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How The Lord of the Rings Broke My Heart

Eowyn

When I was a teenager, I was a massive Lord of the Rings fan. I would count down to the release of each movie, see them multiple times in the theater, and could pretty much recite Fellowship of the Ring from memory. I read the books over and over, my internet usernames were all elf-inspired, and I dreamed of one day owning a replica of the Evenstar.

I loved Arwen, but my favorite female character (not that there were many to choose from) was Eowyn. What a badass she was. To my teenage mind, The Lord of the Rings didn’t have many female characters, but the ones that existed were awesome. 

Then I made the mistake of rereading the books in college. Suddenly I wondered why everyone was male, except for a couple of elegant elves who were mostly off-screen and a hobbit who exists to get married. I was disturbed by the racist tones that ran through the whole thing. But most of all, I was heartbroken by Eowyn.

Because Eowyn, as she exists in the books, is not a badass feminist figure. Not by a long shot. She does several badass things, disguising herself as a man to ride with the Rohirrim and defying and killing the Witch King to protect Theoden. But the book always presents her from a distance, with constant references to her “fairness” and her “beauty,” as though she is something to be seen, rather than a person who acts. And in the end, her fighting, her defiance, is presented as unnatural. She’s a delicate and beautiful lily, warped by necessity, and as soon as she sets eyes on Faramir, “her heart changes.” She declares that she will be a shieldmaiden no longer, and instead dedicate herself to being a healer — a far more suitable female pursuit. It’s almost as though she fought the Witch King because the legend needed someone weak and otherwise unlikely to do it (after all, no MAN can kill him), because the world was wrong and it needed something similarly wrong to do it, something that left Eowyn utterly broken and scarred and as hard as steel. And once the world is healed, she can heal too, and be the womanly figure she was always supposed to be.

The release of The Hobbit was equally sad for me. I wanted to enjoy it. I wanted to love it. But all I could think was why, barring a somewhat forced appearance of Galadriel, did not a single female face appear in the movie. Never mind significant female characters. Never mind flat or stereotyped or useless female characters. None. A huge cast of main characters, and all of them were male. My thirteen year old self would have just accepted it as normal (in fact, I did, when I read the book for the first time). Now, I have to wonder why this was considered a good, normal thing.

I still love many things about The Lord of the Rings. Its perspective on good and evil is incredibly simplistic, but it has some compelling elements, and the movies manage to avoid a lot of problems I found in the books. But as I read the books, I can tell that it clearly wasn’t written for anyone like me. The female characters weren’t intended to be characters. They were not intended to be people with independent roles in the story. And I have to wonder — why did I miss these things at 13, or 15? Had I just been trained to see these things as normal? Or was I so desperate to see fantasy and adventure stories with any female characters that I was more than willing to overlook the problems in what I was seeing? These women were warriors and elf princesses, with pretty fantasy dresses and awesome horseriding skills and swords. It was great to imagine being them, and to skim over the details in the books themselves that suggested the characters had never been who I hoped and pictured them to be.

And so finding out that I had misread the characters, that Eowyn and Arwen were never intended to be heroines in that way, that in fact their “heroine” status was taken away by the end of the story? That was a heartbreaking moment.

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

24 thoughts on “How The Lord of the Rings Broke My Heart

  1. Hi! I have a similar experience with LOTR, except that when I read the books for the first time I did wonder why there were no females in the Fellowship. I never thought it would have been so hard to write them in. And I was equally disappointing in her marrying Faramir almost on the same page she met him. It got worse when I re-read the books a couple of years ago and realized that she didn’t even kill the Witch King on her own: even that required a male figure! It saddened and angered me in equal measures.

    I didn’t expect that much from the movies, though I missed Goldberry. She wasn’t that important a character, but at least it was a female character *doing* something (though mostly off-screen). And The Hobbit doesn’t have that many female characters to begin with, which is even sadder.

    I guess Tolkien was writing for his children and his own time, where women weren’t still considered to have as much agency… or at least that might have been the perspective of a male professor completely wrapped up in his own world.

  2. Except Eowyn didn’t abandon everything as soon as she saw Faramir, but rather they healed together and she recovered from the deep depression she had fallen into after witnessing the death of her father-figure and being attacked by the Witch King (and possibly also by the thought that she had abandoned her people, who Theoden left her in charge of, but that’s not really addressed except as the main named reason she wasn’t supposed to go to battle).
    I’m not saying that there weren’t sexist elements in Eowyn’s story, because there definitely were, but I don’t find the slow-burn of love and respect that happened between her and Faramir sexist, nor do I think that her eventual decision to become a healer makes her less ‘badass.’ Eowyn is one of my favorite characters in the trilogy, and I think she’s more complex than you’re making her out to be. H

    1. You’re right. She didn’t just abandon everything for Faramir; she had played her role and they healed and grew together. I guess I was just hoping that she could go on and lead the Rohirrim, or at the very least marry Aragorn, and was disappointed when she didn’t.

    2. For me, it’s not so much WHAT she does, as the language used to describe it. It’s perfectly fine that she decides to marry Faramir and become a healer, and that fact alone doesn’t make her a lesser character somehow. But the language Tolkien used to describe it has implications about the role that Eowyn SHOULD be taking and the unnatural nature of her previous actions that makes me uncomfortable.

  3. I somewhat disagree with you. I always thought that Éowyn’s ability to adept to a civilian life after war had ended was her greatest strenght. Compare this to Frodo, who was too deeply scarred by his experiences to ever return to the life he actually wanted. But Éowyn and Faramir otoh were able to get through their ptsd and war trauma (because war is always traumatic, it’s never heroic and glorious) and start a new life together to celebrate life and not death & destruction.
    Éowyns ability to change and realize that war is actually the Worst Thing Ever (even if it’s sometimes necessary) was what made me love her character. Because that’s not a weakness, that’s a strenght.

    1. I think that’s a really interesting point. She’s certainly able to recover in ways that other characters can’t. But the language used to describe this transformation has implications for who Eowyn (or any female character) should be that make me very uncomfortable.

  4. I feel like this is such a heresy to say, especially on the internet, but I’ve never got the appeal of Lotr, books AND movies. I re-watched all three movies a few months ago to see what the hype was all about, as my memories were rather blurry on the subject (I justed remember being utterly bored by both the movies and the books, but I was quite young then, so I thought it was just me). I was dumbfounded by how lame I thought the movies were. I find the treatment of the (very, very few) female characters appalling of course; I actually sat through the movies thinking “But at least if I keep watching, I’ll get to see the famous I-am-no-man scene”, which kept me going. How disappointed that indeed, Eowyn wouldn’t have done anything except for the hobbit who helped her (and did the bulk of the work). And, of course, Arwen’s and Eowyn’s arcs are both lame lovestory.
    I also do think that racism plainly shows in the movies. Seriously, the look of these elephant riders? How convenient that they’re the only poc in the films too…
    But mostly, I find Lotr so unbelievably simplistic at its core. I mean I get that I’m probably missing out on something given Lotr’s huge following, but I can’t help finding it childish: at every level all I see is the basic fantasy of your average white, straight, male, only mildly intelligent teenage boy, which I think the male characters all plainly and unironically exemplify and embody.

    1. I’m torn about Lord of the Rings as a whole. I enjoy the epic tones of the story, and I think the journey of the hobbits against all odds is compelling. But the racism and the sexism, combined with the generally incredibly simplistic view of “good” vs “evil” (Boromir aside)… I think it’s square one for modern epic fantasy, but writers can and have been able to do a lot better since, in terms of writing style and complexity.

      1. Oh yes, I forgot to add that I actually (and only) like Boromir! I thought he was the only one to even remotely make sense in the movies (like HOW is it a good idea to send three hobbits or something in Mordor alone with the most powerful artefact ever? I mean, people who knows nothing at all in strategy, combat, survival, in the empire of eeeeevil?). Now that I think of it, except Boromir, I don’t have much more to say about the characters, because I think they all lack substance.
        I actually do enjoy a good epic (I love me some good ol’ Homer), I just can’t see it in Lotr. I personally find the story itself, even without taking the problematic elements into account, utterly boring (though I readily acknowledge that this is more a matter of taste, and that there are good elements I’m probably missing!), I also don’t find it very original, literary-wise. I get that he really invented a world (though I think a lot of people downplay how muchTolkien used existing materials, representations, imagery and traditions), but I disagree when it comes to the writing or the themes or the epic as a genre.
        I’m sorry if this sounds inflammatory, but the success of Lotr is genuinely confusing to me! Anyway, I hope I was not derailing the topic.

        1. The wisdom of sending Hobbits into Mordor with the “most powerful artifact ever” was addressed in the book. First, Hobbits weren’t sent alone, they were accompanied by a Fellowship of some of the most capable from among society. Second, Gandalf knew that the ring would corrupt the more powerful himself included. From his long observance of Bilbo and subsequently Frodo, he knew that the meek Hobbits had an unusual ability to resist its powers. Others, from Galadriel, to Saruman, to Boromir would have simply taken it for themselves to become despots in their own right, allying themselves to Sauron or usurping his place.

          It was known to be a risky venture, but with the ring found and Sauron seeking it, the Counsel of the Wise judged it the only chance to defeat him.

          It was never intended that Frodo and Sam would venture alone into Mordor, although Gandalf admitted he wasn’t sure what they would do as they approached it. So they improvised, as battlefield commanders will do.

          Yes, “good” and “evil” are treated simplistically in LotR, but it is consciously mimicking the epic style, which has that characteristic. Still, it’s not all that simplistic, as the good characters, such as Boromir, Saruman, Denethor, and Galadriel, are presented as corruptible and fallible. It’s really the evil characters who are incapable of redemption.

          If you like your characters morally complex, try “A Song of Ice and Fire” (aka Game of Thrones). It’s characters are mostly a mix of good and evil, all fallible individuals (with a few totally evil individuals like Joffrey, and even he is presented as possibly mentally ill).

          1. Knowing that hobbit are self insert of author+his males white friends (the Shire is the contemporary England of the author, reason he developed it the most after the elf people, and make it special in a way), it’s explain a lot about the “simple, normal, humble hobbits going into incredible adventures, to do heroics deeds and still been “normal””, the explanation in-story about the why/how are just author trying to make it believable for the reader, that all. It’s the texto definition of self-insert in a sue way for sake, anyone ever read fanfiction know that. The appeal of his texts lay in the shared personal feelings about war experiences, his philology studies showing mostly for world-building. Alas, his biases shows too (he was living in the first colonialism country, not in a vaccum devoid of any problematic topics the world face till today, each of us face).

            Tolkien shared his fantasies to the public, the complaints about it (sexism, racism, classism, ableism) are very founded either it please some or not, that don’t stop anyone to enjoy the material, neither anyone to adapt it to be more inclusive.
            But to actively deny the sexist, classist, racist, ableist facts about the works tell more about the people denying it. No need to get overly bruised over it, acknowledge it and get over it simple as that.

        2. That’s kind of the point, the one ring is designed to corrupt so if you give it to somebody who knows about strategy and combat, if he gets corrupted, he could turn sides and then use his position to sabotage the entire operation from the inside. Sauron wouldn’t even have to send a single man out to battle because the ringbearer could be converted to do all his dirty work for him. Because hobbits have no knowledge of battle and strategy, nor political power, if they are corrupted they wouldn’t turn into a dangerous opponent.

    2. LOTR is a fairly straightforward story because it’s based on the old Norse and Celtic sagas that Tolkien loved and based his career around. Character complexity wasn’t really one of the goals. It’s a foundational synthesis of fantasy cultural imagery drawn from Western history. Hence, virtually everybody working in the high fantasy field since has been drawing on the toolbox Tolkien assembled, or consciously trying to get away from it.

      1. I agree. We have to look at the historical context in which this was written; the 1940s and 50s may not be too long ago but attitudes have vastly changed since then. Personally, I would find recent fantasy series more rewarding to read, such as A Song of Ice and Fire, but we must remember who came first. George R.R. Martin himself has admitted that although he finds Tolkien’s simplistic treatment of good and evil problematic, all fantasy writers are ultimately working in the shadow of the mountain that comprises Tolkien’s works. Though I agree with some elements of this article, having grown up with the LOTR series, I still find Éowyn a strong female character, both in today’s context and the context in which Tolkien was writing. The very fact that, in an epic tale consisting of so many complex character arcs, vast battles and sieges, Tolkien takes the time to show us the world from Éowyn’s perspective, bringing her story to a, in my opinion, beautiful and heartwarming end in quite a number of pages. He could have chosen to place the details of her story in the Appendices, like Arwen’s, but no – he places it in one of the final chapters of the epic saga instead. To return to my reasons for seeing Éowyn as a strong, sympathetic character, just look at her upbringing. The traumatic death of both parents, being forced into the monotonous, difficult role of caring for an increasingly decrepit old king, which she performed uncomplainingly for several years, Éowyn felt caged and knew she wanted more from life. She went out there, assumed a man’s role, succeeding in turning the tide of the war by slaying one of the most formidable servants of Sauron… But she wished to die. She saw her life as worthless because the great hero she so admired did not love her, because she could not be, in Faramir’s words, the blissful Queen of Gondor. THIS is what Tolkien saw as unnatural in her being. Her over-obsession with glory and renown, without focusing enough on deeds not as great but just as good, is alluded to by Aragorn. And here’s what I found interesting: he and Gandalf spend some pages simply discussing Éowyn’s past, motivations and fate. They clearly see her as important. Her blossoming romance with Faramir does not diminish her strength as a character. In falling in love with him, she discovers the difference between slow, burning, steady love and the desperate, passionate hero-worship she felt for Aragorn. And, more importantly, it is specifically stated that this did not just cause her heart to change – she finally understood it. She realised that caring for the old king for years so uncomplainingly was just as noble and heroic as riding into battle – just less glorious. That she should devote her life to helping and healing others, as she healed Faramir with her love, instead of destroying them. And yes, it would have been great if she had ended up as leader of the Rohirrim, but was that really what her particular character was destined for? I believe not. In choosing her own fate as a healer, choosing to leave the glory of battle behind, Éowyn remains a thoroughly strong and independent woman, and her presence in the LOTR series makes up for the few other, less fleshed-out female characters in the story.

  5. Don’t see Galadriel as a forced appearance. She plays a very important role in during the Hobbit event, but that is something that you won’t see in the book.
    You have to go to the Unfinished Tales, the Appendices and specially the Quest of Erebor.
    Maybe Galadriel has not a warrior performance but her actions are very important for the events..

  6. I think JRR saw thinks more realistic. There are many strong female characters in tlotr but not in the way that they are able to use a sword which has her size or something else ( woman can be strong but a claymore or bastard-sword is to big for them). The woman are leader Galadriel, Manve and yes he used some stereotyps but look at the time he wrote it and the storyline. Wonder Woman shound not be there and i think a strong leader is more badass then a big barbarien with no brain.

  7. LOTR is a product of its time. Tolkien put thin young beautiful women on a pedestal and everyone else is just in the way (just read the page where Ioreth appears!). Eowyn is doing what all feisty young women were expected to do – have a tiny taste of freedom before settling into a proscribed domesticity with the man of her dreams.

    In some ways my favourite female character is Shelob! She doesn’t give a solitary shit about anyone else and lives her life on her own terms!

  8. I agree with Ellesar that Tolkien has written the women characters based on what was the ideal at his time. I find it very interesting that even though much of his work was inspired by the old northern sagas he didn’t create any women like those from the sagas. The women from the sagas are really diverse, some are strong, independent, clever, great, but also violent, jealous or otherwise “not perfect”. In short: they are humans and they are not all similar. It’s very sad that Tolkien closed his eyes to this and let men be humans and women be mythical, perfect creatures.

  9. I feel the opposite. Yes, there are more male major characters in Tolkien’s fiction than female. One only has to look at the inclusion of Tauriel in the movies to see that it was the only way for any female roles to be injected into the story. But I would argue against the characters being portrayed as weak or pitiable. One only has to look to some of the characters already mentioned: Galadriel, Arwen, and Eowyn. Look even deeper into the fiction and you find Varda, Yavanna, Melian and most importantly, Luthien. All of these women are strong in their own way, even if they never pick up a sword.

    Varda, the Elentari, is quite possibly one of the most powerful of the Valar in Arda. Tolkien even states that Melkor, who was at one time *the* most powerful, fears her most. Because she never wields a sword, marches into battle or slays an enemy, does that make her weak? No.

    Melian uses her power to keep an entire land safe from any enemy for thousands of years. Through her time in Doriath she also mentors an elf who will become arguably the most powerful of the Children in Middle-earth during the Second and Third Ages: Galadriel. Galadriel, for her part, is a Calaquendi. She had a hand in most of the events in Arda’s long history in one way or another. Her power allows Lorien to become the most blissful haven of Elvendom on Earth. Neither one goes into battle, swings a sword, so that must mean Tolkien’s portrayal of them weak then. I disagree there too.

    Luthien, the daughter of Melian and Thingol, sings to sleep one of the Valar. She uses her power to literally blow down the doors to a keep and rescue Beren. She submits to her will just through the power of her voice the antagonist of the Third Age: Sauron. Weak, pathetic, flimsy character? I think not.

    Tolkien throughout the years has been criticized for his portrayal (or perceived “lack-thereof”) of women, but I would argue that some of the strongest characters in his stories are women. Think about it this way: Without Varda, Manwe would be hindered in his governance of Arda. Luthien’s involvement with Beren’s quest to win her hand is the only reason why he succeeds. Without Luthien, Beren would likely have perished at the hands of Sauron early on into his quest. And yes, without Eowyn the Witch-king of Angmar would have survived the battle of Pelennor Fields and the day might’ve been won by Sauron. Do women play a role in the quest of Mount Doom? Not as much directly as some would like, but I would say that their role is just as, if not more important than some of those played by the Men in the story.

    1. Beren and Luthien sounds rather like ‘East of the Sun and West of the Moon’, a Scandinavian folktale based on (of all things!) Cupid and Psyche. I guess Tolkien must have come across that tale more than once then . . .

  10. My middle name is Eowyn. The only people who actually know who she is from my school are the teachers. I haven’t read the LOTR series myself-only the Hobbit. I plan to read it after les mis and the King Arthur trilogy.

  11. Thank you for writing this. I always had serious problems with the Rings Trilogy but was never able to find the right words. In good conscience, I can never truly enjoy Tolkien again. His major flaws will always stick out foremost, tainting everything.

  12. This is indeed a very interisting topic. As i have to admit, i have never looked at it from this angle before. You are however completly right in your observations. Despite that, i do think Peter has done a good work modernizing it all, without ruining it. Dont take this the wrong way, i would not indeed have anything against strong female characters. But it would not be the right way to transform jrr Tolkiens work just for that reason of that. I am however proud to ackowledge that the times are changing and if those Books were written today they would surely be differentially put to words, in bad and good ways. Its just a shame this conversation wont go on further :)

  13. …I might be way off base, but I got the idea–at least in the movies–that the director was trying to move away from “some” of the stereotyping in the books. I think that’s why I always enjoy the movies so much more. The books are beautiful allegories of how good can triumph over evil, but, yes, my sis and I did notice that the females are not as proactive as we know females CAN be in ANY war-type situation (i.e.: female bomber test pilots of WWII, just as one example). Just like the men, women know terrible sacrifices are going to have to be made from everyone–that’s how wars are, in fantasy or real life. If it’s any comfort, the trilogy was written between 1937 and 1949…even then–and BEFORE then–females of all stripes were striving for their own credit and their own voices, just as they do now…just as ALL people, who know their worth should count. I would never, ever, deny Aragorn his kingdom, but facts are facts: if Eowyn hadn’t been on the battlefield that day, destroying half of the poison behind the powers of evil, I think Mr. Jackson would’ve had to have followed a more desperate, grueling ending, “according to Hoyl.” Eowyn counts, and–yes–I wish she and more of her kind were mentioned in the original tomes, as “fully counting” in the full-fledged warrior club. Gotta say, that’s where the Harry Potter books have it all over LOTR, in terms of who’s equal–whether good, or evil…but, then, that is another story…

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