My father gave me his old copies of The Lord of the Rings about twenty-five years ago. I still have them displayed prominently on my bookshelf. I’m looking at them as I write this, all yellowing pages and musty smells.
To say that the gift of these books changed my life is both understated and unfashionable. For all the Hollywood glitz layered onto the franchise in the past fifteen years, The Lord of the Rings is a deeply old-fashioned trilogy. The narrative doesn’t so much proceed as sprawl, lingering on the colors of leaves while painting a world of monochrome men marching to war. It’s a wonderful, majestic, problematic work.
These books have come to define my tastes. I instinctively compare any fiction I read to them, even if I really shouldn’t be comparing Faulkner to Tolkien. I’ve sought the elusive feel of Tolkien’s world through video games, roleplaying games, card games, board games, television shows, novels, and movies. I watched the old Rankin-Bass cartoon version of The Hobbit as a three-year-old child, before my first reading of the books. I scowl when people don’t find The Silmarillion, Middle-earth’s infinitely dry combination of bible and history book, an enjoyable read. I reread the trilogy every couple of years. I am every bit the consummate Middle-earth nerd, stopping just short at teaching myself Elvish.
When my daughter, Iris, was about three and a half, I decided it was a no-brainer to introduce her to Middle-earth. Bequeathing my love of the stories to her was every bit as important to me as my father’s enthusiastic gift undoubtedly was to him.
We started with the music-filled Rankin-Bass version of The Hobbit, just as I did, before moving on to their mediocre version of The Return of the King. She devoured the stories of Bilbo, Frodo, and Gandalf, and asked to rewatch the cartoons again and again. We eventually considered Peter Jackson’s more adult version of the trilogy. After discussing it with my wife, we gave Iris a supervised, heavily-curated, viewing. The violent bits that bring the movies from a PG to a PG-13 rating were excised.
She loved them. The vibrancy of Jackson’s Shire had her asking where her hobbit hole was, until she decided to make one for herself under the kitchen table. As if to prove she was her father’s daughter, she latched onto the fellowship’s journey through Moria: the descent through the mines, the hordes of orcs, Pippin’s mistake at the well, and, finally, the spectacle of the Balrog merging from the darkness. All of it thrilled and delighted her. When a friend bought her an antique walking stick—a full-fledged wizard staff in a four-year-old’s hands— she would periodically become Gandalf, slamming it on the floor and yelling, “You shall not pass!”
But more than anything or anyone, she loved Arwen, immediately and fervently. For Iris, Arwen was the real hero. She saved Frodo in arguably the most dangerous moment in the movies, when the ring was within the grasp of Sauron’s servants. She was the catalyst for obtaining Aragorn’s sword. Arwen fought and wept and loved and bled like nobody else in the movies for Iris.
I quickly realized that Iris was not pretending to be the Arwen I grew up with, Tolkien’s Arwen, the passive Arwen, in her play. Instead, she was playacting at being Jackson’s Arwen, the horse-riding, spell-casting, sword-wielding, flood-summoning, elven-warrior woman. A year from her first viewing, Iris still comes upstairs to get dressed every morning as Arwen, demanding that I pretend to be Elrond and that I place my hands on either side of the stairwell in order for her to go through Rivendell’s gates.
There’s always an unhappy buzz from certain quarters when changes are made to beloved properties in the name of diversity. Arwen’s beefed-up role in The Fellowship of the Ring was no exception. Jackson’s films sought to increase the universality of Tolkien’s story by turning Arwen into a fully realized character, one meant to be as active as the men. In fact, it may have been the first major such instance I can recall of such a large change to increase the appeal of a story via greater gender representation. Many fans cringed.
If I’m honest, a far younger me was among those uncomfortable with the changes to The Fellowship of the Ring. I had that luxury, though. As a man, I was already represented throughout Tolkien’s stories. I was Aragorn. I was Frodo. I was Gimli, Legolas, Bilbo, and even Sauron. I was a nameless soldier. I was an orc. I was an ent. Had I been a woman, I would’ve been left with the austerely passive Arwen, or the brief, ferocious flash of Eowyn (I dearly love Eowyn).
I ended up “getting it” on my own as I grew older. But there’s a difference between understanding diversity and representation on an intellectual level and fully absorbing the impact inclusivity has on those who may not otherwise see themselves represented. Watching what Iris picked up from the films bridged that small gap for me. During a viewing of The Hobbit cartoon, Iris asked why there were no girls in the movie. We didn’t have a good answer. While saying, “It was written long ago” is true, it doesn’t fix the now, especially when, with very little effort, we all can do the fixing.
As a parent, particularly if your child is a daughter, it’s vital to find relatable role models in a world that relentlessly genders everything from glue to yogurt. A quick trip to a department store’s clothing or toy department reveals just how crass the gender lines for little girls really are. We should embrace the slow but sure trend of expanding entertainment to be more inclusive, but there’s still a long way to go.
Diversity in entertainment is even more crucial when stories reach the status of modern myth, as properties like The Lord of the Rings do. Myths change based on the teller and the listener, taking on lives of their own. It’s more about the spirit of the lesson than the specific details. We should want our myths to be living, changing things; without that, they’re just stories. By necessity, the Arwen of the twenty-first century is more dynamic than she was in the initial, 1954 telling. We need different myths now.
I can’t speak to what Tolkien would think of all this. I’d venture that Tolkien, as a mythologist of Edwardian mores, would be delighted in the living quality of his life’s work while also wary of the increased role of women in Jackson’s films. I can only speak for myself, and when I see my daughter, already a smart and vibrant little girl, summoning the Bruinen or rescuing Frodo, I know that she’s gained immeasurably from the modern changes to an old tale.