Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, August 07, 2015

Eowyn: Another Strong Character the Movies Weakened

Now that I pull it up, I see that this piece from The Mary Sue about Eowyn is actually from half a year back, but for some reason last month a bunch of people I know were passing it around on social media. I'm glad it was, because it reminded me that back at the beginning of the year I'd been listening to Lord of the Ring during my commutes, but it turned out that the old copy I had was missing a disc half way through Two Towers, and so I'd stopped and gone no further. My Audible subscription had a few credits waiting, so I picked up nice digital copies of the whole trilogy and had a wonderful time listening to the book again.

The article seems to make the case that Eowyn as shown in the Peter Jackson movies is not as strong a character as she is in the books. This is actually a pretty easy case to make, as I can't think of a single character who is stronger or more interesting in the movies than the books, and many are far less interesting and far weaker in terms of characterization. If Eowyn loses some strength and complexity in the adaptations, Aragorn, Faramir, and Denethor get it worse, and let's not even speak of what was done to poor Gimli. Still, it's interesting to see what's going through this writer's head:

[T]here are some things I feel like the writers stumbled on and Eowyn is one of the big ones.
It says something to me that a WWI vet from a devout Catholic background wrote about a warrior woman in a book published in 1954 that was more feminist than her modern interpretation ended up being.

I know what you’re thinking. “But Eowyn kicked ass! She swung a sword and she fought the Lord of the Nazgûl! She said “I am no man!”

Yeah, I know. And look, I’d really like to tell you that that’s enough for me. But it isn’t. Let me explain why.
I'm skipping around a bit to avoid quoting her entire post, though it's a fun read, so here's the core of his first big complaint:
My issue is with the way they had Eowyn moon over Aragorn in the films. And it hinges on a key scene from the book that they left out completely. In it, Aragorn tells Eowyn that she can’t come with him on The Paths of the Dead because her people need her and that renown isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be. He’s not wrong, exactly, but he basically tells her it’s her duty to stay behind, something he would never say to her uncle or brother.

And she calls him on it. Flat out. She tells him, “All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more. But I am of the House of Eorl and not a serving-woman. I can ride and wield blade, and I do not fear either pain or death.”

Think about that for a moment. Not only is she calling him out for sexism, she lays out why it’s sexist and does a pretty damn fine job of distilling down the lot of women in this culture. To whit: if there aren’t men around, you don’t really matter, and you definitely don’t get to decide for yourself how you live OR die if you’re a lady. That’s very powerful, especially in a series that deals a lot with the trappings of war and glory from a distinctly masculine point of view.

She doesn’t come even remotely close to saying anything like that in the film, instead pleading with him out of love, giving a lot of doe eyed looks, and generally being deferential instead of defiant. It undermines her character’s strength and feminist bent. Because although she thinks she’s in love with Aragorn she has no problem telling him he’s completely full of shit. Full of sexist shit, in fact.
And her second:
This brings me to the scene with the Lord of the Nazgûl. In the film she’s terrified, which is understandable, but they stripped out the amazing speech she gives as, scared as she is, she stands up to only the second most awful creature in the series. Don’t forget, the Lord of the Nazgûl is Sauron’s second in command. Grown men cower at the sound of his voice. He stabbed Frodo at Weathertop. He even freaks out Gandalf.

So, this terrifying monster thing has just mortally wounded her uncle and she tells it where it can stick it in one of my favorite passages in the whole series.
“Begone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion! Leave the dead in peace!”

A cold voice answered: ‘Come not between the Nazgûl and his prey! Or he will not slay thee in thy turn. He will bear thee away to the houses of lamentation, beyond all darkness, where thy flesh shall be devoured, and thy shriveled mind be left naked to the Lidless Eye.”

A sword rang as it was drawn. “Do what you will; but I will hinder it, if I may.”

“Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!”

Then Merry heard of all sounds in that hour the strangest. It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel.

“But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.”
This got distilled down to “I am no man.” Look, I know they couldn’t have just put this in verbatim, it’s got an old-timey cadence and they’d already tweaked other dialog to be less formal. But. There is so much more here than “I am no man.”

First of all, he didn’t just threaten her with death. He threatened her with horrifying, endless torture and mind rape, basically. And she laughs at him. And then she stabs him in the face. What’s more? She makes him afraid before she does it because up until then, he thought he was immortal. Whoops!

I think you lose a lot of important nuance by over simplifying it to “I am no man.”

Still, I could have lived with that except for what comes after.

See, in the book, she’s falls over onto her enemy because he’s so evil that his death nearly kills her. She’s found later on the battlefield and they think she’s dead. Eomer is incredibly upset (understandably) and ends up going off in a foul, suicidal mood, where he and the other riders chant “death, death, death” as they cut a swath through the enemy. It’s pretty bleak.

The movie, for no reason I can fathom, decides that Eowyn can’t just kill the Witch King. Nope. After this huge showdown she also needs to be chased by Tumor the Orc, an enemy we got introduced to that isn’t A. interesting B. even in the same category of terrifying as the Witch King. He’s completely beneath her as a foe at this point.

So far as I can tell he exists so that Aragorn can kill him and “save” her, without actually knowing he did so. Which is just…weird. Why would you have this amazing moment where Eowyn defeats an enemy literally no one else in Middle Earth could have…and then have her crawling away from a generic, malignant orc in the aftermath? And why does Aragorn need to save her? What does this do for either character? Other than undermine her achievement, of course.

It’s one of the most perplexing character and narrative choices/changes in the films. What’s more: I don’t think it occurred to anyone that, along with making her overly lovesick, they inadvertently damsel’d her. For me, it’s a frustrating example of casual sexism creeping in. It’s even more frustrating when you realize Tolkien, writing in a time that was quite a bit less progressive than now for women, did it better. Sticking closer to the original narrative and character would have solved this issue neatly. It stands out as pointless and tacked on.

After all of this, Eowyn ends up in the Houses of Healing and eventually meets Faramir. They develop a strong bond, one based on compassion and understanding, and we see that Faramir truly appreciates her for who she is. He knows she’s a warrior and a queen in her own right, he never talks down to her or treats her as less than his equal. We get a hint of this in the extended edition of Return of the King, and I know they didn’t really have time to do more. Yet I still miss that relationship because it says so much about both characters. Eowyn ends up discovering what real love is and finally being seen by someone for the amazing person she is.

I guess what bugs me most is that they took a legitimately “strong” female character, and by that I mean a complex, flawed, brave, and ultimately a triumphant warrior woman who has her own major arc…and reduced her down to something less than that. To me, strength in a character is about more than their ability to hit or kill things, and while Eowyn’s big moment is certainly defeating The Lord of the Nazgûl, it’s her defiance in the face of insurmountable odds that truly makes her “strong”. I wish the film version had honored that more.

Because that would have been honoring the proto-feminist character Tolkien created.

Here's the scene, with the weird orc bit at the end added in as well:

Now, I think the "feminist" thing here is a kind of a red herring. The key thing here is: the Eowyn of the movies is quite simply a less interesting and less complex person than the Eowyn of the books.

Actually, there's another whole aspect to her arc which the Mary Sue author misses, one which I think underlines how Eowyn's strength and weaknesses are intertwined.

When the Rohirrim are getting ready to ride forth to battle in The Two Towers, Theoden has to decide who to leave in command of the people while he leads the army:
'Behold! I go forth, and it seems like to be my last riding,' said Theoden. 'I have no child. Theodred my son is slain. I name Eomer my sister-son to be my heir. If neither of us return, then choose a new lord as you will. But to some one I must now entrust my people that I leave behind, to rule them in my place. Which of you will stay?'

No man spoke.

'Is there none whom you would name? In whom do my people trust?'

'In the House of Eorl,' answered Hama.

'But Eomer I cannot spare, nor would he stay,' said the king; 'and he is the last of that House.'

'I said not Eomer,' answered Hama. 'And he is not the last. There is Eowyn, daughter of Eomund, his sister. She is fearless and high-hearted. All love her. Let her be as lord to the Eorlingas, while we are gone.'

'It shall be so,' said Theoden. 'Let the heralds announce to the folk that the Lady Eowyn will lead them!'

Then the king sat upon a seat before his doors, and Eowyn knelt before him and received from him a sword and a fair corslet. 'Farewell sister-daughter!' he said. 'Dark is the hour, yet maybe we shall return to the Golden Hall. But in Dunharrow the people may long defend themselves, and if the battle go ill, thither will come all who escape.' 'Speak not so!' she answered. 'A year shall I endure for every day that passes until your return.' But as she spoke her eyes went to Aragorn who stood nearby.

'The king shall come again,' he said. 'Fear not! Not West but East does our doom await us.'
Now, if you picture the Rohirrim as being a sort of land-roving version of the Norse circa 1000 A.D., the idea of putting a woman, even the king's niece, in command of the whole people while the king goes off to war is a big deal (though Norse women were not people you wanted to mess with, and the sagas have a number of strong female characters.) The responsibility that Eowyn is given here is huge, and one which would normally only be given to a man and a respected warrior at that.

However, Eowyn doesn't want this calmer sort of responsibility. She has a deep desire to ride to glory and destruction, for roughly the reasons that the Mary Sue author outlines above.

This is the background scene which explains the later one in Return of the King which she outlines above, in which Eowyn seeks to ride with Aragorn and he tells her that her responsibilities lie elsewhere. Aragorn isn't simply telling her that she needs to stay at home because she's a woman. He's legitimately pointing out that when she's been given command of the whole people in the king's absence, she can't just run off on a death-or-glory errand because she is overcome with feelings of nihilism.
For a while she was silent, as if pondering what this might mean. Then suddenly she laid her hand on his arm. 'You are a stern lord and resolute,' she said; 'and thus do men win renown.' She paused. 'Lord.' she said, 'if you must go, then let me ride in your following. For I am weary of skulking in the hills, and wish to face peril and battle.'

'Your duty is with your people,' he answered.

'Too often have I heard of duty,' she cried. 'But am I not of the House of Eorl, a shieldmaiden and not a dry-nurse? I have waited on faltering feet long enough. Since they falter no longer, it seems, may I not now spend my life as I will?'

'Few may do that with honour,' he answered. 'But as for you, lady: did you not accept the charge to govern the people until their lord's return? If you had not been chosen, then some marshal or captain would have been set in the same place, and he could not ride away from his charge, were he weary of it or no.'

'Shall I always be chosen?' she said bitterly. 'Shall I always be left behind when the Riders depart, to mind the house while they win renown, and find food and beds when they return?'

'A time may come soon,' said he, 'when none will return. Then there will be need of valour without renown, for none shall remember the deeds that are done in the last defence of your homes. Yet the deeds will not be less valiant because they are unpraised.'

And she answered: 'All your words are but to say: you are a woman, and your part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, you have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more. But I am of the House of Eorl and not a serving-woman. I can ride and wield blade, and I do not fear either pain or death.'
Aragorn is right. Eowyn does abandon her post and her duty by riding off to war in disguise. Great good (as well as sorrow) comes of it, as it sometimes the case when people do wrong, but she is doing wrong. Eowyn's desire for glorious destruction takes her to the Battle of Peleanor Fields, and when Denethor's own desire of inglorious destruction draws Gandalf -- the only one who could have faced the Witch King with some degree of equality -- away from the battle at the crucial moment, her desire for death and sacrifice allows her to defeat the Witch King. Seeing her apparently dead on the field of battle, Eomer then takes on the same destructive power:
Then suddenly he beheld his sister Eowyn as she lay, and he knew her. He stood a moment as a man who is pierced in the midst of a cry by an arrow through the heart; and then his face went deathly white; and a cold fury rose in him, so that all speech failed him for a while. A fey mood took him.

'Eowyn, Eowyn!' he cried at last: 'Eowyn, how come you here? What madness or devilry is this? Death, death, death! Death take us all!'

Then without taking counsel or waiting for the approach of the men of the City, he spurred headlong back to the front of the great host, and blew a horn, and cried aloud for the onset. Over the field rang his clear voice calling: 'Death! Ride, ride to ruin and the world's ending!'

And with that the host began to move. But the Rohirrim sang no more. _Death_ they cried with one voice loud and terrible, and gathering speed like a great tide their battle swept about their fallen king and passed, roaring away southwards.
The end of Eowyn's arc is when she renounces the idea that glory can be achieved through destruction:
And Eowyn looked at Faramir long and steadily; and Faramir said: 'Do not scorn pity that is the gift of a gentle heart, Eowyn! But I do not offer you my pity. For you are a lady high and valiant and have yourself won renown that shall not be forgotten; and you are a lady beautiful, I deem, beyond even the words of the Elven-tongue to tell. And I love you. Once I pitied your sorrow. But now, were you sorrowless, without fear or any lack, were you the blissful Queen of Gondor, still I would love you. Eowyn, do you not love me?'

Then the heart of Eowyn changed, or else at last she understood it. And suddenly her winter passed, and the sun shone on her.

I stand in Minas Anor, the Tower of the Sun, she said; and behold the Shadow has departed! I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren.' And again she looked at Faramir. 'No longer do I desire to be a queen,' she said.

Then Faramir laughed merrily. 'That is well,' he said; 'for I am not a king. Yet I will wed with the White Lady of Rohan, if it be her will. And if she will, then let us cross the River and in happier days let us dwell in fair Ithilien and there make a garden. All things will grow with joy there, if the White Lady comes.'

'Then must I leave my own people, man of Gondor?' she said. 'And would you have your proud folk say of you: There goes a lord who tamed a wild shieldmaiden of the North! Was there no woman of the race of Numenor to choose?'

'I would,' said Faramir. And he took her in his arms and kissed her under the sunlit sky, and he cared not that they stood high upon the walls in the sight of many. And many indeed saw them and the light that shone about them as they came down from the walls and went hand in hand to the Houses of Healing.


Brandon said...

However, Eowyn doesn't want this calmer sort of responsibility. She has a deep desire to ride to glory and destruction

This is a good point, and I think one that ties in closely with something that, if I recall correctly, Eowyn and Gandalf each mention somewhere (I don't have the book at hand at the moment): She was in a sense the one who suffered the most due to Wormtongue, having to deal with it daily. She comes out of it damaged, and this almost self-destructive desire is the fullest expression of that damage: having spent years in a situation in which nothing seemed possible but a strangling and ignominous life and death, she is grasping anything that looks like it could give the opposite.(And, of course, we see with Eomer that theirs is not a family ever inclined to half-measures.) And a great part of her character arc consists in how she comes to be healed of this.

Banshee said...

She is fey and seeks death. It's not healthy, it's not happy.

So becoming a doctor and trying to make instead of break is a really big step for her.

And since Faramir is exactly the guy to appreciate trying to live, and to have fought that tendency in himself, they're a particularly good match.

It's amazing how many women readers have problems with the Houses of Healing. If you ask them to exchange the sexes, and have it be a young man who's a despairing injured veteran, who has someone come to sit with them every day, and who ultimately falls in love and becomes a doctor, they suddenly can see it.

But this may be a testimony to the effectiveness of Tolkien's portrayal of Eowyn's fey bitterness.