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Over at Tumblr, this frankly very nicely done GIF set is making the rounds. It's built around this passage from The Lord of the Rings:

'Shall I always be chosen?' she said bitterly. 'Shall I always be left behind when the Riders depart, to mind the house while they win renown, and find food and beds when they return?'

'A time may come soon,' said he, 'when none will return. Then there will be need of valour without renown, for none shall remember the deeds that are done in the last defence of your homes. Yet the deeds will not be less valiant because they are unpraised.'

And she answered: ‘All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more. But I am of the House of Eorl and not a serving-woman. I can ride and wield blade, and I do not fear either pain or death.

'What do you fear, lady?' he asked.

'A cage,' she said. 'To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.'

I'm not going to try to say what the artist's interpretation of this scene was, or what drove other people to share it. But it reminded me of how I've often seen people concerned with gender and sexual equality (which, along with a proclivity for baby animals and all things SuperWhoLock, is probably Tumblr's defining feature) use this quote to put Eowyn up as some kind of feminine role model. So the GIF set and the quote made me think of that, and how awkward of an interpretation it is.

If you know the story, the "muster" of the Rohirrim (any men of fighting age) from Edoras are headed to Helm's Deep to make a stand against Saruman's forces, while those who can't fight are sent to a mountain retreat at Dunharrow. Theoden asks who he should send with them to lead them, and they ask for someone of the House of Eorl (his household), and he claims that the only person other than himself left from that household is Eowyn's brother Eomer (his nephew), and "Eomer I cannot spare." Only that's not true at all, as the people remind him; there's Eowyn, she is a noble and honorable woman of the ruling house, so appoint her as their leader.

Basically, Theoden assumes only a woman can be a good leader of his people in their stead, and the whole assembly corrects him with one voice. At which point Eowyn accepts the responsibility and agrees to shepherd the Rohirrim until the king returns. Fast forward a week or two and Saruman's forces have been routed at Helm's Deep, Pippin's looked into the palantir and is whisked off to Gondor, and Aragorn and Grey Rangers are riding quickly for the Paths of the Dead. They can ride considerably more quickly than Theoden (who has to meet the full muster in Edoras in any event), so this exchange between Eowyn and Theoden is taking place before Theoden's returned to grant her leave, and Aragorn cannot wait for Theoden to turn up. At this point she is honor-bound to look over the Rohirrim women and children and old men, and they are relying on her strength and the symbolism of the royal house surviving through her.

So when Eowyn asks Aragorn to take her with him, it's not so much that she wants an honorable task rather than making stew for any glorious soldiers passing through. She has an honorable role and is asking to be excused from it because ... why, precisely? I've always thought it was equal parts despair and the aftereffects of Grima's lurking and whispered words. Other people might understand it differently. But the point is basically she's asking Aragorn for permission to desert her post, which is actually a pretty damned important one. It's the kind of thing a high-ranking captain, someone the king trusted greatly but could have spared from the fighting, would have chosen if the people hadn't asked for her specifically. Eowyn may think of it as "finding bed and food when [the real heroes, the men] return," but that's not an accurate depiction of the situation.

To be honest, I've always found this a rather affirming moment as a woman: that not only would Eowyn be deemed a good leader by her people (not because of nepotism, but in spite of what her family thought she was capable of), but that she would be treated with the dignity of expecting her to live up to her obligations. If Eowyn would have let her break her obligations and ride with him, that would be saying her promise wasn't the kind of thing that she could be held to, that she was incapable of that kind of responsibility. Interestingly, I'm not convinced riding off as Dernhelm had the same problem, as she'd only promised to watch over the people until the king returned, which he did, but after this moment with Aragorn.

I'm curious. How do you guys read this scene? Do you think Aragorn's being sexist here when he expects her to stay behind, or is this actually empowering in some sense, or what exactly?


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 9th, 2014 07:21 pm (UTC)
This is why I think Eowyn is one of the most well-rounded characters Tolkien ever wrote: because there IS a moral and ethnical greyness in her desire to abandon her post and go to battle. She's allowed that, in a character we still love - to be flawed, to make a decision that may be selfish and, IMO, driven at least in part by deep depression and a death wish, and still be regarded as a heroine. She was deeply fatalistic about Rohan's chances, and she didn't want to be left behind to be presumably tortured and raped and killed when there were no warriors left to defend her. And she also was ambitious. And depressed. And disappointed in love. And had lived most of her life surrounded by danger and warfare. To stay behind and defend Rohan was definitely a position of honor and importance, and it's very ethically dubious for her to abandon it. But I have a lot of sympathy for her motives in doing so, as I think the reader is meant to.

If Tolkien had wanted to authorially punish her for that moment of either weakness-disguised-as-strength OR strength-disguised-as-weakness (or maybe both at once, like a real complex person with a complex choice to make), he could easily have done so. He did the opposite - she succeeded. She got everything she wanted, and more than she dared to hope for. She definitely did win renown in battle - you know the saga of Eowyn and the Witch-king was sung in Rohan for hundreds of years! - she survived, she fell in love, she got a prestigious husband and position of honor (it's not Queen of Gondor, but it's not chopped liver either!) and, so far as we know, lived a long and happy life.

Is Eowyn a feminist character? Well, that's kind of a simplistic question, but the answer for me is a resounding YES, and that's in part because she does make flawed decisions and in general acts like a real person might. She's not on a pedestal - she can't stand to be there. She has courage out the wazoo, and she also has despair, and both factors inform her choices. She's allowed that complexity - more of it than a lot of Tolkien's male characters have! - which is why she's so vivid.
Oct. 9th, 2014 07:57 pm (UTC)
I read Aragorn as being all about duty to one's obligations and/or one's sworn lord. Eowyn has an obligation to obey Theoden's commands - and I did read her as being a distant second choice for the job and relegated to 'women's work' - and Aragorn does not have the authority to relieve her of that obligation.

I concur about her being off the hook when the King returns, so that she can go off as Dernhelm without being in violation, though really only on a technicality. But that technicality is important; she has been denied service according to her skills due to her gender, and once even briefly in compliance with the terms of her assignment (until the King returns, as you note) she has to decide whether to remain constrained by gender bonds. Personally, I supported her choice - but that won't surprise you :)
Oct. 9th, 2014 08:55 pm (UTC)
I've seen both sides of Eowyn's decision debated, and I still am on the fence as to whether she was right or not, but clearly Tolkien thought it was necessary that she go.

As for Aragorn, I don't think he was being sexist. It was the same sort of thing he'd probably say to a male warrior who had been given the duty to stay and defend the homefront and who asked to ride off with him. He didn't have the authority to overturn Théoden's decision--Rohan was not Gondor. I think perhaps he worded it more gently because she was young and that her sex and her rank may have entered into things there--not just barking at her to obey orders, as he might have done to some captain or other. She was also a princess of Théoden's household, after all.

Whether or not Eowyn was meant to be any sort of feminist symbol, however, she has become one--and I think she is a good one.

Oct. 10th, 2014 12:00 am (UTC)
I agree with Dreamflower. It worries me that Eowyn abandons her post, though obviously it was her destiny, but who looked after the people at home?

I always enjoy your thoughts on Tolkien.
Oct. 10th, 2014 01:32 am (UTC)
Another aspect is what happens if Theoden & Eomer don't come back,
Which is likely. (I don't think Aragorn is being sexist for reasons others have said.)

I think she was too depressed to do any further good -- most of the organizing that needs to be done would have been set up prior to her finding out Aragorn was going to take the Paths of the Dead, which freaked her out. If the structure of the camp is already organized and ready for day-to-day waiting, her desertion would be less dire than fleeing a battle.

The worry, prior to finding out what Aragorn planned to do, would be if Theoden & Eomer died. Theodred was already dead. Beyond the grief into political matters: She'd be the last living close relative to the King, and would be expected to produce heirs. Even if she manages to be first Queen of Rohan -- more likely she would make her husband King -- after the years of Grima pursuing her, the prospect of a marriage of duty & heirs ASAP would be something to run from, would be a nightmare not an "honorable task". Which is how I deal with it in my what-if.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )



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