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Arwen's True Role in The Lord of the Rings
Arwen Undómiel, Evenstar and Kingmaker
Arwen Undómiel, Aragorn's true love in The Lord of the Rings, plays a very different role in the books versus the films.
Peter Jackson's movies attempt to present her as a strong female character, updated to suit modern sensibilities. Yet she gradually weakens and becomes hostage to her father's and lover's conflicting wishes, and (in a strange departure from the books) a target and victim of Sauron's malice.
Although she does not figure in much of Tolkien's story, Arwen in the books is a subtle, powerful figure. Far from being a passive damsel in distress, she is as an active though distant partner in Aragorn's quest.
This lens focuses on the role of Arwen in The Lord of the Rings, and how she helps transform Aragorn from potential into actual king.
(Right: Arwen Undómiel played by Liv Tyler in Peter Jackson's movie dramatization of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings)
The Many Faces of Arwen in the Lord of the Rings Films - Arwen Undómiel, Arwen Evenstar, Arwen...Warrior Princess?!
The films force Arwen into various un-Tolkien roles:
(1) warrior princess, (2) strong-willed girlfriend serving as reluctant hero's cattle prod, (3) sexy Greek goddess, (4) powerful elf-witch whose magic reaches great distances, (5) rebellious daughter, (6) helpless Sleeping Beauty / Snow White figure, and (7) giggling, blushing bride.
I find #6 puzzling. Most of the films' changes to Arwen's character are, apparently, meant to suit our modern preference for strong female characters. Why, then, introduce the idea of her as a swooning female, or that Sauron can somehow target people from afar? If he could do that, surely he would rather knock the pins out from under Aragorn, Galadriel, or even Gandalf!
I realize that the scarcity of Arwen-scenes in The Lord of the Rings presents a challenge for movie adaptations. But the BBC radio play shows Tolkien's Arwen could have been portrayed to modern audiences without coming off as a passive wimp.
In fact, Movie Arwen #4, despite the addition of extraordinary magical powers greater than Galadriel's, is a plausible cinematic exaggeration of the original character: "when Aragorn was abroad, from afar she watched over him in thought" (Appendices, ROTK). Nor is Movie Arwen #3 too far a stretch, in Hollywood terms; she was supposed to be stunningly beautiful. So Tolkien's Arwen UndÃ³miel is represented among Movie Arwen's many faces, but tends to get lost among Jackson's inventions.
Arwen, The Lady of Rivendell:
A Figure of Inspiration to Her Knight
Arwen was not written into The Lord of the Rings until quite late, first popping up in a scribbled addition as the creator of Aragorn's banner when he arrives at Minas Tirith on the Black Ships. So Arwen cannot make a big impact on the story's plot; it existed before she did. Tolkien has to sneak her into the earlier chapters using cameos. Yet I believe Arwen steps into a role prepared for her, just as Faramir does, even though Tolkien seems not to have planned either of them.
Arwen, the living image of Lóhien, bestows an aura of mythological greatness on Aragorn. In Greek mythology, she would be his patron goddess; in Authurian or medieval courtly mythology, she would be his Lady or Queen, or even the Virgin Mary. The banner Arwen weaves for Aragorn and the jewel* she bequeaths to him are like the "favors" a medieval lady bestows upon her chosen knight to bless his quest, just as Galadriel anoints Gimli as her "Lockbearer."
Arwen is Aragorn's longed-for prize at the end of his quest. In the Appendices we learn that Elrond did not forbid their union, when he learned of their love. He simply sets a high bar for Aragorn to prove himself worthy of her:
"My son, years come when hope will fade, and beyond them little is clear to me. And now a shadow lies between us. Maybe, it has been appointed so, that by my loss the kingship of Men may be restored. Therefore, though I love you, I say to you: Arwen Undómiel shall not diminish her life's grace for less cause. She shall not be the bride of any Man less than the King of both Gondor and Arnor. To me then even our victory can bring only sorrow and parting -- but to you hope of joy for a while. For a while. Alas, my son! I fear that to Arwen the Doom of Men may seem hard at the ending."
("The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen," Appendices, The Return of the King)
This passage sets in motion -- or rather summarizes, since it's tucked away in the appendices -- a theme of unresolved tension for Aragorn throughout the story. Tolkien's Aragorn is not plagued by self-doubts, although he realizes the enormity of his task. Instead, he suffers the familiar plight of the knight errant, yearning for his absent love while pursuing his lonely quest: partly for the sake of the realm, partly to achieve his own destiny, but also, significantly, to win his Lady's hand.
Aragorn seldom alludes to his longing for Arwen, yet those few remarks show how Arwen's absence is a powerful presence during his journey. When pressed by Éowyn, he discreetly turns her aside with a rare admission: "Were I to go where my heart dwells, far in the North I would now be wandering in the fair valley of Rivendell." Similarly, Aragorn's reaction when the Rangers bring him Arwen's gift, a kingly banner, speaks louder than words:
And Aragorn said: 'Now I know what you bear. Bear it still for me a while!' And he turned and looked away to the North under the great stars, and then he fell silent and spoke no more while the night's journey lasted.
("The Passing of the Grey Company," The Return of the King)
There is something about Arwen in The Lord of the Rings that makes Tolkien and Aragorn reluctant to speak of her, as if she were some sacred mystery whose magic might be lost were she a matter for everyday conversation. Even at the end of Return of the King, Aragorn avoids telling his friends when Arwen is on her way to their wedding, first because Aragorn is afraid of jinxing his hopes by naming them, but secondly, as Gandalf says, "those who have laboured to prepare the feast like to keep their secret; for wonder makes the words of praise louder." Notice that the winning of Arwen is a matter of wonder and praise, above and beyond all else Aragorn has achieved!
Arwen does not come to Aragorn's coronation, since the books have more leisure to unfold the tale. Instead, Aragorn reveals to Gandalf that he is anxiously waiting for her, because only then will he know the Return of the Bachelor (so to speak) is really the Return of the King. There can be no lasting Camelot without a (faithful) Guenevere.
When Aragorn finds a sapling of the dead White Tree, plants it, and sees it blossom, he knows the time has come. "'The sign has been given," said Aragorn, 'and the day is not far off.' And he set watchmen upon the walls." ("The Steward and the King," The Return of the King)
Anticipation and absence are once again inextricably connected with Arwen. That unresolved tension, a theme of the whole saga, is finally dissolved when Elrond arrives to deliver his daughter and the scepter of Arnor, signifying that Aragorn has won both lady and dominion.
Arwen's Otherworldly Aura
An Alchemical Presence
In the middle of the table, against the woven cloths upon the wall, there was a chair under a canopy, and there sat a lady fair to look upon, and so like was she in form of womanhood to Elrond that Frodo guessed that she was one of his close kindred. Young she was and yet not so. The braids of her dark hair were touched by no frost, her white arms and clear face were flawless and smooth, and the light of stars was in her bright eyes, grey as a cloudless night; yet queenly she looked, and thought and knowledge were in her glance, as of one who has known many things that the years bring. Above her brow her head was covered with a cap of silver lace netted with small gems, glittering white; but her soft grey raiment had no ornament save a girdle of leaves wrought in silver.
So it was that Frodo saw her whom few mortals had yet seen; Arwen, daughter of Elrond, in whom it was said that the likeness of Lóthien had come on earth again; and she was called UndÃ³miel, for she was the Evenstar of her people.
("Many Meetings," The Fellowship of the Ring)
Tolkien introduces Arwen with an awe-inspiring, almost numinous portrait. Frodo is smitten by her presence, and transmits his awe to the readers. It is hard for those who have read Tolkien all our lives to remember, but apart from Goldberry, Arwen is usually the first of the recurring "Ladies of Light" figures we encounter: Galadriel, Lóthien and Melian are other examples.
Looking closely, we find something very odd about Arwen's effect on Aragorn.
Shortly after Biblo speaks of Arwen in the "Many Meetings" chapter, we see Aragorn visibly transformed into a prophetic vision of what he will become:
Near him sat the Lady Arwen. To his surprise Frodo saw that Aragorn stood beside her; his dark cloak was thrown back, and he seemed to be clad in elven-mail, and a star shone on his breast.
("Many Meetings," The Fellowship of the Ring)
Two things come out of this image: the idea of kingly-Aragorn appearing when he is with Arwen, and the star on his breast. Not the Elessar, the stone she will later send him, but a harbinger of it. Arwen is not an Elf-witch who can somehow heal Aragorn from afar, but at close range, her power to make him appear as he truly is-- the king beneath Ranger's battered garb-- is clear.
In Lórien we see a similar metamorphosis:
For the grim years were removed from the face of Aragorn, and he seemed clothed in white, a young lord tall and fair; and he spoke words in the Elvish tongue to one whom Frodo could not see. Arwen vanimelda, namarië! he said, and then he drew a breath, and returning out of his thought he looked at Frodo and smiled.
'Here is the heart of Elvendom on earth,' he said, 'and here my heart dwells ever, unless there be a light beyond the dark roads that we still must tread, you and I. Come with me!' And taking Frodo's hand in his, he left the hill of Cerin Amroth and came there never again as living man.
("Lothlórien" The Fellowship of the Ring)
Even allowing for Tolkien's magical prose, he seems to imply an alchemical transformation, stripping years away from Aragorn yet simultaneously showing the great lord he may become. I do not use the term alchemy casually. Central to alchemy is the concept of coniunctio, the divine marriage between King or Queen or (metaphorically) union of opposites, through which the soul is purified and the hidden gold of its inner being comes to light. All that is gold does not glitter - until, that is, "a light from the darkness shall spring." That light is not Aragorn's only.
Lest I ascribe too much alchemical mojo to Arwen, I should acknowledge that we see Aragorn undergo a similar transformation twice when she is not present, even in memory: before the Gates of the Argonath, beneath the statues of the Kings Aragorn hopes to succeed, and when he reveals himself to Éomer and names himself the Heir of Kings.
Nonetheless, I think the Cerin Amroth scene is full of mystical import for the character of Aragorn. I see mythical echoes of Avalon, where the priestess anoints the king. There is little reason for the party to stop at Cerin Amroth before going on, except to remind us of Aragorn's strong connection to Arwen, to show us that she is his source of inner inspiration, and maybe -- if one recalls that Cerin Amroth is where Arwen goes to die after she loses him -- to give us some hope that they will be reunited after death, in the place where "he came...never again as a living man."
The Family Tree of Arwen Evenstar
Arwen Evenstar, Kingmaker - Long-Distance Campaign Manager?
"But wait," you may be saying by now. "Your Arwen--or Tolkien's Arwen-- exists simply in terms of Aragorn, seen through his eyes and as a vessel through which he is transformed. There's nothing about Arwen as a person here! She's just Aragorn's stepping stone! How is that less sexist than Peter Jackson's swooning damsel?"
No, Arwen does not get out and save her man or share in his dangerous quest as Lóthien does. Yet she is not simply a gift-wrapped prize parked in a box on a shelf until Aragorn wins her.
Arwen Undómiel chooses Lóthien's fate. It is hard for mere mortals to fathom this choice, but imagine, if you will, choosing to die within a month, in order to spend that month with a loved one. Or maybe -- three days? Inconceivable.
More importantly, Arwen does not simply help Aragorn's transformation by inspiring him or anointing him with her mystical aura. She takes his fate into her hands, literally-- not only when he gives her the Ring of Barahir (and of Beren) as an engagement Ring!
Arwen weaves Aragorn a kingly banner, a labor that grows while he is off laboring to win the kingship. The banner shows her faith in him: estel, which also means "hope," one of the more nuanced words in Tolkien's Elven tongue. (No surprise that Estel is the private name she uses for him, out of all his many names, although she hails him Elfstone when sending the banner.) The banner is also a means for achieving that hope. Aragorn first unfurls the banner at Erech, to proclaim to the Dead that he is who he says he is; their aid is crucial to his quest. He unfurls it again at Minas Tirith, inspiring the beleaguered city with hope while staking his claim to it. The banner flies too when Aragorn leads the Host of the West to the Black Gate. How the people of Minas Tirth long to see it flying from their topmost spire! It is potent propaganda tool, and Arwen put all her Elvish art into its making.
Her other gift to Aragorn seems even more calculated. The Elessar -- setting aside the confusing story that there may have been two of them -- belonged first to Arwen's ancestor Idril, a prophetess of no small ability, who passed it to her son (Elrond's father) Ãarendil. It was used for hope and healing in the final dark days of the First Age, just as it is used at the end of the Third. That stone -- or a later copy, according to some tales --came into Galadriel's hands, and she wielded it as she would later wield the Elven-ring, for healing and preservation. After she acquired Nenya, she passed it to her daughter Celebrían, and she to her daughter Arwen.
So much for the Elessar's history. Yet one more thing must be added: there was some prophecy that Aragorn might reign as Elessar. He must know that his fate and the stone are bound up in some fashion. In Rivendell, when Bilbo seeks his help to compose a poem about Eärendil, Aragorn is adamant that the Elessar (a green stone) be mentioned.
Yet he had no idea that the stone was waiting for him in Lothlórien:
'Maybe this will lighten your heart,' said Galadriel; 'for it was left in my care to be given to you, should you pass through this land.' Then she lifted from her lap a great stone of a clear green, set in a silver brooch that was wrought in the likeness of an eagle with outspread wings; and as she held it up the gem flashed like the sun shining through leaves of spring. 'This stone I gave to Celebrían my daughter, and she to hers; and now it comes to you as a token of hope. In this hour take the name that was foretold for you, Elessar, the Elfstone of the house of Elendil!'
'Then Aragorn took the stone and pinned the brooch upon his breast, and those who saw him wondered; for they had not marked before how tall and kingly he stood, and it seemed to them that many years of toil had fallen from his shoulders. 'For the gifts that you have given me I thank you,' he said, 'O Lady of Lórien of whom were sprung Celebrían and Arwen Evenstar. What praise could I say more?'
("Farwell to Lórien," The Fellowship of the Ring)
Once again, Aragorn seems for a moment a kingly figure. And that will be the stone's function. He uses it (perhaps) to boost his healing, the night after the siege of Minas Tirith is lifted, when he goes into the city in disguise to tend the wounded and those dying of the Black Breath. But something else happens then:
And word went through the City: 'The King is come again indeed.' And they named him Elfstone, because of the green stone that he wore, and so the name which it was foretold at his birth that he should bear was chosen for him by his own people.
("The Houses of Healing," The Return of the King)
Clever Arwen! Andúril is impressive, but it's hard to prove it is the Sword that Was Broken. The King's banner -- oh, it could be a forgery too, but its visual impact at key moments certainly helps makes Aragorn's case. Yet Arwen takes no chances. She knows the prophecy of Aragorn's birth. She sends the Elfstone to him to take to Minas Tirith, to help ensure the prophecy comes true. The banner and Elessar serve vital, perhaps crucial, functions in making Aragorn king. Denethor thought Gandalf was pulling the puppet-strings of an "upstart Ranger" who meant to seek the throne; he did not realize an Elf was manipulating his subjects on Aragorn's behalf.
In conclusion, Arwen is no Lóthien, nor a warrior princess. Yet her political acumen is that of an Eleanor of Aquitaine. I somehow doubt she will be a mere figurehead, when she becomes Queen of Elves and Men.
For Further Information and Discussion... - ...visit the Lore Forums of The Lord of the Rings Fanatics Plaza!
I hope I've given you a taste of how a careful study of Arwen in The Lord of the Rings books can give you a richer understanding of the story and one character. For even more insights into Arwen, stop by these two threads:
- Arwen Undómiel the Kingmaker: Discussion
Here's where I posted this article in our Lore Forums. Some of the feedback and comments I received from other members are illuminating!
- Arwen Undómiel: Post by halfir
A Tolkien scholar's study of Arwen Evenstar. Fascinating stuff here, especially in part 5 (he broke it into short posts) about the significance of Arwen and Aragorn's wedding on Midsummer's Eve.
If you like to discuss this topic in more depth, I invite you to drop by the Plaza (link just above). But if you'd rather simply make a quick comment, feel free!