“The truth of storytelling is, and I think female audiences especially prove this, is that you don’t need ‘strong female characters,’” says Philippa Boyens, speaking to Polygon about writing the scripts for the Lord of the Rings movies with Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh. “I mean, you write strong female characters because they’re authentic to the story and they are real, and they reflect something that young women can relate to.”
In the 15 years since The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King debuted in theaters, one frequently cited scene persists for the reasons that Boyens describes: Éowyn’s (Miranda Otto) slaying of the Witch-king of Angmar during the Battle of the Pelennor Fields.
Though commanded not to join the battle by her uncle Théoden (Bernard Hill), King of Rohan, on the basis of her gender, she enters the fray by disguising herself as a man — and finds herself face to face with the Witch-king of Angmar, the Lord of the Nazgûl, when she comes to her uncle’s aid. Mounted on a fell beast, the Witch-king hisses at her to get out of his way, citing the elf Glorfindel’s prophecy that he could not be killed “by the hand of man.” Freed from his grasp by the intervention of the hobbit Meriadoc Brandybuck (Dominic Monaghan), Éowyn removes her helmet, revealing her face for him to see.
“I am no man,” she says, before plunging her sword directly into his face.
“It’s one of the great lines,” says Boyens, though she adds, with a laugh, “[Fran and I] were female screenwriters who had to write for all these male characters, and then we finally get this woman to write for, and she has to pretend to be a man.”
Given the power of the moment, it’s no surprise that it has become one of the film’s breakout scenes, and it’s not just the fact that Éowyn is one of only a few major female characters in the franchise that explains why it has such an impact. It’s that she feels real, rather than standing in for an archetype or simply ticking a box.
“If you set out to write a ‘strong female character,’ quote unquote, they’re going to smell it a mile off,” Boyens says. “And they do smell it a mile off. It’s always presumptuous, I think, that people believe — and it’s not just that they believe this for women, it’s also that they believe it for young men — that they cannot relate to a story where the main character is not the same sex as them. Of course they can.”
As for whether or not that truthful approach to storytelling worked, one need only look to the film’s enduring popularity, not to mention how often Éowyn’s triumphant moment is used as a rallying cry for women.
“It was like, ‘Wow, this is hitting, this is resonating with young women,’” Boyens notes, then adding, “I think it was that audience that lifted Rings into another place.”