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Women and chauvinism in Middle-earth: Eowyn

The representation of female characters in Middle-earth is not only a complex and controversial topic, but also of great significance and interest for many readers, men and women alike. Hence, in the new article series “Women and Chauvinism in Middle-earth,” I will focus on the issue. This week, the article will examine Eowyn as well as her relationship with Theoden. In my opinion, it is not The Lord of the Rings as a whole that is chauvinistic. Instead, individual characters like Theoden show paternalistic or chauvinistic tendencies while the narration of The Lord of the Rings allows another, more positive reading.

EowynBearingCupEowyn’s appearances in The Lord of the Rings are comparatively short, and most of the time, there is very little interaction between Eowyn and other characters. However, I think that this represents Eowyn’s role within society, and more importantly, her relationship with Theoden, very well. Every time the reader does receive some information about Eowyn, it is done through the eyes of a character other than the king himself. All describe her not only as beautiful, but strong as well. For example, Aragorn perceives Eowyn as “slender and tall […] but strong […] and stern as steel.” The rest of the time, Eowyn seems to be overlooked. In The Return of the King, in the chapter “The Houses of Healing” Gandalf summarises Eowyn’s fate:

‘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 the 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 dishonoured dotage; and her part seemed to her more ignoble than that of the staff he leaned on.’

In other words, Eowyn’s role within the society of Rohan seems to be very clear. It is her role to serve the king. Despite being of the house of Eorl, Eowyn will never be considered as an heir to the throne, since the appendix A: “The House of Eorl” indicates that the royal bloodline of Rohan is passed onto the male descendants. One text passage in the chapter “The King of the Golden Hall” from The Two Towers, summarizes Theoden’s attitude towards Eowyn very well:

‘Behold! I go forth, and it seems like to be my last riding,’ said Theoden. ‘I have no child. Theodred my son is slain. I name Eomer my sister-son to be my heir. If neither of us return, then choose a new lord as you will. But to some one I must now entrust my people that I leave behind, to rule them in my place. Which of you will stay?’ No man spoke. ‘Is there none whom you would name? In whom do my people trust?’ ‘In the House of Eorl,’ answered Hama. ‘But Eomer I cannot spare, nor would he stay,’ said the king; ‘and he is the last of that House.’ ‘I said not Eomer,’ answered Hama. ‘And he is not the last. There is Eowyn, daughter of Eomund, his sister. She is fearless and high-hearted. All love her…’

It appears that Theoden takes Eowyn for granted and simply overlooks her. It is Hama that has to remind Theoden that Eowyn not only exists, but is also of great importance to the people of Rohan. It is, again, through the eyes and descriptions of another character other than Theoden that Eowyn is described in detail. Moreover, Hama emphasises Eowyn’s strength. She is so loved and trusted among the people that the people in Rohan want her “as Lord to the Eorlingas” (The Two Towers, “The King of the Golden Hall”). Sure, just because Theoden overlooked Eowyn does not mean that he is a chauvinist or paternalistic. Nevertheless, a close reading implies that Theoden can be placed somewhere between those categories; the fact that Theoden does not consider her to become a “full time” ruler is a further indication. One specific passage exemplifies Theoden’s attitude towards perceived ‘weaker’ members of society. In The Return of the King, when the riders of Rohan prepare for battle, Merry wants to fight like everyone else, but Theoden considers him too weak to do so:

‘[…] You shall abide here, and if you will, you shall serve the Lady Eowyn, who will govern the folk in my stead.’ ‘ But, but, lord,’ Merry stammered, ‘I offered you my sword. I do not want to be parted from you like this, Theoden King. And as all my friends have to go to battle, I should be ashamed to stay behind.’ ‘But we ride on horses tall and swift,’ said Theoden; ‘and great though your heart be, you cannot ride on such beasts.’

EowynDernhelmTheoden probably had the best intentions in mind when forbidding Merry to join. Yet, Theoden’s idea of what a warrior should look like influences his behavior and treatment of others in a paternalistic way. From this passage, it is possible to say that a warrior is suppose to be male and physically strong. Everyone else that does not fulfil those criteria is perceived as weak and ‘needs’ to be protected. Eowyn must be already used to this since she does not even try to argue with Theoden. She has her own plans instead and provides Merry with “gear […] to be armed for battle” and disguises herself as a male rider called Dernhelm.

In disobeying Theoden’s command, Eowyn, as well as Merry, became a crucial part in the battle of the Pellenor Fields. In other words, Eowyn’s and Merry’s disobedience have positive consequences. Furthermore, Jane Chance argues in her book The Lord of the Rings: The Mythology of Power that:

[…] the tribe of Rohan convinces us that the old may be stronger than their appearance suggests; so also we will later learn that the most valorous warrior may indeed be female rather than male. Eowyn, daughter of Eomund, will serve Rohan in battle better than any other Rider from the Mark. She is also awarded lordship of Rohan in their absence. Throughout, ignominious Hobbits, the frail elderly, and the female occupy […] the most heroic roles.

Theoden dies before he realizes that it was not only Merry who disobeyed, but Eowyn as well. However, Theoden is not resentful, but maybe changing his notion of warriors and perceived “weaker” members of society:

‘Forgive me, lord’, [Merry] said at last ‘if I broke your command, and yet have done no more in your service than to weep at our parting.’ The old king smiled ‘Grieve not! It is forgiven. Great heart will not be denied. Live now in blessedness; and when you sit in peace with your pipe, think of me […] ‘

We do not know how Theoden would have reacted if he knew that it was Eowyn that came to his aid, but his reaction towards Merry indicates that Theoden is a good person at heart. Furthermore, Theoden’s notion of ‘warriors’ is shaped by the ideals prevailing in Rohan’s society as much as his upbringing. In my opinion, Thedoen’s entire behaviour towards Eowyn (as well as Merry) was well-meant, but misguided.

In conclusion, the analysis of Eowyn shows that it is not only important to count the passages whenever a female character is mentioned. Instead, a brief appearance within a given text can reinforce the social role of a character in a given society. More importantly, it shows that “it is not the strength of the body that counts, but the strength of the spirit.”

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5 Comments

  1. Thank you for doing a write-up on Eowyn, I don’t think enough people pay attention to the significance of her character and the role that she has played. To date, she is one of my most absolute favorite LOTR characters.

  2. Another interesting point in the Houses of Healing is Eowyn and Faramir’s relationship, in which she decides to put down the sword and take up things like gardening. Some have criticized this as a tough women throwing away her ideals to submit to a man. This is not the case. Eowyn comes from a society where war is glorified, and sees it as the only way to win renown, or be of importance or worth. I repeat: Eowyn believes that to be of worth, she has to be a killer or to be killed; she expresses this herself (not in these words, but you get the idea).

    The long story short is this is not Tolkien’s view of war, and Eowyn’s view is a narrow and even poisonous one. Aragorn even says a shadow was upon her long before her encounter with the Lord of the Nazgul. So while Eowyn’s (and Merry’s!) role in the battle was extremely important, and a lot of good came from it, war itself is still not a good thing. It is also very important to mention that Faramir himself had no love for war, and desired to take up the same things as Eowyn: to garden. Faramir is opening the Shield Maiden’s eyes and showing her war is not all it is cracked up to be (indeed while her disobedience to Theoden is seen as a good thing, there was still consequence for her actions: the harm she suffered from the Black Breath, couple with her own personal “shadow”). What Tolkien is dealing with here in the story is a completely different theme of war and violence (and even redemption), which is often mistaken for chauvinism, or the theme of such.

    Good article!

  3. A fantastically well written article. Thank You.

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