When I initially planned this blog post, I didn’t really pay attention to the dates. I decided a week ago to do posts on Tolkien every Friday in September since, as I pointed out last week, Tolkien’s death-day is this month and Hobbit Day is on September 22. I nearly burst into tears then when I saw the day this post would come out would come out a day before the day which traumatized an entire generation of young people—September 11. For me, it is especially grave. My father fought in the wars which resulted and was deeply traumatized himself. This is my first September 11 since his passing. He’s beyond all hurt and sorrow now, beyond all the pain. So, in memory of that day and of all the days which followed, and for all those who still live with the trauma, the hurt, and the nightmares, this is for you. This is for us all.
I decided that, for the benefit of those who haven’t either read the books or watched the movies, I’d break this into two parts: Part 1 will be an introduction, Part 2 will really hammer down the significance of Eowyn’s story.
When Peter Jackson’s movie version of The Return of the King came out my senior year of high school, there were two moments which still make me burst into tears: the charge of Rohan at the Battle of Pelennor and the moment when Eowyn, wounded, hurting, and seemingly crushed rips off her helmet and almost disdainfully declares “I am no man” before killing the unkillable Lord of the Nazgul. The version in the book to me is even more poignant, because Eowyn laughs at her enemy before making her declaration. Laughs, mind. Faced with death, she laughs. And her enemy hesitates in doubt. There is no room for his hesitation in the movie, the moment would lose some of its meaning on screen, I think, but it’s important to Eowyn’s overall story and her character. Why? Because her laugh is her moment of triumph. She is wounded in mind, she is wounded in body, but she laughs.
Her laugh is her triumph. She has been through mental abuse, she’s had to watch a beloved father figure slowly decline, and she’s been unable to do anything except be a caregiver. If any of you have ever had to be a caregiver for an extended length of time, you will know some of her frustrations. There’s a sense that you can’t live your own life, that you are alone, that you are making more and more sacrifices only to watch the person for whom you are caring not get any better.
For those of you unfamiliar with the books or the movies, I’ll give you a brief summary.
We first meet Eowyn in The Two Towers in the chapter entitled “The King of the Golden Hall.” Here, Gandalf the wizard lifts the spell of enchantment and sickness that had been laid upon Théoden, King of Rohan by a very sleezy and deceptive character known as Grima Wormtongue. Grima is a spy planted by the traitor wizard, Saruman and he has slowly been mentally and emotionally abusing not only King Théoden, but his niece, the Lady Eowyn with words, insinuations, and as Peter Jackson implicates, enchantments. Gandalf heals Théoden and galvanizes him to make a move against the armies Saruman has amassed. This he does. However, it’s what comes next that solidified who and what Eowyn is: he asks his captains who should be regent while he is away at war. He tries to get one of them to stay behind. They refuse and they petition him to make Eowyn their regent. Why? Because she is loved, and she is brave. The last we see of her before Théoden rides off to war is standing in mail before the king’s hall with the sword in front of her.
In The Return of the King, we see here again, and it is then we really get to see how much she has suffered. She practically begs to go to war several times. She reveals her frustration, her hurt, her weariness from the years of tending her uncle and watching everything she loved being unraveled before her very eyes. Before Théoden and the rest of Rohan’s army ride off to war in Gondor, she disguises herself as a man and rides off to war in Gondor, forsaking her regency. She ends up killing the Lord of the Nazgul, the head of the Ringwraiths who pursued Frodo in The Fellowship of the Ring and who are more demonic than human. In the process, she’s wounded and only finds healing at the hands of Aragorn, the long-lost king of Gondor. In the end, she is healed of her physical and most of her mental hurts, particularly when she meets and is courted by Faramir, the heir to the House of Stewards—the ones who had the care of Gondor while there was no king.
Well, she’s definitely not a man, is she?
When we look at Eowyn, and her story, there is a big temptation to see her as some proto-feminist figure. Someone denied power and then comes into her own. She’s not allowed to fight with the men, so she does so anyway and wins renown. Well, that is oversimplifying her character and it almost completely dismisses the hurt and the pain she suffered before the events of The Two Towers ever begin. Additionally, I think it’s a red herring. When we look at her words to Aragorn in The Return of the King, what our modern, overly political eyes see is the feminist argument. But what does she actually say?
What she actually says is that she’s tired of duty, she’s tired of being the caregiver, and she wants to live her life the way she wants. The words she uses specifically are “dry-nurse,” “serving-woman,” and the most telling of all when Aragorn asks what she fears, “cage.” This is not a woman who is bereft of “rights”: she was made regent over every other man in the kingdom after all. This is a woman who is exhausted from caring for her uncle, being powerless to do anything to stop either his decline, Wormtongue’s abuses, or the weakening of the kingdom overall. She’s stuck in a trap and unable to do anything about it. The laws of the land wouldn’t have allowed her to do anything about it. Not because she’s a woman, because even the men in the kingdom don’t like what’s happening, but because the king’s word is law and the king protected Wormtongue in his madness. Her one chance to do something was when she rode off in secret with the rest of her uncle’s army.
I will discuss more in Part 2 the rest of her mental state for that comes after her moment of triumph. I will also be discussing her ultimate motivation behind her longsuffering, her sense of duty, and her ultimate healing. For now, let’s return to Eowyn’s moment of triumph—her laugh—the moment for which I myself love her the most.
Her uncle and his horse are brought down by the Lord of the Nazgul. The rest of the knights in his household are either dead or carried off by their own horses in terror. Only Eowyn is left and one of the hobbits, Merry. She’s thrown from her horse, but she’s still able to take a stand.
Her trauma did not defeat her.
Then comes the famous exchange. The Lord of the Nazgul threatens Eowyn with not death—but endless torture. Now, I don’t know about you, but while death is one thing, torture is enough to make me crack. It’s enough to make anyone crack. But what does Eowyn do? Eowyn stands her ground. When the Lord of the Nazgul reveals that he cannot be defeated by any man, that is when Eowyn throws off her disguise and laughs.
Well, she’s definitely not a man, is she? She’s a woman who’s been through more than she should have. She’s suffered harassment, abuse, diminishment, and her life being frittered away without anything beyond being a nurse. She hasn’t fully healed yet, that will come in Part 2 next week. But for now, this moment, she has suffered her trauma but she finally has the chance to physically deal it a blow she couldn’t before.
She laughs because this, at last, is her great chance of doing something beyond a sickroom. She had no hope, she wanted death, but she’s getting death on her terms—she’s getting to die protecting Théoden like she couldn’t protect him back in Rohan. She couldn’t wield a sword to protect him from Saruman and Wormtongue—she was powerless in that regard. But here, here she could physically do something. She laughs because yes, she has no hope, but even hopeless, she recognizes that she has a chance—a chance to be what she wants and who she wants. Best of all, she gets to be who and what she wants for the sake of the man she loved as a father. Duty and deepest desire are met at last. I personally often wonder if, in the words she hurls at her enemy she isn’t also somehow hurling them at Wormtongue too.
The Lord of the Nazgul tells her that no man can kill him. She is triumphant. Her abuse did not win nor did her abuser. She won, she killed the Lord of the Nazgul, she survived Wormtongue’s unwanted advances, she got to see her uncle restored to health and Rohan restored to glory. Her trauma did not defeat her.
What does this hold for us today? 20 years ago, we too were helpless. Helpless to do anything while thousands of people died. Helpless as wars went on, young people went off to war, and broken men were suddenly in the position of invalids. Young wives were forced into the same position of Eowyn—forced to be caregivers before they should have been. There was a fair share of Wormtongue’s poison too from all sides and it only added to the hurt, pain, and confusion. There will be still for years to come as the events are raked up, analyzed, and old wounds are prodded
Are we going to be like Théoden and get bogged down? Are we going to listen to the poison and let ourselves be lulled? Or are we going to be like Eowyn and even, hurt as we are, try to do something of worth? Are we going to cower or are we going to stand proud and laugh? I know which I would choose. Would you choose the same? Get help and healing for your own trauma and your own hurts, but do not let them define you. When the reckoning comes and you too stand before the enemy who is now poised to strike at the ones you love, be that a similar hurt you’ve suffered or the person who has wronged you is now trying to wrong others, my hope is that you laugh. Because in that moment, that is your moment to triumph, to not let what happened to you win.