I've read comments so many times from people who think Tolkien, and certainly his work, was sexist, that he didn't like women, that he didn't understand women, or just plain didn't care about them. Now usually I just shrug people off if they don't like Lord of the Rings or Tolkien or fantasy. Whatever. Their loss. Some people just don't get it and they don't have to. But in the case of the female element in Tolkien's work, I actually think people who say those things are ignorant and just plain wrong. Sure, there are very few female characters in LOTR and The Hobbit combined. But in The Silmarillion? Lots. And some really important ones too. If you're going to diss an author, at least read his work or make yourself familiar with it before you diss!
Luthien is without argument one of the most important characters in The Silmarillion. She is the first elf to marry a human man: Beren. She gives up her immortality for him. She goes to the halls of death to save him when he dies. She gives up her family, and her people, for the man she loves. But not just that: she is the more powerful one in the relationship. Beren would have never regained the silmaril without her help. She is the one who manages to subdue Morgoth so that Beren can cut the silmaril from his crown. Again and again she is the one who saves Beren's hide. She is a true heroine: brave, loyal, powerful. Considering she was based on Tolkien's wife, I think it's safe to say that he had a very high opinion of women and also, the portrayal of her vividly illustrates that women are not necessarily in the background and weak damsels in distress.
Galadriel figures in both LOTR and The Silmarillion. She is one of my absolute favourite female characters ever. I just wish Tolkien had written more about her! Way back when the world is still young, she is born in Eldamar and when Feanor incites the elves there to leave the land of the Valar, she goes with him. Not because she believes what Feanor has to say about the Valar necessarily. She had her own reasons.
But Galadriel, the only woman of the Noldor to stand that day tall and valiant among the contending princes, was eager to be gone. No oaths she swore, but the words of Feanor concerning Middle-earth had kindled in her heart, for she yearned to see the wide unguarded lands and to rule there a realm at her own will.She is brave, headstrong, even hungry for glory. No shrinking violet, that's for sure.(The Silmarillion)
When Peter Jackson's LOTR movies came out, some people were upset at the scene when Galadriel appears all threatening to Frodo and Sam at Galadriel's Mirror, but I loved that scene. It showed part of her true nature: a powerful, dangerous elven woman who had done, and would do!, great deeds in Middle-earth. No shy, retiring, kindly lady.
And then there's Eowyn, the shield maiden. I often wonder if Tolkien based her on someone he knew. His portrayal of her is so vivid and seems to true. A woman capable of great deeds in battle who is hemmed in by society's rules for female behaviour, a woman held back and thwarted at every turn in her young life. She falls in love with someone who does not love her back, and the grief of that drives her to join the battle in secret. And then she faces and helps destroy one of the most evil of evils in Tolkien's universe: The Witch King of Angmar. She is another amazing female character. Some people seem to think she betrays her own true self when she eventually falls in love with Faramir and gives up the sword, but I don't think that's true. Tolkien doesn't think that anyone should want to live for battle and war. Pretty much all the heroes of LOTR (Boromir maybe being the exception) yearn for peace. They fight in the war, but they don't crave battle and blood. Once the war of the ring is over, they all want to live in peace. And so does Eowyn.
It's also interesting to me that Eowyn, arguably the most "masculine" of Tolkien's female characters, ends up marrying the arguably most "feminine" of his male characters: Faramir. The parts of LOTR that deal with their love story are beautiful. True romance in Middle-earth!
I think the lack of female characters in Tolkien's work is because so much of it deals with war and battle, something he obviously thought was an area reserved mainly for men. He had been in the army himself, and that was obviously a very male world in his day. Because LOTR and The Hobbit are both very "war and battle" centered, there are few women on display there. In The Sil however, that deals a lot more with "behind the scenes" stuff, times of peace and wandering, love and marriage, there are many more women. Luthien is the strongest, most prominent one of course, but Galadriel is there and so is Idril Celebrindal, the headstrong Aredhel, Elwing (mother of Elrond), all the female Valar, and not to forget: Melian the Maia who marries and elven man and is the mother of Luthien.
I know most people who say "Tolkien didn't "get" women" won't read The Sil. But if they did, and even if they read LOTR with an open mind, I think they'd know they were proven wrong.
Screencaps from The Lord of the Rings movies, thanks to TORN. That first one, of Arwen mourning Aragorn, always makes me so sad. It seems to perfectly illustrate Tolkien's words from the appendix to LOTR: "and the light of her eyes was quenched, and it seemed to her people that she had become cold and grey as nightfall in winter that comes without a star." *sob*