NOV / DEC 2012: BY HANNAH KINGSLEY
In The Lord of the Rings, its author J.R.R. Tolkien constructs many relationships where characters are paired to be mutually dependent on each other for encouragement, strength, and the courage to face unbearable odds. Sam and Frodo are one popular example of this bond between “brothers,” another being Merry and Pippin. Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas enter a “brotherhood” that proves beneficial in battle and in peace time. But these aren’t the only pairings: Arwen and Aragorn are also a significant “couple.” Their bond may be less brotherly and more along romantic lines, but there are still parallels that can be drawn in the way their lives intersect and impact one another.
Arwen is a member of the High Elves, while Aragorn is a the Ranger and rightful heir of two thrones. The Elves are immortal and do not die unless they are killed by another. Most of the Elves depart for Valinor, across the sea, as their time in Middle-earth passes away, but she chooses to remain behind, to marry a mortal.
Tolkien portrays Arwen as romantic and ethereal, but also as strong and queenly. It’s a curious matter that such an independent woman could be compelled to give up the gift of immortality for the one she loved. In the film, there’s a dialogue that takes place between the two. Arwen tells Aragorn she chooses a mortal life because she desires to live it beside him. When he protests that she can’t do that, much less gift him with the Evenstar, which represents her life-force, she responds, “It is mine to give to whom I will. Like my heart.” Some might see the Arwen of the books as a character that exists to support other characters, both as the love interest, and perhaps a useful, hopeful image, yet this meaningful dialogue suggests Arwen is more than just a prop for storytelling. Instead, she exhibits the same self-sacrificing spirit of many other figures in Tolkien’s series; and while her battles may be less bloody, they are nonetheless powerful. They’re stories not of warfare and magic rings of power, but of the heart.
Arwen’s love is so pure, so selfless, that it enables the man she loves to become worthy of it. To justify her sacrifice, which she is determined to make with or without his approval, Aragorn must become the King of Gondor. Her faith in him brings out the best in him. In the films, Arwen is given much screen time devoted to exploring her sacrifice and carrying Frodo safely to the protection of the Elves in Rivendell. But mostly, hers is a love story, the love story of the story’s main hero.
An important differentiation between Arwen and other female romantic protagonists is she doesn’t “pine” after the one she loves in an obsessive and manic sense, as so many modern fictional heroines do today. Instead, her love is one of choice and it costs her dearly. While she waits for the one she loves to return from battle, her life is not put on hold, but she spends it wisely in aiding her friends. She also seeks to support Aragorn, by encouraging his claim of becoming king. Later, she lives alongside him as queen, her confidence ultimately well-placed that he would fulfill her expectations and successfully claim his rightful throne.
In the books, Arwen’s side of the story is hinted at but never fleshed out, even in the love story Tolkien wrote for them in the Appendices of The Lord of the Rings. Even there, the story is much more about her eventual husband, and her Elf Lord father’s concerns over their future marriage. What we don’t read is the struggle she experienced to give up a gift as great as immortality for love, against the desires of her father and the expectations of her people. Yet, it could be said that the success of Gondor rests greater on her shoulders than is recognized. Arwen shows us that true, selfless love provides motivation for others to become worthy. Arwen knows well the choice and determination love requires, and is willing to give up her greatest strength in order to make the one she loves strong. Hidden in her story is the message that without the support of a queen, a king is weakened and in turn, the kingdom suffers. Arwen makes up a part of Aragorn’s strength, even as he makes up a part of her courage. They’re a pair because their mutual love builds up the other person.
No can explain what encourages that kind of selfless love, but it brings to mind a quote from an even greater life story, which says, there is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Frequently it’s the soldier who teaches us to value another over one’s own life, but Tolkien shows us through the gentle and just as stubborn-willed Arwen Undómiel that an Elven “noble maiden” can display an influence and love stronger than any sword. ■