Androgynes, Crossdressers, and Rebel Queens: Modern Representations of Medieval Women Warriors from Tolkien to
Session: Tales after Tolkien: Medievalism and Twenty-First-Century Fantasy Literature I in Kalamazoo
Rachael Mueller (Catholic University of America)
This was another stellar paper given at the Tales after Tolkien session. It was an intriguing look at the women of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones and how each author portrays the mother and warrior characters of Galadriel/Cersi/Daenerys and Eowyn/Arya/Brienne. The paper examined the differences and problems posed by the portrayal of women in theses fantasy novels.
Powerful women who take up traditionally male roles in their societies are part of Tolkein and Martin’s work. There is much discomfort in the depiction of Martin’s treatment of women in his books, i.e., a thirteen year old is married and nearly raped, and his women warriors are desexed. Tolkien’s female characters also present problems in public interpretations. Martin is deemed too sexual, and Tolkien is chastised for being too bland or archetypal. Tolkien is writing a high fantasy epic informed by his moral Christian view. He strives to combine Christian and pre-Christian ideals as seen in the character Galadriel. She is often heavily associated with Marian imagery, ‘clad wholly in white, grave and beautiful’. Galadriel has a radiating goodness and her gifts to the Fellowship help keep them from harm and their quest could have failed without her intervention. The role of Mother and Queen are interwoven in her character. Galadriel also borrows some imagery from the old Norse Valkyries whose hair is pale and golden. Galadriel welcomes the heroes and sees them depart, and she is also a cup bearer, much like women in old Norse tales.
In contrast, Martin is writing the modern fantasy novel. Daenerys Targaryen establishes herself as a good Khaleesi or Queen after she is sold into marriage to Khal Drogo. The nurturing mother turns into ideological motherhood when after freeing the Unsullied, they call her “Mother” and she tells them they will not harm her because they are her children. She is also the “Mother of Dragons”, and calls the dragons her children. Cersei is described similarly to Galadriel but other than her radiance and beauty, she is as far from Galadriel’s goodness as possible. She spends extravagantly and she is fiercely protective of her children to a fault. She prioritises her son above all other consideration and helps turn him into a vicious character and monstrous bully. Martin’s depiction of Cersei complicates the image of a mother and Queen.
The fighting women of The Lord of the Rings and A Game of Thrones face the difficulties of mediating worlds. Eowyn is a favourable warrior character, Tolkien emphasizes her fairness and white garments but she is not content with the role of motherhood like Galadriel. Eowyn expresses her frustrations about her station however, it is her status as a woman that enables her to slay the Witch King of Angmar. She takes on an actively more protective role than Galadriel. Her fiercely protective nature allows her to marry her warrior and mothering characters – she is blending the role of shield maiden with healer by the end of the trilogy.
In A Game of Thrones, Arya Stark and Brienne seem completely desexed. Arya is commonly mistaken for a boy. Martin specifically ties Arya’s androgynous appearance to her martial skill. Brienne of Tarth is another desexed character; she travels in men’s clothing, wears armour, her sheer size, and her lack of beauty make her very masculine. Both Arya and Brienne cross dress to fight. This imagery harkens back to Joan of Arc with the main difference being that Arya and Brienne are not religiously motivated, they have secular honour. Arya’s honour is to avenge her family. She lists the names of all the people who have wronged her every night as a sort of “prayer” that she adheres to and she changes the order to remind herself of their evil deeds. This keeps Arya on track in achieving her goal. Brienne is similarly shaped by individual purpose – her oaths. She has an oath to Catelyn that she will not break and she encourages Jamie Lannister to start keeping his word. Arya’s “hit list” and Brienne’s oaths and are secular forms of honour. The two women shed their gender identity in pursuit of a higher goal.