There was a time when I would re-read The Lord of the Rings every year, usually in the summer or at Christmas. I’ve probably read the series seven or eight times, more than I’ve read any other book. Nostalgia plays a huge part in my multiple readings. It was one of the first books series of which I became a capital-F Fan. So over Christmas this year, I listened to the books on audio for the first time. I hadn’t read them in a couple of years and it seemed like time. It’s like putting on a favorite sweater or eating comfort food: it’s always good and you remember how much you enjoy it.
I always look forward to The Two Towers and The Return of the King in particular. It may be heresy, but I like the part of the books that are not about Frodo and Sam. The adventures of the other members of the Fellowship have always been much more interesting, and most interesting of all is Éowyn. I have always loved her. For a little girl who loved to pretend to be characters of books, Éowyn was basically my only option if I wanted to play LOTR and be a girl.
The Lord of the Rings would not be considered feminist under really any circumstances, and in many, it’s downright sexist and really racist. “Squint-eyed” and “swarthy,” Southerners and Easterlings, and the horrible “black Orcs” compared to the “fair” men of Númenor and Westernesse are just a few examples of many examples of uncomfortable to downright offensive characterizations and descriptions in the work. This essay won’t discuss the discomfort and racism in the works but it certainly stood out to me way more on this reading.
Thinking about all of this goes into now familiar “your fave is sexist/racist/generally problematic” territory. It’s a hard thing to realize or have pointed out to you, because it’s difficult to see what you love be criticized. How do you reconcile that something you love is also flawed, sometimes deeply? To me there are two options: ignore the problems and continue to love unquestioningly, or to look with a critical eye, place an asterisk next to your declarations of love, and be ready to explain why you still enjoy something that has a whole slew of problems. It’s an uneasy choice, because if you choose the first option, you’re being kind of a jerk who is giving herself the opportunity to be privileged enough that those problems can’t touch you. And option two means killing your darlings, and that’s painful no matter what.
I think option two is the way to go: we must engage critically with the culture that we truly love or else we become only thoughtless consumers. This is not to say I engage critically with everything all the time. I’m human, and I make some spectacular fuck-ups. But I think it’s fair to say that critically engaging with art and culture is my goal. Or at least I want it to be my goal, and that may be as close as I can get.
During this listen I kept a little note of all the female characters in the books who: have a first name that is mentioned in the actual story, not the appendices; actually speak; have characterization that is slightly more than just a passing background character; are present in the story and not in a song, like Lúthien. I counted and there are seven: Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, Goldberry Tom Bombadil’s wife, Arwen Evenstar, Galadriel, Éowyn, Ioreth the healer woman of Minas Tirith, and Rosie Cotton. There’s eight if you count Shelob who doesn’t speak, but is nonetheless very interesting. While in some books, seven or eight female characters could be seen as a lot; there are so many characters in the Lord of the Rings that this really isn’t very many.
The most developed characters are arguably Galadriel and Éowyn. In contrast, Lobelia is a cheap, thieving shrew, Goldberry is ethereal and mysterious in only one chapter, Arwen has a grand total of about two lines despite her long history with Aragorn, Ioreth is presented as so foolish and almost doddering that she hardly knows her own wisdom, and Rosie, well Rosie loves Sam. So, we’re left with cold, queenly Galadriel and Éowyn. It’s in Éowyn that we get a woman who is a real character. She is brave, fair, queenly, ambitious, and yet chafes under the orders to stay behind with the civilian women and children. Éowyn gets to be an incredible warrior, but also show emotions like jealousy, sorrow, and longing. She desires glory just like any other man of Rohan, and yet all she get is mockery and condescension.
In one of her best lines, perhaps second only to her laughing acknowledgement that she is no man and thus can kill the King of the Nazgul, Éowyn’s fears and quiet determination shines when Aragorn asks her what she is afraid of:
“What do you fear, lady?” [Aragorn] asked.
“A cage,” [Éowyn] 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.”
Isn’t this a fear of so many of us, especially women? To be limited, trapped, not allowed to reach our full potential because of the patriarchal systems of our world?
This passage, even more than her presence at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields is why I loved Éowyn as a kid and why I love her now. I have most of her lines from this section of the The Two Towers underlined. I suppose that her fear of a cage was and maybe still is, my fear too. The fear that I won’t be able to do all the things I want to and that eventually, I’ll just give up and wonder why I even wanted that in the first place.Éowyn was my desired rage against complacency and I loved her for it.
In this current reread of the book, I approached all of Éowyn’s passages with relish. Huzzah! I love reading about her sneaking off to join the war, and bringing Merry along with her! Everything was just as I remembered: her bravery in battle, her sadness at the death of Theoden, and the tide of the battle turning in favor of Gondor and Rohan. But when I got to the chapter where Éowyn and Faramir meet and fall in love—another childhood favorite because childhood Anna was definitely a romantic—I was disappointed.
To my mind there are many ways of looking at Éowyn and Faramir’s marriage and Éowyn’s subsequent desire to be a shieldmaiden no more and be a healer instead. Éowyn’s ambition or desire is presented as a sickness. Sure, she has been healed in body from the wounds of the King of the Nazgul, but it’s only when Faramir confesses his love and she reciprocates that she declares herself healed.
This time, this made me disappointed. This is not to say there is anything wrong with marriage, career changes (i.e. shieldmaiden to healer), or falling in love. All of those things are great, but there is a part of me that was sad that she chose that life. Éowyn managed to be a “strong female character” or a badass who also managed to have emotions and depth other than just being a hypermasculine pretty face with boobs. She wanted glory, she feared a cage, and so she disobeyed, followed her dreams, and killed a very powerful evil guy! Her acceptance of Faramir and role of healer walked herself right back into that golden cage.
You could make the case that a brush with death could make anyone want to retire and that being a healer is a noble pursuit. Both are true, but come on! It’s the end of the Third Age, and there’s still more glory to go around. Faramir is going to Ithilien and someone eventually has to clear out Minas Morgul or destroy it. Wouldn’t it be great to go as an awesome husband and wife knights-in-arms team? Tell me that wouldn’t be amazing!
It’s hard to imagine Éowyn being happy to give it all up, but since she’s fictional and her story ends there we don’t know. I do wonder if she would have been like a woman who worked in an airplane factory, or some other previously male-dominated job, in WWII only to be expected to return to house, home, and babies once her husband came home. To me, that sort of expectation would rankle, just as Éowyn’s decision to hang up her sword does.
I wish Tolkien could have let her continue as a shieldmaiden after she married Faramir. Shieldmatron? Still badass! It frustrates me that as I interpret it, Tolkien describes her desire for glory and renown, not much different than those of her brother Eomer for example, as a disease. To him, it’s something to be fixed, cured, done away with when the chaos of the War of the Ring is over.
So what then do I do with Éowyn? Do I still love her impassioned speech about her fear of a cage? Hell yeah I do, but I can also say that the rest of the women in The Lord of the Rings leave me cold. Or they leave me looking for more complex characters in general. It makes me sad to feel my love of a character change or maybe even lessen. But then again, I am real and have experienced much in between readings. I’ve changed, but Éowyn, for all her wish to be free, is trapped in the cage of Tolkien’s words and plot. I still love her, but in a way that makes me miss the reader I was when she was my idol.