On Mermaids, Hobbits, Dwarves, and Trolls

J  R  R Tolkien
JRR Tolkien, from wikipedia.org

Today is Tolkien Reading Day, so I’m going to talk a bit about The Hobbit, which is much more–and much less–than it appears to be. Obviously it’s Bilbo’s journey to the Lonely Mountain to defeat Smaug the dragon—he goes, as the subtitle tells us, both there and back again—but on the way he finds himself, or rather, a version of himself he never knew existed: a courageous little hobbit who gambles with a fortune he really has no claim to, and he manages to survive it all. He grows in several ways, so in The Hobbit, we see the development of a hero. But there are a few things in the novel that I find frustrating, and one in particular, so forgive me if I take the opportunity to get this off my chest.

I’m going to begin by referring, as Barbara Bush did in her extremely successful commencement speech at Wellesley in 1990, to a now famous story from Robert Fulghum’s book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. You’ve probably heard it before: Fulghum is leading a group of children who are playing the game “Giants, Wizards, or Dwarfs” – a life-size version of Rock, Paper, Scissors. The children are instructed to choose what they will be in the game and then go stand with their peers. As they make their choices, a little girl walks up to Fulghum, taps him on the elbow, and asks, “Where do the Mermaids stand?” When Fulghum informs the girl that there are no Mermaids in the game, she surprises him by replying, “Oh yes, there are. I am one!”

A Mermaid, John William Waterhouse, 1901 From wikipedia.org

Both Fulghum, and later Bush, use this story to celebrate the independence and creativity of a little girl who refuses to be categorized, who thinks outside of the box, even though any teacher could tell you that this girl, charming as she is in the story, will probably cause quite a few headaches for those around her as she grows older. But what Fulghum’s and Bush’s story both seem to miss is that among Giants, Wizards, and Dwarves, there are no female roles. I mean, what’s a girl to do when faced with a game like this, after all? Mermaids do seem like the only option.

I bring this up because we have pretty much the same problem in The Hobbit. I’ve read it many times now, and yet I know a lot of people who have never read the book, or who have started it and never made it through. I’m beginning to think I know why: at least one reason may be because there aren’t any women in the book. None. Bilbo’s mother, Belladonna Took, is mentioned within the first few pages of the novel, but only as a conduit for some adventurous Tookish blood to make it into her son’s prosaic make-up.

So, in the absence of women, what do we do, those of us who are women readers? In other words, if this is a world where there are only hobbits, dwarves, elves, and wizards, and none of them are women, then where in Middle Earth are we supposed to stand? Given this problem, it’s kind of surprising that any women read the novel at all. The really remarkable thing about The Hobbit, then, isn’t how many people haven’t read it, but how many people have.

I wanted to explore this lack of female representation, coming from my frustrating foray into Western films last week. To begin with, I think I can tell you where Tolkien’s lack of women characters originates—it’s pretty easy to see, and it isn’t from Tolkien’s personal life. The fact is, Tolkien was really an anachronism, writing in 1937. By this I mean that he may have been writing a children’s story, but he was borrowing heavily from his area of professional expertise: Old English literature. In The Hobbit, we see a riddle game (The Exeter Book, written in Old English, contains close to 100 riddles, and Tolkien, as a professor of Anglo Saxon, would have known these intimately). We also see elements that are clearly borrowed from Tolkien’s great, lifelong, passion: Beowulf; in fact, as you can read here, Tolkien’s 1926 translation of Beowulf is set to be published for the first time in a couple of months. Like The Hobbit, Beowulf has a dragon, a thief who provokes the dragon, several monsters to kill, and very few women. Beowulf doesn’t concern itself with women; they come into the story, more frequently than in The Hobbit, but they don’t really achieve much, and they don’t stay long. For the most part, it seems women just weren’t considered worth writing about in Old English.

Another way of looking at it is to say that it’s not that women are excluded from The Hobbit: it’s just that they’re not represented. There’s a subtle difference here, actually. The default gender in The Hobbit is male; Tolkien is not interested in the relationship between the sexes, because this story is for children, and sex—as we all know—is not for children. (Or is it? Tell that to Disney, which thrives on marketing sex for children—a mostly sanitized version of sex, but sex nonetheless). Tolkien was clearly looking for a purer form of escape than Disney ever did, however, and he purged his created world of sex in the crudest way possible: by eliminating women from the story completely.

So, to sum up my point so far, in this children’s story that repudiates gender relationships (goodness knows Tolkien has all he can handle negotiating the relationships between the elves, dwarves, men, and goblins in The Hobbit), we have virtually no female characters. But is this really a problem for female readers? Strangely enough, I’d say not really: it might be a problem for very young female readers, but for the most part, women learn pretty quickly in their reading experience not to expect books that highlight the female point of view. For every Jane Eyre, there are five David Copperfields. True, these days young adult literature is changing and there are so many more books written from the point of view of girls—but this is a recent development. Back when I went to school we had to read A Separate Peace and Lord of the Flies—and neither book has any active female characters. It’s no wonder I wasn’t crazy about my high school English classes.

Thankfully, children’s literature has changed, but The Hobbit hasn’t. It persists in the intentionally gender-free (that is, male) world Tolkien created, and its female readers have to do a great deal of work to identify with the characters in the story. We’re probably not even aware that we are doing this work, either. Like many other things we do, it comes naturally to us now—this ideological cross-dressing we do so well in so many parts of our lives. When we read, women often think like men, not because we want to, but because we have to in order to enter the text.

Image from wikipedia.org

This may sound like a criticism of Tolkien, and perhaps it is, but I think there is good to be gained from reading The Hobbit. First, readers need to notice what isn’t in a text as well as what is in it. If we want to gain from our reading practice and return to our world richer from the experience of reading—which is the only justifiable excuse for reading as much as I do, then we need to see what’s been left out of a story to make it work. (This is basic deconstruction, left over from the 1980s, but it still holds true today.) Second, noting the lack of women in The Hobbit shows us just how powerful a reader’s mind is, in that woman have been able to read, study, and enjoy the book for over 80 years now despite the fact that we’re not represented in it. Third, it’s possible that women readers appreciate The Hobbit precisely because there are no women in the story, as a form of fantasy escape—especially if you have a household full of teenage daughters.

Mostly, though, I want to point out that Tolkien, for all his talent and imagination, went just so far and no further in his creative work. Unwilling to deal with gender issues in his story, he simply avoided them by omitting women completely. Can we say that his friend C.S. Lewis did any better? Not in his space trilogy, and many readers would argue he did even worse in The Chronicles of Narnia (the problem of Susan). But late in life, Lewis engendered a world that turns on a woman’s perspective in a book that should satisfy the demands of any long-neglected female reader: Till We Have Faces, told from the point of view of a woman. It makes me wish that Tolkien and Lewis hadn’t drifted apart, because I’m convinced that Tolkien could have learned a thing or two from his friend Jack if he’d only been willing to listen to him.

Thoughts on Reading Mrs. Dalloway

On the whole, I enjoy my job. True, like any English teacher, I don’t enjoy grading papers. I procrastinate when faced with a pile of them, often ferrying them for a week or so between my office desk to my dining room table without ever reading them. But reading texts and discussing them—what could be better than that?

Part of this enthusiasm stems from the knowledge of how unfit I am for other types of work. Lack of practical organizational skills made me a fairly poor secretary in my youth; likewise, I found it hard to be an effective real estate agent when one is, at heart, a Marxist. (“Certainly I think this is an excellent house to buy, Mr. Brown, or at least I would if I believed in the division of labor and private property.”) Teaching seems to be the one thing I can do effectively, because so much of the job entails hours and hours of reading—which is just fine by me. In fact, it recently dawned on me that I make my living largely by reading.

Several years ago, when I was taking my son’s friend home from a play-date, I listened to the two of them as they sat in the back seat, discussing their future careers. “I’m going to be a teacher,” announced Maureen, a fiery red-headed girl about half the size of my son Ian. “I’m going to be a military historian,” said Ian, who was forever watching black-and-white movies about World War II. I expected Maureen to ask for an explanation, but instead there was a pause, and, a couple of seconds later, she sighed and said, “I wish I could get paid just to read.” Ian didn’t answer; a quick glance in the rear-view mirror showed me that he was considering this as a career possibility. In the silence that followed Maureen’s wistful declaration, I broke one of my parental rules: I spoke while chauffeuring. “You know what?” I said. “I do get paid to read.” There was another pause, and, her voice full of admiration, Maureen said, “I want to do what you do.”

I didn’t tell them that at least three-quarters of the reading I do is an onerous task, consisting of scanning freshman and sophomore papers that I have to comment on and grade. The world needs teachers and professors, after all, and maybe by withholding that detail, I might have produced two more candidates for the job. But the truth is, while by far the greatest part of my job entails reading student papers, I am also paid to know all sorts of things that I can know only by reading, whether articles about teaching online writing classes, or critiques of films, or novels like Mrs. Dalloway. I’d guess that at least two-thirds of my job involves reading primary material to digest and pass on to others, colleagues, administrators, or students. As I told Maureen that summer morning, it’s true that I make my living by reading.

But spending a career in reading has its risks, and one of them is personal, as I am beginning to find out. I’ve recently had to re-read Mrs. Dalloway, a novel I always enjoy more when I don’t happen to be in the process of reading it. The last time I read Mrs. Dalloway was about fifteen years ago. What I noticed about the book on this go-round was that, while each other time I had read the novel I had admired the passages relating to Bourton and the golden past of Mrs. Dalloway and her friends, this time, reading them evoked a vague feeling of discomfort in me. In fact, the entire novel produced an unpleasant sensation that had nothing to do with Woolf’s use of stream of consciousness. As I puzzled it over, I realized with a shock that this feeling was not due to Woolf’s wary depictions of madness or the masterful representation of the fragmentation of society, but because I am now the age of Mrs. Dalloway. Now I, too, have my own Bourton: now I can remember people and events from thirty years ago, and this fact alone is a deeply unsettling. In earlier years, when I read Mrs. Dalloway, I was a spectator, a sympathetic on-looker. Today, I am Mrs. Dalloway.

Consequently, I’ve discovered that the process of aging has all sorts of implications for a person who makes his or her living from reading. A few years ago, I turned fifty, a very interesting age for a woman in American culture. But what does this mean specifically to a person who reads for a living? Just this: All those fatuous matrons in British novels have become sisters to me; we are all women d’un certain âge, so to speak. Dickens, Austen, Eliot—these authors are frequently unkind to women my age. Think of Flora Finching, Mrs. Bennett, Lisbeth Bede: all of these women are ridiculous, pitiable characters who are about my age—a sobering thought indeed.

In fact, lack of charity towards their older female characters seems widespread among the authors I read, and it’s apparently something that I’ll have to put up with now, just as I put up with Dickens’s occasional over-the-top sentimentalism, Scott’s tendency to tell rather than show, and Eliot’s relentless gravitas. It is now clear to me I can no longer identify with the youth and simple virtue of Esther Summerson; but does this mean I have to see myself as the jaded Lady Dedlock? It’s bad enough being Mrs. Dalloway; must I also be Miss Prism?

This kind of thinking makes me wonder whether I should have warned my son and his friend about the dangers of a career in reading. But it’s just as well I didn’t: they wouldn’t have listened, anyway. Aging, they say, is not for the faint-hearted. The Victorians had a good remedy for this kind of malaise: work. But no more novels, please! Today, for the first time in my career, I’m actually looking forward to reading a huge stack of student papers.