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?
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.