Women have long loved the rich fantasy world of J.R.R. Tolkien, whose stories tend to feature unambiguously good and likable heroes, and are rooted in timeless themes of love, hope, and sacrifice, rather than more traditionally masculine questions of power, conquest, or exploitation. (There’s also a notable lack of assault and/or sexual menace, which is not always a given in sprawling epics like this. Looking at you, A Song of Ice and Fire.)
But female fans have also always had to overlook the glaring flaw at the center of Tolkien’s universe, and all the adaptations that have come from it: How few women there are. Yes, a generation of female fantasy fans (including yours truly) essentially imprinted on Eowyn of Rohan at a very early age—and there are few moments in fiction as satisfying as her “I am no man” declaration just before stabbing the Witch King in the face whether on the page or the screen. But she is also the only female character to play a significant role in the story and essentially had to carry the hopes of an entire gender on her back.
Let’s put it this way: Across Peter Jackson’s Oscar-winning series of Lord of the Rings films, there are a grand total of three major female characters, none of whom are granted the agency or interiority that the saga’s men are given. There’s a strong argument to be made that Galadriel is the most powerful character in the trilogy, but she’s also an ancient, almost godlike being who doesn’t stir far from her enchanted forest home and whose duties are primarily limited to the giving of advice and the bestowing of power-ups. Despite her skill with a sword and desire to fight for her people, Eowyn’s story is still somehow predominantly about her unrequited love for Aragorn. And Arwen Undomiel’s role in Jackson’s movies was largely an invention, cobbled together from a brief story in Tolkien’s appendices.
All of this, by the way, was considered a significant improvement at the time.
Which is a big part of the reason that Prime Video’s new television adaptation The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power is such a delight to watch. Not only is its primary narrative centered around a woman—a younger version of the aforementioned Galadriel who’s convinced the dark threat of Sauron is not gone—there are female characters everywhere in this story. There are female dwarves in Khazad-dum, human women struggling to survive in the wreck of the Southlands, a woman rules as regent in the island kingdom of Numenor, and the female members of the series’ nomadic Harfoot clans are equal and present partners to the men.
Though the series initially follows Galadriel’s quest to prove that Sauron lives, this is not the removed, ethereal character of Jackson’s films. Here she is a badass warrior in her own right, capable of bringing down ice trolls and handily battling a dozen men at once. She is also righteously angry in a way female characters are so rarely allowed to be onscreen in the fantasy space, barely holding in a rage that’s been literally honed by centuries of grief (and seasoned with a long-running fear that her fury may be all she has left.) But what’s particularly wonderful about this version of the character is that she is never judged for those actions, even when her behavior is not particularly kind or even admirable. The story never asks Galadriel to make herself be less: to stifle her fury, to lower her voice, or to pretend to feel something she doesn’t. But perhaps the most important thing about The Rings of Power is simply that, no matter how Galadriel is presented, she is not alone.
In this version of Middle-earth, women are allowed to share scenes with each other, to want things for themselves, to be selfish, and vengeful, and dishonest as often as they are bold and fearless. They aren’t defined by their love interests or whether they have children, nor are they set against one another in some sort of uncomfortable competition for male approval. (In fact, despite some flirting and longing gazes here and there, the married dwarf princess Disa is the only character even in a romantic relationship in the series’ first season thus far!) Instead, these women are warriors and wanderers, healers and adventurers, politicians and architects, all with distinct arcs and goals of their own that exist well outside of the battle between good and evil which is the larger story of the Second Age.
The dozen other female leads spread across the series’ canvas are all as equally layered and three-dimensional as Galadriel. Human healer Bronwyn manages to marshall the people of her village to flee from—and then stand up to—an orc army, all while parenting her moody son Theo and flirting with hot elf Arondir. Elanor “Nori” Brandyfoot is dedicated to her family and her clan’s way of life, but her longing for adventure is palpable and she’s essentially adopted a weirdo dude that fell out of the sky despite everyone around her insisting that she shouldn’t. And while Muriel may be the regent of Numenor, she must walk a political tightrope in order to rule a kingdom in which many of its citizens would probably still prefer to see her father on the throne (and whose primary chancellor seems awfully fond of making decisions without her).
In the early days of fantasy storytelling on television, most showrunners would have been satisfied with any single one of these women as their series’ token female representation and surely would have settled for a lot less. The fact that The Rings of Power features all these fascinating women is a boon in and of itself, but it’s hard to overstate how much it matters that they all hold central positions in stories that could easily be spinoffs in their own rights. (FYI, I would 100% watch Numenor, if you’re listening, Amazon!) It shouldn’t still be so shocking when a show manages to give us female characters who are as fully realized as any of its male heroes are. Yet, here we are.
Given that there are only a handful of episodes left in The Rings of Power’s first season, it seems very unlikely that most of these women’s paths will intersect at any point before the finale. But, as nice as that would be, the beauty of the show is that they don’t have to. It’s enough that their stories are happening simultaneously, as full and natural parts of the series and within the larger world of Middle-earth.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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