Response: Understanding Éowyn, Part Two

Last month, I wrote about how The Lord of the Rings Éowyn is one of my favourite Tolkien characters, despite my struggle to comprehend her from a feminist perspective. I want to develop a more perceptive view of Éowyn, so I can better inform my opinion of her and understand her role in Middle-Earth. Ultimately, I’d like to settle whether I can successfully argue Éowyn is a feminist icon (or conclude that that’s an unwinnable debate) through examining various facets of her character along the way. What I didn’t mention in Part One (because I didn’t realize it then) is how this process mirrors what I did when starting an essay – read the source, take notes, add a few thoughts, eventually synthesize all sources into my final argument. I really do miss university! In Part One, I commented on Brent D. Johnson’s article “Éowyn’s Grief”, in which he explores her “grief and recovery [as] a portrait of many soldier’s family members who remained in England during World War I” (117). The article I will explore this week links to Johnson’s in that it also considers Éowyn’s role in context with World War I.

Smith, Melissa. “At Home and Abroad: Eowyn’s Two-Fold Figuring as War Bride in The Lord of the Rings.” Mythlore 26.1 (2007): 161-72. Web. (Purchase digital article)

  • Smith’s perspective: “Éowyn’s relationships with Aragorn and Faramir thus cast her in the dual roles of war bride-left-behind and foreign war bride”. She is “a negative example of the former [but] a positive example of the latter” (161).
  • Smith recounts the origin and definition of war bride (161-3). The term can refer to either “the newlywed wife left in the homeland by the soldier” (applicable to Éowyn  and Aragorn) or “a bride of foreign origin married after necessarily hasty engagement to a serviceman of the occupying, usually friendly, country” (applicable to Éowyn and Faramir) (163).
  • Smith acknowledges in footnotes alternatives to the interpretation of Éowyn’s love for Aragorn as romantic. She references Janet-Brennan Croft, who argues Éowyn’s love is the same sort of “homoerotic, non-physical ‘crushes’ experienced by soldiers” in WWI (qtd in. 163). 
    • This continues to be an aside throughout Smith’s article (although whether Éowyn’s love is romantic or not isn’t wholly relevant to Smith’s argument – Éowyn still embodies characteristics of a war bride). I prefer to take this up as the main interpretation of Éowyn’s love of Aragorn, rather than an ‘alternative view’. Indeed, this is what both Aragorn and Faramir perceive (Smith quotes Faramir’s observation on 164).
  • Éowyn as a war bride-left-behind
    • Smith compares Éowyn to Ruth Wolfe Fuller, who penned  “The Experiences of War Bride” after her “husband was drafted into the United States [WWI] army two months after their marriage” (162). Smith highlights moments when Éowyn’s reactions to Aragorn “mirror” Fuller’s reactions (164). Some examples:
      • Éowyn discourages Aragorn from seeking the Paths of the Dead in part because he will find no honour along that path. Similarly, Fuller and her husband “chose not to claim exemption because to do so would be a ‘compromise with honour'” (qtd in. 164).
      • Both cannot bear to be parted from their loves, yet they strive to their duty as necessitated by living in wartime (164-5).
      • Both are eager for news from the war front (165).
      • Smith concludes this segment stating that Éowyn functions as an “Anglo-Saxon equivalent of a modern homebound war bride” but “fails to be an exemplary one” (165) because of “petulance and reluctance to accept her role” (167). In this Éowyn differs from Fuller.
        • Smith carefully notes this is not a criticism of Éowyn’s character. In footnotes 11 and 12, she acknowledges Éowyn’s struggle to find her place in society, citing her naturally strong spirit, her upbringing among among men in a warring society, and her training that she is forbidden to use (166-7).
      • Smith also draws parallels between Éowyn and Edith, Tolkien’s wife and herself a war bride during WWI. I had not thought to connect the two. Both experience great discontent with their expected roles during wartime (166-7).
    • Éowyn as a foreign war bride
      • Smith begins her second discussion on a lighter note, writing that foreign brides do not experience so much of the “demoralizing passivity” that brides-left-behind do – that Éowyn experienced in her relationship with Aragorn. Éowyn’s “new role […] requir[es] the intrepid spirit and desire for activity so prominent in her character” (167).
      • Éowyn and Faramir’s relationship shows “many similarities to descriptions of courtship as experienced by young soldiers and their lovers in foreign lands” (167). Some examples:
        • The rapid development and forward acknowledgment of interest
          • Smith notes such characteristics are “uniquely acceptable” during wartime,  “when relocation and even death loom large in the future” and relationships must blossom “to endure separation” (167-8).
          • Tolkien himself addressed criticism of the speed of Éowyn and Faramir’s relationship, writing, “In my experience feelings and decisions […] ripen very quickly in times of great stress” (qtd in. 163).
        • Éowyn initially expresses reluctance to accept Faramir’s interest. Smith attributes this to “the idealistic faithfulness of the war bride-left-behind [doing] battle with the readiness of the foreign war bride” (168). Éowyn has already been impressed by soldier Aragorn, but uncertainty and absence lies with him, so she accepts Faramir in his stead (as foreign war brides did with their suitors). 
        • Another characteristic of the foreign war bride and her soldier is the “approval of fellow men-at-arms to make marriage possible” (168). Éowyn and Faramir’s union plays out amongst and with the support of those who have just returned from battle.
        • Perhaps the most distinguishing aspect of the foreign war bride is the process of assimilation she must undergo, both into her husband’s family and a foreign culture (169).
          • Éowyn sharply observes her potentially difficult situation when she says, “Then must I leave my own people, man of Gondor? And would you have  your  proud  folk  say  of  you:  ‘There  goes  a  lord  who  tamed  a  wild shieldmaiden  of  the  North!  Was  there  no  woman  of  the  race  of  Númenor  to  choose?’” (qtd in. 170)
          • In the end, though, all works out for Éowyn, and her marriage to Faramir is considered a “positive unification of two cultures” (171).
    • Towards the end, Smith’s comments prompted me to think about something more related to Johnson’s article than anything Smith discusses here – about Éowyn’s renouncement of her desire to achieve honour and glory in death on the battlefield. Smith’s comment about Faramir and Aragorn thinking the Rohirrim lesser people who love war (170) prompted me to think, “Oooohohohoh it’s not just Éowyn who desires glory in war; it’s her people”. Now I realize this might turn the sexism discussion into a racism one, but at the very least I think it’s a good comment on attitudes towards war. It’s not about honour or glory, it’s about defending what one loves. Recall the iconic quote from Faramir: “[…] 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”. Faramir holds the ‘correct’ attitude to war, which Éowyn comes to recognize. (Ahhhh and now I’ve gone back around to the sexism argument, possibly, but that’s an ongoing conversation.)
    • Smith focuses more on Tolkien’s personal views than I am interested in. Part of her argument is that Tolkien sympathized with the plight of war brides and “the difficult of the role that war imposes on women”, which Smith claims disproves the idea that Tolkien was a “narrow-minded misogynist who dooms the women in his work to weakness and failure” (171). While I appreciate Smith’s exploration of Éowyn as a war bride, I think this conclusion is a bit of a stretch from what she discusses in her article. I think the overall article would have been stronger as a sole exploration of Éowyn’s rather character, rather than as an attempt to prove Tolkien isn’t a misogynist. It’s a great exploration, and gives further understanding to Éowyn , but I don’t think it’s a strong enough argument to base a claim that Tolkien wasn’t misogynist (for the record, I don’t believe he was. I just don’t think this article is the best place to make the argument.)

    I really enjoyed the two articles by Johnson and Smith. They gave me new perspective and have me excited to dig in further. Because these are new ideas fresh me, I haven’t been too critical but perhaps later on I’ll come back and reread these and have more constructive thoughts on them. Something I’ve been thinking about is how both articles relate key parts of Éowyn’s character in context with Faramir…that’s a bit tricky; is she only defined in the context of her relationship with a man? But then, I think that’s overdoing it – everyone is affected by how they interact with other people. It doesn’t have to be a sexist thing (but perhaps it is, and that’s the issue I’m continuing to explore). Now the question is – what to read next? Smith cites some articles that look interesting. I’m not sure when I’ll post Part Three, but certainly this won’t be the end of my exploration! Have you read any stories featuring war brides, or characters who undergo circumstances similar to a war bride? What was their experience like?