The Feminine Genius in The Lord of the Rings

Catherine Sheehan
February 2022

The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien is a story all about “fair love”. It is a story about the beauty, goodness, and grandeur of sacrificial love. 

In this presentation I will examine the three main female characters in LOTR in light of what St John Paull II called the feminine genius. 

However, before I begin discussing the feminine genius in relation to LOTR, I first want to make some comments about the book in general which I think help in understanding Tolkien’s female characters. 

As many of you would know, Tolkien was a devout Catholic. He wrote in one of his letters that, “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.” 

In identifying the genre of LOTR, Tolkien rejected the label “fantasy” and asserted that it was a mythological story. He used the term “myth” not as it is commonly used today to refer to something that is untrue, but rather in the sense that we talk about Greek or Roman mythology. Tolkien had a particular love of Norse mythology, which had a profound influence on his writings. In this sense of the word, “myth” denotes a story which is fictional but which contains profound and timeless truths about life and human nature. Such stories are meant to teach us something of great value for our own lives. Indeed, Tolkien believed that myths were the only means by which some truths could be expressed. 

Tolkien considered the story of Christ in the Gospels as a “true myth”, having all the hallmarks of a myth and containing profound eternal truths, it also really happened. It was this belief of Tolkien’s in a “true myth” that convinced his friend C.S. Lewis, who was agnostic at the time he first met Tolkien, to take another look at Christianity. 

For anyone interested in reading more about Tolkien’s belief in the importance of myths I recommend Joseph Pearce’s book, Tolkien: Man and Myth

So we can identify LOTR as a Christian myth. It is a mythological story, set in an imaginary world inhabited by imaginary beings, yet it contains profound truths about us as human beings, about life, death, good and evil, and true love. This I believe is the reason for the book’s enduring popularity. It communicates eternal truths through beauty, the beauty of story and heroic romance. 

We can tell it is a Christian myth because unlike pagan mythological stories where a hero goes on a quest to obtain a treasure or win renown by slaying a monster or dragon, LOTR is all about a hero, Frodo Baggins, going on a journey in order to destroy a treasure, the Ring of power. He defeats many enemies and monsters along the way, but it is all done with the aim of destroying the Ring so that it cannot be used for evil. Rather than seeking his own power and glory, Frodo renounces his own comfort and desires to go on a perilous journey to destroy the Ring, thereby preventing the reign of the Dark Lord Sauron over Middle Earth. Frodo and his friends lay down their lives in the cause of good. As John’s Gospel tells us, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13). 

LOTR is essentially a story about sacrificial love, since it is only through sacrificial love that evil is ultimately defeated. And surely that is the very definition of a Christian myth. 

In accordance with the genre of myth, Tolkien’s characters are archetypal. An archetype is an original pattern or mode, that is reflected or copied, reoccurring again and again in stories and myths. Dr Jordan Peterson talks a lot about the importance of archetypes in literature. The most common is the Hero archetype. C.S. Lewis explained archetypal characters when he wrote that, “Much that in a realistic work would be done by ‘character delineation’ is here done simply by making the character an elf, a dwarf, or a hobbit. The imagined beings have their insides on the outside; they are visible souls.” Frodo is a reflection of the Hero archetype and of the Everyman archetype, since as a hobbit he represents the ordinary folk who are considered insignificant by the world. From a Christian perspective, Frodo is also a type of Jesus Christ, since he is willing to lay down his life to save Middle Earth from the Dark Lord. His carrying the Ring to Mount Doom has been likened to Christ carrying his cross to Calvary. 

While it is true that female characters are few and far between in LOTR, those that are depicted demonstrate great sacrificial love and in doing so, strike powerful and unexpected blows against evil, evoking the Proto-evangelium, where in the book of Genesis after the Fall, God declares that the Woman and the serpent, the evil one, will be opposed to each other. And the prediction is made that the Woman’s seed will crush the head of the serpent.  

For Christians, of course, the archetype of the feminine is the Virgin Mary, just as Christ is the archetype of the masculine. The three most important female characters in LOTR, Galadriel and Arwen, who are both Elves, and Eowyn, a mortal woman, can all be considered types of the Virgin Mary. They all exhibit traits of the feminine genius. And I want to suggest that each of these three characters represent three different ways the feminine genius is most concretely manifested – in Woman as Mother, Bride, and Sister-Daughter. 

But what exactly is the feminine genius? 

In his Theology of the Body, Pope John Paul II speaks of the feminine genius as a sensitivity towards the person. A woman has this orientation toward the person by her very nature. Both masculinity and femininity reflect something of God’s nature, since both are created in His image and likeness, as we are told at the beginning of Genesis. The essence of femininity is the call to motherhood, while the essence of masculinity is a call to fatherhood. This call can be realised both spiritually and physically, since the human person is a unity of body and soul. All women are called to spiritual motherhood, and some are also called to physical motherhood. Motherhood is an orientation toward the person and an awareness of the dignity and worth of the person. 

It should be said that in his writings on women, John Paul II was greatly influenced by philosopher and Carmelite nun, St Edith Stein. Stein wrote extensively on womanhood and she maintained that this orientation towards the person entailed a desire for the right development of the person. For the person to achieve wholeness. A woman desires this for herself and others. Stein also wrote of woman’s greatest desire as being to achieve a loving union with the man. 

Motherhood also requires an openness and acceptance of the Other. John Paul II wrote in his Letter to Women, that, “Perhaps more than men, women acknowledge the person, because they see persons with their hearts.” 

Galadriel – Mother 

This leads me to discuss the character that most strikingly resembles Our Lady in LOTR, the Lady Galadriel. Tolkien wrote, “I think it is true that I owe much of this character to Catholic teaching and imagination about Mary.”  

Galadriel is the most maternal of the female characters. She is a protector, intercessor and moral guide. She gives encouragement and hope to the Ring-bearer and his companions. It is interesting that when she first meets the Fellowship of the Ring, as Frodo and his companions called themselves, she seems to see beyond their exteriors and right into their souls. “She held them with her eyes, and in silence looked searchingly at each of them in turn. None save Legolas and Aragorn could long endure her glance. Sam quickly blushed and hung his head.” 

She is more compassionate than her husband Celeborn, who is considered wisest of all the Elves. When Celeborn is tempted to banish the dwarf Gimli from the Elvish realm of Lothlorien because of a long-held animosity between Elves and Dwarves, it is Galadriel who stays his hand, expressing sympathy for Gimli’s plight. “She looked upon Gimli, who sat glowering and sad, and she smiled. And the Dwarf, hearing the names given in his own ancient tongue, looked up and met her eyes; and it seemed to him that he looked suddenly into the heart of an enemy and saw there love and understanding. Wonder came into his face, and then he smiled in answer.” Here Galadriel shows great charity and sensitivity towards the Other. She sees the Other with the eyes of her heart. 

In another echo of the Proto-evangelium, the Lady Galadriel is positioned by Tolkien in direct opposition to the Dark Lord Sauron. While she has the power and insight to be able to perceive the thoughts of the Dark Lord, he in turn is unable to know her mind despite his efforts. Galadriel says to Frodo, “I perceive the Dark Lord and know his mind, or all of his mind that concerns the Elves. And he gropes ever to see me and my thought. But still the door is closed!” 

Lothlorien, the land of the Lady, is directly opposed to the land of Mordor, as one of the Elves explains to the hobbits: “In this high place you may see the two powers that are opposed one to another; and ever they strive now in thought, but whereas the light perceives the heart of darkness, its own secret has not been discovered.” 

Galadriel also shows humility and self-sacrifice in refusing the Ring of power when Frodo offers it to her. She is wise enough and humble enough to know that if she were to take the Ring, the temptation to use it to further her own desires and achieve greater power for herself would be too much. She refuses the Ring and humbly accepts the path laid out for her by Divine Providence, that she and her people should diminish in power and leave Middle Earth once the Ring is destroyed. “I pass the test’, she said. ‘I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel’.” 

Like the Virgin Mary, Galadriel has intercessory powers and Sam cries out to her when he and Frodo are in mortal danger in Mordor, in the same way that a Catholic might cry to the Our Lady for help. As a parting gift when the Fellowship leave Lothlorien, Galadriel gives to Frodo a crystal phial containing the light of Earendil’s star amid the waters from her fountain. When they are in danger in the land of Mordor, Sam uses the phial to illuminate his path and ward off his enemies. It could be said the phial is reminiscent of bottles of crystal-clear Lourdes water from the miraculous spring in the Grotto where Our Lady appeared to St Bernadette. 

Arwen – Bride 

Now I will move on to Galadriel’s granddaughter, the Lady Arwen. If Galadriel is symbolic of the feminine as Mother, Arwen could be said to represent the feminine as Bride. Of the three main female characters, Arwen appears the least in the narrative and we hardly hear her speak at all, yet her self-sacrificial love is so great that her choice has enormous ramifications for Middle Earth. As an Elf, Arwen is immortal but in choosing to marry Aragorn, a moral man, she gives up her immortality. Aragorn is forbidden to marry Arwen, by her father Elrond, until he becomes King of both Gondor and Arnor. It is therefore his great love for Arwen and his desire to be united with her in marriage that inspires Aragorn to take up his rightful place as King. It is the return of the King that allows peace and stability to be established once again in Middle Earth and for evil to be defeated. Aragorn can be considered a type of Christ the King who returns in triumph and marries his Bride, the Church. This evokes the great wedding feast of the lamb in the book of Revelation when there is enormous rejoicing in heaven. 

Just as the Christ the Bridegroom and His Bride have to endure many trials and sufferings before they are united at, so too Aragorn and Arwen had to wait many years and make great sacrifices before they are able to marry. When Aragorn is finally crowned King it is as if there is a renewal of the kingdom, everything is made new again. Aragorn himself seems to have been transformed, as his full glory is revealed. We read: “When Aragorn arose all that beheld him gazed in silence, for it seemed to them that he was revealed to them now for the first time. Tall as the sea-kings of old, he stood above all that were near; ancient of days he seemed and yet in the flower of manhood; and wisdom sat upon his brow, and strength and healing were in his hands, and a light was about him.”  

Then we hear of the transformation of the Kingdom of Gondor following his coronation: “In his time the City was made more fair than it had ever been, even in the days of its first glory; and it was filled with trees and with fountains, and its gates were wrought of mithril and steel, and its streets were paved with white marble.” It is almost as if there is a “new heaven and a new earth” just as in the book of Revelation. 

All of this culminates in the wedding of Aragorn and Arwen, the great event that Aragorn has worked so long and hard for, and that both of them have made enormous sacrifices in order to achieve. Their marriage also provides a type of healing and redemption for Middle Earth as the race of men are united with the Elves. 

As Frodo sees the Bride, Arwen Evenstar, coming to meet her Bridegroom, we read: “And Frodo when he saw her come glimmering in the evening, with stars upon her brow and a sweet fragrance about her, was moved with great wonder, and he said to Gandalf: ‘At last I understand why we have waited! This is the ending. Now not day only shall be beloved, but night too shall be beautiful and blessed and all its fear pass away! Then the King welcomed his guests, and they alighted; and Elrond surrendered the sceptre, and laid the hand of his daughter in the hand of the King, and together they went up into the High City, and all the stars flowered in the sky. And Aragorn the King Elessar wedded Arwen Undomiel in the City of the Kings upon the day of Midsummer, and the tale of their long waiting and labours was come to fulfilment.” 

The reference to Arwen as the Evenstar of her people, and the description of her with stars upon her brow calls to mind the Woman in the book of Revelation, who wears a crown of twelve stars upon her head. Just as the redemption of humankind was made possible because a young woman in Nazareth said “yes” at the Annunciation, so too in LOTR the return of the King and the flowering of peace in Middle Earth is achieved because Arwen is willing to give up her immortality and give herself in the self-sacrificial love of marriage to Aragorn. Arwen also demonstrates an acceptance of the Other, as an Elf willing to love a mortal man, and also a humility in accepting the call of Divine Providence over her life, as she chooses to become Queen of Gondor in marrying Aragorn, despite the great sacrifice this entailed. 

Eowyn – Sister-Daugher 

Eowyn is perhaps the most interesting of Tolkien’s female characters and I think she can be viewed as representing the Sister-Daughter manifestation of the feminine genius. As Elves, Galadriel and Arwen are almost angelic in their goodness, but Eowyn is a mortal woman. In some aspects of her character she is a type of Our Lady but she also represents Woman after the Fall, as we see her weaknesses and vulnerability. 

As a young woman, who has lost both her parents, Eowyn is raised by her uncle, King Theoden, who refers to her as “sister-daughter”. As she cares for her aging uncle, she watches the Kingdom of Rohan degenerate as the devious and manipulative Grima Wormtongue holds sway over the King, convincing him that cannot trust even his own kindred. As a woman in a man’s world, where battle and bloodshed are part of life, Eowyn begins to lose hope for her future and desires honour and glory for herself so she can live a life of freedom. She falls in love with Aragorn because of what he represents, nobility, renown, high-status, and respect. When she learns that Aragorn cannot return her love she falls into despair and seeks death in battle. 

Tolkien has often been criticised for his sentimentalised and stereotypical female characters, yet in the character of Eowyn we find remarkable insight on Tolkien’s part into the plight of a woman who feels oppressed. Indeed, some of Eowyn’s words sound like something you might hear from modern-day feminists. When Aragorn refuses to allow Eowyn to ride into battle with the men she responds, “All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more.” It is a voice of frustration, bitterness, cynicism and despair. Yet clearly Tolkien has great sympathy for such feelings. Later in the narrative when Eowyn has been wounded in battle, Gandalf the wizard explains her state of mind to her brother Eomer: “You had horses, and deeds of arms, and the free fields; but she, born in the body of a maid, had a spirit and courage at least the match of yours. Yet she was doomed to wait upon an old man, whom she loved as a father, and watch him falling into a mean dishonoured dotage; and her part seemed to her more ignoble than that of the staff he leaned on.” 

Eowyn’s dissatisfaction with her narrow and restricted life speaks of that aspect of the feminine genius that St Edith Stein wrote about – the desire to achieve wholeness and right development of the human soul, both in herself and others. Eowyn desires to flourish as a human person by reaching her full potential. 

Reminiscent of St Joan of Arc, Eowyn, engulfed by despair, rides into battle disguised as a man, and in one of the most surprising plot twists of the novel, she wins renown by defeating the Lord of the Nazgul, the Dark Lord’s most powerful servant. Once again, we see an allusion to the Proto-evangelium, as the Woman is pitted against evil. As Eowyn stands on the battlefield face to face with her powerful enemy, she is spurred to courage by her great love for King Theoden who lies wounded on the ground. She warns the Lord of the Nazgul that if he touches the King she will strike. Her enemy answers that no living man may hinder him to which Eowyn responds, “But no living man am I! You look upon a woman.” She eventually lands the mortal blow upon the Lord of the Nazgul. One would have expected Aragorn or Gandalf to have killed the Lord of the Nazgul, but Tolkien reserves such an heroic act for a woman. This theme in Tolkien of the weak and small, such as hobbits or women, achieving such heroic acts, is perhaps a reflection of the tendency to exalt the weak and humble over the great and powerful of the world in the New Testament. As St Paul wrote, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” 

It is Eowyn’s great sacrificial love for her uncle, King Theoden, that leads her to perform one of the most heroic acts in the book. She willingly risks her own life in seeking to save his, and it is this act of love that defeats evil. Even though Eowyn committed the sin of falling into despair, she is redeemed by her great love for others. This calls to mind the sinful woman in Luke’s Gospel, of whom Christ said, “her sins which are many are forgiven, for she loved much.” 


In conclusion, it is clear that in LOTR, despite their scarcity, the female characters are powerful in the battle against evil. As female characters in a Christian myth, they point towards the archetype of the feminine, the Blessed Virgin Mary. As such they display all the traits of the feminine genius, a sacrificial love born of an orientation toward the person and an openness toward the Other. As Mother, Bride, and Sister-Daughter, they inspire and draw out love in the male characters. The feminine is central, not peripheral, to the defeat of evil in LOTR, just as the Woman, the Virgin Mary, is central to the Christian story, the “true myth”, of the redemption of humanity through her “yes” to God’s plan.