Fair to see, soon to fall: the classical heroine and Tolkien's "unmortal" women

  • Sarah C. Street
Undergraduate Thesis, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

The female characters of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Legendarium, although oft-criticized for their scarcity in number, fully embody one of the most central themes of the story: the complicated interplay between death and immortality. While Tolkien admitted that the love and anguish of mortal Men and immortal Elves make up the heart of his Legendarium, the women possess the distinct ability to transcend the boundary of life and death. Interpreting them according to this paradigm reveals an archetype which I call “the unmortal woman,” and that likewise reveals the unique power that their boundary-crossing enables, leading to strongly feminist readings of the text.

Although Tolkien was adamant that The Lord of the Rings contains no “inner meaning or ‘message,’” the unmortal woman’s appearances throughout history prove that she is an enduring figure with an enduring purpose: to challenge the often rigid ways that women and femininity are represented in literature. As such, this paper examines several of not only Tolkien’s unmortal women, such as Lúthien, Arwen, and Éowyn, but also several iterations of the figure which came before, such as Alcestis, Psyche, and Juliana. I will demonstrate how Tolkienian women transcend the mortal/immortal binary in much the same manner as their predecessors, and thus use the unmortal woman as a lens through which to cast new light on the women of fantasy past, present, and future.
In drawing these connections between women in Tolkien and older texts, it is not my goal to simply prove the existence of classical and medieval influence on Tolkien as a writer—a fact which is already well known and indisputable. Rather, I wish to explore the reception of these influences, and in doing so, to show how the connections I have drawn serve to shed new light on the place of women within the Legendarium.