Tolkien’s Marian women

I recently watched an interview with Cate Blancett who plays Galadriel in the LOTR/the Hobbit and she mentioned, almost cynically, that Tolkien didn’t write a lot of strong female characters.

Which, of course, just isn’t true. I would argue that the female characters in the LOTR and the Hobbit are very strong and extremely important. It isn’t about quantity of female characters but quality.

Now, I know I’m not the first person to make these connections, so I’m definitely not claiming ownership of these ideas, but the women of Middle Earth, in my mind, are personifications of the qualities of Mary. Whether or not this is true (or what Tolkien intended) is not the point of this post, these opinions just help me to enjoy the series more and add to the already brilliant work of Tolkien.

(Three apologies: I think that the film adaptations are important so this is not a novel-only post. I’m writing this like everyone has read/seen LOTR so if you haven’t, I’m sorry and please go do that. In case you are a super-nerd, I apologize for not keeping the accents in the spelling of characters and places).

Arwen: royal

Arwen represents the Queenship of Mary, the royal aspect of the Blessed Mother. If Aragon represents the Kingly aspect of Christ (which, pretty sure he does) then in my mind it just makes sense that Arwen is the female royal equivalent.

Although Arwen has some royal-ness already in her (like Mary, being united with Joseph and the Davidic kingdom) she can’t become Queen until the King takes his throne, Mary can’t be assumed and crowned until Christ takes His throne.

Galadriel: Intercessor

She has a lot of different names, The Lady of Lorien, Lady of Light, The Lady of the Wood, and simply The Lady. It’s so Marian I can’t even stand it.

She is the gift giver when the Fellowship leaves the woods. She gives a lot of gifts but the two that are most important are the lembas bread and Phial of Galadriel a “light when all other lights go out”.

Lembas is special bread made by the Elves that stays fresh longer than normal bread, and sustains life better than normal bread. Basically it’s a symbol of the Eucharist, it keeps men full longer and allows them to continue on their arduous journey (read the Wikipedia page on it because someone else did a lot of research)

So, Galadriel provides life sustaining bread. Mary bears the living Eucharist to us.

To me, the Phial of Galadriel can be likened to the Holy Spirit. It’s a light in the darkness, a way to be led out of whatever evilness plagues us. Sam and Frodo use it in Shelob’s lair and when they are within Mordor. Taken from the LOTR-wiki page: “The Phial of Galadriel seemed to inspire its bearers to call out to Elbereth, as both Frodo and Sam call out in the Elvish language, and Frodo also cries out words he doesn’t understand that refer to Eärendil the first time he uses it against Shelob”. Interesting that using the light makes the user (if he is faithful) call out in a language they don’t understand (speaking in tongues allusion?).

Mary gives us gifts as well. When she appeared to St. Catherine Laboure and presented her with the Miraculous Medal, Mary told her that she is mediator of graces and they can give them out as she chooses.

I could write forever about lembas and the giving of gifts but I won’t (yet).

Eowyn: warrior

I think every girl wants to be Eowyn being she’s a princess, but not like a super pink or weak one, and she gets to ride horses, and she saves the day. She’s the greatest.

She represents the warrior role that Mary plays, as well as the pure human aspect. Basically, in LOTR, everyone is pretty fed up with humans because they’ve proven to be useless and weak.  The king of Rohan is  possessed by Grima Wormtongue (but seriously, shame on Rohan for trusting a guy named Wormtongue) who has seduced the king into a state of hopelessness.

Eventually Gandalf gets rid of him (“Keep your forked tongue behind your teeth!”) and the King’s illness is cast away and we see a slow rise of courage in mankind.

When everyone goes to battle, Eowyn is told to stay behind but we all know she’s not going to do that. So she sneaks into battle and kicks butt. The Witch King shows up riding a dragon-like beast and Eowyn goes to face him and he goes “No living man may hinder me!” to which Eowyn responds: “No living man am I! You look upon a woman! Éowyn I am, Éomund’s daughter. Begone if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him!”

Then she cuts off the dragon’s head and stabs the Witch King in the face and kills him. So let that Genesis 3:15, “she will crush the head of the serpent” symbolism sink in.

Rosie: mother

Rosie Cotton is one of my favorite characters because she represents everything good and wholesome about hobbits, the Shire, and Middle Earth. According to the LOTR wiki page, “Sam and Rosie had thirteen children (Elanor, Frodo, Rose, Merry, Pippin, Goldilocks, Hamfast, Daisy, Primrose, Bilbo, Ruby, Robin, Tolman (Tom))”. How can you not love them?

Here’s another gem that the Wikipedia page provided:

I think the simple ‘rustic’ love of Sam and his Rosie (nowhere elaborated) is absolutely essential to the study of his (the chief hero’s) character, and to the theme of the relation of ordinary life (breathing, eating, working, begetting) and quests, sacrifice, causes, and the ‘longing for Elves’, and sheer beauty.” – J. R. R. Tolkien letter dated 1951

So, in my mind, Rosie personifies the motherly role that Mary plays in our lives, most clearly because she is a mother, but also because she seems unimportant, or maybe an afterthought. We meet her early on in the films at Bilbo’s birthday party but it seems more like a character development tool to show us how awkward Sam can be. But then, at the end of all things when Frodo and Sam are sitting on the side of Mt. Doom and fairly certain they are going to die, Sam brings up Rosie.

Since I like to get way too involved with fictional characters, I’ve decided that Sam’s love of Frodo obviously drove him along this journey, but also his love of Rosie. So, I compare this to how Mary appears early on in the Gospels to set the scene, develop the “characters” and to see Jesus off on His journey. And then, at the end of all things, when His death is imminent, Mary is there and we see how important she is when Christ gives her to John (and to all of us). Although Rosie didn’t travel with the Fellowship or “do” much of anything, she is vital to the success of the mission because of what she represents (like Tolkien said, ordinary life, and sheer beauty).

Like I said earlier, I’m not saying the comparisons are perfect or even analytically correct, but they do help me enjoy the stories more.

“We have come from God, and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed only by myth-making, only by becoming ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man aspire to the state of perfection that he knew before the Fall. Our myths may be misguided, but they steer however shakily towards the true harbour, while materialistic ‘progress’ leads only to a yawning abyss and the Iron Crown of the power of evil.” –J.R.R. Tolkien (J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, Humphrey Carpenter, Ch. IV, 1977)


24 thoughts on “Tolkien’s Marian women

  1. If you translate Tolkien’s Hymn to Varda it reads very much like some Marian liturgies.

    If Cate doesn’t think Tolkien wrote about strong women then she had obviously not researched even Galadriel properly – her story is one of greast strength in writings outside LOTR. She is also forgetting Luthien and countless other Tolkien women. I hate that people judge Tolkien by the films, they are sword and sorcery parodies of what Tolien was trying to convey.

  2. You’ve probably seen this before, but:
    “All my own perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity is founded upon Our Lady.” ~ J.R.R. Tolkien

  3. I’m not sure what Cate Blanchett means by “strong women”, but i’m sure she’s wrong in what she considers strength. I felt like Tolkien’s women were fairly idealized and had strength, femininity, and dignity. Maybe if they farted and slept around more, she would like them better.

  4. What a brilliant post. I’ve often thought the Lembas bread referred to the Eucharist, but I never thought about comparing Galadriel, and all the other strong women of LOTR, to our Blessed Mother. Thank you for giving me a good excuse to read the books all over again–and to do it as spiritual reading!

  5. “She is also forgetting Luthien…”

    Exactly! I mean, she is the ONLY elf that defeats Morgoth, if only for a moment. Throughout the Silmarillion, the Valar are the ones who successfully challenge Morgoth and then all of a sudden, *bam* random elf lady. Same kind of situation with Eowyn.

  6. I also love the aspects of Jesus he puts in these books. Priest (Frodo), Prophet (Gandalf) and King (Aragon). I always pictured Sam as the guy who is asked to help Jesus(Frodo) carry his cross (The ring)…I can’t every remember his name..Thomas? I recently found out that Tolkin’s inspiration for a lot of the battles in LOTR are based off of his research on the wars during the early church about who would possess the cross during the 400s AD. There was a lot of controversy about who would keep the cross that jesus died on as a relic. Very interesting wars. Anyways. Thank you so much for posting this. I can’t believe I never thought about the roles that the woman played and how they show the true sides of Mary so well. Thank you!

  7. Just want to say that I have heard of all of the above personifications of Mary except Rosie Cotton. That one seems so obvios now… and so beautiful. Will definantly tell my Mom. (She has 11 kids… I am the third.)

  8. You might also want to look at some of the female characters that exist beyond the direct realm of the LOTR books. One character who comes to mind especially is Luthien, the elven pincess of Doriath. With some help, she faced Sauron in his pre-fallen state, and Sauron’s master Morgoth. Her acts of valor seem to me to be unsurpassed in the Tolkien universe.

  9. Seconding Serafini’s comment, I would add Varda, the Queen of the Valar, to the list as the “Anti-Satan” role of Mary. Varda (also known as Elbereth) is invoked a couple times in LOTR, always as a protection against evil, and in “The Silmarillian” she’s described as Morgoth (Satan)’s adversary, since she “knows him and was never deceived.”

  10. I have to side with Cate here, in that, while these characters are definitely important, they are no more important than their male counterparts (for obvious reasons), but are indeed vastly outnumbered by them. It’s not a crime to not write an enormous amount of strong female characters, but it’s not helping anything to try and convince yourself that 4 major female players are just as many as 30+ equally significant male ones.

    But I like the comparison! Even if it’s a bit of a stretch.

  11. This was fanfreakintastic! I’m giving a talk to women this weekend on “self esteem”, which to me is just women asking to know how to be ok with who they are. I want to use Mary as the model (natch) but I grow weary of the saccharine models so often presented. That woman crushed the head of satan, yo! Yes, she is also prayerful and receptive, I don’t want to take that away, but Tolkien really got the many dimensions of Mary.

    I wanted to know if you would be all right with me using large chunks of this post for the talk. I’m happy to give you and the blog credit so the girls can come and read more. I’m speaking to college age women, so I think they would appreciate your blog anyhow, but before I (stole, borrowed) I mean used your material, I wanted to get your permission. Thanks!

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