Zelophehad’s Daughters

“I am no man!”

Posted by Galdralag

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King, Éowyn, a human noblewoman, disguises herself as a man and goes to battle, eventually facing the dreaded Witch-King of Angmar. Upon seeing her, armored like a warrior, the Witch-King scoffs, citing an ancient elven prophecy that no living man can kill him. Éowyn removes her helmet, showing herself to be a woman, and cries “I am no man!”* as she slays him.

I must confess, every time the debate over the pros and cons of gender-inclusive language resurfaces in the bloggernacle, my mind returns to that scene, and to the question I had when I first read The Lord of the Rings as a child: How did Éowyn know that the prophecy was referring specifically to human males, and not to humans in general? It wasn’t at all obvious to me.

Of course, The Return of the King is fiction. In the church we deal with real-life flesh-and-blood everyday situations in which we must navigate and interpret meaning. For women, this often includes determining when certain nouns and pronouns in scripture or general conference talks are inclusive, and when they are not.

(In case anyone is not yet familiar with it, the debate is this: some argue that we 21st-century English-speakers should use gender-inclusive or gender-neutral language – “humankind,” “humanity,” “person,” “people” -  unless we are referring specifically to male people. Others insist that women are perfectly capable of seeing themselves in words like “man,” “mankind,” “men,” “he,” “him,” and “his.” They also insist that women can easily discern which statements are directed toward men as males, and which are directed toward men more generally as humans, thus also including women.)

This last is interesting to me, especially in a church that ascribes fundamental theological import to gender differences. Proponents of the “man = everyone (except when it doesn’t)” model place great faith in the ability of women to intuit or derive when “man” means “human” and when it means “man.” I would think that, if gender is an essential, eternal characteristic, clarifying language would be a universal priority, lest anyone get it wrong.

What do you think?

 

*This line is from director Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation. The original line from Tolkien is: “But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.”

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Return of the King, The Lord of the Rings, 2nd Ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993), 116.

16 Responses to ““I am no man!””

  1. 1.

    Great question, Galdralag. As a missionary, I esp. found scriptures about missionaries confusing. They seemed to be referring specifically to male missionaries and priesthood responsibilities, but were there some that applied to me too? If so, which ones? If not, it is kind of sad that Elders had specific directions from the scripture while Sisters had no specific direction.

  2. 2.

    I think this is a great point, Galdralag. I wish I had a good example to back this up with, but my impression is that people sometimes use the ambiguity to their apologetic advantage. They’ll conveniently say that some scriptures that say “men” of course are referring to all people, while others of course are referring to men only, but there’s no clear criterion for how the decision is made.

  3. 3.

    This is timely, since I just read that passage today. In preparing to see “The Hobbit,” I had to reread the book, and just progressed through the whole series over the last two weeks. Anyway, I love the part when Eowynn scorns the Nazgul king.

    I tend to think that everyone (not just apologists) uses the ambiguity to their own advantage, and that the church is rather selective about how important the meanings of words are. I wish the church had been as ambiguous about the meaning of the word marriage, but less unclear about the meaning of the word preside.

  4. 4.

    I don’t have the book accessable to check, but I recall Tolkien’s quote as “But no living man am I! You look upon a woman.” I think Peter Jackson gets credit for the “I am no man!” versioin.

  5. 5.

    You are correct, Left Field. Well spotted. I actually went back and forth between including the original – “But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.” - and Jackson’s abbreviated version. I landed on the latter because I figured that most people would be more familiar with the movies. Actually, I figured most people probably just re-watched the trilogy like I did. :)

    I will update the post to reflect this.

    And, for good measure, I’m quoting from: Tolkien, J. R. R. The Return of the King, The Lord of the Rings, 2nd Ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993), 116.

  6. 6.

    Thanks, all, for your comments.

    Beatrice:

    As a missionary, I esp. found scriptures about missionaries confusing. They seemed to be referring specifically to male missionaries and priesthood responsibilities, but were there some that applied to me too? If so, which ones?

    This is such a great example. I’m glad that you point to the question of which duties are specifically priesthood responsibilities, and which are just customarily handled by men (an issue that is further complicated by the way that we tend to conflate “men” with “priesthood” in casual speech in the LDS church). Do you happen to have any specific scriptures in mind?

    Ziff:

    …my impression is that people sometimes use the ambiguity to their apologetic advantage. They’ll conveniently say that some scriptures that say “men” of course are referring to all people, while others of course are referring to men only, but there’s no clear criterion for how the decision is made.

    Hear, hear. I think that in many cases it can be quite difficult to know when men = men and when men = humans, especially without a clear set of criteria for determining the difference.

    X2 Dora:

    I tend to think that everyone (not just apologists) uses the ambiguity to their own advantage, and that the church is rather selective about how important the meanings of words are.

    Indeed. I really like your second point here. One could easily go into a detailed analysis of LDS discourse – I’m sure it’s been done – and there are always cultural reasons for highlighting some issues and downplaying others.

    Yet one of the elements of correlation that I support is the idea that we need to streamline, simplify, and clarify points of doctrine, particularly as we become a more global church. I would have thought that shifting to gender-neutral language – for the sake of clarity alone – would be one of the more obviously necessary parts of that process. Apparently not.

  7. 7.

    I’ve thought almost exactly this thing (so thanks for blogging it!), especially while I was reading Jesus the Christ on my mission. Talmage pretty much only ever uses male pronouns and “man” everywhere all the time, which rather gives the impression that he hasn’t noticed there are women around, unless they’re defying God (Eve) or making Jesus look awesome (pick your Mary).

    It seems like this could be useful if the day ever comes that the Church starts ordaining women, because hey guys, those male pronouns are all just artifacts of sexist 19th-century language! So, for example, Doctrine & Covenants 20 reminds us early on that “man” refers to men and women both:

    And that he created man, male and female, after his own image and in his own likeness, created he them (v. 18)

    so that when the section continues to describe what “men” have to do for salvation, we can be reasonably confident that it means men and women:

    And we know that all men must repent and believe on the name of Jesus Christ, and worship the Father in his name, and endure in faith on his name to the end, or they cannot be saved in the kingdom of God. (v. 29)

    It only makes sense, then, that when the section continues to explain what the priesthood duties of various offices are, using male pronouns, e.g.:

    An apostle is an elder, and it is his calling to baptize; (v. 38)

    – it’s referring to both men and women performing these duties. The language of the revelation establishes early on that “man” refers to both men and women, so clearly Jesus wants us to understand the male pronouns as encompassing both men and women as well.

    I’m just saying, the rhetoric is already in place for when women get the Priesthood.

  8. 8.

    Most of the scriptures that puzzled me where in the D&C. For example, Section 84 focuses a lot of both priesthood offices and missionary work. Granted, the following verses focus on gifts given to those who believe, and not just missionaries. However, are they talking about blessings that just *men* who believe and are baptized will receive, or both men and women?

    64 Therefore, as I said unto mine apostles I say unto you again, that every soul who believeth on your words, and is baptized by water for the remission of sins, shall receive the Holy Ghost.

    65 And these signs shall follow them that believe—

    66 In my name they shall do many wonderful works;

    67 In my name they shall cast out devils;

    68 In my name they shall heal the sick;

    69 In my name they shall open the eyes of the blind, and unstop the ears of the deaf;

    70 And the tongue of the dumb shall speak;

    71 And if any man shall administer poison unto them it shall not hurt them;

    72 And the poison of a serpent shall not have power to harm them.

  9. 9.

    Prophecies and oracles are notorious for being vague and ambiguously-worded so that they bite the inquiring party in the ass at precisely the wrong time. See, for example, the oracle that Delphi allegedly gave to Herodotus: “If you cross the river, a great empire will be destroyed.” Believing the response was favorable, he attacked the Persians, and the empire that was destroyed was his own. That’s what the gender-exclusive nature of the LotR prophecy was all about.

    #8 Beatrice ~ That is exactly the section of the D&C I was thinking of as I read this post. Some Mormons will tell me that women aren’t ordained to the priesthood because passages like Section 84 speak only of men holding the priesthood. But if the language there is gender-exclusive, then doesn’t that mean that women can succeed in poisoning, or just generally prevailing against, priesthood holders?

    Maybe Brigham Young really did die of poison, and we can significantly narrow our “whodunit” list!

  10. 10.

    I’ve found that many men become uncomfortable with the one-gender-standing-for-humankind tradition when asked to sing “As Sisters in Zion” as a congregational hymn.

  11. 11.

    What becomes even more fun is that gender inclusive terms (e.g. where you have a word for man, then a word for male man and female man) eventually become exclusive words (so that man = male). That is an even more interesting trend in the language, as is the way the two terms (one for married man and one for unmarried man) became one term (for both, Mr.) while eventually a third term (Ms.) for women arose as well.

    Anyway, this thread is too mature for me. I was hoping to see some more input on the http://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=17517, etc. trope discussion …

  12. 12.

    every soul

    How clearer can it be?

  13. 13.

    I am with you. For example, the language in the temple brought home a cruel reality to me at one time when it made me rethink the gender inclusiveness of the 2nd Article of Faith.

  14. 14.

    Sorry that I am returning to this so late. Thanks for the comments, all.

    Melyngoch:

    Fascinating examples. (I could write a whole axe-grinding post on Jesus the Christ. It was first published in 1915. Why oh why doesn’t the Church commission an updated edition? So many archaeological discoveries and significant advancements in ancient and biblical studies have been made in the past 100 years. Jewish Studies wasn’t even a formal discipline when Talmage wrote it. OK. Sadly stepping down from my soapbox before I build up too much steam. My metaphors are already suffering from egregious mixing.)

    I’m also very intrigued by the idea that the gender ambiguity of the scriptures can itself be read as a rationale for female ordination.

    Beatrice:

    Great example. I wonder if the question you raise has ever been formally clarified. Doctrinally speaking, can sister missionaries perform acts (casting out devils, healing) that are usually considered uniquely the province of priesthood holders?

    Nat Kelly:

    I had wondered the same thing! The temple and the Genesis narrative appear to make the case that Eve is punished for her transgression, and all of her daughters as a result. It’s disquieting to say the least.

  15. 15.

    i’m late to this discussion, but i’m of the opinion that 99% of the time when gender exclusive language is being used, the speakers really are just thinking of and addressing men. throughout the scriptures as well as the early modern church speakers were almost always male, and so were their expected audiences. this doesn’t mean we, as women, can’t project ourselves into that place and learn from what was said, or figure out for ourselves what applies to us (although it’s hardly intuitive). but i simply don’t buy that women were included in most earlier uses of male pronouns. they simply weren’t a part of the society doing the speaking or the listening, and those words were not said or written for them. the end.

  16. 16.

    Random note, that particular twist of language was Tolkien writing, himself, what he thought Shakespeare -should- have written, and it’s not the only instance. He thought it was a better play on words than “no man born of woman,” meaning c-section. (And I tend to agree!)

    Same with him making the marching forest literal.

    npbiac, I think you’re right, and in cases where women are wrapped up in the package, it’s as appendages to the menfolk and not necessarily their own individual selves.

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