A hutch to trammel some wild thing in: this was Gandalf’s description of the life that had been assigned to Éowyn. In her heroic vanquishing of the Witch-King she seems to have broken out of the hutch, at least for a while. But what happens after the war? She cannot have the man she has loved for most of the book, she has lost Theoden, her shield arm is crippled, and she might have to settle for a life that is second-rate to her. Thus, when within the space a page she switches her love from Aragorn to Faramir, decides that she now has to be healer and not warrior, and sheds her desire for queenship, it is tempting to wonder if the author — in his concern not to leave her broken and unresolved — has forced her into a new captivity — a more insidious one, because this time she submits voluntarily. It turns out that Gandalf’s mixing of metaphors in combining a hutch with a trammel may be precise and appropriate after all: a tramnel is a finer-meshed, secondary net designed to trap fish that manage to escape from the main net.
There is a lot at stake in Éowyn’s sudden change of heart. Is it possible to relocate such an intense love-yearning so easily? Is it possible for a fierce, stubborn character like her to do so? Does Tolkien understand her? Does Tolkien understand sexual love? The questions are important because in general women are poorly or simplistically portrayed in The Lord of the Rings, and Eros — not only in its physicality, but also in the spirituality of its yearning — is practically absent, except in the figure of Éowyn. Aragorn’s ethereal love for an elf-lady doesn’t count, and we are told very little about why Arwen gives up elfdom for him. At the other end of the spectrum, there is also no Eros in the Shire. The closest we come is Sam’s cozy domestic partnership with Rose, and even though they must have sex they do not have Eros. If there is no room in Tolkien’s world for Eros, then that world is painfully limited, with significant parts of the heart and the body amputated. In such a world, where even the strongest willed people let themselves be molded to the demands of the ruling order, there is no such thing as intractable nature, no radical mismatch of nature and state, and hence no possibility of tragedy. If Éowyn can be Éowyn and is allowed to love who and what she loves, there will be a price to pay but there will be life in this world; but if Éowyn can simply douse the fire of her yearnings and willingly finds a place in the new order by turning herself tepid, she will be confirming that in Aragorn’s realm there is really no such thing as an unruly, disordered heart. This would make Tolkien’s book a work of pure but desiccated fantasy.
We have seen that Tolkien can be awkward with romance, and even amidst the very beautiful exchanges between Faramir and Éowyn there are sentences that a sensitive person cannot read aloud without wincing:
‘Then, Éowyn of Rohan, I say to you that you are beautiful. In the valleys of our hills there are flowers fair and bright, and maidens fairer still; but neither flower nor lady have I seen till now in Gondor so lovely, and so sorrowful. (238)
And so they stood on the walls of the City of Gondor, and a great wind rose and blew, and their hair, raven and golden, streamed out mingling in the air. (241)
Engineering a romance between Faramir and Éowyn was surely one of Tolkien’s most difficult tasks as a writer. On the one hand, in Éowyn he has a strong, intransigent character who, both as male and female, seems incapable of backing down. Coming from a stock of the harsh warriors, who sing as they slay and who ruthlessly hunt down the indigenous Wild Men, Éowyn gives voice to a pure warrior ethos: ‘And it is not always good to be healed in body. Nor is it always evil to die in battle, even in bitter pain. Were I permitted, in this dark hour I would choose the latter.’ (236) She is, moreover, in love with a man whom she views as the ultimate warrior. Faramir, on the other hand, does not love fighting:
`For myself,’ said Faramir, ‘I would see the White Tree in flower again in the courts of the kings, and the Silver Crown return, and Minas Tirith in peace: Minas Anor again as of old, full of light, high and fair, beautiful as a queen among other queens: not a mistress of many slaves, nay, not even a kind mistress of willing slaves. War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend: the city of the Men of Númenor; and I would have her loved for her memory, her ancientry, her beauty, and her present wisdom. Not feared, save as men may fear the dignity of a man, old and wise.’ (“The Window on the West,” ch.5, The Two Towers, 280)
He loves civilization, beauty, and goodness — which are quite possibly things that leave Éowyn cold. But we have seen the gentle, tactful perceptiveness of his interrogation of Frodo, and have reason to think that if any man can find a way to relate to Éowyn it will be Faramir. He says that he is interested in her because of her beauty and her sorrow, but why would she be interested in him?
In the build-up to her conversion, we can see how she becomes interested in Faramir:
‘Then if you will have it so, lady,’ he said: ‘you do not go, because only your brother called for you, and to look on the Lord Aragorn, Elendil’s heir, in his triumph would now bring you no joy. Or because I do not go, and you desire still to be near me. And maybe for both these reasons, and you yourself cannot choose between them. Éowyn, do you not love me, or will you not?’
‘I wished to be loved by another,’ she answered. ‘But I desire no man’s pity.’
He shows to her first that he sees precisely the main reason she will not go: he knows that she knows that if Aragorn were to summon her it would be out of pity, and the one thing she cannot endure is a man’s pity. But then he ventures a bold surmise: because I do not go, and you desire still to be near me. Why would he think that her desire to be near him might equal her feelings for Aragorn? Has she given any prior indication of such feeling? The tense of her response — I wished — suggests that he is not far off the mark: does she mean “I used to wish,” “I once wished,” or “I wished and still wish”?
A few pages before this we saw their first meeting:
‘Do not misunderstand him, lord,’ said Éowyn. ‘It is not lack of care that grieves me. No houses could be fairer, for those who desire to be healed. But I cannot lie in sloth, idle, caged. I looked for death in battle. But I have not died, and battle still goes on.’
At a sign from Faramir, the Warden bowed and departed. ‘What would you have me do, lady?’ said Faramir. ‘I also am a prisoner of the healers.’ He looked at her, and being a man whom pity deeply stirred, it seemed to him that her loveliness amid her grief would pierce his heart. And she looked at him and saw the grave tenderness in his eyes, and yet knew, for she was bred among men of war, that here was one whom no Rider of the Mark would outmatch in battle. (237)
I cannot think of another instance in this novel when there is the reciprocal looking of two characters trying to fathom one another, and seeing perhaps what the other sees. This meeting of two perspectives is the essence of the novel as an art form, and it is rare in Tolkien to get two perspectives merged in one paragraph. In what immediately follows, we have another novelistic moment: one character, now invested in another’s point of view, imagines, perhaps accurately, how she would be seen by him, and this imagining actually changes her. For the first time she doubted herself.
‘What do you wish?’ he said again. ‘If it lies in my power, I will do it.’
‘I would have you command this Warden, and bid him let me go,’ she said; but though her words were still proud, her heart faltered, and for the first time she doubted herself. She guessed that this tall man, both stern and gentle, might think her merely wayward, like a child that has not the firmness of mind to go on with a dull task to the end. (237)
Even characters as sensitive as Frodo and Sam never enter into another’s perspective like this. Perhaps Frodo does it with Gollum, but their relationship remains enigmatic. Gandalf does it when he gives his account of Éowyn’s unhappiness, and Aragorn tries to understand. But only Faramir and Éowyn nake a continuous effort to get under each other’s skin. It could be that between two people connected in this way, a look is sufficient to prove the bond — and the narrative emphasizes that they are always looking and intensely concerned with what the other is thinking.
‘Seven days,’ said Faramir. ‘But think not ill of me, if I say to you: they have brought me both a joy and a pain that I never thought to know. Joy to see you; but pain, because now the fear and doubt of this evil time are grown dark indeed. Éowyn, I would not have this world end now, or lose so soon what I have found.’
‘Lose what you have found, lord?’ she answered; but she looked at him gravely and her eyes were kind. ‘I know not what in these days you have found that you could lose. But come, my friend, let us not speak of it! Let us not speak at all! I stand upon some dreadful brink, and it is utterly dark in the abyss before my feet, but whether there is any light behind me I cannot tell. For I cannot turn yet. I wait for some stroke of doom.’
‘Yes, we wait for the stroke of doom,’ said Faramir. And they said no more; and it seemed to them as they stood upon the wall that the wind died, and the light failed, and the Sun was bleared, and all sounds in the City or in the lands about were hushed: neither wind, nor voice, nor bird-call, nor rustle of leaf, nor their own breath could be heard; the very beating of their hearts was stilled. Time halted.
And as they stood so, their hands met and clasped, though they did not know it. (240)
Her words hold much for a lover to ponder on. Is the phrase “my friend” a way of keeping Faramir at arm’s length, or does it signal a new warmth and trust? What does she mean by her obscure statement? — I stand upon some dreadful brink, and it is utterly dark in the abyss before my feet, but whether there is any light behind me I cannot tell. For I cannot turn yet. I wait for some stroke of doom.’ While in Faramir’s response the “stroke of doom” might refer both to the outcome of the great battle being fought and to the prospect of being rejected by her, her statement encompasses both of those things and also expresses her terror at the thought of leaving her old self-image and supposed vocation behind as she leaps, or falls, into an uncertain new identity. It would suggest that for days she has been thinking of the prospect of a future very different from what she has spent her life imagining. If he has any inkling of this crisis in her, Faramir wisely leaves it unspoken; we have already seen in his conversations with Frodo that he is a man who doesn’t need to say everything he is thinking or force the other person into utterance. He has the capacity of Sam and Gandalf to wait for the moment of ripeness.
When the fruit is ripe, it falls from the tree. When enough snow piles onto a leaf, at one moment the leaf bends and the snow slides off. There is no deliberation or intention involved, and action emerges spontaneously from a natural rightness. This is in fact what the Daoists would call non-action. And as they stood so, their hands met and clasped, though they did not know it.
Has she in effect discovered that she already has a communion with this man? Returning to the conversation we started with, we see not only that he can understand why she might love an Aragorn but also that he is strong enough to acknowledge it calmly to her. Without saying it explicitly, he is getting her to see that she was in love with an idea. And where is she looking as he says all this? — down, to the side, or internally?
‘That I know,’ he said. ‘You desired to have the love of the Lord Aragorn. Because he was high and puissant, and you wished to have renown and glory and to be lifted far above the mean things that crawl on the earth. And as a great captain may to a young soldier he seemed to you admirable. For so he is, a lord among men, the greatest that now is. But when he gave you only understanding and pity, then you desired to have nothing, unless a brave death in battle. Look at me, Éowyn!’
And Éowyn looked at Faramir long and steadily; and Faramir said: ‘Do not scorn pity that is the gift of a gentle heart, Éowyn! 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. Éowyn, do you not love me?’
His Look at me, Éowyn! shakes her out of the sleep of her idealism. Look: be present, see what is before you. At me: behold the living, real man in front of you. Éowyn: I see who you are and understand you. Her response is sincere and deep, reflecting her grasp of the meaning of his words: And Éowyn looked at Faramir long and steadily. The time is ripe for his most romantic and audacious effusion, spoken like a warrior taking the greatest risk of his life: Even if you married Aragorn and were high above my hopeless love, I would still love you. Éowyn, do you not love me? Is this a real question, or an expression of granite certainty? He seems to have seen her before she sees herself.
Now what happens in the moment of conversion? I think the climactic sentence only works if we have read the preceding four pages slowly and patiently, and have allowed them to unfold. It is because he can reflect her to herself and she is capable — through loving trust — to see herself reflected in him, that she can awaken to the recognition of feelings she didn’t know she had.
Then the heart of Éowyn changed, or else at last she understood it. And suddenly her winter passed, and the sun shone on her.
The phrase or else at last she understood it reveals an emotional sophistication rare in this book: it shows Éowyn to have been an idealist poorly attuned to the movements of her own heart, and that being an idealist, her heart changes only as her understanding changes. Faramir, being the more emotionally empathic of the two, happens to love this about her. Characteristically, like the warrior she is, her transformation is expressed in a vow of action and mastery — and she looks at him as she renounces her old self.
“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. (242)
The romance is accomplished over a mere eight pages. If, believing that the destruction of the Ring is the climax, we rush over these pages to get to the end, we will have missed the delicacy of one of Tolkien’s triumphs as a writer. A rapid reading will give the impression of artificially hurried romance, and Éowyn’s change of heart will seem forced — a subtle trammel. But each section of this book has its own rhythm, and this one is slower than the “Mount Doom” chapter. Even so, at important points in the story Tolkien tends to be laconic, as if inviting us to enter into the tale and dwell in it. If we take our time and let the relationship flower slowly in the time that it needs, we will be partaking in Faramir’s gentle wisdom as he allows Éowyn to find her own heart. Like Frodo and Sam, especially at the end, Éowyn is a character who has needed a life dilemma: she is princess and warrior, woman and man, in love with the unattainable and loved by the attainable. She is radically torn, and on the horns of her dilemma she cannot live a happy, fulfilled life. It is only a character like Faramir who can get her to resolve, because he has the empathy and intelligence to see who she is and love her for it, and because they can both look at each other. Their relationship is not a trammel, trapping her back into domesticity; instead, with him she is finally free to be Éowyn.