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Fair to see, soon to fall: the classical heroine and Tolkien's "unmortal" women

Street, Sarah C. (2021) Fair to see, soon to fall: the classical heroine and Tolkien's "unmortal" women. Undergraduate Thesis, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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The female characters of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Legendarium, although oft-criticized for their scarcity in number, fully embody one of the most central themes of the story: the complicated interplay between death and immortality. While Tolkien admitted that the love and anguish of mortal Men and immortal Elves make up the heart of his Legendarium, the women possess the distinct ability to transcend the boundary of life and death. Interpreting them according to this paradigm reveals an archetype which I call “the unmortal woman,” and that likewise reveals the unique power that their boundary-crossing enables, leading to strongly feminist readings of the text.
Although Tolkien was adamant that The Lord of the Rings contains no “inner meaning or ‘message,’” the unmortal woman’s appearances throughout history prove that she is an enduring figure with an enduring purpose: to challenge the often rigid ways that women and femininity are represented in literature. As such, this paper examines several of not only Tolkien’s unmortal women, such as Lúthien, Arwen, and Éowyn, but also several iterations of the figure which came before, such as Alcestis, Psyche, and Juliana. I will demonstrate how Tolkienian women transcend the mortal/immortal binary in much the same manner as their predecessors, and thus use the unmortal woman as a lens through which to cast new light on the women of fantasy past, present, and future.
In drawing these connections between women in Tolkien and older texts, it is not my goal to simply prove the existence of classical and medieval influence on Tolkien as a writer—a fact which is already well known and indisputable. Rather, I wish to explore the reception of these influences, and in doing so, to show how the connections I have drawn serve to shed new light on the place of women within the Legendarium.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Street, Sarah C.SCS125@pitt.eduSCS125
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairCampbell-Tanner,
Committee MemberPersyn,
Committee MemberBromberg,
Committee MemberDrout,
Date: 13 December 2021
Date Type: Publication
Defense Date: 19 November 2021
Approval Date: 13 December 2021
Submission Date: 8 December 2021
Access Restriction: No restriction; Release the ETD for access worldwide immediately.
Number of Pages: 73
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: David C. Frederick Honors College
Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences > English
Degree: BPhil - Bachelor of Philosophy
Thesis Type: Undergraduate Thesis
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: Eowyn, Arwen, Luthien, Miriel, Galadriel, Shelob, Cynewulf, Juliana, Camilla, Vergil, women, feminism, fantasy, nonbinary, immortal, death, mortal, Silmarillion, Lord of the Rings
Date Deposited: 13 Dec 2021 13:25
Last Modified: 08 Dec 2022 13:48


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