For those of you that don’t know, Eowyn is one of a handful of female characters from JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The plot revolves around a bunch of hobbits who have to chuck an evil ring in a volcano or the world will essentially end, and Eowyn helps them on their quest in a roundabout sort of way. As I’m sure you all know, The Lord of the Rings was a massive, slow-burning success – I’ve discussed this before, but the books were the source of countless characters, settings and themes that have become staples of modern fantasy, eventually coming to define the genre as we know it. Eowyn herself is a huge part of this, and some scholars and critics have come to regard her as a proto-feminist character.
But does she measure up to the hype? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!
- Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?
Eowyn is another one of those characters who has a significant part of her destiny already laid out for her. She is the Lady of Rohan, directly related to the ruling family – as such, certain things are always going to be expected of her. She’s always going to be responsible for the fate of her country in some capacity, whether she likes it or not, and this would have been at the forefront of her upbringing. Some things are completely out of her control – such as when she has to stay and care for her uncle, Theoden, because she is the only one who can prevent him from falling further under Grima Wormtongue’s influence.
That said, she does a lot to try and get things back under her control. She’s an accomplished warrior and rider – clearly having trained since quite a young age – and this is how she tries to protect and serve her country and her friends, rather than staying at home and looking after Rohan. It’s not much of a choice, but she does choose to stay with her uncle and look after him when she could leave – she wants to protect him as much as she can, even though she knows it’s almost impossible. When he’s cured, she then goes on to disguise herself as a man and sneak off into battle with the rest of her friends, and when she gets there she cleans up like a boss.
This is definitely not what’s proscribed for her by her noble birth – it’s made very clear that women in Middle Earth are almost universally expected to take a much more traditional role (with considerably less kickassery involved). As a noble lady she’s inevitably going to have to shoulder some political responsibility just because of the position she was born into – usually it’d be something a lot more like the role of a hostess. Eowyn may not get to choose the responsibility she’s handed, but she does get to choose how she handles it – despite what other people expect of her.
SCORE SO FAR: 1
- Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?
We don’t hear an awful lot about anybody’s hobbies in The Lord of the Rings – what with all the battles, they don’t often get a quiet evening to go to a dance class or something – but we can make a few educated guesses. Given Eowyn is a member of the Rohirrim (who are a very horsey lot), it’s safe to assume she enjoys horse-riding, and seeing as she’s trained as a shieldmaiden when this would be unusual for a woman in her position, we can assume she also enjoys fighting in some capacity.
But this is mostly conjecture. Her goals and beliefs are much more clearly defined, and they’re also pretty closely linked. She very clearly believes that she has a real duty to her people, and this informs most of her goals. She wants to stop Grima influencing her uncle, she wants to fight alongside her friends, and she wants to stop Sauron’s armies from advancing because doing so would keep her people safe. On a more personal level, she also dreams of doing ‘great deeds’, and half-believes and half-fears that she will one day be trapped in a more traditional role, and spends most of the novels trying to escape the ‘cage’ in which other men want to place her. That’s multiple goals and beliefs on several different levels, so I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 2
- Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?
By and large, Eowyn is a pretty consistent character. She’s brave, spirited, stern, and can be quite cold – but she’s also extremely determined and sticks to what she wants. Her skills are pretty consistent too; she remains a good rider and fighter all throughout the series.
SCORE SO FAR: 3
- Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?
A brave, determined young noblewoman is desperate to protect her people and her friends – and to prove her own capabilities – by any means necessary.
SCORE SO FAR: 4
- Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?
Eowyn does have a love life, but like many other characters in The Lord of the Rings, it very rarely influences her decisions. She has a crush on Aragorn that doesn’t really go anywhere throughout most of the books, and later gets together with Faramir. She frequently begs Aragorn to let her come with him on all his various escapades, and while you could make the case that this is the result of her love for him, I’m not so convinced. I think it’s much more likely that she asks to go with him as a result of her desire to protect people, and because she doesn’t want to be left behind in her ‘cage’ – although in fairness, you could probably interpret it either way.
For me, I think it’s really Eowyn’s sense of duty that motivates her, rather than romantic love. The reason I say this is that while her uncle Theoden is still under Grima’s control, she stays with him even though she’s in a situation (and a role) that makes her feel like she’s trapped – while she probably could get away by marrying someone, she knows that if she did she’d be abandoning her people to Grima and Saruman’s control. When Grima is kicked out of Rohan and Theoden rides off to battle, she does stay behind to rule Rohan in his absence, because there’s no-one else to do it – it’s only when they try to leave her behind again that she disguises herself as a man and sneaks off to war. At this point in the books, Aragorn is the one trying to leave Eowyn behind, and her frustration with him is pretty clear; personally, I see this as the point where she starts to fall out of love with him, but I suppose you could see her following him off to war as a sign of her devotion. It really comes down to opinion, and seeing as I don’t see it that way, I’ll give her the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 5
- Does she develop over the course of the story?
Eowyn doesn’t really change that much over the course of the novels. She’s a pretty static character – brave, determined and a little on the stern side – right up until the end of the last book, when she decides that she doesn’t want to fight anymore and becomes a healer. We don’t really see much of her reasoning for this decision, so it’s a bit out of the blue – she pretty much abandons everything that used to be important to her with very little explanation. I’m withholding the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 5
- Does she have a weakness?
Eowyn doesn’t really have much of a weakness, either. She’s very stern and cold, but this is often presented as a sign of her strength or her suitability to rule. Her strong sense of duty sometimes works against her, but more often than not it’s used to illustrate just how noble and self-sacrificing she can be. I suppose you could argue that she might be a bit on the reckless side given that she runs off to battle without telling anybody, but I really don’t think this is the case, considering how well-trained she is and how well she manages to keep her true identity hidden. Aside from these – which often work in her favour and don’t really hold her back – she doesn’t really have any weaknesses. I’m withholding the point.
SCORE SO FAR: 5
- Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?
Eowyn isn’t a huge influence on the plot, but she certainly makes her mark. Most of the time she functions as a character who holds things back rather than someone who makes them happen. She holds back the full extent of Theoden’s madness while he’s under Grima’s influence, she creates a lot of tension when she tries to convince people to let her fight, and she keeps Rohan safe while the men are away at war. She’s not always a character at the forefront of the action – more often she’s used as a character to keep things in stasis while the really exciting parts are happening elsewhere.
But of course, the biggest thing she does in terms of the plot is take down the Witch-King of Angmar like a TOTAL BADASS. Because of an ancient and very carefully-worded prophecy, she was literally the only person who could have done this, and if she hadn’t been there he would have slaughtered pretty much everyone. Never send a man to do a woman’s job.
SCORE SO FAR: 6
- How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?
In some ways, Eowyn can be seen as a really progressive character. She’s a noblewoman who’s expected to be demure, passive and retiring, but instead she proves herself to be a strong ruler, an excellent rider and a ruthless warrior. She’s always presented as a strong character and she’s also something of a feminist – there are a few moments in the novels where she confronts other characters on their sexism and goes out of her way to prove that she is just as capable as a man.
But then, when the battle is over, she falls in love with Faramir, marries him, and decides to give up on fighting altogether. There are still a few more battles to be won – admittedly not as many after Sauron’s defeat, but there’s always a few loose ends. However, after spending two books desperate to do great deeds and prove herself as a warrior despite the gender prejudices she faces, she immediately hangs up her sword the second she gets a boyfriend.
This is a real setback for her character. It’s not that she found love that’s the problem: it’s that when she found it, she immediately gave up on everything she based her life around, everything that meant so much to her, and everything she spent her life fighting for. This draws on an age-old stereotype about women – the belief that any tomboy will immediately transform into a paragon of perfect femininity when she meets the right man and settles down. It reinforces the stereotype that women still have to put up with today – the belief that all women really want is a good man to marry and make babies with.
But where does this leave all her badassery?
Eowyn is pretty much a reincarnation of the ‘shieldmaiden’ – a character traditionally found in Old English, Norse and Scandinavian folklore. It’s a catch-all term for a female warrior that pops up in a number of different cultures – mostly in folklore and sagas – but unfortunately, nobody knows if they actually existed in real life. A regular feature of Viking mythology in particular, shieldmaidens pop up as young women, break some heads, and then either settle down with a nice Viking boy or die a grisly death.
While shieldmaidens can certainly be seen as quite a progressive element because of the fact that they know how to wave a sword around, some scholars think that because of the ways their stories end, they were actually meant as a way to warn women about stepping outside the boundaries of traditional gender roles. Shieldmaidens either go back to their traditionally feminine roles when they accomplish their quests, or keep on fighting (which was still a man’s role in most Scandinavian societies) and die a horrible death as some kind of punishment.
Eowyn falls right into this trap. In The Lord of the Rings, the Witch-King of Angmar is the subject of a prophecy that says no man can kill him. Eowyn is there to fulfil that narrative purpose – she is not a man, and she kills him. Once she does this, she has done the job her character was created to do, and she fades into the background once again. Like her counterparts in the Old Norse sagas, she’s a progressive and interesting character while she is on her quest; once she’s completed it, she steps right back into the cage she was once so afraid of.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, Tolkien based the mythology of Middle Earth on Old English, Scandinavian and Norse folklore – he was actually a Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University. We shouldn’t be surprised that Eowyn’s character draws such clear parallels with the shieldmaidens of the Old Norse sagas, but it does throw her character into a different light. Essentially, she is only allowed to be a progressive character when the story demands it. Her foray into warfare is painted as a temporary endeavour. It’s easy to draw another parallel here between Eowyn’s role and the role of women in the Second World War, which inconveniently took place right when Tolkien was trying to write. Much like Eowyn, when the men were away women were expected to step up and take on the roles they left empty when they went off to fight; but when the men came back, women were expected to go right back to where they were.
It’s pretty clear that this is what’s influencing Eowyn’s character, and this really enforces the stereotype that the main focus of a woman’s life is settling down and having children. Anything else she might do – even if it’s stabbing the Witch-King of Angmar in his actual face – is only a temporary distraction. I’ll give her half a point.
SCORE SO FAR: 6.5
- How does she relate to other female characters?
Eowyn simply doesn’t relate to other female characters. We never see her have any kind of interaction with another woman that’s given any kind of substance – at most, we see her delivering a few token lines to her servants or subjects. This is very disappointing considering that there are quite a few female characters in the books with very different roles, but we just never really get to see them interact with each other.
Part of this is due to the way that female characters are written in The Lord of the Rings. There’s no woman in the fellowship, and the female characters that we do meet don’t tend to travel all that much – as a general rule, they tend to stick to their particular area of the map. The result of this is that even though there is more than one female character in The Lord of the Rings, they all effectively exist in isolation. What this means is that they don’t just function as characters in their own right – they come to exist as representations of femininity in their own particular cultures. Eowyn doesn’t act on behalf of all women in Middle Earth, but it’s very easy to see her acting on behalf of all women in Rohan. I’m withholding the point.
FINAL SCORE: 6.5/10
Eowyn is a character who takes control of her own destiny, has distinct goals and beliefs that drive her through the series, is consistent in both skills and personality, isn’t ruled by her love life and pushes the plot along – but she still hasn’t passed my test. Aside from her lack of development, weaknesses and relationships with other female characters, she’s a bit too shaky when it comes to gender stereotypes to completely ace this test.
I think that part of this is due to the way that The Lord of the Rings is written, and the mythology that inspired it. As I discussed earlier, a lot of the plot is inspired by Scandinavian legends, which tend to focus on the exploits of men on the battlefield. A lot of it could also be to do with the style in which it is written. The books are written in very old-fashioned language which draws heavily on both Classical and Anglo-Saxon epic poetry, which tends to be a bit too high-minded to really develop the flaws of more than its main heroes. This is a common feature of many myths and legends, which don’t usually discuss the personalities of their heroes and heroines in enormous amounts of detail. It could also be because of the conservative time in which the books were written – as I’m sure all of you know, Britain in the 1930s to 1950s was one of the most socially conservative places in the world, and this would have inevitably influenced Tolkien’s writing.
Regardless of Tolkien’s influences, there’s no getting away from the fact that Tolkien’s female characters are largely background characters. They’re excluded from several stretches of the story – such as the initial journey of the fellowship and several of the main battles – and we only ever see one significant female character at a time. They aren’t treated as unique characters in the same way that their counterparts are, and nowhere is this more clearly emphasised than in the way their stories end. Tolkien’s female characters all get happy endings in the form of happy marriages – even Eowyn, who was terrified of being shut in a ‘cage’ and dreamed of glorious battle.
Next week, I’ll be looking at the Pirates of the Caribbean. Elizabeth Swann, I’m coming for you.
And if you’re looking for all my posts on Strong Female Characters, you can find them here.