Sunday, May 25, 2014

Is it better to love and lose than to never have loved at all?

“ ‘Tis better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all. “
      Alfred Lord Tennyson

Finrod would not agree with the above sentiment, allowing that by “to have loved” is meant the full realization of a relationship, not just the experience of the emotion. He believes that it is for the best that his brother Aegnor chose not to pursue a relationship with Andreth, despite his feelings for her. Andreth believes that he does so because, as a Man, she is not worthy of an Elf. However in a later conversation Finrod explains that his brother’s actions were motivated by his regard for her. Aegnor took the path that to him seemed the wisest, and which he though whould bring them both the least pain (Morgoth’s Ring 335).
Thus Tolkien provides only a teasing glance of something much desired by readers, a relationship between a male Elf and a female Man. There are reasons why this relationship does not come to fruition within the story and larger ones as to why in none of the three unions between Men and Elves the Man was a female. Situated as it is within the Athrabeth Finrod Ah Andreth, perhaps Tolkien’s most direct discussion of the differential nature of death within his creation, the brief account of Aegnor and Andreth also speaks deeply to his own feelings on the connection between love and death.
The first thing to keep in mind when considering Aegnor and Andreth’s relationship is that [theirs] would have canonically been the first between an Elf and a Man. Andreth was Beren’s great-aunt after all. Because there has been no union between Men and Elves, neither of the solutions eventually enacted, for the Elf to become mortal or the Man of the Eldar as seen in the tales of Beren and Luthien and of Idril and Tuor respectively, can be imagined. In fact both of these options involve a change in Fëa, which, as mentioned earlier in the Athrabeth, can only be taken by Eru. In fact it does take an act of Eru to change Luthien’s fate (Morgoth’s Ring 340), while Tuor’s change is remembered only through tradition, and the precise nature or mechanism of his fate remains unknown.
Given this the weight given to the actuality of a relationship between a mortal Man and a, for all practical purposes, immortal Elf make more sense. Andreth is mortal; she will age, while Aegnor does not. Whether she leaves him, as she claims she would, or Aegnor stays with her, as Finrod asserts he would, she will be pitied, a fate that Aegnor does not wish to bestow upon her. There is also, always, the matter of death. In a specific sense Aegnor knows that his death is near and will come sooner in fact than Andreth’s. He seeks in his withdrawal, to spare her this pain as well. In a more general sense the union between man and Elf would be presumed to end upon the Man’s death. Here it is important to understand that Tolkien uses the word “union” in a formal sense, to denote a marriage, not just the mutual recognition of romantic feelings. We should also keep in mind that Tolkien’s Elves are monogamous (Morgoth’s Ring 210), Finwë alone is the exception to this. If one where to take a mortal spouse they would also be taking on the years of solitude that would follow their partner’s death.  Finrod brings up the Elves preoccupation with memory, stating that they would rather remember the possibility of something beautiful than the actuality of something tragic (Morgoth’s Ring 325). Although Finrod and Andreth cannot know this, both Luthien and Arwen die of Grief following the death of their mortal spouses. Aegnor, and by extension Finrod project this dread at the weight of sad memories onto Andreth, assuming that she too would rather have the beautiful possibility than a painful reality.
“Death to Elves [appeared] a totally different thing from death as is it appeared to Men”(Morgoth’s Ring 339). Elves feel death so deeply because to them it is unnatural. They were born to live until the end of the earth and their loss due to violence is a visceral reminder of the world’s marring.  Andreth’s words, “the end is always cruel – for Men”(Morgoth’s Ring 324), are not to imply that that death is not so for Elves but that no matter what they do, or the state of the world, Men will know death, both their own and that of those they love. Loss is a daily, lived reality for all Men in their races memory, no matter what their legends of past immortality may say. Unlike Elves who are careful even cautious in love, they do not marry or have children during war (Morgoth’s Ring 213), and whose lives are charted and captured in their long memories, men have only the actuality of things done and for them beauty is always mixed with pain. To be alive men must die. Their lives are short and roads not taken seem to them not possibilities but regrets. No matter whom Andreth loved, she would lose them.
Because of how the races are split much of Tolkien’s work revolves directly or indirectly around death. He tried to conceptualize death as a gift witch men feared because of evil inherent in the world after the fall. In light of this envisioning of death as a natural thing I do not think that Tolkien would not agree with Finrod and Aegnor, although he might, and did (Letter 43) council prudence of a somewhat less severe sort. He himself married during a war, mere months before he went to the front, and in a letter to his son Michael he mentions the entertwining on a spiritual level of love, life, and death. It is also worth noting that Tolkien identified with Hobbit’s, a type of Man, the most of all his creations in so far as he identified with any of them and he was emphatically not an Elf. Although as always with Tolkien one should be wary of reading to much in the way of autobiographical allegory.
            I described the in story reasons for the separation of Aegnor and Andreth, but there are reasons on a larger primary universe level as well. The notion of a marriage between a male Elf and a female Man would not lie smoothly with the established gender and species roles. To be clear by gender roles I do not mean the types of work done, Tolkien is quite clear throughout his work that females may fight and men may perform household tasks. I am referring to the gendering and racing? of story roles. Females, even when like Luthien they are quite active within the story, are things for men to pursue. Thingol quite explicitly considers his daughter a thing that he is unwilling to give up. While Aegnor abstains from a relationship with Andreth out of a belief that he is taking the wisest course, both Luthien and Arwen would have married their human suitors earlier but could not because they required their fathers’ permission, denying them agency in their own right and keeping narrative agency as the male preserve. Women are pedastaled within Tolkien’s works, a mistake that he admits men, including him, are prone to making (Letter 43).
            There is a parallel, if less severe divide between Men and Elves. Obviously Elves cannot be as narratively passive as females but they lack the passionate striving nature so characteristic of Men. They do not, or cannot, push very hard against their fate and it goes ill for them when they do (see Fëanor and his sons). This works out fine when the Elf in the Elf/Man relationship is female; she is won by her lover and given away by her father. Problems arise however if the female is a Man and the male an Elf.  As the Man in the relationship it is her role to pursue here Elven beloved and fight for their future, but as a female her role is to be pursued. Within the one relationship she cannot be both the chaser and the chased, so within the narrative universe constructed by Tolkien none of the prominent Elf/Man relationships could consist of a male Elf and a female Man.
- M. Coker

5 comments:

  1. I greatly enjoyed your discussion of the role that memory plays in Athrabeth Finrod Ah Andret: that the Elves have a preoccupation with memory which leads them to prefer to "have a memory that is fair but unfinished than one that goes on to a grievous end" (Morgoth's Ring, 325). Yet, by reading Athrabeth Finrod Ah Andret alongside The Lord of the Rings, I think we can draw a stronger connection between Elves and memory, one that defines Elves as much as death defines Men. In "Farewell to Lorien", Legolas tries to soften Gimli’s regret about leaving Lothlorien:

    “For such is the way of it: to find and to lose, as it seems to those whose boat is on the running stream. But I count you blessed, Gimli son of Gloin … the least reward that you shall have is that the memory of Lothlorien shall remain ever clear and unstained in your heart, and shall neither fade nor grow stale.”

    Gimli responds to this kindly but, like Andreth, does not conceive of life in terms of memory: “Memory is not what the heart desires. That is only a mirror, be it clear as Kheled-zaram … Indeed I have hear that for them [Elves] memory is more like to the waking world than to a dream. Not so for Dwarves” (LotR, II.viii, 379).

    From this exchange between Legolas and Gimli, it seems that for the immortal Elves memory is as much life as the actual living of it. For Legolas, who may yet see the fading/staining of Lothlorien, it will exist both as it was, in all its beauty, and as its fades never to achieve that beauty. Legolas, as an immortal that cannot truly die while Arda lasts, will forever be able to mourn the loss of that beauty. Memory is a part of Legolas’s existence and he can escape it even less than Men can escape death. Certainly Legolas (being an incarnate being) can change in body or mind over the years spent in Arda, but since he can never die his memory of what he and the world was is always part of his existence.

    Yet as Gimli expresses, these regrets do not have real existence for mortals except in reflection. Since mortals are limited by their time on Arda, they strive for change, both in the world around them and in themselves. There is only so much that a mortal can do before their death: thus, memory can only serve as a reflection, it can shape an individual’s thoughts about how to act, about how to live, but it itself is not a part of their existence since they cannot hold onto it after their death. As you point out in your post, “to be alive men must die”, and because of this, memory can be no more than a limited part of a mortal conception of existence.

    The relationship of Aegnor and Andreth reflects both of these conceptions in Elves and Men respectively. Aegnor could not love Andreth, marry her, and be capable of separating Andreth “in the sun of morning, and that last evening by the water of Aeluin in which he saw [her] face mirrored with a star caught in [her] hair” (Morgoth’s Ring, 325), from the pitiable woman of old age she would become if he lingered. Similarly, Andreth pursued his Aegnor’s “flame”, as a mortal, one who would be content to let him go if only to experience what she desired before her death. I’m not sure if Andreth is wrong to pursue Aegnor in this way, according to the ways in which mortal existence is constructed within the Legendarium, but a relationship between an Elf and a Man seems doomed to at the very least sadness, and at the worst tragedy, because of how different their conceptions of existence are.

    - Justyn Harriman

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  2. I really like this post. It makes me wonder how it is that death is a gift in middle-earth when it seems to only throw into relief the end of all beautiful things, the feebleness of memory and to fill one with regret. But perhaps this is the gift of Death, that it reveals the lowliness of all Arda's beauties. Because if one must lose it, then it must not be what one really needs in their heart of hearts.

    --Larry B.

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  3. Thanks, M. I'm not completely sure what your argument is, but your engagement with the texts is admirable. If you ever revisit this topic, I'd be interested to see what you have to say. I thought your noting the unusually optimistic way Tolkien led his life—marrying and having children during a horrific war in which he served—was particularly perceptive. Thanks again!

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  4. Wonderful discussion! I'm particularly fascinated by the last paragraph. "Obviously Elves cannot be as narratively passive as females but they lack the passionate striving nature so characteristic of Men. They do not, or cannot, push very hard against their fate and it goes ill for them when they do (see Fëanor and his sons)."

    This is something I've been pondering for a while. Do Elves truly have free will? There are a few places where it's implied that Men have "more" free will. I don't have any answers yet, but it's something I'm researching. I would definitely be interested to hear your take on the topic!

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  5. Entwined as it is in the overarching discussion of death, it is interesting to note the role death plays in the Elf man/ human woman relationship mentioned. If death is really a gift, why would the elves have any qualms over loving the humans or die of grief at their fall? Obviously the idea is not so simple, and emotions don't always follow the most logical course, but Finrod does somewhat undercut his own argument by disapproving of a relationship between Aegnor and Andreth.

    -Will Adkisson

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