I have no good feminist reasons to love Middle Earth, and plenty to find it problematic. Tolkien was clearly uninterested in women – Lord of the Rings features powerful women primarily as supplementary love interests to powerful men (Arwen and Eowyn) or as much less important to the storyline than corresponding male characters (Galadriel – cf say, Elrond).
But long before New Zealand was packaged up as the perfect scenic holiday, I was in love with LOTR. I read both the Hobbit and LOTR for the first time when I was eight, my parents desperate to give me something that would take me longer than Encyclopedia Brown, Nancy Drew and the Famous Five.
Then, what thrilled me were the different creatures, the imagined world of good vs evil, the adventures and bravery and friendships and loyalty. My favourite character was – and still is – Aragorn, the self-doubting hero who tests himself over and over again. But I loved the magic of the wizards, the wry humour of Gandalf, the idea of living in trees and travelling over different lands. I loved the bravery of the hobbits and the sheer genius of the only creature who ever gives up the one ring that rules them all being a short dude with furry feet who likes singing with the Aryans elves.
The problems – apart from no women – were pretty lost on me at eight but have been part of my experience everytime I’ve read it since. The obvious racism of the elves (white and fair and pure and true) and the orcs (dark and ugly and nasty and abusive). The racial essentialism of all the different “races” – undermined slightly by the big man-love between Gimli the Dwarf and Legolas the Elf, but let’s face it, that’s just so we can reinforce how natural it is usually for different “races” to hate and distrust one another. The pre-version of the American Superhero narrative – really, we’re supposed to believe huge life events like battles between thousands of people hinge on Aragorn and his big sword?
Yet love the Hobbit and LOTR I do, passionately. I know lots of the dialogue by heart, and had to be politely asked to stop my critique when watching the films, disturbed by what a significant narrative arc loss it was to leave out Tom Bombadil (there were other digressions equally disturbing, for reader interest I’ll stop there.) Alongside the explicit critique Tolkien is making of industrialisation, for me the fascination sits with the wrestling with issues of power.
Which is where I’ll try and make a slightly feminist argument. If there was really one ring to rule them all, liberal feminists would want that ring for themselves, rather than having that horrid patriarch Sauron in charge. Because women would do absolute power differently, right?
Actually, the solution in LOTR is more anarchist, at least briefly. Absolute power has to go, and the joys of watching powerful characters (Gandalf, Galadriel, Aragorn) repeatedly choose not to take up this power, knowing it corrupts, is one of my fave ideas to explore.
Of course, Tolkien went a bit established power structures on us then – long before New Zealand’s own Sauron Peter Jackson smashed worker power in his quest for the one film to make him rich.
Absolute power went, but all the different races are still led by their king-dudes, and only brave men and true (Pippin, Merry, Sam and Frodo) can free the oppressed. Power is still operating in traditional, anti-collective or community sharing ways. And the races are still essentially different, even if Gimli and Legolas have taken up Marriage Equality long before New Zealand parliament.
I can’t get excited about seeing the Hobbit, despite my love of all things Middle Earth. Wellington is covered in merchandise, I can’t get the sour taste out of my mouth over the union-busting, and the cynicism of turning a slight story (trip with the boys to a mountain far, far away, a dragon, inter-racial warfare over resources, then home again) into three films just kills it for me.
Capitalism stole my problematic love. It’s not the first time.