Eowyn, the Enigma

1. The Basics

Éowyn - meaning 'joys in horses' (approximately) in Old English
Éowyn Elfsheen - presumably a reference to her maternal grandmother, Morwen of Lossarnach (to the southwest of Minas Tirith) or Morwen Steelsheen
The White Lady of Rohan - title given to her by Faramir
Lady of the Shield-arm
Dernhelm - name taken while in disguise with the Riders; derne meaning 'hidden, or secret'
Lady of Ithilien

Éowyn was born to Théodwyn, sister of King Théoden, and Éomund of the Eastfold in 2995, four years after the birth of her brother Éomer. Her father died during an orc ambush in 3002 and her mother died soon after. It is presumed that it was at this time, when she was seven, that she and Éomer were taken into the home of the King. As the only woman in the Lord of the Rings trilogy to whom Tolkien gives the title “Shieldmaiden,” the reader immediately notices that she is set apart from the rest of her gender in her unique ability to fight. I believe that she is implying women, as opposed to children, when she says, “And those who have not swords can still die upon them.” in ‘The Steward and the King.’ [As a quick aside, in Unfinished Tales, however, Tolkien writes that back in the early days of the Rohirrim, there were a people, the Wainriders (an Easterling people), whose women did fight: “their youths and old men were aided by the younger women, who in that people were also trained in arms and fought fiercely in defence of their homes and their children.”]

She remained steadfastly loyal to her uncle the King during the years when Saruman’s malevolent influence was being worked through the counsellor, Gríma, son of Gálmód, though from many comments that she makes, she was resentful of being left behind when the Riders of the Mark were out protecting their borders. When Aragorn arrived in early March, 3019 with Gandalf, Legolas and Gimli, Éowyn was immediately affected by his lordliness and, for a lack of a better word, charisma, though she did not speak directly about it until much later, in the Houses of Healing. When her request to join Aragorn on the Paths of the Dead was spurned, something snapped within her, and she came up with the idea to clothe herself as one of the Riders and infiltrated their ranks to join them on what she assumed would be their final journey, fighting in Gondor. Oddly, despite this wish for a glorious death in battle, she still held enough compassion to approach Merry surreptitiously and offer to let him ride with her on her horse after witnessing Théoden’s refusal to allow him to accompany them.

Unknowingly (at the time) with Merry’s help, she slayed the King of the Nazgûl. She was then immediately overcome by the Black Breath, but later cured of it by Aragorn’s laying on of hands and athelas while in the Houses of Healing. Though her shieldarm was broken, she was agitated at being kept there while Éomer joined Aragorn and others for the last battle. It was during this time that she met Faramir, who had also suffered from the Black Breath. While his attraction to her was perhaps surprisingly instantaneous, she still pined for Aragorn, and when he and her brother returned, she was unable to share their joy. When directly confronted about this by Faramir, who asked her ‘do you not love me?’, while she did not answer the question outright, something within her warmed, and she agreed to marry Faramir. She also decided to forsake being a shieldmaiden, give up her sword and to become a healer and tend to growing things.

When the Fellowship passed through Rohan on their way to their respective homes, Éowyn bequeathed to Merry an ancient silver horn of the line of Eorl, which then played a prominent role during the Scouring of the Shire. According to HoME, The Peoples of Middle Earth, she married Faramir in the spring of 3020 in Meduseld, and bore at least one child, Elboron. Faramir became the Prince of Ithilien, thus her final title was Lady of Ithilien, and this is presumably where they lived out their lives. Her death date is not given.

Tolkien intersperses many descriptions of her physicality and her persona which are quite telling. She tends to wear white, a color of purity, and she has grey eyes, a favorite color that he gives to many of the key characters throughout the many ages of Middle-earth.

~she has a 'fair face,' (King of the Golden Hall)

~when Aragorn tells her that he is going to go on the Paths of the Dead, he 'turned and saw her as a glimmer in the night, for she was clad in white; but her eyes were on fire.' (The Passing of the Grey Company)

~'her bright hair [...] gleamed with pale gold upon her shoulders'; 'Her eyes grey as the sea were hard and fell'; 'maiden of the Rohirrim, child of kings, slender but as a steel-blade, fair yet terrible.' (The Battle of the Pelennor Fields)

~in the Houses of Healing, Aragorn (the insightful!) says 'it seemed to me that I saw a white flower standing straight and proud, shapely as a lily, and yet knew that it was hard, as if wrought by elf-wrights out of steel. Or was it, maybe, a frost that had turned its sap to ice, and so it stood, bitter-sweet, still fair to see...'

2. Character Evolution

"Aragorn weds Eowyn sister of Eomer (who becomes Lord of Rohan) and becomes King of Gondor." - HoME vol. 7, The Treason of Isengard, 'The King of the Golden Hall'

[Quotes in this section are from this volume and HoME vol. 8, The War of the Ring unless otherwise specified]

In Tolkien's early drafts as he was first writing about Théoden and his family, his vision for Éowyn as a character was quite different from how it became in the final version. While he always wrote of her as "a stern Amazon woman," his plans for her changed dramatically. Even from early sketches, her meeting with Aragorn was a fundamentally pivotal one for them both. It is telling that when Tolkien first wrote the scene, Aragorn keenly watches her and when Éowyn speaks and their hands touch, she does not tremble as she does in 'The King of the Golden Hall' in LotR.

Another point of interest is that, at least briefly in Tolkien's mind, Middle-earth had been graced with another set of twins: 'Make Eowyn the twin-sister of Eomund.' At this point many of the names of the characters in Rohan were in a state of flux.

Also in these early stages, Éowyn does not survive the battle of the Pelennor Fields. In two different outlines that Christopher Tolkien references, Éowyn is killed while slaying the King of the Nazgûl. This was obviously written prior to Tolkien even knowing that Faramir would show up, which in his Letters he indicates was a bit of a shock even to him: "A new character has come on the scene (I am sure I did not invent him, I did not even want him, though I like him, but there he came walking into the woods of Ithilien): Faramir, the brother of Boromir..." (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, No. 66). In still later drafts, Éowyn again slays the Nazgûl King, but is unharmed. Not only that, Tolkien envisioned both Merry and her accompanying the Riders openly.

Like many of his heroic characters, Tolkien has part of Éowyn's inner passions and extraordinary personality revealed through her face and, particularly, her eyes. As quoted before, her eyes are described as fiery, but in earlier drafts, Tolkien made this quality even more dramatic: "One had followed him: Éowyn daughter of Éomund, and all had feared the light of her face, shunning her as night fowl turn from the day." And again: 'And Merry's thought is directly reported: "I must do something. If only I can get away from those eyes!"'

Éowyn is also more emotive and Aragorn less so in earlier drafts when Aragorn leaves to take the Paths of the Dead. In the final version, the most she does is touch his arm. After she has collapsed to the ground, kneeling, Aragorn takes her hand to raise her, then kisses it. Compare that to Legolas and Gimli's recollection of events from this earlier draft:

In HoME vol. 9, Sauron Defeated, it appears that once Tolkien got to the story of Éowyn and Faramir, he wrote it essentially as it appears in the version we read. One change is that Éomer instead of Éowyn gives Merry the horn, but nothing changes in regards to her character.

A point of interest to me is Tolkien's take on Éowyn after the books were published, in this letter especially, No. 244 in Letters:

He seems to be contradicting the description of her in the books, and why he does so is unclear. Though he indicates that he feels that women can be gallant, within his Ardaverse, there are precious few women mentioned who do take up swords, and I believe that Éowyn is the only exception who does so out of desire, not defense.

3. Speculation- Hero or Deserter?

'Is there none whom you would name? In whom do my people trust?' […] 'There is Éowyn, daughter of Éomund, his sister. She is fearless and high-hearted. All love her. Let her be as lord to the Eorlingas, while we are gone.' The Two Towers, "The King of the Golden Hall"

'You shall abide here, and if you will, you shall serve the Lady Éowyn, who will govern the folk in my stead.' Return of the King, "The Muster of Rohan"

Of all aspects about Éowyn, one which causes much consternation among fanfiction writers is the question of her honor: was she a hero, a deserter, or some combination of both? Her valor on the field of the Pelennor is undebatable, and yet, what of all those in Rohan who suddenly realized after the dust settled behind the hooves of the Riders that their king-appointed leader was nowhere to be found? Given that no one in The Lord of the Rings ever chastises her for leaving her post on the Firienfeld, one can assume Tolkien's take on it: she was a hero, she performed an extraordinary feat, was healed first physically then emotionally by two honorable men, then got married and had a son. Granted, during the days prior to a huge battle when the King of Rohan had been killed and the entire outcome of the world was uncertain, it could be expected that she would not have been accused of being disloyal to her subjects since she would have died to defend the King.

If one thinks about the Rohirrim left back on the Firienfeld, the women, children and elders, abandoned without any news of what was happening to the south and left to arm themselves with whatever was left in the armory (or farming tools, for that matter), the effects of Éowyn's rather self-centered choice become more complex. That is not to demean the people of Rohan, of course, who would have defended themselves as best they could, but one does wonder about the nameless ones who must have taken on the role of leaders in her absence. Given the date that the Riders left Rohan to the earliest time one could have returned after Ring was destroyed, the Rohirrim would have been on their own for at least three weeks, if not longer. Personally, I find it incomprehensible that there would not have been some serious tensions that had to be dealt with rather diplomatically when Éowyn returned, triumphant, and then declared that she is intended to marry a man from Gondor and leave Rohan. But, this is Middle-earth, after all, and nothing is written to indicate that anyone in Edoras had any problems with her defiant rebellion against the king's request that she lead in his place.

That being said, it took incredible daring and courage for her to disguise herself and infiltrate the Riders under the nose of her uncle and brother- and not only that, make her own chances of being caught all the greater by trying to hide Merry at the same time.

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