Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Daddy's Little Girls: Overprotective fathers and their lovesick elf-daughters

Monday's class was all about the Elves and their relationships with men. Specifically, the questions of (im)mortality, marriage, and life/death cropped up.  One thing in particular stuck out to me: the idea that The Lord of the Rings is really about Aragorn proving himself to Elrond in order to win Arwen; it's a love story ultimately. 

All the elements are there: overprotective father, beautiful and somewhat naive young daughter (well, relatively young in Arwen's case), handsome reluctant hero with a chip on his shoulder... It's a recipe for disaster, actually. We've seen this story before. How did it work out for the little mermaid? Oh right, she threw herself into the ocean when her impossible love could not be. Luthien dies when Beren is attacked by the wolf, forsaking her elven life for a mortal one. This brought up a question of gender roles in class: why is the female always sacrificing herself for her male lover? Are women somehow better equipped to make such a selfless sacrifice? Are they just being naive? Is it even worth it? 

With Elf-maidens like Luthien and Arwen, they seem to let love govern over better judgement and sound advice (mostly from their fathers). Is it a coming-of-age, defiance kind of thing? Is it standing up to your dad to show him you're not a little girl anymore and that he has to like your boyfriend or lose you forever? Both Luthien and Arwen seem so sure of their love, how pure and unique it is- you'd think if they really had the love  of ages, that other people could see it too. Why then, can't Elrond acknowledge his daughter's love and give her his blessing? Is he right- is she making a huge mistake? Is he being controlling? I think Elrond is selfish in some ways, wanting to keep his daughter safe forever- literally forever. 

For Arwen, I think that she makes her sacrifice not fully understanding what it means. She says in "The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen" that "she was not weary yet of her days, and thus she tasted the bitterness of the mortality that she had taken upon her" (ROTK, Appendix A, 343). I don't think Arwen understood when she gave up her immortal life that oftentimes mortal life is not fair; sometimes when people get to the end of their lives, they still aren't ready to go. In this way, Arwen is coming to terms with exactly what it means to be mortal-never having enough time. It isn't fair, but that's the way it is. She also sounds pretty bratty in this scene, calling mortality "bitter", and looking longingly back on her elf life. She's the spoiled princess who got exactly what she wanted, only to realize it wasn't actually what she wanted. Arwen wants mortality- on her terms. Tough luck! It doesn't work like that. We talked in class how it's easy for elves to say that men should have finite lives, as they never have to experience feeling trapped by a mortal life. For Arwen, the shoe's on the other foot now. She says to Aragorn, "not til 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" (344). Everyone must play their role: Elves know what their purpose on Earth is, and will spend their days as long as this world lasts. By contrast, Men do not know their purpose in life, and have mere years to try and find it. Who should envy whom?

We also talked in class about generations of families, and how as a new generation rises, the old one must fade. Arwen and Aragorn's union produces children and future kings of Gondor. They will be special children, both Numenorean and Elven. In this way, Arwen should not feel fear or sadness over her mortal life, but celebrate what she was able to create from it. The story calls mortality "the doom of men", and maybe it is, but mortality isn't a curse so much as a gift. One life to live, with whomever you choose, doing whatever you choose. One chance to create and explore and love and LIVE. Isn't that enough?

A. Demma


  1. I hesitate to typecast the Lord of the Rings (or, at minimum, the "Red Book" form of that tale presented to us) as a love story before all else. But then, that may well just be the underdog in me wanting to place Frodo atop the pedestal of importance. Regardless, I appreciate your insight into Tolkien's multiple inter-race love story iterations. The fact that this particular sort of romance is repeatedly cropping up in his legendarium tells me that Tolkien had a bigger picture in mind as he wrote them (but then, didn't he always?). Your comment on the dilemma of doom/purpose sounds about right to me, considering how much time Tolkien's characters spend grappling with that same concept (see: Atlantis account). What's interesting is that, while men encounter a world of hurt when they attempt to claim elven immortality for themselves, elves do seem able to exchange their own fate for that of mankind to some degree and in some situations. That sort of one-way street would seem to imply that the elven condition is superior, and can be swapped for an item of equal or lesser value (i.e. mortality) at an individual's discretion. And yet, as we discussed in class, Tolkien meant for the two dooms to be equal (insomuch as they are divinely appointed and, by extension, perfectly suited to their respective races). "Everyone must play their role," right? Not entirely sure what to make of that.

    -H.M. Glick

  2. I don't quite agree with the depiction of Arwen, although I can see where you're coming from. For me, the scene of Aragorn's death portrays Arwen less as "bratty" and more as her fully understanding what it means to be separated from the ones she loves and encountering that pain once again. The word "bitter" that Arwen uses to describe the "gift of the One to men" is also used earlier to describe Arwen's parting with her father Elrond, a "parting that shoud endure beyond the ends of the world" (ROTK, Chpt. 6). I don't think that's an accident - after all, Tolkien, as we've learned, was intentional and thoughtful with his words - I think it reveals to us how we should read Arwen's actions and emotions. It is evident that Arwen and Elrond loved each other dearly, and if that parting was bitter, then think how much bitterer the parting between Arwen and Aragorn was! She loved Aragorn so greatly that she forsook all her family and kindred – she knew what she was doing because when they plighted her troth, she looked “into the West, and at last she said, ‘I will cleave to you, Dunadan, and turn from the Twilight. Yet there lies the land of my people and the long home of all my kin’” (App. A, v). But making a conscious decision never quite prepares one for the reality of it, and that, I think is why both the partings between her and Elrond and her and Aragorn, are described as “bitter.” More than “coming to terms,” I think Arwen is fully grappling and understanding the pain of partings between loved ones that comes with the gift of men.


  3. I do think it is right to point out that Arwen does not seem to have fully appreciated the choice that she made in the beginning, but I am not sure that it is fair to call her bratty when she does; rather, she has learned something that she didn't know before, or knew only in the abstract but now knows in full. Like Frodo learning to pity Gollum, Arwen learns what it means to be human. To me, this makes her even more of a heroine: she has been forced by her experience to revise what she thinks, and she does.

    @H.M. Glick: Perhaps I overstated things in class suggesting that the Lord of the Rings is only about Aragorn; as we will discuss on Monday, it is most definitely about Frodo, too!


  4. I don't think that your characterization of Arwen is very fair, because it doesn't give her credit for the strength she showed in her decision to sacrifice her immortality for love. True, she probably did not fully understand what a huge decision it was, because she did not fully understand death (nor COULD she). To say she was bratty or ungrateful is to assume that she alone, unlike any Man or mortal Elf we've read about, was able to overcome fear of death and a desire for more time on earth. It was not weakness on her part to have a moment of regret or fear as she approached death - in our darkest hours, haven't we all questioned our biggest decisions, even if in our hearts we knew they were right?

    And when has one life ever been enough time, especially once you have everything you have ever wanted, and have sacrificed everything for? Of course she wants more time, especially being accustomed to having infinite time. It's also important to note why she wanted more time. It wasn't to find her purpose, or for her own glory - it was to love. What greater way to spend all of time?

    I also must disagree with your use of the term "spoiled princess" - spoiled princesses don't make sacrifices for others. Arwen made her decision because she loved Aragorn more than she loved herself, even more than her own immortality. There is much to say about the heroicism in that.

    -Merry Herbst

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  6. That the story of Frodo getting the Ring to Mordor overlaps with Aragorn’s quest to impress Elrond and win his daughter’s hand adds richness to the story, a new dimension that one only learns upon doing the recommended reading (The Appendices), which as college students we know seldom gets read. I wouldn’t say that Tolkien’s novel is all about impressing Elrond - but it is an added subplot that enriches the story when we learn of it.

    We often think of Elves as wiser then Men, and it is fascinating that the Elves call death a gift from the gods. But how can they know it is a gift? Easy for them to say! I believe that the story of Arwen says less about Arwen herself than about Elves in general: they speak of that which they do not know. Is it improper to say that this shows the “humanity” of the Elves? What is an Elf who can die - - just a talented Man? Surely many Men fear death - why shouldn’t Arwen? It is completely reasonable for her to note that her life would end - that the end she chose for herself would actually occur - rather than to rejoice for the future in which she will play no part! Her reaction to seeing death in her near future may be illogical - but it is inherently human. We know we will die, intellectually - - but how does it feel to really understand "I Will Die"?


  7. Everyone has said what I wanted to in regards to Arwen; I don't think she's being bossy, but you don't know what you have till it's gone, and death can be bitter parting even for us who know that it's always been our lot. Had she been serene and calmly accepted everything, she would have come off as a flat, unsympathetic “perfect” character. This makes her more, well, human. As to Elrond being selfish, is any Father's love for his daughter selfish. He knew what she was getting herself into, and the pain it would cost her. Even though he knew she loved Aragorn, I don't think we can fault him for wanting to spare her that pain, even if it meant being without the one she loves. The fact the he only counsels her against it, but does not force her to do his will, shows how selfless he really is. He is never going to see his daughter again, for the rest of his extremely long life, and perhaps not even after the end of the world will they be united. That is an incredible loss, and one that I think could be looked at more closely. We've focused on what it means for the elven women to lose their immortality, but what does this mean for their families and for all elves, to lose for eternity someone they thought they would have for much longer.


  8. Like ACC, I think it's incredibly difficult for Elrond (or any father) to come to terms with the fact their daughter is growing up-- Not just getting older, but beginning to make her own decisions about how she plans to live. In mortal society, this is a pretty normal situation: separation from parents, first through marriage, later through death, is expected and natural. With Elves, I'm not so sure-- yes, some degree of independence would probably be expected, but the daughter would probably marry and remain in the Elves' community, not only physically but forever spiritually in the Hall of Manos.

    With this in mind, Arwen's tale ultimately becomes a story about choice not only between immortality and death, but between the two men in her life-- her father, Elrond, and her lover, Aragorn. She can choose to remain linked to her past, or she can choose a new future.

    Given this, I think we can cut Elrond some slack. He has a perfect reason to be protective and retentive of his daughter-- after all, he could lose her forever if she chooses this Man. It actually surprises me how supportive he is in the end-- considering the gravity of her decision and the eventual pain it would cause him, I would've expected him to have asked Aragorn to bring back all three Silmarils or something equally daunting. All things considered, Elrond seems to deal with the situation remarkably well.


  9. A Demma, great job! The only problem I have with this post is that you slightly ruined the ending of the Little Mermaid for me but that’s something I think I can get over. I really enjoyed your viewpoint of looking at Aragorn’s story arc as his attempt to prove himself to Arwen that he is worthy of her love since I had never considered that before. I always thought of the romance in LOTR as secondary plotlines that weren’t central to the main point of the story. This move though changes a lot concerning my understanding of Aragorn’s motivations. Previously, I thought Aragorn was a good guy who was willing to sacrifice himself for the good of others. But, after reading your post, I see that he was also a lovesick individual who, alongside his mission to save the world from complete destruction, was a simple guy looking for love. I think that this is an extremely productive manner in which to view Aragorn because it makes him more down-to-earth and allows the reader, I feel, to empathize with him more easily. Aragorn, as the heir apparent to the throne of Gondor and the scion of a famous and powerful lineage, can be a little hard to “get to know” but Aragorn, as an ordinary man in search of personal love and comfort, can definitely be understood by the reader.