The Lord of the Rings Reread

LotR re-read: Return of the King VI.5, “The Steward and the King”

We hit the midpoint of Book VI in this installment of the Lord of the Rings re-read with chapter 5, “The Steward and the King.” The usual spoilers and comments follow after the jump.

What Happens

Two days after the army leaves Minas Tirith, Éowyn meets Faramir and asks him to command the Warden of the Houses of Healing to release her so she may ride to war. They agree that she shall stay but be allowed to walk in the gardens. She does so in Faramir’s company, and together they see the fall of Sauron. Later, they confess their love for each other and Éowyn declares that she will now be a healer, not a shieldmaiden.

Aragorn arrives at Minas Tirith and is crowned (by Gandalf, who is brought the crown by Frodo, contrary to prior custom), to background accompaniment of Ioreth talking. He retains Faramir in the hereditary position of Steward and makes him Prince of Ithilien; pardons and makes peace with those of Mordor’s forces who have surrendered; and appoints Beregond as captain of Faramir’s guard. Éomer and Éowyn return to Rohan. Gandalf takes Aragorn to a hidden hallow where Aragorn finds a tree sapling of the same line as the withered White Tree in Minas Tirith. He brings it back to the city, where it blooms in sign that Arwen approaches. Aragorn and Arwen are married on Midsummer’s Day.


This chapter, the halfway point of the last book of LotR, strikes me as the apex of the high-fantasy content of the book, by which I mean the strand that involves characters and actions modeled on older forms of storytelling—nobility, lofty words, larger-than-life actions, formal speech, relative lack of interest in examining psychological nuances, that kind of thing. This is almost entirely a hobbit-less chapter—they get a couple of paragraphs of asking Gandalf why they’re still waiting around, and Frodo has a couple of lines at the end, but they’re strictly observers and not particularly present ones at that—and it’s all very formal and historic and rather remote, even the romance bits. Book VI is structured with the hobbit and non-hobbit strands forming mirror-image v-shapes; this is the high point of the non-hobbit and the low of the hobbit, but as we started with all hobbits, so shall we end.

* * *

Éowyn. It’s taken me a long time to be able to articulate what upsets me about Éowyn in this chapter, but it comes down to this: I wouldn’t care that she was giving up the sword to be a healer if she weren’t the only woman in LotR who is visibly and actively doing something that doesn’t conform to a very narrow and restrictive idea of what’s appropriate for women.

I made a list, previously, of female characters with speaking parts: Lobelia, Mrs. Maggott, Goldberry, Arwen, Galadriel, Éowyn, Ioreth, Rosie Cotton, and Mrs. Cotton. Three of these (Mrs. Maggott, Rosie Cotton, Mrs. Cotton) only qualify as speaking roles by the skin of their teeth; I suspect I might need a second hand to count all of their lines together, but only barely. Lobelia is not sympathetic when we first meet her; she gets one good moment of defiance before the Scouring, recounted second-hand, and then vanishes. Ioreth is a healer (but not in charge; that’s a man) and a chatterbox (and I loathe her). Arwen does nothing active on- or off-screen. Goldberry has lines, at least, but appears to be even more restricted by her nature as land-spirit than Tom in terms of interventions, and is shown acting in that role in a very stereotypically housewifely way—her “washing day.”

Which leaves Galadriel and Éowyn. Galadriel may be presumed to have been kicking butt in the defense of Lórien and the cleansing of Dol Guldur, but that’s all off-screen. Otherwise she, like the other women so far discussed, stay home and, mostly, take care of others (cook, have kids, sew really big banners, heal). Éowyn is the only woman in the book who leaves home, who expresses dissatisfaction at the narrow options offered to her by the men around her, who fights—and not just fights, but does it well and wins a significant victory.

And because she’s the only one, when she rejects the sword, it feels like a statement about what women, all women, ought to do: now the exception has conformed to the rule and there are no other ways of being happy and productive and approved-of present in the text. And that is why, even though Éowyn’s decision makes sense in the context of her personality and what Wormtongue did to her and Sauron’s end and everything else, I still hurt every time I read it. Not even her marrying my childhood crush could make me happy about it.

To forestall the inevitable responses: I’m not saying that I disagree with or disapprove of anyone’s choices. (Well, I’d like to disagree with Arwen’s, but since we know basically nothing about her thoughts and feelings, I’m not quite comfortable doing so.) But women are people, and people aren’t all the same, and therefore, just as we get a variety of paths among the male characters—Frodo renouncing violence, Sam rising socially, even Legolas admiring caves—we ought to get a similar variety, or even any variety, among the female characters. And we don’t. Which is a flaw in the book.

(I also dislike some of the language used in Éowyn’s interactions with Faramir; in particular, the line about how, when she says that her window does not look eastward, “(h)er voice was now that of a maiden young and sad,” makes me cringe with embarrassment at her sudden diminishing. Also, Faramir reduces her sadness in the Houses of Healing, after the news of the victory, to her rejection by Aragorn; not that he knows about Wormtongue, but she and the text make no effort to remind us that she has other reasons for her feelings, and so the last word on her “winter” ends up being a misguided crush. But those are minor things.)

* * *

Éowyn and Faramir are the only on-screen romance in The Lord of the Rings. The other two couples who marry in the text proper did their courting beforehand (Aragorn and Arwen get an appendix for their story; Sam and Rosie don’t even get that), and everyone who gets married later, per the Appendices, appears to meet their spouses after the main text ends. As such, it’s too bad that, as a romance, it does nothing for me—and would not, I think, even if Éowyn hadn’t renounced the sword, because there’s just so little there about their interactions. He thinks she’s beautiful and valiant, and she thinks he’s . . . “both stern and gentle,” I guess, though that’s from their very first meeting. Okay, then.

Minor Faramir note: he makes explicit the connection of the wave-imagery with Sauron’s fall to Númenor, something he often dreams of. He was the one who had the “seek for the Sword that was broken” dream frequently, as well, suggesting that he has a particular affinity for or ability to see things in dreams, or perhaps has been selected for additional attention from the Valar.

* * *

The coronation. I’ve mentioned that Ioreth here was my least favorite thing in LotR? She still is. She is wrecking the mood and dragging the level of solemnity down like an anchor and talking when everyone should be quiet and she just drives me nuts. I recognize that she serves the purpose of showing how those in Gondor are reacting to Aragorn, but still: fingernails on the blackboard of my mind.

Otherwise I want to mention the last paragraph of the section, which makes me oddly melancholy, and I’m not sure if it’s the text or just that it’s autumn here and I’m absurdly busy:

In his time the City was made more fair than it had ever been, even in the days of its first glory; and it was filled with trees and with fountains, and its gates were wrought of mithril and steel, and its streets were paved with white marble; and the Folk of the Mountain laboured in it, and the Folk of the Wood rejoiced to come there; and all was healed and made good, and the houses were filled with men and women and the laughter of children, and no window was blind nor any courtyard empty; and after the ending of the Third Age of the world into the new age it preserved the memory and the glory of the years that were gone.

All the words and sentences are happy ones; but when I read this, I can’t help but remember that there is no Minas Tirith, that its preservation of memory and glory is itself now memory, and that there’s no city of mithril and marble and trees in which walks dwarves and elves anywhere in the world. Yes, even though I don’t buy, even when I’m reading the story, that Middle-earth is our past. Since that doesn’t make much sense, probably it is just the season…

* * *

I feel that I ought to have something to say about Aragorn finding the Tree, but everything significant about it seems so much on the face of the text that I can’t see anything to add. As far as the wedding, I’ll just note that the closing words must read really oddly if you don’t know that the Appendices are there: “the tale of their long waiting and labours was come to fulfilment.” What tale?

At any rate, there we have the biggest-scale and most formal rewards/high points of the aftermath. From here it gets smaller, more personal, and sadder too. See you next time.

« Return of the King VI.4 | Index

Kate Nepveu was born in South Korea and grew up in New England. She now lives in upstate New York where she is practicing law, raising a family, and (in her copious free time) writing at her LiveJournal and booklog.


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