One of the great themes in Tolkien’s work is the emphasis on a love for growing things over and against destruction. Much of Galadriel’s power is in her grace and beauty, even as she uses her magic to protect the borders of Lothlorien. Rivendell is respected because it is a center of learning and healing. The hands of the King are healing hands. The only race that can destroy the Ring is the race which loves comfort and gardening above all others.
There are enough deeds of valor and skill in battle during Tolkien’s work to fill the thousand pages of text with ease. However, they are often painted as a necessary means to an end rather than an end in and of themselves. This is one of the great achievements of the Lord of the Rings, and I’ve seen other novels execute this successfully as well. It manages to glorify its characters without glorifying violence.
Enter Eowyn, a quintessential strong female character. When we first encounter her in Meduseld, she seems a cold, sad beauty. Tolkien does well to give us a hint at her character through her behavior over her dialogue. His emphasis on her coldness, on her cool looks and quiet stances, give us a sense of an aloof, unhappy woman. She doesn’t say much early, but the striking image of her standing in chainmail watching the men ride to war stays with me even now.
We get a good feel for her motivations upon Aragorn’s return from Helm’s Deep. When the fair Lady receives him, she’s taken aback by his choice of roads; the Paths of the Dead. The phrase immediately garners dread for all involved, and Aragorn’s purpose in going there shoves his true motivations against Eowyn’s. Her attempts at dissuading Aragorn from his purpose are understandable, given the lore surrounding his choice. However, it’s how the conversation progresses that reveals much.
Twice Eowyn appeals to his sense of glory, that he and his men will be wasted by seeking the Paths of the Dead. Aragorn’s choice perhaps strikes her particularly close to the heart because she herself feels wasted in her station. She wishes to ride to war and wield death in her hands, but Theoden gives her charge of the people instead. From Eowyn’s point of view, she lives in a cage, which she fears more than pain or death. Her role, given to her by virtue of her gender, is ill given and ill born. In response to Aragorn’s appeal to duty, she replies, “Too often I have heard of duty. 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 now spend my life as I will?”
Eowyn’s question is really a door to a world of paradox and contradiction. Aragorn’s response, “Few can do so with honor,” highlights the nature of the morally ambiguous realm of self-determination. Eowyn’s question is a fair one, and yet Aragorn’s response is fair as well. Where do we find the balance between who we are and what is required of us? Developing the answer to that question can be exceptionally difficult when we hold the wrong things to our self-identity.
In this exchange at Edoras, it seems that Eowyn and Aragorn are talking past each other. From my point of view, Eowyn’s less than positive view of her assigned role and the role of women in general appears to be at the heart of this miscommunication. Aragorn’s reason for taking the Paths of the Dead is not about what he can gain for himself, but how he can best serve his people. Eowyn’s desire for war is the result of an erroneous view of the merits of violence and destruction. She is driven by a thirst for renown and glory, to make a name for herself among the great. Of course, she wishes to serve her people, but she feels wasted in her current station because she has wrapped her identity up in killing, even though she has never killed before.
In Peter Jackson’s adaptation, this scene takes place in a different context, but Aragorn’s response to Eowyn’s final plea demonstrates the filmmaker’s understanding of his source material. “It is but a shadow and a thought that you love. I cannot give you what you seek.” These words encapsulate what the Shieldmaiden of Rohan truly desires even as she throws herself at the feet of Isildur’s Heir. She never loved him, but instead loved what he represented. As an aside, scenes like this one in the movie adaptations are why they remain one of the greatest works of cinema I’ve ever seen.
Upon Aragorn’s final rejection, Eowyn slides into a depression, which fuels her decision to act on her desires. What’s fascinating about Tolkien’s approach here, is that he doesn’t take the predictable route with this move. Eowyn is not bursting with excitement at finally having her chance to fight. Instead, she had “the face of one without hope who goes in search of death.” It seems to me that Eowyn is in mourning here, perhaps forlorn at Aragorn’s rejection. As we read through her story, this assumption seems to be accurate at this point. After we’ve read all of her story, however, we may want to revisit this with a bit more nuance.
Finally, we come to the thing Eowyn is best remembered for; the Witch-King of Angmar. Good fiction doesn’t preach. Instead, it cracks open ideas and lets you explore. If Tolkien had wanted to preach about feminism or anti feminism, his approach to this scene would have looked a bit different. Instead, he remains focused on this other question: “May I not spend my life as I choose?” For although Eowyn abandons her station, even if she left someone behind to oversee matters, she brings down the leader of the Nazgul. It is one of the greatest scenes in the book, and it made for one of the greatest scenes in the trilogy adaptation.
What makes the scene truly beautiful is Eowyn’s motivation, which stands in stark contrast to her reasons for leaving to begin with. It is her love for Theoden, not her thirst for glory or her desire to find death, that plants her feet before the greatest of the Nine. This encounter ties into one of the more prominent themes in the Lord of the Rings: the truest power in a person is in who they are rather than in what they can do. I appreciate the confidence in her approach to the witch-king, who was probably used to cowering victims rather than defiant combatants. As another aside, and at the risk of blaspheming, I preferred Eowyn’s farewell with Theoden in the movie to what happened in the novel. I shed tears in that moment, as did many others I know.
When Eowyn awakens in the Houses of Healing, she should feel gratified and vindicated for her deed. If Tolkien were a good feminist, he would even include some minor character (not Faramir of course) who would chastise her, despite her achievement, for defying what is proper. Instead, Eowyn is still full of dark thoughts, and the wound in her soul, inflicted by Aragorn rather than the Witch-King, pulled her heart toward death once again. “And it is not always good to be healed in body. Nor is it always evil to die in battle, even in bitter pain. Were I permitted, in this dark hour I would choose the latter.” Some people might point to this and see strength. I do not. The damage Aragorn’s rejection cut her deeply, not because of him, but because she didn’t understand why she was precious. She still believed that her identity was wrapped up in destruction.
It is here, in the Houses of Healing, that Eowyn finally becomes whole, and it took a different kind of man to nudge her in the right direction. Faramir’s best traits lie not in war but in leadership and wisdom. That is why he could say no to the ring when his brother could not. It is his love and his presence that help Eowyn find the other part of her identity: healer and nurturer. The reason Aragorn’s rejection had stung so deeply was that Eowyn had already rejected important parts of her identity. When Isildur’s Heir turned her down, the only portion of Eowyn’s identity she would allow to see daylight was ground into the dirt. Aragorn could see what was truly precious about Eowyn, just as he knew what was precious about himself. That was what he meant when he said he didn’t want to waste what was precious on war.
This is the power behind Tolkien’s work. He manages to glorify and lift his characters up without glorifying violence, even in a book filled with it. Eowyn recovers from the wound to her heart by becoming a whole person rather than just a girl with a sword. She reverses her earlier opinions about healing and nurturing, realizing that she had disparaged an important part of herself. It is Faramir that opens the door, but the Lady of Rohan walked through it. And so, we come to the end of Eowyn’s personal journey. Our lives are our own, and yet we have a responsibility to be what those around us need us to be. Violence and war are not good things, but sometimes might be necessary. That is why an identity which revolves around those things eventually shows itself to be vacuous. Eowyn, in the Houses of Healing, found herself when she embraced what her people needed from her.
People, not power, are ends in and of themselves. True greatness can be found in what we create, rather than in what we destroy. The Ents rise up and crush Saruman. His marriage to destruction cannot save him from the power of Life. The gardeners take the ring to Mordor. Faramir, the lover of beauty and wisdom, is a better man than Boromir, the lover of power and battle. Gimli is enchanted by Galadriel, because beauty is found in many and sometimes terrifying forms. And Eowyn becomes whole by embracing the value of creation and renewal.
When fictional characters have only one defining trait, they are as flat as real people who suffer from the same malady. We are more than our careers, more than what we own or what movies we like. We are more than our physical gifts, more than our backgrounds, more than our skin color or ethnicity. The course of our lives, while often set within certain parameters by our circumstances, can be driven by our choices. Our true identities can be found in the balance between our desires and our responsibilities. When we remember that, who we truly are will come to life.