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.