Éowyn and Merry Go to War

Where will wants not, a way opens, so we say.”

So speaks Dernhelm to the unhappy Merry as the host of Rohan prepare to make the great ride to the battle before the walls of Minas Tirith. Merry is unhappy because he is to be left behind. His pony could not follow the war steeds of the Rohirrim and, as Théoden says, “In such a battle as we think to make on the fields of Gondor what would you do, Master Meriadoc, swordthain though you be, and greater of heart than of stature?”

Merry has faced the same question ever since Elrond pondered in Rivendell about who should accompany the Ringbearer upon his journey. There it was not his stature that counted against him, for Frodo and Sam were chosen straightaway, there it was his youth, but ever since the Fellowship left Rivendell Merry has felt like baggage in someone else’s journey to be taken or left behind at the will of another but never at his own.

Now, once again, it is the choice of another to take him to battle. Briefly in the story we know the rider who bears Merry as Dernhelm. Merry had noted the rider on the morning of that day glancing keenly at him. “A young man, Merry thought as he returned the glance, less in height and girth than most. He caught the glint of clear grey eyes; and then he shivered, for it came suddenly to him that it was the face of one without hope who goes in search of death.”

Théoden will learn that Merry disobeyed him and rode to battle and at the end he will smile at the knowledge of the hobbit’s disobedience honouring his valiant heart and his courage. But he will never learn the true identity of Dernhelm and so will not die in grief but in comfort, for Dernhelm is Éowyn and the words that she speaks to Merry that began this blog post she speaks also regarding herself. She too, like Merry, did not lack in will. She desires to go to war and so end her life upon the battlefield, a life that she believes has no meaning without the love of Aragorn. But like Merry also, she lacks a way, at least a way that is permitted to her. Théoden will have her rule in Edoras in his absence just as she did while the host was at Helm’s Deep but this time she will not obey him although her disobedience is secret.

So once again Tolkien shows us the greatness of Éowyn. It is not in her despair that we see her greatness nor in her disobedience but in her decision to take Merry with her. This is not some kind of suicide pact of which Merry is ignorant nor is it the choice of a proud man that others should share his despair and die with him like the pilot who deliberately crashed the passenger plane into a mountainside. What Éowyn does is to recognise one who is a fellow sufferer and her heart goes out to him. This tells me that despair has not won its final victory in her heart for if it had her heart could not have seen anything beyond its own pain. Julian of Norwich put this beautifully when she said, as did Meister Eckhart, that there is a part of the human heart that has never said, Yes, to sin. This is what Tolkien shows us when her heart goes out to Merry. Is this what keeps her alive after the battle with the Lord of the Nazgûl and will not let her die even when she thinks that she wants to while lying in the Houses of Healing? In my imagination I see Julian and Eckhart reading her story and agreeing that this is exactly why she survives and then is gloriously restored to life through the patient and strong love of Faramir. It is her love for one who is almost a stranger to her that will hold her in her darkest days.

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.’

A Meditation on a True King

The Riders of Rohan ride for two days towards the Fords of Isen where the remnant of the army that had been commanded by Theodred, son of Théoden, until he fell, still strive to hold out. They are met by a messenger who counsels them to go no further.

“Where is Eomer?” he cries, “Tell him there is no hope ahead. He should return to Edoras before the wolves of Isengard get there.”

The whole mood is one of despair and the arrival of Eomer makes no difference to this. But then Théoden rides forward and speaks to the messenger.

“I am here,” he says. The last host of the Eorlingas has ridden forth. It will not return without battle.”

And with those words everything is transformed. The messenger falls to his knees “with joy and wonder”. No new hope has been given. The likely end to this story is still death for them all and the end of Rohan and yet despair has gone because the King has come to his people. What until that moment had been expectation of a meaningless death is now full of meaning. We know that the title of the last volume of The Lord of the Rings was The Return of the King and that it refers to Aragorn and his return to Gondor; but it could equally refer to Théoden and his return to his own people, the Rohirrim. The return of the King always brings transformation.

In their study of the masculine psyche, King, Warrior, Magician, Lover Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette write, “The mortal man who incarnates the King energy or bears it for a while in the service of his fellow human beings, in the service of the realm (of whatever dimensions), in the service of the cosmos, is almost an interchangeable part, a human vehicle for bringing this ordering and generative archetype into the world and into the lives of human beings.” In other words it is the energy that matters more than the person. If Eomer were the king as he will be later then his arrival would be enough. He would incarnate the King energy just as Théoden does now. What matters is that the energy must be incarnated by a true king who gives his life in service of the people, the realm, the cosmos. When that happens a life giving order comes to the world.

This is what distinguishes a true from a false king. The false king, as Moore and Gillette say, is either a tyrant or a weakling. The Rohirrim go to war with Saruman, the tyrant, the false king, who can only impose order by force and fear and whose rule will always take life and not give it. Even the instruments of the tyrant must ultimately be a denial, a mockery, of life. In The Lord of the Rings this mockery is expressed by means of the orcs. But it is not only from the tyrant that the people seek liberation but from the weakling too. The Rohirrim have been delivered from their own weakling king. As Moore and Gillette put it, “Kings in the ancient world were often ritually killed when their ability to live out the King archetype began to fail. What was important was that the generative power of the energy not be tied to the fate of an aging and increasingly impotent mortal.”

Gandalf has liberated Rohan from their increasingly impotent king and an energy is released in its people that Saruman and his slaves can never know. Now even if they are defeated the defeat will not be meaningless but still generative. Now the deaths that have been suffered at the Fords of Isen and the death of Theodred, the king’s son have meaning. We will end this week with Moore and Gillette again.

“When we are accessing the King energy correctly, as servants of our own inner King, we will manifest in our lives the qualities of the good and rightful King, the King in his fullness… We will feel our anxiety level drop. We will feel centred and calm, and hear ourselves speak from an inner authority. We will have the capacity to mirror and to bless ourselves and others.”

A Life as Brief as a Sparrow’s Flight

As Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli approach Edoras, the dwelling place of Théoden, King of Rohan and the Rohirrim they ponder the story of that people. Five hundred years the Rohirrim have dwelt in that land since first Eorl the Young led them to the field of Celebrant to aid the people of Gondor in battle. To them that day is so long ago that they have no memory of what came before but to Legolas, ageless wood elf of the Greenwood, those five hundred fallings of the leaves seem “but a little while.” And so Tolkien calls to mind another of the great themes of his stories, the great difference between elves and humankind. The sorrow of being human is to know the brevity of life; the sorrow of being an elf is not themselves to know death and yet to know the decay and loss of all else that lies about them.

Aragorn, who served Théoden’s father, Thengel, at one time in his youth, sings one of the songs of the Rohirrim in their own tongue. Legolas, not knowing the tongue, speaks of it as “laden with the sadness of Mortal Men.”

Where now the horse and the rider? Where is the horn that was blowing? Where is the helm and the hauberk, and the bright hair flowing?…Who shall gather the smoke of the dead wood burning, Or behold the flowing years from the Sea returning?”

It is the image of the vain attempt to gather up the smoke of the fire that is most poignant in the song reminding us that we, who are mortal, can no more hold onto life than to perform this impossible task.

Tolkien was one of the greatest scholars of early English of his time and surely here he recalls the famous speech recounted by the Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People in which the pagan priest, Coifi, addresses Edwin, mighty king of the Northumbrians. Paulinus has just declared the Christian message to the king and Coifi speaks.

“It seems to me that the life of a man on earth is like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the hall, where you, O King, sit at table on a winter’s day with your captains and counsellors. In the midst of the hall there is a comforting fire to warm it. Outside the storms of winter rain and snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one window of that hall and out through another. While he is inside, the bird is safe from the winter storms, but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. So man appears upon earth for a little while- but of what went before this life, or what follows, we know nothing.”

I first heard this story as a young boy and this image seared itself into my consciousness. I could see the hall of the king, the fire burning brightly, the winter storm blowing outside. I could see the bird flying swiftly from one window to another. And at some level, perhaps beyond understanding, I knew that life was short, so heartbreakingly short.

When Gandalf and his companions arrive at Meduseld, the hall of the king, they find the Rohirrim, bowed down under the weight of this consciousness and unmanned by the whisperings of Grima Wormtongue, secret servant of Saruman. But soon the people of Rohan will be woken to new hope and to brave deeds. They will find such meaning in their brief life that they will be able to stand against all the powers of darkness that now oppress them.

But that is for another week…