Response: Understanding Éowyn, Part 1

Éowyn is one of my favourite characters in The Lord of the Rings (not top three, but maybe top five and definitely top ten). From a feminist perspective, I struggle with my personal view of Éowyn as an admirable woman. At a glance, Éowyn appears to be a feminist character. Given just a touch more consideration, however, the feminist label falls away. Or does it? My struggle stems from the many ways one can interpret Éowyn’s character. She’s feminist because she kills the Witchking when a man couldn’t! She’s not feminist because she’s a rarely seen anomaly in Middle-Earth! She’s feminist because she gets to be the leader of her people! She’s not feminist because she’s only the leader when there are no men left! She’s feminist because she recognizes it’s okay to be feminine and not masculine! She’s not feminist because she gives up her masculine desires to be feminine! I’m sure there are more points others would add. And then where am I left? It’s easy to dismiss her character, especially when you consider Tolkien’s views. Yet, I don’t want to stop myself calling Éowyn feminist simply because I know her creator wasn’t. Even if one disregards Tolkien’s personal views, if one looks as Éowyn as an independent character, considers her a human being and not a mouthpiece, can I still consider her a feminist icon? Or if not a feminist character, can she at least be one I can look up to without feeling guilty about it? (And then, perhaps ‘feminist’ isn’t even label I particularly care about here. Maybe whether she’s feminist or not isn’t what’s important to me. I guess I just want to feel okay with thinking of her as a role model, in spite her of [apparently?] conflicting complexities.)

All this is to preface two articles I recently read about Éowyn that explore her from perspectives I hadn’t considered before. I’d like to summarize and respond to the ideas presented in one of those articles now, in hopes that I can get some clarification about her role in the story and expand my understanding of her.

Johnson, Brent D. “Éowyn’s Grief.” Mythlore 27.3 (2009): 117-27. Web.
(Purchase digital article)

  • Johnson’s perspective: “Éowyn’s  story  of  grief  and  recovery  is  a portrait  of  many  soldiers’  family  members  who  remained  in  England  during World War I” (117). Johnson cites +18 years as a military chaplain for giving him much experience in dealing with grief (119).
  • Johnson understand my Éowyn woes – his immediately asks “Is she a role model for feminists, or merely a pitiful, flat  character  (easily described  in  one  sentence),  or  is  she  a  woefully misunderstood young woman who merely wishes to die in battle?” (117)
  • The first part of Johnson’s article argues that Éowyn suffers from war-based traumatic grief rather than PTSD (117-120). He compares her experience to that of women (including war widows) during WWI.
    • Interesting point: Of Dr. Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief, Éowyn does not exhibit the final stage of acceptance (she doesn’t accept her place in the Houses of Healing) (119).
  • Johnson argument comes out strongly in the segment “Éowyn’s Traumatic Grief” (122-3), where he describes her symptoms of traumatic grief. I never thought of Éowyn as suffering immense grief, but Johnson makes a number of observations that demonstrate this. Some examples: Numbness to emotion (122), difficulty accepting the loss as real (123), inability to trust others, confusion over her role in life
  • Johnson explores Faramir’s role in assisting Éowyn’s recovery in the remainder of the article (124-7).
    • I initially braced myself for this part of the article. It might be understood as Faramir saves Éowyn (that would be a strike against the ‘feminist’ definition) – however, he saves her by being ‘feminine’, by having suffered great loss as well (as opposed to triumphing as warrior) and by helping her through her grief.
    • Johnson’s exploration of Faramir isn’t really part of my discussion here, but Faramir is my favourite character and I’m biased in his favour and I loved this exploration of his and Éowyn’s relationship.
  • Lastly, Johnson briefly addresses Éowyn’s decision to become a healer, renouncing her warrior ambitions. Only after experiencing great healing herself does she choose to become a healer (126). I would have liked Johnson to expand a bit on this point, but as it’s not one I ever really thought of before, I was happy to encounter it here.  
  • I nearly applauded at Johnson’s conclusion – “If  Tolkien’s  belief  that applicability “resides  in  the  freedom  of  the  reader  […]  (not)  in  the  purposed domination of the author” (LotR Foreword xvii) holds true, then each individual who reads Éowyn’s tale of grief will find hope restored in her healing and her calling as a healer. ” (127). As I wish to, Johnson demonstrates that it’s possible to look up to Éowyn (as a model of hope and recovery), regardless of authorial intent.
  • If you have any interest in Éowyn, I highly recommend this article! I’ve only given a general summary here.

The second article I read explores Éowyn’s role as war bride, but I think I’ve written enough for now! I’ll save that article for my next response post. I’m sure as I continue to delve into Tolkien scholarship I will read more about Éowyn and my views of her will continue to evolve. The opinions I express here aren’t set in stone. I’d love to know – what is your opinion of Éowyn (whether or not from a feminist perspective)? Are there other fictional female characters that cause you to debate in this way?

BONUS: I listened to this play list while working on this article.