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.’

The True Power and Majesty of Kings

As Aragorn journeys further and further away from Gondor, the place of his dream, on what seems to be the hopeless quest of rescuing Merry and Pippin from the orc host who have taken them prisoner, he encounters a war band of the Riders of Rohan riding homeward from the destruction of that very host. The war band are commanded by Eomer, nephew of Théoden, king of Rohan and against the orders of the king they have set out after the orcs on hearing of their incursion into Rohan. On meeting Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli they challenge them. Aragorn’s response to the challenge is astonishing. He invokes the name of his mighty ancestor, Elendil, the last and only king of the two kingdoms of Gondor and Arnor and then he continues:

“I am Aragorn, son of Arathorn, and am called Elessar, the Elfstone, Dunadan, the heir of Isildur Elendil’s son of Gondor. Here is the Sword that was Broken and is forged again! Will you aid me or thwart me? Choose swiftly!”

Aragorn has no more time for courtesies, however time honoured they might be. This is the true crisis, the moment of doom, of judgement, and courtesy is at such moments simply time wasting. Nor is there time for weighing up what choices might be available. Aragorn has given his command, “Choose swiftly!” and the command must be obeyed whether Eomer chooses for him or against him. Eomer is awestruck, but so are Gimli and Legolas who have travelled with him since Rivendell.

“They had not seen him in this mood before. He seemed to have grown in stature while Eomer had shrunk and in his living face they caught a brief vision of the power and majesty of the kings of stone. For a moment it seemed to Legolas that a white flame flickered on the brows of Aragorn like a shining crown.”

Readers may remember the “kings of stone”. We encountered them on the river journey down the Anduin from Lothlorien and they may remember that Aragorn gave his ancestors a lordly greeting and then seemed to shrink into himself in his boat. It was the time of doubting when Aragorn questioned his very identity. It was the time of his Wilderness Temptation but that time is now over. It may be that in his pursuit of Merry and Pippin Aragorn has had to lay aside his kingly ambition for a time. It may be that he will lay down his life in a vain pursuit. But he no longer does so as a man wracked with doubt. The choice he has made is a kingly choice, a free choice, and he will not be thwarted by any man.

Readers may also have noted that I have used words like “Wilderness Temptation” and “Emptying”. I might also have used the phrase, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The witness of the gospels and of the letters of the New Testament to Jesus the King resound with the same language that, in The Lord of the Rings, bears witness to Aragorn, who will be king of Gondor and Arnor. It is not that Tolkien is making Aragorn into a kind of Jesus, but that this language,and the language of the New Testament, reveals true kingship to us; the language first of self doubt and of emptying, and the language also of command. Aragorn has revealed himself to all as their true king.

Choose swiftly! Are with me or against me? The time of judgement has come! The kingdom of heaven is at hand!