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.

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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.

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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 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.

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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.