|Brunnhild / Brünhilde / Brynhild|
Postcard by Gaston Bussière (1897)
Although telling the same basic story as the Icelandic Saga of the Volsungs, the German Nibelungenlied portrays Brynhild (as Brünhilde) in a very different light. The German version presents the tale in an overtly Christian setting; pivotal scenes occur at church, and Odin is notably absent. As part of the downgrading and removal of heathen religious elements, the Valkyrie is recast as a purely human warrior-woman:
There was a queen throned across the sea, that had not her like, beyond fair and of mickle strength, and her love was for that knight only that could pass her at the spear. She hurled the stone and leapt after it to the mark. Any that desired the noble damsel’s love must first win boldly in these three games. If he failed in but one, he lost his head.There is no sense in this version that she is supernatural. Instead, like Éowyn, she is a noble woman who has chosen to live the warrior’s life as a shieldmaiden – a choice that is seen, in this Christian worldview, as wholly negative. Both Brynhild and Brünhilde are tricked into marrying unworthy men by the deceit of the hero (Sigurd in Iceland, Siegfried in Germany). However, the Christianized German version adds a disturbing extra scene in which Siegfried violently rapes the shieldmaiden in her own bedroom to teach her the virtue of wifely obedience (on behalf of her new husband, who secretly watches).
The strife endured long atwixt them. Then Siegfried got hold of Brünhilde. Albeit she fought valiantly, her defence was grown weak. It seemed long to the king, that stood there, till Siegfried had won. She squeezed his hands till, by her strength, the blood spurted out from his nails. Then he brake the strong will that she had shown at the first. The king heard it all, but he spake no word. Siegfried pressed her down till she cried aloud, for his might hurt her greatly. She clutched at her side, where she found her girdle, and sought to tie his hands. But he gripped her till the joints of her body cracked. So the strife was ended.
|Brünhilde the Shieldmaiden|
You may choose to read this as a wrestling match rather than a rape, but the sexual element really is clear in the text. The “strife” occurs in bed, with the husband hiding behind the bed curtains, and begins with Siegfried tearing Brünhilde’s nightgown. Where the heathen version of the tale presents us with a hero who begs a wise Valkyrie to share her knowledge, the Christian version gives us a rapist who violently puts a headstrong shieldmaiden in her (domestic) place.
The dispute between Aragorn and Éowyn, of course, pales next to the horror of the Nibelungenlied scene. However, the underlying theme is the same, even if Tolkien makes it implicit rather than explicit; the mighty hero wants the shieldmaiden to give up her willful heathenish ways and become a subservient Christian woman. In Tolkien’s version, however, the shieldmaiden not only has the better lines, but she goes on to [SPOILER ALERT!] vanquish the greatest warrior of the Dark Lord on the battlefield when she fearlessly faces and defeats the Lord of the Nazgûl – a figure so terrifying that the novel’s male characters literally fall to the ground in terror when he appears.
SCORE: Heathen Feminist 1, Christian Patriarch 0
|The Awesomest Painting in the History of the World|
or, Éowyn versus the Witch-King of Angmar
A possible objection to this reading of Éowyn as heroic heathen shieldmaiden may be made by pointing to the negative attributes of Valkyries in Germanic literature. These mystical figures can be bloody and terrifying, violent and untrustworthy. Leslie A. Donovan addresses this issue in her excellent essay, “The valkyrie reflex in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings”:
By eliminating from his primary women figures the concept common in valkyrie typology of the female inciter and her accompanying vengeance for kin or personal insult, Tolkien constructs them as reflective of moral good, heroic ideals, noble behavior, and responsible leadership by means of a female identity concordant with contemporary perceptions of women as significant forces within society and the world.She goes on to say that “Tolkien’s modern benevolent valkyries… are preservers of tradition, defenders of their culture, bearers of the future, and forces for moral good.” In Éowyn, Tolkien has created a model version of heathen womanly power that embodies the highest ideals of the Old Way. Every ancient religion has positive and negative characterizations of women in its received texts. Surprisingly for a Catholic author, Tolkien chooses to gather together the positive aspects of heathen womanhood into a powerful and sympathetic character.
|Éowyn in the 1980 Return of the King cartoon|
Éowyn also expresses a pre-Christian worldview when she asks, “may I not now spend my life as I will?” At least in terms of marriage, the Icelandic sagas show that women had a surprising independence before the conversion to the new religion. Perhaps most interesting is the fact that a woman could declare herself divorced and immediately force her husband to leave while taking possession of her own property. Laws covered division of common possessions, child custody and child support. In the sagas, physical abuse is the most common reason given by women who declare themselves divorced; these women would not be pushed around by anyone.
Compare this strikingly modern arrangement with, for instance, the Catholic Church’s continuing and complicated policy on divorce and annulment. In post-conversion Iceland, Catholic bishops held the power to decide whether a divorce would be granted; patriarchal authority pushed aside female self-determination. Éowyn’s indignant desire to determine the course of her own life aligns her against the new patriarchy and with the powerful and independent women of Tolkien’s beloved Icelandic sagas.
|Éowyn stands alone - Art by Michael Kaluta|
As the conversation continues, Aragorn again insists that Éowyn remain with the non-combatants.
‘A time may come soon,’ said he, ‘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 homes. Yet the deeds will not be less valiant because they are unpraised.’This again denies Éowyn the right to pursue one of the fundamental tenets of the heathen religion: the pursuit of glory on earth and reputation among men (and women). Her response is fierce.
‘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. But I am of the House of Eorl and not a serving-woman. I can ride and wield blade, and I do not fear either pain or death.’
|"She is fearless and high-hearted. All love her."|
What disqualifies Éowyn from making her mark on her era and being immortalized in song? Only her gender. This ties in with the post-conversion change in women’s rights within marriage. Éowyn wants to be an equal partner, like the heathen women who could divorce abusive husbands with a word. Instead, she is being forced into a traditional Christian position of subservience. Paul the Apostle makes a clear link between wifely submission and Christian theology, underscoring the patriarchal nature of the new religion’s mythology and religious practice:
Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so [let] the wives [be] to their own husbands in every thing.If The Lord of the Rings is “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work,” is Aragorn – the king of The Return of the King – a fundamentally religious and Catholic hero? It does seem that he is arguing a Christian position for the role of women in society, and Éowyn is presenting a dissenting view that is based in heathen thought.
|Aragorn preaches to the congregation|
As the conversation draws to a close, Aragorn – perhaps taken aback that this young woman has no fear of battle and death – asks her what she does fear. Her answer is the great feminist line of the Tolkien mythos.
‘A cage,’ she said. ‘To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.’For all the (mostly fair) criticism of Tolkien’s weak writing of female characters, this is a line worthy of Charlotte Perkins Gilman or Virginia Woolf. It powerfully expresses the soul-crushing frustration of being denied the right to live a full and independent life because of one’s gender. This is a shockingly modern sentiment in a work by a male Catholic medievalist in his sixties, published only two years after the English translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex.
Éowyn’s words also encapsulate the wanderlust and restlessness of the pre-Christian North, from the Indo-Europeans arrival through the migrations of the Germanic tribes to the world-spanning travels of the Vikings – a raw energy that Tolkien loved and admired, even though he lived in a Christian era and took the New Way’s teachings to heart. Éowyn likewise speaks with the fierce and determined voice of “that noble northern spirit” when she later tells Merry, “Where will wants not, a way opens.”
|Tolkien having a pipe and a laugh|
Although Tolkien’s work focuses on Great Men doing Great Deeds and on patriarchy and kingship, in this short scene he presents us with a young woman giving voice to the energy at the heart of the heathen era. It says something about Tolkien as a human being that he was able to write so eloquently from the perspective of a woman espousing heathen ideals, if only for this one moment. He really was a man of (lower-case) catholic interests.