While the plot of The Lord of the Rings is simple, linear, and compelling, the soul of the book lies in its narrative polyphony, which filters the action through personalities that on first reading do not seem to be the principal actors in the epic. Pippin’s perspective gives a brighter, more benign cast to the civilization of Gondor, while Merry gives a somewhat darker, more despondent sense of the war. One personality central to Book 5 is Éowyn, who is the anguished heart of this part of the book, and who contradicts the plot of epic fulfillment with a strain of tragic insufficiency. Without her, the trilogy would be brighter but shallower: brighter, because all the characters manage to play the roles they were assigned to play and find a place in the world for their dreams; shallower, because such a world would not know the suffering of someone whose dreams might be too big for it.
When she hears that Aragorn is about to take the Paths of the Dead, her feelings are evident to all:
Then they said no more, and they ate in silence; but her eyes were ever upon Aragorn, and the others saw that she was in great torment of mind. (57)
This torment is twofold: she has loved him since she first saw him, and she has yearned all her life to be a great hero in a house of great heroes
‘I do not choose paths of peril, Éowyn. Were I to go where my heart dwells, far in the North I would now be wandering in the fair valley of Rivendell.’
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.’
‘What do you fear, lady?’ he asked.
‘A cage,’ she said. ‘To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.’ (57-58)
Does she understand what he means by “wandering in the fair valley of Rivendell,” and does this understanding fuel her indifference to life? On the surface she appears a creature of fire and steel, fiercely single-minded in her desire to do something noble in battle; she is a fighter, born to ride a warhorse and wield a sword, and has always been this way. But the exchange hints at something more: she might not have known this before Aragorn appeared, but what she wants as much as all this is a great love. Freedom to fight and freedom to love are somehow connected, but if she cannot have the latter she can at least have freedom to die. This is what Merry notices in her face at once:
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. (76)
In order to fulfil one of her dreams, she has to become another person, a man — which in itself is acknowledgement that the other dream is closed to her. She does this with remarkable calm:
Merry bowed and went away unhappily, and stared at the lines of horsemen. Already the companies were preparing to start: men were tightening girths, looking to saddles, caressing their horses; some gazed uneasily at the lowering sky. Unnoticed a Rider came up and spoke softly in the hobbit’s ear.
‘Where will wants not, a way opens, so we say,’ he whispered; ‘and so I have found myself.’ Merry looked up and saw that it was the young Rider whom he had noticed in the morning. ‘You wish to go whither the Lord of the Mark goes: I see it in your face.’
‘I do,’ said Merry.
‘Then you shall go with me,’ said the Rider. ‘I will bear you before me, under my cloak until we are far afield, and this darkness is yet darker. Such good will should not be denied. Say no more to any man, but come!’
‘Thank you indeed!’ said Merry. ‘Thank you, sir, though I do not know your name.’
‘Do you not?’ said the Rider softly. ‘Then call me Dernhelm.’ (77-78)
And so I have found myself.
At the end of this conversation “Dernhelm” is born, a name chosen to indicate either that Eowyn has gone into occlusion or that all this time there was a male warrior hiding in Éowyn: in Old English “dern” means “secret, concealed,” and “helm” derives from an Indo-European word meaning “to cover, hide.”
In a book where generally good is good, evil is evil, and characters generally have unequivocal roles to play, Éowyn is puzzling because she has two natures and is both masculine and feminine. When on the Pelennor Fields she rises to avenge her uncle, we are told by the narrator, who knows the truth, and not by Merry, who is in no position to witness Dernhelm’s tears, that
Yet one stood there still: Dernhelm the young, faithful beyond fear; and he wept, for he had loved his lord as a father. (115)
HE wept, for HE had loved HIS lord as a father: in the narrator’s voice, Éowyn has fully become Dernhelm. It is an astounding and confusing shift, but no less disorienting than the response to the Witch-king’s boast that “no living man shall hinder me”:
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. (116)
It is Dernhelm who laughs, but it is Éowyn who now proudly avows her womanhood and daughterhood before she attacks. The narrator, or Merry, simply says:
Éowyn it was, and Dernhelm also. (116)
For one transcendent moment, Éowyn rises above dualities to achieve a kind of completion that would have been hitherto inconceivable. The only witness to this moment is Merry, the one character who has a mind capacious enough to grasp this and who is momentarily transformed by it: Pity filled his heart and great wonder, and suddenly the slow-kindled courage of his race awoke. Like Éowyn, Merry transcends himself on the Pelennor fields.
Afterwards, in the sick-room, Aragorn, Éomer, and Gandalf attempt to share their separate partial understandings of her. Aragorn has intuited her double nature but expresses it with the static, heraldic image of a steel lily; he does not see that if she is frozen, it is with the burning ice of love’s pain:
‘Alas! For she was pitted against a foe beyond the strength of her mind or body. And those who will take a weapon to such an enemy must be sterner than steel, if the very shock shall not destroy them. It was an evil doom that set her in his path. For she is a fair maiden, fairest lady of a house of queens. And yet I know not how I should speak of her. When I first looked on her and perceived her unhappiness, it seemed to me that I saw a white flower standing straight and proud, shapely as a lily, and yet knew that it was hard, as if wrought by elf-wrights out of steel. Or was it, maybe, a frost that had turned its sap to ice, and so it stood, bitter-sweet, still fair to see, but stricken, soon to fall and die? Her malady begins far back before this day, does it not, Éomer?’
‘I marvel that you should ask me, lord,’ he answered. ‘For I hold you blameless in this matter, as in all else; yet I knew not that Éowyn, my sister, was touched by any frost, until she first looked on you. Care and dread she had, and shared with me, in the days of Wormtongue and the king’s bewitchment; and she tended the king in growing fear. But that did not bring her to this pass!’ (142-43)
It is Gandalf who seems to grasp the deep desperation of someone who is caught in a living death because she cannot run after her dream of greatness:
‘Think you that Wormtongue had poison only for Théoden’s ears? Dotard! What is the house of Eorl but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek, and their brats roll on the floor among their dogs? Have you not heard those words before? Saruman spoke them, the teacher of Wormtongue. Though I do not doubt that Wormtongue at home wrapped their meaning in terms more cunning. My lord, if your sister’s love for you, and her will still bent to her duty, had not restrained her lips; you might have heard even such things as these escape them. But who knows what she spoke to the darkness, alone, in the bitter watches of the night, when all her life seemed shrinking, and the walls of her bower closing in about her, a hutch to trammel some wild thing in?’
This seems to be news to Eomer, who now realizes that he never knew her — and that to the same extent, Éowyn as she truly was never really existed for him. Gandalf’s phrasing is rich. Hutch suggests small, narrow confinement, and the word itself derives from a Latin word meaning “storage chest”: Éowyn has been locked away, her excellence kept from functioning. A trammel is a kind of reinforced fishing net and therefore, with hutch, a mixed metaphor — but it intensifies the sense that escape is absolutely impossible, and that everything has conspired to trap this wild thing. Wild is the perfect word here, for the being that is both Éowyn and Dernhelm cannot be domesticated; it is too full, too bursting, to fit in any prearranged slot.
Then Éomer was silent, and looked on his sister, as if pondering anew all the days of their past life together. But Aragorn said: ‘I saw also what you saw, Éomer. Few other griefs amid the ill chances of this world have more bitterness and shame for a man’s heart than to behold the love of a lady so fair and brave that cannot be returned. Sorrow and pity have followed me ever since I left her desperate in Dunharrow and rode to the Paths of the Dead; and no fear upon that way was so present as the fear for what might befall her. And yet, Éomer, I say to you that she loves you more truly than me; for you she loves and knows; but in me she loves only a shadow and a thought: a hope of glory and great deeds, and lands far from the fields of Rohan.’
Aragorn’s comment about what it feels like to “behold the love of a lady so fair and brave that cannot be returned” seems stilted and enotionally thin, but his diagnosis of Éowyn’s love may be accurate: what she loves is not Aragorn but the lofty ideal he embodies. If he is right about this, obtaining Aragorn will not solve the problem, because the ideal will remain unreachable; on the other hand, she may grow out of love for an ideal and return back to earth to love real people. If he is wrong about this, and she does indeed love Aragorn, then the love is doomed. Either way, at this moment, in the Houses of Healing, there is no way to tell if Éowyn is destined for happiness or unhappiness.
‘I have, maybe, the power to heal her body, and to recall her from the dark valley. But to what she will awake: hope, or forgetfulness, or despair, I do not know. And if to despair, then she will die, unless other healing comes which I cannot bring. Alas! for her deeds have set her among the queens of great renown.’ (143-44)
Éowyn’s mirror in the second half of the book is Frodo, because in both cases we can ask if the victory has been won at such cost that they are no longer able to live — that peace and happiness are forever out of their reach. Not only is her great love unattainable, but Éowyn’s finest moment is her defiance of the Witch-King, and every subsequent moment of the rest of her life will be felt as an anticlimax. Never again will she be both Éowyn and Dernhelm. And unlike Bilbo, she is not one who will take pleasure or nourishment in living on tales about herself. At the end of Book 5, we leave Éowyn in suspension and have to wait to see if Tolkien can bring a satisfactory resolution to her life. Even if she achieves a kind of reconciliation with the life she will have to live, what she has brought to the tale is the sensibility of one whose dream cannot be lived — yet for one moment, she fulfills the impossible in Middle-earth and becomes both man and woman.