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Tolkien Reading Day 2021: The Choices of Arwen Undomiel

Adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings for the cinema was a monumental task that has inspired a never-ending fountain of analysis, critique, and, at least from me, admiration. One of my favorite changes that Peter Jackson and the writers made was the expansion of Arwen’s scant appearances in the narrative by pulling in much of the “Tale of Aragorn and Arwen” from the Appendix and giving her some participation in the action, particularly in The Fellowship of the Ring. It is a valuable addition to the story and helps flesh out the emotional foundations for Aragorn’s journey to the throne of Gondor. I would, however, like to turn our gaze back to Arwen by taking a closer look at her story in Tolkien’s text.

The focus of Arwen’s story in the movies is her choice to remain in Middle Earth, giving up her claim to the immortal life that her Elven heritage affords her, in order to spend her life with Aragorn. The movies do a very good job of depicting how agonizing this choice is for Arwen, Aragorn, and Elrond. Her immortality is precious, represented by her gift of the beautiful Evenstar necklace to Aragorn when he departs Rivendell with the Fellowship. It is a gift that Aragorn is reluctant to take, knowing he is asking so much of her. Choosing not to depart Middle Earth with the “rest of her kind” will separate her from her father, whom she loves dearly. It is a choice that predicts happiness and love with a future family, but also loss, grief, and sadness.

In the first of three key passages from the book, we see that Arwen doesn’t come to this decision easily. Her love story with Aragorn takes place over a much longer period of time than the movies imply. Initially, it is Aragorn who falls in love with Arwen “at first sight” when he is a young man. It isn’t until many years later, after Aragorn has matured significantly, that Arwen encounters him again and also falls in love.

It is at that point that they declare their love for each other and discuss their future, much like the scene on the bridge in Rivendell depicted in movie, The Fellowship of the Ring. This future is very uncertain and marred by the growing darkness in the East that heralds Sauron’s reemergence.  

And Arwen said: “Dark is the Shadow, and yet my heart rejoices, for you, Estel, shall be among the great whose valor will destroy it.”

But Aragorn answered: “Alas, I cannot foresee it, and how it may come to pass is hidden from me. Yet with your hope I will hope. And the Shadow I utterly reject. But neither, lady, is the Twilight for me; for I am mortal, and if you cleave to me, Evenstar, then the Twilight you must also renounce.”

And she stood then as still as a white tree, looking into the West, and at last she said: “I will cleave to you, Dúnadan, and turn from the Twilight. Yet there lies the land of my people and the long home of all my kin.” She loved her father dearly.

–From Appendix A, 1 (v): “Here Follows a Part of the Tale of Aragorn and Arwen”

It is a ground-shifting decision, for Arwen and everyone around her. Elrond firmly declares his opinion that the sacrifice of Arwen’s immortality cannot be for anyone less that the established “King of both Gondor and Arnor.” He worries that Arwen doesn’t fully appreciate the full sorrow of death. For his part, Aragorn appears to accept without question that he must elevate himself in order to be deserving of her.

And in that last paragraph, we see that Arwen’s love for Aragorn doesn’t keep her from taking serious stock of the consequences of this choice. Arwen’s immediate family extends beyond just her father to Galadriel, who is her grandmother, and two brothers who aren’t mentioned in the movies. We feel the weight of these relationships in this passage and understand that her romantic attachment to Aragorn is not entirely sufficient to eclipse them. The choice to love will result in sorrows and hardships that she must learn to accept.

Arwen reaffirms this choice after the defeat of Sauron. The Fellowship remains in Gondor for an extended period of time, celebrating Aragorn’s crowning as King and his marriage to Arwen. When at last Frodo announces his intention to return home, Arwen has a gift for him.

But the Queen Arwen said: “A gift I will give you. For I am the Daughter of Elrond. I shall not go with him now when he departs to the Havens; for mine is the choice of Luthien, and as she so have I chosen, both the sweet and the bitter. But in my stead you shall go, Ring-bearer, when the time comes, and if you then desire it. If your hurts grieve you still and the memory of your burden is heavy, then you may pass into the West, until all your wounds and weariness are healed. But wear this now in memory of Elfstone and Evenstar with whom your life has been woven!”

And she took a white gem like a star that lay upon her breast hanging upon a silver chain and she set the chain about Frodo’s neck. “When the memory of the fear and the darkness troubles you,” she said, “this will bring you aid.”

–From The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter VI: Many Partings

Frodo receives many items of value during his adventures, from his Mithril armor and his sword, Sting, to the Phial of Galadriel. But there is perhaps no gift as priceless, or necessary, as the gift he receives from Arwen. In this gift, she blesses him with a future of restoration and happiness that was once promised to her. It is an act of immeasurable grace born out of her understanding that the traumas Frodo has experienced will never be fully healed.

This moment in the book is echoed in the movies in the scene at the river, when Arwen holds a gravely wounded Frodo and beseeches the Valar to keep him from dying. “What grace is given me, let it pass to him. Let him be spared.” Here, in the book, we see that the assistance she provides Frodo is much, much more than a mere thought or prayer. Her aid comes at a very personal price.

Arwen’s generosity and kindness do not spare her from the pain that is to come from her decision. As Aragorn lays dying, Arwen is overtaken by her grief. He begs her to renounce her choice and go to the West with her people. But she knows that is not to be.

“Nay, dear lord,” she said, “that choice is long over. There is now no ship that would bear me hence, and I must indeed abide the Doom of Men, whether I will or I nill: the loss and the silence. But I say to you, King of the Numenoreans, not till now have I understood the tale of your people and their fall. As wicked fools I scorned them, but I pity them at last. For if this is indeed, as the Eldar say, the gift of the One to Men, it is bitter to receive.”

–From Appendix A, 1 (v): “Here Follows a Part of the Tale of Aragorn and Arwen”

Even as she lets herself succumb to bitterness in the acute grief of this moment, it is difficult to imagine she would go back and change anything. Her choices have been made with full awareness of the uncertainty, danger, and pain that may come. In her actions, she honors her own heart while taking every possible step to help those she loves. The grace and generosity of her life perseveres even it its final days. Whether in the page or the screen, Arwen’s story is one of choosing to love even though the end of that love brings sorrow.

Claire Thorne, Fanbase Press Contributor



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