Jun 6 2013, 9:21pm
Butterbur is well-intentioned, but a bit foolish, a rambler and very slow to remember and get to the point. Not all of Tolkien's males are high and puissant. He does give us some glimpses of "everyday" sorts amid all the high adventure and lofty destinies.
I think Butterbur is Ioreth's male counterpart. (and other musings on women in Tolkien)
And I agree - the fact that women are often absent is less offensive than constant mention in solely sexual contexts would be. But it occurs to me that the real reason women are largely missing is simply that we have a group of travelers and they do not stay long enough to get involved in the life of the cultures they visit. The women they meet are mostly their hostesses in various stops along the way.
We get plenty of mention of female hobbits. In fact, Bilbo is introduced by a description of his mother - which is far more rounded and developed than that of his father. Bilbo himself is a bachelor, leaving him free to wander off on adventures; I imagine Gandalf would be unlikely to send a husband/father of a family away from his family to face dangers he may not return from, though it is mentioned that he has sent off both lads and lasses on adventures in the wild in the past. Then, aside from the other single hobbits who go adventuring, we have another strong hobbit character in Lobelia Sackville-Baggins. We also get mention of several other hobbit ladies - Aunt Dora, who writes such good advice, Melilot who is just a wee bit vain, and then there is gender parity at his Birthday Party, where everyone is invited and both hobbit lads and lasses get up to play instruments and dance together. And of course, we have Sam's beloved Rosie. So in the only home life of any of the cultures we are really privileged to see, we have plenty of women.
Once we leave the Shire, we have:
Bombadil's House - Goldberry is a gracious hostess, definitely loved and honored by her husband
We meet no women in Bree, as they make a single-night stop in an alehouse which is apparently run by a single man and they (as men) are waited on by males. There may or may not have been unmentioned serving wenches in the bar. There were certainly plenty of women in the town, but our characters had no reason or opportunity to meet them.
Rivendell - again, plenty of Elven women presumably about, but none of them interacted in such a way as to require mention except Arwen, who spends time with Aragorn (he is with her when Bilbo points her out to Frodo). Arwen makes the standard which heralds Aragorn's claim to kingship and becomes his banner in battle and, I assume, continues to be displayed in Minas Tirith and is probably carried with him when he goes on royal progresses about his lands.
Moria - We can assume there were orc women, but when our party only sees orcs to fight with them it is impossible for us (or, probably, them) to distinguish if any of the orcs they saw and fought were women, or indeed what the life of an orc woman would be.
Lorien - Again, presumably equal numbers of women living in Caras Galadhon and some of the Elves who saw to the comfort and housing may have been women (though none, male or female, are mentioned), but the Fellowship only had dealings with their hostess, Galadriel. In addition, it is mentioned that she and her ladies wove the material for the cloaks they gave to the Fellowship and it was considered to be an honor to wear it.
Mordor - again, no orc gender issues explored at all, and Sauron is single. We do get our only female villain in Shelob, who is described as being a Black Widow type who devours her mates and spawns many nasty little children.
Rohan - A single king, whose hall is presided over by his niece, Eowyn. She is dissatisfied with the state of her society, and therefore all the more impatient with her assigned role to the point of preferring to be dead than to continue it indefinitely. This is probably the only culture other than the Shire where the position of women is discussed at all. Since Eowyn is called a shieldmaiden, it may be assumed that were her king and her nation in better days, strong and not oppressed by Saruman and Wormtongue, she might have pride in her position (as indeed she later seems to have as Lady of Ithilien) rather than contempt for it. Wormtongue certainly did his best to promote and deepen her alienation and bitterness.
Gondor - We are told that the women and children have been evacuated from the city on the eve of war, so the only women who remain through the siege are those working in some capacity with the garrison, and of these we only meet Ioreth, a hospital worker with a garrulous manner concealing some important information. When the war ends, the women and children return to the city and bring with it light, laughter and flowers. And then of course, the city gains a Queen in Arwen, who grants Frodo an important gift.
In The Hobbit, we have the same situation in the Shire - though since less time is spent there than in LOTR, we do not get the same descriptions of women and what they were up to. Bilbo and his exclusively male party of travelers, passes through Rivendell (where there is tension between his party and their hosts, so not a lot of mingling there), goes through Goblin Town, meets the Eagles (who presumably include females, although the only gender that's really mentioned is their King's), then meets Beorn, who is single. They are then captured by Elves and imprisoned in the dungeons, meaning that they only Elves they see are guards (no gender given) and though Bilbo is not in a cell, he's too preoccupied with hiding and survival to pay attention to Elvish culture. The only figures important for him to record in his tale were the Elvenking, the butler, and his drinking buddy guard. On to Laketown, where again there are presumably equal numbers of women present but only two figures have an impact on the Quest - the corrupt Master and the "grim" Bard, captain at arms.
So I think the absence of women is greatly due to the road trip nature of these stories, and on that point it is as well to observe that travel in such a time and place as Middle-earth was not generally undertaken for pleasure since it was a major undertaking; slow, difficult, the dangers many, and one could not travel unarmed. Travel was either by backpacking, horseback, or pack train. Nobody went sight-seeing. No one traveled unless they had strong reason - even Sam had never been further than a day's walk from home. This is not unusual in non-industrial agrarian cultures: one cannot just leave a farm or shop untended and wander off for a while. If one is going to set a story in such a time and place, one must either take a realistic practical view (which Tolkien does) and assume only lords, warriors, traders, and the displaced would routinely travel, or one takes a fantastical approach and has people behaving in ways which do not follow the laws of practicality. This is where I think people forget the distinction between Tolkien's "feigned history" and the "magic realm" approach often used by other writers of Fantasy. It might be easy to imbue a magic realm with complete gender equality/indifference but it doesn't fit so well in a feigned history. Arwen and Galadriel travel distances at cause and Eowyn rides to war when the men of her people go (all three are in the "lords" category), but the other women (when not being evacuated), like the majority of non-military men who have no reason to go anywhere, stay at home and get on with life.
"Dark is the water of Kheled-zâram, and cold are the springs of Kibil-nâla, and fair were the many-pillared halls of Khazad-dûm in Elder Days before the fall of mighty kings beneath the stone."