John was a soldier huddled in the trenches facing No Man’s Land, feeling the most wretched he had ever been. He was cold and hungry, overwhelmed with the stench of unwashed bodies and infected wounds, the nearly endless rounds of gunfire and grenade explosions, the screams of the dying.
Sometimes he felt as if he would never again know the taste of bread and a proper cuppa tea, to breathe in air that was not foully tainted by the Enemy’s noxious poisons. Sometimes he felt that they were all under the pitiless gaze of some great Eye, naked in the Dark.
And then he heard an American voice say, “Don’t you understand? This is No Man’s Land. That means no man may cross it.”
And thus, John’s attention was captured by the hooded figure the American was speaking to. She dropped the cloak to reveal armor, that her hands carried a sword and a shield, and she ascended the ladder with steps swift and sure. John would always remember these words, though she herself had never said them aloud, but her actions spoke clear as day:
“I am no man.”
There she stood, a shining figure in the middle of No Man’s Land, facing the Enemy and drawing their fire, beautiful as the dawn, terrible as the sea, stronger than all the foundations of the Earth.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien does not remember how he scrambled up the ladder to follow after her, only that he and his fellow soldiers followed in Her wake, to fight by her side and onwards to victory.
So I get really narky when people pull the whole ‘oh Eowyn’s
storyline came to such a sucky ending; she was really cool going around killing
orcs and Witch-Kings and then she got shoved into a traditional girly role by marrying
Faramir and becoming a healer’ thing, because no. No-no-no-no-no. Not only does that
stray dangerously into the territory of ‘women only have worth if they’re doing
traditionally blokey things’, but that misses almost the entire point of Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien was in the trenches in the first world war, right?
He got all that ‘for death and glory’ shit shoved down his throat, that was the
whole point about the war, it was when so many people came to see how awful and
misleading all the propaganda about winning glory through violence and death was. And Tolkien’s work completely shows
that: it’s why the hobbits, who’ve never craved power or battle the way men do,
are the heroes of the book; it’s
why strong men like Aragorn and Faramir are shown to be lovers of peace rather
than war. It’s why the quote - but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for
its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory; I love only that which they
defend – is so poignant and beautiful, when
seen in the context of all Tolkien had gone through. He’d seen all but one of
his closest friends die in an utterly pointless war; the prevalent message in
his books is ‘if you’re going to have that many people die, let it be for
something worth dying for.’ (Like
defending your home from the lord of all darkness, for example.)
might be a fantastic female character, but she’s also got so much development
to go through, and she’s by no means perfect. I find it really interesting that when Eowyn talks to Aragorn
about wanting to go off and fight she never really actually mentions protecting
her people, but speaks about wanting to ‘face peril and battle’, and to
do ‘great deeds’. And it’s not that Eowyn doesn’t want to protect her people, because of course she does, but she’s also got such a
driving motivation within her to do glorious and fell deeds simply for the sake
of valour and renown. It’s one of her defining features, having an attitude
that got so many young men killed in the war and which, obviously, Tolkien
would have been very wary of.
(Also, I think, there’s so much in Eowyn that wants to prove
herself to be more than ‘a mere woman’; because twice in that conversation she
asserts that she’s no mere ‘dry-nurse’ or ‘serving-woman’, but a member of the
house of Eorl and therefore capable of greater things. There’s almost this
slight sense of Eowyn considering herself more than ‘just’ a domesticated woman that I
sometimes get from her in the books? Which is very sad - the idea of Eowyn having less regard for others of her sex who do mind the house or raise the children - and why I so love that ‘I am no man’ moment in RotK. Eowyn’s no longer hiding herself, or dismissing fellow women as the weaker sex,
but acknowledging and embracing the fact that women in all their forms can fuck you up.)
And then we reach
the Houses of Healing, and Eowyn yearning for death in battle just like her
Uncle Theoden, and basically buying into that whole world war one ethos that
Tolkien would have considered so poisonous. Which is why her friendship and
courtship with Faramir is so fricking beautiful.
Remember that quote I wrote earlier? That’s from Faramir. He’s not backing down
from conflict, he’s in no way less of a ‘real man’ than anyone else; he’s just
saying there needs to be more to the fight than simply having a fight. There needs to be a reason; something worth
fighting for. Eowyn recognises that Faramir is a good man in every sense of the
word: he’s strong and valiant, but he doesn’t fight simply to prove himself or
for the sake of winning glory, he fights for other people. And Faramir gently challenges Eowyn on her
idolisation of battle-glory and encourages her not to scorn gentleness or
peace, and he’s so freaking good for her.
(Seriously. Can we just stop for a moment and think about how
wonderful Eowyn and Faramir are for each other: Faramir encouraging Eowyn to
turn towards life and healing and openness while never denying her strength or courage, and Eowyn giving Faramir the
validation and security he never got after so many years of an awful
relationship with his father? I honestly don’t know why I don’t get all giddy
about these two more often, because they make the very best otp.)
And the result of the departure of the Shadow and her
friendship with Faramir is Eowyn’s decision that ‘I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I
will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren.’
I think that last bit is so important because I’m certain
that Tolkien doesn’t mean for Eowyn to immediately pack up her sword and shield
and become a good girl sitting at home with her knitting and waiting for the
men to return home after the fight – after all, she’s going to be the wife of
the Steward of Gondor and there’s a lot of mess to clean up after the War of
the Ring. Eowyn’s probably still going to find herself defending hearth and
home from time to time. But the important thing is that she’s no longer
defining herself simply by the doing of valiant deeds; she’ll no longer compare
herself to the great warriors of her house and feel lacking simply because she
hasn’t killed as many men. Most importantly, she’s not going to take joy only in the songs of the slaying, in
destruction and death. Tolkien was all about healers symbolising life and
rebirth, and Eowyn’s decision to become one – to aid in the preservation of
life rather than the taking of it – is so beautiful. I don’t think Tolkien ever
wrote Eowyn’s ending to make her reclaim her ‘lost femininity’; I think it’s a
lovely way of adding to the ever-present theme in Lord of the Rings of hope and
frailty and healing and friendship over glory and battle and strife.