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Eowyn & Aerin, by Himring

Author: Himring
Title: Eowyn & Aerin
Rating: PG13 (reference to canonical suicides)
Theme: Lord of the Rings, Children of Hurin, female characters
Subject: Can the story of Aerin from the Children of Hurin throw any light on Eowyn's words to Aragorn?
Type: Essay
Author's Notes: An idea I've carried around since writing a bio of Aerin for the SWG Archive, but now written in great haste, so excuse all the deficiencies.
Word Count: c.1350 words

In the chapter "The Passing of the Grey Company" in Return of the King, Eowyn and Aragorn have a much-discussed conversation.

During this, Aragorn says: 'A time may come soon [...] 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 house. Yet the deeds will not be less valiant, because they are unpraised.'

Eowyn answers: '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.'

Much of the discussion of Aragorn and Eowyn's conversation that I have seen in secondary literature and in fandom seems to centre on the question whether Aragorn or Eowyn's arguments are the stronger and which of them is right. After all, this is the passage in Tolkien's published work in which a female character comes closest to uttering proto-feminist ideas, although Erendis, one of the protagonists in "Aldarion and Erendis" in Unfinished Tales, is arguably even more radical than Eowyn.

My personal view on that question is that Aragorn and Eowyn are, both of them, probably intended to be both right and wrong, although perhaps to different degrees. But it is not this question that I want to address here. I think it is noticed less often that the hypothetical situation described in this exchange between Aragorn and Eowyn resembles a situation that actually occurs elsewhere in the Legendarium, so I thought it might be of some interest to point out the resemblances, but also certain differences in treatment.

The situation I refer to is the occupation of Dor-lomin as described in the Children of Hurin. This is essentially the same as the corresponding chapter in the published Silmarillion, but the version in the Unfinished Tales--and the version in the Children of Hurin that is based on it--offers additional relevant details.

In the First Age, towards the end of The Battle of Unnumbered Tears against Morgoth, the first Dark Lord, all the men of Dor-lomin fall in a desperate last stand at Serech.  This sacrificial act of heroism is much honoured by their elven allies, because it allows King Turgon to escape to Gondolin with the remains of his army. None of the men returns to their home in Dor-lomin. The women and children of Dor-lomin face invasion by the Easterlings, which are subject to Morgoth.

Unlike the Rohirrim, Dor-lomin seems to lack even a minor tradition of shield-maidens, although it is alternatively possible that there were a few but that they had also died at Serech. (The related House of Haleth seems to have had an early tradition of female warriors.) We do not hear of any women of Dor-lomin who fought the invading Easterlings weapon in hand. However, the women  of Dor-lomin do not lack courage and they do offer a kind of resistance, in two different ways.

Morwen, wife of the fallen Lord of Dor-lomin, overawes the invaders by the sheer force of her personality and by her rumoured elvish powers. This enables her to maintain personal independence and, to a degree, be a focus for covert resistance.

On the other hand, there is Aerin, who is a female relative of the fallen lord. She is less impressive at first sight and, in fact, she looks like a typical female victim figure. She is forced into marriage with an Easterling lord, Brodda, a brutal conquistador type. She lives in physical fear of him and for the most part is apparently only able to operate behind his back. Nevertheless, she seems to be involved very significantly in the covert resistance for which Morwen serves at the focus and she continues to support her enslaved people in many small ways even after Morwen's departure as she can. She even manages to do some things openly; thanks to her, her husband's hall is a little more hospitable to strangers than it would otherwise be.

By the time of her death, she has been holding out in this fashion for more than twenty years and she is an old woman. It is at this point that Turin, heir of Dor-lomin, arrives and precipitates a fight in Brodda's hall between the Easterlings and the thralls of Dor-lomin. In this battle, Aerin's husband Brodda is killed by Turin, but some of the people Aerin was trying to protect also die, in defense of Turin. In other circumstances, this fight in the hall could nevertheless be a strike for freedom--the freedom of Dor-lomin as well as Aerin's personal freedom. However, the thralls of Dor-lomin are too weak for a general uprising and the general conditions are too harsh even for the successful flight of Aerin's people into unoccupied territory. Aerin, who seemed meek and generally cowed in her demeanour when she was first introduced, has harsh words with Turin at this point. He suggests she is a coward; she accuses him of immaturity and rashness. The stronger, that is the men, among the thralls flee to the hills with Turin, leaving the rest behind to face the wrath of the other Easterlings.

It is at this point that Turin and his companions turn around and see a red light in the distance.

'They have fired the hall,' said Turin. 'To what purpose is that?'

'They? No, lord: she, I guess,' said one, Asgon by name. 'Many a man of arms misreads patience and quiet. She did much good among us at much cost. Her heart was not faint, and patience will break at the last.'

The reader is left to assume that Aerin died burnt in the hall that she set alight by her own hand, in a final act of despair.

This is clearly not exactly the same situation as outlined by Eowyn, who apparently envisages the enemy burning down the ancestral house with its last female defender, sword in hand, in a final attack. Aerin's hall is not even an ancestral one, but a symbol of Easterling oppression, built by her husband. In fact, in the biography that I wrote for Aerin for the Silmarillion Writers Guild, I compared Aerin's death to Denethor's rather than to Eowyn's words or choices.

Moreover, although Aerin's story is chronologically much earlier in its setting than the War of The Ring, Aerin's story was still developing while Tolkien wrote the Lord of the Rings, and I think he may have not introduced this version of her death until later. So while, within the logic of the Legendarium, Eowyn could have known about Aerin's fate--the Rohirrim can be regarded as remote descendants of the people of Dor-lomin, but then so are the Dunedain, so in fact both Eowyn and Aragorn could have been familiar with the story--I'm by no means claiming that it was actually in the back of Tolkien's mind as he was writing Eowyn's words. Thematically, we seem rather to be seeing the use of related motifs ultimately derived from Scandinavian sagas and Germanic legend.

Nevertheless, I think it is worth bearing in mind that Tolkien, the author who wrote about Eowyn's despair and Denethor's, also wrote Aerin's story. He continued developing Aerin's story into the final version we see in the Unfinished Tales and the Children of Hurin and, leaving the final words to Asgon as he does, he writes it in such a way that suggests we are invited to sympathize with her, not condemn her choices.

I think this constitutes a warning to the reader, if one is needed, not to leap too quickly to conclusions about Eowyn's despair--or even Denethor's and condemn them out of hand. Despite Aragorn's arguments--and Gandalf's--it seems to me that Tolkien has more sympathy with their position than is sometimes acknowledged.


( 24 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 30th, 2015 08:05 pm (UTC)
Great well supported argument. Thanks for your thoughts on this.
Sep. 1st, 2015 07:37 am (UTC)
Thank you very much! I'm glad you found it worth reading!
Aug. 30th, 2015 08:28 pm (UTC)
Excellent analysis!

I'm not sure I agree with your reading of her end as a final act of despair in the Denethor tradition though

"Her heart was not faint, and patience will break at the last."

Denethor falls before his city is taken, he falls prey to despair while there is still hope, albeit faint.

Aerin has lost everything, and I read her death as heroism in the Germanic tradition, going down in flames and glory when the shieldwall is broken at last and all hope is gone: refusing defeat even when it is the only option left. I don't see Aerin dying alone. I do hope she took a goodly number of her enemies with her!

That discussion between Aragorn and Eowyn always reminds me that while Tolkien was in the trenches, his wife Edith was at home, and how hard that must have been for both of them.
Sep. 1st, 2015 07:59 am (UTC)
Thank you very much for your comments!

That separation from Edith in WWI may well be running underneath somewhere. But isn't it supposed to be the thing about WWI, as opposed to WWII and the Blitz, that the homeland was mostly not perceived so much as threatened, from the trenches, but as remote? More Shire-like, that is, than Rohan-like?

The comparison with Denethor definitely has its limits. However, some of the difference arises from the way the episodes are told. As a reader, I am convinced that Aerin is right that flight is not an option for her, but Turin evidently wasn't.
On the other hand, Denethor is simply wrong about the identity of the people he's seen coming up the Anduin in the Palantir. But the battle of the Pelennor Fields is in fact won only by means of fairly crazy stunts on the part of Théoden and Aragorn that he couldn't have reasonably foreseen (and that the Palantir blocked from his view) and Gandalf himself acknowledges later that Denethor is right that the War cannot be won by military means. And it is pretty obvious why Denethor is unable to believe in Frodo's quest.
I don't mean to say by any of this that Denethor did not go insane at the end, though.
I have considered a couple of practical, non-suicidal reasons why Aerin might have fired the hall in the story I wrote about her death, including taking some of the enemy with her. I'm not sure whether the narrative itself means to imply any of them, though. I agree that her act has to be viewed in the Germanic tradition, but I think that Denethor's death has that angle to it as well. (I think that Gandalf's comment about "heathen kings" contains a hint of this.)
Aug. 30th, 2015 08:55 pm (UTC)
It's an interesting parallel and yes, I agree that it might indicate Tolkien sympathized more than he's usually credited. I find that in Erendis's story too, actually, although it's a different thing. I think he paints them both as equals in will, but then gives Erendis good motive for her actions. But returning to a feminine brand of courage, if it can be called that, you make a remark that I will be considering - that both Eowyn and Aragorn are right and wrong. I've always thought that while she was brave, she was mostly wrong. I will be reading that passage again.
Sep. 2nd, 2015 06:44 am (UTC)
I agree about Erendis, although it's quite a tangled affair, that one.

With regard to Eowyn and Aragorn, you could also consider: they both have their prophecy, she as much as him, although she doesn't even know it yet. Yet, he says "you have no errand to the south", doesn't he? Well, don't events prove him wrong, actually?

Sep. 2nd, 2015 07:45 am (UTC)
Well, don't events prove him wrong, actually?
Indeed. I do think that she had a duty she left behind, but in the grander scheme of things, she probably knew Edoras would not shatter to pieces in her absence... on the other hand, if the Enemy won, there would be nothing much to worry about - after claiming Gondor, overrunning a warrior-emptied Rohan would be a picnic and Eówyn staying behind on account of that eventuality would serve nothing. I think she chose herself, and this bothers me in a non-sexist way - it would bother me the same if she was a younger brother. But I'm not saying I wish she had stayed at home in any way. That's one of the parts of the story that I like the most, actually, this Faramir courting her, which is far more romantic than the Aragorn/Arwen moments.
Aug. 31st, 2015 12:43 am (UTC)
Really interesting comparison, and apt. Aerin and Eowyn being in rather similar circumstances, and responding in similar ways (though the outcome not so much). Thank you!
Sep. 2nd, 2015 06:58 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I'm glad you found the comparison apt.
If I'd had more time, I might have considered Eowyn's side of things a bit more--but as far as the outcome is concerned, it's a very good thing that Eowyn did not end like Aerin...
Aug. 31st, 2015 01:04 am (UTC)
I enjoyed this thought provoking essay.
Sep. 2nd, 2015 06:59 pm (UTC)
Thank you, Linda! Glad you found it thought-provoking.
Aug. 31st, 2015 02:18 am (UTC)
This is a really fascinating and thoughtful piece Himring. I have never before thought about Aerin in that light and find your comparison intriguing and compelling. Eowyn's response to Aragorn always felt to me to be over-wrought, an exaggeration in part compounded by her despair and grief (Theodred had only died a short time before) but with a kernel of truth in it, Aragorn is after all trying to sugar coat her situation and mollify her. She is too sharp to accept it and reacts angrily. The idea that the men who marched away to glory dismissively left the last defense to the women, without dread and fear of the repercussion to those they loved and left behind seems patently false.

Fire as a final end seems to run through many parts, Numenorean sacrifice, the heathen kings, Aerin as you note and of course Denethor. I have always felt that Tolkien handled the latter so amazingly well considering the darkness of the imagery and potential to reduce Denethor to a mad, ignoble pawn. I think Tolkien had great sympathy for Denethor, his trembling at the last moment looking on Faramir's face is haunting and speaks so tellingly of an ocean held back inside.

Such an excellent point in your conclusion and one for Eowyn that I think gets lost too often in the oft-plumbed trope about Grima stalking her as a root of her despair. She is a deeply layered soul: shieldmaiden, dutiful niece and caregiver, lonely, proud young woman in a house of men, caged and knowing she can do so much more. (Her sudden conversion to gardening always jarred me as a result.)

Thank you for an excellent piece

Sep. 4th, 2015 06:57 am (UTC)
Thank you! I'm glad my piece spoke to you.
I think with regard to Grima's stalking, it's too easy to underrate him. What he does is not just sexual harassment, which of course would be bad enough--although Saruman reduces him to such a pitiable state by the end, we know Grima was clever and also bold. We know how thoroughly he managed to undermine Théoden. I'm sure in his dealings with Eowyn he was clever enough to use real issues that she was already having with her situation against her and twist them, but that would not make them themselves less real--just as Théoden's old age was a real and not an invented thing altogether.
Sep. 4th, 2015 02:30 pm (UTC)
I take your point Himring..I think what I meant was more that there are many fics that ignore the root of her despair and turn that he stalked her as the entire reason for it. Obviously with his cunning and constant suggestion and twisting of reality he reinforced something that was fundamentally there and the added revulsion of his harassment exacerbates things. Gandalf suggests as much. He capitalized on what was there. She is so strong I don't have the sense that she would have fallen into that complete despair in which she desires to end her life without the grief of watching her beloved uncle decline, a sense of having no way out and the harassment and negativity of Grima.
Aug. 31st, 2015 03:27 pm (UTC)
This was very interesting and well supported. In his books women have a different kind of courage than men, with a few active resistance from some of them. I've always liked Morwen, though he was a harsh mother to Túrin. Is harshness a way to endure life when you are a woman in Tolkien's legendarium? I wonder...
Sep. 4th, 2015 07:02 am (UTC)
Thank you!
I think Morwen was a harsh mother to Turin only in some respects, not in others.
And in her case at least, harshness was certainly a way to endure life, after she had become a refugee from her first home in Dorthonion and lost so much of her family.
Sep. 4th, 2015 04:25 pm (UTC)
You are right. I've always wondered if she failed to connect with him in a deeper emotional sense because they were too similar. Or if she did it on purpose to forcé him to grow stronger.

Aug. 31st, 2015 04:17 pm (UTC)
What an interesting comparison: some literary parallels, but clearly not the same.

One can wonder--if Eowyn had not been trained as a shield-maiden, if in fact she had been left behind, what actions would she have taken? I get the feeling that in spite of her despair she still would have done something. I can't imagine her being passive.

I have clearly got to read Children of Hurin again. I find it a really good version of Turin's story, but I'm fuzzy on the details. I think I've only read it through when I first got it.
Sep. 4th, 2015 07:10 am (UTC)
Thank you!
I think we can probably read between the lines what Eowyn would have done by considering what she did before--going on caring for Théoden while he was so ill, efficiently evacuating the people of Edoras to Dunharrow.
It reads to me as if she was actually really good at these things--it's just that it wasn't all of her and by the time of Aragorn's arrival, she was in some respects worn out to the bone by the strain that had already been placed on her.
Sep. 1st, 2015 05:14 am (UTC)
That's very interesting! That connection hadn't occurred to me until you said it, but I think it's definitely worth considering.

In addition to what you mentioned, I think what Gandalf says to Eomer in "The Houses of Healing" in LOTR also fits well with Asgon's words: that Eowyn remained silent out of duty, but that Eomer (who had his horses and deeds of arms) didn't notice her bitter endurance. I love the line "Many a man of arms misreads patience and quiet." To me that sums up the tension between proud warrior and humble man or woman of peace that runs through much of Tolkien's work. And I think Tolkien makes it clear that he considers the courage of quiet, solitary endurance no less admirable than the more active courage of going forth to meet battle.

Your mention of the sagas reminded me of something, and now I remember what it was: Signý in Tolkien's poem "The New Lay of the Völsungs". She was married unwillingly to Siggeir; her son and brother finally take vengeance and set Siggeir's hall on fire. They call to her to come out to them, but she refuses:

'Signý comes not,
Siggeir calls her.
Where I lay unwilling,
I now lay me glad:
I lived in loathing,
now lief I die.'

Though Signý's fate is from the original saga, so I'm not sure it's strictly relevant, and I don't know enough about the chronology of Tolkien's writings to say who might have influenced what.

(One very minor mis-type: You mention Erendis in Unpublished Tales rather than Unfinished Tales.)
Sep. 4th, 2015 07:24 am (UTC)
Thank you!
Yes, I think that conversation between Gandalf, Eomer and Aragorn is very important--the various angles in that is one of the things that I'd have liked to bring into the discussion a little if I had written the piece at more leisure.
Also, I remembered that there's quite a number of fire scenes in Scandinavian sources but hadn't had time and headspace to consider which ones might be more relevant than others, so thank you! I'm sure you're right that Signy is relevant at least to some degree--Tolkien would have known that scene from the original saga when he wrote about Aerin's death, regardless of the chronology of the translation (which I'm not sure about either).
And thank you very much for spotting the typo! Now corrected.
Sep. 4th, 2015 02:48 pm (UTC)
lignota I really think you touch on an important point here. It is that quiet endurance that enabled Frodo to do what no one else could..and Sam to support him. It is the point that JRR makes in the appendix about the contrast between Boromir and Faramir..the latter being judged less brave because he was quiet, thoughtful and inclined to things less martial. Ironic that JRR said he personally lacked courage (despite being in the trenches) but he did not. He had the quiet -get-on-with-it endurance that he highlights so well in the books.

Eomer is an interesting case...being Marshall for the Eastfold I have often wondered how much he was actually around Edoras to see things. He had the open plains as Gandalf points out...she did not.
May. 18th, 2016 01:19 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much for giving me the link to this. I missed it when it was posted. I really like your thinking and your arguments here.

I would beg you to post this on the SWG--which is always begging for this sort of discussion. Might want to check with Dawn about where she would prefer to host it--in your own account or in the "reference" area. (You'd only have to add some minor footnotage! I'd be happy to help with that if you are too busy.)
May. 20th, 2016 06:59 am (UTC)
Thank you very much, Oshun! That is an extremely kind offer!

I had always intended to post this to the SWG eventually. But I was so pleased at the time that people actually wanted to discuss this with me in the comments that I felt I should try and work some of that material from the comments into the piece itself. That turned out to be over-ambitious, under the circumstances.

I should just add the footnotes that it really needs, for now. I can always do more revisions later. I think I should be able to do that myself, by the end of May or so. If I can't manage it, I might take you up on your generous offer!
( 24 comments — Leave a comment )


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