Eowyn: A Feminist Character?

Tolkien Event 2016

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.

Krysta 64

The Return of the King: First Discussion

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We’ve made it to the third stage of our Lord of the Rings Read-Along, co-hosted by Stephanie at Chasm of Books!  Today we are discussing Chapters 1-6 of Book V of The Return of the KingPlease refrain from posting spoilers for any events that occur after Chapter 6. Anyone is welcome to participate and comment, even those not officially signed up for the event.  I have posted three discussion questions below, but feel free to bring up other topics and questions, as well!

Question 1

In Chapter 2 of The Return of the King, we are reminded of how frustrated Eowyn is at always being asked to stay away from the battlefront and lead those of her people who are not fighting.  She complained in discussion with Aragorn:

‘Too often have I heard of duty,’ she cried. ‘But am I not of the House of Eorl, a shieldmaiden and not a dry-nurse?  I have waited on faltering feet long enough.  Since they falter no longer, it seems, may I not spend my life as I will?’

‘Few may do that with honour,’ he answered. ‘But as for you, lady, did you not accept the charge to govern the people until their lord’s return?  If you had not been chosen, then some marshal or captain would have been set in the same place, and he could not ride away from his charge, were he weary of it or no.’

‘Shall I always be chosen?’ she asked bitterly.

What do you think of this exchange?  What point do you believe Aragorn is making about the nature of duty ?  Do you agree with him?  Does Eowyn’s position in life have any bearing on her responsibilities?  (For instance, do you think she is only asked to stay behind because she is a woman and so her assigning her this duty is “unfair”?  Or is she asked to stay because she is of noble lineage?  If it is “unfair,” does that give her any right to abandon the duty?)

Also, in Chapter 6 we discover that Eowyn is able to kill the Witch-king of Angmar in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, that she is the answer to the prophecy that “no man” can kill the leader of the Nazgul?  Does this compensate for her abandoning her duty and position of leadership back in Rohan?

Question 2

In Chapter 4, readers see the first exchange between Faramir and his father Denethor and witness some family tensions.

‘Much must be risked in war,’ said Denethor. ‘Cair Andros is manned and no more can be sent so far.  But I will not yield the River and the Pelennor unfought—not if there is a captain here who still has the courage to do his lord’s will.’

Then all were silent.  But at length Faramir said: ‘I do not oppose your will, sire.  Since you are robbed of Boromir, I will go and do what I can in his stead—if you command it.’

‘I do so,’ said Denthor.

‘Then farewell!’ said Faramir.  ‘But if I should return, think better of me!’

‘That depends on the manner of your return,’ said Denethor.

Why do you think Denethor favored Boromir over his brother?  And if Denethor is upset by Boromir’s death, why does he seem so determined to send Faramir to his? What does it say about Faramir that he continues to seek his father’s goodwill and love in spite of the hostility?

Notably, this is the only real parent-child relationship we witness in The Lord of the Rings.  Sam quotes his Gaffer often, and Pippin mentions his father in passing, but, in general, parents in the story are either dead or simply absent.  Do you think this is intentional on the part of Tolkien?  Do you think it is in any way significant?

Question 3

During the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, we see a stark difference between the fighting styles of the Gondorians and the Rohirrim.  The Gondorians seem either sterner, or more depressed.  Yet the Rohirrim, even realizing that they are most likely riding to their deaths, experience some type of battle lust.  They go into the fight with speeches and songs:

Fey he [Theoden] seemed, or the battle-fury of his fathers ran like new fire in his veins, and he was borne up on Snowmane like a god of old, even as Oromë the Great in the battle of the Valar when the world was young.  His golden shield was uncovered, and lo! it shone like an image of the Sun, and the grass flamed into green about the white feet of his steed.  For morning came, morning and a wind from the sea; and darkness was removed, and the hosts of Mordor wailed, and terror took them, and they fled, and died, and the hoofs of wrath rode over them.  And then all the host of Rohan burst into song, and they sang as they slew, for the joy of battle was on them, and the sound of their singing that was fair and terrible came even to the City.

Do you think the difference is a matter of their heritage or of their leadership (Theoden vs. Denethor)?  Or is a difference of how they have experienced the threat of Sauron?  Do their different styles affect how you view either nation?