Saturday, October 2, 2010

Christine O'Donnell, Tolkien Scholar?

So, after Christine O'Donnell's surprise win in the Senate primary in Delaware, there were plenty of articles mocking her for this and that, including a link to what purported to be a listing of whacky things she'd said and done. Wacky or embarrassing or far-out things candidates have said having been dime-a-dozen in this crazy season, I gave it a pass. Thus I missed that one of the things listed against her was that she was a self-proclaimed fan of THE LORD OF THE RINGS. I think it was David Bratman's blog* that alerted me to her essay on-line about Tolkien:

That O'Donnell was interested in Tolkien didn't particularly surprise me -- after all, Representative Mike Pence of Indiana is a noted C. S. Lewis fan. But I didn't follow all the links in David's post, so it wasn't until my friend Jim Lowder sent me a link to O'Donnell's appearance on Book TV (recorded back on Dec. 18th, 2003) that I found out about the following video of her presentation on Women in THE LORD OF THE RINGS:**

Obstensively, this appearance was to discuss Bradley Birzer's book, TOLKIEN'S SANCTIFYING MYTH [2003]. But Birzer himself is nowhere to be seen, and actually this turns out to be O'Donnell delivering the same essay she'd written that had already appeared on-line -- which now turns out to have been co-written by her intern, Jenna Murry ("Tolkien enthusiast extraordinaire"), who also turns out to be her niece. The first third of the clip's forty-two minute running time is devoted to their delivering the talk (in many places running so closely to the published essay, even in phrasing, that I assume they were reading a version of it off a teleprompter) followed by a question & answer session.

And how was it? Not bad, considering. I'm still puzzled why Book TV didn't feature the person who actually wrote the book (Birzer) rather than someone who wrote a 1400-word essay on a related topic. But that said, I rather like the format: someone delivering a short talk on a subject followed by audience members sitting around tables with the speaker(s) asking questions: a nice informal set-up. And it's a good topic: one thing the movies achieved was to spark a lot of discussion about Tolkien's characterization, esp. of his women (not just in LotR but throughout his works).

I do have to say I'm unimpressed by her research, especially her claim that nothing's been written on Tolkien's female characters before, aside from a few free online essays. She may not have been able to turn up Jessica Yates' "Male Chauvinist Lions", and her piece came out a year too soon to benefit from TOLKIEN ON FILM [2004], several of whose essays devoted a lot of space to Tolkien's characterizations of women compared and contrasted with Jackson's depictions. But what's her excuse for not knowing about Fredrick & McBride's WOMEN AMONG THE INKLINGS [2001]? And of course there's been quite a lot of good commentary on Eowyn, Galadriel, Luthien, et al. in books on Tolkien for years, even if it doesn't necessarily show up on a Google.

All that aside, there are also a few problems in the essay itself -- some just gaffs, like calling Tolkien's book a "trilogy", some more serious. For example, her claim that Arwen is "Tolkien's most popular female character" simply isn't true: that'd either be Galadriel (who O'Donnell only mentions in passing in the essay, though audience questions bring out more in the discussion afterwards) or Eowyn.*** Certainly Arwen is more high-profile in the Jackson films, but exactly the reverse is true in Tolkien's book, where Arwen is kept firmly in the background until a few brief appearances in the denoument, her major role being in the Appendices. It wd be fairer for O'Donnell to say that Arwen is HER favorite female character and be done with it.

Of the three female characters O'Donnell talks about, she goes furthest out on a limb on Belladonna Baggins, referring to her many pre-marriage adventures. But we don't know that she ever had any: all we know is that she never had any after her marriage. O'Donnell also asserts that Belladonna, far from missing her adventures, was "content, even utterly satisfied, in the role of wife and mother". Well, may be. Or maybe not. It wd be nice to think so, but we have no way to know: Tolkien never tells us one way or the other. So it's dubious to assert things that have no foundation of any kind in your source without identifying it as speculation; it undercuts your audience's confidence in what you say about other points.

Where O'Donnell is on much firmer ground is in her discussion of Eowyn, denying that Eowyn has to become 'an honorary man' to achieve anything worthwhile (given that it's the very fact that she's a woman that makes her able to defeat the Witch-King); a nice point. Even better was her (actually, Jenna Murry's) observation about Eowyn's having been forced to live an Arwen life till now; that was an interesting observation that's quite new to me.

On the whole, this is a decent little piece suddenly, seven years later, lifted into the limelight by its author's sudden notoriety. One thing that comes out clearly in the video that you cdn't find out from the essay is that it's the intern, Jenna, who's the real Tolkien expert here -- for example, when she cites the Ungoliant story in the Silm to illuminate a point about Shelob in response to a question. O'Donnell, by contrast, doesn't actually seem to know LotR that well -- for example, she can't remember Glorfindel's or Lobelia Sackville-Baggins' names, and at one point she criticizes a change Jackson makes to Arwen's story, only to contrasting it Tolkien's original -- except that the part she likes isn't in the book but instead another element Jackson added. For her part, Jenna M. quite rightly disparages the movies' portrayal of Faramir, but also occasionally blurs the movie and book together (though not as much as O'Donnell).

I give them points for noticing Tolkien's careful pairing his female characters with the right male character in the end, rather than going for what the audience expected (e.g., Eowyn/Faramir rather than Eowyn/Aragorn), and giving Tolkien credit for recognizing & sympathizing with the women of his day and their limited opportunities (though it wd have been nice to pair this with some biographical information re. Tolkien's lifelong support for women's education). And while the essay limits itself too much by only looking at three characters, the discussion afterwards brings up Shelob and Galadriel and, briefly, Goldberry and the lost Entwives. A question asking where are the female orcs produced two speculations: perhaps they're in the hordes fighting alongside the males orcs, or perhaps the lack of female orcs helps dehumanize them. Obviously, I'd go with the latter solution.

My conclusion: I'd like to see more work in the field from the intern! Has she published anything else in the field in these last seven years?


*. Thanks, David!

**at one point BookTV identifies it on-screen as "Discussion of J. R. R. Tolkien's Depiction of Women", which seems to fairly sum it up.

***I didn't read v. far down in the comments on O'Donnell's 2003 essay, but was amused by commenters asserting how much they'd always wanted to be Eowyn, not Arwen.

1 comment:

Nena said...

Interestingly enough, the intern was fourteen at the time of the essay, so no, I don't think she's written anything else in the field.