Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Life, Death, and Immortality. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring guest posts, interviews, and giveaways!
J. R. R. Tolkien’s Eowyn has captured the imaginations of generations of readers as she boldly proclaims “But no living man am I!” and gives the death-wound to the Witchking of Angmar. In doing so, she gives women agency and showcases their strength, their ability to perform as well as men in battle (if not, apparently better—though we should note that Merry assists in this feat). Tolkien is often accused of not featuring enough women in his works, but when he does feature them, he really delivers.
Often forgotten in discussions of Eowyn’s agency, however, is how Tolkien employs her in his ongoing exploration of the nature of war. Tolkien served in the army during WWI and much has been made of his depicting Sam as wondering about the origins of a dead Southron soldier, who, perhaps, he muses, was not evil but tricked into serving Sauron. This seeming anti-war stance matches Faramir’s philosophy of war: “I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.” Despite the lengthy depictions of battle in Tolkien’s work and the emphasis on winning glory and renown, Tolkien, it seems harbors reservations about war. People can rise to courageous and sacrificial heights in war, but war itself is evidently not something to long for.
Eowyn, however, does long for battle, partially because she feels useless and caged, but partially because she naively dreams of winning fame. Bitterly she says:
“All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more.”
Her comment touches briefly on gender roles and the ways in which she perceives the men as leaving women as untrained and defenceless, but her main concern seems to lie with the manner in which men and women can die; men can die in glory, but, when women die by the sword or by the flame, it is without honor. No songs will be sung of how the women were torched without a struggle.
Eowyn, however, participates in the traditional role of shieldmaiden in her culture and goes on to achieve the glory for which she longs. Her reward, initially, however, seems to be death—a sobering look at the price of honor and the effects of war. When Eowyn is finally healed, her death wish is healed, too:
“I stand in Minas Anor, the Tower of the Sun; and behold! the Shadow has departed! I will be a Shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren.”
Eowyn’s character arc, then, follows her from a cold and fey-hearted woman to heroic soldier to healer. She renounces a longing for battle and violence in favor of life. To cement her transformation, Tolkien marries Eowyn to Faramir, whom he notably juxtaposes to his brother Boromir; Boromir loved battle and glory and dies, while Faramir tolerated war for the good it might bring and lives. Faramir announces his intent to leave Minas Tirith for Ithilien, where he will garden and renew the land.
To claim Eowyn as a feminist icon for her role in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, then, ignores the complex anti-war discussion of which she forms of a part. Tolkien might celebrate Eowyn’s prowess in battle, but he also seems to condemn her naïve longing for bloodshed.
Peter Jackson’s depiction of Eowyn ignores her character transformation, cutting out the scenes where she heals from her wounds, renounces battle, and falls in love with Faramir. He thus cements her as an easy “feminist” character or “strong female protagonist.” Tolkien’s version suggests, however, that strength sometimes lies in strength of arms, but sometimes in the ability to change.