The Lord of the Rings
“Alas! For she was pitted against a foe beyond the strength of her mind or body. And those who will take a weapon to such an enemy must be sterner than steel…for she is a fair maiden, fairest lady of a house of queens”
“My friend,’ said Gandalf’ ‘you had horses, and deeds of arms, and the free fields; but she, born in the body of a maid, had a spirit and courage at least the match of yours. Yet she was doomed to wait upon an old man, whom she loved as a father, and watch him falling into a mean dishonored dotage; and her part seemed to her more ignoble than that of the staff he leaned on…My lord, if your sister’s love for you, and her will still bent to her duty, had not restrained her lips, you might have heard even such things as these escape them. 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?”
Sorry about the length of the quotes, but I think both are necessary because they perfectly reflect the ambiguity of Eowyn’s character and her relationship to her gender. The Lord of the Rings, perhaps infamously, has only three female characters, two of which have extraordinarily contained roles, but Eowyn is the main female character.
I think she represents Tolkein’s fundamental discomfort with how to reconcile the strength of this woman with the fact of her femininity. She is beautiful, although in fairness everyone in these books in gorgeous, but she is repeatedly characterized as mythologically fair. This is in keeping with the mythological tropes Tolkein was writing for, but it also keeps her from being a challenge to the patriarchal system she lives in. By emphasizing her conformity to feminine beauty, Tolkein blunts the force of her masculine role and makes her more acceptable both to himself and to his audience. She never rides into battle as herself, is in fact repeatedly restrained by the men around her from fighting, but when she disguises herself as a man her participation immediately becomes acceptable, unremarkable even.
There is a strange conflict within Eowyn between her masculinity and femininity. She rides into battle in quest of valor, but she is propelled to disguise herself only after she has been rejected by Aragorn. She takes on the male role because she can fulfill neither the masculine role of being Aragorn’s sword arm, nor the feminine role of being his lover. This doesn’t really make a lot of sense, and I think it’s not supposed to because the entire point is that she’s in conflict with herself and the world around her.
Yet, the book suggests that it is only be embracing her dual feminine and masculine roles that Eowyn can reach the climax of her journey. The Witch Kind of Agnor famously proclaims “No man can kill me,” to which Eowyn takes off her helmet, lets her long hair stream, and replies “No man am I!” and runs him through.
Still, Tolkein is clearly uncomfortable with this resolution and states that Merry, the male hobbit who stabbed the witch king before Eowyn killed him, actually used an enchanted blade which removed the king’s defenses. Thus the victory does not alone belong to Eowyn, as it would to Aragorn or Eomer. And both Eowyn and Merry pay dearly for their deed, suffering for days until Aragorn saves them from the brink of death.
Finally, Tolkein’s fundamental discomfort with the character he had created becomes overt when Eowyn infamously announces that she “will be a shield-maiden no longer” and will instead become a healer and marry the Lord Steward Faramir. It’s a complete reversal, and utterly out of character. Eowyn had chafed at being kept in the houses of healing, had been desperate to return to battle, right up until she fell out of love with Aragorn and in love with Faramir. The implication is clear; Eowyn wanted to go fight only to earn Aragorn’s love, which he had long ago surrendered to an impossibly fair and feminine elf, and when she no longer seeks Aragorn’s love it turns out that it was her only motivation as a character. The reason this twist is so infamous is because it is a betrayal of the character, a surrender to gender roles and both by Tolkein and by the character Eowyn, who bend over backward to avoid challenging the demands of their respective worlds.
There’s a reason the Lord of the Rings is one of the most popular books on the planet, and it’s that the story and the language touch on universal elements of human nature. Eowyn’s battle with herself is a battle that women undergo with themselves to this very day, but we have options to demand middle courses that Tolkein was too afraid to open up to her. As a whole, the book lacks women almost completely (hence the occasionally outrageous homosexual undertones), but Tolkein does somewhat make up for quantity with quality. A spectacular novel, which will occasionally infuriate any feminist but remains, sometimes, fascinating and complex.