Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Tolkien's Heathen Feminist, Part Two

Click here for Part One.

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.


hightide said...

Great article. The women in Tolkien's fiction often got short shrift, though it's hard to say whether this was Tolkien's choice or a reflection of his source materials.

While I'm "here", let me file a grievance against the movie's treatment of Eowyn: the Witch-King brags that no man may kill him. In the book, Eowyn immediately pulls off her helm and tells him "I am no man," then settles in for a fight. In the movie, she quivers, and looks fearful, and wavers under his onslaught until Merry gets him behind the knee.

The systematic undermining of the heroes of LOTR is my only real beef with Jackson's otherwise magnificent treatment.

Grace said...

Great analysis of Tolkien's inspirations. I'm a diehard fan of his stories and they have been some of my greatest influences. My only complaint is your painting of Christian gender roles in such broad strokes. Though we may be a minority--there is still a large (growing, I hope) minority of Christians who do not read Paul's letter to Timothy so simplistically and instead insist that the Bible taken as a whole promotes gender equality.

Alexa said...

This is a very interesting look into Eowyn's character, I've written about her before but never in terms of the Christian-heathen divide in a women's place. I'm surprised you don't discuss her transformation at the end, when she gives up being a shieldmaiden to devote her energy to healing and home-making. As a young girl reading the books for the first time, I felt very let down. I'm still disappointed when I think of it today. Would you say this signalled a shift to a catholic people with the fall of Sauron and the advent of the 4th Age?

Unknown said...

Hello Dr. Seigfried,
I just discovered your blog today and am so happy I did. This was an excellent read and I look forward to following your blog.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Mr. Siegfried, for this interesting essay. My only quarrel with you is your insistence on portraying the post-Nordic patriarchal attitude towards women as "Catholic." I submit that attitude is really descriptive of the traditional Semitic Mediterranean culture, which of course was that of the Apostles.

Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried said...


Thank you very much for your comment. I applaud any religious community that strives for equality and human rights. On the other hand, I'm not sure how you could read "Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands" as a call to gender equity...

Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried said...


I totally hear you. I think that Aragorn's ascension to kingship is portrayed in language that clearly associates him with Christianity, and the end of the book ushers in a New Age. Heathen shieldmaidens have no place in the Christian era, and Our Heroine must change with the times. I'm just glad that she got this one great scene (plus the one with the Black Rider) before the Conversion.

Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried said...

Dear Anonymous 2,

I agree with you on the ultimate sources of post-Conversion patriarchy. However, I'm not the one insisting on using the term "Catholic." Check out the beginning of Part 1 of the article; Tolkien himself is the one who called The Lord of the Rings "a fundamentally religious and Catholic work." I'm just saying that Aragorn embodies that religious worldview, and Éowyn represents the heathen one. I think this is pretty clear from the evidence in the text itself.

Rae said...

Hi, Dr. Seigfied! I absolutely loved this essay on the comparison of heathen vs Catholic patriarch, and I was wondering if you had anything to say about Eowyn's ending, and the role Faramir plays? I've a deep affinity for the ending of the story, but something that's always irritated me is how Eowyn seemingly gives up her newly wrought strength for love. (Which I'm not saying is a bad thing, or anything like that) But Tolkien describes the way Faramir makes Eowyn feel as unsure, "child-like," and that she's unable to focus. Do you think this is just the time period the book was written in shining through, or is there something a little more to it?

Dr. Karl E. H. Seigfried said...

Hello, Rae!

Remember, Tolkien viewed the LOTR as a Catholic work. Aragorn's ascension to kingship ushers in a New Age - one of men, with mythical creatures pushed to the side (or literally leaving Middle-earth).

Éowyn's role as a shieldmaiden is one that hearkens back to heathen times. In the New World of patriarchy that replaces the Old World of myth & magic, there's simply no place for her. That's the great tragedy of her character.

In Faramir's interaction with Éowyn, Tolkien presents us with an ideal relationship under the New Deal. They grow into mutual respect and understanding. There's nothing wrong with that!

Of course, you and I would rather see her continue on some a journey of adventure and self-discovery. That's just not something Tolkien seems to have been comfortable writing. Such is life.

Troels said...

I would call attention also to Gandalf's later accept of Éowyn's position. Having healed her in the Houses of Healing in Minas Tirith after the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, he comments that

‘My friend,’ said Gandalf, ‘you had horses, and deeds of arms, and the free fields; but she, born in the body of a maid, had a spirit and courage at least the match of yours. Yet she was doomed to wait upon an old man, whom she loved as a father, and watch him falling into a mean dishonoured dotage; and her part seemed to her more ignoble than that of the staff he leaned on.

Also, in particular when speaking of the influence of the Völsungasaga on Tolkien's other fiction, I think it is important to turn to The Lay of Sigurd and Gudrún to see how he interprets things there. It is, I think, quite telling of the treatment Tolkien gave of the character of Brynhild in his poem that he wrote in a note that “Brynhild cannot be a ‘human’ character mythicized (or confused with a Valkyrie Sigrdrífa). She is a Valkyrie humanized.” Following the argument in this article, I think one could argue that Tolkien, in Éowyn, shows the logical end-point of this process: Éowyn is a Valkyrie fully humanized.

lazycat said...

I'd like to see a similar look at the character Galadriel, who is pretty clearly in charge in Lothlorien. Her husband barely gets a line in.

Anonymous said...

I highly enjoyed the way you traced Eowyn's character back to her Nordic Valkyrie roots, and I found your argument (that Eowyn and Aragorn's clash over her riding into battle represented a clash of warldviews) compelling. I don't agree with some of the commenters that Eowyn's ultimate choice was a diminishment of her character or necessarily sexist, though. For one thing, Eowyn isn't the only character who chose peace over war--she joins the ranks of the most sympathetic characters including Frodo, Sam, Aragorn, Gandalf, and Faramir when she realizes valor is a grim necessity, not a desirable goal in life. So while arguably her shift in priorities could represent the Christian viewpoint prevailing over the heathen one, I would argue it's not about Eowyn's gender but rather a theme in the overall story.

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