Why Does Éowyn Want to Die?

This week’s blog post in the current series of guestblogs on Éowyn of Rohan comes from David Rowe. As with Jennifer Leonard’s piece that was featured last week it ends with Éowyn’s healing journeying first with her desire to die. ‘David is the writer of ‘The Proverbs of Middle-earth’, soon to be published by Oloris Media. He tweets at @TolkienProverbs and @mrdavidrowe, and the following is an adaptation of a passage from his book.’ I am delighted that he has offered this excerpt from his work for this platform.

If you have a piece on Éowyn that you would like to include here then please send it to me in Word format using my email address mail@stephenwinter.net. Please include some detail about yourself and any links to your work that you would like me to include. 

 

‘I do not desire healing… and I do not desire the speech of living men. ‘I looked for death in battle… to ride to war like my brother Éomer, or better like Théoden the king, for he died.’

When first seen in her guise as Dernhelm, Merry shivers, perceiving in Éowyn ‘the face of one without hope who goes in search of death.’ Having disobeyed orders and ridden to war, rather than remaining in Rohan as the King’s regent, she achieves what no man could: the killing of the Lord of the Nazgûl. In doing so she rises higher than any woman, at any time, in any kingdom of Men, and yet her emptiness remains utter.

Recovering in the Houses of Healing, Éowyn feels like a prisoner: she is jealous of the dead, jealous of the now-departed host of the West, even jealous of those with a better view from their windows. How did she reach this point?

Éowyn grew up as an orphan, adopted into the King’s household but with neither mother nor adopted mother. Her lack of female role-models, alongside the restrictions that barred her from emulating the nation’s heroes (virtually all of whom, according to the Appendices, were male), left Éowyn powerless: unable to give vent to the determination, steely character, and latent greatness within her. With a spirit and courage at least the match of Éomer’s, but without the opportunity to fight for the fields of Rohan with a company of riders as he does, Éowyn lacks comradeship. She is left isolated and alone, an indomitable shieldmaiden reduced to ‘dry-nursing’ the declining King – a role she deemed ‘more ignoble than that of the staff he leaned on.’

The arrival of Aragorn to Edoras both sparks Éowyn back to life and plunges her into despair. As Faramir correctly diagnoses, ‘You desired to have the love of the Lord Aragorn… but when he gave you only understanding and pity, then you desired to have nothing, unless a brave death in battle.’ Having had her love and hope of high honour and nobility exposed as vain, Éowyn withers; seeking only the honour of a valiant end she goes ‘in search of death.’ Knowing that none have ever returned from the Paths of the Dead, she begs Aragorn to take her there with him, but is refused, and instead goes into disguise in order to ride to Minas Tirith with the host of the Eorlingas.

Where will wants not, a way opens, Éowyn declares as Dernhelm, Good will should not be denied. Although these words are spoken to and for Merry, a double meaning is also plain: Éowyn is using them to justify her own disobedience. While, by quoting traditional proverbs, Éowyn shows that she is still in touch with Rohan’s philosophical tradition, she is actually being unfaithful to its wisdom. In place of the Rohirric devotion to duty is a different fearless determination: that of self-destruction. While Théoden, Éomer, and Rohan at large embody the belief that doing your duty is fundamental to moral goodness, Éowyn scorns such a perspective. ‘Too often have I heard of duty,’ she says. ‘May I not now spend my life as I will?’

Disguised as Dernhelm, Éowyn becomes free at last, but the freedom she gains is the liberty to self-harm. She can ride with the host of the Rohirrim, but her motives are not theirs. A nihilism has taken over, arguing that life carries no intrinsic value or moral purpose, and therefore can be used (or disposed of) at the individual’s whim. Éowyn has become a lonely, solitary death-seeker, surrounded by courageous, faithful men, riding bravely against hopeless odds. She is alien even to her own people; not part of a company, nor sharing in the national motivations. She derides compassion, and is a stranger to dutiful courage and the great virtues. It is therefore fitting that, when she subsequently fails in her quest for death, she meets her match in Faramir, in whom these traits are so prevalent.

Éowyn emerges from her nihilistic darkness not through being argued into submission, but by being loved. Perhaps because she recognises that Faramir is a man ‘whom no Rider of the Mark would outmatch in battle’, she is able to listen to him and he to command her respect. Faramir draws her out of despair with his company and kindness, saying Do not scorn pity that is the gift of a gentle heart, referring both to Aragorn’s reaction to her and to his own love. And it is as this great warrior and leader willingly exposes his vulnerable core that ‘the heart of Éowyn changed, or else at last she understood it.’ The darkness departs, and she determines to marry, to become a healer, and to ‘love all things that grow’. Éowyn finally stops fighting, and Faramir is able to declare to the Warden:

‘Here is the Lady Éowyn of Rohan, and now she is healed.’

12 thoughts on “Why Does Éowyn Want to Die?

    • I’ve been thinking about this. It is certainly Eomer’s view that Aragorn was the immediate cause. In the Houses of Healing he says, “I knew not that Éowyn, my sister, was touched by any frost, until she first looked on you.”

      But Gandalf immediately corrects Eomer, saying that Eowyn’s suffering was endured privately. Here is the full section:

      ‘My friend,’ said Gandalf, ‘you had horses, and deeds of arms, and the free fields; but she, born in the body of a maid, had a spirit and courage at least the match of yours. Yet she was doomed to wait upon an old man, whom she loved as a father, and watch him falling into a mean dishonoured dotage; and her part seemed to her more ignoble than that of the staff he leaned on.
      ‘Think you that Wormtongue had poison only for Théoden’s ears? Dotard! What is the house of Eorl but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek, and their brats roll on the floor among their dogs? Have you not heard those words before? Saruman spoke them, the teacher of Wormtongue. Though I do not doubt that Wormtongue at home wrapped their meaning in terms more cunning. My lord, if your sister’s love for you, and her will still bent to her duty, had not restrained her lips; you might have heard even such things as these escape them. But who knows what she spoke to the darkness, alone, in the bitter watches of the night, when all her life seemed shrinking, and the walls of her bower closing in about her, a hutch to trammel some wild thing in?’
      Then Éomer was silent, and looked on his sister, as if pondering anew all the days of their past life together.

      —-

      Eomer appears to suffer from the classic male disease of not perceiving something unless he’s explicitly told it! And, when Eowyn awakes, he sees that Gandalf was right: Eowyn is told that Theoden is dead, and her response is, ‘That is grievous. And yet it is good beyond all that I dared hope in the
      dark days, when it seemed that the House of Eorl was sunk in honour less than any shepherd’s cot.’

      So it seems that while Aragorn’s arrival might have tipped Eowyn over the edge, the darkness and depression in her goes WAY back.

      • This certainly does seem true, sort of like Aragorn’s rejection was the last straw, as the saying goes, the last sorrow that she was able to deal with. I didn’t somehow pick up on how for back her depression went.

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