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.
12 thoughts on “Eowyn: A Feminist Character?”
Krysta, this is such a thoughtful analysis of Eowyn. Thank you! I do wish PJ had given more attention to her transformation–a change that doesn’t negate her femininity, but instead makes her a deeper, more important character.
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Yes, there seems to be an idea that Eowyn renouncing war for marriage and healing undermines her strength or her position as a feminist character, but I think it’s really important in terms of her maturation. Her desire for battle is really the desire of a child who reads stories of war and doesn’t understand the cost, so it’s meaningful when she’s able to acknowledge that and find another purpose for her life. That decision in no way undermines what she accomplishes as a warrior, however.
I think Eowyn shows us that there doesn’t have to be an “either/or”–either you’re physically strong and into “guy” stuff like fighting and you’re strong, or you’re into “female” stuff like healing and you’re weak. Eowyn does both and is strong and feminine in doing both. It’s perhaps also notable that both Aragorn and Faramir are healers, too, so it’s not like Eowyn is ultimately relegated to a “woman’s” role that is unimportant.
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I don’t know much about Tolkien. Which book is this character from?
The Lord of the Rings!
Krysta, you keep blowing me away with how insightful your analyses are! I love this analysis – I never really read that much into LOTR, so it’s always so cool to read what you’ve found from the books!
It’s a good thing I’m on the Internet. I think I’m blushing over here!
Thanks for reading!
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I’ve read the LoTR so many years ago when I was young and I don’t know anything about feminism. So wow, thank you for this insight.
I just noticed that this post is 2 yrs old. Came here from your recent post about Arwen. I’d love to read more Tolkien stuff from this blog, keep it coming. 🙂
I’m glad you enjoyed it! We have two more LotR-related posts already scheduled. We also do a Tolkien event most years in March so we have a pretty solid collection of Tolkien-related reviews and discussions still around. 🙂
I absolutely love this, and I totally agree! Our world is so focused on physical strength and strength that is exactly like a man’s. Women and men are both strong but in different ways, and strength comes in many other forms. 🙂
You said it so beautifully!
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Thank you! ❤