“Young she was and yet not so”: The Revival of the Victorian Fairy Story Heroine in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

Kylie Dennis

Abstract


Historically, criticism by feminist writers has discounted the merit of Tolkien’s most prominent romance in The Lord of the Rings, particularly discrediting the lack of development in Arwen Evenstar, the half-elven Lady of Rivendell. A popular misinterpretation of this character’s passive tendencies as well as her ultimate decision to forfeit immortality for a finite romance with Tolkien’s king of men has – for many – rendered Arwen’s character ill-equipped to satisfy the presentation of strong women in modern fantasy. In contrast to these interpretations, this paper argues that an analysis of Arwen’s physical characteristics and inherent virtues as well as the narrative structure of the Arwen-Aragorn subplot confirms that Tolkien’s heroine successfully embodies  the female archetype of a separate genre of literature entirely, the Victorian fairy story.

This essay synthesizes the recurring characteristics of the most prominent fairy stories of the nineteenth century – particularly emphasizing the Andrew Lang series – with observations from the primary text of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings as well as the extended subplot in the Appendices. It argues that, amongst other similarities, Arwen’s marriage to the ideal fairy story hero in combination with her exceptional beauty, passivity, and her rejection of fate portray her as a direct derivation of Victorian fairy story women. This work also attempts to account for Arwen’s non-archetypal nobility by incorporating Tolkien’s fascination with medieval lore and the culture of noble Norse women in Tennyson and Morris’s nineteenth century work. In establishing the intertextual relationship between Tolkien’s romance and Lang’s collection of fairy tales as well as the influence of the author’s fascination with Anglo-Saxon literature, the essay suggests that Arwen’s character proves more complex, ambivalent and, possibly, more deeply embedded in literary history than previously noted. Although this interpretation may not entirely justify the suggested misogyny that tends to characterize Tolkien’s work, perceiving Arwen’s character as a revival of fairy literature presents the heroine’s submissive qualities not as a product of the author’s own gender bias but rather as an acknowledgment of the literary precedents and conventions of that age.

The apparent connection between Tolkien’s heroine and the archetypal female character present in nineteenth century fairy stories suggests that evaluating Arwen Evenstar within the framework of Victorian fairy literature with particular attention to popular Norse influences during this time may foster a better understanding of her character and a greater appreciation for her essential role in the work.


Keywords


Tolkien, Andrew Lang, Arwen Evenstar, fairy story

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