No sex in "Chapter 2: Gift." Don't worry, it's coming soon. Or rather...she is.
To those who were hoping this particular encounter would go a little differently, my condolences. I'm saving her for Radagast.
It's true - and necessary - that Book 2: The Key begins much the same way that Book 1: The Cage ends.
For those who found the end of The Cage more than they wished to deal with (and based on the voting that was a fair number of you), don't worry. The Key is, ultimately, a story about redemption and healing. It won't be quick, nor will it be easy, and all of Éowyn's emotions coming out of that experience will continue to be part of her. But the end of the first book is, by a very large margin, the darkest this tale will ever get.
Thus concludes Éowyn, Book 1: The Cage. There'll be a short break while I catch my final-editing-pass breath, but I intend to start posting the second book fairly soon.
This particular story grew out of a fairly simple question: if Tolkien's characters had rich sexual lives, but unlike in most Tolkien-universe stories didn't do anything to break or contradict the published narrative, what would that look like? (Ref. the blog entry entitled "Why Tolkien erotica?") I started brainstorming a half-dozen scattershot notions for various characters, and immediately noticed something intriguing.
They were all women.
In retrospect, that choice was largely forced by my determination to respect authorial primacy and the books themselves, which are overwhelmingly male-dominated. For a known male character to roam around a story while having tons of (heterosexual) sex I'd have to invent most of their potential partners. I found that less satisfying than using the existing cast. (I suppose this also partially explains why there's so much slash fiction set in Tolkien's universe.) For example, a story about Éomer (assuming he's straight) set within the timeframe of the novel has only one available Tolkien-identified female character for much of the narrative: his sister. On the other hand, his sister encounters a vast array of potential partners as she moves around the geography and through the timeline.
Once that choice was made and I'd selected Éowyn as the most potentially interesting among the options (Ref. the blog entry entitled "Who wants to be a Shieldmaiden, anyway?"), the next question was of character…her character. Who was she, who is she, and who will she become? It may be hard to see right now, given the rather relentless descent into darkness that is The Cage, but I greatly prefer female characters with 1) a robust sexuality, 2) over which they have total agency. That said, I find the journey to that endpoint vastly more fertile storytelling ground than starting at the end, so to speak, and so we begin with an Éowyn who believes she has neither, despite a fair number of people telling her otherwise.
I've never been much of an outliner, even when writing professionally, but I knew I'd need one for a story of this length and complexity. I started with a completely open-ended conception and began scribbling ideas for scenes…potential partners, specific acts, and so forth…with an eye on the end goal but not yet having any firm plan regarding how I'd get there.
The basic narrative hinges of the first half of the story came together fairly quickly, in part because Tolkien's novel doesn't leave a lot of temporal freedom between the moment we meet Éowyn at Edoras and the moment she wakes up in Minas Tirith. As a rule, we know where she is and who she's with most of that time. In The Cage, those hinges are 1) Éowyn's relationship to Wormtongue, 2) the conclusion of that story, 3) falling in "love" with Aragorn, 4) the partial resolution of that story as they part ways at Dunharrow, and 5) how all those factors inform her desperate ride to Gondor and battle. Thus, what I needed to write was how her sexual journey fit into those major narrative beats.
In many ways, the entire structure of The Cage was determined by the very first choice: whether or not to make her relationship with Wormtongue a sexual one, whether or not that relationship would be (as described in The Lord of the Rings) unidirectional - there's obviously no question regarding his sexual interest in her - or bidirectional, and if the latter what form that would take. The novel also suggests she's a virgin, through constant association with the color white and by referring to her as a Shieldmaiden. Writing Éowyn and Wormtongue into a sexual relationship meant that her first experiences with sexuality would be with a thoroughly evil partner who manipulates and (at least at the start) controls her, and that's a pretty dark beginning. I knew I didn't want to drag it out too long, but I felt it had to be told…because rather than simply igniting her sexual journey it set it ablaze with a narrative flamethrower.
So I had to make that choice count, and I'm fairly proud of what I came up with over those early chapters. Even though their first three encounters are to one extent or another against her will, in the end she succumbs. Starting a story with scenes that are by any ethical definition sexual assault wasn't the easiest or more enjoyable thing to do, but ultimately I thought it truest to both characters. Because I didn't want to write the same scene over and over, I had to come up with different ways for him to violate her consent. His powers of manipulation were already canon, and physical restraints were an obvious alternative, but then I hit upon the notion of a magical alteration to her libido (described in chapter 2). This relieved me of a limitation that I'd not previously figured out how to evade: justifying an increasingly sex-obsessed Éowyn when the story introduces her as a virgin and immediately treats her to a series of unpleasant encounters with someone she quite justifiably loathes.
But that's not why I'm proudest of those chapters. I ended with Éowyn in the physical, emotional, and mental state I needed to move the story forward, but along the way I was able to give her a major (and heretofore unseen) hand in the downfall of her assailant…one which I most definitely think she deserved after what she'd been through…that doesn't contradict the existing narrative. I also invested Wormtongue with the dangerous manipulative power the novel intimates, but which is utterly belied by the craven traitor so easily defeated by Gandalf and seen in even worse straits thereafter. Finally, I built a stronger foundation for a desperate and disobedient character who latches onto Aragorn out of nowhere, repeatedly defies her King's explicit orders, blithely abandons her responsibility to her people, and willingly rides (with an even more vulnerable Hobbit) to near-certain death.
In other words, adding a sexual component to Éowyn's backstory justifies her known behavior in a way that the published novel doesn't quite manage. Since Tolkien took a lot of narrative importance away from her character in the journey from first draft to finished product (especially regarding her relationship with Aragorn), I felt confident adding it back. With a lot more nudity.
The second question to confront was just how far she'd go in her vain pursuit of Aragorn. When I began writing I didn't know if I'd let them have fully consummated sex or not, and my outline dithered on this point for a long while. In the end, I decided that even if they were going to have mutually consensual sex it couldn't be at Dunharrow, for the way he rejects her before he takes the Paths of the Dead wouldn't make sense if they did.
The use of Wormtongue's vial and its will-suppressing powder on Aragorn in chapter 12 (and also Gréor, and the young recruits in chapters 10 and 11) didn't arise from the introduction of the vial itself. In the beginning the vial and its secret were mostly a MacGuffin to justify keeping Éowyn close to Wormtongue in ways that would imperil her, sexually and otherwise. Once it existed, however, it became the obvious way to make a sexual advance on Aragorn without him immediately waking up, and also how to hide her dalliance with the trainees without the whole camp hearing about it by the next morning. That it paralleled the growing darkness of Éowyn's sexuality - a sexuality meant to "feel" more and more like Wormtongue's - was a welcome side-effect.
After that, it was just a matter of filling in the blanks. Despite the largely negative sexuality in which Éowyn is often engaged in The Cage, I didn't want all her "firsts" to be inextricably bound up with coercion and evil. That's why Elfi and Théo enter the picture in chapters 8 and 9, and in fact those are my favorite chapters so far.
Or: in the novel it's clear Elfhelm knows who Merry is on the ride to Gondor, given their brief conversation. But why wouldn't he question the Hobbit's presence? And the worthy Marshal would surely know the names of his soldiers, so how could the mysterious Dernhelm pass without comment? Given Éowyn's growing predilection for solving her problems with sex, their "relationship" was an entirely obvious fix to what I see as a small narrative hole in The Lord of the Rings
How to introduce Éowyn to a broad range of unfamiliar sexual activity without breaking what I've already noted is a highly inflexible temporal and geographic structure was, at first, difficult to see. She can't actually be nipping off to secret orgies whenever she has a free hour, nor did I want every single one of her formative encounters to be a variation on the teacher-student scenario. Wormtongue breaks a lot of new and unexpected ground in chapters 4-6, but after that a great deal of her sexual education is introduced via manipulated or constructed reality. Magic in various forms plays a role from the beginning, but especially in chapters 10-13. (What Elladan and Elrohir did to her in chapter 13 remains, for now, deliberately vague.) Dreams do the rest of the work in chapters 14-17 and from 24 onward.
In the end - and this is the accomplishment of which I'm most proud, as it was intended from the beginning - all of Éowyn's sexual encounters serve to advance not only her sexuality, but her overall growth as a character. I'm quite happy with the character work that the sexual encounters accomplish, both singly and in toto. Some of the sex is indeed gratuitous, but much of it isn't. Taken as a whole it's turning Éowyn into the person she's going to become.
There's the good. What about the bad?
There's only one specific chapter which which I remain entirely displeased and that's chapter 10, which received more top-to-bottom rewritings and edits than any other chapter in the book. After all that work I still don't think it accomplished what I wanted: setting up a non-sexual analogy for the sexual "lesson" the next chapter was to impart. Or perhaps it's just that I suck at describing hand-to-hand combat.
I also think the chapters from 24 to the end are, taken together (originally they were a single 90,000-word chapter on my hard drive) too long and too much. BDSM elements were always intended for this story, entering the narrative way back in chapters 3-6 and recurring with some regularity, but I came to the end of The Cage with a lot more ideas than I needed to put on the page all at once.
About halfway through I felt that her treatment had grown brutal beyond my ability to derive sufficient corollary enjoyment (or at least interest) in it, and so I was compelled to add what one correspondent later called "breather" interludes to break up the otherwise relentless abuse. As a result, what was originally meant to be a shocking window into the deeply damaged state of Éowyn's sexuality became a slog though a book-length menu of arbitrarily completist nonconsensuality with equally unlikely interstitials. It ended the way I wanted it to, and still showed the character the things I wanted it to show her, but it took too long to get to that end.
All that said, I'm looking forward to Book 2. It's not quite the wild rollercoaster of discovery and dissolution that the first is, but it covers more meaningful ground and there are some major surprises along the way. Most importantly, I think it's significantly better.
Thanks for reading!
...by which I mean the end of Éowyn, Book 1: The Cage. In terms of publication I'd guess about nine more chapters, but at the original writing everything from Chapter 24 onward was one very, very, very long chapter; one which I've decided to split up into more digestible parts.
I felt it for the best, as the content of these final chapters isn't going to be particularly easy to digest. The content warnings in the headnotes are to be taken seriously; the book ends in an extremely harsh and decidedly unpleasant fashion for the title character.
Knowing what "happened" in these chapters is necessary to understand a lot of what Éowyn will struggle with in Book 2. But I certainly understand if some readers feel the need to step away before the end of Book 1. Sometime after I've published the final chapter of Book 1 I'll write a recap of the essentials here in the blog, just so no one needs to be completely lost when Book 2 begins.
For those already unsure what's going on (though I feel the introduction makes it fairly obvious), there's a clue/Easter egg in Chapter 25 that will give it away for readers familiar with Tolkien's posthumously published writing. Everyone else could just use Google if and when they see it, but to be honest I think it's more rewarding to wait for the reveal in the final chapter. And if that still doesn't make it clear, the Easter egg itself will be explained in the first chapter of the next book.
The current chapter of my ongoing serial (chapter 18) finishes with a dream in which there's nonconsensual sex. This is something that will happen again in the fairly near future, but in a much more extreme way and with a lot more violence and horror attached. (It, too, will be a dream.)
As with the "there's no incest but two characters are certainly thinking about it" chapter a little while back, I struggle with how to best issue useful warnings about this sort of content without suggesting that the overall story is something it isn't.
I put it to the readers: how do you prefer to see this handled? I see three primary options:
1) Tag the whole story, which is what I think most authors do.
2) What I'm doing now, which is putting warnings in the headers of specific chapters but reserving overall serial tags/codes for things that are generally pervasive in the story. This is a solution I prefer to the first for several reasons, one of which is that I think that certain tags - and non-con/rape/violence are among them - are as much for people who are specifically looking for that sort of content as they are for people who want to avoid them. My story won't satisfy the former, but the majority of it can still be enjoyed by the latter, and putting warnings on individual chapters can help them avoid those they'll probably want to give a miss.
3) Proceed with the second option, but add an "alternative" chapter that runs down the significant events of difficult stretches without actually depicting the controversial content. I feel like this probably needs to happen, because my main character's state of mind will be profoundly affected by these events and they'll be referred to time and time again in Book 2. Not knowing what happened in her "dream" will make a lot of Éowyn's struggles in the second book inexplicable.
My gut tells me I should choose the third option. But what say you?