Tolkien and the Problem of Characterisation: Éowyn and Arwen

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Title: Editing Tolkien and the Problem of Characterisation: Éowyn and Arwen
Creator: Fionnabhair Nic Aillil (Fionnabhair)
Date(s): 19 June 2004
Medium: online
Fandom: The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion
Topic: characterisation, form, female characters
External Links: @; @ AO3
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Tolkien and the Problem of Characterisation: Éowyn and Arwen is an essay in the Tolkien fandom by Fionnabhair Nic Aillil, published in 2004. The author summary is An essay describing and exploring the difficulties that attend much of Tolkien's characterisation, with specific reference to Éowyn and Arwen. It won the 'Best Essay' category of the Parma Awards in their second year, was awarded second place in the 'Genres: Non-Fiction' category of the 2005 Middle-Earth Fanfiction Awards.[1]

It is archived at FanFiction.Net and formerly the Henneth Annûn Story Archive, and is now in the HASA collection of Archive of Our Own.


Fionnabhair argues:

  • Tolkien's writing does not follow novelistic traditions, but rather those of the epic; Lord of the Rings is an epic written in the novel form
  • Tolkien's characters are open to interpretation, which attracts fanwriters
  • A major method of characterisation used by Tolkien is foregrounding, but insufficient information is provided in the main narrative, being relegated to the appendices, which are read only after the reader has formed their view on the character
  • Éowyn is based on a character from the Old English Beowulf
  • Arwen derives from the more recent tradition of amour courtois exemplified by Arthurian mythology; Aragorn's choice of Arwen over Éowyn mirrors Lancelot's rejection of Elaine of Astolat for Guinevere


The difficulty in comprehending Tolkien’s characterisation of Arwen and Éowyn (and indeed of many of his characters) is that he attempted to marry a sense of motivation and character through (unsuccesful) foregrounding, to roles that were appointed rather than natural. Neither of these women chooses to love Aragorn – in fact their love for him is partially dictated by plot, and even more so by the roles that were assigned for them by Tolkien. It should not surprise anyone that, in attempting to drive forward an immensely complicated plot, and to recreate a lost mythology, considerations of psychology were sometimes neglected. While foregrounding Éowyn can lead to a comprehensive understanding of her character, for Arwen that may be impossible. A sense of the character can be gained but anything deeper is impossible, as there is simply not enough information available to us.

Reception & Reviews

The essay was generally well received, with most reviewers considering it made thought-provoking points, even though some disagreed with them. One reviewer felt the characterisation was due to the story being narrated by the hobbits, another considered Lancelot to be a poor model for Aragorn, others brought up Tolkien's documented intentions, while others felt that the author's reasoning was not always completely clear.

I found this essay thought-provoking. While reading it I was reminded of the many Tolkien fanworks that portray Éowyn, Arwen, and ordinary rank-and-file women so negatively. Depressed, suicidal, able only to think of a man, whorish, uneducated, lacking social clout of any kind, etc. etc. ad nauseum. When I detect this theme in fan fiction I flee, weirdly dismayed and chortling, and I ask myself, Why? 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). Why do they see Éowyn as a coward when Merry, whose actions and feelings are very nearly identical to hers, is lauded as a hero? The writers hasten to point out that there are differences between Merry’s motivations and Éowyn’s. Yes, there are. But why insist that the differences are great, when you have the choice to view them as negligible and end up with a positive view of Éowyn? Why portray poor women as prostitutes in a society that the writer is careful to specify as male-dominated, and then expect the female reader enjoy the story? 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 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 will straighten out and become fair also. I wish. But since that is not how it works, I would rather read about women who are powerful, talented, confident, strong, fully possessed of all the goodies that society has to offer. You see, I said that this article was thought-provoking. The author has made a diligent and considered effort to analyze Tolkien’s characterizations in general and as applied to Éowyn and Arwen. Good job. Many thanks for this piece. And if any fan fiction writer reads this and wants to write about women characters, please make them strong, confident, not perfect mind you, but powerful, purposeful, vibrant, heroines. Please. *It would be such a refreshing change.* (Chathol-linn)[1]

In this essay. Fionnabhair Nic Ailil presents some good insights into why many of today’s critics and cultural commentators regard Tolkien’s works with contempt, despite Tolkien’s significant popular following. The essay examines the way in which his works -- the Lord of the Rings in particular -- are judged by these critics against a yardstick that may not be an appropriate measure, and proposes that those readers who do not enjoy his works may be looking for things that these books can never provide, nor should be expected to provide. The essay is written in a clear style that presents some complex ideas from literary theory in a very accessible fashion, although I occasionally found the essay didn’t lead the reader through the argument in a well-structured way, and therefore appeared to leap to conclusions as if they were “obvious”. (For instance, I found the section on the relative number of fanfic stories written about different works to be a little muddled in its exposition of a very valid point.) However, these were minor flaws in an otherwise excellent presentation. I was also interested to see how fans apparently take quite different things at a personal level from the books. I believe (if I have understood correctly) that I differ from Fionnabhair Nic Ailil in my response to Tolkien’s works: their universality and humanity speak strongly to me of the human condition, and I see it as more than just a “rattling good yarn”. Perhaps my reaction comes from the same source as my tendency in my own fanfic to write very character-driven pieces extrapolated from the little characterisation that Tolkien does give us. In short, this was an essay that made me reflect more deeply on my own reading, writing, and enjoyment of Tolkien -- and, as such, I feel this essay succeeded admirably in its goals. (Tanaqui)[1]

Very good essay, gave me much to think about. Yet, Tolkien wrote not epics but myths. The Iliad can be read as an epic, it has a real historical background. But Elves, everyone will agree, are mythical beings. Aragorn's ancestry originates from mythical beings. Aragorn's male-male line over a thousand years is mythical in itself. Aragorn himself is modeled on the mythical saviour king, see Raglan "The Hero". Thus, I have the feeling this essay discusses points beside Tolkien's intentions. BUT, the author quite rightly descibes the misconceptions of the readers nurtured by novels in the psychological style. IMO it is wrong to use the medieval Mallory (and moreover Lancelot!) for comparision. If you have to use a model look to nordic, greek and roman sagas, the Kalevala, the Nart sagas. Aragorn is not a knightly lover, he is a saviour king in waiting in need of the correct bride. When Tolkien invented Faramir he found the right mate for Eowyn. Only then Aragorn was missing a bride and Arwen was invented as an afterthought. A saviour king needs a bride representing the land he is to rule, as such Eowyn was already not perfect. On the other hand, as a Halfelven Arwen represents the Elven history of Arda, gives Aragorn's line anew an elven lustre, and their union unifies the lines of Elrond and Elros. (elanor_of_aquitania)[1]

This was a wonderfully frank treatment of women and characterization in Tolkien's work. As one who actually read the appendices out of order (by flipping through the maps and appendices when I got to a slow point in the story), I actually read Arwen's foregrounding just after she was introduced. As I reached the end, her marriage to Aragorn was more thoroughly explained to me, and at the time, I accepted it as believable. My reaction had I not read the appendices early would have probably been something along the lines of: "What?!" I had never truly considered the ridiculously sparse attention Arwen recieves in the novel proper. However, her treatment and character in fanfiction tends to be far more developed (in my experience), and this adds to my ability to forget that while Tolkien's work may have given her some history, it gives her little or no personality. Who is she? Why exactly does she love Aragorn? These questions are only answered in the reader's (or fanfic writer's) imagination. (Ponypetter)[1]

You know, you're right. Arwen and Eowyn really are fascinating characters but we don't really see their full depth without the appendices, and in many ways those sections are too late as we have already formed our opinions of them. (This situation is roughly analogous to how the extended versions of the movies cannot correct misconceptions ingrained by the theatricals.) It seems a very fair criticism of Tolkien, and one that all of us fanfic writers would do well to keep in mind when we decide how to present our characters. (Marta)[1]

A very interesting essay. It seems to raise a lot of valid points, but I am not sure that I totally follow the author's reasoning. However, this may in part be due to my lack of familiarity with some of the works he is refering to. Maybe this theory works, but I have not been convinced. (nerwen_calaelen)[1]

Good reasoning for why Tolkien is such a rich source for storytellers "filling in the gaps" in his history.
But I thought Tolkien (in his letters)specifically denied courtly love as an inspiration for Aragorn/Arwen? The story still may be compared, of course, but other sources should be considered. (Amy Earls)[2]

very enlightening and very truthful, with facts and quotes to back it up. the thing about Arwen's character, is that Tolkien likened her to Luthien, the exact quote I do not have at this moment, but something like, "it was said that she walked in likeness of Luthien" and since she made the same choice as Luthien, and Luthien is developed considerably well, compared to the other female characters, many seem to take on Luthien's character/psychological thoughts and put them onto Arwen.

as u might know, my favorite character is Faramir, and I could never quite understand his relationship with Eowyn. Granted, I realize that he fell in love with her, but I still do not believe that she could, "as she looked upon him, her heart was changed". the only explanation i offer to myself was that she did not truly love Aragorn, but loved what he represented, all that is good and noble in this world.

The Lord of the Rings was not first written as a commercial novel, but as Tolkien's way of recreating a world that had long gone, and to explain some of the flaws and sorrows of the world to himself. like u said, it can be compared to the Aeneid and the Iliad, with more development in character and psychology than them, and not, in verse form.

i know i'm forgetting something... you are so well read! u've given me something to think about today, and i'll probably want 2 add another review.. pity i can't. (Evenstar Elanor)[2]

This is a very well written essay. The prose was clear and readable. You stated your thesis and supported it succinctly and clearly, and without wandering onto irrelevant side topics. (The only issue I saw regarding the technicalities of writing were that you repeated "sometimes" twice in the same phrase, in the second-to-last paragraph.)

That said, I have a few clarifications/disagreements I would like to make.

First, 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight' is not a poem in the amour courtois (sp?) tradition. Gawain is not acting to win Guinevere's love. (She's his aunt!) He is also not acting to win the love of Bertilak's (the Green Knight's) wife. (He tries to turn down her advances.) He takes up the quest in order to protect King Arthur, because Gawain (as well as the rest of Arthur's court) fully expected the man who accepted the challenge to end up dead. Thus, when Arthur was goaded into accepting the challenge himself, Gawain intervened, because the people could not afford to lose their king. As a result, I thought that it was a poorly chosen example that really didn't fit the point you were trying to make with it.

Second, from my reading of 'The History of Middle Earth' series, my understanding is that Tolkien wanted to write 'The Lord of the Rings' as a (medieval) romance, not as an epic. (They are actually two different genres.) However, I think you were actually thinking of the right thing, as the tradition of amour courtois goes with medieval romance, not epic. Regardless, most of the points you made as regards the characterization required for an epic also apply to a medieval romance.

Please forgive me if I sound overly nit-picky, and accept this as an honest response from an admirer of Tolkien and from someone who greatly enjoys a good literary debate.

And finally, thank you for providing us with a well-written, well-thought-out, and well-argued piece of literary criticism. (Mae)[2]

This is an interesting essay, but I generally disagree with it. I think the lack of character realization is in part due to this story being from the hobbits' point of view, for the most part. The other characters were dealt with more fully elsewhere. Further, he was in the middle of revising and expanding his larger works when he died. So, we are essentially dealing with an incomplete work. I would argue that the most fully realized female character is not Eowyn, but rather Galadriel. Her full life story was, for the most part, written, and we only see the very last few years of it in LOTR. (She-Elf4)[2]