Academic journal article Mythlore

Corrupting Beauty: Rape Narrative in the Silmarillion

Academic journal article Mythlore

Corrupting Beauty: Rape Narrative in the Silmarillion

Article excerpt

THIS ESSAY EXPLORES THE USE OF RAPE NARRATIVE in The Silmarillion: with specific reference to the female characters Aredhel and Luthien, I analyze the range of literary techniques by which Tolkien simultaneously exploits yet constrains the power of rape (threatened or actual) as a narrative motor and dramatic spectacle.

The reader's first reaction to my title might well be "What rape narrative?", such is the subtlety of Tolkien's representation and the cultural pervasiveness of rape in fiction. Indeed it is this ambiguity that I find fascinating because, through it, Tolkien can advance a plot around the notion of rape without actually representing the act itself. Several feminist critics (e.g. Horeck, Projansky) argue that it is difficult to represent rape in art without creating a vicarious pleasure in sexual violence; they argue that the purview of the reader/spectator itself objectifies and offers power, pleasure, and mastery in the narrative event. Avoidance of rape-representations does not necessarily resolve the problem, however, as refusal to represent the act can serve as titillation where the event is withheld so as to tantalize. Thus the writer of rape narrative must navigate a tricky course to ensure that the representation of rape (even as a structuring absence) is not a misogynist act. I believe that Tolkien, through utilization of a range of literary techniques that suggest an 'authenticity' and balance in narrative and that resist genre conventions, does successfully navigate this course, but that his positing of female beauty as the catalyst for violent seduction or unrestrained lust remains problematic other than as understood in mythic mode.

Following Projansky's model, I use the term 'rape narrative' in its broadest sense of including "representations of rape, attempted rape, threats of rape, implied rape and [... ] coercive sexuality" (Projansky 18). A rape narrative need not therefore contain actual rape, but will have at least a threat or implication of coercive or non-consensual sex as a driving element. By using this wide definition, both the Eol/Aredhel narrative and the Curufin and Celegorm/Luthien narrative can be treated as rape narratives wherein the male succeeds in or attempts or desires sexual violation or violent seduction of a resistant female. In both these examples the women are considered beautiful, and it is this beauty that ignites the destructive male desire.

As is the moot question in the legal definition of rape in any jurisdiction, much is at stake in our understanding of female non-consent and its mode of expression, and our inference of non-consent (unequivocally in the case of Luthien, but perhaps less so in the case of Aredhel) is important to the construction of 'good woman as victim' which serves as a springboard for themes of romance and heroism and suggests a greater archetypal or mythical reading of the rape tragedy. As is the case with both of Tolkien's examples discussed here, genre conventions relating to the representation of gender roles and attendant notions of beauty, innocence, and love shape our expectations of proper male/female relationships in the text, so as to normalize or naturalize the element of sexual violence: paradoxically it can be the very ubiquity of rape narrative that makes it difficult to spot when embedded in a rescue/romance trajectory. One of the more problematic aspects of this 'normalization' is the use of female beauty as a mitigating aspect and inevitable trigger of male sexual aggression (at its most extreme, male sexual aggression may be theorized as the logical validation of woman's beauty in narrative terms), as this is one of 'myths' of rape that feminism has struggled to dispel in relation to the lived experiences of historical women.


I will consider first the narrative relating to Aredhel in Chapter 16 of The Silmarillion, "Of Maeglin." Aredhel is first introduced to us as a character who wishes to leave the "guarded city of Gondolin" of which her brother, Turgon, is king. …

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