A Bit of Background
I must admit that Éowyn was a very difficult character for me to understand the first time I read LotR, and I am still not sure that I understand her entire character arc. I am sure that there are scholars and critics better able, and in a more appropriate place, to comment on her portrayal as a woman and to her motivations and resolution. Let me clarify, then, that what I am trying to convey here is the understanding that I had of Éowyn as an eleven-year-old boy, whose life experiences did not include putting myself in other people’s shoes very often except through literature.
Since I was still an immature reader, though I was probably advanced in ability for my age, I would say that I lacked the kind of empathy that comes through life experience. I tried to understand everything I read through my own frame of reference. I literally thought about each character’s actions and tried to understand how I would have to feel in order to act the way they did. As we grow up, this kind of reading, I believe, becomes less necessary, as we can relate characters’ actions to other people’s actions and feelings easier because we have experienced more. Regardless, this means that I was attempting to understand how an eleven-year-old boy from the southern US would have to feel to act the way that Éowyn does…I am sure you can see how this was a flawless interpretation technique.
From this vantage point, I was able to understand many of Éowyn’s early actions. She was proud, and she wanted to help her king and people through action. This was not difficult for me to understand. Pride is something I relate to very easily, having had an abundant share of it myself. I understood entirely why Éowyn wants to, and ultimately does, ride into battle with her kin. The difficulty for me came about when I tried to understand Éowyn’s very complex interpersonal relationships.
I should perhaps remind everyone that in my first reading I did not read any introductory material or any of the appendices. This means that I was completely unaware of the relationship between Aragorn and Arwen until much later. This influenced my interpretation of Éowyn because it means that I was completely unaware that Aragorn’s comment about Rivendell was a romantic refusal.
‘“Were I to go where my heart dwells, far to the North I would now be wandering in the fair valley of Rivendell”
For a while she was silent, as if pondering what this might mean’ (RK, V, ii, 784).
To me, this was simply a statement that people do not always get what they desire. Aragorn would rather be at peace in a place that he loved than leading men into battle.
The most resonant statement for me was that Éowyn feared ‘a cage’ more than anything else (RK, V, ii, 784). This statement resonated with me on the same level as Merry’s experience during his time in Rohan. They both wanted to be helpful, but were being stereotyped as lesser and ignored.
Finally, I want to talk about Éowyn’s epic stand (I will talk about her relationship with Faramir and the Houses of Healing in a later post). While Éowyn was a complicated character to me, I had no difficulty appreciating her courage and valor in standing up to the leader of the Nazgûl. She becomes enraged after her uncle is mortally wounded and, in her bravery, she challenges and defeats the fearsome foe. She delivers one of the most marvelous lines of prose I have ever read:
‘But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Eómund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him’ (RK, V, vi, 841).
The dramatic tension leading up to this moment was so powerful, and I remember cheering out loud when she stands up to him and reveals herself. This was truly a remarkable passage to me as a first-time reader.
As a side note: perhaps the strong impact of this moment, the strength in Éowyn’s identification as a woman in the midst of the largest battle in the text, is what blinded me for so long to the valid claims that Tolkien does not include enough women in his narrative. I held on to this one climactic instant and made it a pinnacle of the story, which it is, but I allowed it to obfuscate shortcomings which were related to it.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Let’s talk about her brother Eomer, then talk about Denethor.
What Do You Think?
How did you approach Eowyn’s character in your first reading?
How did you react to her stand against the Nazgul?
Did I miss anything? Let me know!