Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Nature and Industry. 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 a number of guest posts!
J. R. R. Tolkien has received much criticism over the years both for the lack of female characters in The Lord of the Rings and for their characterization. Some readers, for instance, may feel that even though The Lord of the Rings does include a handful of interesting women from Goldberry to Galadriel to Eowyn to Lobelia, they do not get enough page time or, if they do, they do not quite meet modern feminist standards. However, Tolkien’s women are varied, rich, and intriguing, just like his male characters. The difficulty? Readers generally do not get the story from their perspectives, and so do not have more direct information about their internal lives and motivations. Lobelia’s story, for example, is told in retrospect from a secondary character; readers do not get to follow her in her footsteps, as they do with Sam as he approaches Mordor on his own. Without this direct focus, it is easier to dismiss Lobelia, her character, and her actions.
However, if readers take the time to look more deeply into The Lord of the Rings, as well as Tolkien’s other writings on Middle-earth, the richness of his female characters becomes more apparent. Even though they may be few in number, Tolkien’s women are often powerful movers of events, their intelligence, wisdom, and courage on par with or even exceeding that of their male counterparts. This series of posts will take a look at a few of Tolkien’s female characters and explore their character development, and what it can tell us about Tolkien’s vision for Middle-earth.
Eowyn is possibly Tolkien’s most famous female character, and one of the ones most beloved by fans. While Tolkien’s other female characters may be criticized for being flat, boring, or simply not feminist, Eowyn escapes much of this censure with her decision to disguise herself as a man and fight on the battlefield. In the process, she achieves much honor and glory by slaying the Witch-king, with the aid of Merry. Still, some readers still find it disappointing that Eowyn later renounces her desire for glory and death in battle and instead retires with Faramir to restore Ithilien. Surely deciding to heal things instead of chop them up with swords is anti-feminist?
To understand Eowyn’s character arc, however, readers must understand how it fits in with the entirety of Tolkien’s perspective on war. Although The Lord of the Rings contains many battle scenes, often with stirring war songs and inspirational feats of courage, Tolkien balances this idealistic vision of war with a more sombre understanding of the costs of fighting. One suspects that, as a soldier himself in WWI, Tolkien understood better than most how a glorious vision of battle and an admiration for deeds of daring could co-exist with the realization that war itself is still a horrible thing. And, so, The Lord of the Rings provides two important moments where Tolkien reveals a more realistic vision of the effects of war. This is the lesson that Eowyn must learn in order to mature and complete her character arc–that war means death and destruction, and the glory of war does not outweigh that harm.
The first moment to draw readers’ attention away from the glory of war occurs in Ithilien, when Sam sees fighting up close for the first time, and witnesses the death of a Southron man in battle. Tolkien writes:
“It was Sam’s first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was, and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really have rather stayed there in peace…”The Two Towers by J. R. R. Tolkien
Up to this point in The Lord of the Rings, the effects of fighting have not received much attention. Usually the heroes are set upon by their enemies first, and they draw their swords and their bows in order to defend themselves. Readers cheer the heroes on–because they are the heroes–and delight in their battlefield deeds because they illustrate the superiority of the good side. The enemies, until now, have been merely blank slates for the heroes to perform their heroics upon.
Sam, however, has not grown up in a warlike city, nor has he been trained in arms or to see the enemy as simply an obstacle to overcome. And so, Sam so can see the humanity of his enemy who has fallen before him. He possesses vision Eowyn does not. Eowyn imagines battle as merely an opportunity for her to gain fame and then death. She does not consider the people who must die in order for her to achieve her goals, nor does she concern herself with where they came from or if they are really her enemy (or simply mislead by Sauron) or whether they have families who might miss them. Eowyn’s thoughts are, indeed, largely for herself–a short-sightedness she will need to overcome in order to mature.
The second moment that reveals Tolkien’s thoughts on war comes from Faramir, who tells Frodo:
“War must be while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but 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: the city of the Men of Numenor; and I would have her loved for her memory, her ancientry, her beauty, and her present wisdom. Not feared, save as men may fear the dignity of a man, old and wise.”The Two Towers by J. R. R. Tolkien
Here, Tolkien simultaneously acknowledges the attractiveness of war–the sharpness of the sword and the glory of the soldier–along with the devastation they may cause. War is, for Faramir, a necessary evil, something to be done only in defense because it defends something truly valuable: wisdom, knowledge, and beauty.
This is a telling moment because Faramir stands in direct contrast to his brother Boromir and his father Denethor, as well as the current state of the city of Minas Tirith, which has come to value feats of arms over lore and wisdom. By contrasting Faramir with Boromir, Tolkien illustrates that the desire for glory can be intertwined with a lust for power, which will ultimately prove destructive both for the individual and for his cause. If Boromir had taken the Ring to achieve greatness and save his city, Minas Tirith would have ultimately fallen to yet another corrupt ruler, or to Sauron, who would have overpowered a weaker Ringbearer. It is only because Faramir is able to see the bigger picture, the whole point of fighting, that he is able to reject the lure of the Ring in order to preserve peace for years to come. Faramir chooses a city full of wisdom and beauty over a warlike state renowned for its soldiers because he understands that war and glory are not good in and of themselves.
Eowyn’s personal journey is, interestingly, one that ultimately leads her to Faramir’s conclusions. And, so, readers should not be quick to assume that her rejection of arms is a sign of weakness or an anti-feminist statement on the part of Tolkien. Tolkien is, in fact, very interested in showing men as healers, as well: “The hands of the king are the hands of a healer, and so shall the rightful king be known,” says Ioreth (RotK). Both Aragorn and Faramir become healers of the realm of Gondor, just as Sam goes to work healing the wounds of the Shire. Healing, for Tolkien, is a sign of strength and wisdom, and it is possible that readers’ own dismissal of healing as “women’s work” can make them so uncomfortable to see Eowyn say, “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” (RotK). But, for Tolkien, this moment is the moment of Eowyn’s maturity, when she recognizes that life and growth are more valuable than death.
Eowyn’s personal journey is indeed very nuanced, though it can be overlooked since much of it comes in scattered hints and fragments, and readers must use their imagination to recreate the circumstances of Eowyn’s life until the moment when she confronts the Witch-king. What readers do know is that Eowyn has felt trapped at home, watching her uncle the king deteriorate into impotency under the influence of Wormtongue. While her brother, as a man, could escape, she was always left behind, and she, too, fell under the sway of Wormtongue’s poisonous words. “But who knows what she spoke to the darkness, alone, in the bitter watches of the night, when all her life seemed shrinking, and the walls of her bower closing in about her, a hutch to trammel some wild thing in?” asks Gandalf (RotK). He suggests she began to believe Wormtongue’s lies that Rohan was bereft of dignity.
Eowyn felt that the nobility of her house was fading and that she was doomed to stay at home and watch, until all the men at last died in glory, leaving her and the women and children to die in the homes they left behind. The women were, she felt bitterly, undervalued by the men who simply took them for granted, expecting them to keep house for them whenever they bothered to come home. And she felt increasingly certain that housekeeping would be unnecessary in the dark days to come, when Rohan would be overrun with enemies. To Aragorn, Eowyn 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” (RotK). For her, since death seemed certain, death in battle, with honor, was the way she wanted to go. But men denied her even that.
Eowyn’s understanding of war is thus shown to be rather limited. Since she has never been on the battlefield, but likely only heard the songs and stories of those who have returned, she imagines war to be incredibly glorious, and does not consider its more horrible effects. To go to war and die in battle is her one escape from a life of ignobility, and so she does not concern herself much with how war might affect her country or her family, much less her enemy. Indeed, she does not even have the excuse of wanting to protect Rohan; her love of war is all about gaining honor for herself. She goes so far as to forsake her duty to lead the Rohirrim in the absence of the king in order to join the king in the field.
This childlike enthusiasm for battle, as well as a desire to get out of Rohan, is also what first attracts Eowyn to Aragorn. He represents masterful deeds of arms on the battlefield. He has the love and respect of men as a result. Furthermore, if she could marry him, Eowyn would be able to escape Meduseld and the life of uselessness and neglect she has experienced there. She would have a new start, though, as a woman in a patriarchal society, she still understands that she will need to marry a man in order to get it.
Through Eowyn, Tolkien demonstrates that he thought extensively of what it might feel like to be a woman left home, waiting, while all the men go to war. Eowyn, though certainly individual in her response to this waiting, also comes to represent a glimpse of life on the homefront. She gives voice to the powerlessness felt by those left behind, as well as the anger, bitterness, and resentment women might come to feel when they realize that they are doing their part for their country, but that they receive no recognition for it, no remembrance in song or story when the warriors come home. The men, busy with their work, actually seem to forget about the women, and what their sacrifices might look and feel like. Eowyn, however, refuses to be content with this lot, and, after being rejected by the men around her, takes her destiny into her own hands and sneaks off to battle.
Eowyn’s destruction of the Witch-king is undoubtedly one of the highlights of The Lord of the Rings, a satisfying moment where a woman shows that she can what no man was able to do. For this act of bravery, Eowyn surely received the honor she always craved and most likely was praised in song in Meduseld for many years after. But this is not the end of her story because, as we have seen, Tolkien does not let the glory and excitement of battle overshadow the recognition that war is ultimately terrible. Eowyn is wounded, nearly unto death. And, when she awakens, she finds that her glorious deed is still not enough for her to want to live. Not if she cannot have the love of Aragorn.
Eowyn’s stay in the Houses of Healing is an important moment for her because it is there that she undertakes the journey of self-revelation that allows her to see that life is still worth living. Unrequited love may sting, but Faramir helps Eowyn to see that there is still much for her to do, and to be. It is notable that Eowyn ends up falling in love with Faramir, because he represents the opposite of all she has hitherto valued: Faramir prizes peace, and wisdom, and beauty over the glory and deeds of war. Faramir longs to heal Ithilien and to bring growth back to lands that Sauron had destroyed. Previously, all this would have no doubt seemed silly to Eowyn, who longs for glory more than she longs for usefulness, and for death more than she longs for a seemingly unremarkable life. But Eowyn has reached a place where she can understand that healing is worthwhile, even if it is a task that goes unpraised.
Eowyn’s journey gives readers not only a deeply realized female character, but also a representation of Tolkien’s views on war. She moves from seeing battle as merely the possibility for great deeds and undying fame to realizing that war destroys, and that healing is worthier than destruction. Eowyn’s most note-worthy deed might be the slaying of the Witch-king. But perhaps her most difficult action is admitting that she was wrong, and choosing a life without glory, but one with meaning.