Lord of the Rings
by J.R.R. Tolkien
Allen & Unwin, 1954-55
I don’t just talk about Lord of the Rings, I gush. J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy about the fictional realm of Middle Earth is one of my desert-island books, a work of art that comes closer to my own personal definition of literary perfection than does any other book I’ve read. (See? Gushing. I told you.)
My infatuation with this incredible story has nothing to do with the book’s genre, or even with the specific plot, though I like both quite well. It’s more about the craft: the fully-realized universe, the luxurious descriptions, the way Tolkien somehow holds onto subtlety as he dances around the edges of allegory and archetype.
It’s also about the characters: their backstories, their secrets, their choices, their surprising depths. There’s Gandalf the wizard, whose true identity and role in the drama are half-veiled even to himself, and who continually surprises his companions with his humor, compassion, and power. There’s Aragorn, the secret heir to an ancient line of kings, who is both intimidating and endearing, a peerless warrior and a gifted healer. Or Sam, whose rough appearance and speech hide a deep appreciation for beauty and a profoundly loyal, courageous, and noble heart.
And then there are the women. LoTR is predominantly male, to the point that there are really only two significant female characters in the entire 1,000-plus-page epic. But what characters they are! Of all the Super Secondaries I can imagine profiling, these two lead the pack.
First there’s Eowyn, niece and adopted daughter of King Theoden of Rohan, the nation of Gondor’s chief ally in the fight against the dark wizard Sauron. Strong and valiant, she yearns for battle, but cultural norms keep her trapped at home. So she disguises herself as a man and rides with her countrymen to war, where she plays a key role in the climactic battle against Sauron’s forces.
Critically wounded and disillusioned by violence, she finally returns to wholeness through the wise care of Gondor’s Healer and the gentle Lord Faramir (himself wounded in the war). She decides to become a healer herself and, after marrying Faramir, becomes co-ruler of one of Gondor’s provinces.
On the surface, Eowyn’s inspirational value may seem dubious. After all, she gives up her warrior ambitions, marries her Prince Charming, and settles down to a happy princess life. Except that it’s not quite that simple.
In the LoTR universe, war is not an occupation but a tool, waged only for a time and at greatest need. The ultimate good is lasting peace and active participation in it. So Eowyn’s trajectory matches that of the book’s two great leaders, Gandalf and Aragorn, who both become men of peace after Sauron’s defeat. Her choice to become a healer is a sign of great wisdom; and because of it, she maintains an active and important role in the restoration of Middle Earth.
Galadriel the elf-queen is the other strong female character in Tolkien’s saga. Along with her husband Celeborn, she rules the hidden forest sanctuary of Lothlorien. She is the most powerful and one of the oldest of her people in Middle Earth, and it is her magic that maintains Lothlorien as a refuge from and center of resistance to Sauron’s destruction and power.
Her story is harder to follow than Eowyn’s, especially for those who aren’t familiar with The Silmarillion, a separate book that outlines Middle Earth’s beginnings. But for very astute readers, the clues are there to follow. Galadriel is so powerful that even the demi-gods fear her; they test her loyalty even as they use her as an ally. She is the only character who can read Sauron’s mind and see into the future. And even objects that bear her magic have the ability to repel Sauron’s darkness and ancient evil.
She is, quite simply, one of the most inspiring female characters I’ve ever encountered. Tolkien is abundantly clear that the fight against Sauron would have failed without her – when the story ends, she ranks with the greatest champions of Middle Earth.
Even without Eowyn and Galadriel, Lord of the Rings is inspiring. It has a unique blend of humanity and earthiness coupled with epic themes of good vs. evil, monumental sacrifice, loyalty, and love. And there is simply no one else who can write like Tolkien. His love for his work oozes out of every word.
But these two strong women – their fearlessness, their power, their dedication, and their amazing accomplishments – mean that girls can find inspiration just for them in the pages of one of English literature’s greatest classics.