…from all of Tolkien’s work.
Hello! Here I am on Day 2 of the lead-up to International Women’s Day, On this most beautiful Friday night (the wind is gusting outside and Spring- or what passes for it here- has come to make its fleeting presence felt in the dusty city), I present my homage to my second favourite character from Tolkien’s canon, Eowyn, Daughter Eomund, White Lady of Rohan.
My favourite character, incidentally, is Faramir, the man who (*spoiler alert*), marries her.
‘Very fair was her face, and her long hair was like a river of gold. Slender and tall she was in her white robe girt with silver; but strong she seemed and stern as steel, a daughter of kings…[she was] fair, fair and cold, like a morning of pale spring that is not yet come to womanhood.’
The physical description of Eowyn itself proves that slotting her will be problematic. She resembles in her fairness and with her streaming golden hair the traditional pure, untouched princess. Even her title, ‘the White Lady of Rohan’ iterates the idea of purity and chastity. To add to this, when we are first introduced to her, the readers learn that she is being dogged by darkness both within and without: the desire of Grima Wormtongue, the King’s twisted counselor, and her own restlessness conspire to weave about her a cursed aura. In this way, Eowyn comes into a subcategory of the fairy tale princess: the Innocent Persecuted Heroine.
‘The Innocent Persecuted Heroine’, Christina Bacchilegi writes, ‘[is inscribed with] not only variable social norms, but conflicting ones; gender is understood within the frameworks of class and social order, and the heroine’s innocence and persecution are ideologically constructed.’ George H. Thomson adds that Eowyn ‘completely [embodies] the role of the innocent heroine found in a perilous place and redeemed from a stigma or dark fate.’ The stigma is Wormtongue, as the exchange between Gandalf and Eomer (her brother) indicates:
Miranda Otto as Eowyn in Peter Jackson’s TLOTR.
‘…[to Wormtongue] When all men were dead, you were to pick your share of the treasure, and take the woman you desire? Too long have you watched her under your eyelids and haunted her steps.”
‘Eomer grasped his sword. “That I knew already,” he muttered. “For that reason I would have slain him before, forgetting the law of the hall. But there are other reasons.” He stepped forward, but Gandalf stayed him with his hand.
“Eowyn is safe now…”
the darkness is dispelled with the arrival of a party of men- the ‘innocent persecuted heroine’s’ curse torn away. There is however, more darkness attached to Eowyn than the leching counselor: the restlessness and hunger that seethes within her. This is where she breaks away from the ‘passive heroine’ label- she longs for action. The following lines (taken from a conversation between her and Aragorn) illustrate her discontent with her position. The knights of Rohan are riding away to war, and Eowyn begs Aragorn to take her with him into battle. Aragorn tells her that it is her ‘duty’ to stay behind and govern the people in their king’s stead. Eowyn responds:
“Shall I always be chosen?…Shall I always be left behind when the Riders depart, to mind the house while they win renown, and find food and beds when they return?”
“A time may come soon,” said he, “when none will return. Then there will be need of valor without renown, for none shall remember the deeds that are done in the last defence of your homes. Yet the deeds will not be less valiant because they are unpraised.”
‘And she answered: “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 honor, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more. But I am of the house of Eorl and not a serving woman. I can ride and wield blade, and I do not fear either pain or death.”
“What do you fear, lady?” he asked.
“A cage.” She said. “To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.”
Eowyn rebels against the role imposed upon her by the society she is born into. She disguises herself as a man and rides into battle, regardless of Aragorn’s words. Here, on the Fields of the Pelennor (in surely one of the most memorable scenes in the book) she fulfills a task that no man could: the slaying of the Nazgul King. She reveals herself to her adversary (and to the wondering eyes of Merry the Hobbit):
‘Then out of the blackness in his mind he thought he heard Dernhelm speaking; yet now the voice seemed strange, recalling some other voice he had known.
“Begone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion! Leave the dead in peace!”
‘A cold voice answered: “Come not between the Nazgul and his prey! Or he will not slay thee in thy turn. He will bear thee away to the houses of lamentation, beyond all darkness, where thy flesh shall be devoured, and thy shriveled mind be left naked to the Lidless Eye.”
‘A sword rang as it was drawn. “Do what you will; but I will hinder it, if I may.”
“Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!”
Then Merry heard of all sounds in that hour the strangest. It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel. “But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Eowyn I am, Eomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.”
The winged creature screamed at her, but the Ringwraith made no answer, and was silent, as if in sudden doubt. Very amazement for a moment conquered Merry’s fear. He opened his eyes and the blackness was lifted from them. There some paces from him sat the great beast, and all seemed dark about it, and above it loomed the Nazgul Lord like a shadow of despair. A little to the left facing them stood she whom he had called Dernhelm. But the helm of secrecy had fallen from her, and her bright hair, released from its bonds, gleamed like pale gold upon her shoulders. Her eyes grey as the sea were hard and fell, and yet tears were on her cheek. A sword was in her hand, and she raised her shield against the horror of her enemy’s eyes.’
Eowyn thrusts herself into the male sphere, and thus out of the traditional ‘passive’ realm of the female. She follows in the footsteps of folkloric sword bearing heroines (like the Armenian legend of Zulvisia) in both her actions and the outcome of them. As Jessica Hooker points out: ‘…women may not pass entirely into the male sphere of action with impunity…a woman who takes up the sword has two options: to be re-domesticated by a husband, or to sacrifice her own femininity and become an actual man, for in wielding this powerful symbol of masculinity, she represents an intolerable threat to male physical dominance.’
Eowyn is grievously wounded in the course of this battle and lies for days in a deathlike swoon. She is healed (physically) by Aragorn, and later, the ‘frost’ that the reader is made aware of when she is first introduced, is melted away by the love of Faramir, the Steward of Gondor. Tolkien describes this change in her:
‘…the heart of Eowyn changed, or else at last she understood it. And suddenly her winter passed, and the sun shone on her.’
No longer restless and ‘unwomanly’, Eowyn learns the value of ‘pity’ and ‘love’, she is ‘re-domesticated’, ‘tamed’ (she herself uses the word to describe the effect Faramir has on her) and reined back into her rightful sphere. She still shines gloriously, but now as the ‘White Lady of Rohan’, the wife of the Steward, a woman for whom ‘things will grown with joy’, not fall dead to her sword.