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Lady of the Rings

Lady of the Rings
One dad passes his love of fantasy to his daughter and reflects on the importance of diversity in entertainment.

Lady of the RingsMy 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.

About the author

Ian Williams

Ian Williams

Ian Williams is a freelance writer living in Raleigh, NC. His work has been featured in Jacobin, The Guardian, Salon, Paste, and several other outlets.

  • Avid Tolkein fan here. I adore the literature..the old cartoon..and the latest gorgeous Percy Jackson film adaptation. I agree, there are some major differences, but I love seeing them. I love how different people can be portrayed with a slight shift one direction or another. Your daughter is blessed to have a father who introduced her to such classics so early!

  • Jen

    You make some great points about girls and their on screen “role models”. I think it’s fantastic that you have introduced your daughter to this classic trilogy, whether on screen or in print. I recently read that 50 Shades of Grey was the best selling trilogy of all time and I think I heard Tolkien rolling over in his grave.

  • Books are so powerful and a very important part of a child’s life. Great topic here.

  • Tatanisha Worthey

    Oh you’re speaking my language! My boys have watched the movies (we haven’t ventured to the books yet) but they have loved each and every one of them! I love reading her enthusiasm for TLOR series- books is definitely a powerful tool!

  • Alea Milham

    While I tend to groan over the changes made to books when they are adapted to film, I loved the beefed up role for Arwen, as did my daughter who spent many years of her childhood with a sword in hand.

  • fishnets

    Your daughter is so smart. Arwen >>>>>>>>>>>>> overrated Eowimp who tried to wreck Arwen and Aragorn’s romance. Also, Miranda $hitto is so ugly and her shrill voice and shrieking were insufferable.

  • Maria Iemma

    We are fans of the movie but have never read the books. Perhaps it is something we should do as a family. I wonder if they are available in audio books.

  • WightCrow

    I think it’s important to have strong female role models, and I liked Arwen’s beefed-up role. That being said, I’m a girl who grew up in a time of few strong female role models…instead of identifying with the wilting flowers and passive princesses, I just used the guys as role models, gender be damned. Strong female role models are important, but realizing the inanity of our obsessive genderification of everything and insistence on same-gender role models is just as important.

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