film, and her powerful conception of the 'male gaze'. "The Lord of the Rings" has a somewhat definitive and chauvinistic appraisal of women as 'maidens' who must adhere to 'male' protectionism. This can be clearly seen in the character of Eowyn who represents the potential of rebellion against the male value system that characterizes Tolkien's world. In placing aside her feminism to take the guise of a male soldier marching to the "Battle of the Pelennor Fields", and the obvious emphasis by Tolkien on the importance of her gender in her confrontation and defeat of the Nazgul lord; a reader is immediately made aware of a powerful internal contradiction between Tolkien's male gaze; and his belief on the role of women.
"Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!" the Ringwraith mocks the disguised soldier called 'Dernhelm' who answers:
"But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Eowyn"
What is interesting here, is that Eowyn has to broadcast her gender, and it is this over emphasis of her gender that says a lot about the author's view on women. Eowyn's "bright hair, released from its bondspale gold upon her soldiers" again depicts the classic conventions of the male gaze. Similarly, in William Shakespeare's, "The Merchant Of Venice," the image of the pure, virginal and dutiful daughter that Shakespeare paints of Portia in the opening scenes of the play; the perfect image of a contemporary Venetian 'Lady'; are smashed when Portia takes it upon herself to dress up as a male lawyer in defence of Antonio against the evil of Shylock and the bond. Evidently, we see in both Eowyn and Portia the unsuspected portrayal of women as social revolutionaries who rebel against the harsh bindings of a male patriarchal system. Tolkien and Shakespeare's reveal themselves in the construction of these two heroines as overseers of this male value system. In both "The Lord of the Rings and "The Merchant of Venice" we see both the suspected portrayal of women, such as Galadriel, Arwen and the early representation of Portia, against the unsuspected portrayal of women who place their feminism aside- Eowyn and the later Portia.
Ironically, Eowyn and Portia have to take on male characteristics in order to overcome the evil of the Lord of the Ringwraiths and Shylock. What we alarmingly see, is that women must become men and enter the world of men that is 'war' in "The Lord of the Rings" for Eowyn, and Venice for Portia; to defeat the evil of men. Subsequently, the setting of Belmont in "The Merchant of Venice", as a safe and established sanctuary against the trouble of Venice represents the ordered world of women, much like Eowyn's home at Edoras that she too leaves behind.
Thus women in Tolkien's world are portrayed as 'pure' and 'virginal 'maidens very much in the tradition of Shakespeare, yet Eowyn portrays a subversion of this cultural norm, in perhaps an emphasis by Tolkien (and Shakespeare) on the potential of women in such a rigid patriarchal world to trick men and be able to achieve the same, if not greater glory than their male counterparts.
Alternative gender representation can be found in David Edding's work such as the "The Belgariad" where in such powerful characters as the Styric Sorceress Sephrenia, Queen Ehlahna of Elenia, and the alarming portrayal of 'the 'little girls' Princess Danae and Flute as mortal avatars of the Child Goddess Aphreal, we see the domination of women over the desires of men. Prince Sparhawk responds to the wishes of these women, and in the face of his daughter Danae as the child goddess we see a perversion over the traditional paternal relationship of father and child. In Danae and Flute as mortal representatives of the Child Goddess Aphrael, Sparhawks powerful dotage and casual acceptance of his inferiority to his daughter suggests perhaps a sort of pedophile perversion that is indicative to all the adult characters in Eddings work. On another level, Sparhawk as Annakha is revealed to be the son of the Bhelliom entity. For "The Lord of the Rings" the role of child to parent is closely partitioned, though made rather vague by the complex genealogies between characters i.e.- Arwen is the daughter of Elrond and granddaughter of Galadriel with Celeborn in Lorien. In the "Tale of Aragorn and Arwen" Elrond does not approve of Arwen's romance with Aragorn on the basis of racial and cultural issues.
Tolkien set the standard for the cross-racial relationships in the modern fantasy genre. The Elf/Dwarf divide, the almost total acknowledgement of the inferiority of both Orc and Goblins as the minions of evil manifested in Sauruman at Orthanc and Sauron at Mordor in "The Lord of the Rings" and the differences between humans and Elves are made plainly clear. Tolkien evidently subordinates the race of man to the 'light' and immortality of the Elves., who are growing weary of Middle Earth for their timeless Ancestral home of Aman and the 'light' of Valinor', in the forbidden West across the sea.
In "The Silmarillion" the gradual fade of the weary Elves from Middle Earth is chronicled whilst the destructive tendencies of man are highlighted in the Atlantean style destruction of the continent of Numenor. In "The Silmarillion", the Dwarves are the insubordinate creation of the Valar Aule. Creating this race before Iluvatar's 'firstborn'- the Elves, brings the Father of the Valar great anger. "Why hast thou done this?" Iluvatar tells Aule: "Why dost thou attempt a thing which thou knowest is beyond thy power and authority." And Aule interstingly answers "As a child to his father, I offer too these things, the work of the hands which thou hast made." Thus we see an explanation of the friction between the races of Elf and Dwarf as two opposing first races very much different from one another. For the coming of man, Tolkien states in "The Silmarillion" that they are 'usurpers', and easily led- "the strangers, and the Inscrutable, the self cursed, the heavy handed, the Night Fearers, the Children of the Sun."- Tolkien gives nonetheless an interesting overview of humanity.
In Tolkien's works, the issue of race is a primary catalyst between social friction and exploration. Aragorn's involvement with Arwen is initially despised by her father Elrond, who is himself Half-Elven, whilst Gimli and the Elf Legolas overcome their racial friction by the conclusion of the "Lord of the Rings". The Hobbits gain some sort of world recognition. Ironically, the Hobbits and their mannerisms are much like our own, whilst the affairs of men- the Rohirrim and Gondor, coupled with the Elves, Mordor and the Wizard Saruman, Bombadil, the Ents etc seem too distant, alien and melodramatic. "Strange are the ways of men" Legolas comments to Gimili, and later on, both strike a 'bargain' when Legolas states that "if we both return safe out of the perilswe will journey for a while togetherYou shall visit Fangorn with me, and then I will come with you to Helms Deep."
Middle Earth, like our own world has its racial instabilities. The Orcs are the 'dark' children of the fallen Valar Melkor, and become synomenous with evil, the products of centuries of genetically perverse cross breeding with men under Sauron whom; like Hitler persecuted and performed his scientific horrors on the Jewish people in Auschwitz. The Elves are the symbols of light and immortality, and men (and Hobbits) have the potential of destruction and subjugation- this is what Tolkien seems to emphasise at the end of "The Silmarillion". The ends of both "The Silmarillion" and "The Lord of the Rings" both make a moving comment of an end of a phase into a new one, that of the dominance of men whilst the Elves recede back across the sea.
"until the bent world of the seas of the Bent fell away beneath it, and the round sky troubled it no more, and borne upon the high airs above the mists of the world it passed into the Ancient West, and an end was come of the Eldar of story and of song

The conclusions of both "The Silmarillion" and "The Lord of the Rings" are moving and provide a powerful allegorical message. The end of the "War of the Ring" like World War II brings about a sociopolitical and cultural change, fascism was conquered, but the foreshadow of the powerful tyrant of Soviet fundamentalist Marxism and Bolshevism still survived under the incompatible pact between the Democratic powers and the USSR which deteriorated into cold war. The Elves begin to depart west across the sea, Sauron like Hitler is gone, like the "West" had overcome the shadow of Nazism, so too have the Western Kingdoms of Middle Earth defeated the eastern armies of Mordor. The battle for freedom against enslavement and totalitarianism in "The Lord of the Rings" is a direct parallel to both World Wars and human history. Peace is achieved through diverting both cultural and social paranoia, Denethor is established as the symbol of this paranoia that threatens to disunify the collective effort in "The Lord of the Rings" when he takes his own life; like the USSR did when it signed its peace Treaty with Nazi Germany against a Western alliance who hoped to isolate and confine Nazism; (which Hitler betrayed in the German invasion of the USSR in the "Operation of Barabarossa" in 1943.)
What the "Lord of the Rings" seems to suggest, is that social and racial differences are overcome when the interests and freedoms of each are threatened by invasion. Tolkien provides a fantastical parallel to both World Wars in his novel, yet he himself states in the prologue of the novel that this was not his intention. Ultimately, a fantasy world like Middle Earth can only be formed from the characteristics of the real world in order for the author to convey his message to an understanding and sympathetic reader.
Viewed in a religious context, Tolkien's Middle Earth has many powerful assumptions on the nature of religion that serve as a powerful mixture of both Western Christianity and classical mythology. In "the Silmarillion" The long war between Melkor and the Valar bears a powerful resemblance to Satan's downfall from heaven and the desire to rule the world in darkness as applicable to the Apocalypse. In Sauron and Saruman, we see the desire for power and establishment of ritualistic 'cultism'. In Angmar, there is the Cult of the Dark Lord, pagan sacrificial offerings to Sauron and the Cult of the Mor-Sereg. The desire for absolute power and aspiration to a God like status forms the basis if the ideology behind 'The War of the Ring' Sauron wants to be like Melkor, (his former master), and Saruman like Sauron. The corruption of power forms an integral part of the narrative of "The Lord of the Rings" and Tolkien's works. Galadriel herself admits to her powerful temptation in Frodo's ring: "..For many long years I had pondered what I might do, should the Great Ring come into my hands, and Behold! It was brought within my grasp," she confides to Frodo. "You would give me the Ring freely! In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queenbeautiful and terrible.. Stronger than the foundations of the earth"
Thus is Tolkien's work, we are presented with a somewhat vague exploration of divinity and religion. The Elves are immortal, beautiful- almost Godlike. In "The Silmarillion", we are immediately introduced to the enigma that is Eru, "..the One..", who created the Valar from the "offspring of his thought" Eru is configured by Tolkien in the same light of our understanding of God- as an unknown and all powerful universal source- like Brahma, the supreme spirit in the Hindi religion or the forgiving God in the New Testament. Yet Eru and his Valar also bear a powerful classical parallel to Zeus - King of the Gods on Mount Olympus in Greek mythology. In more recent fantasy novels like Melanie Rawne's "Dragon Prince Trilogy" we see the manifestation of 'The Goddess' from Celtic and Western European (British) Druidic myth and further reinforced in Stephen Lawhead's "Pendragon Cycle" that amongst other things represents the conflict between the Druidic belief and the spreading Christian Gospel in post Roman Britain.
"The Lord of the Rings" is a kaleidoscope of Celtic, Norse and Teutonic myth, as well as embracing medieval and gothic techniques. In the construction of the Hobbits, Tolkien very much celebrates the British rural culture, whilst the Elves and Dwarves and even 'humans' are given by Tolkien their own cultural autonomy, language and detailed history. Nevertheless, Middle Earth, is a world in its own right created using factors of our own world which we respond to time and time again when one re-reads Tolkien's works on Middle Earth. "The Lord of the Rings" is an epic novel depicting the important role of otherwise unimportant Hobbits in defeating Sauron. We may not understand the culture of the Elves, Dwarves and the men of Gondor and Rohan; but in the Hobbits, Tolkien has created one of the most intimate characters in English literature. A reader responds through them, because they perhaps are the literal link for a reader in Tolkien's world. As they learn many new and wondrous things about their world, so does a reader- and because of this, the Hobbits are perhaps the representatives of the reader in Tolkien's fantasy world. Without them, "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" would otherwise be a confusing and complex place.
Ultimately, in Tolkien's work, a reader can interpret many parallels to our own world. Tolkien wrote almost the entire bulk of "The Lord of the Rings" throughout two world wars, and surely the awesome reality of war must have inspired Tolkien to write about the 'War of the Ring'. Ostensibly, Middle Earth provides an escape from the reality of our own world, yet this essay has only briefly touched upon the surface of many allegorical links and similarities to contemporary society. In one respect a reader can find solace and escapism in "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings"; but the problems of the world of Middle Earth are and have been the problems of our own world- and this perhaps would make a reader uneasy. What Tolkien has given us is a world not much unlike our own, but different nonetheless. True, allegory was not perhaps the intention of Tokien in his work; but it is there nonetheless making a reader part of that world. Tolkien in "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings" successfully guides a reader through his world, retaining a position of power in manipulating our sympathies and emotions. Like the classical narrative system, the equilibrium is shattered, yet it is not totally restored to its former state and the novel ends in an air of uncertainty. Finally, Tolkien's Middle Earth is a powerful and intimate experience, yet no matter how wondrous and far fetched it may be, it is the product of the human mind, and inevitably, of the real human world.

Michael Skeparnides


  • Tolkien, J.R.R.: The Lord of the Rings - Grafton 1992
  • Tolkien, J.R.R.: The Silmarillion - BCA 1992
  • Tolkien, J.R.R.: The Book of Lost Tales 2: Unwin Hynman Limited 1990
  • Lawhead, Stephen: The Pendragon Cycle: Lion Publishing Plc 1989

  • The New Testament Bible
  • Lawhead, Stephen: The Pendragon Cycle: Lion Publishing Plc 1989
  • Eddings, David: The Belgariad and Tamuli: HarperCollins Publishers
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