Literary Hero of the Month: February: Arwen Evenstar from J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’

Lovely image of Luthien, Arwen’s ancestor, by Alan Lee

Ok, let’s be honest, Arwen Evenstar gets a pretty bad rap from quite a lot of people. A lot of feminist criticism of LOTR has argued (understandably) that Tolkien portrays women as passive, pretty characters with very little to say- unless it relates to a man, of course. And I have to admit, she really doesn’t DO all that much in the books themselves. The films are a bit different, of course.
You know that epic chase scene in the ‘Fellowship of the Ring’ film? The one where she’s riding from the Nazgul, trying to save Frodo? And the bit where she makes the water of the ford turn into magical horses? Yep? Well, in the books, she doesn’t even do THAT- in the books, that’s all there, but it’s done by a MALE elf- the amazingly-named Glorfindel. The epic love story between Arwen and Aragorn in Peter Jackson’s films (Liv Tyler and Viggo Mortensen, respectively) becomes the romantic lynchpin for the most of the plot, whereas in the books it’s relegated to the (copious) appendices, along with a dense thicket of family trees. So I can see why some people may see Arwen as a one-dimensional character. But in this post I intend to defend her- valiantly. Because, truthfully, I see Arwen as far more complex than that. Sure, perhaps Tolkien could have given her more of a voice within the novels, but as a symbol she is both powerful and timeless. She is the female archetype to Aragorn’s male archetype, the feminine, creative, nurturing energy that balances his masculine warrior energy. (Yep, I’m talking about energies here.)
Liv Tyler as Arwen (image from here)
Arwen is the cue to bring out his ‘softer side’, so to speak, for it is when he is reminiscing about her (usually by murmuring softly-spoken Elvish) that he is most vulnerable, and most relatable to the reader. It undercuts the macho-machoness of the Fellowship- a band of warriors, after all- superbly. Aragorn  is a man in love, and she is the object of his affections- though that doesn’t neccessarily mean that she is just an object in itself.
Image Creative Commons licensed (from here)
Within LOTR, Arwen also has her own crucial function- she represents a second incarnation of Luthien, a fabled elven maid who gave up her immortality to love Beren, a mortal man (a story inspired by Tolkien’s own love for his wife. When Tolkien died some years after his wife, the names ‘Beren’ and ‘Luthien’ were inscribed on their gravestones.) Luthien (whose name means ‘nightingale’ in Elvish) thus took control of her own destiny, controlled her own fulfilment and made a conscious choice in whom to love, and why- even if it did lead to death, and perhaps tragedy.  In this aspect, Arwen-as-Luthien becomes more of a mythical creature, capable of commanding great respect and even awe in Elvish circles- although this is probably likely, considering she’s Elrond’s daughter, and technically Galadriel’s grand-daughter (although this is not elaborated on much within the books.)
Aragorn and Arwen (aww!) image from here

In such a way, she becomes representative of all the things Elves cherish most- the sky, starlight, nature, fertility, love, and higher wisdom (a wisdom that might be seen as more feminine in nature.) Even her very name- Evenstar, or ‘the Evenstar’ as she sometimes called- hints at this higher aspect.

At the same time, her love for Aragorn makes her more humane, rather than just a cold god-figure, or deus ex machina, descending from on high to dispense wisdom/judgment without vulnerability or fragility. It also leaves her with a profound choice- a choice laced with tragedy, as it highlights how the Elves, once the highest of all beings, have now become a dying race, and have started to dwindle. It also, of course, mirrors the fate of her counterpart, Luthien.
Image from here
Arwen may represent the best of the kind, but in forsaking immortality she ironically chooses a new life for herself that has more staying power- and her line will continue on in her and Aragorn’s children. The interesting dichotomy between elf/mortal goddess/human arguably imbues her with more complex layers than at first appears, for she fulfils the role of any elf- to preserve her heritage, to learn, to appreciate nature, to use magic- and also the fate of any human- to love, to live and ultimately, to die.

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