Wednesday, May 18, 2011

What's Love Got To Do With It?

            In The Lord of the Rings, there are all kinds of relationships despite the somewhat limited amount of women.  Éowyn and Faramir, Sam and Rosie, and, of course, Aragorn and Arwen all have wonderfully romantic stories and everyone loves that they love each other.  It can almost be taken for granted that these love stories are meant to be.  The question is how exactly did Tolkien feel about their relationships and relationships in general?  Did he believe that they were meant to be as well?  Tolkien’s letter (number 43) to his son, Michael, reveals quite a bit about Tolkien’s personal views on love and marriage.  It also raises some interesting considerations about his characters’ thoughts on love.
            Tolkien places a very high value on matrimony.  When discussing the “romantic chivalric tradition” in our society, he says the only bad aspect of it is it is “a way of enjoying love for its own sake without reference to (and indeed contrary to) matrimony.”  From this stance, it is fairly easy to deduce that his characters, at least the character’s Tolkien values most, share this intense reverence for marriage.  Aragorn is the perfect example.  Everything he does is to earn Elrond’s respect so he will have permission to marry Arwen.  Tolkien interposes aspects of his own quest for marriage over the stories of Aragorn and Beren.  His forced patience and delay of marriage are told by way of Aragorn’s and Beren’s struggles.  Even Sam gets to experience an extended delay in his relationship, waiting until after the War to marry Rosie.
            Tolkien seems to believe that a period of denial is necessary in order to ensure the love will last.  He says in his letter, “No man, however truly he loved his betrothed and bride as a young man, has lived faithful to her as a wife in mind and body without deliberate conscious exercise of the will, without self-denial.”  Earlier, he says that men are naturally non-monogamous.  Perhaps it is this exercise of the will that makes the relationships between characters long separated so powerful.  Aragorn and Arwen (and Luthien and Beren) go years without seeing each other, and yet they are always faithful and true.  They were willing to make the effort to remain connected after all that time and that is what makes their love so powerful.  Or, at least, the man’s love.
            Women, on the other hand, according to Tolkien, are “instinctively, when uncorrupt, monogamous”.  So Arwen and Luthien (who I think it is safe to assume are not corrupted) just naturally, after falling in love, stayed that way and apparently would not naturally seek to be non-monogamous or unfaithful.  This idea is particularly interesting when thinking about the relationship between Andreth and Aegnor.  Since it is the elf who must give up their immortality, an elf in a relationship with a human would make the bigger sacrifice.  Aegnor does not want to make that sacrifice.  Is this perhaps influenced by the male tendency toward non-monogamy?  Arwen and Luthien, though they made a great sacrifice, were not particularly concerned with being or wanting to be unfaithful.  As a male, Aegnor presumably would have needed to give up not only immortality, but to struggle to remain faithful.  Perhaps he thought it too much work just for Andreth.
            What does this mean for Aragorn?  Éowyn practically threw herself at the man and still he did not give in to the temptation to leave Arwen.  There is, I suppose, a question as to whether he felt temptation.  He certainly cared about Éowyn but would he have honestly considered being in a relationship with her?  Based off of Tolkien’s opinions on love and marriage, I believe the temptation to run off with Éowyn would be present.  After all, if men are naturally non-monogamous they must, when an attractive woman makes it plain that she’s interested, consider the possibility of being with the willing, beautiful, and, of course, present woman.  Aragorn never strays, though it certainly would have been a lot easier for him to just marry a human princess and stop worrying about trying to prove himself to a grumpy, protective father in order to marry a willing, beautiful maiden who will, because of him, be forced to give up her culture, family, and, you know, life.  The kind of devotion Aragorn shows to Arwen, even in the face of a simpler situation, shows that he truly loves her.  It makes their relationship all the more significant.
            However, Tolkien also says, “Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes: in the sense that almost certainly […] both partners might have found more suitable mates.”  Does this mean that marriages in The Lord of the Rings are potentially mistakes?  I do not think so.  Tolkien seems to view his own real life experience as very exceptional and exceptionally wonderful.  I believe he transfers this idea, once again, to Aragorn and Beren, giving them the exceptional relationship he shared with his wife.  What about Éowyn and Faramir?  What about Rosie and Sam?  Are their relationships mistakes?  They do not go through nearly the same amount of temptation and struggle that Aragorn and Arwen go through.  However, I think Tolkien would have seen their marriages as good and right choices, as far as they could tell.  In his discussion on soul mates, Tolkien makes it clear that your soul mate becomes the individual you marry and that life and circumstances do a lot more of the choosing than any one person does.  In this sense, all of the couples were meant to be together, even if they might not be perfect.
            Tolkien takes matters of love very seriously.  Perhaps this is because of his own life or maybe just because he thinks they should be treated as important.  He carefully plans and writes (as he always does) the romances to emphasis the elements he considered the most important: marriage, faithfulness, and self-denial.  I think these elements, elements that are vital for romantic relationships, are also essential in the rest of Tolkien’s legendarium.  Themes of life and death are married to immortality and uncertainty, Sam follows Frodo without any thought of turning back (stupid movie), and characters like Frodo and Galadriel give up everything in order to save Middle Earth.  Romance within the legendarium reveals not just Tolkien’s ideas of love but also his ideas of the world.



  1. I seems to me that, for the most epic soulmates in the lord of the Rings, such as Aragorn and Arwen love and happiness come second to procreation. The greatest virtue of the marriage between Aragorn and Arwen is that it allows for the noblest and fairest of elfblood to be transferred run in the veins of the line of the greatest kings of men, even after all the Eldar have departed. Thus the marriage is fated and glorious because it ennobles men and gives hope for their future as the lords of middle-earth after the elves have departed. That is not to say that the ideas of love and happiness are not invoked, but they are definitely downplayed. When Aragorn first falls in love with Arwen Tolkien writes, “he saw the elven-light in her eyes and the wisdom of many days; yet from that hour he loved Arwen Undomiel, daughter of Elrond.” However, when Arwen first choose to wed Aragorn, love is not mentioned, “her choice was made and her doom was appointed.” Also, the love and happiness of their life together is glossed over in a single sentence in Appendix A, “As Queen of elves and men she dwealt with Aragorn for six-score years in great glory and bliss.” Whereas her grief at his passing and the bitterness of morality takes up an entire two pages. From this evidence it seems to me that while Aragorn and Arwen do find love and happiness for a time the central importance of their marriage is not love but lineage and high tradegy. Their doomed romance produced Eldarion and allowed the artistry and grace of the elves to flow in the viens of men.


  2. This post is really making me think about the concepts of ‘fascination’ and ‘soul-knitting.’ Fascination in the context of romance means “love at first sight;” the lightning striking, heart-piercing feeling of awe that the lover experiences once catching sight—or more specifically catching the eye—of the beloved. Working like an enchantment, fascination is a branch of love that is best defined as a situational and instant kindling of the appetite that paralyzes or stuns the lover, entrapping him in a dream-like phantasy. Like the Greek hero, Actaeon who was stricken by Artemis’ beauty, so Thingol, Beren, and Aragorn were pierced through the heart once catching sight of their respective beloveds. In the Silmarillion we read that Thingol, once taking Melian’s hand, is overtaken by a spell that lasts for many years. Beren likewise, after catching sight of Luthien becomes, “dumb, as one that is bound under a spell…” Later he lays “upon the ground in a swoon,” pining for his beloved like the courtly knights mentioned in Tolkien’s Letters (#43). Aragorn too, imitates Beren’s behavior, calling Arwen “Tinuviel,” and standing transfixed and amazed, as in a dream.
    I wonder how the fascination concept can be compared to the ideas of hroa and fea. While undoubtedly a baser form of love, fascination does seem to initiate ‘soul-knitting,’ or in other words, marriage. I think it’s certainly possible that fascination first brings the lovers’ fear into awareness of each other. Theoretically the next step, marriage, occurs when both lovers’ fear latch onto each other and build some sort of metaphysical bond. I don’t really know how this relates to the concept of hroa as house and raiment, but maybe this is another reason why an Elf that marries a human must die. The fear, are bound—and one must depart with the other, sort of like the Genesis “two must become one flesh.”

    Andrew Manns

  3. Reading this post, I couldn't help but to look at Tolkien's concept of matrimony in a religious framework.

    Tolkien's emphasis on the importance of matrimony has firm roots in Catholic belief. For Catholics, marriage is one of the seven sacraments. The effect of this sacrament is to increase the sanctifying grace for each spouse; the man and the woman, through the marital union, help each other advance in holiness. They also guarantee that God's plan will be continued, for their union will produce children that will be raised in the Catholic faith. Additionally, there is a symbolic connection between the union of man and woman in marriage, and the divine union between Christ and his Church.

    Can we place Tolkien's characters in this framework of the sacramental Catholic marriage union? To me, it certainly seems like we can. This post talks about the loyalty of the men to their beloveds (even in the face of temptation), and the clear end goal of marriage. As readers, we never doubt that, on an individual level, Aragorn fights in the War of the Ring in order to win Arwen's hand in marriage. Marriage is his clear goal: he does not seek to win her as a lover. The union of Arwen and Aragorn epitomizes the Catholic ideal of marriage. The two unite, and through their union, they produce more good in the world, and heirs that will be raised with the same set of values. Their marriage does feel almost sacred to readers, pushing us closer to the idea that marriage really is a sacrament.

    -E. O'B

  4. Excellent attention to the importance of marriage both in Tolkien's own life and in the relationships between his characters! I particularly liked your emphasis on the importance of will. Perhaps this is the reason that it is Elf-women who marry Men: the Man must make an effort of will to stay faithful, while the Elf-woman makes the effort of will to stay with him even unto death. Which is the harder choice?


  5. I definitely think that everyone within Lord of the Rings 'ends up,' so to speak, with the proper person -- that none of their marriages are mistakes. Clearly, Aragorn and Arwen in particular are soul-mates in the truest, broadest sense of the word: their union is one that motivates both of them to great deeds and tremendous sacrifices, and one that, against all odds, unites not only the two of them but the bloodlines of the highest of the Elves and the highest of Men.

    Eowyn's role, I think, is interesting -- she becomes infatuated with Aragorn and is subsequently turned down because of that noble soulmate-like bond that Aragorn already has with Arwen. But it's clear that it was an infatuation, and not love, and I think that that's an important distinction to make. She 'loves' Aragorn because of his kingliness and role as a warrior. Faramir, on the other hand, she loves, and we see the story of their love as creation, rather than destruction -- healing of hurts and creating of new bonds. She and Faramir discover themselves together and, in joining, are able to rebuild their shattered lives, the land into which they move together, and the bond between their peoples.

  6. I would like to agree with the comment above mine – in the Éowyn – Aragorn – Arwen – Faramir formulation, there are no “mistaken” marriages, but, in fact, only unions that represent the highest and noblest cause for the ascent of Men and the rebuilding of Middle-earth. In his created world, Tolkien seems to have been far more optimistic about romance than he was in real life, or at least in his letter to Michael. The true “mistake” would have indeed been for Aragorn and Éowyn to become romantically involved. Perhaps the fact that they get as close as they do, which, though we can only guess, seems to amount only to the slightest, spiritual transgression, is textual evidence of this opinion of the author. However, in the period before the LotR there are loads of ill-conceived, badly-advised marriages. Some are truly and objectively unions of evil and discontent, ruining lives and generating angry, evil offspring, i.e., Ëol and Aredhel, Túrin and Níniel. However, many others, including the most celebrated and blessed, are the results of decidedly bad choices. When Thingol disapproved of his daughter marrying beneath her, did he ever stop to think about the angelic being that he snared in matrimony, ensuring that neither of them would ever return to see the light of Valinor? Maybe, but they were happy together. Perfection doesn’t seem to be what Tolkien saw in marriage, and this, in the end, seems to be a rather reasonable viewpoint.
    - J. Wetherell

  7. You make an interesting point that, from Tolkien’s perspective, men are not naturally monogamous, while women are, so that committing themselves to one person was easier for the women. However, I’m not sure how an Elf’s immortality makes a difference in that decision. Are you implying that Aegnor would prefer to sleep around until the end of time, rather than commit to a shorter time with just one person? Is it the monogamy or the mortality that is the hangup? It seems like the difficulties of monogamy would be less of a concern if you were trading in your immortality for a short little mortal lifetime – less time that you have to work at being monogamous!

    With regards to Aragorn and Ëowyn, I always felt that what made their relationship so touching and so genuine was that Aragorn did have feelings for Ëowyn; it seemed to me that is somehow Aragorn had never met Arwen, he would have fallen in love with and married Ëowyn. And since there was no guarantee that Aragorn would be allowed to marry Arwen or that she would wait for him instead of sailing off into the sunset, I like to believe Aragorn considered staying with Ëowyn (if they didn’t both die in the war). But ultimately, while they are adequately suited to one another, they are not ideal, and Aragorn and Arwen are destined to be together. I think this reflects the point you make about Tolkien’s feelings on marriages so often being mistakes: Aragorn + Ëowyn (would have) = just fine, but ultimately been a mistake because Arwen is actually the most suitable choice.


  8. Wow! So many comments! I'm not sure what to say to all of them. As far as the issue of fidelity goes, I think it would be harder to be faithful than to be willing to spend the rest of your life with someone. There are a lot of people in the world and even if there's one person who's best for you (let's say Arwen for Aragorn) there might still be someone else (like Éowyn) who would be maybe not the best but at least pretty good. If Aragorn hadn't met Arwen, I think he could have been happy with Éowyn and he might not have even thought he could be happier. Agreeing to spend your life with someone is a HUGE commitment and it takes a lot of work. However, it's a lot easier if they're the only person you're interested in. If, on the other hand, you agree to be with someone who is great for you and you meet another person who could be great for you, it would not be unusual to think you wanted to be with both. And then what do you do? Are you unfaithful? Do you leave? Do you ignore your feelings and a potential relationship with someone else? Do you try to have a friendship with someone knowing you secretly would like more? I don't know how much of this went through Aragorn's head when he met Éowyn. I do think he at least saw the potential for a happy life. It would have been so easy for him to stop his difficult task and settle down with Éowyn. I'm confident it took some effort on his part not to give in. Arwen was willing to die for love. Death is easy. And immortality isn't all it's cracked up to be. Living is hard. Making choices is hard. Hurting people you care about is hard. Aragorn had to hurt Éowyn when he chose to stay with Arwen. Fidelity seems more difficult.

    As far as preferring sleeping around to a short lifetime with one person, I don't know if either of those options are good or bad. I think Aegnor didn't make the choice because of many factors. I think it was more a combination of difficult choices that prevented him from marrying than one unpleasant choice.


  9. A quick note about early medieval Christian marriage. Marriage was a very personal rather than public affair. A big ceremony in a church was hardly necessary. The spoken committment between the two parties was itself enough to cement the bond of bethrothal leading to consummated marriage. Having witnesses was a best practice and a formality to ensure proof if anyone disputed the validity of the marriage. One can assume that Tolkien might have been aware of this.

    Since Aragorn and Arwen had already professed their love and declared their intention to bind their lives together at Lorien, in a sense the most important part of the marriage was completed even if the formality of Elrond's blessing and approval was not yet obtained. They were committed in their hearts. Not consumating the marriage until Aragorn claimed his kingdom was more a matter of honor and respect for Elrond than a necessary element to make Aragorn's and Arwen's bond any more real than it already was.

    Therefore for Aragorn to have expressed any romantic interest in Eowyn would have been an act of infidelity because he was in every important way a married man, or betrothed. And betronal, in the medieval Christian sense, was no small matter.

    -Jason A Banks