Faramir and Éowyn as Pacifists?!

Recently I wrote an article for Tor.com about Éowyn. In it, I suggested that the Shieldmaiden and Faramir give up war and become pacifists. It seems that a lot of people were unhappy with my comment–or they at least disagreed–so I’m writing this to explain what I couldn’t in that article: exactly how I came to that conclusion and what evidence supports my claim.

Obviously there isn’t the space even here to explain everything: that’s what I do in my thesis. However, I can say that I came to that conclusion after almost a hundred pages of intense research, analysis, and argumentation. I can’t reproduce that here, but I’ll do what I can to illustrate my thought process. If you have more questions, feel free to contact me!

I. Shamans and violence

First, Tolkien is setting up a pattern throughout The Lord of the Rings, and “The Silmarillion,” too, of shamanic initiations. This concept is easiest to explain by looking at Gandalf. The wizard’s experience in Moria at the Bridge of Khazad-dûm is a shamanic initiation. Yvette Kisor was the first to suggest this in her article “Totemic Reflexes in Tolkien’s Middle-earth,” and the only one that I have since found to do so. My thesis takes this moment and explores it in more detail than she did. Essentially, what this means is that Gandalf doesn’t exactly die and resurrect (it’s a metaphor). He himself never even says he dies. What he does say are things like: “I passed through fire and death” (III, vi, 514). Every little detail of his battle against the Balrog, however, is a perfect representation of a shamanic initiation. Shamanic initiations include stuff like passing through fire, or passing through impossible situations. Often, crossing a bridge or ford or river symbolizes an initiation or the ecstasy of the soul. Paradoxes do as well: height and depth, freezing and burning, falling and climbing. All of these things are present in the passage in which Gandalf describes to Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli exactly what he experienced on the Bridge (“The White Rider”).

It’s also an ineffable experience: he cannot properly explain it; he does not have the words to explain it; and he tells them that even if he did, he would choose not to. But there’s more. He comes back naked. There’s a ritual nakedness in some shamanic initiations, meant to represent spiritual rebirth. He’s saved by an eagle. Eagles are markers (in mythologies, in shamanic initiations, and in Tolkien’s texts) for the ascent of the soul. So when Gandalf is saved or brought back by Gwaihir, it’s not just that Galadriel sent the eagle to find him. Rather, the eagle represents the exaltation of Gandalf’s soul, that he has passed through the initiation, that he has come out the other side as something entirely new. And this is further supported by the fact that Gwaihir tells him that he is weightless and feels like a swan’s feather. Weightlessness is important in shamanic initiations because the purer the shaman’s soul, the more weightless it is and the better it is able to ascend. Also, in many cultures, shamans would decorate their costumes with swans’ feathers.

So that’s the basic framework of a shamanic initiation. Other characters go through similar experiences even though they aren’t as explicitly or intricately laid out in the texts as Gandalf’s is. Glorfindel is one. He fights the Balrog in The Fall of Gondolin and later comes back to Middle-earth and has power against the dark spirits, the Nazgûl, and he and his horse, Asfaloth, become conductors of the soul in danger and are able to save Frodo because they are shamans. They escort his soul, essentially, across the dangerous passage of the Bruinen. Frodo later experiences his own shamanic initiation, I would argue, at Mount Doom. Beren could also be said to have experienced a shamanic initiation, along with Eärendil.

And I would argue that this pattern is extended to Faramir. Now, this might seem strange at first, and granted, not all of the same elements are present in his initiation. But, he does pass through an impossible situation (when he goes back to Osgiliath), he does face demons (the Nazgûl), and he does pass through fire. Of course, he is taken off the Pyre of Denethor before it’s lit, but significantly, Denethor specifically says that Faramir is “burning, already burning. They have set a fire in his flesh” (V, vii, 852). This is significant. It is, I argue, Faramir’s shamanic initiation. This might seem strange at first, or it might seem like I don’t have enough evidence to claim this. But let’s look again. There’s paradox here, too: he’s burning because he was struck by a poisoned arrow, apparently; but the text also suggests that he came under the Black Breath, which is why his injuries are so much more intense, and spiritual, than they would otherwise be. Well, we know from other places in the text, Frodo’s experience in particular, that the Black Breath causes intense cold. So even though it’s never explicitly stated, we can presume the paradox: he’s both burning and he’s experiencing the cold of the Black Breath, which is symbolic of a spiritual despair or darkness or coldness.

But the other important thing that would be easy to overlook in this situation is that all of this is foreshadowed by an innocent comment that Sam makes back when they’re in Ithilien. Frodo has just fallen asleep and Faramir and Sam have this interesting exchange in which Faramir first calls Sam a “pert servant” and then basically retracts his words and says, no, “The praise of the praiseworthy is above all rewards.” Sam follows that up with “you said my master had an elvish air; and that was good and true. But I can say this: you have an air too, sir, that reminds me of, of–well, Gandalf, of wizards” (IV, v, 682). Faramir responds: well, maybe, but probably you just sense Númenor afar off (which is a significant claim in itself). But I think Sam’s recognition that Faramir is somehow “like Gandalf” is signaling to us later events. Faramir will be like Gandalf. He will experience his own initiation and Sam’s words are filled-full.

And, again, this is further supported by the fact that Faramir is potentially–and, I think, very much obviously–the only person who could possibly bring Éowyn out of her darkness. This is why Éowyn’s sudden “conversion,” as it were, does not upset me. I don’t see it as a betrayal of her potential. I don’t see it as her being confined to the home again or removed from the action, or something like that. What happens to Éowyn is essentially what happens to Frodo when Glorfindel and Asfaloth bring him safely across the River. Faramir, as a shaman, has conducted Éowyn’s soul out of its spiritual darkness. And she says this explicitly. She says, “I stand in Minas Anor, the Tower of the Sun […], and behold! the Shadow has departed!” (VI, v, 964-965).

Okay. So, Faramir’s a shaman. He saves Éowyn as a shaman. He saves her spiritually. Now, what does this mean? Why is it important? What does it have to do with pacifism?

Well one of the important things to know about shamans is that they aren’t allowed to use their powers against anyone but their supernatural adversaries. Of course, Faramir doesn’t seem to have powers along the order of Gandalf or Glorfindel, but he does have power as a spiritual healer against the Shadow. And, he doesn’t fight again in the course of The Lord of the Rings, which I think is significant. Frodo similarly gives up violence in the end, and he is sometimes cast as a pacifist (by scholars. I don’t see how you can do anything else).

Again, Faramir does not fight after his initiation. This is significant. It’s not as if he has powers like Gandalf, but even Gandalf doesn’t use his powers except against those of his rank: Saruman, the Nazgûl, etc. Gandalf isn’t allowed to use his power against anyone else. That’s why Saruman eventually is cast out and his status taken away: he used his power against his community, and that is strictly forbidden of shamans. Their purpose is to be spiritual protectors for their community by keeping demons and dark spirits at bay, which is just what Gandalf does with his powers. He saves Théoden from Saruman; and he saves Faramir’s men from the Nazgûl, for example. And Faramir, likewise, saves Éowyn. I see that as an indication that Faramir will no longer be a warrior. He’s going to give up war and violence and become a spiritual healer. But this is only a very small part of the issue and, I think, the least convincing bit of evidence for Faramir’s pacifism. Before coming to any conclusions, though, we need to take a look at Éowyn.

II. Building a garden

Okay. What about Éowyn? Well obviously, as I suggested in the Tor article, she does say that she’s going to be a shieldmaiden no longer, she’s not going to take joy in songs of slaying. So at least on a surface level she’s taking a very pacifistic stance. She’s not even going to enjoy stories that glorify war and violence anymore, which, in cultures like those of Rohan and Gondor, is pretty significant. Even some modern-day pacifists don’t go this far.

The other significant thing is that she and Faramir cross the River into Ithilien. That’s exactly what Faramir says to her: he says, “‘let us cross the River and in happier days let us dwell in fair Ithilien and there make a garden'” (VI, v, 965). Now this is the other significant moment. First, they’re going to cross a river. Again, that’s symbolic of the ascent of the soul, the journey of the soul to a higher plane. And again, Faramir is a shaman, so this is completely in accord with his purpose: conducting souls across the “river,” just like (as I’ve already said multiple times) Glorfindel and Asfaloth do for Frodo. This is Faramir’s job. But he also says they’re going to build a garden, and later, in Appendix A, we learn that it becomes the most beautiful place in the west (1080).

This is what finally convinced me that Faramir and Éowyn devoted their lives to peace-making, nonviolence, and spiritual healing. First of all, the garden clearly figures the prelapsarian Garden of Eden. We can’t possibly ignore that. And of course, in the prelapsarian Garden of Eden, violence and death did not exist. Animals did not fight and kill each other, and humans did not kill or eat animals (or each other): there was no violence. All of that enters in after the fall. But Ithilien is specifically figured by Tolkien as a prelapsarian garden, because it’s reached by crossing a River (much like the Garden of Eden), symbolically representing the ecstasy of the soul and therefore the recovery of a pre-fall state. We cannot overlook that association. So, if that is true (and obviously I believe it is), we have to assume that Faramir and Éowyn can quite literally be nothing but pacifists. If they are living within and living with a place without violence, then they themselves must leave behind lives of violence. They must live by that ethic. The fact that Faramir specifically casts it in those terms–we’re going to cross the River and we’re going to make a garden–is particularly significant. He knows what he’s doing. Tolkien, too, knows what he’s doing.

So that’s why I cannot but believe that Faramir and Éowyn are pacifists, and it was something I obviously didn’t have space to explain in my article for Tor. I had to just drop the term “pacifist” in there without a proper explanation. But, the image of the garden has to be acknowledged. If you’re going to live in a prelapsarian garden free of violence, you must yourself commit to giving up violence. It would not work otherwise. A violent person, or a person who is even committed a “just war” (which is what Faramir seems to imply to Frodo), cannot live in a prelapsarian state without violence, because both of those ways of living always hold open the possibility that violence could be appropriate, that violence could enter into this sacred space. So when they say they’re going to cross the River, that they’re going to build a garden that specifically and, I think, intentionally represents a sort of Garden of Eden–that of necessity means that they have chosen to give up violence, to become pacifists.

2 Comments

  1. I can’t possibly address hundred of pages of research in a blog comment, but let me ask a clarifying question.

    Granted that Eowyn and Faramir won’t use violence anymore (which I readily grant at least as to Eowyn), I would still not call them pacifists unless they condemn violence for everyone. Are you saying they regard violence as wrong in general, or wrong for them in their new roles?

    1. Author

      Your question is a fair one, but it does represent a common misconception about pacifism–one that I myself believed before I started looking into the concept. That is that pacifism is an absolute: no war, no violence, and the pacifist must also actively and vocally condemn those who do subscribe to violent resistance, in any form. But actually, many theologians, philosophers, and other thinkers write about pacifism as a continuum. There isn’t one kind of pacifism. My idea of pacifism emerged from that of a professor at my undergraduate institution, and therefore it doesn’t exactly fit into one of the labels that people have given to different modes of pacifism. So, when I call Éowyn and Faramir pacifists, what I’m trying to get at is the idea that they are actively committed to living lives that bring peace or wholeness into the world. This is a pacifism that isn’t necessarily a resistance (as we might think of pacifist protests or marches and things of that ilk), but rather a way of living that simultaneously reduces violence in the world and produces wholeness. There’s no way to tell from the text if Faramir and Éowyn begin actively condemning violence in the lives of others. But, I think I can pretty confidently make the claim that they choose to live lives that call into question both the validity and morality of violence. That in itself is a powerful form of pacifism. It is easy to condemn in words; it is difficult to mend in actions. War and peace are not matters confined to the councils of nations and powers. They are every-day choices which, taken together, create a world of war or a world of peace. The most effective pacifists, it seems to me, are those whose very lives ask us to reconsider our commitments and to grieve the ways our lives might be bringing violence into the world. The nature and ethics of Ithilien, including that which it symbolizes, calls us to imagine a world in which the very idea of “ethical violence” is actually unthinkable.

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