Despite its immense popularity, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings has long been criticized by feminists who say that there are too few female characters and that those who do exist are most notable for their conventionality. The first charge is irrefutable: there are only three major and six minor feminine roles in the three fat volumes that comprise Rings. Even the numerous horses in the story all seem to be male!

An Oxford professor of Anglo-Saxon, Tolkien moved in a world steeped in masculine intellectuality. Although Tolkien himself took female students, women played almost no part in scholarly life at Oxford in the 1930s and 40s. Tolkien was a prominent member of the Inklings, an all-male, mostly Christian coterie of pipe-smoking, pub-loving dons. Like many men in such a milieu, Tolkien put women on a pedestal.

In the entire body of Tolkien’s work no women are ever immoral although they may face sexual harassment, attempted rape, forced marriage, or even death at the hands of men. Nor are any women ever shown in the service of the Dark Lord Sauron or his ancient master, Morgoth. The only named females who aid them are a vampire bat and two giant spiders.

In an era that doesn’t prize traditionally feminine virtues, Tolkien’s work stands out for its idealized view of women. He highly honors their traditional roles. Indeed, it could be argued that nearly all the action in Tolkien’s universe derives from one women’s dereliction of her motherly duties. In The Silmarillion, which is set millennia before Lord of the Rings, the elf-queen Muriel suffered such a severe case of post-partum depression that she willed herself to die, ignoring the desperate entreaties of her husband. Her motherless son grew up proudly ungovernable. It was he who fomented the rebellion of the elves against the gods, thus setting in train thousands of years of misery. To the chagrin of feminists, Rings’ three heroines conform to conventional feminine Types, familiar from medieval literature and fairy tales. These are: Arwen the Fairy Bride, Galadriel the Good Witch, and Ewyn the Shield Maiden. Their negative equivalents, however, are significantly absent.

Tolkien’s heroines, furthermore, excel in traditional feminine functions. They fructify, inspire, counsel, preserve, nourish, and heal — all in the service of life. They are mistresses of domestic arts: Arwen embroiders, Galadriel weaves, Ewyn cares for her infirm uncle and manages his royal household.

Tolkien doesn’t include evil counterparts to these images of conventional femininity. There’s no Temptress, Sorceress, or man-hating Amazon in his story. Female characters among Tolkien’s speaking peoples (elves, humans, dwarves, ents, and hobbits) may have character flaws and foibles but only one fleetingly mentioned woman in the work is deeply evil.

When the first Rings film, The Fellowship of the Ring, came out in 2001, a newspaper article noted that there “[wasn’t] much estrogen flowing” in the movie. Filmmaker Peter Jackson, however, has made some intriguing changes in the story’s female characters. Jackson’s principal alteration was to give Tolkien’s women more time on stage and more opportunities to be active. He didn’t make them proto-feminists though you’d never know this from the hue and cry raised on various Tolkien websites.

In the book, Arwen the elf maiden seems just a pretty face, a promised trophy wife to reward the human hero Aragorn for his mighty deeds. She’s meant to be Aragorn’s supportive partner who makes him more of a man than he would have otherwise been. Despite her significance, Arwen makes only the briefest appearances in the books. This treatment would do for medieval romance but contemporary audiences — of any sexual politics — expect to see more of the hero’s love interest.

As director, co-producer, and co-writer of the three Rings movies, Jackson widened Arwen’s role, casting Liv Tyler in the part. Jackson dramatized the poignant romance of Arwen and Aragorn that Tolkien had relegated to an appendix in his hobbit-centered story. Jackson emphasizes Arwen as a source of loyal encouragement: she believes in Aragorn’s destiny more strongly than he initially does. Against her father’s wishes, she insists on sharing her lover’s mortal status even before he’s won his victory.

The filmed Fellowship of the Ring puts a sword in Arwen’s hand, supposedly the sword of her brave great-grandmother — whom Tolkien probably didn’t picture armed. And Arwen rather than a male elf warrior rescues Frodo, the hobbit who bears the baleful Ring, when enemy forces close in. For The Two Towers, the second film in the trilogy (2002) , Peter Jackson invented a scene where a vision of Arwen restores the breath of life to a nearly drowned Aragorn. The concluding installment, The Return of the King (2003) devises another bit of initiative for Arwen. She requests the reforging of Aragorn’s broken ancestral sword to enhance his manhood, aid his military prospects, and strengthen his claim to his throne. The written text has her engaging in a more conventional feminine pursuit — embroidering his royal banner. In the film, Arwen herself brings the banner to Aragorn’s coronation, but it’s not specified as her own handiwork. Purists screamed about the alterations and doctrinaire feminists are unlikely to have been mollified with all this tinkering.

Arwen’s maternal grandmother Galadriel, greatest of her people, is a far more complex character, ably played by Cate Blanchett. Eager to rule her own kingdom in Middle-earth, Galadriel listened to the voices of rebellion and departed the Undying Lands against the will of the gods who rule there. She is forceful in other ways as well. Her mother originally called her “Man-maiden” because at six feet four inches in height, she was the tallest of all elf women and notably athletic. In one version of her story, she actually took up arms to defend her kin from attack before her departure from the realm of the gods.

But Tolkien re-wrote the Galadriel sections repeatedly, trying to eradicate the sinful pride with which he had originally endowed her, for he was much taken with the notion that Galadriel resembled the Virgin Mary. Despite her formidable appearance, she functions as a consoling, protective mother-figure. Tolkien’s highest goddess, Varda Elbereth, is an even better fit for the Marian role because she stands on the world’s highest peak, listening to the prayers of Middle-earth’s people who invoke her in their need.

Another female character skillfully adapted by Jackson is Ewyn, a human maiden played by Australian actress Miranda Otto. Ewyn is the 24-year-old niece and nursemaid of an enfeebled king. Called “the steel lily,” she longs to do great deeds in the company of men. Tolkien depicts her plight with sympathy but implicitly rejects her notion that men’s work matters more than women’s. Jackson gives Ewyn an extra opportunity: He allows her to best Aragorn at swordplay. (A scene in which she destroyed a monster threatening women and children wasn’t used in the final cut of The Two Towers.) In The Return of the King, Ewyn plays the hero as she does in the book by slaying Sauron’s greatest servant, whom no man can kill.

Although there are no villainous women to oppose Rings’ three great heroines, there is a female monster — Shelob, the giant spider, who attacks Frodo and his servant Sam on their journey to destroy the evil Ring. Shelob is an archtypical Devouring Mother, sadistic and entrapping, a female who takes and destroys rather than give and nourish. One feminist critic decried the episode as an attack on the womb and evidence of anti-female bias. But after breathing a prayer to Varda Elbereth and blinding the spider with a light source provided by Galadriel, Sam is able to kill Shelob because she unwittingly helps him drive his sword into her own belly. Evil mars itself as good feminine powers overcome an evil one.

Tolkien prefers to show females in a positive — even too positive — light. At the risk of committing the biographical fallacy, his idealization of women may have grown out of his reverence for his widowed mother. She forfeited support from her family by converting to Catholicism with her two sons and died in appalling poverty.

Marriage is the best destiny for women — and men — in Tolkien’s world. Even the king of gods sees more when his queen is beside him and she hears more when he is with her. Marriage for Tolkien is the culmination of the past and the promise of the future. Only through intermarriages with human men — sons of indomitable mothers — can the elves leave lasting progeny in Middle-earth. The wedding of Arwen and Aragorn that renews his kingdom unites three lineages of elves and three of humans, not to mention a trace of divine blood.

Their fateful marriage consciously recapitulates the union of their ancient heroic ancestors Luthien, an elf princess, and Beren, a human warrior, who fought the ancient enemy, Morgoth, in The Silmarillion. Tolkien modeled the unconquerable Luthien on his own wife Edith, both for her beauty and for the long struggle they endured to marry: the priest who had raised Tolkien had forbidden the lovers contact until Tolkien came of age. “She was my Luthien,” he said and had that name inscribed for her on their joint tombstone, with his later entered as “Beren.”

The royal union of Arwen and Aragorn has a rustic parallel in the marriage of hobbits Sam and Rose at the end of The Return of the King. Rose is Sam’s touchstone of normality, his emblem of hope in the bleakest part of the Ring-quest. Being able to found a family with her shows that bearing the Ring has not harmed him as it has his master Frodo. The hero comes home to his garden and his Rose.

Although Tolkien’s females are conventional, they are also powerful. Females alone can harvest and process the super-nourishing wheat of the gods into “way bread” for journeys. They routinely “see farther” than men and summon sacred trees to grow. They bring inspiration and instill hope. They listen to the woes of the world, encourage resistence, and shed tears of pity. In Tolkien, feminine virtues make life worth living.