Tuesday, November 4, 2008

On Eowyn, and the role of women

Wow - it has been a long time. I do not intend to let this blog lapse for more than a couple of weeks at best. As much as this is fun and a release, it is also a discipline and a training I desire to enforce upon myself.

So I've been rereading the Lord of the Rings, and this week I've been very struck by the battle-part of Eowyn. I looked for some essays that address the role of women in Tolkien's epic work, but none of them address quite the nuances I'm looking for, so here I am, though I haven't yet finished the book (the siege of Gondor is nearing its end, I believe, but it is still going at the point where I last stopped reading).

Eowyn is a strong, powerful woman who has grown up in a society where strength and valor in battle are most valued. She has learned these things and learned them well, though warfare is a man's place, and swordplay a man's art. When the time comes and every man is needed at arms, she waits at home, dissatisfied with the governing noncombative role assigned to her. Still, she fills the role without complaint once. A second time she begs to leave, but remains behind to her duty. When all those she loves are about to leave her behind for a third time, where she knows a lesser man could do her work, she decides to throw convention to the wind and masquerade as a man, and she rides into battle with the all King's forces.

I see how this decision can be seen as selfish. She doesn't want to wait; she wants to be in on the action, but she also wants to give of herself in the valuable, valiant way she knows she can do.

But in the throes of battle is when it gets difficult - for as she remains near to her beloved uncle-king, it is not only her bravery but her unique position of femininity upon the fields of battle that allows her (with the help of Merry, who also was supposed to be far from this battle) to slay the King of the Nazgul, and to protect her Uncle Theoden King from a most ignominious moment of death. (Ignominious may not be the best adjective to use there, but it's what I've got.) Even Merry's part in the small yet great triumph of this moment is inspired by Eowyn - Merry's spirit is roused to valor by the great deeds of the beautiful woman before him, and he rushes to aid her in whatever small way he can (and it turns out that his blade, because of its history, does more damage to the fiend than could have any other on the field of battle).

Her brother Eomer and his knights rue the sight of fair Eowyn lying as slain upon the field of battle - but how much of their pain and outrage is because they think she is dead? How much will their minds and hearts change when they learn of her great works upon the battlefield?

I shall have to revisit this subject once I've read farther. I see now that my reading is incomplete to make a true judgment. Still, I do hope for intelligent responses from you folks in the comments. I am sure that, despite my attempt at being objective, I have projected quite a lot of myself into Eowyn. And I do wonder about her embracement of the masculine battle role with the glad proclamation of her womanhood that enables her victory once there.

Why does she fight? I'm sure there are a thousand reasons (Tolkien's characters are nothing if not well-fleshed out). To impress Aragorn? As an extra guard upon her uncle the king? To prove to herself that she is worthwhile, after all? To put to good use these skills she's been taught since her youth? To fit in with the men she loves by partaking of the same activity? To give what truly is her all in this desperate war that requires everything of everyone?

I don't know. Please, talk to me - about the morality of Eowyn's actions as regards her role as woman of Rohan.

UPDATE: 11/5, 10:14am
Now I've read a bit further, and can reflect upon Gandalf's comments as Aragorn comes to heal Eowyn in the Houses of Healing. He seems to suggest that the heavy weight of darkness brought to the royal house by Wormtongue has helped to poison for her the role of staying behind and holding down the proverbial fort. Still, he greatly honors her valor, and says that it owes her a place of honor among the great queens. Hmm.

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