Narrative Themes in Modern Media: Eowyn of Rohan and the Heroine’s Journey
Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings is one of my favorite film trilogies of all time, and I believe that Peter Jackson deserves an enormous amount of credit for the choices he made in what to include, what to leave out, what to change, and what to emphasize from the source material to the movie. Even though it’s been nearly 20 years since the films were released, I often find myself re-watching different scenes and returning to the characters that were portrayed. And I think what makes this film trilogy so easy to re-engage with on a regular basis is how the The Lord of the Rings story is focused and centered.
Broadly, The Lord of the Rings details a struggle between a clear good and a menacing evil. However, the story of how that struggle is resolved is focused and centered around the experiences of the characters — the challenges they face, the stakes at risk, the setbacks they encounter, the uncertainty and doubt they must contend with, and the trials they must endure. There is a lot of lore and fictional history that was left out of the film, but in many ways, I feel like I have a better conception and understanding of the characters from the film — their strengths and weaknesses, their resolve and their doubt. We see how Frodo’s experiences since leaving the Shire prevent him from ever truly returning to the Shire. We see how Aragorn the ranger became Aragorn the leader. We see the distrust between Gimli and Legolas dissolve to close friendship. We see how close and how powerful of a bond Sam forms with someone he cares dearly for. And we see how many characters and groups rediscover and reaffirm themselves.
But there was one character in particular for whom I thought Peter Jackson did truly phenomenal work in adapting: Eowyn of Rohan. After Frodo and Sam, I believe that Eowyn’s character arc is the most compelling, and (at least as far as I remember) this is made more incredible by how much more her story was developed in the film than in the books. Much of Eowyn’s story is communicated through only a few scenes, but within those scenes we’re given so much depth and complexity involving not only Eowyn but the bonds and relationships she shares with those around her. Because the narrative arc of the members of the fellowship center around the destruction of the One Ring, Eowyn’s narrative arc can seem more minor. But in my eyes, because Eowyn’s story is more removed from the main plot, it is made more personal and more focused on Eowyn herself. Eowyn’s journey is a intimate journey — a heroine’s journey.
A Heroine’s Journey
Eowyn at Edoras
Although we are introduced to her earlier in the film, I believe that Eowyn’s narrative arc truly begins as the people of Rohan prepare to move from Edoras to Helm’s Deep. As we watch Eowyn prepare to depart, we are given a glimpse at what Eowyn fears most: never having the opportunity of achieving her own greatest good.
Women of this country learned long ago that those without swords can still die upon them.
Eowyn’s actions aren’t necessarily aimed at an external threat or an object that needs to be obtained. Moreover, Eowyn’s story isn’t a rite of passage or an attempt to achieve acceptance. Eowyn doesn’t need to prove anything to herself, and the scene does an excellent job of demonstrating her competence to the audience. Eowyn has a clear understanding of the gravity of the situation at hand, she shows herself to be strong and capable in her skills and abilities, and her talent and potential are acknowledged in an emphatic way by the central characters within the film.
What makes this conflict so remarkable, refreshing, and compelling is that it is a personal and internal conflict occurring within the interior of her heart. It is an idea — the idea of not being allowed the opportunity to self-actualize — that frame Eowyn’s struggles and conflicts in her story arc. And we see how her desire for self-actualization is complicated by the duties, obligations, and responsibilities she has to those around her.
King Theoden Stops Eowyn From Entering the Fray
You must do this for me.
In this scene, we see how Eowyn’s duty to the people, responsibilities to her father, King Theoden, and her own assessment of how to best serve others all come into contact with one another. Although Eowyn has determined that she could best serve in joining the defense, King Theoden charges her with guiding the people to Helm’s Deep. It is important to note that Theoden isn’t shielding Eowyn from responsibility — she is being trusted to rule in his stead and guide others to safety. But that the questions of how to best fulfill her duty to others, how to best fulfill her duty to her father, and how and in what way to best utilize her own abilities all complicate each other is made clear. It adds a layer of complexity to her character that is genuine and relatable to audiences broadly.
Eowyn and Eomer
“Why can’t he fight for those he loves?”
In asking this question, Eowyn’s character becomes that much more real and that much more human. In asking this question, Eowyn reveals to us what it means for her to achieve valor; what it means for her to self-actualize. In asking this question, we understand in concrete terms what Eowyn desires the most and what shes fears she will not have the opportunity to do: to fight for those she loves.
King Theoden Gives Eowyn Stewardship of Rohan
I would have you smile again and not grieve for those whose time has come. You shall live to see these days renewed.
Theoden has never shielded Eowyn from responsibility, nor has he doubted her abilities to carry out her duties, and I think that this is further reaffirmed when Theoden charges Eowyn with the Stewardship of Edoras and Rohan.
But in doing so, we are granted a glimpse of vulnerability when Theoden expresses the hopes he has for Eowyn. Theoden expresses a confidence through his tone in Eowyn’s ability to defend Edoras, but he speaks with a sad wistfulness when communicating his hope for Eowyn — a hope for her to smile. And it’s in this vulnerable moment that Theoden shares with his daughter that we are given a more developed understanding of their bond, their care, and their love for each other. We see how much Theoden values and cares for Eowyn and how much admiration and devotion Eowyn has to Theoden. And we can see how rather than intersecting, the path to fulfilling our relationships with our loves ones can sometimes run parallel to the path of the journey we seek to have.
Eowyn Saves King Theoden
Eowyn Defeats the Witch King
Although there are times when our responsibilities to our loved ones run parallel to our pursuit for meaning and purpose, in rare moments and instances in our lives those paths intersect. And I think it’s in those rare moments that we can often become our best selves.
When Eowyn jumps between the Nazgul and King Theoden, her pursuit for meaning and purpose align seamlessly with her responsibilities to those she loves: Eowyn fights for those she loves, and she fights to save her father. And in confronting the Witch King, Eowyn resolves the conflict between her responsibilities and duties to her father and her pursuit for meaning and purpose. Remember that Theoden’s last wish for Eowyn was that she, “Smile again, and not grieve for those whose time has come.” The completion of Eowyn’heroine’s journey is achieved in a dramatic and profound sense when Eowyn defeats the Witch King — Eowyn fulfills Theoden’s wish by defending his life and simultaneously self-actualizes her own meaning.
Final Considerations of Family:
Eomer and Eowyn
Although Eowyn’s character arc reaches its completion when she defeats the Witch King, I thought that this scene was too important not touch upon. At the conclusion of the Battle of Pelennor Fields, Eomer finds Eowyn on the field. And what makes scene so powerful is that this is the only time we see Eomer in pain.
“Why can’t he fight for those he loves?”
And I think that this scene helps us understand on a deeper level why Eomer discourages Eowyn from joining the other riders on the eve of their march to Gondor. On a superficial level, Eomer was worried of a lack of constitution. But on a deeper level, perhaps this was the outcome that Eomer most feared. It wasn’t Eowyn, but Eomer that we see lose composure. And it wasn’t during the battle, but at its conclusion. Because didn’t both Eomer and Eowyn fight for the same thing? Aren’t they there for the same reason? With Theoden gone, Eomer and Eowyn only have each other as family. And though victorious, Eomer must still contend with the potential loss of even that.
The Story of Eowyn
The Bonds of Fellowship
In so many ways, Eowyn’s story is refracted and reflected in all of us. It’s the story of how our duties and responsibilities to our loved ones and our communities run parallel and intersect with our own personal pursuits. It’s the story of how paths cross one another, the bonds we have, and those rare moments we share when they align, Eowyn’s story is the twin story of Heroes and Heroines. -GP
“It remains an unfailing delight to me to find my own belief justified: that the ‘fairy-story’ is really an adult genre, and one for which a starving audience exists.” -J.R.R. Tolkien
I know I can’t save Middle Earth, I just want to help my friends.