“If you trust nothing else, trust this. Trust us.” – Arwen, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.
This is the nerdiest post I will ever write. You have been warned.
People tend to be quite surprised when I tell them my favorite character from Lord of the Rings is Arwen Undomiel, daughter of Lord Elrond, wife of Aragorn and Queen of the Reunited Kingdoms in the Fourth Age. It’s definitely a choice that’s a bit out of left field; when I say my favorite character from Game of Thrones is Dany, for example, it’s a much more obvious and clear decision. And while my choices for favorite Man, Dwarf, or hobbit in the trilogy are pretty obvious (Eomer, Gimli, ALL OF THEM DO NOT MAKE ME CHOOSE) my love and borderline obsession with Arwen will not be denied. Arwen Arwen ARWEN.
The reason for their surprise is quite obvious. Arwen doesn’t really have a whole heck of a lot to do in the main body of Tolkien’s text – the bulk of her story occurs in the first Appendix, “The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen.” In the main body, she appears extremely briefly in Fellowship of the Ring, then doesn’t appear at all in The Two Towers, and then shows up to marry Aragorn at the end of Return of the King. (Although people forget that the entire reason Frodo is able to go to the Undying Lands of Valinor at the end of the trilogy is because Arwen gave him her seat on the ship BUT I DIGRESS.) As far as Arwen’s personality goes, she spends most of the text doing the kind of bosom-heaving sighs that tend to drive me absolutely ballistic in most fantasy texts. She’s not as outwardly badass as Witch King-slaying drag-wearing Eowyn, or as perceptive and magical as Lady Galadriel of Lothlorien. She doesn’t even get cool songs and fun stuff to do like Goldberry in the House of Bombadil, or fire arrows like the film-only Tauriel in The Hobbit series.
Tolkien’s women have been roundly criticized in their flaw-free, pedestal-straddling perfection, which is probably warranted. But I would like to argue another reading that might clarify why I’m drawn so much to Arwen.
I have an issue with female characters in fantasy/sci-fi texts being categorized solely as a Strong Female Character. You know, the type who is constantly swinging a sword, has zero concept of emotionality or humanity, and is basically, written EXACTLY like a man would be in the same part. I see some of this dichotomy in Eowyn, actually – Eowyn spends most of the text frustrated at the fact that she can’t fight alongside the men and ends up dressing up as Dernhelm to take part in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. Granted, I LOVE this, so it’s not like I’m complaining about Eowyn.
In the original Miramax treatment of the script, Peter Jackson tried to figure out ways of including Arwen into the film that would bring her and Aragorn together physically. One of those ideas became Arwen turning into much more of a fighter, like Eowyn, to the point that images started floating around the Internet of Arwen coming to the Battle of Helm’s Deep and the actress who portrayed her, Liv Tyler, getting trained in swordfighting. Halfway through the filming of this scene, however, the screenwriters and Jackson realized that this probably wasn’t the way Tolkien intended for Arwen to be portrayed, and when they started to mine the Appendices they realized something quite remarkable. In Liv Tyler’s words, “You don’t have to put a sword in her hands to make her strong. This is an incredibly powerful and fearless woman, filled with so much hope, and belief, and that is strong enough.”
Arwen embodies hope. Hope in the face of utter doom and despair. She even tells her father there is still hope, even when he tries to tell her that Men will fail and that the time of the Elves is over. She is the heart of strength in the text. I will be analyzing several scenes in the film that highlight this fact.
In Fellowship of the Ring, Arwen’s part is expanded so she, not Glorfindel, takes the injured Frodo across the River Bruinen to Rivendell. At one point, confronted with the Ringwraiths, she does wield a sword, Hadhafang (which belonged to her grandmother Idril, I TOLD YOU THIS POST WOULD BE NERDY), but she doesn’t actually use it. Instead, she connects to nature itself, and causes a flood to trample over the Ringwraiths to save Frodo’s life. In the book, this spell is created by Elrond, and I LOVE that they gave it to Arwen in the movie because it highlights a strength that comes from nature and a communion with the things around us.
Immediately following this moment, she cradles Frodo to her chest and prays that the Grace she has been given as an immortal Elf be passed to him, so that he can be spared from the poison of the Morgul blade. A badass sword-wielding woman who can control the elements but is not afraid to show naked emotion? Yep.
I feel like the film version not only heightens Arwen’s role in the film, it makes her environment more complicated and ultimately more feminist. When she binds her soul to Aragorn and forsakes her immortal life (which critics have called “the greatest sacrifice in the entire story”), it calls into mind the idea that the entire storyline involving Arwen in the movie is about a woman gaining, losing, and then definitively reclaiming the power of her own choice. Everyone keeps telling her that her choices are wrong, or dangerous – Elrond, her father, tries to dissuade her from staying in Middle Earth by painting a heartbreaking verbal image of what her life will be like if she gives up her immortality. She will have to watch Aragorn die, walk the Earth alone, and then die broken under the fading trees of Cerin Amroth (the spot in Lothlorien where she and Aragorn pledged their love). It’s a devastating scene.
This image, of course, scares the living shit out of Arwen, which I kind of love. She isn’t passively making choices without an understanding of the consquences – this kind of grief frightens her tremendously. Rather than just pressing on and suffering in silence, she makes another choice – she heads to the Grey Havens to pass to the Undying Lands.
But Elrond, the tricky bastard he is, forgot to mention one tiny little thing he saw in his vision: Arwen and Aragorn have children. And on her way to the Grey Havens, Arwen has a vision of her son, Eldarion, and the image is so overwhelming to her that she ends up reclaiming her original choice. She just turns right around, heads back to Rivendell, bitches out her father for not giving her all of what he saw, and tells Elrond to reforge the shards of Narsil into Anduril, Flame of the West.
And he does. And he finally lets Arwen make her own choices. Are they bad choices? It doesn’t matter. They are HER choices. And one of the core tenets of feminism is the fight for every woman to have the ability to make her own choice.
So you’ve got a proactive, autonomous woman firmly believing in the power of hope. That, to me, is a different kind of courage, but one that is infinitely more relateable than swinging a sword around.
This kind of hope can be a serious detriment in today’s world, when so many people are dumpster fires of negativity and self-loathing. I used to date someone who mocked me when I stated that I believed that things turned towards the positive, and actually laughed in my face when I told him I believed things happened for a reason. “That’s incredibly naive,” he said, with the tone of a college professor delivering a verbal smackdown on a student who immediately becomes deflated and disillusioned with everything in the world. As if i wasn’t aware that this world can be painful and cruel. I know the world can be a shitty place. I choose to believe in hope IN SPITE of these painful realities.
Arwen reminds me that this kind of hope is not naive. It is one of the clearest, strongest forms of bravery we have. At the end of Return of the King, Arwen faces the fact that she will lose Aragorn and she will die alone, she faces the knowledge that there is much grief and pain ahead of her, and she doubles down on her choice and marries Aragorn anyway. She chooses hope over despair. Love over fear. I can’t think of many choices in the text that are more brave than that.
PS – on a much less serious note, I absolutely love that the camera immediately cuts from Arwen and Aragorn kissing at the coronation to Elrond’s face, and he’s got this small little half-smile and it’s like he’s going “Sure, okay, go hump my daughter, I’m totally cool with this.”
PPS – this post is inspired by the fact that I just got the whole trilogy on Blu-Ray and I’m feeling all of the feelings. I’m also planning on re-reading the trilogy this December. Expect lots of feelings then too.