Forget Romeo and Juliet. Or at the very least, put it aside for now. This one is truly a tale for the ages, one of the three greatest romances in all of Middle-Earth. For purposes of The Lord of the Rings, it’s definitely the one that resonates most.
It almost never fails. People read LOTR for the first time and wonder about Aragorn’s backstory, how exactly Arwen fits in… that sort of thing. Well, it was like that before Peter Jackson. Now everyone thinks they know. Regardless, Tolkien drops some tidbits here and there throughout the story, but for those who read the Appendices, he gives us those answers. With the great history of the Númenórean kings now under our belts, Aragorn himself comes into focus. As we’ve previously discussed, and as is repeated within the text of this subsection, Aragorn and Arwen are essentially the last iteration of the Beren and Lúthien story, the central love story that really starts with Tolkien and his beloved Edith.
It’s interesting to think that it almost didn’t happen this way at all. Arwen was a later draft addition to the story. It was originally Éowyn who was to end up with Aragorn, uniting the kingdoms of Gondor and Rohan, which eventually she did with Faramir. But as is often the case, the first draft of anything is often garbage, and deeper mining of the story on the part of the author results in gold. It’s typical to find Tolkien detractors who look at Arwen as a mere afterthought. I say those are the people who either didn’t read the Appendices or failed to comprehend their true importance. They probably gripe about the Star Wars prequels too, and in both cases… the argument is the same. Keep in mind that the backstory of Middle-Earth is more important to Tolkien than the tale he’s presenting with either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. That sense of history and legend makes LOTR what it is. It’s good without it, absolutely, but with it… so much better.
That said, let’s discuss the king. Aragorn was but two years old when his father was slain by an Orc arrow through the eye. To my mind, this calls up images of Harold at the Battle of Hastings because I know how much Tolkien thinks English history took a left turn in 1066.
To Tolkien, the entirety of English history went way too Norman / French at that point, never to fully recover, and he’s never forgiven them for it. It diluted English awesomeness at every level, you see… stunted their growth and progress. The Riders of Rohan, for example, are what English knights would have looked like had they been able to compete with the flower of French chivalry in the form of mounted cavalry. Minas Tirith, being the front lines bastion of hope against the coming darkness is Tolkien’s symbol of the greatness of England, both in a Medieval setting and in the more modern sense of World War I, the shadow of which looms so large over Middle-Earth. One could make arguments of World War II as well as it certainly seems to fit, but Tolkien himself has discouraged such comparisons. Aragorn, being essentially Middle-Earth’s Arthurian legend, gets to set the world right on so many levels. And as Tolkien would know, even Arthur’s tales have too much French influence (Chrétien de Troyes and the Lancelot tales, for example), which drove him bananas, so Aragorn is Arthur told “the right way.” It’s only fitting that his full story comes to light, even if only in the Appendices.
Following the death of his father Arathorn, Aragorn — now the Heir of Isildur — was taken to the house of Elrond at Rivendell and raised as a son. He was called Estel, “Hope,” his true name and lineage being concealed from the Enemy. When he was twenty, Elrond presented him with the ring of Barahir, denoting their distant kinship, and the shards of Narsil, the blade that struck the Ring from Sauron’s finger. These things are symbols of Aragorn’s heritage, reminders of what has been and what must be going forward. Thusly, the Sceptre of Annúminas was withheld until the day when Aragorn would earn it.
The next day, alone in the woods, Aragorn sings the Lay of Lúthien, and spying Arwen, he is immediately stricken that she is Lúthien returned. Arwen had dwelt for a time in her mother’s land of Lothlórien, accounting for her absence in Elrond’s house.
Elrond gave Aragorn the choice to rise above his forefathers or to fall into the darkness, taking the future of his entire line with him. He would have no wife until he proves himself worthy. Elrond proclaims that even should he be successful, Arwen is far above Aragorn. Her destiny is to ultimately go with her father into the West unless Aragorn is to come between them.
Aragorn left into the wild the next day, where for the next thirty years he would fight Sauron’s forces, befriend Gandalf, ride with the Rohirrim, and do all manner of defense for Gondor by land and sea. Basically, Aragorn was forging his legend and proved yet again that behind every great man there’s a great woman inspiring him onward in an effort to be worthy of her. By the time he was forty-nine, Aragorn had faced off in the dark against the perils of Mordor right under Sauron’s
nose eye. Wishing for rest and a return to Rivendell, it’s here that he came to Lórien by the welcome of Galadriel. Arwen was also there, and in the course of the season they spent together, Arwen promised herself to him.
Elrond, of course, wasn’t happy, but he laid out the rules. Arwen would not be permitted to stay by her own choice unless Aragorn manned up, turned the tide of the war, vanquished Sauron, claimed the throne, and united the kingdom. No pressure. But let’s be honest here in our assessment… she’s worth fighting for. Aragorn knows it, and Tolkien has made it abundantly clear that she’s more than willing to do her part for him as well.
“And it came to pass that in the hour of defeat Aragorn came up from the sea and unfurled the standard of Arwen in the battle of the Fields of Pelennor, and in that day he was first hailed as king.”
I always get geekbumps reading that and the lines that follow. That is the kind of chivalry you find only in the hearts of those who live and breathe Arthurian legend. He’s not fighting against Sauron. He’s fighting for Arwen, and he proudly declares as much. Every man should be so fortunate as to know his true purpose.
The Third Age, as we know, ends in victory against Sauron and the dawning of the Age of Men. But this tale reminds us that it’s ultimately not a happy ending for Arwen. First she parts from her father, and then she becomes mortal, “doomed to die” only after all that she has gained has been lost. She reigned in happiness alongside Aragorn as Queen of Elves and Men for six-score (120) years until he died. 120 years is a sizeable chunk of happiness, the sort of thing we all wish we could have, but it’s a drop in the bucket next to the misery and darkness she can comprehend. But in her wisdom, that’s enough for her to have had that. It’s not just about quantity of life, it’s about quality. She knew what she was getting into from the beginning. Their son Eldarion succeeded his father on the throne, bearing with him the hopes and dreams of both his parents. With Aragorn’s passing, Arwen at last understands and pities the tale of his people, her final gift to the world of Men. According to Tolkien, the grace of Aragorn’s youth returned to his body, that all could behold his valor, wisdom, and majesty. For Arwen, the light went out of her, and she became “cold and grey as nightfall in winter that comes without a star.” She said farewell to her son and daughters, to the city, and returned to Lórien, now silent with the passing of Galadriel and Celeborn. Arwen eventually laid herself to rest upon Cerin Amroth, the mound of her grave green until the world is changed, ultimately forgotten by men.
That’s poetic. To think, C. S. Lewis called this book “long-winded balderdash.”
I’ll close out this entry with a little more worldbuilding to bring this full circle. You might be asking yourself, what is Cerin Amroth? Simply put, it’s a hill in the heart of Lothlórien. Two rings of trees grew around it. After the first millennium of the Third Age, it was to be used as an outlook post for the ever-creeping shadow of Dol Guldur. Then the king of Lórien — Amroth — built a house on it, thus the hill was named after him. Centuries later, the house was no longer there, the hill covered with elanor and niphredil. It was here that Aragorn and Arwen were first betrothed, thus beginning the poetic circle for our tragic queen. Sorrow resonates for poets, always has. Tolkien was certainly no different. It’s part of what makes us human. Through Arwen, he tells us he agrees with Alfred Lord Tennyson:
“‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”
Who are we to argue?