Unexpected Heroism

Jill Javier '07, English 65, Fantasy, Brown University, 2003

In J.R.R. Tolkien's The Return of the King, we encounter a supposedly new character -- Dernhelm. At first we believe that Dernhelm is just another soldier who silently agreed to take Merry to the battle. We soon discover that Dernhelm is in fact Eowyn, who disguises herself to ride with Rohirrim to join Gondor in war on the Pelennor Fields. Theoden the king (her uncle) is struck down by the most powerful and deadly servant of Sauron -- the king of the ringwraiths, Lord of the Nazgul. He can not not be killed by any living man, but as she tells Lord of the Nazgul,

"But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Eowyn I am, 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 the Ringwraith made no answer, and was silent as if in sudden doubt. Very amazement for a moment conquered Merry's fear. He opened his eys 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 Nazgul Lord like a shadow of despair. A little to the left facing them stood she 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 were on her cheek. A sword was in her hand, and she raised her shield against the horror of her enemy's eyes.

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 Eowyn, 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 head fell like a stone. Backward she sprang as the huge shape crashed to 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. [Pages 823-824]



1. Tolkien's creation of a woman being able to kill a creature that can be unhindered by a man expresses a bold statement. What does the death of the witch king by a woman symbolize?

2. How can Eowyn's actions and heroism compare to Menolly's?

3. Tolkien depicts one of man's weakest points as being unable to resist temptation. What do you think a woman, such as Eowyn, would do if she was given the task of being the ring bearer? Would she too fall subject to temptation?

4. What does the presence of Eowyn on the battle field illustrate about her character? (How does it show her growth? Why is it important?)

5. Throughout The Lord of the Rings, one character inspires another character to go on, even at the verge of failure. In what other examples in the book does this prominent theme occur? Which characters do you think this happens between the most and why?

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. Houghton Mifflin, Boston: 1966.

Victorian Web Overview J. R. R. Tolkien Victorian courses

Last modified 2 March 2004