Shieldmaidens In Rohan by Certh

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Shieldmaidens In Rohan


In Scandinavian folklore and mythology a shieldmaiden was “a woman who had chosen to fight as a warrior” (cf. There are Brynhild in the Völsunga Saga, who “fared with helm and byrny unto the wars”; Hervör in The Saga of Hervör and Heithrek, who “spent a long time in piracy and had great success”; Lathgertha, “a skilled amazon, who, though a maiden, had the courage of a man, and fought in front among the bravest”, and Alfhild, who “exchanged woman's for man's attire, and . . . began the life of a warlike rover”, in Saxo Grammaticus’s The Danish History. Sela, “a skilled warrior and experienced in roving”; Rusla, “whose prowess in warfare exceeded the spirit of a woman”; and Stikla, who “[preferred] the occupations of war to those of wedlock”, are also mentioned in passing in The Danish History.


In JRR Tolkien’s works, Éowyn names herself a shieldmaiden. In Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, Aragorn once says to Éowyn, “You are . . . a shieldmaiden of Rohan”, and the words may well lead fans to believe that warrior-women were common in Rohirric society.
Intriguing as the notion is, only a careful study of the Professor’s writings can confirm or deny it.


Concerning Éowyn

That the White Lady of Rohan had received formal training in the use of a sword is seen from passages in The Return of the King:

“I can ride and wield blade . . .”
The Return of the King, Book 5, Chapter II

A swift stroke she dealt, skilled and deadly.”
The Return of the King, Book 5 , Chapter VI


Indeed, in one of his earlier drafts of The Lord of the Rings , JRR Tolkien intended that Éowyn be a warrior-woman:

Make Eowyn . . . a stern amazon woman.”
       The History of Middle-earth: The Treason of Isengard, Chapter XXVI

This idea was ultimately rejected, however. In one of his letters, written around 1963 in answer to a reader’s comment, the Professor explains:

[Éowyn] was also not really a soldier or ‘amazon’, but like many brave women was capable of great military gallantry at a crisis.”
The Letters of JRR Tolkien, Letter #244

This makes clear the fact that Tolkien did not view Éowyn as a warrior but rather as a woman of great courage, who, knowing how to wield a sword effectively, could do so resolutely when need arose. And so she did in the battle of the Pelennor Fields, although then, as noted by Gandalf and Faramir, she was motivated by glory and her wish to escape her bleak life:

‘My friend [i.e., Éomer],’ said Gandalf, ‘you had horses, and deeds of arms, and the free fields; but [Éowyn], 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 . . .’”
The Return of the King, Book 5, Chapter VIII

You [i.e., Éowyn] desired to have the love of the Lord Aragorn. Because he was high and puissant, and you wished to have renown and glory and to be lifted far above the mean things that crawl on the earth.”
       The Return of the King, Book 6 , Chapter IV

It is worth noting that the term “shieldmaiden” itself is only found four times in the entirety of JRR Tolkien's works relating to Middle-earth , and always by Éowyn to refer to herself:

“Too often have I heard of duty,” [Éowyn] cried. “ But am I not of the House of Eorl, a shieldmaiden and not a dry-nurse? . . . 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.”
       The Return of the King, Book 5, Chapter II

This passage, in addition to illustrating Éowyn's frustration at being left behind when the soldiers go to win renown in war, highlights the very limited part of women in active warfare: they were not expected to fight in battle. Éowyn's use of the word “shieldmaiden” refers rather to her skill with a sword, her training afforded her because of her social station, and her wish to fight and be placed above other women because of those. Her calling herself a shieldmaiden also possibly harks back to Théoden’s recognising her prowess with a blade, trusting her to defend their people and giving her arms when he appoints her regent of Rohan before he goes to war:

“Let the heralds announce to the folk that the Lady Éowyn will lead them! . . . [É]owyn knelt before [Théoden] and received from him a sword and a fair corslet.”
       The Two Towers, Book 3, Chapter VI

“I am a shieldmaiden and my hand is ungentle.”
“I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying.”
“There goes a lord who tamed a wild shieldmaiden of the North!”
       The Return of the King, Book 6, Chapter V

Like the passages cited above, these excerpts do not indicate the existence of professional women-warriors in Rohan but Éowyn's own pride in her ability to wield a blade effectively, stressing the difference between her who can use a sword and those women who cannot.


Rohirric Women as Warriors

Fully fledged women-warriors did exist in Middle-earth, and they were of the House of Haleth in the First Age:

“The Folk of Haleth . . . retained many practices that seemed strange to the Eldar and the other Atani . . . One of the strange practices spoken of was that many of their warriors were women, though few of these went abroad to fight in the great battles. This custom was evidently ancient; for their chieftainess Haleth was a renowned Amazon with a picked bodyguard of women.”
       The Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth, Part Four, Chapter I

Concerning the women of Rohan especially, references indicate that many of them were no strangers to weapon-wielding, as first evidenced by an early draft of the chapter The Muster of Rohan found in The History of Middle-earth:

“Eowyn says that women must ride now, as they did in a like evil time in the days of Brego son of [mark showing name omitted] Eorl’s son, when the wild men of the East came from the Inland Sea into the Eastemnet.”
       The History of Middle-earth: The War of the Ring, Part Three, Chapter I, section (ii)

Similarly, mentions in the published The Lord of the Rings demonstrate the courage and bravery of the women of Rohan and their ancestors:

“And [we Gondorians] love [the Rohirrim] : tall men and fair women, valiant both alike . . .”
The Two Towers, Book 4, Chapter V

“Many lords and warriors, and many fair and valiant women, are named in the songs of Rohan that still remember the North.”
       The Lord of the Rings, Appendix A, II

The passages quoted above, although suggesting that Rohirric women would defend their own – and perform feats worthy of remembrance – in times of great danger, do not predicate the existence of true female warriors in Rohan.


In Conclusion

Even though it is evident that JRR Tolkien wasn't opposed to the idea of women in Middle-earth knowing how to handle arms, the term “shieldmaiden” in his works doesn’t necessarily imply that there were women in Rohirric culture who were experienced or actually engaged in warfare as in Scandinavian mythology. The word seems to have a more loose meaning, pointing to women who had skill in wielding weapons, likely enough so to win admiration.


JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
JRR Tolkien, The Silmarillion
JRR Tolkien, The Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth
JRR Tolkien, The History of Middle-earth
JRR Tolkien, Letters
Saxo Grammaticus, The Danish History
The Saga of Hervör and Heithrek
, translated by Nora Kershaw
Völsunga Saga, translated by Eiríkr Magnússon and William Morris

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