Eowyn & I

I'm teaching a course this quarter on J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, and one of the more worrying conversations that the students and I have gotten into is over Tolkien's representation of Eowyn, specifically her role as a shieldmaiden.

On the one hand, Tolkien depicts Eowyn as a woman of enormous courage, defying her uncle Theoden to ride with the Rohirrim into battle against the forces of Mordor, standing alone when Theoden has fallen and all of his knights have either been slain or carried away, laughing in the face of the Lord of the Nazgul when he mocks her for a fool, saying, "No living man may hinder me!" It is Eowyn, a woman, who strikes down the Ringwraith's steed and, taking advantage of the hobbit Merry's help, drives her sword into the Black Captain's eyes, thus severing his spirit from his bodily form, and not incidentally saving Gondor and so Middle-earth from his evil power.

On the other hand, it is not as a shieldmaiden that Eowyn ends her days. When, in the Houses of Healing, Faramir declares his love for her, her heart "changed, or else at last she understood it." And she says, "I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren."

Many of my students read this change of heart as Tolkien's reasserting a proper feminine role for Eowyn, as if to say that women as such should be healers, not fighters. And yet, it is Tolkien himself who gave her the role as shieldmaiden in the first place. Without her courage and willingness to defy her uncle, the lord of the Rohirrim would have died unavenged. Moreover, without her compassion for Merry's desire to participate in the war, she would have been without aid herself in her confrontation with the Witch-king. There is likewise the strong implication that it was only as a woman that Eowyn was able to stand up to the Witch-king at all: "But no living man am I!"

What interests me here is the apparent conviction among some of my students that it is wrong, from a feminist perspective, for Tolkien first to cast Eowyn as a great fighter, albeit one longing for death, and then when she is healed of her wounds from the Witch-king, to give her a role parallel to that of her great love Aragorn as a healer (if not, to be sure, as a queen).* What they seem to want to insist is that more women would want to be fighters if men like Tolkien weren't constantly telling them to be healers instead.

But this, in my fencing experience, simply is not true. I cannot tell you the number of times I have horrified (non-fencing) female friends with my enthusiastic descriptions of bouts. They smile and nod and acknowledge that I seem to be getting a great deal out of the sport. They may say something about how it must keep me in good shape. But then, when I begin to explain what I have learned about engaging with other people from my experiences on the strip, they look worried and tell me, quite seriously, "But, Rachel ** , not every encounter is a fight." When I assure them that I know this and that, nevertheless, fencing has shown me important things about how I make assumptions about other people or about how to pay attention under stress, they shake their heads and say, "Oh, but it is simply too violent for me. Why can't you think about ways in which people come together more peacefully, not in combat but in cooperation?"

Now, if I weren't a feminist, I'd be wondering whether these women friends of mine weren't simply repeating what men like Tolkien or, rather, because Tolkien, after all, makes Eowyn a fighter, men like her brother Eomer would tend to assume, i.e. that women prefer the role of healer to fighter, or caring for a home to deeds of arms.*** I might likewise begin wondering why in an Open tournament of 56 foil fencers that we had at my club a few weeks ago, only 13 of the competitors were women. Women's events in such local tournaments are almost always half the size--or less--of the Mixed or Men's. Where are all the wannabe Eowyns?

My students tell me that women do not compete in such sports because women are not in our culture (early twenty-first century affluent America) encouraged to get as sweaty and dirty as men. And yet, they observe, even when Intramural college teams are required to have as many women as men, it is much harder to get enough women per team than men. Sports are not, of course, military combat nor is sport fencing like I do an actual duel. But it still seems curious to me that if women really do want to be warriors as strongly as Gandalf says Eowyn did, there are not more of them with me on the strip.

Perhaps, in allowing Eowyn a change of heart or a better understanding thereof, Tolkien was, in fact, simply making an observation about the roles women tend to assume when their families and homes are not under threat. But this still does not explain the paradox of my students' finding it insulting for Eowyn to accept being a healer as against my women friends' reactions to my eagerness to fence.

*It is, I think it important to note, Aragorn's skill as a healer, not a fighter, that ultimately identifies him as king.
**My alias; only my closest friends know my secret identity as Fencing Bear. But, then, now, of course you do, too. How do superheroines do it? (Keep their identities secret, that is.)
***N.B. that Gandalf is somewhat more perceptive than Eomer, who claims not to have noticed any "frost" touching his sister before she laid eyes upon Aragorn. Both Aragorn and Faramir know better. Indeed, Faramir acknowledges her as a fellow soldier, which may--to give Tolkien credit where credit is due--be one of the reasons that Eowyn falls in love with him. As Faramir says to her, "I do not offer you pity. For you are a lady high and valiant and have yourself won renown that shall not be forgotten; and you are a lady beautiful, I deem, beyond even the words of the elven-tongue to tell. And I love you."

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