Friday, May 23, 2014

Love and Death, Intertwined

      “Hunger and love are what moves the world.” Freud quotes Schiller in Civilization and its Discontents, his great work discussing the two fundamental aspects of human nature--Eros and Thanatos, or in other words, love and death. Tolkien is dwelling on these very two subjects when he has Elves and Men interact with one another, particularly through inter-racial marriages such as that of Beren and Luthien and unsuccessful attempts at such i.e. Andreth and Aegnor. Elves are made Man-like--in stark contrast to the Shakespearean comical elves or devilish elves in Medieval literary tradition mentioned by C.S.Lewis--not only to serve as a foil to Man but to provide opportunity for their union, which sheds some light on Tolkien’s intricate thoughts on love and death. 
          According to Flieger, “Release of Bondage”--or “The Lay of Leithian”, the title of the song in which the tale of Beren and Luthien was originally told--is referring to death. “Through death, Men can let go of life; they be released from bondage to the world.” (Splintered Light 144) For by Eru’s design, Elves are bound to Arda. Immortality is perhaps a misleading word to characterize their nature, because they are not infinite in the sense that Eru is, but rather have the same life span as Arda. (Morgoth’s Ring 311-312) They might be perceived as immortal, because they change slowly as do all things in Aman (Morgoth’s Ring 425-426), but the fact that neither their spirit nor their body can live beyond Arda makes them in a way more limited than the mortal Men are (Morgoth’s Ring 315), even though the latter don’t usually recognize their privilege adequately. (This is perhaps understandable, since on an individual basis the Gift of Eru to is always the Doom of Men, encountered with bitterness and pain. It is only on a collective level that Men’s opportunity to live as a race beyond Arda and to exist outside of pre-determined Music that appear at valuable.) In their debate, Finrod explains to Andreth the dialectics between spirit and body--that the body, though dependent on Arda and made from its matters, is a House made for the spirit who is its Indweller (Morgoth’s Ring 316). It is not a simplistic dichotomy, because they are intimately intertwined and ever interactive: for Elves, hroa is simultaneously lengthened (sustained) by fea and consumed (Morgoth’s Ring  427) by it. For men, their fea possibly takes their hroa with them when they leave the world and enter the next stage of Eru’s design. Therefore death is really an act of transcendence--a Gift withheld from Elves despite their superior wisdom, power and grace, and greater self-confidence (for even though Finrod says that he does not look down upon Men, Thingol certainly does, and so do the earliest Elvish Kings that dislike the residence of the Edain within their realms). The only way an Elf could surpass his or her limitation, his or her bondage to Arda, is through love. “Being immortal she shared in his mortality, and being free received his chain.” (The Silmarillion) Although there is unmistakable sorrow in the tale of Beren and Luthien--because of the sacrifice that Luthien made--their union is nevertheless an ideal for Tolkien. Aragorn and Arwen mirror them. Tuor and Idril who share immortal life in the Blessed Realm are never as fully elaborated. It is also Beren and Luthien that Tolkien identified his own marriage with, because for him, death, through which comes transcendence, is an indispensable part of love. 
      Although Luthien obtains death through love, and Beren obtains love through death (and resurrection), this love-death dynamic does not work in all instances of inter-racial marriages. We have discussed in class how all the three successful cases in the history of Middle-Earth are between men and female Elves. Interestingly, all these marriages also happen with the initial the disapproval of the Elven Kings--all patriarch figures. The only case where a female human being and a male Elf mutually fell in love is dismissed as inappropriate on insubstantial grounds. According to Finrod, “Love and loyalty” holds Aegnor to his kindred (Morgoth’s Ring 324), yet Luthien (rightfully) elopes with Beren, forsaking her family and leaving Doriath shrouded in darkness (for she is their diminishing light, and it is not until her return that the city immersed in misery saw light again). The second reason Finrod gives concerns her fleeting youth, which is perhaps more to the point. He explains that it would be better for Aegnor to remember the glad grace of her youth than to watch her age, because aging would have brought her pity and shame (Morgoth’s Ring 325). I cannot mistake his sexism here, although it is always painful to judge a literary work by political correctness. Even our examination of Beren and Luthien inevitably brings us to think about Tolkien’s own relationship with his wife Edith, who was his Luthien (Letters NO. 340), and about the way he views romantic relationships in the primary world. (His choice of epitaph for his wife shows the significance the Beren and Luthien story has for him: it is the bridge between love and death as well as that between his primary world and his secondary world.) In his letter to his son Michael, Tolkien warns against the over-romanticization of women. The “chivalric tradition” in western culture, he says, idealizes both love and women, making them “guiding stars” and in that process objectifies them, whereas they are in fact as human and Fallen as men are (Letters No.43). “The Lay of Leithian”, however, follows the very literary tradition of “impossible quest typical of medieval romance and fairy tale” (Splintered Light 137) that Tolkien criticizes. The marriage between a man and a female Elf would be permissible, because she is the prize (or price--the coincidental similarity aids me in making my point here) of his heroic adventure. Thingol calls the Silmaril Luthien’s “bride-price”, implying a sense of transaction. Luthien herself is objectified and described as a jewel, seemingly at the disposal of Thingol, whereas Beren is the active agent winning her hand. Her inferiority of gender perhaps compensates for his inferiority of race, whereas in the case of Aegnor and Aedreth the gulf has no bridge. Tolkien does, though, leave a little comfort for Aegnor which Finrod does not foresee at the time of their conversation: The lineage of the Noldor will be eventually converge with that of Andreth, through Beren, her descendant who is permitted to marry the Elf he loves and who begins the half-Elven race, the hybridation of the best of both Elves and Men with the freedom to choose between death and immortality. Here we also see children for Men bear some significance absent in the family relationships of the Elves: Although both engage in the act of reproduction as sub-creation, for Men children are a kind of vicarious immortality, agents to live beyond their own life-span and to construe their unfulfilled wish. Love and mortality are thus in every instance intertwined. 

Sophie Zhuang


  1. I think it is a good point that love of a mortal always means death for the elf. And this is always depicted in sorrowful terms. Elrond especially, in the story of Aragorn and Arwen, is very sad/angry that his daughter chooses to die. Perhaps his and Thingol’s cases can be explained by fatherly attachment to their daughters and not wanting to be parted, yet I still think this attitude is problematic in light of Finrod’s discussion with Andreth. Here, Finrod basically says that elves wish they could die and leave Arda because after a couple thousand years chilling in Mandos, you get kind of tired of the world. Both races seem to envy the other’s fate, so why don’t more elves marry humans? Luthien escaped from Arda, so if the elves were really as dissatisfied with their fate as they say they are, why don’t more follow her example?
    (The only answer I can think of is that that would be kind of cheating, which is why Tolkien sets up so much cultural pressure for elves and men not to marry, and have it happen only in times of great importance.)

  2. I think for Tolkien, the relationship between an elf and mortal, and the love and death that go along with this, is the ultimate eucatastrophe. It is bittersweet, the purest expression of love. I still struggle though, do you think there are any relationships that are not idolatrous in the chivalrous way that Tolkien criticizes?
    Sam--I'm also curious--how much do elves and men interact? It seems like in older days they interacted more, but there seemed to be such a divide between their species, not quite resentment but each was jealous of the other yet wanted to feel superior in a way. It also seemed that elves were more accepting of their fate, as Finrod seemed to accept it more.

    I also have a few questions that are tangentially related to the readings, but I'm curious what Tolkien would have thought of the Hobbit movie's addition of Tauriel. In this case its a female elf going after a male dwarf, but they still seem to fulfill the same roles as many of the female characters in Tolkien. Could Tolkien have ever envisioned a union between these two species--both who are great craftsmen?

  3. I very much like the notion of prize/price you tap into here! It neatly collapses many of the things at stake in marriages between female elves and men—the female elf gives up immortality and her family life, which is a price, but also gains the gift of mortal death, a prize. Men are involved in some dangerous adventure and then rewarded with a “guiding star” (although, as we said in class, there is some agency of women in these adventures!). I also agree that there is some unresolved tension between the advice Tolkien gives his son and the light in which he views his Luthien!


  4. I agree with Hope in that an elf choosing to give up what is considered the ultimate prize, immortality, is extremely romantic and one of the purest expressions of love. Perhaps Tolkien always chose to make the female part of the relationship an elf because of his love for his wife and he felt that a woman in any relationship was close to perfect in the eyes of the man. Just as we discussed in class, women are put on this pedestal in the eyes of the man, and when that woman is an elf she is more than perfect and just as Tolkien saw his wife Edith as Luthien, the men in the story who fall in love with elves will always see their counterparts as the most magnificent.
    Likewise, a female elf choosing to give up immortality for a man closes this gap between them and lessens the elf’s perfect qualities somewhat. I agree that this is why the man to win the heart of the elf is always a hero in some way, because otherwise would he be worthy of winning the heart of an elf? I think we’d all love to think that a mortal men with little heroic background could win the heart of an elf, a perfect human being but if we’re being realistic the partner of an elf would most likely always be a hero in order to be worthy of that love.
    - E.Q.

  5. We have talked several times about the elf "giving up the ultimate prize" here, but not the cost involved for the Man. Remember too that the Man is going to have to leave behind the Elf, something which is also a cost. That is one of the things which the movies actually do quite compellingly, balancing the decision-making so that the Man (Aragorn) internalizes the cost more than the Elf (Arwen) seems to, as he mourns her decision for her sake, despite his obviously great joy! The Elf is not just giving up the prize and the Man is not just winning the Elf's is a tradeoff between growth and loss which, stepping out of the subcreation, is actually completely human. And this is one of the reasons why the “escape” of the Man is a gift…once you’ve already lost love, why live on forever? Better to treasure THAT ultimate prize of love—much greater than life!—for a short time.

    -H. A. K. Stone