Natasha Walter: Suspend your critical faculties, or you might miss the thrill

'Even without decent heroines, girls have long been able to enter this huge fantasy'
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After all the expectation, after the premieres, after the special screenings, after the reviews, after the gossip, the cinemas are today opening their doors for the first showings of The Lord of the Rings

Who will be going along to see it? Children who never grew up, sneer the unconvinced. People who want to escape reality, say the patronising. Boys, say all and sundry.

Perhaps it's true that The Lord of the Rings was just meant for the boys. Certainly, it's pretty hard to imagine JRR Tolkien, that famously crusty old gent, wondering how women would react to his tale of male fellowship.

The whole book is predicated on shifting relationships between men – or boys. We start off with one relationship in the father-son style, that between Bilbo and Frodo. Since it is actually between two bachelor cousins, there are not even any wives or mothers around to disturb its masculine equilibrium.

We then set off on a new series of relationships within the "fellowship" in which nine male characters move constantly through friendships and rivalries and promises and reunions.

As we travel through Middle Earth, we meet whole species who do not even stretch to the female gender. Do we ever meet a female dwarf? Presumably there are some, left at home to wait until called for. However, there are no female orcs, and there are certainly no female ents, as the great tree-giant Treebeard solemnly tells the hobbits.

That's not to say that there are no girls in The Lord of the Rings. There are a few, from the wholly evil (a big, fat, smelly spider) to the wholly good (a beautiful elf or two). But unlike the men, the women are imagined in isolation. Fellowship, so central to the men's world, is not something that women can experience.

Can you imagine the elf-maiden Arwen and the brave woman Eowyn discussing the best ways of holding your nerve in the face of the black riders? No, this is a world in which women are allowed in only under sufferance, one by one. They make brief, usually unbearably idealised appearances, flitting across a stage crowded with boys, and then disappear back into the wings.

Given the limitations of Tolkien's view of women, it's hardly surprising that the film's director Peter Jackson decided to bump up the female action for his film. He must have seen the wholly boyish tone of The Lord of the Rings as a bit of a stumbling block for a 21st century epic. So the first part of his film of The Lord of the Rings hardly departs from the original except in a couple of telling moments, both to do with a woman.

In Tolkien's book, there is a lovely elf called Arwen, who is called upon to do little except look starrily beautiful and finally to marry the king, Aragorn.

In the film, Arwen is played by Liv Tyler, and her role has been expanded to provide some point of identification for the girls that Jackson must be hoping will join the boys in queueing for the film.

So we see a breathlessly paced addition when Arwen, carrying Frodo on her white horse, races the evil black riders. Then, a little later, we are treated to another dollop of Jackson's invention when we see a touching conversation – and even a kiss – between Arwen and Aragorn where she speaks of her decision to marry a mortal. It's romantic, it's tender, it keeps the beautiful couple on screen for a while, and Jackson must be hoping that the girls will love it.

I'm sure they will. But I'm also pretty sure that they would have liked the film without the extra nods to their presence. Because even as it stood, before these updates, The Lord of the Rings wasn't entirely a boy thing. When I was ten years old, I was as struck by the elves and the ents as any other hobbit-fancier. And even now that I am old and wise and cynical, and can see all the absurdities and limitations of Tolkien's imagination, I only have to open the pages and I'm taken straight back to my childhood.

Tolkien may have shied away from putting women into the book, but that doesn't mean his world is impossibly alien when viewed through female eyes. Even without decent heroines, girls have long been able to enter this huge fantasy. You could even argue that, compared to many fantasies, The Lord of the Rings is strikingly unmasculine in its values. Its heroes are healers and gossipers, they tend to cry and faint when pressed, or to sit down and cook a nice supper. The book celebrates homely as much as warlike values.

And at the end of the day, it's just a big, glorious, mad fairy tale. It's not the real world, it's not even an allegory. Women might find it harder to leave all their critical faculties at the door when they enter Tolkien's and Jackson's worlds. But at the end of the day, if you hold too tight on to criticism you might miss something else, something bright and appealing and resonant. It's called fantasy. Who wants to live without that?