Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Eowyn - "I am no man": Woman warriors and gender bending in myth and story

When I was growing up, my immigrant parents seemed to think everything came from India. Like "Mr. Everything Comes from India" on the British serial Goodness Gracious Me, who thinks that Father Christmas is Indian, my parents often pointed out the Western cultural appropriation of all things Indian. (Among other things, Poseidon ripped his trident off of Shiva's trishul, and Yoda from Star Wars was apparently copied from a sketch from Sukumar Ray's book of nonsense rhymes Ha-ja-ba-ra-la - I don't know, George Lucas, take it up with the 'rents.)

But the other night, watching the tail end of one of my favorite (Western) stories of all time, the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkein, I felt like I was channeling my parents. I happened to catch that amazing scene during the battle of Pelennor Fields outside of the White City of Minas Tirith (yes, I am a LOTR geek) in which Éowyn of Rohan confronts the Witch-King, Lord of the creepy Nazgul. She's disguised herself as a (male) soldier, a helmet over her long blond hair, and she is challenging the Witch-King after he has fatally injured her beloved uncle and king, Theoden. In the film, Mr. creepy Ring Wraith guy says something about how he can be felled by no man, and to that, (haha!) Éowyn sweeps off her helmet and says, "I am no man!" and totally, like, wastes him. It's pretty awesome.

But the scene from the book is even, I must contend, awesom-er.  You see, there's a 1,000 year prophecy that the Witch-king will not fall "by the hand of man." To which, Éowyn says,

"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 king. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him."

(I told you. Totally awesome-er. Any declaration that uses the phrase "am I" followed by the phrase "I am" is inherently fabulous. Throw in a "begone" and the word "smite" and it's a winner, hands-down.)

But then, as I'm watching the film, something begins to nag at me. Where had I seen this particular scene before? Ah, yes, the myth of the Hindu goddess Durga. Which, sorry to say, totally, like, preceeds Tolkein. Being super-ancient and all.

You see, the buffalo demon Mahisa was wreaking havoc on all three worlds. Having received a boon from Bramha (in other versions of the story, from Shiva) that he could be killed by no man or god, he was pretty much indestructible. All the gods were distraught. "What should we do?" They wondered. Soon, there would be nothing left that was whole and unpolluted in this world or any other.

And so, they all got together and did the only logical thing. They made a woman. A warrior goddess to be precise. Durga, ten armed and mighty, astride a fierce lion. Wielding sword, discus, bow and arrow - the best weapons of each of the gods. Mother, savior, warrior - she is still the deity supremely worshiped in West Bengal, the region of India from where my family hails. (here she is smiting the buffalo demon - 'I am no god, but a goddess!')

Gender bending woman warriors are actually pretty common in Indian myths and epics. The Mahabharata is chock full of them (along with gender-bending men dressed as women - the heroic warrior Arjun, for instance, dresses as a female dance instructor during the years that he and his brothers the Pandavas must live in exile from their kingdom. For a great book on this see The Man who was a Woman and Other Queer Tales of Hindu Lore by Devdutt Patnaik).

Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore's dance drama Chitrangada, has a similar story line to the one of Éowyn at its heart too. Based on the Mahabharata character who was the wife of Arjun, Tagore's story is about the daughter of the king of Manipur, a brave warrior princess named Chitrangada, who is the only child of the king and therefore the heir to the throne. She dresses as a (male) soldier and protects her people valiantly. When the hero Arjun comes to Manipur, she falls instantly in love with him, but fears he won't love her as she is, all boy-ed up and all. (Sounds a bit like Éowyn's love for Aragorn, eh?) So Chitrangada prays that she may take the form of an irresistible woman - she does, and Arjun falls madly in love with her. But Chitrangada knows there is something missing - she wishes Arjun could love her for who she really is. When the kingdom is threatened, the people lament to Arjun that their warrior princess is missing. Arjun is moved by their stories about their brave princess and longs to meet her. And of course, Chitrangada appears as herself again, and fights alongside Arjun, who now loves her for her true self. (Take that, Aragorn!)

So, in the end, are my parents right? Does everything come from India? I'm not sure it's an argument worth pursing, beyond the fact that all writers are influenced by other myths and traditions, and that most world myths and traditions have echoes of each other, or at least, resonate with similar themes.

To me, what's most intriguing about at least the Indian tradition of woman warriors is a space for female power within the culture. And of course, the space for male and female energies to exist together - think of the Hindu figure of the Ardhanarishwara, half-man, half-woman.  From a more scholarly framework, what's at work here is also the suggestion that gender, as theorist Judith Butler has contended, is a type of performance with no 'inherent' qualities other than the performativity itself. Because what's happened, at least in Tolkein's tale of Éowyn, is that gender has been reduced to a semantic. Darkness cannot be defeated (by a man)? Well, then it'll just have to be defeated by a woman.

But of course the woman warrior in Western or Eastern story does not signal some sort of freedom from sexism or gender. Quite the opposite. This type of gender-trickery only works because we still use phrases like "by the hand of no man" to be synonymous with "by the hand of no one." The moment the male gender stops standing for the universal human is the moment that this slight of (gendered) hand stops being interesting. But of course, that's not the case yet.  Because we all still gasp when Eowyn removes her helmet, and cheer when she delivers her line. Not unlike that old puzzle about the female surgeon,* the woman warrior is still the exception to the rule. Hopefully, not too much longer. 

[*You know the one, a boy is in an accident in which his father dies. He is brought to the hospital, where the surgeon says "I cannot operate on this boy, he is my son." How is this possible?]


  1. Hi!
    It's me,Juira. I'm already following your blog. As I've said before, I totally agree with your considerations about the implied gender issues as well as the influence of Indian mithology. I'd add that Tolkien used many mithologies other than Nordic or Celtic. I also can see some African mithology similarities (or, this is maybe just a coincidence)in the Silmarillion Valinor Gods (Valars) Pantheon. I thing your parents has a lot of reasons to believe in Indian influences in our Western culture. This can be seen in the epic Bagavad Gîta, at least for me, influences some cristians precepts. So is feasible that Tolkien, wise man as he was, take some from the cradle of Hindu-European culture.
    Once again, thanks an congratulations for this great article! And sorry for my bad english. ;)

  2. Excellent observations Juira. We all know that Tolkein was influenced by Nordic and Celtic myths - now whether he was consciously influenced by Hindu mythology (ie. knew about the Durga story) or was influenced without being fully aware is a question we'll never know of - but as you say the Indo-European connections are ancient and long standing! Thanks for your smart read and insightful comments!

  3. I didn't know Arjun dressed as a female dancer. LOL I think I need to go revisit the Mahabharata.

    Personally, about the gods and goddesses and being a girl, one of the things I find oddest is that when a girl is born (also when you get a bahu), people say, Lakshmi aa gayi. But at the same time, a daughter was a burden, you know? and Lakshmi is supposed to be about luck and light and wealth. So I have always found it very odd - a daughter is good like that, but not really.

  4. Hi Storytreasury/Sonia - Yes Arjun during his 13th year of exile was disguised as Brihanala - in some versions a woman in some a 'female eunuch' (regardless he was cis-femme and in traditionally female clothes).

    Yes, in Bengal a wife coming into the home is always said to be Laxshmi entering - so the day she comes she walks through milk and leaves milky footprints, the milk is left to boil over on the stove (signalling plenty)- but these symbolic spaces for strength don't mean that sexism isn't alive and well and that girl-children are always valued equally to boy-children... Like any culture, there are inconsistencies - both spaces for women's strength and sexism... (but to me, the important thing is that no one can say "women must be treated like X because IT IS IN OUR CULTURE" - it's all which part of your "culture" you choose to embrace...)

    Happy New Year all!

  5. Thanks so much for writing this. I knew nothing of Durga before reading this, but I also love that Eowyn moment. Thanks for educating me.

  6. Thanks for visiting "Seams"! - I know, it's cool to realize how similar so many global stories are and hear them resonating off each other, no?