I know why the caged birds sing

Whenever he permits it, I read to my twelve-year-old son at bedtime.  We have recently been reading Tolkien. In the following passage, Lady Éowyn comes to Aragorn in his quarters to make her case for accompanying him on the Paths of the Dead, and into the battle which lies beyond.  I read:

‘Lord,’ she said, ‘ if you must go, then let me ride in your following.  For I am weary of skulking in the hills, and wish to face peril and battle.’

‘Your duty is with your people,’ he answered.

‘Too often have I heard of duty,’ she cried. ‘But am I not of the House of Eorl, a shieldmaiden and not a dry nurse?  I have waited on faltering feet long enough.  Since they falter no longer, it seems, may I not now spend my life as I will?’

‘Few may do that with honour,’ he answered. ‘But as for you, lady: did you not accept the charge to govern the people until their lord’s return? If you had not chosen then some marshal or captain would have been set in the same place, and he could not ride away from his charge were he weary of it or no.’

‘Shall I always be chosen?’ she said bitterly.  ‘Shall I always be left behind when the Riders depart, to mind the house while they win renown, and find food and beds when they return?’

‘A time may come soon,’ said he, ‘when none will return.  Then there will be need of valour without renown, for none shall remember the deeds that are done in the last defense of your homes.  Yet the deeds will not be less valiant because they are unpraised.’

And she answered: ‘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.’*

My voice cracked as I read.

“Mom, are you going to cry?” my son asked.

I might.  I just might, because I know why the caged birds sing.  I know it especially in moments shared with Tolkien and a well-loved son.


*Excerpted from The Return of the King, the final book of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

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