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Day Two goes to my Second Favourite Character

…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.

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Kicking off the lead up to Women’s Day, fantasy style

So in a grand comeback gesture, I’ve decided to post every day (a bit ambitious, I know, and there are going to be hurdles, like travel and friends in the way) about a different female fantasy character who I see as being a ‘worthy’ model for a modern woman. There I go, stepping into dangerous territory, by dragging in categories worth debating like ‘modern’, ‘woman’and ‘worthy’. There’s no way to de-politicize this however, and I’ve sort of made my peace with that (I think). Besides, why SHOULD I de-politicize and de-radicalize my stance in a world where EVERY THIRD woman is raped and/or sexually abused, and most are subjected, no matter what their race, caste, colour or class background, to verbal and physical sexual harrassment nearly every day of their lives. Yes, living in a city like Delhi in India has served to make this disgusting reality much more immediate than it has been for the past 20 years of my life, and yes, the recent incidents have served to underline the horror and sheer banality of these happenings, but here, in my blog, I want to remind myself of WHAT reading fantasy literature has taught me, how its women have shone as beacons in what often seems a lightless world, and given me the courage to not despair and just give up on humanity.

Though sometimes it seems so, so tempting.

Anyway to turn from darker thoughts. Let me start with my oldest fantasy love, the Ur-text of my musings and writerly daydreams, The Lord of the Rings. Here, I shall shamelessly plagiarize from one of my own old essays, and wax poetic on the Lady of Light herself, Galadriel of Lothlorien.

Fitting, really, given that she is the oldest on my list by, oh, millenia.

 ‘The Lady of Lothlorien’, Galadriel is presented to the reader as ‘no less tall than [her husband]…grave and beautiful.’ She is ‘clad wholly in white…[with] hair of deep gold.’ She bears ‘no sign of age’ (being, in fact, immortal) but for the ‘depths of [her] eyes, for these were as keen as lances in the starlight, and yet profound, the wells of deep memory.’

 

In the creation of this character, Tolkien drew upon sources both literary and religious in nature. Galadriel embodies the ‘missing mother figure’ that is a common icon in many fairy tales. She provides guidance and hospitality to the Fellowship: feeding, clothing and lading them with gifts before sending them on their way. She is, in this way, reminiscent of the Biblical figure said to be her source: the Virgin Mary.

 

 The parallels between the two are obvious when TLOTR is compared to a late nineteenth-early twentieth century ballad by Chesterton: ‘The Ballad of the White Horse’. The hero in this poem is called Alfred, a dispossessed king on a quest to win back his rightful kingdom from the usurping Danes. Chesterton’s poem begins with Alfred’s vision of the Virgin, who counsels him to fight on against the Danes, but refuses to ‘read the future’ for him:

 

 

But if he fail or if he win

To no good man is told…

 

I tell you naught for your comfort

Yea, naught for your desire

Save that the sky grows darker yet

And the sea rises higher.

 Galadriel’s Mirror, which Frodo looks into during his stay in Lothlorien, shows the viewer many images, but there is no knowing whether they are set in the past, the present, or the future. When Frodo asks whether she advises him to look into it, Galadriel responds:

 ‘I do not counsel you one way or the other. I am not a counselor. You may learn something, and whether what you see be fair or evil, that may be profitable, and yet it may not. Seeing is both good and perilous. Yet I think, Frodo, that you have courage and wisdom enough for the venture, or I would not have brought you here. Do as you will!’

 Galadriel urges the Fellowship to continue on their Quest, but refuses to ‘read the future’ for them. Like the conventional mother figure, she offers a refuge for the weary travelers, and is a provider of miraculous gifts and articles that will help them overcome obstacles and achieve their aim. Even the Ring she wears- Nenya- is the Ring of preservation with the power to save and nurture- gifts traditionally ascribed to the mother.

 The Elven Queen also bears traces of another Biblical figure by the name of Mary, but this one is a far cry from the Virgin Mother. Mary Magdalene, the fallen woman who is redeemed by Christ, is also a source for Galadriel. Like Magdalene, she too once sinned. She rebels against the Valar (the great spirits who created the world) and leaves their kingdom (Valinor) to come to Middle Earth and ‘be free’. Once there, she rises to great power, becoming one of the holders of the Three Elven Rings, and Queen of her own realm, but barred from entering Valinor. Her great test comes in the form of the One Ring. When Frodo offers it to her she is momentarily tempted (or so it seems) by the desire for more power. The Hobbit sees her standing before him:

 ”…tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful. Then she let her hand fall , and suddenly she laughed again and lo! She was shrunken: a slender elf woman, clad in simple  white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad.

“I pass the test,” she said, “I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.” ‘

By giving up her chance instead of swooping upon and seizing the One Ring when it is offered to her ‘freely’, Galadriel redeems herself and the ban on her is lifted. She is allowed to sail away to Valinor at the end of the book.

 How well does Galadriel conform to any fairy tale type? As far as being a good powerful woman goes, Galadriel defeats the general run of the group members by being quite capable of exciting admiration among men. Yet, like other good powerful fairy tale figures, she is detached from the action in a sense, appearing only to aid the Fellowship, then slipping back into the green shadows of her land. Frodo sees her as ‘present and yet remote; a living vision of that which has already been left far behind by the flowing streams of Time.’ Samwise Gamgee attempts to capture the Lady of Lorien with words:

“Beautiful she is…! Lovely! Sometimes like a great tree in flower, sometimes like a white daffadowndilly, small and slender like. Hard as di’monds, soft as moonlight. Warm as sunlight, cold as frost in the stars. Proud and far off as a snow mountain, and as merry as any lass I ever saw with daisies in her hair in springtime. But that’s a lot o’ nonsense, and all wide of my mark.”

 Galadriel seems to defeat all definition, instead remaining a curious blend of conflicting qualities- both nurturer and redeemed, immediate and remote, gentle and imperious. Rigidly delineated categories seem to stutter and fall before her- all rendered a ‘lot o’ nonsense’ and ‘wide’ (perhaps in this case too narrow!) ‘of the mark’.

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Make, Create, Do

Three things I should be doing right now, but am failing at miserably. It is so easy to sit in front of an empty computer screen (empty but for the baleful glare of the white Word document), and let your mind drift. I see the riches that will pour into my hands when I become a best-selling novelist, the smart quips I will deliver at literary festivals, the change I can effect in children’s lives through my persuasive morals and admirable characters. I proudly declared on my college application form that I wanted to ‘be the next J K Rowling’. That I would create the next Harry Potter.

Doesn’t seem to have happened.

Because it’s easy to dream, it’s harder to buckle down to it and work. My friend has just gotten a novel published. We’ve both talked about the day when we would be celebrated writers, but unlike me, the daydreaming and glory-spying Slytherin, she went ahead and actually wrote her book. Hufflepuffian work ethic does count for something. It might not sound as fancy as the Slytherin ambitousness, but it gets you places.

When I am uninspired (which is fairly often), I listen to or read Neil Gaiman’s famous commencement address, ‘Make Good Art’. I think the man is a genius, and fervently hope to be like him when I grow up (a state whose attainment I postpone every year), so of course I take everything he says to his devoted fanbase very seriously. I put down random quotes from the speech on the sticky notes on my desktop, I quote him in my favourite quotes list on Facebook, I gush about him to all and sundry. But I have failed to put his advice into practice, haven’t I? Aye, there’s the rub.

It’s easier to say that I want to make, create, do something that causes people to admire me, read me, look me up on the internet, than to actually log off my phone, get off whatsapp, ignore the insistent Facebook notifications (which, really, are not that insistent. I like to pretend that they are). It’s easier to dream about what my panel at a litfest will be called rather than write the piece or say the words that would get me there. It’s easier to say that I am a Slytherin than to actually put the house’s principles into practice.

Not the principles that Voldemort and his cronies declared in their manifesto, of course. The other bit- about being ambitous and clever and wending your way to the top. Ends are not always bad for Slytherins, nor are the means. The books, to a great extent, stooped to simplifying and thereby vilifying the house. But an angst post about the literary and ethical demerits of this will appear at a later time.

The point of this post, really, is to say that I must Make, Create, Do. A public declaration has often had the effect of me feeling (sometimes nonexistent) judging eyes, deriding me if I fail to later keep up with the spirit of my words. I am hoping that this will have that effect, and that my lazy Muse will dust himself off or come back from his vacation in the wilds of wherever she/he has disappeared to.

Accio inspiration!