As they do every year, members of the Tolkien Society have invited readers and fans alike once again to share their favorite passages and Tolkien-related articles, united by a common theme, to celebrate Middle-earth’s New Year. This event is called Tolkien Reading Day and it occurs on March 25th, the day that Barad-dûr fell as The One Ring was finally destroyed.
This year’s theme is “hope and courage” and, as such, Éowyn, the Lady of Rohan, immediately came to my mind, as one of the characters who embodies these virtues the most, at least for me.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
This is an essay, but not an academic nor an argumentative one.
So, in simple words: I won’t be quoting other people (besides Tolkien, obviously) nor will I try to convince you, as the reader, of the objective, factual “truth” of anything that I’m going to say. To get it out of the way, I’ll say it upfront: this reading is 99.9% not probably what the author originally intended. This is not me sharing some groundbreaking discovery about this character. This is not even about producing evidence that my reading is somehow correct, no.
So what is this about?
This is about me sharing my thoughts on a favorite subject and character. It has literally no purpose. Your opinion is as valid as mine.
The only difference between us is that I took some time to write it down.
Éowyn began her literary life as one of two beautiful young lady attendants to King Théoden (the other being the King’s daughter, Idis). From the very first draft, however, Éowyn was destined for greatness. It is her beauty that freezes Aragorn in his place and, throughout the first surviving manuscripts of The Lord of the Rings (LOTR), it is Éowyn who performs the very important task of attending the guests after victory in battle.
In successive rewrites the relationship between Aragorn and the White Lady of Rohan changed, as well as many other details, but one thing remains: her distant beauty and restrained emotionality. This I find mostly in the first draft when the text points out that her face “shone with serene piety and her eyes were filled with unshed tears.”
As a kid, I felt like Aragorn in situations such as this. I was also transfixed by Éowyn from the very first encounter, and had a special place in my heart for her.
During my first couple of readings of LOTR I usually identified with the most obvious heroes of the story, such as Aragorn and Frodo. Successive readings—in later stages of my life—brought me closer to heroic characters of a more subtle kind, such as Théoden and Denethor. One of the reasons that I despise the movie “adaptations” (perpetrated by Peter Jackson, Phillipa Boyens, and Fran Walsh in the script), is the utter destruction of Denethor as a character. In the books he’s not a cruel, childish madman. He’s a powerful man who bears an unbearable burden. Unlike Saruman, for example, who Sauron corrupted easily through the Palantír, the Seeing Stone, the Steward of Gondor resisted any and all temptations from the Dark Lord. The only way Sauron found to influence, albeit indirectly, Denethor’s behavior was to display all the power of his armies and deepen the sense of isolation of Gondor’s ruler from any potential allies in the war.
But I digress.
During my last readings of LOTR I’ve come to appreciate and feel identified with yet other characters, Éowyn being the chiefest among them. I’ve read again and again the transcendental scene at Pelennor Fields, the one that has been immortalized so many times by so many artists.
The battle between Éowyn and the Witch King.
The ride from Dunharrow to Minas Tirith is one filled with awe and wonder. Among all the hastily gathered warriors, however, rides one who was not supposed to go: the White Lady of Rohan, disguised as a man, Dernhelm.
One may argue that Éowyn’s initial exclusion from this war effort, both suicidal and worthy of song in nature, is yet another sexist aspect of Tolkien’s work. This can be so, I don’t deny it, but there are at least a couple of things that may make it more palatable—or even change your whole reading of it.
First: Éowyn was not left behind to perform an exclusively “womanly” role, such as it is often the case in fiction. She was supposed to be the leader of her people during the war and, if worse came to worst, she would lead the survivors during whatever time and conflicts they had to face.
Moreover, at no point in the narrative does Théoden or any other character mention that she should stay behind because she’s a woman and, in a patriarchal society, she should not be involved in war or fights. The whole point of having Éowyn stay behind is, instead, based upon the idea that she is the best for the job: beloved by her people and ready to lead them.
Anyway. In spite of however we choose to read the initial situation, the fact of the matter is that she rides to war as Dernhelm and, even more so, she brings Merry along, someone who was also supposed not to go into Minas Tirith.
The battle between Éowyn and the Witch King of Angmar has to be one of the most exciting and well-written scenes of action in all of fiction, in my humble opinion. The setting up of the scene, the initial exchanges, and the final confrontation are all superb. Tolkien chooses to ground the action from Merry’s viewpoint, who doesn’t know who Dernhelm is and, in doing so, allows for us to be as surprised as he—and the Nazgûl is—when he uncovers his face and claims, “But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund’s daughter.”
This line has been analyzed and discussed to death, both seriously and in jest. But I see something different there now. I read a woman who has admired masculinity so much that she disregarded whatever role or power she was given because she related it to the femininity she has for so long despised as weak and feeble. That same woman, given the chance, dressed as a man and went into battle—choosing an almost certain death over life—because death as a man seemed more desirable than life as a woman.
And that same person, when the hour came, discovered herself as a woman, and chose to fight as one. Notice that in the text she never says as Éowyn that she’d rather die; Dernhelm is the suicidal fighter, the warrior who will only rest once the enemy has taken his life in battle.
Éowyn means life, for me. Her acceptance of her female name and persona is an affirmation of life over death, of being who you really are—and live with that—instead of seeking refuge in fantasies of fulfillment that will only last a few seconds before death takes you. Éowyn is hope and courage; Dernhelm is desperation and recklessness.
I am Éowyn. Or, better said: today, I choose to be like Éowyn. To imitate her decision and to embrace life as the woman I am and not the man that I’m supposed to be. I’ve lived for almost 35 years under a man’s disguise, fantasizing with achievements or accomplishments that would make me feel less of a mistake, a failure of existence.
I choose life, as I am. And hope and courage! No living man am I! I am Helena Real. That is who I’ve been for a long time, and that’s who I will be from now on.
I hope that you can accept me as I am. And, if not, I ask you to leave me (virtually) alone. I don’t want your arguments or explanations. Better for you just to disappear in silence.
And to the rest I say: thank you. I hope that we can work again, or remain friends, or keep on relating to one another in whatever way we’ve done so far. After all, Helena and Felipe are one. Helena was the one beneath Felipe’s mask all along, that’s it.