Saturday, July 25, 2009

Shelob and Galadriel

Isn’t there something interesting about how the first two volumes of an epic famously poor in female characters both feature strong, even primordial female presences at the height of the action?

The visit to Lothlorien and the encounter with Galadriel isn’t quite the climax of Fellowship, not the way the battle with Shelob is the climax of The Two Towers, but it’s close enough, I think, to invite us to compare the two characters.

Here we go:

Galadriel and Shelob are both female. Undeniably: Shelob’s feminine nature is adumbrated even in her name. She-lob, she-spider (even if this etymology is spurious according to Tolkien’s scheme, I have no doubt it’s what he had in mind).

They both come from outside Middle-Earth: Galadriel came with the rest of the elves, while Shelob came from “the Land of the Elves in the West” (p. 707). Both are beings of great power, essentially immortal; we’re not even sure if Sam’s attack kills Shelob.

Both now rule over their own pocket of Middle-Earth (Lothlorien; Cirith Ungol), which responds sympathetically to their psychic power – Galadriel’s calm, Shelob’s malice. Galadriel’s light, Shelob’s dark.

And of course each represents a pole of morality: Galadriel is one of many exemplars in the novel of pure, or as nearly pure as can be imagined good; one of many but probably the most memorable, because least challenged and most fleetingly glimpsed. Shelob is presented as pure evil, worse in her own way than even Sauron, if not as powerful.

What does this mean, this locating of two poles of mysticized femininity at the ends of the first two installments of the novel? I don’t know. But at the very least it’s a powerful parallel, an effective unifying feature.

Part of why I don't know what it means is because there's no obvious follow-up in the third volume. Several female characters make an appearance in Return of the King, ranging from the majestic Eowyn to the homey Rosie Cotton. But none of them have nearly the presence, much less the elemental overtones, of Galadriel and Shelob.

This could be intentional, as the extended ending, at least, of the third book is all about the reestablishing of normalcy, or rather the establishing of a new, post-Elven standard of normalcy, and it could be that Tolkien wants us to see in Rosie an earthy femininity that stands as a pole, in its own way, to the two kinds of mystical femininity that overshadow the ends of the first two books.

Buried at the very end of the appendices, we find Tolkien noting (p. 1109) that he has anglicized the hobbit names that appear in the book, because "in hobbit-names a was a masculine ending, and o and e were feminine." This means, I suppose, but Frodo's real name was Froda.

Does it also mean something more, more than Tolkien's inscrutable linguistic groundwork? Tolkien's right: to the English speaker's ear, Froda sounds like a female. Are we here, at the end of all things, meant to have a moment of confusion, in which we see, ever so faintly, all the male hobbits whose adventures we have followed for a thousand pages, not as males, but as females? After all, hobbits are full of traditionally-conceived female virtues such as love of hearth and home, cooking and gardening - as opposed to forestry - they're not Ents, but Entwives. Certainly the hobbits aren't the lost Entwives per se, but maybe, just maybe, they're Tolkien's representatives of an unmystical, earthly, healthy femininity.

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