Although epic stories like J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings are often associated almost exclusively with the realm of nerdy men, female fantasy fans have long embraced and loved his work. His likable, unabashedly good heroes, his overt rejection of toxic masculinity, and his embrace of universal themes like love, sacrifice, and hope as the greatest powers of every age, are all things that speak to very different ideas of strength and leadership than many sprawling fantasy tales of its ilk. Plus, there’s no overt sexual menace and even the most seemingly badass warriors are allowed to be emotionally vulnerable with one another. What’s not to love?
Unfortunately, female fans have also had to train themselves to overlook the glaring flaw at the center of Tolkien’s work, and almost all the adaptations that have come from it: How few women are present. And while Prime Video prequel The Rings of Power has made remarkable strides toward correcting this problem, introducing at least a dozen major female characters from a variety of species throughout its sweeping story, fans of the original novels and Peter Jackson’s Oscar-winning trilogy of Lord of the Rings films had a lot fewer options to work with when it came to seeing themselves in Tolkien’s universe.
Thank goodness that one of them was Miranda Otto’s Eowyn of Rohan. Yes, she’s sadly one of the Lord of the Rings trilogy’s only significant female characters, but, thankfully, she’s also one of the story’s best, a woman whose unbroken, defiant spirit paved the way for so many who would one day come after her. A human shieldmaiden and a sort of de facto princess of her uncle King Theoden’s court at Edoras, Eowyn is perhaps less outwardly remarkable than the franchise’s other female characters. Galadriel and Arwen, after all, are magical elves who are functionally immortal and can bestow life-saving power-ups on the humans and hobbits they favor. But she is nevertheless the franchise’s most important woman, both in terms of her role within Tolkien’s story and her impact on the larger world outside of it.
It’s no surprise that many female fantasy fans growing up in the early 2000s imprinted on this character at an early age, not only because she essentially was one of their only options within the megapopular Jackson trilogy, but because her “I am no man” declaration during the Battle of Pelennor Fields feels like nothing so much as a rallying cry for women everywhere. And as the film that first brought her to life onscreen, The Two Towers, turns 20 this year, it seems like a perfect moment to celebrate not only what makes her character great, but all the ways that the simple fact of her existence helped make space for women in a fandom traditionally dominated by men.
For all the ways she’s become an epic fantasy icon, Eowyn is still somehow almost shockingly normal. She’s a human woman with no special powers or secret abilities, beyond her skill with the sword she’s essentially taught herself to wield. An obvious Horse Girl with exceptional riding skills and a mount named Windfola, she clearly shares the same affinity with the animals as the rest of the Rohirrim, though the fact that her name literally means “horse-lover” in Anglo-Saxon (the language Tolkien used to represent Rohirric) hints that her connection with and/or affection for them is likely stronger than most. But Eowyn isn’t just a beautiful princess with a loyal steed waiting for a handsome prince (or Ranger or future Steward in this case) to show up. She’s also the devoted niece and caretaker of her sickly uncle, a trusted leader in her own right, and a girl who chafes under the restrictive expectations of a society that tells her she can’t be the warrior she longs to become.
If this all sounds extremely familiar, it’s because it’s also the blueprint for most Disney princess movies in recent years, as Eowyn yearns to be seen and appreciated for who she is, rather than who those around her want her to be. Because under her flowing gowns lurks a quiet inner steel, and her Horse Girl tendencies aren’t just a fun personality quirk—her abilities as a rider are actually a key part of her identity as a warrior. And instead of waiting or asking for a man to save her, the White Lady of Rohan picks up a sword herself and rides into battle, eventually taking down one of the most fearsome monsters in all of Middle-earth along the way.
It’s honestly hard to overstate how satisfying Eowyn’s confrontation with the Witch-King of Angmar is—either on page or screen—and her triumph rightly ranks as one of the most famous moments in all of the fantasy genre. The fact the Witch-King is ultimately defeated by a woman (and a hobbit) so many tried to insist didn’t have a proper place in this fight is not only a perfect narrative moment, but an emotional affirmation that characters like her—and the readers and viewers that love them—have an important role to play in stories like this. Call it projection if you must, but for young women looking for an entry point into this sort of genre fiction, characters like Eowyn matter. She’s not an archetype, nor does she exist to tick a representation box. Instead, she feels like a real person, with flaws and fears that are specifically her own.
And for all that Eowyn is obviously a badass warrior in her own right, she’s not depicted in traditionally masculine terms. She’s allowed to be emotional—to express longing, sadness, desire, resentment, and all those other messy things that are almost always coded as female weakness—but those feelings don’t make her any less than the men around her here. Instead, those feelings are their own kind of strength. It’s her love for Theoden that makes her stay with him during his sickness and her need to help protect her people that ultimately leads her to pick up a sword and defend them. She clearly cares deeply for Aragorn, but isn’t paralyzed by her love for him, and doesn’t spend half of the story waiting for him to come back to her. She doesn’t need or particularly want to be rescued and the story doesn’t ask her to change in order to emerge victorious or find a partner at the end. And even when she finally decides to marry and hang up her sword at the end of the trilogy, the choice to do so is entirely her own.
Is there any wonder female fantasy fans the world over have fallen in love with this character for decades now—a woman who not only carries the hopes of an entire gender on her back in one of the genre’s most beloved stories but who manages to do so without sacrificing her sense of self or her feminine identity? Eowyn may have started off as little more than a Horse Girl with big dreams, but she ends up forging a path that is entirely her own, and bringing a generation of women along with her.