Several characters throughout the novel demonstrate ability far beyond what’s expected of them. The hobbits are a primary example of this. Being so small, they’re often mistaken for children and assumed to have childlike qualities: naivete, weakness, and inexperience. Théoden predicts that Merry will be more of a burden than a help in battle, but Merry ends up helping Éowyn defeat the Lord of the Nazgûl. Denethor is bemused by Pippin and unsure of his usefulness, yet Pippin ends up usurping Denethor in order to save Faramir and ensure the line of the stewards of Gondor continues. Denethor says that Gandalf’s plan to send hobbits to Mount Doom to destroy the Ring is foolish, but Frodo’s mental and physical strength as a ring bearer and Sam’s bravery in the face of the enemy ensure that their quest is ultimately achieved. Each of the hobbits disproves assumptions made about them due to their size.
Éowyn, being a woman, faces a similar struggle to disprove what others think about her due to her gender. As a woman, it’s assumed her place will be in the home, and when the Rohirrim ride to war, she’s left behind to tend to the women and children. She finds she must change her appearance in order to fill the role she wants, and rides to battle at Minas Tirith disguised as a man called Dernhelm. Éowyn’s gender actually ends up allowing her to defeat the Lord of the Nazgûl—though he cannot be killed by a man, Éowyn is a woman and so she holds power that a man cannot. Éowyn’s subversion of expectations, along with the hobbits’ unexpected strengths, prove that status and appearance aren’t accurate measures of one’s value. A person’s value, it seems, comes from within, and indeed an external quality that might be judged a weakness can, as in Éowyn’s case, be a unique strength.
Expectation vs. Ability ThemeTracker
Expectation vs. Ability Quotes in The Return of the King
“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. I can ride and wield blade, and I do not fear either pain or death.”
“What do you fear, lady?” he asked.
“A cage,” she said. “To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.”
Already it seemed years to Pippin since he had sat there before, in some half-forgotten time when he had still been a hobbit, a half-hearted wanderer touched little by the perils he had passed through. Now he was one small soldier in a city preparing for a great assault, clad in the proud but sombre manner of the Tower of the Guard.
“Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!”
Then Merry heard of all sounds in that hour the strangest. It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel. “But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Éowyn am I, Éomund’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.”
“Alas! For she was pitted against a foe beyond the strength of her mind or body. And those who will take a weapon to such an enemy must be sterner than steel, if the very shock shall not destroy them. It was an evil doom that set her in this path. For she is a fair maiden, fairest lady of a house of queens. And yet I know not how I should speak of her. When I first looked on her and perceived her unhappiness, it seemed to me that I saw a white flower standing straight and proud, shapely as a lily, and yet knew that it was hard, as if wrought by elf-wrights out of steel. Or was it, maybe, a frost that had turned its sap to ice, and so it stood, bitter-sweet, still fair to see, but stricken, soon to fall and die?”
“Do not be afraid,” said Aragorn. “I came in time, and I have called him back. He is weary now, and grieved, and he has taken a hurt like the Lady Éowyn, daring to smite that deadly thing. But these evils can be amended, so strong and gay a spirit is in him. His grief he will not forget; but it will not darken his heart, it will teach him wisdom.”
In that hour of trial it was the love of his master that helped most to hold him firm; but also deep down in him lived still unconquered his plain hobbit-sense: he knew in the core of his heart that he was not large enough to bear such a burden, even if such visions were not a mere cheat to betray him. The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need a due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command.
Then the heart of Éowyn changed, or else at last she understood it. And suddenly her winter passed, and the sun shone on her.
“I stand in Minas Anor, the Tower of the Sun,” she said; “and behold! the Shadow has departed! I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren.”
Then the hobbits suddenly realized that people had looked at them with amazement not out of surprise at their return so much as in wonder at their gear. They themselves had become so used to warfare and to riding in well-arrayed companies that they had quite forgotten that the bright mail peeping from under their cloaks, and the helms of Gondor and the Mark, and the fair devices of their shields, would seem outlandish in their own country.
“Well here we are, just the four of us that started out together,” said Merry. “We have left all the rest behind, one after another. It seems almost like a dream that has slowly faded.”
“Not to me,” said Frodo. “To me it feels more like falling asleep again.”