Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Éowyn, Shieldmaiden of Rohan

In this biweekly series, we’ll be exploring the evolution of both major and minor figures in Tolkien’s legendarium, tracing the transformations of these characters through drafts and early manuscripts through to the finished work. This installment walks us through the development of Éowyn, the fierce and tragic woman of Rohan who defeats the Lord of the Nazgûl in The Lord of the Rings.

Éowyn of Rohan is one of Tolkien’s most beloved characters—especially, perhaps, by women and girls, many of whom see in her something to be admired, emulated, and loved. Few can forget that stirring moment in which the stern shieldmaiden casts off her helm, her hair like fire in the dim light, and declares with a laugh in the very face of a demon: “no living man am I! You look upon a woman.” But this scene didn’t emerge without hesitation and alterations. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Tolkien’s penchant for continuous and extensive revision, Éowyn’s textual history is complicated and fascinating, revealing the transformation of a woman who was, originally, an even more outspoken and vital part of her community, but who becomes the woman we know, the one who goes to war in disguise and vanquishes her army’s most fearsome enemy.

In the earliest drafts of The Lord of the Rings of which Éowyn was a part (she was always there, in Rohan, even in its earliest days), we find a woman named Eowyn Elfsheen (in the early notes her name remains unaccented), daughter of Eomund (also unaccented here), who waited on King Théoden her uncle alongside the latter’s own daughter, Idis. There are several things worthy of note here. The first is that in these early drafts, there is yet no hint of the shadow that would come to darken the Golden Hall. Wormtongue, when introduced, is largely silent and it does not appear that Tolkien had yet foreseen the dramatic role he would come to play in the narrative. Secondly, in an early, sparse outline of the events to follow, Éowyn is slated to openly accompany her uncle and brother to battle before the gates of Minas Tirith “as Amazon” (VII 437). Thirdly and finally, Éowyn outshines Idis to such an extent that the latter eventually fades from the story, her disappearance apparently the result of an instantaneous, instinctive decision on the part of Tolkien.

These last two points are particularly interesting. Idis (whose name comes from ides, “woman, lady,” an anonymous appellation if ever I heard one) never speaks; she tends to be somewhat overlooked even by her father, who only speaks to her once, and at the same time as he does to Éowyn. Even then, Idis recedes to the background: Théoden addresses them thus: “Go, Idis, and you too Éowyn sister-daughter!” (VII 445). By the very next draft, Éowyn has come to such prominence that Idis slips out of the story, as silently and unobtrusively as she had taken space in it. Probably, Tolkien already had a clear conception of Éowyn’s role in the narrative, and felt it strange that the king’s niece should overshadow his own daughter—this, at least, is Christopher Tolkien’s surmise, and it seems likely (VII 447). When Théoden makes plans to take his stand at Helm’s Deep, he names Éowyn, not Idis, as “lady in my stead.” And a moment later, when Theoden refers to Éomer as the “last of the House of Eorl,” Háma responds, much as he does in the published text, “‘There are Idis your daughter, and Eowyn his [Éomer’s] sister. They are wise and high-hearted.’” Christopher Tolkien notes that “at this point […] the brief existence of Idis came to an end; for the next words that my father wrote were ‘All love her. Let her be as lord to the Eorlingas, while we are gone.’ All references to Idis were then removed from the manuscript” (VII 447, emphasis original). It becomes clear, however, in the pages that follow and in the subsequent volume of The History of Middle-earth, that the role Éowyn was to play could not be supported if Théoden had a daughter, for that (elder) daughter would naturally take precedence over the (younger) niece. So Idis fades away, and Éowyn’s part in the story only increases.

In fact, in these early sketches of The Lord of the Rings even Arwen’s presence does not overshadow Éowyn’s in the life of Aragorn. In fact, Arwen is noticeably absent, and the other two at this stage are destined for marriage, and the stern, hardened Ranger struck dumb by the impression left on him by the self-possessed shieldmaiden: “As they [Idis and Éowyn] went, the younger of them looked back: ‘very fair and slender she seemed. Her face was filled with gentle pity, and her eyes shone with unshed tears. So Aragorn saw her for the first time in the light of day, and after she was gone he stood still, looking at the dark doors and taking little heed of other things’” (VII 445). Indeed, even when, shortly thereafter, Tolkien realized that Éowyn “should die to avenge or save Theoden,” the idea that Aragorn loved Éowyn remained, along with the suggestion that the King of Gondor “never married after her death” (and thus produced no heirs), an unusual and thus powerful notion testifying to the extent to which Éowyn had captured Aragorn’s heart. At this early stage, then, it is Aragorn and not Éowyn who is seemingly caught in the nets of unrequited love.

In the drafts that followed, Tolkien waffled on the exact nature of Éowyn’s position in the society of the Rohirrim. She and Aragorn are much together in these pages, subtly highlighting the potential romance, but Éowyn is also an outspoken supporter of the women of Rohan, even declaring (upon hearing that too few warriors have arrived with which to face the might of Mordor) that “women must ride now, as they did in a like evil time in the days of Brego […], when the wild men of the East came from the Inland Sea to the Eastemnet” (VIII 243). Éowyn’s advice is apparently not heeded, as no one responds and the women do not ride to war (excepting, of course, our “Amazon”). It seems from this scene that Éowyn takes a significant part in the council (whether she is listened to or not); and a moment later when either Aragorn or Éomer (Tolkien wasn’t sure) decides to take a portion of the men round to attack the enemy in the rear, she announces that she will ride also, as a representative (VIII 243).

Throughout the many drafts that follow (see primarily The War of the Ring), Éowyn’s influence is marked. Upon returning to Dunharrow, Théoden seeks her out and requests a report of the people’s journey, which Éowyn provides in a paragraph significantly longer than any uninterrupted speech she makes in the published version. Gradually, however, Tolkien began to reconsider her role, and when he abandoned the original first chapters of Book V, the result was a significant shift in the tone of Rohan. At this point, Éowyn’s vibrancy and her prominent position amongst the male leadership begins to fade.

At this stage the idea that Éowyn must ride to battle in disguise emerges. Tolkien plays with it, drops it, and picks it up again numerous times before the anonymous young warrior who shadows the king emerges (the name Dernhelm gets adopted even later). At this point, too, the number of drafts and revisions and notes begin to proliferate, and the vast number of differences are hard to juggle. At one point, Merry is allowed to ride openly to battle, and at another, is “assigned” to an anonymous warrior (clearly Éowyn) whose small stature and light weight, when compared with other Riders, will allow the horse to bear them both. Sometimes, it is Éowyn and Théoden who kill the Nazgûl, together. Sometimes, Éowyn is able to save Théoden, but dies herself. At others, Éowyn dies avenging her uncle. And still in others—and this is where the final version begins to emerge—Éowyn seems to die while avenging Théoden, but is later found to be alive.

It would be easy to see this diminishment of Éowyn’s position in Rohan as some kind of veiled sexism or as an inadequate treatment of one of the few female characters in The Lord of the Rings. But this notion seems to me to be troubled by Éowyn’s earlier textual history. Clearly, Tolkien first envisioned Éowyn as a powerful, wise, respected woman who easily took up the leadership of her people and rode openly into battle as one of the army’s more valiant warriors. It is only when Éowyn is sidelined as a political leader and relegated to serving tables and preparing pavilions that her bitterness and coldness appears.

What changes is not so much who Éowyn is, but rather the freedom she is accorded by the society she lives in. Take for example that conversation referenced above between Théoden and Hama, in which the king automatically assumes that the doorward’s reference to the “House of Eorl” meant Éomer. Théoden incorrectly refers to Éomer as “‘the last of that House,’” but Háma, who apparently has been paying attention, corrects him, saying, “‘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’” (III, vi, 523). That same chapter ends not with the clash and the fervor of the departing army, but with the jarring juxtaposition of Éowyn’s isolation, highlighting the extent to which she has been excluded or forgotten by the menfolk: “Far over the plain Éowyn saw the glitter of their spears, as she stood still, alone before the doors of the silent house” (III, vi, 525).

We can, however, see the Éowyn of earlier drafts in one of her conversations with Aragorn as he prepares to ride away on the Paths of the Dead. When Aragorn repeatedly urges her to accept her decentering and to be resigned to always staying behind, she retorts: “‘All your words are 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 Eorl and not a serving-woman. I can ride and wield blade, and I do not fear either pain or death.’” And when Aragorn, appropriately cowed, asks what she does fear, she responds: “‘A cage […] To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire’” (V, ii, 784).

“Éowyn of Rohan” by SaMo-art.

(I here encourage you to stop and revisit Éowyn’s defeat of the Lord of the Nazgûl, as no secondary description can quite capture the glory of that moment.) After her challenge of the Nazgûl and her victory over the Witchking of Angmar, Sauron’s captain, Éowyn is brought to the Houses of Healing, near death. It is here that she meets Faramir, the erstwhile Steward of Gondor, as both are convalescing.

Éowyn’s healing and her acceptance of Faramir’s marriage proposal has been problematized by numerous feminist readings of the text, and rightly so: I don’t wish to undermine those readings and indeed agree that in some respect, Éowyn’s own will and choices are overshadowed by Faramir’s. Éowyn’s sudden “conversion,” as it were, makes little sense logically, and no reason beyond the emotional is given for it; but it is also clearly a moment of epiphany. It stands in for the moment in which the soul is literally enlightened by the salvific light of the spiritual. Not insignificantly, the couple stands in a high tower, named after the greatest of Arda’s lights, when this “conversion” takes place: “‘I stand in Minas Anor, the Tower of the Sun,’ [Éowyn] 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’” (VI, v, 964-965).

Critics have further taken issue with the seeming illogical nature of Éowyn’s decision to give up her inclination towards war, but I would encourage us to read this as (in this context) the appropriate and even expected response of a soul that has been brought out of darkness. Faramir, significantly, makes the same decision along with her: together they turn their backs on war (a specific form of violence which desecrates and even denies connections and communion with others and with the earth) and jointly dedicate their lives to cultivating a healthy and evolving relationship with their environment.

Éowyn’s original desire to be queen, as Faramir recognizes, was a desire “‘to be lifted far above the mean things that crawl on the earth’” (VI, v, 964). It was a misguided understanding, in other words, of exactly what the soul’s ascent (glorification, perhaps) means: her desire was appropriate, though it found expression in an unethical relationship with the world and those around her, influenced by the world and society she had always known. When Faramir explains to the Warden of the Houses of Healing that “‘now [Éowyn] is healed’” (VI, v, 965), then, he is referring to a healing that is profoundly both spiritual and material, a healing that takes the form of ethical communion with the world. Once Éowyn desired “‘to be lifted far above the mean things that crawl on the earth,’” a natural expression of her culture’s values and social structure; now, healed, she becomes a gardener and a pacifist, working among the things of the earth, loving them and caring for them in a way that is all her own.

Éowyn is, to be honest, one of my favorites of all Tolkien’s characters, and this journey has only deepened my appreciation of her role in The Lord of the Rings. What seems to be most significant about her transformation over the course of the many and complicated drafts is its harsh lesson about society’s tendency to box people in, to demand that they fill certain roles and not others. Éowyn’s story illustrates clearly what can happen to a person when they are “caged”: the wounds it can inflict and the scars it can leave behind. Again, if Éowyn’s wisdom, self-confidence, and influence are diminished in the final version, it can only be because her society constructs the cage which trammels her. Gandalf recognizes this. “‘[Y]ou had horses, and deeds of arms, and the free fields,’” he tells Aragorn and Éomer; “‘but she, born in the body of a maid, had a spirit and courage at least the match of yours’” (V, viii, 867, emphasis mine). In response to his words “Éomer was silent, and looked on his sister, as if pondering anew all the days of their past life together.”

Image: “Éowyn” by Sempern0x

Megan N. Fontenot is a hopelessly infatuated Tolkien fan and scholar who does not at all apologize for the immense joy that researching writing about her favorite Tolkien characters bring her.

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