The Problem of Eowyn: A Look at Ethics and Values in Middle-earth

From Fanlore
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Title: The Unnatural History of Tolkien's Orcs
Creator: MadGamgee/Dawn Catanach
Date(s): 29 July 2004
Medium: online
Fandom: The Lord of the Rings
Topic: Éowyn
External Links: @ AO3; @ The Grey Book
Click here for related articles on Fanlore.

The Problem of Eowyn: A Look at Ethics and Values in Middle-earth is an essay by MadGamgee/Dawn Catanach in the Tolkien fandom, first published in 2004. It is on the popular topic of whether The Lord of the Rings character Éowyn should be considered to be a heroine or a deserter. The author summary is A critical essay exploring the heroine/deserter question.

It was originally published at the Henneth Annûn Story Archive and is now archived in the HASA collection of Archive of Our Own. It was also published in The Grey Book: Online Journals of Middle-earth in 2005. The essay was awarded first place in the 'Genres: Non-Fiction: Men' category of the 2005 Middle-Earth Fanfiction Awards.[1]


MadGamgee argues:

  • Éowyn's charge of the Rohirric people ended when Théoden arrived at Dunharrow and is not explicitly renewed
  • Éowyn could have appointed a leader in her stead, although this is not described in the text
  • Her motivation for leaving for war is sometimes read as infatuation with Aragorn, but she agrees to stay behind to await Théoden after Aragorn's company leaves
  • Several groups in LotR including Théoden's household can be considered to have aspects of a comitatus – a group of warriors with a strong mutual loyalty, exile from which is considered worse than death. Such groups were well known to Tolkien. This provides Éowyn with motivation to go to war to protect Théoden & Éomer, and conflicts with any duty to remain behind
  • Her actions serve to underline parallels between Théoden & Denethor and Éowyn & Faramir
  • Éowyn is both heroine & deserter: She had to desert Rohan in order to achieve the heroic deeds fated for her. In doing so, she was motivated by the values of Rohirric culture, namely courage, valor, and loyalty to one's lord.


Eowyn, trained as a shieldmaiden, has the skills of a warrior and is thereby eligible for membership in a Rohirric comitatus. As alluded to above, this comitatus consists of Theoden's household. He provides for Eowyn and Eomer, and in return their love and loyalty is given to him (though undoubtedly Theoden loves them; they are a family as well). The dynamics of the comitatus relationship lead Eowyn to her stand against the Witch-king. After his attack on Theoden, all of his knights are either scattered or dead, except for one, "Dernhelm the young, faithful beyond fear; and he wept, for he had loved his lord as a father" (Return 114). Eowyn upholds her end of the arrangement, even though Theoden appears to have failed in his responsibility to her as a member of the comitatus. In the first place, he is prone to underestimating her worth. When Hama suggests that one of the House of Eorl lead the people during the battle of Helm's Deep, Theoden's first thought is of Eomer, who must go with him, not of Eowyn, whom he does not consider until Hama clarifies his suggestion. Second, leaving her behind in Rohan is, in essence, exiling her from the group. Third, he is likely to (and does) go to his death in Gondor, and because she of her exile, she would have no chance to avenge that death as a proper warrior should do. Eowyn is likely to be condemned to that fate worse than death for not just one, but two reasons. She seeks death not because she has been rejected by Aragorn, but rather because everyone she knows and loves is doing the same thing. The Rohirrim ride to Gondor without hope of coming back. There is nothing left for her; she either endures exile from her comitatus, or she goes with them to what appears from the gloom of the Dawnless day to be certain death.

Reception & Reviews

The essay was generally well received. Several reviewers praised the novel application of the idea of a comitatus obligation to Éowyn's situation. Others brought up the point of why fans do not debate the same question for Merry Brandybuck. Criticism focused on the argument that Éowyn's duty to remain expired after Théoden's return, which several reviewers considered to be the weaker part of the essay.

Madgamgee brings a welcome degree of nuance and context to the question of whether Éowyn is more properly considered a hero or a deserter. This essay has two parts, one that aims to undermine the charge that Éowyn knowingly deserted her post, and another containing a novel application of a, shall we say, 'timely' loyalty structure to serve as a competing ethical structure that would've created a duty in direct opposition to Éowyn's remaining in Dunharrow. The first part of the essay is a rather Jesuitical analysis, but also the weaker section. I admire the effort to make much vaguer the terms of Éowyn's regency, and to suggest that perhaps her duty had ended as soon as Théoden returned from Helm's Deep, but I believe that it founders on the fact that Théoden explicitly says, when he confines Merry to Éowyn's side, that Éowyn shall govern the people in his absence. Given that he says this in the context of keeping Merry out of battle, it seems highly unlikely he would've been as vague with Éowyn as the essay requires him to be in the setting out of her duties, such that she could plausibly be said not to have broken her uncle's decree in leaving Rohan to ride with the Muster. If her duty as regent had ended upon the king's return, it was quite evidently reestablished and with the expicit expectation that Éowyn would be duty-bound to remain in Rohan, or it would've made no sense to commit Merry to her service as a means of keeping him safe from the battle in Gondor. Moreover, Éowyn is at hand to hear this exchange, since she rises immediately afterwards and tells Merry to come with her to show him the gear she had prepared for him (The Muster of Rohan, 90). Whether or not Théoden had been vague with her earlier, by the time the host departs, she cannot claim that her uncle's terms were plausibly vague enough that she had not disobeyed the terms of her service in riding after him. The second section, intended to be a second move building on the first, exists to establish Éowyn's motive, which Madgamgee does in two steps, and it is this section that I think merits applause. Taking Merry's observation of Éowyn's hopelessness as accurate, the question becomes: why? What specifically drove her to ride with Théoden? It isn't, she argues, spurned love, for the timing doesn't make sense if we assume that her hopeless attraction to Aragorn is at the root of her decision to ride. After all, she stayed behind when he told her to. However, that still leaves the possibility that Éowyn stayed only because she thought Théoden might allow her to ride with him, thus allowing her to follow Aragorn anyway. This is where step two comes in, by providing a plausible, positive motive for Éowyn that has nothing to do with the abortive relationship she desired with Aragorn. Drawing on the structure of comitatus groups, and using Tolkien's analysis of one such group in his essay "Ofermod", Madgamgee convincingly argues that Éowyn's motivation is a cultural one driven by the terms of a *comitatus* group comprising herself, Théoden, and Éomer, where to be left behind or exiled from the group is a fate literally worse than death, as it is a disgrace and a failure of one's obligations. That Théoden and Éomer did not recognize that they were bound to Éowyn in this manner is a failing on their part, and must also be taken into consideration when judging Éowyn. The nifty comparison of Faramir and Éowyn, arguing that the two are symbolically complementary, and therefore that they both belong together and deserve each other is just gravy. While Madgamgee doesn't pretend that she's definitively answered the question—indeed, she ends by concluding that Éowyn is both hero and deserter of necessity—she gives an excellent argument that forgiveness is warranted in Éowyn's case by virtue of mutually incompatible duties. Speaking as one who wearies of the fact that it is only Éowyn who is questioned in this manner (as if Merry didn't do *exactly* the same thing she did, and also in the face of Théoden explicitly forbidding him to ride to war—sexism in Tolkien is a debatable matter, but I think sexism in readership remains a lurking accusation so long as we only put Éowyn under the microscope, ignoring the question: "Merry: hero or deserter?"), I cannot but say: "A paper", Madgamgee! (Dwimordene)[1]

“Deserter or Heroine? Actually she is both” – that is the conclusion of this article. Well, no. Actually she is a heroine of the ages. But notwithstanding the equivocation of the writer’s conclusion, I still liked, (no, I loved) the defense of Éowyn. I will never understand why (mostly) women writers bash Éowyn when applauding Merry, even though their actions were so similar. The writer has a choice – to exaggerate the differences and conclude that Éowyn is defective, or to discount the differences and see Éowyn as equal or superior to the male Hobbit. If these writers, who are almost all women, lived in a genuinely egalitarian society that made no differentiation between men and women in dispensing the privileges and resources, then I can see exploring the dark side, trying to experience vicariously what it might feel like to be a second class citizen. But since we live in societies in which men predominate in every field that society rewards - say, education, religion, medicine, corporations, military, politics, art, and science, for instance – then why would women portray women as losers in their fantasy fiction? It isn’t as if Tolkien didn’t provide avenues of equality to explore, especially for the Elves (see Laws and Customs among the Eldar, HoME Morgoth’s Ring). I think it is some form of desperate denial - that women today have been raised to think that women’s liberation took care of the equality problem for them years ago, when their own present experiences show it has not. So the writers go out of their way to bash heroines, perhaps thinking that if we show how even-handed we are, how fair we are in criticizing our own, then perhaps the society around us will prove to be fair also. It is tough to go against such an attitude, which I think is born of an internalization of fear. So I applaud this defense of a major female character in Tolkien’s world. I will go out of my way to read more by this author. Thank you.. Fan fiction writers, I will be the constant reader of stories that portray women characters, as strong, confident, not perfect mind you, but powerful, purposeful, vibrant, heroines. Please. *It would be such a refreshing change.* (Chathol-linn)[1]

I remember being extremely impressed on reading this essay when it was first posted at HASA, and it’s a pleasure to have a chance to review it at the MEFAs. By examining the textual background against which Tolkien was creating his own legendarium, Madgamgee casts light on how Eowyn’s actions might be perceived in the context of Middle-earth, and gives us a deeper understanding of this character and her motivations. The complexities of the comitatus, how it might apply in Middle-earth, and how Eowyn might interpret it are elucidated with a clarity that is refreshing in an article with such a scholarly bent. While I am unconvinced by Madgamgee’s contention that the duties laid on Éowyn by Theoden are unclear, I do not think the strength of the argument rests on this section of the essay, but is made sufficiently strongly in this discussion of the comitatus in the second half. The notion of competing duties to be fulfilled -- especially in the context of “following orders” which may be immoral -- and the penalties for oathbreaking are strong themes throughout Tolkien’s work. (It is interesting that, in the parallels between Eowyn and Faramir, Madgamgee does not note that Faramir also disobeyed a less-than-explicit order from a commanding officer who is also his father figure.) I very much appreciated the new insights this essay gave me into the character dynamics of both the Rohirric and Gondorian ruling families, and would like to acknowledge the great influence it has had on my own writing. (Tanaqui)[1]

Very nice essay. Cleared my thoughts. Yet, I have some quibbles. I do not agree that Eowyn belongs to a comitatus because she herself is kin of Theoden. Thus she has not to be part of a warrior group modelling a kin group of the king. She is the real thing and thus has even a higher duty to defend the king. In this I agree with this essay. Another point is the word "shield maiden". IMO Eowyn only uses this term to describe herself when she discusses her future with the men she ponders to marry. I found no sign that anybody else sees in her a "shield maiden". Nevertheless, this concept of herself drives her to shield her king on the Pelennur when Aragorn declines to be shielded. (elanor_of_aquitania)[1]

So many stories and essays deal with this question of whether Eowyn is a heroine or a deserter. And they can be well done. But this offers an ambiguous answer, that she was not exclusively one or the other, but was a bit of both. I'm not entirely sure that I agree with MadGamgee's argument at a few points, but it at least opens me up to the possibility of those points. And it does so in such a logical fashion that I am forced to at least give them serious consideration. That (not whether I agree with the author in the end) is the true sign of a good essay, at least in my book. Very well done, MG. (Marta)[1]