Don’t tell me not to live
Just sit and putter
Life’s candy and the sun’s
A ball of butter
Don’t bring around a cloud
To rain on my parade.
Don’t tell me not to fly
I’ve simply got to
—Don’t Rain on My Parade, Barbara Steisand
Don’t tell me how to live my life, I am a headstrong, independent, wo-man!
—The writer’s wife
With the exception of M. Knight Shamylan’s The Village, watching films with my mother is a pleasant experience. This is due in large part to the fact that she, like myself, can become passionate while watching a film and is prone to speak up while watching a movie. I can always tell when Mom is enjoying herself because she will often begin to rant about “[X] shouldn’t be doing that because she doesn’t realize that [Y] is a catch,” or perhaps it might go, “Boy [Z] is going to be mad when he finds out [C] is a bitch.” These moments and statements are usually built upon by my little sister and I eventually have to pause the movie so that the symposium can continue. Still, these moments are fantastic and remind me how much I love my family and all its oddity.
To this day however The Lord of the Rings films hold a special place in my heart, largely because they shaped my perception of reality for close to six years, but also because Mom would always cheer when Eowyn killed the Witch King of Angmar with what is to this day oneof the finest executed lines in cinema history. The reason is largely because of the line in question:
Witch King: [taking Eowyn by the throat] You fool. No man can kill me. Die now.
[Merry stabs the Witch King from behind; the Witch King shrieks and falls to his knees. Eowyn rises and pulls off her helm, her hair falls down over her shoulder]
Eowyn: I am no man.
[she thrusts her sword into the Witch King’s helm and twists; he shrieks and implodes]
Mom would usually yell out, “YES!” and punch the air as the Witch King would crumple and implode into nothing and I would always laugh. This laughter would usually hide the fact that I was right alongside Mom on this one, Eowyn was a badass and didn’t take any shit from anybody.
This scene also, for the record, remained the moment of pure female badassery until Gal Gadot stepped into our lives and became goddess supreme as Wonder Woman.
Having finished The Return of the King for the first time in my life, and possibly the last time unless I need something to do during retirement besides count my money and regrets, I realized that there was no other character or element in Book 5 of the Lord of the Rings that I wanted to write about more. The reason for this is probably apparent to any regular reader of this blog: Eowyn is obviously a pre-op transexual using Post-Modern Anti-Patriarchal Drag Performance to disestablish the cultural construction of gender of Rohan society in order to establish a working PostModern, Post-Marxist, Post-Deconstructionist Model of Masculine Femininity.
That was a joke, even I’m not that pretentious.
However, Eowyn is a woman wearing drag in order to find some sort of agency in a culture and society that is relentlessly patriarchal and seeks to keep her confined in the home. So, I’m afraid there is something terribly queer, and terribly feminist in her decision to dress up as a man. Or at least it seems so.
Eowyn is a woman who is a sort of “lady of court,” a female individual who is responsible for numerous social tasks around the castle, namely making sure that food is ready, that the fires are lit, that there is ale or drink should anyone require it, and to make sure that the beds of the great halls are clean and ready for the men when they return from their fighting or outings. It is the stuff of feminist nightmares, but again, because Tolkien was often writing from direct inspiration from works like Beowulf this responsibility and social role is not outside the source material, or source inspiration I should say. Now as for Tolkien himself there is some issue with calling the “old Professor” a feminist by any means. Having grown up during the early decade of the 20th century, and having fought in the first World War it’s difficult to say whether the man harbored what would be considered a more progressive view of women, or whether he bought into the ideaof patriarchal masculinity. It’s almost certainly the latter case, but without having read more about the man personally I can’t say. Whatever the case the women in The Lord of the Rings rarely assume any sort of personality, and while Lady Galadriel assumes a pressing spiritual importance to the over-all plot, Tolkien’s work tends to reinforce traditional gender types rather than etching out new territory to work with. I’m not in the interest of defending patriarchy, and I much prefer the fun-bits that involve queering shit up. Therefore Tolkien’s feminism, or lack of feminism really, seems to become apparent in the character of Eowyn because her motivations and actions reek of a desire for real agency.
Early in the Return of the King Aragorn is speaking with Eowyn about the attack, and her role in the larger logistical structure. Eowyn begins to express her dictate for her role and the pair have a brief exchange:
‘Your duty is with your people,” he answered.
‘Too Often have I heard of duty,’ she cried. ‘But I am not of the House of Eorl, a sheildmaiden 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?’
‘Few may have that honour,’ he answered. ‘But as for you, lady: did you not accept the charge to govern the people until the lord’s return? If you had not been chosen, then some marshal or captain would have been set in the same place, and he could not ride away from his charge, were he weary of it or no.’
‘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?’
‘A time may come soon,’ said he, ‘when none will return. There there will be need of valour without renown, for none shall remember the deed that are done in the last defense of your homes. Yet the deeds will not be less valiant because they are upraised.’
And she answered: ‘All your words 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. But I am of the House of Earl and not a serving woman. I can ride and weld blade, and do not fear either pain or death.’
‘What do you fear, lady?’ He asked.
‘A cage,’ she said. ‘To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.’ (767).
There is without doubt a feminist message and conviction in this passage, but before I get to it I feel the overwhelming need to nod gently to myself and sigh, for it feels, as of this writing, that I feel more and more like I am caught in a similar position. There is this compulsion towards the desire for something, even if I am not sure what that something actually is. In all likelihood this sensation, the “burning desire” as Bono once so beautifully put it, is just part of getting older and feeling that life might still “owe” me something for my efforts.
But my own wandering aside, the previous quote is really the key to Eowyn’s character, while at the same time part of the larger problem. Eowyn as a woman cannot expectanything in terms of real agency because the society of Rohan is very much medieval England. Women are expected to be romantically and sexually focused on their husbands, while also managing the day-to-day upkeeps demands of the home. This is to say nothing of their own desires and needs. It is a world where men go out and fight, often dying and leaving women to manage the home, the children, the farm, before dying themselves without having lived a life of their own volition.
And considering this, and because I am the kind of nerd who likes to find connections between things, reading this passage I was reminded of a book that I have not actually read to it’s completion, but it is a book I know by reputation. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique is a book that is considered a landmark feminist text, if not an outright cultural event in Western Society. And before my reader begins to complain I should cite the passage:
The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of twentieth century in the United Started. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night—she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—“Is this all?” (1).
Now of course I anticipate the reaction: Rohan women are not American women. That’s a stupid argument. Period.
This is a fair rebuttal, though the punctuation at the end of the sentence really makes the “Period” comment rather unnecessary. Still this is a fair consideration, and as I wasdoing some initial research for this essay, and talking to friends who I consider Tolkien resources, the general summation was usually the same. Tolkien as an author really isn’t a feminist by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, it’s fair to say, Tolkien really doesn’t have much use for women in his books. What women exist tend to be sidelined characters who are either part of the “Deep-Time” aesthetic, or else they tend to be marriage fodder: women who exist solely to be married to the protagonists. Whether it’s Rosie Cotton, who wore ribbons in her hair, Lady Galadriel, who gave three of her hairs to Gimili, or Arwen, who oddly enough has no real description of hair so she could be bald for all we know, these women are not really there at all.
Eowyn assumes a character in the story, and this passage is, to note, the most substantial voice a woman has in the plot of the novels. Her struggle is not solely that she is threatened by Sauron, Saruman, and the endless legion of orcs that want to destroy her and Middle Earth. Eowyn is a woman fighting both the enemy, as well as the paradigms of her own culture. And so faced with a life of servitude she knows she cannot live, she performs an act of rebuttal and disguises herself as a man to fight in the great battle of Pelennor.
And, to the woman’s credit, she kicks ass. It’s not enough that she fights with honor alongside the Muster of the Rohirrim. Eowyn fights the Witch King of Angmar, the greatest of the Nazgul and the virtual leader of both Sauron’s black army, as well as the souls monsters that hunt the ring with unwavering obsession. After the creature hasmore-or-less dispatched King Theoden Eowyn stands between the Witch King, his literally flying bat-dragon-monster, and threatens to kill him if he should touch Theoden, offering up the line that made both me, and my mother, fist-bump.
‘But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Eowyn I am, Eomund’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.
The winged creature screamed at her, but the Ringwraith made no answer, and was silent, as if in sudden doubt. (823).
Some scholars, notably Michael Drout, observe that this subversion of the Witch King’s threat of “No man can kill me” is reminiscent of the prophecy in William Shakespeare’s MacBeth when the Wyrd Sisters warn the ruined king to “Beware the man not born of woman.” And as much as I would love to say Tolkien was attempting to go another path, it feels far more likely that Tolkien was ripping off the bard rather than future secondwave feminists.
Eowyn’s defiance however does seem to fall in line with my previous argument about Tolkien’s system of Good and Evil. The Witch King doesn’t laugh or threaten Eowyn after her defiance. It pauses. The silence following this declaration reveals not just doubt on this creatures part, but a continuation of the idea that evil in the Tolkien universe is not about personal identity issues, it’s defined by a real absence of essence. The Witch King is nothing, whereas Eowyn is a woman who has created a new persona to be who she wants to be.
There is some desire on my part to argue that this constitutes a feminist argument for the Lord of the Rings as a text, but the problem with this argument is that the text immediately negates my argument. Eowyn fights the Witch King and defeats him, but only with the help of Meriadoc (a man) and afterwards becomes ill and must be tended to before she falls in love with Faramir the son of the Stewart of Gondor. Rather than return to her home land a warrior, Eowyn falls in love with Faramir and the two wed retiring to the Ithelian where she becomes a wife and mother. This isn’t just a negation of the dreams and ambitions she has been speaking about throughout her entire character arc, it’s almost a violent jerk back into the home she spent so much time complaining about.
And here of course I have to dig into my bag of queer tricks because, well dear reader, it’s me.
It’s difficult calling Eowyn’s action of dressing in drag a queer act because there’s nothing really sexual about it. There is also little real gender reconstruction or re-imagination about it. Eowyn is donning a man’s clothes, not because she wants to be a man, not because she doesn’t identify with the gender that was assigned her at birth, not because she desires to recreate the gender modes and roles of her culture and society, not because she wants to sleep with women, and absolutely not because the pant sizes areeasier.
If my male reader didn’t understand that last one ask any woman anywhere and they’ll explain.
Dressing in men’s clothes isn’t a queer act in any real sense of the term. It’s merely a means to an end, and Eowyn is not the first woman in literature to don men’s clothes for the sake of plot. William Shakespeare regularly relied on such a trick in such works as As You Like it or Twelfth Night. The transvestite is a character that actually is pretty recurring throughout most of the tradition of Western Literature and Tolkien’s use of it here seems to follow a pattern. A woman is allowed to dress like a man, but only, and I mean only when there is an understanding that she will return to her place in society. If she does not then she is a female hermaphrodite, a dangerous creature.
As Jack Halberstam notes in Female Masculinity:
The female Hermaphrodite was considered a freak of nature with an enlarged clitoris who desired to penetrate other women who might be drawn to her ambiguity. (55).
What’s worse than a woman wearing pants? A woman who might have a penis. And if a woman has a penis then she’s some sort of inverted, or deviant man. And that, dear reader, would be really, really gay.
After considering all of this I don’t believe then that Eowyn’s character arc has any real element of feminism to it.
But then again I am not a woman, and sometimes it’s best to actually consult a woman. Being married to one allows me then another side of things, and when I asked my wife about Eowyn’s arc she said simply, “As long as it is her choice to become a wife and mother, then that is feminism.”
Tolkien does make any of this easy, because as I’ve noted over and over and over again (to the point my reader has probably bailed and is now perusing an instagram account run by a very, very handsome chimpanzee named Bert) his women are not really women at all. They’re these atmosphere pieces that exist largely to inform either the deep time or else a man’s character arc. But Eowyn does offer the reader a real character. She’s a real woman with desires, faults, ambitions, eccentricities and so she is able to assume some kind of real arc. Tolkien may, by the end of the book, throw her back into the home and the hall where she’ll cook and tend to her husband and family, but if this act is her choice then who am I to argue against it? And even if she never again achieves such a courageous act as facing down the Witch King, at least that moment exists.
Eowyn is difficult, but that’s what makes writing about her so fun. I have no idea if I was able to really unearth any sort of queer or feminist qualities to The Lord of the Rings, but I can rest assured that my mother and I will continue to fist-bump every-time Eowyn takes off her helmet and plunges her sword into the black abyss of the Witch King’s face.
All quotes cited from The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King were taken from the Mariner paperback edition. All quotes cited from The Return of the King film were taken from IMDb. All quotes cited from Female Masculinity were taken from the paperback Duke University Press edition.
It should be noted that the only reason I stated that my mother is not fun to watch The Village with is sort of an inside joke. I could tell you what happened but then it wouldn’t be an inside joke and she already hates it when I divulge personal or embarrassing information about her. I know as a son I’m supposed to do that anyway, but my mom was actually, and still is actually, a pretty cool individual and so I would prefer not to embarrass her more than I already have. Love you Mom.
I’m a man writing about feminism. This isn’t a problem, but it is. Because I do not possess a vagina, and the unending wisdom of all creation that comes with having one it’s important to question my arguments and, far more importantly, listen to the arguments of people who have vaginas when they comment or argue about characters that have vaginas. As such, I’ve compiled a small list of articles where some writers have discussed the films and books of The Lord of the rIngs, specifically Eowyn and her presentation. Enjoy:
Because I love you all, please enjoy this animated adaptation of Eowyn confronting what I can only figure is The Witch King of Ang-mar if he was cross breeded with Skeletor. Enjoy: