Monday, February 25, 2013

The Feminist Elf (Or Why I Object to Tolkien Tinkering)


I am a confirmed (re: obsessive) Tolkien fan, both of the original books about Middle Earth and of the Peter Jackson movies. I thought that, for the most part, Mr. Jackson and his team have done a masterful, beautiful job at bringing the books to film despite the difficulties the books present to that medium. While I swear first loyalty to the books, I am not so protective of their narrative integrity that I cannot understand (or at least tolerate) changes to the plot made for sake of a good film. I understand that while I would completely adore a scene-for-scene filming of the books-- complete with every single poem or song in all verses-- that you can't fill movie theaters with slow, dense plots and poetic trees. (Sorry Treebeard).

When I went to see the film version of the Hobbit, I came expecting differences from the books. I knew that the film drew from the appendixes heavily and altered events of the book in a few places. I accepted these alterations because they made sense within the story and seemed faithful to Tolkien's story. With this in mind, I enjoyed the movie immensely, though I did engage in a bit of detail-oriented grumbling at the end. Such is the right and privilege of geeks.

But then I learned about Tauriel.

She is a character invented solely for the movies, an elf warrior who, along with Legolas, sticks it to the Mirkwood spiders. She is a “high ranking” member of the elf army and “knows how to wield any weapon.” I am a bit irritated that they changed the nature of the Mirkwood elves (I always enjoyed the counterpart they provided to the notion that all Middle-earth elves are inherently noble, and sociable creatures) but I can tolerate that. I can tolerate Legolas appearing and even the character of Tauriel herself were it not for one thing-- why she was created at all. The buzz around her character online, and the descriptions given by the movie creators, were that she was added to rectify the “lack of female characters” in the book.

Now I'm mad.

Feminist critics have attacked Tolkien for the supposed bias in his writing towards male characters and away from female characters. Clearly they are ignoring Eowyn, Luthien, and the Galadriel of the Silmarillion, but it's true that the majority of major characters in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are male. The myths that inspired Tolkien were also male-driven. But why is that such an offense?
Writers should be allowed the creative freedom to choose their own inspirations and create their own worlds without having to be shackled by adherence to some politically correct ratio of men to women. I have read and loved stories in which there were no male characters period. I have read and loved stories in which there were mostly male characters. I have loved the stories in which there has been a mix. But artificially reshaping narrative so women can feel “included” is censorship by way of revision and-- if I may say so-- is insulting.

I am not fond, Mr. Jackson, of your insinuation that a woman cannot enjoy a fantasy movie unless she sees another women swinging daggers and rescuing men. Give my mind more credit than that. Don't patronize me by adding a feminist elf to pacify me. It's like adding a female soldier to Saving Private Ryan. It is awkward and untrue to the world the story inhabits.

No one is forced to read Tolkien. If a reader decides that the gender politics of his world (and of most of ancient mythology) are too offensive, he or she may find entertainment elsewhere. There are some great female-oriented fantasy books, which I have read and love. I would not want to alter those books by adding random men. Nor do I want to politicize Tolkien by adding random women.

Tolkien's female fans love his work on its own terms and we have no trouble identifying with the characters of the movie despite the fact that they are men. I search for goodness with Gandalf, discover unexpected courage with Bilbo, and long for home with Thorin and his band. That's what the best storytelling stirs the part of our souls which are all the same. It is a cheap and unnecessary bargain to trade that power to quiet a few grumpy feminists.