While many feminist-minded lovers of J.R.R. Tolkien have made worthy arguments regarding the importance of female characters in The Lord of the Rings trilogy (as here), there is no disputing that The Hobbit has not one female character. New Zealand film director Peter Jackson infamously upped the female quotient in the LOTR films by expanding the roles of the women characters Arwen and Eowyn, and even depicted Eowyn as beating the male protagonist Aragorn in a sword match. Jackson continued this trend in the first hobbit film, An Unexpected Journey, giving the royal female elf Galadriel more screen time.
This time around, Jackson and fellow screenwriters Guillermo del Toro, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens have taken this trend much further: Not only do they embellish and expand existing female characters, they create one—the fabulous, complex and brave elf Tauriel, who is captain of the guard, an important role in Tolkien-world. She is played with kick-butt aplomb by Evangeline Lilly, who played Kate in the very popular TV series Lost. Like Kate, Tauriel is intelligent, capable and fearless.
Not all Tolkien fans approve of this female addition to the story. But for me, Tauriel was the best part of a very good film—a film much better, in fact, than the first Hobbit film.
Lilly, an admitted Tolkien fan, confesses that she worried about the inclusion of a new character in a beloved series. However, she noted that another belief trumped this worry: the belief that films should include central female characters. She said,
I keep repeatedly telling people that in this day and age, to put nine hours of cinema entertainment in the theaters for young girls to go and watch, and not have one female character, is subliminally telling them, ‘You don’t count, you’re not important, and you’re not pivotal to story.’
Here, Lilly voices what so many feminist critics and filmgoers want to hear—an insistence that females, and how they are depicted in films, matters. Or, as Lilly puts it,
It’s time we stop making stories that are only about men, especially only about heroic men. I love that they made Tauriel a hero.
Lilly had one condition before agreeing to the role: that her character not be involved in a love triangle. Alas, this condition was ultimately not met. Screenwriter Boyens justifies this change, arguing that the triangle that results between Kili, (a dwarf), Legolas (an elf) and Tauriel “aids a storyline in The Lord of the Rings,” making it clear that Legolas’ animosity toward dwarves springs from Tauriel’s fondness for Kili. Thankfully, the film does not spend much time on this love triangle, nor does it become the defining part of Tauriel’s role. Instead, she is featured as a fearless warrior who saves many a male character, and who has amazing life-saving healing powers to boot.
Though elves and dwarves distrust one another, Tauriel does not buy into this attitude. Further, though her fighting skills match those of Legolas, she does not see killing as primary. This is made particularly clear in a scene where Kili is dying and Tauriel stays behind to help save him, despite Legolas ordering her to leave and join him in battle.
Earlier in the film, Thranduil (Legolas’ father, an elvenking) confronts Tauriel, telling her that, as a common woodland elf, she is not worthy of the son of a king and should thus not give him false hope. Though it is unclear whether she has romantic feelings for Legolas, one thing is clear: She does not hesitate to disobey the king.
As Sandra Miesel argues, Tolkien’s females “routinely ‘see farther’ than men … They bring inspiration and instill hope. They listen to the woes of the world, encourage resistance and shed tears of pity.” Hence, that Tauriel views the ‘bigger picture’ and questions the hierarchical mindset of her world fits Tolkien’s characterization of females. As Michael Skeparnides argues, characters such as Eowyn represent “the potential of rebellion against the male value system that characterizes Tolkien’s world.” Referring to the “unsuspected portrayal of women as social revolutionaries who rebel against the harsh bindings of a male patriarchal system,” Skeparnides offers a feminist reading of Tolkien that makes it clear one need not have a multitude of female characters in order to critique patriarchy—a point that sometimes seems forgotten in the tendency to count female-to-male ratio rather than to also analyze whether these characters count.
Tauriel, like other Tolkien females (of which there are admittedly few), is kind and nurturing, but she is also clever and rebellious. Her first interactions with Kili show her quick-wittedness, as the two joke about a talisman he has with him.
While a review from The Telegraph refers to Kili as “a captured dwarf leering at a female elf,” the scene does not come off as lecherous on either Kili or Tauriel’s part. Kili admittedly jokes, “Aren’t you going to search me? I could have anything down my trousers,” but he does so in a flirtatious manner, not a lewd one. Tauriel’s responds with mirth rather than anger, offering the comeback, “Or you could have nothing down there.”
This interaction pokes fun at the obsession with the mighty phallus, long a symbol of patriarchy, suggesting that at the “seat” of maleness there may be anything—or nothing. Far from being leering, I found it to be a rare moment of levity that satirizes not only the male ego but also the notion that what is housed down male trousers is some sort of prize or trophy all women seek (or lack, as Freud would put it). That the female dwarfs the male (pun intended) is a nice touch, as is the fact that size does not seem of concern to Tauriel.
Seemingly willing to fall for a much shorter man who is, in the terms of her world, lower in social stature, Tauriel refuses to buy into the normative dictates of her world, be they about gender or race. I contend that The Telegraph review, which claims Tauriel’s “main purpose is to be the third leg in an inter-species love triangle” has it wrong. Given that the writer does not even mention her character until his final paragraph, one can presume he failed to recognize her pivotal role, one which makes the dwarves and the hobbit Bilbo Baggins‘ safe journey to the lonely mountain possible.
As Evangeline Lilly points out, Tauriel is a “sort of working class, gritty, tough female elf.” She’s street-smart, quick at dispensing orcs and determined to help “the little guy” (the dwarves). Like a Middle-Earth Katniss Everdeen (from The Hunger Games) she is strong-willed and a dab-hand with the bow and arrow. She is also feminine without being feminized, proving that being strong, driven and able to do what it takes to survive need not be depicted as masculine.
This second hobbit installment continues a trend from the first film, suggesting that gender’s not the problem, but that greed, domination, hunger for power and a taste for vengeance—characteristics often associated with being “real” men are. Tolkien’s work focuses on these destructive tendencies in many a male character, but he also gives us empathetic, heroic and kind-hearted males in Bilbo, Frodo, Sam and Gimli. Sure, Bilbo and Frodo succumb to the powerful allure of the ring– but can’t this in itself be read as a critique of patriarchy and power-over thinking?
And if Smaug is not a symbol of patriarchal vileness at its worst, I don’t know what is. As Tolkien describes him, Smaug is “a most specially greedy, strong and wicked worm.” Smaug embodies death and destruction, with impenetrable armor and enough flame-power to destroy entire villages. Sounds kind of like the embodiment of a certain other empire—one intent on amassing wealth and power while dropping fire from the sky.
In contrast to Smaug—a phallic, Middle-Earth version of military drones—Tauriel represents hope in a war-torn world. She hungers for light, peace and love. Sure, she kills many orcs, but they, like Smaug, are intent on destruction. She does not kill for the sake of killing or hate because it is a tradition to do so.
Alas, for some, as cited here, “Tauriel is just too much. She’s a woman and a warrior? And she has a romantic interest?…And she’s friends with Legolas? And she’s rebellious? All at the same time?”
Would the same questions be asked of a male character?
Seething under much of those who decry Tauriel’s inclusion is an undercurrent of anti-female sentiment—one that suggests many fans don’t want to include a female in a “boys’ tale”—a tale that one critic jokingly describes as being “about 15 hairy men going on a road trip and encountering many more hairy men along the way.”
Thankfully, in this version of the tale, a great woman is encountered along the way as well—one who, as Lilly puts it, is one “kickass elf.”
Natalie Wilson teaches women’s studies and literature at California State University, San Marcos. She is the author of Seduced by Twilight and blogs for Ms., Girl with Pen and Bitch Flicks.