Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Problem of Arwen

Photo: New Line Cinema "The Return of the King"

Arwen is a difficult character. She stays in the shadows in the books, and her film adaptation is contested among fans (for both adaptive and storytelling reasons). However, there is a lot about her that I've come to appreciate over the years, and I thought it'd be worth a blog post.

First, let's go to the source. I've reread the books numerous times over the years, most recently in the past week. They've had a huge shaping effect on me as a writer, creator, and person, and there is very little about them that I don't love (or at least appreciate). Although the Fellowship itself contains no female characters, overall I have always felt that Tolkien's world boasts some of the strongest women and role models in fiction. Luthien is just the best, Galadriel rocks, Eowyn has a tremendously relatable story, and other characters like Idril, Gilraen, Melian, and Elwing are strong in the brief moments we see them .

 In fact, there's a hilarious but usually overlooked theme in Tolkien's work that men who don't listen to their wise wives end up regretting it. (*cough* Thingol *cough*).

However, Arwen...well, honestly there really isn't much about Arwen in the books. Although a huge point of inspiration and strength for Aragorn, she is seen doing almost nothing, even in the expanded backstory in the appendices.  Indeed, in the story proper we see her:
- look pretty,
- embroider a banner
- give a jewel to Frodo.*

 *I fund it rather ironic that the single scene where Arwen talks and takes action in the book never made it to film.

Our 'heroine' doesn't do that much more in the appendices. We again see her look pretty, walk in nature, visit her relatives, choose Aragorn over immortality, and then complain about the woes of the human fate.

We are never even told what personal qualities Arwen has that make her a desirable consort for Aragorn, other than her beauty and rareness (daughter of Elrond). She is not described as being wise (like her grandmother, Galadriel), or brave (like Eowyn) or strong-minded (like Rosie Cotton). Indeed, Arwen's biggest scene in the appendices is where she begs Aragorn to delay his passing--not because she will miss him, but because she herself is not ready to die. On a surface level, Arwen actually comes across as a complainer who just sits around and looks beautiful.

However, Tolkien clearly thought highly of Arwen, both because he considered her worthy of Aragorn and because he compared her to Luthien (a character he based on his own beloved wife). Therefore, the full picture of Arwen's character must be kinder than that which we immediately glean from the book.

I've spent the last week or so thinking over the facts that are apparent in the text, and here's what I've reasoned can be extrapolated from them.

Firstly, we know that Arwen is extremely faithful. She spends her time with either her father or her grandfather, and once she fell in love with Aragorn, she waited for him and seemed to have spend a lot of time stitching a banner for him. The banner might not seem a big deal to the casual reader, but Tolkien places a lot of emphasis on created works. Arwen herself is not a fighter, and it is neither safe nor appropriate for her to ride with her brothers in the Grey Company in ROTK. However her banner is a sign to her beloved that her thoughts are always with him, and she has faith in his strength and he has her love and trust. Furthermore, although never explicitly stated, given the heavy weight on the powers of Elvish craft and their natural magic, it is not impossible to believe that the banner has some manner of protective or inspirational powers woven into it.

Secondly, we know that Arwen is kind. She gives Frodo her place on her father's boat, knowing that he will need a rest beyond what Middle Earth can give him. She also gives him her white jeweled necklace--the only mention of a special Evenstar necklace of the sort that appears in the movie. In the book, of course, a green stone is given to Aragorn by Galadriel, and it is implied that this comes from Arwen. No wonder that they moved things around! The green stone has a lot of family significance for both Aragorn and Arwen, but there is no way they could begin to explain that in the film, so they simplified things by just having Arwen hand off a necklace herself. Which is, as stated, also a real piece of jewelry in the book, just given to Frodo rather than Aragorn.

Thirdly, we know that Arwen is said to be the likeness of Luthien come to earth again. For those who don't recall, Luthien was Arwen's great-grandmother, an Elf-princess of the Eldar days who wed a mortal man, Beren. The tale of Luthien and Beren is perhaps one of the best stories of "The Silmarillion", and Luthien is often given the better parts of the adventures than Beren! She has magic powers that let her do things like grow her hair super fast and make invisibility cloaks with it, and also sing songs of power. At one point, Luthien has a duel of singing magic with Sauron--and wins! Later, she disguises herself as a vampire bat and sneaks into the fortress of Morgoth where she sings a song that puts Morgoth and his whole court to sleep! And then she runs around in the wilderness with Beren for a long time living a rough life, before finally being allowed to take a human fate with him.

(In Tolkien's world, Elves get one afterlife, humans another. That's why an Elf choseing the human way is such a big deal - there is literally no guarantee or expectation that they will ever see their family again.)

Although LOTR only specifically likens Arwen to Luthien in a physical beauty sense, the courage, power and stubbornness of Luthien was also so well-known that I don't think it unreasonable to presume that Arwen also was courageous, powerful and stubborn. I don't know if Arwen taking on the role of Glorfindel's flight to the ford is something Tolkien would have approved of, given the given the requirements of modern Hollywood blockbuster financing, but if we take it as being a homage to Luthien, I think it was an appropriate substitution. It set Arwen up as being the equal to Aragorn, which was important in explaining so much of his character going forward, but it gave her the role of a protector rather than a fighter, which is better keeping in what we do know of her character than the planned Helm's Deep plotline.*

*Originally it was Arwen, not Haldir, who brought the Elves to Helm's Deep in the films.

The appendix story of Arwen and Aragorn focuses largely on Aragorn's part. Arwen's role in the story is to serve as an ideal, and to show the Elvish worldview on meeting death. Arwen admits that she judged mortals too harshly in the past, and now tastes the bitterness of death. For Tolkien, this is an important perspective to put in the story. Arwen is not human, and her expectations of life and the world are different than ours. However, it is striking that the mourning of her own passing takes greater precedence in the narrative than grief over Aragorn's passing. For many years this annoyed me, and I thought of Arwen as being a complainer. However, after much thought, I realize that the lack of grief over Aragorn is precisely because Arwen does not fear a separation from him. Her life force is tied to his, and she knows that after she is ready to leave her children, she will be able to rejoin Aragorn. She faces no separation from him. Whatever lies ahead for humans (and that is unknown in Middle Earth), they will face it together.

In the past, I found it weird that Arwen mourned losing her life on earth and thought it shallow of her. But, then, I know that Tolkien was a Catholic, and thus I know what he believed the afterlife for humans would be (since Middle Earth is supposed to be a mythology of our own world, lost in the mists of the past).

However, having read "The Silmarillion" directly prior to reading LOTR (I often read them out of order in the past), something new struck me. Arwen is an Elf, and the Elves do not die, but rather pass to a part of earth not accessible to humans (called Valinor). They are tied to life in this world in a way that a human could never be. Human lives are far more fleeting to them than those of rivers, trees, and mountains. The earth is their most constant companion. Arwen has lived many, many long years, and for her it has only been a brief time since she first encountered the idea that she might not spend the eternity of the world walking on it. She does not regret choosing Aragorn, but she has really not had that much time (comparatively, for her) to adjust to the reality of saying goodbye to the earth itself.

The film, of course, didn't really delve into any of this. We hear Elrond warning her that she will find grief in her choice, to the extent that she is ready to leave Aragorn behind. However, Arwen's choice is swayed by a vision of a child. It is an extremely poignant moment that shows a softness and beauty in Arwen's character and emotional journey, and brings tears to my eyes every time I watch it. And it's not unreasonable for Arwen to have such a vision; her father is, after all, known for his foresight, as is her grandmother. (Granted. They have rings of power. But still. Maybe Galadriel sent that vision. It'd be just like her...)

The focus on motherhood and hope is easier and more relatable to use as character development in a film with a human audience--even in the book Arwen's actions don't make sense without further backstory. Whether this tangent is actually accurate for the character of Arwen, I don't know. The film specifically frames it in the sense that Elrond has been deceiving Arwen in order to do what he thinks is best for her (and him) and this is not in line with any actions we ever see Elrond take in the book. So, perhaps it is a fair character expansion Arwen, but it really is a disservice to Elrond, based on the information that we have.

I do love movie Arwen. And I love the potential of book Arwen, particularly in relation to her extended family. I wish we'd gotten a few scenes from Tolkien giving us a look into Arwen's relationship with her brothers and grandparents--not to mention more canon Aragorn/Arwen! And, of course, now I'd love to know if I'm on the right track with my extrapolations from the text, or if he really did mean her to come across as someone who (sort of) felt bitter about her choice in the end.

For my further thoughts on LOTR and other geekiness, check out the Geek Portal!


AnneMarie said...

This is fascinating, and I really like that you dove into exploring the character of Arwen-I remember how surprised I was when my mom read me "The lord of the Rings" and then I saw the movies, because the movies gave her much more screen time than the book. I like hearing your thoughts on Arwen, and this makes me want to re-read LOTR, and read the entire Silmarillion, because-embarrassingly-I've only read a couple sections of it.

Chub said...

Great! ... I'm not at your LOTR-reading level,and even though Arwen's adaptation always bothered me somehow, I never really spent time to realize it could be more than the Hollywood blockbuster stuff.
One thing: I got here by searching 'Arwen' images on Google and it took me some scrolling to find one that Lif had her mouth at least half opened...