Lúthien’s challenge to Middle-earth

anahitAnahit Behrooz is a second year PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh, by way of Oxford and St Andrews. Her research explores representations of storytelling and manuscript culture in J.R.R. Tolkien’s works. When not in Middle-earth, Anahit is interested in depictions of the monstrous and supernatural in literature and art, from marginalia to Marvel and everything in between. She can be found on Twitter @lifeinfantasia.

One of the most frequent and famous criticisms of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth legendarium is its notable lack of female characters. From the all-male fellowship in The Lord of the Rings to the non-appearance of female creatures such as dwarves or orcs, Tolkien’s texts would spectacularly fail any literary version of the Bechdel test. Moreover, criticism has also been levied at the way in which Tolkien portrays his rare female characters; Éowyn’s renouncement of the warrior life at the end of The Return of the King has been read by critics such as Candice Frederick and Sam McBride as her relegation back to the domestic sphere and therefore to her “proper place” according to Tolkien’s views on femininity. And yet, while it would certainly be a gross exaggeration to label Tolkien’s Middle-earth texts as feminist, they nevertheless feature intriguing and unexpectedly complex interrogations into ideas of femininity and indeed, what it means to be a dangerous woman.

Although figures such as Éowyn and Galadriel are the most oft-cited examples when it comes to women and Tolkien, delving past the novels of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings reveals some of Middle-earth’s most fascinating female characters. One such is the Elvish princess Lúthien. Although perhaps not very well known in the mainstream, it could be argued that Lúthien is in fact one of the most important characters throughout Tolkien’s legendarium. As told in The Silmarillion, Lúthien is an Elvish princess in the First Age of Middle-earth, who falls in love with Beren, a mortal man. When her father King Thingol learns of their secret relationship, he agrees to give Lúthien’s hand in marriage on one condition, that Beren retrieve the legendary Silmarils – three priceless jewels that once belonged to the Elves – from the stronghold of the Dark Lord Morgoth. After seeing a vision of Beren locked in Morgoth’s servant Sauron’s dungeons, Lúthien attempts to follow and rescue him, but is locked away in a treehouse by her father. Lúthien escapes by magically growing her hair and weaving a rope which she uses to climb down the treehouse. Arriving at Sauron’s stronghold, she sings to let Beren know she has come for him, eventually freeing him from his prison. The two make their way to Morgoth, where Lúthien tricks Morgoth by offering to sing for him, lulling him into an enchanted sleep, and allowing Beren to steal a Silmaril from Morgoth’s crown and thereby fulfil his promise to Thingol.

“The Tale of Beren and Lúthien” is notable for its pervasiveness both throughout Tolkien’s writings and within Middle-earth’s interior mythology. Tolkien wrote numerous drafts and versions of the tale: the first dates back to his earliest Middle-earth writings immediately after the First World War, and can now be found in The Book of Lost Tales; there exists also a poetic version entitled The Lay of Leithian, as well as several other prose retellings throughout The History of Middle-earth. Tolkien himself referred to the tale as the “chief of the stories of the Silmarillion…” (Tolkien, 151). The importance which he accords it can also be seen in its place within Middle-earth’s own mythology and culture. Lúthien’s actions throughout the tale set into motion events which shape the historic trajectory of Middle-earth: her descendants form the Royal Family of Númenor, while her love of a mortal man and her renouncement of her own immortality serves as a key inspiration to Aragorn and his relationship with Arwen throughout The Lord of the Rings.

But what makes Lúthien a dangerous as well as an important character is her refusal to submit, either to concepts of womanhood in her society, or to narrative tropes within her story. One of the most striking examples of this is Lúthien’s method of escape from her father’s watch. Lúthien’s imprisonment in a tall, stairless chamber, and her use of her hair to climb down have very obvious parallels to the traditional Rapunzel fairy tale, yet Tolkien entirely subverts the original tale in order to empower Lúthien. It is not a prince who climbs up and down the woman’s hair in order to rescue her, but rather Lúthien herself, in order to rescue her beloved. This subversion continues in her weaving of the rope and cloak made to disguise herself. Here Tolkien invokes typically perceived feminine tropes of beauty (symbolised by Lúthien’s long hair) and weaving, yet uses them to enable Lúthien to escape from what is ultimately a patriarchal cage.

Lúthien’s determination and refusal to submit is particularly striking when considered against the role which fate plays throughout Tolkien’s legendarium. Verlyn Flieger points out that there is an irreconcilable tension between fate and free will in Middle-earth, with many of the characters’ actions and paths apparently predestined rather than a product of their individual motivations or decisions (151). Lúthien’s bond to her fate (or “doom”, as it is frequently referred to) is made explicit throughout “The Tale of Beren and Lúthien”: when she first sees Beren, Tolkien describes how “doom fell upon her…” (The Silmarillion, 165), and how “in [Beren’s]…fate Lúthien was caught…” (165). After Thingol commands Beren to retrieve the Silmarils, his wife Melian warns him that “you have doomed…your daughter…”(168), implying that events have been set into motion that Lúthien cannot change.

At this point it is worth noting the complexity of fate in this tale: is it Lúthien’s fate to love Beren, thus rendering her rescue of him an act of fate rather than her own agency, or is it her fate to be locked away while Beren is sent upon a doomed quest, a fate which she rejects, asserting her own free will instead? I would argue that, despite the difficulties for the external reader in determining the “true” fate, what is key here is Lúthien’s understanding of her own situation. Trapped in her prison, and knowing Beren to be held by Sauron, it is likely that Lúthien indeed felt “doomed” by her father’s actions. Her determination to exercise her own free will is therefore all the more striking in the face of such apparent futility. Even if Lúthien were indeed “fated” to save Beren, her attempt to escape her perceived fate of submission is empowering in and of itself.

It is also notable how Lúthien’s power manifests itself. It is not only through magic or even physical strength; rather, Tolkien demonstrates that it is largely in her voice that her power lies. Of course, it is important to acknowledge here that Lúthien’s voice is still being given expression by Tolkien’s own male authorial voice. Yet within the context of the story, Lúthien’s voice reveals a dominance and authority entirely independent of any male character. Her voice is given prominence from the very beginning: Beren first spies Lúthien when she is singing, and nicknames her Tinúviel, which means nightingale. Indeed, her song is so powerful that it breaks the bonds of winter and brings spring back into the world (165). Yet as well as being a tool for beauty and creativity, Lúthien’s voice also acts as a symbol of her power and the danger she can pose. Twice Lúthien sings in moments of great peril: firstly, outside Sauron’s tower, and secondly in order to trick Morgoth. As Jen Stevens argues, “In essence, Lúthien’s very voice is itself emblematic of her larger scope of agency…”(126). Lúthien’s effective refusal to be silent or silenced gains her control over such evil powers as Sauron and Morgoth, giving her victory where previous male warriors have failed.

It is interesting to note also that in both instances, the male antagonists entirely underestimate Lúthien, seeing her as a helpless Elf-Maiden and a sexual object. Sauron’s response to first hearing Lúthien’s voice is to “smile” (The Silmarillion, 174), while Morgoth “conceived in his thought an evil lust” (180) when she offers to sing for him. Tolkien creates a heavy contrast between these typical male attitudes to female power and Lúthien’s eventual victory over them. After Sauron is defeated, Lúthien stands over him and demands “mastery” (175) of his kingdom, which he relinquishes to her. Lúthien then stands and “declare[s] her power…” (175), causing the spell that held the tower to be broken and the walls to come falling down. This physical manifestation of Lúthien’s victory, and the use of her voice in achieving it, highlights the power of female agency and expression.

Lúthien’s refusal to relinquish her power or agency within a patriarchal society marks her as a force to be reckoned with from the very start of her tale. Her subversion of feminine and narrative tropes poses a danger to both evil beings and dismissive critics who continue to underestimate her. Continually surrounded by warrior men and frightening monsters, Lúthien nevertheless shows herself to be one of the most dangerous and powerful beings in Middle-earth.



Primary Texts:

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Silmarillion. London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 1998.


Secondary Texts:

Flieger, Verlyn. “The Music and the Task: Fate and Free Will in Middle-earth”. Tolkien Studies. Vol 6, 2009: 151-181.

Fredrick, Candice, and Sam McBride. Women among the Inklings: Gender, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams, vol. no. 191, Greenwood Press, Westport, Conn, 2001.

Stevens, Jen. “From Catastrophe to Eucatastrophe: JRR Tolkien’s Transformation of Ovid’s Mythic Pyramus and Thisbe into Beren and Lúthien”, in Tolkien and the Invention of Myth: A Reader. Ed. Jane Chance. Lexington: Kentucky, 2004: 119-131.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien: A Selection. Ed. Humphrey Carpenter. London: HarperCollins, 2006.