Tolkien’s Guinever

In my previously posted thoughts on Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur, I predicted that the character of Guinever would give rise to a lot more discussion, and we are seeing that debate occurring already on several sites.  Troels Forchhammer, who has listed a thorough collection of reviews on his blog Parma-kenta, has added his own thoughts on the poem in three installments. In one of these, “Philosophizing on Fall of Arthur” he comments on three issues that are garnering attention:  the connection of Fall of Arthur to Tolkien’s Silmarillion mythology; Tolkien’s view of the Arthurian source material; and the character of Guinever.

Troels Forchhammer excerpts a number of comments from reviewers pointing to Guinever’s negative characteristics; at one extreme is the view labelling Tolkien’s picture of Guinever as misogynist. Troels disagrees, and I think he’s right.

What makes the portrait of a character misogynist? I would say that a misogynist writer sees women in the light of the traditional virgin / whore stereotypes: women as completely virtuous and/or women as completely evil temptresses. Real people, of course, are a combination of good and evil tendencies in varying proportions.  In The Fall of Arthur, Guinever is, let’s face it, no angel, but she isn’t a stereotypical character either.  Just because Tolkien gave her flaws (some of which are inherited from the source material) doesn’t mean it’s a misogynist portrait. That would mean that no writer could ever admit a woman had faults without being labelled a misogynist! Equally problematic would be a writer who treated all women as being virtuous angels. Neither approach portrays women as real people, only as stereotypes at one or the other extreme end of the spectrum.

Tolkien’s Guinever, in my view, is a more complex character than just the evil seductress who destroys what men have created. Yes, she is greedy, stubborn, and selfish, but she’s also clever, fearful, sad. She is capable of arousing pity in the reader, even admiration — think of how she escapes Mordred’s lustful demands and removes herself from a precarious political and personal situation. Tolkien doesn’t spend a lot of lines on Guinever in the cantos that we have, but the lines he does give us suggest an interesting character who is not a simple stereotype.

It can be difficult making judgements about Tolkien’s work: on the one hand, you might feel inclined to defend Tolkien against all criticisms. On the other hand, you might fall into one of the old critical commonplaces that have been used to attack Tolkien: that he writes juvenile literature for boys, that he doesn’t write about women at all, that he writes misogynist portraits of female characters. I hope I haven’t fallen prey to the first temptation, but I do think a lot of work remains to be done in examining afresh Tolkien’s views and his characters.

One response to “Tolkien’s Guinever”

  1. Thank you, Anna 😉

    When you ask what it is that “makes the portrait of a character misogynist” I think you touch at the root of the issue.

    You may be right that misogynist authors create simplified stereotypes instead of realistic portraits of women – I do not feel competent to comment on that, and to be honest it is not a topic I have very much desire to explore 🙂 – but I can imagine more complex forms of misogyny.

    To me, this would involve seeing women as somehow “worse” (on some meaningful form of a good/bad axis) than men simply because of their sex – e.g. if women are portrayed as less intelligent, more prone to cruelty or something. I believe such a situation can be set up even if all characters are shown as realistic combinations of good and evil tendencies if the difference in averages is perceptible: e.g. if women are shown as having a perceptibly greater ratio of evil tendencies than men (sorry – I work with statistics at a daily basis, and I find it difficult to entirely avoid using statistical terminology).

    In a case such as Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur where we have only one woman, it is of course meaningless to speak in terms of averages and other statistical measures.

    I think some commentators have read the poem such that Tolkien’s Guinever receives a greater part of the blame for the adultery (between herself and Lancelot) exclusively because she is a woman, or that she is denied any chance or hope of redemption exclusively because of her sex. One possible interpretation might be that Tolkien in general (something that is of course not visible in the poem) seems to portray women as more virtuous than men, and that he therefore gives the “fallen woman” a worse deal than the fallen man. I wouldn’t agree to such a reading (I don’t agree with the premise), but I think I can nonetheless understand how one might arrive at it. In any case, I think it is a very natural reaction to assign more blame to those of whom we had expected the greater virtue, even if their transgression is not as bad as that of their neighbour of whom we had never expected any better.

    However, whether such a scenario, even if I were to agree with that reading, would imply a misogynist view is beyond me to say (as a man of the natural sciences, I suppose I have been sufficiently presumptuous in this question already).


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