Eowyn, an old friend

When I was in high school, I was crazy about The Lord of the Rings. I read it umpteen times (I was determined, at the age of 13, to beat my uncle’s record of seven), taught myself Elvish from fan websites, and papered my room with pictures of Aragorn and, increasingly as my hormones kicked in, Legolas. I didn’t go so far as to post fanfic, but let’s just say that somewhere in the bowels of an old computer, there probably lies a self-insert romance where Legolas falls in love with a mysterious and beautiful half Elf, a story that’s played out thousands of times on fanfiction.net.

Legolas

Can you blame me?

The character I most closely identified with was Frodo. I felt like him, unspectacular, thinking that I was like my cooler older cousin Bilbo and wanting to go on adventures, but realizing, when presented with the opportunity, that it may not have really been my thing after all. But another person I really grew to love and (in one rather embarrassing high school episode) emulate was Eowyn, one of the most angsty characters in a world full of people harboring tragic pasts and parental issues.

Eowyn is in some respects the stereotypical warrior princess, the emblem of a spirited woman kept down by a patriarchal society. At least, this is the reading it’s easiest to foist onto her. If you think about it, though, Eowyn does not, for the first half of her presentation (in The Two Towers) come eowyn-fightingacross as particularly spirited. She’s sort of cold, reserved, reclusive. She steps in to help her uncle, and lead the people, but she’s always distant and not exactly riled up by the happenings around her. In fact, at times she barely seems interested in them at all.

We’re told that this is the result of Wormtongue’s attentions and whispering (Tolkien’s creepiest allusion to sexual harassment, if not abuse), but even after he has been cast away and Saruman’s hold over the Kingdom of Rohan broken, Eowyn only becomes particularly spirited during her battle with the Nazgul. Her plea to Aragorn, where she semi-confesses her feelings for him, is also a veiled affair, and honestly, till that point I had no idea she even had a thing for him. Miranda Otto made it much more obvious in the film adaptation.

It’s telling that Eowyn is described as ‘thawing’ when she accepts that Faramir’s love for her is real, and may even be reciprocated. Until then, she’s still in danger of succumbing to whatever it was that fell upon her as a result of Saruman’s infiltration of the court. What the was, we’re not sure, but she made attempts to escape it by a) clinging to Aragorn as a form of rescue and b) throwing herself madly into danger. I sincerely doubt Eowyn expected to survive the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. In fact, it’s very strongly implied that she takes to it as a sort of last resort, an escape from the ‘cage’ that is her greatest fear.

eowyn

In so many ways, Eowyn is the most, if not the only, relatable woman in Tolkien’s universe. Given that most of the others are immortal, near perfect Elves, she does not have much competition. As a teenage girl, I loved her because she was NOT perfect. She seemed awkward and stilted, like she couldn’t figure out how exactly she was supposed to behave and therefore preferred to stay away from the action. It was like she was saying, I want to be at the heart of this fight, and do something the way my jock brother can, but since you’re saying that’s not my place, I will stand aside and be awkward. She grows into her role only later, after her watershed moment on the battlefield.

I think it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to compare Eowyn with another much-restrained princess, though the latter was written for a considerably younger age group: Elsa of Disney’s Frozen. Elsa is similarly reserved, and elsadistant, and is ‘melted’ by true love in the form of Anna. However, she needed that moment of breaking away and throwing herself into action in order to come to terms with a part of herself that had been shut away, much as Eowyn needs to just get moving and do something when she starts to feel that those bars are becoming far too much of a reality.

I really liked Eowyn for many reasons, not least of which is her mad skills on the battlefield. But more important than that was how very unsure of herself she was before those moments with Faramir. I liked that she was always searching for something, much like me as a stupid 15 year old; I could identify with her need to latch onto someone older and more sure of himself, thinking that he would be the person to get her out of her state. But also, and this may sound cruel, I really liked that she was forced not to rely on him. Sometimes those ruthless cuttings-off of ties are what are really required to push you into your own, and what an own she comes into.

 

The Brilliance of the Evenstar

There are three important female characters in The Lord of the Rings.

Galadriel, the super powerful, super cool one, whose beauty, wisdom and general awesomeness is unparalleled.

Arwen, the beautiful one who has a tragic but fulfilling love life.

Eowyn, the rebellious warrior prince who does things that no man can do.

If these three formed a clique, I would assume that Galadriel would be the brains, the leader, the effortlessly cool one; Eowyn would be her slightly sporty, energetic second in command and Arwen…Arwen would be the girl in the relationship.


arwen 1There are few characters in the fantasy trove who confuse as much as Arwen Undomiel, alias Evenstar. On the one hand, she is a powerful Elf in her own right, someone who literally gives away her place in the Undying Lands to Frodo, a favour that he can never pay back. On the other, her role in the book is severely limited, condensed into an Appendix where she is little more than a beautiful presence who sighs and ‘cleaves’ to Aragorn, playing no further active role in his struggle.

In the movies, Arwen veered between a warrior princess like role, rescuing Frodo and facing down nine Ringwraiths, and then becoming a pawn who is quite literally passed from father to husband at the close of The Return of the King. In The Two Towers she is told what awaits her if she actually goes through with the mad plan of marrying Aragorn, and seems swayed by her father’s desire to hustle her out of Middle Earth. ‘Do I not also have your love?’ Elrond asks her and, weeping, she confesses that yes, of course he does.

arwen and el

There are many things that I think Peter Jackson did wrong in the movies (namely Faramir), but his evocation of Arwen’s struggle is nearly on par, for me, with his depiction of Thranduil. It’s quite amazingly perfect. In the book, we never really get a sense of what Arwen herself went through—even in the Appendix, it’s Aragorn we are focussed on, and the quest he has to complete. Arwen’s sacrifice is summed up thus:

And she stood then, as still as a white tree, looking into the West, and at last she said: ‘I will cleave to you, Dunadan, and turn from the Twilight. Yet there lies the land of my people and the long home of all my kin.’ She loved her father dearly.

Jackson puts the romance front and centre, shocking those fans who felt his way ‘brutish’ and ‘so not subtle’. He plays out Arwen’s role in her own destiny, stressing how she rebels against both Aragorn and her father in the making of her choice. In the movie, it’s Aragorn who loses hope in their relationship, who tells her ‘it was a dream Arwen, nothing more’, even crassly and rather insensitively trying to give back a gift that symbolized, to her, the ultimate sacrifice. I love how there is just the hint of a bite in Arwen’s retort: ‘It was a gift. Keep it.’

Like, what are you saying?

Like, what are you saying?

Seriously Estel, learn some manners.

Arwen is the one who keeps ‘hope’ for both her and Aragorn, in the face of his demoralisation. He turns to her in his dreams to find inspiration and strength to carry on, dreamand it’s very strongly implied that Arwen is consciously reaching out to him, watching over him in some form. This is not entirely impossible, given that she is the descendent of very powerful Elves, including Galadriel, Elrond and, of course, Luthien Tinuviel, whose form and fate she brings to life again.

If The Two Towers chronicles her rebellion against Aragorn’s loss of spirit, The Return of the King follows her revolt against her father and his desire to protect her. ‘Ada, whether by your will or not, there is no ship that will bear me hence,’ she says, striving to make Elrond understand that he no longer has the ability to force her to emigrate, that it is no longer really a matter of choice for him, or for her, for that matter, to stay in Middle Earth with Aragorn.

Whether he, or her intended, want her to or not, Arwen is staying put.

Deal with it.

Deal with it.

Now is where Jackson, in my opinion, messes up. For some reason, he makes Arwen a weakening force from this point on. Her fate, for some reason, become tied to the Ring. She becomes the physical embodiment of Middle Earth, in some ways, fading as Sauron’s power grows. Though it is her idea to reforge Anduril, it’s Elrond who carries it to Aragorn. If Jackson had to tweak canon, wouldn’t it have been awesome if he’d gone the whole hog and had Arwen bring the sword to him instead, thereby underlining how much of an independent spirit she is? The exchange would have gone like this:

Aragorn: Arwen! But I thought you were sailing to the Undying Lands…

Arwen: Whether by your will or not, there is no ship that will bear me hence. I’ve made my choice, respect it and take this wonderful sword I had made for you.

Eowyn peeks into the tent, is confused, but then realizes that Aragorn really was just a random crush who is way too old for her and besides, she is not ready to handle his angsty moods.

It's so much better when you just let me go ahead and do things.

It’s so much better when you just let me go ahead and do things.

See, this is why it’s so easy to dismiss Arwen as ‘the girl in the relationship’. She is set up as this amazing character, but then for some reason, the film makers, and the author, made her fall a little flat. So she doesn’t do the obviously amazing things that Galadriel and Eowyn do—but neither of them, in my completely unbiased opinion, go through the sort of emotional maelstrom that Arwen does in the course of the film. Imagine being, for all want himintents and purposes, rejected by the man you have given up your immortality for, and being told you don’t really know your own mind, that it was all some sort of fairytale ‘dream’.

This despite the fact that the man is about 2000-odd years younger than you. What a patronising prick.

Despite this, you persevere, only to be sent away ignominiously by your dad for your own ‘good’. When you come back, claiming once again that there is still hope, he tells you—in fancy fantasyish words—that there’s very little and your boyfriend is probably going to die. You hurl away the negativity and tell the men to stop being idiots and just get on with defeating Sauron already.

Arwen’s emotional strength is amazing, and it doesn’t get praised enough by readers, viewers or feminist critics. She is not, despite appearances, a doormat. It’s a sad fact that
centuries of literature and decades of film have told us that while love may be a powerful tool for a man (please read the Loving Hero Paradox), a woman in love is not a rational being. A woman in love is weak, confused and apt to go where her hormones lead her, to be the sort of crazy figure Taylor Swift ironically brings to life in ‘Blank Space’. A woman in love is not the captain of her own ship, and is prone to doing disastrous things. Witness Dido, Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s play, Hermione’s rare bursts of irrationality, even the doughty Katniss can’t be entrusted with ‘real objectives’ of the rebels because her silly ‘feelings’ will get in the way.

Arwen rebels against this reading, and tells her lover, her father, the rest of Middle Earth, to sod off and respect her decisions. Dying a lonely death on a hilltop? It may not have been ideal, but it was something she chose to do. It’s about time we started respecting that, and realising that ‘the girl in the relationship’ is not always the boy-crazy, silly figure we’ve long imagined her to be.

The Awesome Women of Middle Earth

In Middle Earth, people set a lot of store by convention and tradition—for instance, hobbits take a long time to accept the idea of change or straying from a beaten path (that’s why Frodo and Bilbo are considered weirdos in the Shire), and the people of Gondor would rather spend years and years waiting for the return of a king rather than setting up a new line/system of government. The Elves as a people can’t handle change at all, and prefer to forsake a world that’s outpacing them and retreat to a timeless zone where everything stays just the same forever and ever.

aragornIf you’re a ‘good’ man, the chances are that, during any of Ages of Middle Earth, you are engaged in fighting to preserve this order. Your duty dictates that you give your all in the effort to end Morgoth/Sauron/whatever evil comes afterwards, that you learn the art of war and horseback riding and other such manly pursuits and stay far from morally compromising technology. The only men who really go ‘against’ the dictates laid down on them (and by ‘men’ here I’m referring to males both Elven and human) are some of the High Elves, and of course, Feanor and his sons.

But if you’re a woman in Tolkien’s world, your duty is to rebel.

Yes, this might be a strange thing to say. After all, enough and more people have pointed out how the Tolkienverse is a ‘boys’ club’, how no women were made part of the Fellowship, how there are all of three important women in a book as fat as The Lord of the Rings, all of whom are royalty, beautiful and set impossible standards for female readers. The Hobbit has no important female characters at all, but The Silmarillion makes up for both with a bevy of well drawn, smart female Elves and humans who push the story in decisive directions while, more often than not, their men sit around, ‘doing their duty’.

One glance at Tolkien’s women should be enough to convince anyone of the importance of quality over quantity. All his named female characters are fighters, going against convention in ways that the men never dare to do. Let’s just illustrate this with a few examples:

Galadriel—Galadriel turned her back on a comfortable life in Valinor and ventured forth into Middle Earth, and was exiled from the West for her actions. She braved the Crossing of the Ice, lived through Ages of war against Morgaladriel-the-hobbit-an-unexpected-journey-97371goth, and even when the Elves were granted pardon after the War of Wrath, chose to stay on and rule her own kingdom in Middle Earth. Galadriel is a woman of ambition, who left the West primarily because of the pull of adventure and the lure of her own dominion. And there’s no denying the fact that Lothlorien is really run and sustained by her, not Celeborn.

Arwen and Luthien—I know a lot of people think Arwen is nothing more than a beautiful love interest for Aragorn, but you have to stop for a moment and appreciate the magnitude of her choice. She chose to give up her immortality, to sunder herself from her family forever—no one else pushed her into ‘cleaving’ to Aragorn. Tolkien stresses that again and again, even permitting her a very ‘human’ reaction to Aragorn’s death wherein she finally laments and understands what she’s signed up for.

Luthien, well. She’s a superElf. I don’t think any Elf, male of female, accomplishes what she does in the course of her quest. Standing up for her right to love a human, breaking out of house arrest, convincing a hound to aid her quest rather than drag her back to her father, breaking her lover out of Sauron’s prison, coming face to face with Morgoth and luthienbesting him, convincing Mandos, the Keeper of the dead himself to let her lover out—can anyone claim these feats? And she accomplished all this because she refused to stay at home and sing and wait like a good little Elf maiden.

Aredhel—Before warrior woman Eowyn, there was Aredhel, who wandered on her own through forests and lands unmapped by her kindred. Tolkien presents her as an Artemis-like figure, one for whom domesticity is a confinement. Even after she gets married and has a child, Aredhel feels the need to explore and thinks nothing of walking out on her husband.

Eowyn—The only human to actually kill a Nazgul in single combat. Eowyn refuses to stay behind, awaiting news from the battlefield, to do the caregiving and shepherding duties expected of her as a woman. She breaks away from that line of duty with truly astounding consequences.

eowyn3

Morwen and Nienor—Turin’s mother and sister spent years moving from sanctuary to sanctuary, searching for him. Morwen never allowed despair to overcome her, trudging on until she had found the stone that marked the grave of both her children. Sure, neither of them had the greatest of lives, but they also took charge, plunging out into the field to find their loved ones rather than sitting meekly by and allowing Elf lords to dictate their lives.

Given the context, Tauriel is a perfect fit in the Tolkienverse. She’s spirited, brave and has tauriela healthy disrespect for convention, defines her own duty and role as she sees fit. If it’s the male way to prescribe and maintain settled codes and systems in Middle Earth, it’s the female who questions and pushes back. And through these rebellions, Tolkien’s women advance the storyline, throw back the Enemy and, quite literally at times*, function as lights ‘in dark places, when all other lights go out’.

*Seriously. Luthien, Aredhel, Galadriel, Elwing—these women are literal lamps in dark settings at various points of Middle Earth’s history.

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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