I love rewatching the Lord of the Rings films and learning more about the lore. The love story between Arwen Undómiel and Aragorn, the future king, has many touching nuances. One of these is Arwen’s determination to hold onto hope, reminding both Aragorn and her father not to give into despair.
The 2nd Tinúviel
While Arwen doesn’t show up too often in the books, she makes a (literally) radiant first appearance in The Fellowship of the Ring. After Frodo gets stabbed with a cursed Morgul Blade by the Witch King of Angmar, Arwen appears to him, looking like an angel:
I’ve always loved the Elvish singing in the background when she appears to Frodo. I learned that the lyrics are part of J.R.R. Tolkien’s poem about Luthien Tinúviel, the first Elf-woman to fall in love with a man, Beren. The “arms of silver glimmering” part was used perfectly for Arwen’s entrance.
Like her ancestor (Arwen and Luthien are part of the same bloodline), Arwen is a courageous woman who both loved and fought fiercely. I’ve been reading The Silmarillion, and it turns out that Luthien and Beren personally confronted Morgoth, Sauron’s old boss, to retrieve one of the Silmaril jewels!
Ah, and here’s another interesting tidbit about Luthien: she was the first (and perhaps, only) elf to make Mandos (the deity ruling the Elvish “underworld”) feel pity. When Beren died after their victory over Morgoth, Luthien died of grief. In the Halls of Mandos, she sang a powerful song that moved Mandos to seek higher counsel regarding what should happen next.
Eru granted both Beren and Luthien a mortal life together. When their time came, they departed the world, their spirits leaving for unknown shores.
I just recently realized that Aragorn sings of Luthien in this scene from Fellowship of the Ring:
Elrond’s Vision and Cynical Half-Truth
One of the saddest scenes in The Two Towers film is when Elrond, Arwen’s father, implores her to leave with the other elves to Valinor (their “paradise on Earth”). Arwen refuses, telling Elrond that, despite his firm belief that Aragorn won’t return, “there is still hope”.
Elrond, firmly believing that the Quest to destroy the One Ring will fail, gives Arwen a soul-crushing speech. He reveals to her a vision he saw with his gift of foresight, a vision of the inevitable end Arwen will face should the Quest be victorious:
The Despair of a Half-Truth
Do you know what sucks about this scene? Elrond’s speech and this scene of Arwen mourning Aragorn originate from the Appendix in The Return of the King.
After Aragorn chooses to let himself die (a deliberate choice that comes from his ancient heritage), Arwen’s heart is broken. She says goodbye to her children and all who love her, traveling to the old forest of Lothlórien where her grandparents used to dwell.
Sadly, at this point in the future, the Elves of Lothlórien have all departed for Valinor, including Galadriel and Celeborn. Without the power of Nenya, Galadriel’s Ring of Power, Lothlórien has faded from its autumnal beauty to barren trees.
Arwen lays herself down amid the old trees and dies alone. Because she chose a mortal life, she follows Aragorn’s spirit “beyond the circles of the world” to the fate only known to Eru Ilúvatar (the God of Lord of the Rings).
After hearing about this sheer tragedy, Arwen reluctantly departs with the other elves on a long march towards the Grey Havens to leave Middle-Earth behind. As she leaves Rivendell, she turns to give Elrond a withering look, her father’s cynicism filling her with contempt. Later, it would turn out that Arwen had every reason to feel revulsion over how Elrond handled this matter.
While it’s true that Arwen would die of grief after losing Aragorn, this was only half of what Elrond foresaw.
A Vision of a Son
In The Return of the King, while marching with her brethren to the Grey Havens, Arwen has a vision of a young boy. To her shock, she watches him run into the arms of an older Aragon. The boy meets her eyes and gives her a knowing look, confirming to her joy that he’s her future son, Eldarion.
Determined to hold Elrond accountable for withholding the truth from her, Arwen rides back to Rivendell and confronts her father:
Arwen: “Tell me what you have seen!”
Arwen: “You have the gift of foresight. What did you see?”
Elrond: “I looked into your future, and I saw death.”
Arwen: “There is also life.
You saw there was a child. You saw my son!”
Elrond: “That future is almost gone.”
Arwen: “But it is not lost.”
Elrond: “Nothing is certain.”
Arwen: “Some things are certain.
If I leave him now…I will regret it forever.
…it is time.”
–Arwen and Elrond, “The Return of the King”
The Reforging of Steel and Hope
In a bid to inspire her father to action, Arwen implores him to reforge the shards of Narsil, the legendary sword that defeated Sauron in the War of the Last Alliance:
Elrond turns away, and Arwen falls backward from sudden weariness to their mutual alarm. It’s plain to Elrond that the life of their people is slipping away from her because of the choice she made.
Seeing Elrond finally starting to tear up at reality rushing around him is awful. Arwen is somehow dying as Sauron’s power grows, and Elrond must have felt powerless seeing it happen right before him.
Arwen somberly tells her father this, which prompts him to at last take action:
“Ada (Father)…whether by your will or not…there is no ship now that can bear me hence.”
–Arwen to Elrond, “The Return of the King”
Elrond has his smiths take the shards of Narsil and reforge them into the weapon of kings: Andúril, the Flame of the West.
Elrond personally goes to deliver Andúril to Aragorn, imploring him to take the sword and become the King he was born to be.
The Sorrowful Echo of Gilraen, Mother of Aragorn
In this above scene, Elrond and Aragorn speak a quote in Elvish that, for some reason, wasn’t given subtitles. It was odd to me that Aragorn looked so sad, finishing Elrond’s sentence.
It turns out that they both quoted the last words of Aragorn’s mother, Gilraen.
After Gilraen’s husband and Aragorn’s father, Arathorn, died in battle against orcs, Elrond took him in at Rivendell. He gave the young boy the name “Estel”, which means “hope” in Elvish. After reading more about the story of Eärendil the Mariner, who would come to be known as “Gil-Estel” (the Star of High Hope”), I see a connection.
In Appendix A (found in the book form of The Return of the King after the main story concludes), Aragorn goes to meet his mother in her final home in the wilds outside of Rivendell. Gilraen tells her son that this is their last meeting. With so much darkness and despair on the horizon, she’s grown weary over the grim future of Men.
Aragorn urges her not to give up hope, and this is her response (translated from the Elvish):
“I gave Hope to the Dúnedain, I have kept no hope for myself.”
–Gilraen, “The Return of the King, Appendix A” (Tolkien, 1955)
The movie version of The Fellowship of the Ring gives Gilraen an honorable mention where Aragorn visits her memorial, her statue looking deliberately reminiscent of the Blessed Virgin Mary:
How somber it is, hearing from Aragorn himself that he’s never wanted the burden and responsibility of being the last of the bloodline of the ancient kings. After spending his life on the run from Sauron’s minions and wandering Middle-Earth, who can blame Aragorn for just wanting a normal life?
Arwen Gives Estel Hope
Now that I’ve been finally reading the books (still only partway through Fellowship, but it’s a start!), I understand that Arwen didn’t have as many appearances as she did in the movies. In fact, that awesome scene where she escapes the Black Riders in the first movie? That role was originally filled by an Elf-lord named Glorfindel, who faced down the Witch-King of Angmar (leader of the Black Riders) long ago.
With her expanded role in the movies, Arwen becomes the voice of hope for both Aragorn and Elrond. Through her words of encouragement, she stops her father from permanently entrenching himself in cynicism towards the fate of the Ring, and she also helps Aragorn keep his head up through the War.
When Aragorn expresses his fears that, as Isildur’s heir, he shares his ancestor’s disposition towards pride and arrogance, Arwen gently but firmly rebukes his despair:
“Why do you fear the past? You are Isildur’s heir, not Isildur himself. You are not bound to his fate.
Your time will come. You will face the same evil, and you will defeat it.
The Shadow does not hold sway yet. Not over you…not over me.”
-Arwen to Aragorn, “The Fellowship of the Ring”
“Not the End, But the Beginning”
Arwen would give her lover more words of inspiration throughout the War of the Ring. In The Two Towers, during a dream, she visits Aragorn and urges him not to falter in his aid to Frodo. Arwen encourages Aragorn to trust the love between them:
“This is not the end, this is the beginning.
If you trust nothing else…trust this. Trust us.”
-Arwen to Aragorn, “The Two Towers”
The songwriters for The Two Towers used Arwen’s plea here for the lyrics of “Evenstar”, her theme:
When Aragorn collapses from exhaustion in The Two Towers, Arwen sends forth her spirit in a vision to revive him with a kiss, giving him the energy to rise and go forward:
The Culmination of Estel and Evenstar’s Hope
At the end of the War, Sauron is defeated at last, and Aragorn is crowned the King of the Reunited Kingdom. Arwen arrives in Minas Tirith with Elrond and other Elves in tow, her father tearfully but happily ready to accept her choice:
Arwen and Aragorn made the same bittersweet choice that their parallels Beren and Lúthien made ages before them. She forsook her immortal anchor to the world by choosing to spend a mortal life with Aragorn. It was worth it all for the grace of spending years with the love of her life.
The Trap of Cynicism and Despair
Cynicism is a form of despair, that crippling feeling that tells us that no matter how hard we try, the future won’t change for the better. Aragorn suffered from cynicism over his fear that despite his noble intentions, he would succumb to his predecessor Isildur’s pride and thus fall. After watching firsthand Isildur’s refusal to destroy the Ring when he had the chance, Elrond feels he has no reason to trust that Men will conquer Sauron.
After looking up Bible verses about despair, I found this one from Psalm 116:
“I said in my alarm,
‘All men are liars.'” (Psalm 116:11)
Elrond watched Sauron get defeated by Isildur cutting off the Ring from his Black Hand. I presume that seeing Isildur fall to the Ring’s influence and smugly refuse to destroy it is what started Elrond’s cynic streak. Who can blame him?
I wonder if Elrond’s understandable contempt against Isildur is part of what made Aragorn so distraught over potentially failing as his predecessor did. It doesn’t help that Elrond was essentially Aragorn’s foster father, so Aragorn would’ve been exposed to his disdain against the failings of Men for several years.
Thankfully, Aragorn proved himself wrong, and Elrond saw with his own eyes that his foster son was worthy to be called King.
Arwen’s Hope Saved Middle-Earth
In the comments section under the video of Arwen urging Elrond to reforge Narsil, somebody suggested that her will ultimately saved Middle-Earth. I completely agree with them!
It’s because Arwen urged both her father and lover not to give up that the chain of events leading to the ploy battle at the Black Gates (to give Sam and Frodo their chance to infiltrate Mount Doom) was able to happen.
I wonder, with Arwen being Lúthien’s descendant and parallel, would it be safe to say that her pleading with Elrond to give Men a chance likewise parallels Lúthien’s plea before Mandos?
When Lúthien arrived in his Halls, she sang to the Vala of her grief and the perilous journey she and Beren had undertaken. By her words, Mandos was moved to pity for the first and only time.
Arwen’s stalwart refusal to stop believing in Aragorn and thus the rest of Men likewise moved Elrond to action. Even the stoniest hearts can be softened by love and hope.
Gilraen and Hope
My heart hurts for Aragorn’s mother, Gilraen. What she said to her son in their last meeting together, about feeling overwhelmed with despair with so much darkness on the horizon, sings to me as somebody who struggles with depression.
Despair clouds our vision, preventing us from seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. It feeds us cruel lies and half-truths about what the future has in store. In these times, hope seems utterly distant and far from us.
Nobody can blame Gilraen for feeling that hope was lost to Men. She saw so much death in her life and was no doubt worried that Aragorn would live a restless life of his own.
Aragorn urged his mother to remember that there would be a light beyond the present darkness. I wish that Gilraen had lived to see that her son was right, to see that the Sun did indeed rise on the glory of Men in Middle-Earth.
Cliche though it may be, the Sun will always rise, no matter how determined the darkness is to stop it.
Arwen Undómiel, Evenstar Everlasting
No matter how deep the darkness, there are some stars, like Arwen Evenstar, that refuse to fade away. Their light is a much-needed source of inspiration to those of us who feel as if we’re wandering aimlessly through the dark.
I went looking for Bible verses about stars, and I found this one from Daniel 12, which beautifully describes those like Arwen encourage us to keep our heads up:
“Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.” (Daniel 12:3)
To wrap this up, here’s this excellent analysis video I found on YouTube that breaks down the beauty and heartbreak of Howard Shore’s piece “The Grace of Undómiel”:
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Return of the King. Houghton Mifflin Company.
Featured Image by JacksonDavid/Pixabay
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