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Terror and the Shield-Maiden: How Eowyn Deals With Her Fear

Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.

Courtesy of New Line Cinema

Courtesy of New Line Cinema

For many fans, Eowyn is one of the most inspired characters in the Lord of the Rings trilogy because of her fearlessness and willingness to engage and battle. This is laid out early on in Two Towers where she addresses Aragorn, who catches her practicing with a sword. He seems rather surprised, but Eowyn proudly rebukes him telling him that, “The women of this country learned long ago that those without swords can still die upon them. I fear neither death nor pain.”

This kind of statement is empowering for obvious reasons. It is someone, and more so a woman, showing not only courage but strength, fortitude, and an unwillingness to accept submission, surrender, or humiliation. However, the interesting thing about Eowyn is how the trilogy shows the nuanced nature of this.

How to Portray Fear

In most movies, when a perceived underdog character is presented to the audience, they are portrayed as strong, confident, and take no shit from anybody. Unfortunately, this perception within the last 30 years has come to be called Mary Sue. Because it seems that those qualities are not only not earned, or shown any progression in earning them, but has almost a Jesus-like quality in a sense that everything that they do is perfect and flawless. What I like about Eowyn is that her portrayal is not like that. It is more realistic.

On the one hand, the character is not lying to Aragorn when she's saying that. She 100% means what she says. And she has the skill to back that up. King Theoden had to damn near beg her to stay back from the warg ambush midway through the movie, with his niece only backing down when he appealed to her love for him.

That said, there is also a hint of naivety that is present in her when she makes the statement. Something that her brother, Eomer, calls her out on later. This is someone who comes from a warrior culture, but at the same time has not seen war and was privileged enough as a royal not to have to confront her own insecurities if she didn’t want to. More than likely this is due to women usually not being at the forefront of a battlefield unless they are being raided. Eowyn’s statement comes off as honest, yet two-dimensional when read in this light. And this is shown at three points.

Courtesy of New Line Cinema

Courtesy of New Line Cinema

Eowyn Meets World

Before the Battle of Pelinnor Fields, when the Rohan is about to engage a numerically superior army that is already close to sacking Gondor, the horsemen are initially intimidated, Eowyn included. They show up there with half the strength than what is practically needed for an armored charge. So for good reason, the first thing that they feel when seeing such an army with not just regular size Orcs, but Trolls, catapults and Nazgul, would be fear.

This is the first time Eowyn is at the forefront of a true battle and seeing and feeling what the stakes actually are. It seems like a little bit early on that she is contemplating this as she is riding in disguise with the army towards battle, yet it's only when confronting the reality with no safety net or sure sense of security that she experiences what her brother told her before. The powerful sense of fear that grabs a person's soul into hesitancy and almost fright. An extreme fight or flight response.

To Eowyn's credit, she acknowledges that she is indeed afraid and then chooses to press on anyway. As Dave Chappelle once said, “You can't have courage without fear.” So this speaks well to anyone's character that despite initially being naïve on the realities of war, she did not shrink from it when confronted by it either.

Courtesy of New Line Cinema.

Courtesy of New Line Cinema.

Dance With the Devil

Having said that, the second time where she experiences fear of death and pain is when she is confronted by the Witch-King. The Witch-King as all fans know is one of Sauron's top generals. Thousands of years old and if you are familiar with the books is already well known for leading the destruction of Gondor's sister nation of Arnor thousands of years ago and had killed the last king of Gondor before the Rule of the Ruling Stewards. He is no one to fuck around with, and as the popular saying went, “No man can kill him,” because apparently if you're not scared into fright by his presence, or his scream, then the poison of actually stabbing him will take hold. The movie does a great job in presenting this fear too when Eowyn confronts him. She kills the fell beast and knocks off the Witch-King, who then slowly rises almost as into full height like a bear rising on his feet that is aroused to immense anger.

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This is the power of all the Nazgul, but most so the Witch-King.

Once again Eowyn acknowledges her fear as seen when wide-eyed with terror, she braces herself for the engagement, tightening her grip on her shield and tensing up for the attack to come to defend her fallen uncle. It's arguable whether or not she felt fear in that moment when the Witch King's mace shattered her shield. However, she is still able to muster herself and eventually with the help of the Hobbit, Merry, is able to at last kill the Witch-King.

Courtesy of New Line Cinema.

Courtesy of New Line Cinema.

Hara-kiri of the Heart

Her third confrontation with fear is not war-related, though it is what inspires her to go to war. Eowyn's deepest fear appears to be not being accepted for who she believes she is. She says to Aragorn that she fears she will have no chance to show forth her own valor and skill that courses through her blood the same as her uncle and brother. But it's later revealed to be more than that.

As I said in a previous article, Eowyn is drawn to Aragorn because he is the first to recognize her for who she is. He is the doorway through which she can not only finally embrace her true nature, but also may perhaps find an equal in a partner. Theoden too recognizes this as well and gives his niece his approval.

Yet when Aragorn finally sends her away from his mission to recruit the Dead Men of Dunharrow, Eowyn’s deepest fears are now realized coupled with one she did not know she had: rejection after making herself vulnerable.

It’s one we all probably can relate to. Eowyn's public face is one of typical Rohan sternness and stoicism. While her combat skills are under-appreciated, everyone is convinced of her conviction except Worm Tongue and Aragorn. Meeting Aragorn provided her with the first time she can show another, softer side to herself that she rarely-if ever, shows others or feels that she has to. The chance of a lifetime.

So when he turns her away, that door is now slammed shut in front of her face. The blow was made even more unendurable by Aragorn’s ready acceptance of his comrades' insistence on going with him. She is now not only once again on the outside as it were, but has no "shield" for which to cover it up and disguise it. Fated to go back to the hated cage she had just come out of. Eowyn has reached her limit.

Her answer to this is what spurs her on to confront the other two instances listed above. She cannot live that way. Not after exposing so much of herself that she can now no longer take back. In her mind there was only one option: claiming the initiative of death in battle if no one was not going to her, rather than go back to the cage she had been in.

Seppuku via battlefield.

Passing Through Through Fear

I think that this is the true empowerment of Eowyn, and that perhaps all people should seek when looking for any kind of power. That if one does not have the actual experience of confronting a fault, whether it be an institutional system, another person, or even just a new job or getting married, then the ideas that they have about overcoming them are two-dimensional and there's nothing wrong with that. One has to start from somewhere right?

That said, ideally one should acknowledge their limitations if they lack the experience while at the same time making the conscious choice to press onward regardless. Many times in my experience both within myself and what I've seen in other people, many will often talk a big game about their convictions or how tough they are or anything of that matter, trying to put forward that image of strength and power like a cobra with its head reared up and hood expanded. But when confronted by the actual obstacle or worst case scenario, the consequences of those actions will either shrink away or make excuses for their failure because things didn't go as they thought they should be.

This is the Eowyn who went to Pelinnor, with what she thought she was and an idea of what war was like, and when confronted with that reality, chooses to press forward anyway. Existing in the moment rather than complaining about things not going her way or as Denethor says before he dies, submitting to her fear and fleeing for her life.

© 2021 Jamal Smith

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