Tolkien and the Problem of Characterisation:
Éowyn and Arwen
One of the most frequent accusations levelled at JRR Tolkien is that he is not a great writer, that his characters, in the main, lack depth or motivation and that his prose is overwrought and unsubtle. In putting my ideas forward I am going to adopt this heretical (for a fan) position. What these criticisms boil down is the point that Tolkien is not a great novelist.
My contention is that "The Lord of the Rings" and to an even greater degree "The Simarillion" cannot be judged by the criteria one would apply to an Austen or Dickens novel. The novel has become a form that embraces huge variety, thus "The Lord of the Rings" was written as a novel. However the concerns which drove the development of the novel are very different from those behind "The Lord of the Rings." While it is tedious to debate what was the 'first' novel, it is a fair argument that the novel as it developed was uniquely concerned with describing individual, and often female, experience. As a form it is tied to the individual and their place in their society – issues which, I think it can be fairly argued, Tolkien was uninterested in.
Tolkien only suffers when compared to the various masters of the novel form. Are Arwen or Éowyn truly comparable to Elizabeth Bennet or Jane Eyre? In fact I think it pointless to read Tolkien in the tradition of the novel – to do so only illuminates the failings in "The Lord of the Rings". It is of far greater worth to any critic or reader to explore "The Lord of the Rings" in light of the epic.
If Tolkien's purpose was to reclaim or recreate a culture and mythology which England had lost as a result of the Industrial Revolution, a culture which had disappeared as the novel began to dominate literature, then the issues of individual experience and the intricacies of characterisation were almost extraneous to his purpose. It is not that he was incapable of creating interiority – I would consider Sam to be a fully realised character (although the caveat should be added that he was not exceptionally gifted at it) – but that it was unnecessary.
Consider instead the great epics The Aeneid, The Iliad, The Odyssey, Paradise Lost. As I am most familiar with Paradise Lost it is with reference to Milton's epic of the fall of Lucifer and then of Adam and Eve that I shall make my case. "Paradise Lost" does not have very many characters – in the modern sense – either, with the exception of Satan who threatens to monopolise the reader's sympathies. Adam and Eve are not fully individual – they have to represent too much, and so as Everyman and Everywoman, they cease to be fully intelligible. God and Christ are best described as ciphers, which while necessary for Milton's purpose ("to make clear the ways of God to men) alienates them somewhat from the reader's sympathy.
"The Lord of the Rings" is, in effect, an epic written in the novel form. It is not, as "His Dark Materials" is, an epic novel – a distinction that may seem meaningless, but is in fact significant. Like Milton, Tolkien had a purpose in mind that rendered certain aspects of the novel irrelevant. In this lies the explanation for why such a large Internet 'fandom', and such large amounts of fanfiction have been written around "The Lord of the Rings". To compare, on fanfiction.net there are 32294 and 135170 for "The Lord of the Rings" and the Harry Potter series respectively –meanwhile Austen and Shakespeare, two of the greatest writers in the history of the English language, could only inspire 107 and 476 works apiece. The numbers of people who have been inspired to rewrite the love story in "Pride and Prejudice" or depict the great slash relationship of Hamlet and Horatio remains mercifully small. The reason for this lies probably in that the characters of Austen and Shakespeare are beautifully finished – very few would attempt to suggest that Elizabeth should really have married Wickham instead of Darcy (and if they did, would you really wish to meet them?), yet as Éowyn-Grima shippers in "The Lord of the Rings" fandom show, Tolkien's characters remain open to interpretation in ways that the characters of more sophisticated 'creators of the human' simply do not, while the Harry Potter series, as yet unfinished, offers great potential for exploration.
Yet "The Lord of the Rings" remains one of the most popular novels in history, and the question becomes "why?" I argue that it is because it satisfies that part of us which is as old as epic itself – the desire for stories. I have never read Tolkien to gain insight into the human condition or some experience which illuminate my own. I read him for the length and breadth of his vision, his breathtaking originality and imagination, the magnificent, sweeping tales that he tells. Tolkien writes from a time that was before character, and in many ways, before irony, and it is better for us to read him as such. Irony – in individuals, not in fate – destroys epic because it betrays a self-consciousness, and furthermore, a reductiveness that destroys the values that an epic embodies.
All this is not to say that Tolkien did not attempt some kind of characterisation. One of the writers 'tricks' he uses the most is that of foregrounding. The problem however is that he cannot pull it off. Foregrounding is essentially a kind of game of fill-in-the blanks that an author plays with his readers. The undisputed master of foregrounding is William Shakespeare, who can convince an audience of the murder of King Hamlet and the marriage of his wife to his murderer in the first scene of Hamlet; or in Othello an audience will foreground Othello's rejection of Iago in favour of Cassius, and Iago's subsequent fury, or as it was once put, 'sense of nullity' without blinking an eye.
The difficulty with Tolkien is that he foregrounds at once too much and too little, so that the reader is left with far too many blanks to fill in. Éowyn, in particular, illustrates this well. To gain a complete understanding of this character one must foreground the following information; she was orphaned at roughly age six or seven, losing one parent to battle, another to depression, or desperation as Tolkien glosses it, and had to suffer the attentions of Grima Wormtongue – "Too long have you watched her under your eyelids and haunted her steps" (542) – for at least five years, though it may have been a longer period. The difficulty lies in the fact that, while this information provides a complete foregrounding for the character, it is only to be found in the appendices, so that for a reader (especially a first time reader) all the foregrounding is essentially useless as it is not available to them.
Any knowledge of both Éowyn and Arwen becomes dependent on a kind of guesswork on the part of the reader. Arwen in particular suffers from the fact that her entire foregrounding is excluded from the novel proper – she speaks only three sentences in "The Lord of the Rings." Arwen should break the reader's heart, but she does not. Indeed to many she comes across as a vapid but beautiful vacuum. It is useless to say that the appendix in some way rehabilitates her, for there is no congruity between what she says and what we are supposed to believe of her. Frodo describes Arwen:
"Young she was and yet not so. The braids of her dark hair were touched by no frost, her white arms and clear face were flawless and smooth, and the light of stars was in her bright eyes, grey as a cloudless night; yet queenly she looked, and thought and knowledge were in her glance, as of one who has known many things that the years bring" (243 - my italics)
Yet Arwen's queenliness is not displayed in anything she says, nor is her knowledge (at least to any great degree – though her comment on Bilbo may be illuminating). Almost everything she says refers to the fact that she will have to forsake her immortality for Aragorn – not to the fact that she loves him. Psychologically this is disastrous as it starts to undermine the reader's conception of her love for him; it is not surprising that she comes across as cold to many (for further discussion of this point see DeeDee's essay "My Problem With Arwen" at Parma.)
Liv Tyler received much criticism for her portrayal of Arwen in Peter Jackson's films, but given how little she had to work with, the fact that Arwen is by no means a complete entity, she had a thankless task. Indeed what I considered one of the virtues of her performance, was that it portrayed her love for Aragorn, and the pain that it caused for her and her father; complexities that are only hinted at in the appendix.
Éowyn is often referred to as the most realised female character in "The Lord of the Rings" indeed, with the possible exception of Luthien, she is the most realised female character in all of Tolkien. Yet even she is by no means a perfect composition; my initial reaction to her, and she would become my favourite character, was along the lines of "She fell in love with him, because he touched her hand! What?" (An example of the reductive quality of irony right there). The debate as to whether she truly loved Faramir, as to whether she is a heroine or deserter etc illustrates the fact that for many she remains an enigma (and isn't it an interesting comment on society that even today many of us find it incredible that a woman could fall in love twice?)
With the foregrounding we have, which includes knowledge that she was orphaned at an early age, and for a prolonged period had to suffer what qualifies at least as sexual harassment, and possibly as sexual abuse, we can learn a lot about her character – but the difficulty lies in the fact that very little of this information is contained within the novel proper. One of my pet theories is that part of what drives Éowyn to take part in the battle, is that she, having seen her mother die due to despair/depression, does not want to suffer the same fate herself. Part of her desperation lies in the fact that she does not wish to be like her mother – she is in fact desperate to escape such a death.
All the information required to make that deduction, and many others like it, is contained in the appendices; but the reader necessarily approaches the appendices after having read the novel, at which point their conception of the character is set. In effect the foregrounding is actually aftergrounding, and is therefore of little use to the reader.
Both these characters can be understood better however if one considers the sources from which they came. Tolkien in seeking to recreate England's mythology took many ideas from what little remained of it. Éowyn seems to have been inspired from a character mentioned in Beowulf (fitting since she is an older character than Arwen, and Beowulf is the oldest written English – though whether it is English is a question in itself – in existence):
"Wealhtheow came in, Hrothgar's queen, observing the courtesies. Adorned in her gold she graciously saluted the men in hall, then handed the cup first to Hrothgar, their homelands guardian, urging him to drink deep and enjoy it because he was dear to them. And he drank it down like the warlord he was, with festive cheer. So the Helming woman went on her rounds, queenly and dignified, decked out in rings, offering the goblet to all ranks...until it was Beowulf's turn to take it from her hand. With measured words she welcomed the Geat and thanked God for granting her wish that a deliverer she could believe in would arrive to ease their afflictions." (Beowulf page. 21 - my italics)
Wealtheow is delivered when Beowulf slays Grendel – the monster that haunted Hrothgar's hall – and Grendel's mother. There is no mention of Shieldmaidens, indeed of any female warriors, in Beowulf – yet it is a development that makes sense. The world portrayed in Beowulf is one that is desperately fragile – monsters haunt its halls, enemies wait constantly at the borders – and Éowyn would fit into that context very well. She herself lives in a country that has been destabilised by a different kind of monster in the hall.
Arwen meanwhile comes from a younger and less purely English tradition – that of amour courtois. The focus in amour courtois is always on the young knight who wishes to gain the affections of the older (indeed usually married) woman of a far higher station; the woman's feelings are rarely described. Love in these tales (Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Morte D'Arthur, Queste Sainte Grale) enters through the eye; indeed usually the knight is struck down with love at first sight (like Aragorn). To gain the affection of his beloved though the knight must undergo many tests – indeed in the case of Lancelot (who in Malory's tale suffers from lamentably bad taste) the knight-lover may be tested even after he has gained his desire. The woman has very little to do in these tales except look beautiful and set tests – her feelings and emotions are rarely at issue (until she becomes inflamed with love for the knight.)
"Queen Guinevere, the gayest of all the gathering, sat at the high dais which was hung with adornments, a canopy over her, silken curtains all round. Damasks of Toulouse and rich drapes from Turkestan sewn and set off by the most detailed designs in rich metals and jewels, beautifully beaten and wrought – No woman lovelier, her grey eyes glancing about; in beauty she had no peer, of that there was no doubt" (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight page 5)
That Aragorn rejects Éowyn in favour of Arwen may be debatable in psychological terms (there is a lot implied in the brief scenes they have together in the novel – and far more in the films) but when one looks at the source material it is entirely explicable. In Malory's Morte D'Arthur Lancelot rejects Elaine, the Fair Maid of Astolat in favour of Guinevere (incidentally he does so in far more offensive way than Aragorn does – offering Elaine money) and Elaine dies of grief. She does not know that she has been rejected because Lancelot is committed to another woman. There is even some similarity in physical appearance since Elaine is described as a blonde, while Guinevere has black hair and grey eyes.
The difficulty in comprehending Tolkien's characterisation of Arwen and Éowyn (and indeed for many of his characters) is that he attempted to marry a sense of motivation and character through (unsuccesful) foregrounding, to roles that were appointed rather than natural. Neither of these women chooses to love Aragorn – in fact their love for him is partially dictated by plot, and even more so by the roles that were assigned for them by Tolkien. It should not surprise anyone that, in attempting to drive forward an immensely complicated plot, and to recreate a lost mythology, sometimes considerations of psychology were sometimes neglected. While foregrounding Éowyn can lead to a comprehensive understanding of her character, for Arwen that may be impossible. A sense of character can be gained but anything deeper is impossible, as there is simply not enough information available to us.
Yet we should not reject "The Lord of the Rings" because the characterisation is haphazard; instead we should recognise that it appeals to that part of us that has been telling stories round the fire since the dawn of time, not the part that has been reading novels for the last two to thee hundred years. That in myth psychology is not always a major consideration – that in fact "The Lord of the Rings" is not a novel, but an epic forced into a form that does not entirely fit. Indeed we should accept that sometimes characters may have to remain ciphers – but if one reads "The Lord of the Rings" purely for characterisation rather than story, then disappointment is sure to follow. In my view "The Lord of the Rings" is a legend that stands beside the greatest myths we have inherited – The Iliad, The Táin, Beowulf – and it is by reading it as such, and not as part of a tradition with which it has very little in common, that is the novel, that its characters can be best understood, and it can be most enjoyed.
JRR Tolkien "The Lord of the Rings" Unwin Paperbacks 1978
Seamus Heaney (trans.) "Beowulf" Faber and Faber 1999
Keith Harrison (trans.) "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight" Oxford World's Classics 1983