A friend sent me a text one morning, before the children were up, after my eggs and toast and coffee had been made and eaten but not cleaned up after, with this question: is homemaking archaic, or does it have value?
I answered yes and yes. It’s archaic because we’ve both intentionally and unintentionally made it obsolete (by destroying the two things that make up the term–the home and making–rendering them both disconnected and useless); but it is valuable, whether we as a society will recognize it or not.
Is the home valuable? What is the message of the home? Why does it exist? Why make one? Why make one? Why must it be made? Can’t it make itself?
I want to work through my thoughts on this topic. It will probably take more than one post–and I will try this time (I really will) to finish the posts and thus present a complete and coherent thought. I want to apologize in advance for referencing works while assuming you, my reader, are familiar with them; it would take too much space to explain everything thoroughly.
Destroying the home (An Example from Tolkien)
I recently re-read The Lord of the Rings (for the first time since college) and–for some reason or another–paid special attention to the character of Eowyn, shieldmaiden of Rohan. She’s described by both Aragorn and later by Legolas as “cold”, not quite a woman (though she is twenty-four at the time of The War of the Ring). She is brave; she is the best known for that courage.
The modern reading I typically see is this: Eowyn was too brave to be “stuck at home.” She had things to do, other skills to offer, other desires than to be a caretaker and nurturer. She is juxtaposed favorably against the other, “weaker” female characters of the series: Galadriel, Arwen, and Rosie Cotton, all of whom do nothing but “stay at home” and do arbitrary things like weave or embroider or things, while the men are off saving the world from the Dark Lord.
It’s rather unfortunate, then (they say), that at the end, after Eowyn’s heroic ride into battle against the wishes of her uncle the King (and her slaying of the Witch-King as a result) that her “happy ending” is to actually end up the thing she purportedly despised; that is, being “just” a wife (and eventually a mother.) What on Earth was Tolkien thinking?
Please excuse me while I say something potentially offensive. I think this reading of Eowyn’s conflict and choices resonates so nicely with the modern woman because we are also brave, yet (forgive me) cold and not quite women. We are thus because we do not understand the home and its purpose, or what it represents. (Even now you’ve probably misunderstood me. Feel free to jump down to the bottom of this post, to “An Important Distinction”, then come back.)
the shieldmaiden in despair
Later on in the novel, the wizard Gandalf does a bit of explaining of Eowyn’s situation for us. Yes, Eowyn was brave, yes, she was in a sense limited by her womanhood, but this is not the entirety of her story. It seems so on the surface, but like the distant icebergs we like to reference from time to time, there was much to the tale than simply bravery mismatched to the role she was assigned as a female. Eowyn was charged with caring for the King, who was little by little being hollowed out by the whispers of a false advisor. Eowyn, Gandalf says, was swayed by the very poisoned words of Saruman through Wormtongue that had so desperately crippled King Theoden.
“What is the house of Eorl but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek and brats roll on the floor with the dogs?”
Eowyn was brave. But she wasn’t motivated to the battle by her bravery or the thought that she could somehow turn the tide or play a part in winning the war. She was motivated by despair, in the unshakeable belief that they were going to lose the war, and unbridled contempt for the house of Rohan (that she was charged with guarding in the King’s absence) and the gnawing fear that she was becoming obsolete.
“But who knows what she spoke to the darkness, alone, in the bitter watches of the night, when all her life seemed shrinking, and the walls of her bower closing in about her, a hutch to trammel some wild thing in?”
Eowyn is called cold, not because the warriors that name her thus are threatened by her bravery and prowess as a shieldmaiden, but because she is without hope. What I am not sure of is this: did she come to be without hope by despising her home and the people in it, or did she first despise and then lose hope?
Hope, bravery, encouragement, preservation
When Eowyn approaches Aragorn as he leaves for the Paths of the Dead, begging to go with him, she does not do so in the hope of helping him achieve his goal. She believes that he is on a fool’s errand, that he will fail, and that in his failing Rohan will be destroyed, and she would rather die with him than be left behind.
Now, I am not a man. But I have been married to one for thirteen years. I may not know much, but I know that “let me come with you because you’re going to fail” is not very encouraging for anyone, let alone a man who is heading off on a desperate mission, not to stroke his own ego or make himself feel brave, but because he believes what he fights to preserve is worth the risk to his life. To be sure, there have been men who set out to war for those aforementioned reasons. But that is not the story here.
And I thought of Arwen (betrothed to Aragorn), who has (according to her critics) been just “sitting at home”, for years–you know, making the royal standard for Aragorn to bear when he reveals himself as the rightful king and reclaims his throne. With her own hands. In hope.
Which woman do you think you would like to have in your proverbial corner?
what is the home?
Now, I have been thinking very hard about this. Because I myself am one of those “stay-at-homes”, and it would be simple for me to give honor to my own place just to make myself feel better. I do not want to do that. I think there is something deep below the surface that needs to be unearthed, and this is why: because I would like to say that things would be the same if, say, Arwen had come along for the ride. If she had put on armor and a sword and gone into battle like the men did, but in hope, not despair. But I am not sure that is possible. I am not sure this gesture can be made without abdicating something intensely important. I will try to work through that in my next post.
I will, however, say this: in real life, I have just sent my children out to play. It is autumn; it is slightly cold. They were not exactly keen on heading out. But they’ve gone down to Humbebelly Pond, and I’ve told them there will be hot chocolate when I call them back, to warm them. I’ve got a fire going. The Ham House is cozy and warm. There is comfort in venturing forth and knowing something awaits you, particularly when you’re doing something that is uncomfortable. This is only a shadow, a frail example. But I’m talking about things much deeper than just comforts on a cold day.
What is the home? Of what value is the Keeper of the Home? The home is Hope. Of what value is the Keeper of Hope? No other place has so much influence, so much joy and blessing to bring when well-kept, so much damage to inflict when neglected. When we resent and reject the Home, we are steeping ourselves in despair. We become cold.
an important distinction
I find it necessary to say here that one can dedicate her life entirely to being in the home and still be steeped in despair. This is not a false dichotomy of those who “stay” home and those who do not. The problem is one of perspective, not of location. I had the unfortunate experience of once going out with a group of women who had devoted their time to staying home and educating their children there. And every one couched her presence at that dinner in terms of escape and a break and a breath of fresh air. I went home with the resolve never to come back; not because I found myself so different from them, but because I felt my own spirit weighed with the lure of viewing Home as a cage. The wisest of women builds her house, but Folly with her own hands tears it down.
I mentioned before that Eowyn’s thoughts were poisoned by Wormtongue, and it is implied that for his efforts against Theoden on Saruman’s behalf, he would have been given Eowyn as a reward. I hope the thought of that makes you shudder as much as it does me. The snare he set for her was unspeakably evil. Wormtongue, however, was Man, but the enemy that lures us is not; and as Lewis often reminds us, the more powerful the being, the greater capacity for evil when he falls. Remember that there is enmity between the serpent and woman.
Speaking of Lewis, it’s his work and a sentence I had trouble reading aloud to my children that I will visit next, in part two.