For most of medieval literature, there were no female elves. Tolkien was criticized by fairy-genre purists for having female elves in The Lord of the Rings because it was considered redundant. To the pre-modern mind, there were men, and the mystery of the female was represented by elves and fairies. The male elves represented women, so it breaks the genre by creating female elves. It’s like making chocolate out of chocolate.
Tolkien was the master of the genre, and knew which rules he could break and which ones to uphold. But given the liberties he took with the genre, I find his use of women and elves in that epic tale fantastic. The same rules were broken by another, C.S. Lewis who had Father Christmas show up in Narnia. If Aslan is the Christ, then Father Christmas would be Father Aslanmas… but Lewis, like Tolkien was transcending his genre in the same way. They were pointing to something higher than the boundaries even of fairy tale.
This from Tolkien on the Virgin mary:
“Our Lady, upon which all my own small perception of beauty both in majesty and simplicity is founded.”
To fully understand the Lord of the Rings, one must first understand that Tolkien was a devout, pre-Vatican II Catholic who faithfully attended the Latin Mass. As a Protestant, it’s difficult to view Mary like a Catholic. She is called “the Coredemptrix” which they believe tells of her unique role in participation of the redemption of man through Christ. So you’ll find elves in LOTR constantly co-redeeming mankind throughout the epic. It’s not specifically about Mary, because even in the language of story, Mary is just a conduit, to be blunt. It is the female mystique that represents the mystery of God, beauty and longing for glory.
Tolkien never publicly spoiled the spell of LOTR, he was even careful to ascribe future edits of the work to a failure in Bilbo’s memory when he put pen to paper. But in a private letter, Tolkien spills the beans:
“The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like “religion”, to cults or practices, in the Imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.”
This is telling, because he protected the story’s religious elements by removing religion from within the narrative. It’s also what freed him up to make female elves… for elves no longer symbolized women, but symbolized what Mary stood for to a Catholic, a coredemptrix. Similarly, it was Dr. Michael Ward in his book Planet Narnia who explains why Father Christmas can show up in a land with Aslan, because the entire book was more about Jove or Jupiter, the Christ figure of the universe who changes winter to spring in any land, not just Narnia. There is no need to have religious characters soap boxing within a fictional narrative, because the whole story is the soap box.
In Middle Earth, like in our Earth, all of mankind is low, prone to the weaknesses of the male species. Man is proud, greedy, and cannot resist overt power. This is embodied in Boromir. Every man who is tested by The Ring fails, but Aragorn is the only one to turn it down when offered the ring by Frodo. Why? Aragorn was raised by elves. He inherited their suspicion of men, and it tormented him. The elves, or the women of fairy tale provided him the humility that made him resist the power of low men and made him the only worthy king of men. Being a ranger, he was still a man’s man, so he also embodies the humanity of Christ, triumphant on Earth.
A further symbol of the redemption of man, is that Arwen, an elf, gives up mortality to marry him. This is the Christ who marries the church. It doesn’t cost Aragorn anything, but it will force Arwen to experience death. When the beauty of the higher things redeems the lower, it injures the higher thing.
Tolkien’s view of women personally? No higher praise could be given to his wife, Edith Mary Tolkien where her tombstone read: “Luthien” while J.R.R.’s read: “Beren.” These are the elvish names for Arwen and Aragorn. After 50 years of marriage, Tolkien claimed he could still remember how Edith sang and danced while he sat on the grass, spellbound. This is also how Aragorn first meets Arwen in the Appendix of LOTR.
Legolas and Gimli
It’s a long story, but elves and dwarves are long rivals in Middle Earth. Elves are considered high while dwarves are considered low, not only in stature, but their own creator Vala Aulë offered to destroy them before they ever awoke. But the creator of all, Ilúvatar, offered to adopt them as his own with the condition that they were awaken after the Elves. That’s Jacob and Esau, but off topic for the purposes of this post.
By the beginning of The Two Towers, Legolas and Gimli have struck such a rich friendship that when Eomer the Rider of Rohan threatens to kill Gimli, Legolas points an arrow at him and says, “You would die before your stroke fell.” Gimli the low is defended by Legolas… womankind. It is Gimli who is completely smitten by Galadriel upon meeting the highest elf of all. It’s no coincidence that the highest elf is a female. At the end of the age, it is Legolas who builds a boat and brings Gimli with him to the Grey Havens (heaven).
Frodo and Arwen
When Frodo is sure to die by a mortal wound from a Morgul Blade (the weapon of the most powerful of men, the Witch King) Arwen shows up just in time to save him. (Correction: since I posted this, reader Jenni Noordhoek corrected me that it’s not Arwen who waves Frodo in the book, it’s Glorfindel who saves Frodo. But the point still stands, because it’s an elf who rescues Frodo.) When Arwen gives up her own immortality, she gives Frodo her place on the boat to the Grey Havens. Enough said.
Eowyn and Theoden
When King Theoden is crushed by his horse from a blow by the Lord Nazgul, it is Theoden’s niece Eowyn who stands between the King and death. The Lord of the Nazgul is the most powerful man, brought down by a woman who was forbidden to join the battle. She wears the armor of a man to participate. Eowyn is womanhood militant on earth, forced into battle.
Shelob and Sam
Contrast the soaring beauty of elves with Shelob. Older than Sauron, she is the last daughter of Ungoliant (the devil) known as the giant spider Shelob. There is no character described by Tolkien as more gut-wrenchingly foul than Shelob. Female gone wrong is a horror far worse than even that of the greatest failings of mortal men. The oldest, most powerful female of Middle Earth is defeated by the lowest, most humble male character: Frodo’s gardener, Sam.
Female as the North Star
The three great females of LOTR are named after lights and stars. Stars are fixed ideals by which we can guide a ship, measure the size of the universe and keep from getting lost in the woods. Their names: Galadriel, the Lady of Light, Arwen, the Evanstar and Luthien, the Morning Star. Each of these characters play a role in guiding men. Even Galadriel has Gandalf’s number. He may be a wizard, but he is subservient and knocked off his feet by the highest elf.
Tolkien was criticized by feminists for his lack of female characters in his books. I don’t have go into how thin that view is, but I believe it proves how Modernity forces us to not only miss what would be obvious to a pre-modern mind, but by addressing those false problems it ruins good story telling technique. Women weren’t short changed in Tolkien’s world, they were the firm backbone of that entire work, elevated to the highest place in a Catholic, pre-modern, story-teller’s mind: the magic redeemer of fallen men.
I’m in the thick of it. Designing a game means there’s scraps of paper all over my work space. Chunks of dialogue scattered over Final Draft files, Word documents and strewn across three sketchbooks. I like creating in a complete mess so that it’s easy to make a quite note or thumbnail a puzzle idea and move on. There’s a North Star I’m aiming for, so there is a theme and a core cast of characters, but the details and connective tissue aren’t there yet… that comes last.
This is where game design is similar to every other medium I work within, I go from general to specific. Jumping to specifics early on is bad in my view because bad ideas can get locked in too soon, and it will often compromise the larger structure that needs to hold everything together. As an artist, we sketch the proportions first, and don’t move on to thick lines until that structure is nailed. If I’m drawing someone’s portrait and get the structure wrong, then adding detail to that structure will only emphasize a broken face… I’ll never reclaim the likeness of the person by adding detail. The same goes for plotting story or script writing. The outline is king, and I have to feel confident in the notecards before going on to scene breakdowns and detailed dialogue. Once the structure is complete, I feel safer to move on to the next step knowing all of the connective tissue must serve that overall structure.
Game design is no different. I don’t want to start by throwing down finished puzzles and plots or it the player might feel like a section is suddenly coming from a different game. I try not to fall in love with anything too early, and it’s those early ideas that want to scream for extra attention because anything put down feels more real than what hasn’t been developed yet. But the strongest structure of the game could come along later, so it’s wise to allow better things to come down the line that could completely undermine what is created early on.
I did this commish for a pal:
The Griffin is an ancient myth that was adopted by the church in the middle ages. The lion represented Lordship and dominance of the ground while the eagle represented “the king of the air”. Combined they were an image of Christ’s divinity (the eagle) and his humanity (the lion).
I love pre-modern art because people had a more open mind and freer thought regarding the visual. Even today’s church might reject a griffin as “a monster” unfit to symbolize Christ. The modern mind is influenced by the literal demands of Modernism… which ruins art. Classicists like Tolkien, Lewis and R.K. Rowling live on this side of Modernism, but look backwards and try to rescue the dismissed language of the pre-Modern era. We left something back there, so I’m all too happy to bring them back by rendering them once again.
This is my take on Batman. He’s a delusional billionaire who THINKS HE’S A BAT. A magic bat visits him one night and Bruce Wayne found it to be pliable. He stretches the magic bat over his head and clasps it around his shoulders which became his cowl and cape, his boots and pants. The magic bat has made a moral contract with Bruce so that all bats will help him bend reality so long as he continues to defend Gotham. Why do bats need Bruce to defend Gotham? Because if criminals took over the city they would increase urban crawl and build over their bat-cave that sits just outside the Gotham city limits. (…and yes, the bat clasp talks to him. DC, I’m here to help!)
Robot cowboy outlaw from Iron West:
Finally, here’s Blue the redneck giant, bipedal, mantis from Creature Tech:
Click on the photo above visit my Kickstarter Page.
One of the great developments in social media is for artists to be able to directly address their fans. The studios are still doing their normal productions, but companies like Kickstarter allow artists to fun micro runs of books, music and inventions.
My life work is to traipse in the realm of ideas. It’s not that my ideas are amazing as they come out, they’re not. They’re kind of average. But I document thousands of ideas so I can choose from the pool and usually come up with something pretty good.
A lot of folks email me to make a new Earthworm Jim or Neverhood game. They request Catscratch episodes on DVD and don’t understand why I make graphic novels, but can’t make them about characters I’ve already created. Well, I can’t take my own characters and do whatever I want with them if they’re owned by someone else! I’m at the mercy of studios and executives, and that’s not entirely a bad thing. They have their job to do and I have my job.
My job is to make stories, games and whole worlds. That’s my A game. Getting the characters marketed or made into games, comics and movies is secondary. I’m lucky if any of these ideas make it to the public, it’s a convoluted journey from sketchbook to marketplace, which means hundreds of perfectly good creations and ideas will never be seen by anybody, and that breaks my heart. I’m an entertainer, after all, and if nobody is in the forest to hear the tree fall, who really cares if it makes a sound?
The day before I created Earthworm Jim, I created another character and world… probably Planarian-Hamster-bot. It’s not important, but you didn’t get to see it because we didn’t make a game of it. I’m putting together the best artwork from my 42 sketchbooks that should be entertaining to anyone who has loved any of my work to date. The TenNapel Sketchbook Archives will not only document the creation of characters like EWJ, Neverhood and Creature Tech, but I’ll show you some characters that were great in their own right, but didn’t see the light of day because they weren’t housed in a game or graphic novel (not yet, anyways!).
Take a look at the campaign, and please tell your friends about it! I’m not making a killing on this book, it’s for the fans. The more money we raise the better the book is going to be. We’re unlocking better paper stock, cover stock, I’ll be stuffing every corner of the book with content!
Growing Up - Monsters Calling Home
Doug TenNapel; Birdie.
My baby bird was alive and well yesterday… this morning, after all of this time raising her, she didn’t make it. Sad. Repost in memory.
It’s easy to be a jaded artist. It’s easy to be a distant artist. I resent the claim that those of us who are not jaded somehow had it easy in becoming not jaded. I find it difficult to show sentiment and vulnerability, especially when today’s open media finds people who love to use vulnerability as an excuse to stomp on others.
My stories are very emotive and they come from a real place. These aren’t situations I’m making up, they reflect real life occurrences that inform my plot and character. There is a safer way to tell stories that guarantee I won’t be hurt by my audience and that would be to act distant and refuse to interact with them, or to only pursue content that everyone will approve of. I hate safe content more than anything, because it’s the ultimate insult to the artist to tow the line of culture instead of reform or inspire it.
I can even come up with a story that looks like I have outrage on a subject but I know it’s the correct subject to show outrage about, so it’s really just another form of safe cliche that bores me.
The artist has to dig deep, shedding culture like a bathrobe before diving into the pool of soaring ideals. These are the dangerous stories. The most terrifying thing one can tell a jaded kid isn’t that life is horrible, but that there is a real, reasonable hope and glory that can be known and embraced. I laugh at the local art shows that depict the usual blood bath of political commentary, porn, shock value and nihilism. Snore. Gee, I didn’t know that life was difficult. Thanks for the enlightenment.
But just because my heart is on display, it doesn’t mean that I leave the gates open wide. There are monsters and bigots that shouldn’t be trusted with your craft. Not everyone’s opinion is informed by wisdom, clarity or even a 4th grade reading level. In my early 20s I read this scripture that changed my art life forever:
Proverbs 4:23 “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.”
This is where I part ways with the existentialists because they display their heart but leave it unguarded. There are the general rules I’ve established in guarding my heart regarding public vulnerability. The best one is that it’s never better to withdraw just to avoid criticism. Be publicly happy, sentimental, and lavish praise on the good, because haters shouldn’t be given control of anything.
The only criticisms that can really hurt me are true ones. The truth often hurts, and it ought to! In fact, most lies are constructed and entertained to avoid hurting people with the truth. So here’s to sentiment, vulnerability, and soaring jolliness in the face of the critics! Man, I’m ready for a pipe.
Took my kids hiking today. Found a garter snake, a king snake, velvet ant, 23 mountain tomato worms, a skink, and we observed an ant hill. I taught the kids how to climb rocks, walk down loose gravel and turn logs away from you when looking for things in case there are rattle snakes. We shared water, and I taught them about body metabolism during exercise. They’ve been running with me 1 mile a day for a month, so they’re in good enough shape to make it two miles uphill. I’m in charge of homeschooling today since Mom is out of town. My method is very hands on since their usual day has a lot more bookwork. I’ll close the day out by teaching them how to pray and why we pray. Not a bad day.