Study Guide

The Return of the King Women and Femininity

By J.R.R. Tolkien

Women and Femininity

"Your duty is to your people," [Aragorn] answered.

"Too often have I heard of duty," she cried. "But am I not of the House of Eorl, a shieldmaiden and not a dry-nurse. I have waited on faltering feet long enough. Since they falter no longer, it seems, may I not now spend my life as I will?"

[…]

"Shall I always be chosen?" she said bitterly. "Shall I always be left behind when the Riders depart, to mind the house while they win renown, and find food and beds when they return?" (5.2.110-11, 113)

Éowyn has two pretty big problems here: (1) As a lady, she resents being left behind to tend the household while the Riders of Rohan (and particularly Éomer) have the freedom to ride off and be heroes. And (2) as someone with an official duty to her people, she can't just do whatever she wants. There is responsibility that comes from being a member of the House of Eorl, and in her case, that responsibility doesn't come with much power. But we know that the men and women of the Rohirrim are "valiant both alike" (The Two Towers 4.5.122), so you can imagine how frustrated Éowyn feels. But here's the real question: do you think Tolkien approves of Éowyn's complaints? Or does he agree with Aragorn and the other dudes? Are there ever instances in the The Lord of the Rings when it is virtuous not to do your duty—like Éowyn's riding into battle? Or is doing your duty a virtue in and of itself?

"Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!"

Then Merry heard of all sounds in that hour the strangest. It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel. "But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund's daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him." (5.6.14-15)

Take that, you ugly, stinky Nazgûl jerk! This is one of our favorite scenes because Éowyn finally gets to stick it to everyone who ever told her she doesn't have a place on the battlefield. More importantly, she gets to stick it to the Lord of the Nazgûl, who has fatally underestimated her awesomeness. The irony here is that the Lord of the Nazgûl underestimates her because he thinks she's a man, while everyone else has underestimated her because she's a woman. In the end, though Théoden's death marks a tragic point in the novel, it's also a moment of great triumph for one of Middle-earth's few women warriors. We couldn't resist letting out a little cheer.

The winged creature screamed at her, but the Ringwraith made no answer, and was silent, as if in sudden doubt. Very amazement for a moment conquered Merry's fear. [...] A little to the left facing them stood she whom he had called Dernhelm. But the helm of her secrecy had fallen from her, and her bright hair, released from its bonds, gleamed with pale gold upon her shoulders. Her eyes grey as the sea were hard and fell, and yet tears were on her cheek. A sword was in her hand, and she raised her shield against the horror of her enemy's eyes. (5.6.16)

She's a kick-butt warrior maiden, sure. But this description of Éowyn is particularly interesting because it shows two sides to her character. As both a warrior and a lady, she has distinct qualities of both: her bright hair is glowing underneath her helmet (so, that's feminine). Her eyes are "hard and fell" (masculine) and yet there are "tears [...] on her cheek" (that's feminine, in this context). In Tolkien's world, Éowyn can't be totally girly—she has to be hard and cold—because she's a warrior, and therefore needs some more masculine qualities. Can you imagine Tolkien's Arwen wielding sword and shield? Probably not, right?

"You pardon, lord," said the man. "I see you are a lore-master, not merely a captain of war. But alas! sir, we do not keep this thing in the Houses of Healing, where only the gravely hurt or sick are tended. For it has no virtue that we know of, save perhaps to sweeten a fouled air, or to drive away some passing heaviness. Unless, of course, you give heed to rhymes of old days which women such as our good Ioreth still repeat without understanding.

When the black breath blows
And death's shadow grows
and all lights pass,
come athelas! come athelas!
Life to the dying
In the king's hand lying!

It is but a doggrel, I fear, garbled in the memory of old wives. Its meaning I leave to your judgement, if indeed it has any. (5.8.67)

While Ioreth may be crotchety and perhaps too chatty, she still has wisdom in her old sayings. Ioreth's chatterbox nature is likable, whereas this guy—the herb-master of the Houses of Healing—seems like a patronizing jerk. He talks even more than Ioreth, showing off his learning regarding names, etymologies, and variations of plants. But he totally misses the importance of what he is saying in that rhyme of old days "which women [...] still repeat without understanding": "When the black breath blows [...] come athelas!" What does he think that means? Black breath, hello? While Ioreth may not match Galadriel in wisdom, she is still smart enough to recognize the truth in the old sayings she repeats, unlike this pompous old fool.

"When I first looked on her and perceived her unhappiness, it seemed to me that I saw a […] frost that had turned its sap to ice, and so it stood, bitter-sweet, still fair to see, but stricken, soon to fall and die? Her malady begins far back before this day, does it not, Éomer?"

"I marvel that you should ask me, lord," he answered. "For I hold you blameless in this matter, as in all else; yet I knew not that Éowyn, my sister, was touched by any frost, until she first looked on you. Care and dread she had, and shared with me, in the days of Wormtongue and the king's bewitchment; and she tended the king in growing fear. But that did not bring her to this pass!"

"My friend," said Gandalf, "[…] she, born in the body of a maid, had a spirit and courage at least the match of yours. Yet she was doomed to wait upon an old man, whom she loved as a father, and watch him falling into a mean dishonoured dotage; and her part seemed to her more ignoble than that of the staff he leaned on." (5.8.79-81)

Thank goodness Éowyn is unconscious. Otherwise, we imagine this would be incredibly awkward—to have three dudes surrounding her sickbed and discussing her love life. To make matters worse, one of them is her brother and the other is the man she loves unrequitedly. Cringe. They are discussing what has made her ill: is it the frost that came into her heart when she fell in love with Aragorn and he didn't return her feelings? Or is it the shame of having been stuck alone in the House of Eorl with her elderly, possessed uncle and Gríma Wormtongue? Either way, we do appreciate that Gandalf acknowledges the fact that Éowyn has Éomer's "spirit and courage" but "the body of a maid." He at least seems to understand that it ain't easy being a lady in Middle-earth.

"It is too late, lady, to follow the Captains, even if you had the strength," said Faramir. […]

She did not answer, but as he looked at her it seemed to him that something in her softened, as though a bitter frost were yielding at the first faint presage of Spring. A tear sprang in her eye and fell down her cheek, like a glistening rain-drop. Her proud head drooped a little. Then, quietly, more as if speaking to herself than to him: "But the healers would have me lie abed seven days yet," she said. "And my window does not look eastward." Her voice was now that of a maiden young and sad. (6.5.22-23)

We've said it before, and we'll say it again: Tolkien's depiction of Éowyn the warrior-woman is profoundly ambiguous. On the one hand, she is brave and stern. But somehow, this courage doesn't quite hang right on her female body. Her cool demeanor contrasts with what a woman should be—at least in Middle-earth's terms. Now that she has met a man who is apparently tough enough for her ("this tall man, both stern and gentle"), she is starting to soften and become more maidenlike, even in her voice. So, love is (apparently) making a woman out of Éowyn, much to everyone's approval. What gender politics does this transformation suggest?

"I stand in Minas Anor, the tower of the Sun," she said; "and behold! the Shadow has departed! I will be a shield-maiden no longer, nor view 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." And again she looked at Faramir. "No longer do I desire to be a queen," she said. (6.5.60-3)

Wait a second. So all it takes to turn a kick-butt shieldmaiden into a peaceful healer is the love of a good man? We're not sure how we feel about this transformation, but it seems Tolkien has something to say about gender through Éowyn's example. In any case, we'll turn it over to you: which Éowyn do you like better? The warrior woman, or the wife of Faramir?

And Frodo when he saw [Arwen] come glimmering in the evening, with stars on her brow and a sweet fragrance about her, was moved with great wonder, and he said to Gandalf: "At last I understand why we have waited. This is the ending. Now not day only shall be beloved, but night too shall be beautiful and blessed and all its fear pass away." (6.5.119).

Aside from Frodo's clever pun on Arwen's name among her people (Arwen Undómiel means Arwen Evenstar), this quote jumps out at us for its description of the lady elf. Based on Frodo's view of her, Arwen's primary virtue appears to be that she is lovely. Her beauty literally lights up the night. Unlike the active Éowyn, Arwen's main contribution to victory in The Return of the King is sewing a banner. Yep. She sews. Maybe that's why Peter Jackson felt the need to give Arwen's actions a bit of a boost in the movie version.

"Alas!" said Éomer. "I will not say that she is the fairest lady that lives."

"Then I must go for my axe," said Gimli.

"But first I will plead this excuse," said Éomer. "Had I seen her in other company, I would have said all that you could wish. But now I will put Queen Arwen Evenstar first, and I am ready to do battle on my own part with any who deny me. Shall I call for my sword?"

Then Gimli bowed low. "Nay, you are excused for my part, lord," he said. "You have chosen the Evening; but my love is given to the Morning. And my heart forebodes that soon it will pass away for ever" (6.6.13-6)

It surprises us that Tolkien so often describes Éowyn as cold and distant, when the two women in this scene, Arwen and Galadriel, seem utterly unreal to the king and dwarf squabbling good-naturedly over them. Gimli is willing to draw his ax against Éomer in The Two Towers when Éomer suggests that Galadriel is a witch. But what does Gimli truly know about her? For that matter, what does Éomer know about Arwen? Gimli describes Galadriel as "the Morning," while Arwen is "the Evening," which makes it seem as if these two female figures are more symbol than character.

"Hullo, Sam!" said Rosie. "Where've you been? They said you were dead; but I've been expecting you since the Spring. You haven't hurried, have you?"

"Perhaps not," said Sam abashed. "But I'm hurrying now. We're setting about the ruffians, and I've got to get back to Mr. Frodo. But I thought I'd have a look and see how Mrs. Cotton was keeping, and you, Rosie."

[…]

"I think you look fine, Sam," she said. "Go on now! But take care of yourself, and come straight back as soon as you have settled the ruffians." (6.8.123-24,127)

After they've been separated for a year, the first thing Sam and Rosie have to say to each other is "Hullo." Seriously, guys? That's all you have to say? Aside from this hilarious greeting, what strikes us about this scene is how self-sacrificing a female Rosie is. Sure, she wants to reunite with her sweetheart, but she knows he has some rather masculine problems to deal with first—those ruffians, to be precise. She immediately recognizes that Sam's duty (to Frodo and to the Shire) comes first.