I wrote a comment on a post in Feministing about the Harry Potter series. It started to get so long that I thought I should write my own post.
If you have never read The Lord of the Rings and plan to do so (or even think you might), please don't keep reading. The first time reading a good book should never be spoiled by advance knowledge. Same for the Harry Potter series. There are
SERIOUS SPOILERS AHEAD!
The Feministing article focused on the female characters in the Potter books (and films). I shall back up a bit and then proceed forward.
Chloe, the author of the article, said she was nine years old when Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone came out, only a couple years younger than the characters. She grew up with the series, getting older as the characters and the stories became more mature. As an alterkacher, I'm officially far too old for Harry Potter. That hasn't stopped me from reading the books or watching the movies, but I was more-or-less grown up already when I did so.
I go all the way back to Beezus and Ramona, and I'm not talking about the recent movie (note the name order). The first character I really identified with, however, was Meg in A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle. Meg is smart, a loner, lacking in confidence in herself and thus in her social skills as well. She always stays true to herself and to what she believes in. A Wrinkle in Time is one of my all-time favourite books, and Meg is one of my favourite heroines.
If Chloe grew up with Harry, Hermione, and Ron, I grew up with Frodo and Sam. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were a huge part of my adolescence. I was introduced to the books when I was in hospital (the only time I was during my childhood) by a friend who was a priest and an archaeologist (yes, both). He opened up an amazing world to me. I became a pretty serious Tolkien nerd.
As in Harry Potter, male figures are mostly the heroes in the Tolkien books. For women, early in the story we get the nasty Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, the trusty and loyal Rosie Cotten, and magical hippie girl Goldberry. We're introduced to Arwen Undomiel, daughter of Elrond, who does little more in the books than wait for Aragorn to win the crown of Gondor so that she can then become his wife. The filmmakers, having so little to work with for such an important character, tried to flesh her out by giving her scenes that never appeared in the books, but she is still little more than a cipher.
All is not lost, however. Tolkien did create two powerful female characters who no doubt captured many more imaginations than mine.
Galadriel is the Elven ruler of the hidden land of Lothlorien. Her husband Celeborn is really no more than a consort. Galadriel is one of the three who wield the Elven rings of power, linked to the One Ring but untouched by Sauron. As such, along with Elrond and Gandalf, she is a counter-force to Sauron, no less powerful than either of the male ring holders. She is beautiful and terrible, seemingly gentle but a force to be reckoned with.
My favourite female character, however, and one of my favourite characters in the books, is Éowyn of Rohan. The Rohirrim are a blond people who ride horses and fight fiercely to maintain their homeland. They have neither magic nor great Elven lineage. They are very much of Middle Earth. That is one thing I find particularly appealing about Éowyn—her humanity. She is not great and powerful like Arwen, but she's far more interesting.
Éowyn is the niece of old King Théoden and sister of Éomer, heir to the throne. She must do her duty as caregiver to her uncle and later in leading her people into a fortress, but she longs to be a warrior. She chafes at the role she must play as a female in her society, which reveres men.
She's not exactly a feminist heroine. She falls in love with Aragorn, who is promised to Arwen. Even though she longs to fight, she is spurred to disguise herself as a male warrior only when she despairs of winning Aragorn's love. But whatever the reason, she then goes on to play a pivotal role in the Battle of Minas Tirinth and get what I think is the most powerful scene in the book, depicted well in the film.
On the battlefield, she confronts the king of the Nazgûl (ringwraiths). It was prophesied long before that no man could kill him. In a twist reminiscent of a similar prophecy in William Shakespeare's Macbeth, she reveals to him that she is no man, but rather a woman. She kills him with the help of someone else who is "no man," Merry the hobbit. She nearly loses her life accomplishing this task, but eventually returns to strength—and greater understanding. She does end up married to Faramir, younger son of the last steward of Gondor, but you get the feeling that it's a union of equals.
Seeing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 reminded me of how important the women in the story are. Minerva McGonagle takes back control of Hogwarts from Severus Snape and turns it into a fortress from which to resist the final assault of Voldemort. Luna Lovegood once again has the answers that Harry looks past in his impetuous rush toward action. Ginny Weasley, Cho Chang, and the other young women in the school join in the battle. Molly Weasley fights a magnificent duel with Bellatrix Lestrange and vanquishes her. And of course Hermione Granger is with Harry all along, keeping him out of trouble, performing the kinds of practical magic of which he seems to be incapable or at least uninterested. Hermione destroys one of the last Horcruxes.
At some point, someone will write a blockbuster fantasy in which a girl or woman has to undergo the quest, or in which a girl or woman leads the battle against evil. Something like that has already happened. Even though The Millenium Trilogy is not fantasy, Lisbeth Salander is a somewhat larger-than-life heroine, an enigmatic figure who plays by her own rules. And she is the most fascinating heroine of recent times. We're just getting warmed up.