Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.
The prominence of female characters in the fantasy genre has steadily increased over the last few years. If you asked the average person to name a few, they might bring up names like Arya and Sansa Stark, Shuri, Leia, or even some old school names like Xena.
I found this presentation most prominent in the show Vikings, where female warriors played equal roles in the fighting and intrigue as their male counterparts (though there was still a fair amount of sex and flesh involved as well). Real world issues of unequal pay and sexist policies aside, it is nice to see something different from what I grew up with. As long as the story is good, which many of them are, I had no problem.
However, there has also been perhaps an unintended consequence as well. A growing criticism of characters who are continuing the traditional roles and seen as obstacles. That these female characters, even if done in a modern movie, are reinforcing stereotypes that many actors are trying to get out of. One character immediately comes to my mind who gets caught up in this cold war of perspectives.
Arwen from The Lord of the Rings movie franchise.
"Furthermore, though Galadriel is incredibly powerful and holds titles both as a ruler of her people and the bearer of Nenya, one of the Elven rings of power, Aragorn respects her for her fulfillment of feminine duties rather than her status as a leader."
— - Rachel Maddox, Flawed and Formidable: Galadriel, Éowyn, and Tolkien ’s Inadvertent Feminism, 2018
The Scrutiny of Modern Ethics
The Lord of the Rings is one of the most beloved and successful franchises over the last 50 years, if you are including the books. The movies only solidified this position to mainstream culture, being a monumental achievement of storytelling, action, and cinema
When they came out in 2001-2003, they became an immediate trend setter. The sword and sandals genre exploded along with its fantasy counterpart as well. Numerous copycats came out both on screen and TV afterwards, the most successful being Game of Thrones. The names of Frodo, Aragorn, Legolas, and Eowyn became household knowledge.
However, over the last five years, there has been a quiet yet growing criticism over how the film portrays women. Though Eowyn was a noted exception and was very important to the movie, many modern feminists see the films as lacking more action-oriented women. And even Eowyn didn’t entirely escape this criticism either as it was noted that her reasoning for going to battle at Pelennor Fields in Return of the King was being rejected by Aragorn. She is only happy again when she falls in love with Faramir.
Yet it is Arwen who most often bears the brunt of these attacks for the franchise. For many, she ticks off too many of the boxes of the submissive, supporting woman in waiting. She’s the opposite of Ewoyn, who at least takes matters into her own hands after being rejected, and she is not even a ruling queen like her grandmother, Galadriel (yea, I know. Elves right?). So for many women today, she is an forgettable character.
Her only seeming contribution to the story is her rescue of Frodo to Rivendell and taking down the Ring Wraiths by summoning a flood. Even Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, the franchises’ director and screenwriter, acknowledge that scene was switched from the book character of Glorfindel so as to give Arwen more to do than her literary incarnation.
What seemed to her critics even more damning, however, is that she was originally supposed to have joined her lover during the climax of the Two Towers at the Battle of Helm's Deep. Scenes were even filmed for it. Yet Liv Tyler, the actress who played the Elf-lord, says this was later cut because it was felt she was starting to become too much like Eowyn. And it was only after going back to Tolkien’s writings that they discovered something about the character that was initially overlooked.
It is the lack of this perspective that I feel has caused Arwen to become one of the most underrated characters of the franchise.
All the people involved in making the movies say that they are ultimately about love and sacrifice, and that Arwen makes one of the biggest sacrifices of any of the heroes and soldiers involved. Yes, people died in battle. Yes, both Frodo and Bilbo Baggins suffered so much because the One Ring made them leave the very land that they suffered for to regain their peace. Merry and Pippen bear the scars of war and will never be the happy, go-lucky hobbits they had been at the start of Fellowship of the Ring.
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But it's Arwen who pays arguably the biggest price. She gives up her immortality to keep hope alive in Middle-earth. Unlike most of her kinsfolk, including her father, Elrond, she still believes the world can be saved. Even as her life is draining away because of the evil in it. She literally bets her life on the faith that Frodo and the others will destroy the ring and stop Sauron.
I think there are four factors that play into her heroism being overlooked.
The first is that Arwen’s suffering is not as up front or flashy as clashing swords and beheading monsters and witch kings. It’s not exciting. It’s not frontline service. It’s waiting at home hoping for the best outcome. Even with this uncertainty, to the casual viewer, it doesn’t seem to have as much weight because of her lack of physical actions. Most of her scenes are confined to flashbacks to her time with Aragorn. And as I said earlier, to the modern eye, this strikes of the stay-at-home-housewife-so-daddy-can-work trope.
The second element is the viewer's ignorance of the gravitas that Tolkien’s universe places on the importance of immortality and Elves. Immortality was more than just living forever. It was also the conservation of tangible memory when Middle-earth was a different world. The time when magic and spirituality was more pervasive. This was preserved by the existence of the Elves in Middle-earth and their immortality because they could recall those things that men and few Dwarves could not (got to shout out to my boys, the Dwarves. Dwarves 4life). So these memories were beyond precious to the Elven race, made alive through their existence.
Third reason why Arwen is dismissed is that current, Western values establish that only those who actively participate in the world get things done. In the world of movies, that means waving a weapon around and hacking down enemies and sharing in the glory. More importantly, it establishes agency, the individual making their choice because they want to make it and not because someone else or the plot requires it of their type. Anything less than this feels like a golem at best, slavery at worst. You could even say that in 2020, Elrond would be breaking the fourth wall when he chastises Arwen for only staying because of her pining for Aragorn’s return.
And the fourth reason for the criticism is that Arwen is archetypal stereotype often portrayed in fantasy tales, and Tolkien’s in particular. Casual critics only familiar with the movies have pointed out the lack of diverse women in the franchise, with them being relegated to princesses in ivory towers waiting to be rescued or staying behind while the men go off to war and on great quests.
Arwen’s portrayal in the movies address all of these points. In the DVD commentaries, Liv Tyler talks about her character’s actions and the decision to not use Arwen at Helm's Deep. See says that you don’t need a sword to make a difference. There was nothing wrong with Ewoyn’s choice to fight with the boys, but there was also nothing wrong with Arwen fighting in her own way. Much of this argument stems from a modern demand to be actively seen in the world and not have a woman’s efforts be only a passive power. Understandable and nothing wrong there. However, a frontline female soldier doesn’t take away from the emotional toll of those who send their loved ones out to fight either. Both women actively choose how they were going to contribute to the war.
Second is the consequences of Arwen’s decision. The Elves would once again lose something unique and ancient to the world. The Undying Lands preserved what Middle-earth should have been as if it were a living memory in a snow globe. But humans do not go there, only Elves and Miar (Gandolf). Also, the sadness between Arwen and her father, Elrond, would have been much more deep and profound because of this eternal separation.
Add to this that anyone familiar with Tolkien’s early work of the Silimarillion and the gravity of Arwen’s sacrifice becomes even greater because she was one of the last descendants of Luthien, an ancient and powerful half-Elven, Half-Miar princess that many said she bore a striking resemblance to. When Luthien died making a similar choice in the distant First Age of Middle-earth, many Elves greatly mourned the loss because the physical memory disappeared when she died. That Arwen would willingly choose death over a get-out-of-jail-free card means that not only her beauty but the beauty of her ancestor would never be seen by her kind again.
Worst for her though would be living out the inescapable sorrow of Aragorn’s future death. Sorrow that she was never privy to as an immortal Elf and that Elrond had prophesied to her in Two Towers. Just the mere knowledge of this fact causes her faithfulness to waver.
To counter the third criticism of no self-will, Arwen flat out says, “I choose a mortal life” in Return of the King and against her father’s wishes and love. You don’t get more agency than that. Now is this because of a love interest? In part, yes. However, it is not the story making that choice for her, but herself. She has the option to keep her inherited grace and power and she nearly does. No one is taking it away from her or violating her ability to keep them.
Arwen is choosing how to live her life for herself and not for her father and Aragorn is included in that choice. Also, Aragorn shares the same longing as Arwen does, so it is not a one-sided affair.
That’s why her declaration to Elrond is important. She’s not pining for Aragorn and she’s not allowing her feelings to overrule her judgment. Though I don’t think she truly understands the personal cost of her choice until Aragorn dies and she suffers the loneliness, Arwen nonetheless is still fully aware of what she’s doing. And this addresses part of the fourth criticism as well.
Also included in this rebuttal, fans know that nothing could be further from the truth that Arwen is just another sexist trope in a fantasy full of tropes. The First Age being littered with a variety of different types of women who played prominent roles in that era. From Galadriel (yes I know, how does she still look so young) being one of the leading rebels of the Noldor Elves, to Melian and Luthien being the most powerful beings in Middle-earth (Morgoth, a powerful Valar spirit, never challenged Melian whom he technically outranked, and her daughter put him to sleep: literally), to the stubborn and unmarried leader of the Haladin, Haleth, to the tragic stories of Findulas and Nienor.
And this does not even touch on the many ruling queens of the near all-powerful Numenorean Empire of the Second Age, when humanity was at the peak of its knowledge and power. Themselves also descended from Luthien, while also too falling victim to the same hubris that destroys it. Tolkien wrote just as much complex and nuanced women as he did men.
To All Be the Glory
I’ll be the first to admit that Arwen is not my favorite character in the movies, but I don’t disrespect what she represented. I think that these critics are placing too much weight in one interpretation of female empowerment and agency. Tauriel from the 2012-2014 Hobbit trilogy is in part a response to this criticism. Independent, speaking her mind to King Thranduil, and an excellent warrior, she had the potential to be a great character. But she was caught up in the confusing maelstrom of deciding what an empowered, female character looked like.
Not all, but some feminists believe that a woman should not have to surrender any part of her identity and power whatsoever to achieve her goals. And especially not because of men who in their presumption is not surrendering anything equivalent or at all, while maintaining his position of power. This mistrust is certainly not without merit either. However, Arwen is one of many characters giving up something to destroy Sauron. The sacrifice, or 'glory' if you will, is shared by all.
Even more ironic was that this idea of empowerment being defined by action and combat was set forth by men. Perhaps the critics are scared of anything causing a relapse back into women playing second fiddle. It’s an understandable and respectable fear, but it doesn't justify ignorance of the contributions that Arwen makes to the movies.
The franchise is about the sacrifices people make to save the world and the consequences of those sacrifices. No one escapes the third act unscathed and everyone carries some wound or loss by the end of Return of the King. Arwen takes just as much part in these selfless acts as the Fellowship and will lose more as well. I believe that makes her a hero.
© 2020 Jamal Smith