Do you remember the first time you read Lord of the Rings? Do you remember when you first learned (and was it a shock?) that Eowyn had ridden in secret to battle before the gates of Gondor? I remember.
I was just a kid making a puzzle on the floor, as my Dad read us the entire trilogy, night after night after supper--it must have taken years!--and I was listening with all my heart. Come not between the Nazgûl and his prey, the Witch-King hissed, and Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!
And Dernhelm laughed a clear laugh like the ring of steel. No living man am I! he said.
And I thought, Oh no, he's some kind of undead!
(Yep, that's me--paragon of feminine and writerly intuition.)
I realized my mistake pretty quickly, of course. Eowyn stepped forth and I was swept up in wonder. Tolkien gives us such vivid images (not nearly equaled in the movie, to my sorrow): Still she did not blench (as the great beast strikes at her): maiden of the Rohirrim, child of kings, slender but as a steel-blade, fair yet terrible. A swift stroke she dealt... A light fell about her, and her hair shone in the sunrise.
From that time--unless it was even earlier--I loved Eowyn. That never changed. But on this reading (I'm listening to the audiobook as I garden this fall) I noticed something I had never noticed before.
At the end of her story Eowyn changes. (This is not the new thing. I'm getting there.) She comes to the brink of despair after her great battle, heals slowly and finds a man whom she can love, and she makes a choice and changes her life.
Then the heart of Eowyn changed, or else at last she understood it. And suddenly her winter passed, and the sun shone on her.
"I stand in Minas Anor, the Tower of the Sun," she said; "and behold! the Shadow has departed! 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." And again she looked at Faramir.
There are those who feel that this moment destroys her as a strong character, that Tolkien is relegating her to "a woman's proper place"--that by becoming a wife, (and presumably mother,) and a healer rather than a fighter, she becomes proper and feminine and acceptable. She becomes small. It's the view that changing from a warrior to a healer is a demotion. That serving life, rather than death, is a demotion.
Some people call that feminism.
I am a feminist. I rather think I was born one. I have never, not once, been able to stomach the view that a man is more important than a woman. And fundamentally that's what feminism means to me: equality between men and women. I'm told the term is falling out of fashion, that young women no longer call themselves feminists for fear of being labeled man-haters; I don't agree with this trend and will not bow to it. But there's something else I can't stomach, and that's the equation of violence with importance. The idea that nothing is to be more admired than the ability to kill. The idea that Eowyn's life becomes pitiful when she lays down her sword.
And Tolkien agrees; I only realized on this reading just how explicitly Tolkien agrees.
It comes in Faramir's talk with Frodo, as they sit together in the secret caves behind the waterfall in Ithilien. As their conversation ranges across many things, Faramir begins to speak of the culture of Gondor, its roots and the changes that have come to it. In their lore, he explains, they reckon three races of Men (and stay with me here, because I may talk about the problems inherent in this sometime but it won't be today): the High, the Middle, and the Wild. The Numenoreans or men of the West, the founders of Gondor, are the High; but the Rohirrim are reckoned among the Middle Peoples.
Yet now, says Faramir, if the Rohirrim are grown in some ways more like to us, enhanced in arts and gentleness, we too have become more like to them, and can scarcely claim any longer the title High. We are become Middle Men, of the Twilight, but with memory of other things. For as the Rohirrim do, we now love war and valour as things good in themselves, both a sport and an end; and though we still hold that a warrior should have more skills and knowledge than only craft of weapons and slaying, we esteem a warrior, nonetheless, above men of other crafts. Such is the need of our days. So even was my brother Boromir; a man of prowess, and for that he was accounted the best man in Gondor.
...And favored above himself, Faramir does not add, by their father--and by others. Someone else (I believe it's one of Faramir's men) later comments that as a man who loves learning more than war, Faramir is less respected than his brother by most people in Minas Tirith; but the men who serve under him love him. And there's no doubt his creator does too. This is the man who refuses the Ring, though (even besides its terrible inherent pull) he knows how much his lord and father wants it. He passes the ultimate test. I knew that--but it had passed me by, until this time, just how much Faramir is meant by Tolkien to be a representative of Numenor, of all that is "highest" in human culture. A fictional culture, of course. He couldn't use a real one, to represent the ideal. That does not exist.
Rohan, on the other hand, is a real culture--one that Tolkien loved and admired, but with reservations. It is absolutely the culture of the Angles and Saxons, transposed from the sea onto wide grassy plains and onto horses, speaking the same Old English (also known as Anglo-Saxon) that my first college English class twisted our tongues around trying to read Beowulf. (Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon and knew the culture and its sagas intimately.) It struck me vividly, this time, just how much that culture glorifies battle--in a deeply attractive way, full of bleak but blinding beauty and pathos.
Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing?
Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?
They have passed like rain on the mountain, like a wind in the meadow;
The days have gone down in the West behind the hills into Shadow.
Eowyn, as we first meet her, embraces her culture wholly, even as she burns to break free of the darkness and dishonor she feels her royal house has sunk to in the days of Wormtongue and the weakness of Theoden. She speaks of battle in the same glorious, steel-bright terms as any man of Rohan, and the word renown is often on her lips. Only one fault does she find with her culture: that it does not allow her the same chance at great deeds as the men. All your words, she says to Aragorn when he speaks of valor without renown in the last defense of her people, are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more. Though Aragorn is not wrong to praise it, valor without renown is not what is offered to her brother, and she will not have it for herself. In this she is just; she is, after all, his equal and more. Though it's not right for her to abandon her post as leader of her people in hiding at Dunharrow, it struck me this time that she begs to ride with Aragorn after she has failed to convince him to ride another way--she begs to go with him on the Paths of the Dead. The very mention of that place fills absolutely every rider of Rohan with abject terror, including the king and Eomer, who beg Aragorn not to go. Eowyn is braver than her brother.
She also, we are told, goes seeking death. Oppressed and darkened in her heart by her long role as "dry-nurse" to a shamefully weakened king, by being shut in the house with Wormtongue's whisper always in her ear, by the great change Gandalf works bringing liberation to--it seems--everyone but her, she sets her heart and her love on Aragorn as her hope for a larger life. A life (as Aragorn says later) "of glory and great deeds, and lands far from the fields of Rohan." When he rejects her, she has nothing left to fall back on, and in her despair she takes her culture's way out: she will die in battle, gloriously.
But she does not die. She does the great deed she has always hoped to do, with the help of a humble hobbit, and she lives, though sick with the Black Breath, in the darkness of her mind with her vision of her future empty before her. She is healed. She meets Faramir. I stand upon some dreadful brink, she tells him, and it is utterly dark in the abyss before my feet, but whether there is any light behind me I cannot tell. For I cannot turn yet.
Then the wind changes, and Shadow passes, and the Eagle comes out of the East crying the news that the Ring is destroyed and peace is come again to Middle-Earth.
And she turns.
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.
Not take joy only in the songs of slaying. This is the very thing Faramir said about the deterioration of his own culture, which he still hopes to reverse: that only war and warriors are admired.
Tolkien names as High the cultures that honor and do not disdain those things of peace and nurture that are traditionally the woman's realm.
I am a feminist. But I have the same uneasiness about my own culture, and (at least sometimes) feminism within it, that Faramir confesses to about Gondor. So often, "feminism" in movies is an attractive young woman felling a dozen men with karate moves or guns. So often, fans are quick to scorn a female character who is insufficiently prepared to hurt people, or to consider her demoted if she marries or (worse) has children, or consider her ill-treated by her creators if she is not put in harm's way and allowed to show off a few moves. (Have we now experienced so much false and choreographed violence--and so little real--that lethal fighting appears to us to be the best part of life?) As if violence were the only kind of strength.
But this is feminism to me: not only that women should be admitted to the realm of the traditionally masculine, but also that men should learn to honor the traditionally feminine as it deserves. Who will care for all things that grow--children, gardens, human bodies, homes, the earth? Some people answer "unpaid women," others "low-wage workers." There is no good answer till we learn to say "all of us as we can, in honor and in love." There is no good world till men cease to think themselves "above" the profound and humble work of life, till all people cease to think the work of death is better. Yes, the glass ceiling is wrong. The worship of money and power, and the dismissal and overriding of the vulnerable of the earth, is worse. But these things are tied to each other. Till we stop shoving off the tedious work of care onto "unimportant" people we do not honor for it--whether it's women or the poor--till we cease to scorn or condescend about the care of small things that grow, we can never be equal. And we can never be free.
So that's my dream, I guess. The feminism of all things that grow. It believes in equal rights and in the right of women to use their gifts in every place and way that men do--to share fully in the work that is called "real" in our society. But it does not stop there or accept that so-called reality. In the end its dearest wish is not to take women away from home so much as to bring men back there, working together in equality to make it a place of life. It honors gardeners. It honors the giving and preserving of life, and all things that grow. It honors and does not scorn the uncounted millions of traditional women whose main work in life has been to nurture other human beings and help them survive--and men the same. (I think for instance of subsistence farmers, their work as repetitious, full of care, and ignored by the so-called great as any housewife's.) It honors love and respect, kindness and humility, and a Man who kneels and washes other people's feet.
For thus spake Ioreth, wisewoman of Gondor: The hands of the king are the hands of a healer, and so shall the rightful king be known.
Image credits, in order:
Eowyn fighting the Nazgul: Cory Godbey
Eowyn versus the Witch-King: grantgoboom.deviantart.com
Eowyn of Rohan: lariethene.deviantart.com
Eowyn with sword: New Line Cinema
The Healing of Eowyn: the Hildebrant brothers
Eowyn and Faramir kiss on the walls: Catherine Chmiel