As the father of two daughters, and for a variety of other reasons, I feel strongly about female characters in literature. I've mentioned before on this blog that I was challenged some months ago by a friend's comment that it's very hard to find female characters who are both strong and tender. It's been a good filter for me as I read Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy this time through. There are few strong female characters in LOTR, sadly. I don't think J.R.R. Tolkien was any kind of a misogynist -- far from it -- but he was perhaps bound by his times, as are we all, and all the leading roles in his story fall to males.
The remainder of this post will be down in the weeds of Tolkien's work, assuming the reader has at least a passing familiarity with the various characters, or else is inordinately patient and dedicated to reading this for other reasons. At any rate, here we go ...
Having admitted Tolkien's perhaps unintentional bias toward males as leading characters, however, there are a few strong female characters to be acknowledged. Galadriel is perhaps the easiest to remember, and digging deep into the backstory of LOTR she has a long and important history, if undeveloped. Though by the time of LOTR she is long past, Luthien is another strong female character, notable for the way Aragorn speaks of her as he tells the tale of Beren and Luthien Tinúviel to the hobbits one dark evening on Weathertop. Christopher Tolkien has done all fans a service by bringing into print the deeper story of Beren and Luthien in the last few years, which shapes and deepens her character significantly. Even Rosie Cotton, though she comes into the story only at its end, is perhaps evidence that Tolkien understood both the strength and tenderness of his female characters. And of course Arwen, though she keeps mostly to the shadows in LOTR, plays an important role. One of the few things I really appreciated about Peter Jackson's version of the story in film is how he wrapped Glorfindel, an elf-lord of Elrond's house, into the character of Arwen for the sake of the movie, giving her depth and strength beyond what she has in the books themselves.
But this last time through the trilogy, I was so impressed with the way Tolkien himself wrote the character of Éowyn, who chafes at traditional roles, who finds creative and when necessary crafty ways to live out her strength and her love, and who is without question valiant in leadership and in battle. The scene in which she stands over the fallen body of Théoden and defends him as though she is staked to the ground next to him, and in her courage she helps to kill the leader of the Nazgul, at great cost to herself -- this may be the single boldest individual action in the entire story. At the same time, she exhibits an affection and a tenderness toward her uncle, King Théoden, and a deep love for her brother Éomer, as well as a passionate infatuation with Aragorn and eventually, a deep and abiding love for Faramir. She is certainly the most fully developed female character in the written text of LOTR.
Here are a few excerpts -- all too brief, sadly -- showing the development of Éowyn's character:
"'Go, Éowyn, sister-daughter,' said the old king. 'The time for fear is past.'
The woman turned and went slowly into the house. As she passed the doors she turned and looked back. Grave and thoughtful was her glance, as she looked on the king with cool pity in her eyes. Very fair was her face, and her long hair was like a river of gold. Slender and tall she was in her white robe girt with silver; but strong she seemed and stern as steel, a daughter of kings." (The Two Towers, 152)
"'Behold, I go forth, and it is likely to be my last riding,' said Théoden. 'I have no child. Théodred my son is slain. I name Éomer my sister-son to be my heir. If neither of us return, then choose a new lord as you will. But to someone I must now entrust my people that I leave behind, to rule them in my place. Which of you will stay?' No man spoke. 'Is there none whom you would name? In whom do my people trust?'
'In the House of Eorl,' answered Háma.
'But Éomer I cannot spare, nor would he stay,' said the king, 'and he is the last of that House.'
'I said not Éomer,' answered Háma. 'And he is not the last. There is Éowyn, daughter of Éomund, his sister. She is fearless and high-hearted. All love her. Let her be as lord to the Éorlingas while we are gone.'
'It shall be so,' said Théoden. 'Let the heralds announce to the folk that the Lady Éowyn will lead them!'" (The Two Towers, 162-63)
But as Aragorn came to the booth where he was to lodge with Legolas and Gimli, and his companions had gone in, there came the Lady Éowyn after him and called to him. He turned and saw her as a glimmer in the night, for she was clad in white; but her eyes were on fire.
'Aragorn,' she said, 'why will you go on this deadly road?'
'Because I must,' he said. 'Only so can I see any hope of doing my part in the war against Sauron. I do not choose paths of peril, Éowyn. Were I to go where my heart dwells, far in the North I would now be wandering in the fair valley of Rivendell.'
For a while she was silent, as if pondering what this might mean. Then suddenly she laid her hand on his arm. 'You are a stern lord and resolute,' she said; 'and thus do men win renown.' She paused. 'Lord,' she said, 'if you must go, then let me ride in your following. For I am weary of skulking in the hills, and wish to face peril and battle.'
'Your duty is with your people,' he answered.
'Too often have I heard of duty,' she cried. 'But am I not of the House of Eorl, a shieldmaiden and not a dry-nurse? I have waited on faltering feet long enough. Since they falter no longer, it seems, may I not now spend my life as I will?'
'Few may do that with honour,' he answered. 'But as for you, lady: did you not accept the charge to govern your people until their lord's return? If you had not been chosen, then some marshal or captain would have been set in the same place, and he could not ride away from his charge, were he weary of it or no.'
'Shall I always be chosen?' she said bitterly. 'Shall I always be left behind when the Riders depart, to mind the house while they win renown, and find food and beds when they return?'
'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 defense of your homes. Yet the deeds will not be less valiant because they are unpraised.'
And she answered, '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.'
'What do you fear, lady?' he asked.
'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.' (Return of the King, 67-68)
(Eowyn disguises herself as the soldier Dernhelm and rides in Théoden's company to the battle before the city of Minas Tirith, where Théoden himself is struck down by the lord of the Nazgul, a wraith riding on a flying creature of some kind -- think maybe a pterodactyl. Meriadoc the hobbit -- Merry -- is struck to the ground and the following scene is told from his point of view.)
Then out of the blackness in his mind he thought that he heard Dernhelm speaking; yet now the voice seemed strange, recalling some other voice that he had known.
'Begone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion! Leave the dead in peace!'
A cold voice answered, 'Come not between the Nazgul and his prey! Or he will not slay thee in thy turn. He will bear thee away to the houses of lamentation, beyond all darkness, where thy flesh shall be devoured, and thy shrivelled mind be left naked to the Lidless Eye.'
A sword rang as it was drawn. 'Do what you will; but I will hinder it, if I may.'
'Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!'
Then Merry heard of all sounds in that hour the strangest. It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel. 'But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn I am, Éomund's daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.'
Suddenly the great beast beat its hideous wings, and the wind of them was foul. Again it leaped into the air, and then swiftly fell down upon Éowyn, shrieking, striking with beak and claw.
Still she did not blench; maiden of the Rohirrim, child of kings, slender but as a steel-blade, fair yet terrible. A swift stroke she dealt, skilled and deadly. The outstretched neck she clove asunder, and the hewn head fell like a stone. Backward she sprang as the huge shape crashed in ruin, vast wings outspread, crumpled on the earth; and with its fall the shadow passed away. A light fell about her, and her hair shone in the sunrise. (Return of the King, 143)
(After the defeat of Sauron, Éowyn is still in Minas Tirith, recovering from her wounds, in the Houses of Healing with Faramir, the Steward of the City.)
And Éowyn looked at Faramir long and steadily, and Faramir said: 'Do not scorn pity that is the gift of a gentle heart, Éowyn! But I do not offer you my pity. For you are a lady high and valiant and have yourself won renown that shall not be forgotten; and you are a lady beautiful, I deem, beyond even the words of the Elven-tongue to tell. And I love you. Once I pitied your sorrow. But now, were you sorrowless, without fear or any lack, were you the blissful Queen of Gondor, still I would love you. Éowyn, do you not love me?'
Then the heart of Éowyn changed, or else at last she understood it. And suddenly her winter passed, and the sun shone on her.
'I stand in Minas Anor, the Tower of the Sun, she said, 'and behold! the Shadow has departed! I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in songs of slaying. I will be a healer and love all things that grow and are not barren.' And again she looked at Faramir. 'No longer do I desire to be a queen,' she said.
Then Faramir laughed merrily. 'That is well,' he said; 'for I am not a king. Yet I will wed with the White Lady of Rohan, if it be her will. And if she will, then let us cross the River and in happier days let us dwell in fair Ithilien and there make a garden. All things will grow with joy there, if the White Lady comes.' (Return of the King, 299-300)
Congratulations on getting this far. These few quotes demonstrate that Tolkien invested a lot of energy in developing Éowyn as a strong character, certainly. I suppose a person could make an argument that she is not very tender, but when we first meet her she is quite tender in her care for Théoden, even though his dotage frustrates her. And at the end of the story, the tenderness that grows between her and Faramir (as noted above, and in other quotes not included here) seems to indicate that Tolkien saw her as a woman who is both strong and affectionate, both tender and courageous.
It was fun to read this story again and see her in greater depth, to pay attention to her with new eyes. She's not a perfect role model, of course, but given the impact Tolkien's LOTR still has, it's encouraging to find a female character with such depth, grace, and strength.