Friday, January 24, 2014

Guest Post: Eowyn, Arwen, and Tauriel: Why Young Readers Need Women to Look Up To in Fantasy by Piyali Syam

Since we're talking about movies today, I thought this was a super Guest Post to share!

eowyn lord of the rings

“No man can kill me,” says the Witch King as he stands menacingly over a knight on the battlefield, in third film in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy, The Return of the King“I am no man,” the knight responds, before whipping off a helmet to reveal long, flowing blonde hair and the face of, much to the villain’s surprise, a woman: Eowyn, niece of the King of Rohan. She then strikes him down with her sword, thus fulfilling a loophole in a prophecy of sorts. No man could kill the formidable Witch King, but a woman could. 

Fantasy has often had the reputation of being an old boys’ club. I know I wondered where all the women in Middle Earth were when I first watched The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring in middle school. But fantasy isn’t just for boys. Young girls watch the films and read the books and enjoy the stories probably just as much as their male counterparts. However, unlike young boys, they have a significant dearth of major characters they can identify with. Each member of the titular fellowship of the ring is a man, as is nearly every character who saves the day: Frodo, Aragorn, Gandalf, Bilbo. Is Tolkien himself to be blamed for this issue? Tolkien was a product of his time, and the story arc of Eowyn itself was a huge step for women in fantasy. 

That being said, she is an undeniable minority: only one significant female character among tens, even hundreds of male characters.Peter Jackson, no doubt influenced by his two women writing partners, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, made a conscious choice to correct this shortcoming of the source material and expand the role of female characters in his film adaptations of the beloved books. Specifically, in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, he expanded the character of Arwen. 

Arwen is a background character in The Lord of the Rings books. She receives only a brief  mention in The Fellowship of the Ring, and the story of her romance with Aragorn is relegated to an appendix outside of the trilogy itself. But in the films, Arwen’s role is greatly expanded, and she plays pivotal roles in the overall story. She saves Frodo from the ringwraiths in the first film, and receives nearly as much screentime as many of the main heroes in each subsequent film. It is she who asks her father, the Elf king Elrond, to forge the sword which persuade the ghost armies to follow Aragorn into battle. 

Jackson went one step bolder when it came to making The Hobbit trilogy. Instead of expanding  the role of a minor, yet existing female character from the books, this time Peter Jackson decided to simply create one from scratch. His introduction of the elf Tauriel, who is Captain of the Mirkwood guard and played by Lost actress Evangeline Lilly, in The Hobbit trilogy was met with quite a bit of resistance from fans of the book, who argued that Jackson was not staying true to the source material.

tauriel lord of the rings

While many might argue that fantasy is separate from reality, I stand on the point that fantasy mirrors reality. This is the larger purpose of storytelling; through imaginary worlds, children learn about their own, through watching and reading about battles between good and evil, they learn about their own morality and what constitutes right and wrong in the world. The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are stories which, at their core, have much to say about real-life topics such as human rights, justice, environmental conservation, war, and peace. Why should the equality of women be left out of the mix? 

Young minds are impressionable; they internalize what they see, hear, and learn. Seeing only men save the day perpetuates a negative (not to mention inaccurate) worldview for young girls, and for young boys as well. In real life, women hold influential positions. Mothers are caretakers and teachers all rolled into one, and often young girls’ first role models. As doctors, teachers, politicians, women play important roles in our world, and for fiction not to reflect reality in this aspect creates a damaging gap between what young girls see they can become and what they actually can become. Evangeline Lilly even argued in an interview that it is irresponsible to have young girls watch a movie without any female characters: “In Tolkien’s defense, he was writing in 1937. The world is a different place today, and I keep repeatedly telling people that in this day and age, to put nine hours of cinema entertainment in the theaters for young girls to go and  watch, and not have one female character, is subliminally telling them, ‘You don’t count, you’re not important, and you’re not pivotal to story.”

Peter Jackson made sure women were pivotal to story in his films. Eowyn is a soldier. Arwen is a healer. Tauriel is both. As Captain of the Elven guards, she is shown both fighting in battle and healing the wounded dwarf Kili. Seeing the various ways in which women can help others and contribute to the greater good shows children that girls are just important to the stories we tell, and the stories we live in our own lives. And that source material is far more worth staying true to than any book. 

About the Author:

Piyali Syam is Managing Editor for LLM Info, as well as an unabashed fan of both Lord of the 

Rings, fantasy, and feminism.

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