I am wary of attempts to reduce life’s complexities into trite truisms, but if I were pressed to summarise life’s journey into one succinct statement of sugar-packety goodness, it would be this: fulfilment in life is dependent on one simple choice: will you walk the path of hope or the path of despair?
Make no mistake: choosing hope is difficult. Despair is the simpler path. Once you have seen life’s hideous brutality you are irrevocably changed. The xenophobic violence that has plagued this country recently, the openly corrupt leadership, and the widening chasm between the wealthy and the abjectly poor at every urban street corner are stark testimonies to the fact that despite a much-lauded constitution that upholds the sanctity of individual rights, and despite a legacy of oppression that should have taught us how to be more compassionate, the inexorable tide of human misery rises to its dreadful fullness once more. And South Africa is no different from the rest of the world in this regard. The walls of Auschwitz and Dachau, Ground Zero in New York, and the bombed out hospitals in Baghdad, stand as grim reminders that even education cannot curb the savagery of human nature. We cannot run from it. We cannot hide from it. We are the disease.
So I understand despair, I really do. It is far easier to put the blinkers on and play happy families in the suburbs, making the vacillating fortunes of a sports team more important than the darker tragedies that lurk at the edges of our consciousness. I can sympathise with those who don the masks of cynicism or rage, and try in that way to keep the world at a safe distance. It is easier to blame the evils of the world on something external – on the devil, on violent computer games and heavy metal music, or even on religion, for that matter – than to see that the real virus is already spreading within. And it is incurable. I also sometimes stick my head in the sand. I would love to be able to ignore it. Sometimes I even succeed. Despair is an alluring option when choosing hope seems foolishly deluded.
But as Gandalf says in The Lord of the Rings: “…despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not.” We may think we have it all figured out, but “even the wise do not see all ends”. The possibility of hope remains. And while that ember still burns in the frigid and indifferent void of the universe, we have something to cling to.
It is really the willingness to choose hope over despair that defines Tolkien’s heroes. My favourite of all Tolkien’s characters – and perhaps in all of literature – is Éowyn. For me, she exemplifies what it means to choose hope in a world that seems to offer none.
From the outset, it is evident that she knows suffering. Aragorn’s description of her hints at her haunted nature:
“For she is a fair maiden, fairest lady of a house of queens. And yet I know not how I should speak of her. When I first looked on her and perceived her unhappiness, it seemed to me that I saw a white flower standing straight and proud, shapely as a lily, and yet knew that it was hard, as if wrought by elf-wrights out of steel. Or was it, maybe, a frost that had turned its sap to ice, and so it stood, bitter-sweet, still fair to see, but stricken, soon to fall and die?”
Clearly, from Tolkien’s descriptions of her, she is all but shattered by the limitations placed on her by virtue of her society’s expectations of femininity, as well as by the tedious duties imposed on her as a result of her social standing. Gandalf explains her plight to Éomer:
“My friend, you had horses, and deed of arms, and the free fields; but she, being 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”.
He explains, too, that the poisonous words of Grima Wormtongue, which threatened to drive Théoden to despair, were not reserved only for the king. Gandalf suggests that Grima’s words touched Éowyn too. Notice how Grima’s toxic words, which Gandalf alludes to, touch on her own deepest fears:
“But who knows what she spoke to the darkness, alone, in the bitter watches of the night, when all her life seemed shrinking, and the walls of her bower closing in about her, a hutch to trammel some wild thing in?”
In one of my favourite exchanges in the novel, Éowyn courageously voices her fears and desires to Aragorn. It is an expression of self that flows out of an unshakeable confidence in her own identity. It also evocatively expresses her frustration at a system that will not give her the freedom to be herself. She is on the verge of losing heart:
‘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, may I not now spend my life as I will?’
‘Few may do that without honour,’ he answered. ‘But as for you, lady: did you not accept the charge to govern the people until their lord’s return? […]’
‘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 defence 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 [a] 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.’
She knows she is capable of great things, but social protocol seems to rob her of the opportunity to realise her immense potential. Urged on by Grima Wormtongue, despair seems an easy choice. But she is no Denethor. She does not surrender to the encroaching darkness. Nor will she allow her discontent to cause her to neglect her duties as a leader. It is she who marshals the people of Rohan as they retreat to Helm’s Deep (not Aragorn, as in the film). She is noble in spirit, not just title, and unlike Denethor, she will let her own dejection drag those she loves and serves down with her.
Éowyn prevails ultimately, I think, because she has an unshakeable sense of self. Despite social customs that try to force her into a certain mould, despite even her own feelings, she knows the desires of her heart. She trusts her sense of identity, not only as royalty, but as a warrior. And it is this self-assurance by which she is able to conquer the Witch King – the very embodiment of fear and desolation in the novel – a foe against which none of the other heroes would have been able to triumph:
“Begone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion! Leave the dead in peace!”
A cold voice answered: ‘Come not between the Nazgûl 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 in all sounds of the 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 are looking upon a woman. Eowyn am I, Eomund’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.”
The winged creature screamed at her, but then the Ringwraith was silent, as if in sudden doubt. Very amazement for a moment conquered Merry’s fear. He opened his eyes and the blackness was lifted from them. There some paces from him sat the great beast, and all seemed dark about it, and above it loomed the Nazgûl Lord like a shadow of despair. A little to the left facing them stood whom he had called Dernhelm. But the helm of her secrecy had fallen from her, and her bright hair, released from its bonds, gleamed with pale gold upon her shoulders. Her eyes grey as the sea were hard and fell, and yet tears gleamed in them. A sword was in her hand, and she raised her shield against the horror of her enemy’s eyes.”
The source of Éowyn’s strength, I think, lies in the clarity of her vision. She understands herself, as well as the times. After defeating the Nazgûl Lord at the battle of Pelennor Fields, as she is recovering, she has the following conversation with one of the healers:
‘..But for long years we healers have only sought to patch the rents made by the men of swords. Though we should still have enough to do without them: the world is full enough of hurts and mischances without wars to multiply them.’
‘It needs but one foe to breed a war, not two, Master Warden,’ answered Éowyn. ‘And those who have not swords can still die upon them. Would you have the folk of Gondor gather you herbs only, when the Dark Lord gathers armies? And it is not always good to be healed in body. Nor is it always evil to die in battle, even in bitter pain. Were I permitted, in this dark hour I would choose the latter.’
Finally, having stared desolation in the face and triumphed, in the House of Healing, she meets Faramir, with whom she later falls in love. Tolkien sums up her journey thus:
“And then her heart changed, or at least she understood it; and the winter passed, and the sun shone upon her.”
I’ve been writing recently about how to go about ‘guarding’ your heart’, which Solomon, in Proverbs 4:23, deems to be of paramount importance:
Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.
Éowyn, I think, exemplifies for me the process of doing so. Guarding your heart means accepting that the world is at war and that the likely casualty is your heart. It means accepting your own strength, daring to embrace your heart’s deepest desires, and developing an unwavering belief in your own royal heritage as a child of God. Maybe, like Bilbo, you are feeling “thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread”, but know that although you are justifiably afraid of the shadow that promises to devour you, as you stare into the pitiless eyes of your own Nazgûl Lord, remember Aragorn’s gentle reminder to Éowyn as she speaks of her fears to him: “You are the daughter of kings, a Shieldmaiden of Rohan. I do not think that will be your fate.”