Eowyn and Feminism: A Rant Part 1

J.R.R. Tolkien is sometimes criticized for his female characters not being numerous or prominent enough. Despite this, he created the character of Eowyn, a warrior woman who disguises herself as a man so she can ride into battle alongside her brother and uncle, and was actually Aragorn’s love interest in earlier drafts. I read somewhere that Eowyn was created by Tolkien so his daughter would have a character to look up to, but I haven’t been able to find a source for it.

Anyway, Eowyn was an interesting and well-developed character that Tolkien clearly had some affection for. And she was treated with respect: her yearning to go fight and the unfairness of being left behind is treated sympathetically by both Tolkien and his characters, and never once is she dismissed because of her gender. Hell, she’s given the honor of killing the second most powerful bad guy in Middle-Earth (once Saruman lost his power) — even Aragorn didn’t get a memorable kill like that!

But when I glanced at her wikipedia page, I saw that feminist Peggy Griffin apparently claimed that Eowyn almost qualified as a “strong female character” (her exact phrasing) but didn’t because she decides to turn away from fighting and marry Faramir. The sneering implication of her text is that Eowyn is just being shoved into a romantic role with some random guy (not one of any importance), now that she’s done “playing” as a warrior.

What. A. Crock.

First, I do NOT like the stock “strong female character who wants to be a warrior, wears armor and defies authority” as an archetype, because it’s increasingly antithetical to good writing. It produces characters like the live-action Mulan, who has no flaws, no weaknesses, no identifiable qualities, no real obstacles to overcome, and thus flopped epically as a character because she was being compared to the well-developed, intelligent, hard-working, likable character from the 1990s. I’m not saying the “strong female character” archetype can’t be done well, but she needs to have more than “I rebel against all authority and I dress like a dude! Me so empowered!”

A female character should be written to be a good character first, and a woman second. Female characters should have to work for their triumphs, train, struggle, persevere, and work against their personal flaws in order to grow and become better (or if villains, possibly worse) people. Same as male characters. A good example is Leia from the original Star Wars trilogy: she was smart, capable, dynamic, strong-willed and an excellent leader on and off the battlefield, but she also had some personal flaws she had to overcome before she could find happiness. She had a bad temper (presumably inherited from her father) that often made her very snappish, and she had difficulty in Empire Strikes Back with expressing her deeper feelings that she has to work past (which she has, by the beginning of Return of the Jedi, which also coincides with the subsidence of her anger).

So it pisses me off that Ms. Griffin dismisses Eowyn’s journey just because it involves falling in love and retiring from the battlefield. You know why that isn’t an antifeminist thing to do?

Because all of the men do it.

Okay, not all the men get married at the end, but a substantial portion of the cast does. Aragorn gets married within a year, as does Faramir (obviously, since he married Eowyn), and Sam. Even Eowyn’s brother Eomer immediately starts sniffing around the Gondorian ladies in order to find himself a queen as fast as possible. Merry and Pippin didn’t get married to their wives right away (especially since Pippin is still technically a kid when the war ends) but they do settle down and get married, and later become the respective leaders of their clans.

And precisely why should Eowyn make being a warrior a way of life? All the men stop fighting when the war ends. Sure, some of them have to have some small-scale, brief conflicts because they have kingdoms and the Shire, and bad guys will inevitably attack. But none of the male characters continue fighting as a lifestyle after the war. And yet Griffin and her sneering cohort Liang claim that the ONLY reason a woman would quit her martial pursuits and get married is because she’s being forced into subservient domesticity under the patriarchy.

That’s because neither of them understand how Tolkien thought… and I suspect that is because neither of them has ever been a soldier, or even probably talked to one. Tolkien was a soldier, in the most hideously wasteful, pointless, poorly-handled wars in the history of the human race. He did not think that war and fighting were things that people — male or female — should do as a full-time pursuit, as a way of life. He thought that after the war was over, then people go home, get married and live peaceful lives.

Eowyn is literally being criticized for being treated exactly the same as the male characters. It probably never would have even occurred to Tolkien that he should write her eschewing marriage, donning a metal bra and riding around looking for people to kill. Not because he wanted to deprive a female character of power, but because it literally would not have occurred to him that anybody should do that. It’s not a matter of male vs. female, it’s just how he thought everyone should live.

That’s because Tolkien didn’t think of fighting as empowering, because he wasn’t an idiot. He knew that being a warrior was not just dangerous, but painful, messy, and capable of taking a terrible toll on a person (presumably he witnessed the shellshock victims after the wars). He knew that some people might find fame and honor on the battlefield with impressive deeds, but he didn’t believe that fighting should happen for its own sake. The male characters of Lord of the Rings only ever fight to save the world, not because they think it makes them look awesome.

Consider this quote:

“War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; 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…”

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers

That quote, by the way, is by the male character that Liang dismisses as “any” man as if he had no importance. I think being the author’s mouthpiece on the morals and purpose of war is probably something reserved for important characters. Especially when the author specifically says that he identifies the most with that character… but hey, I’m not a “feminist scholar.” I just do research.

(Tolkien also didn’t have Eowyn dress as a man as some kind of feminist political statement — her dressing like a guy was purely practical, because she had to blend in with a force of men)

They also managed to miss the fact that Eowyn’s lust for battle-based glory is not depicted as a good thing. Eowyn’s longing for glory on the battlefield is at least partially based on suicidal depression and her frustrations over having to take care of her aged uncle, while her cousin died and her brother was exiled. Eomer suffered the same experiences, but he was able to go out and do something productive about it, because he was a man. By the time Eowyn kills the Witch-King, she’s pretty screwed up from months or YEARS of this treatment.

She’s not trying to fight from a healthy head-space — she’s trying to go out in a blaze of glory, after being trapped by her struggles in a country threatened with decay, because she sees nothing worthwhile in the life of a protector and leader off the battlefield. Aragorn explains in the Houses of Healing that she her crush on him was because he represented escape from Rohan and a chance for great deeds. That is not healthy.

And yet Tolkien is still completely sympathetic to her desires and wishes, even though they are not really in tandem with his own views on warfare.

“But who knows what she spoke to the darkness, alone, in the bitter watches of the night, when all her life seemed shrinking, and the walls of her bower closing in about her, a hutch to trammel some wild thing in?”

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

I can’t say for sure, but Tolkien probably saw a lot of women who wanted to do things, and had the spirit and inner strength to accomplish them, but were constrained by society’s gender roles. Hell, he worked at Oxford — he probably saw a lot of this sort of thing. And he clearly had sympathy for them and their struggles.

And yet, Griffin and Liang just see it as “herp derp, woman fighting good, woman getting married bad, fighting is empowering, herp derp!”



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