Friday, May 23, 2014

Tolkien, Subverting the Romantic Chivarlic Ideal

               The concept of love, light, and the eternal are all tied together in many of Tolkien’s works, most notably in his two most famous couples, Arwen and Aragorn and Luthien and Beren.  These relationships are very similar to one another and are representative of Tolkien’s understanding of male and female relationships.  Another inspiration for either his views on relationships, or for the relationships of Arwen/Aragorn and Luthien/Beren is his medieval scholarship.  Finally, the importance of light to the whole of Tolkien’s mythology is also integrated into these relationships.  The importance of these relationships is that they simultaneously encapsulate some of Tolkien’s most important ideas about the fundamental importance of love for mortal beings.

               Tolkien clearly draws on his own experience with love in crafting the stories of Arwen and Aragorn and Lutien and Beren.  In Letter 43 to his son Michael, he writes, “there is in our Western culture the romantic chivalric tradition still strong… It idealizes ‘love’”.[1]  This tradition creates flaws from both the male and female perspective.  From the male perspective, it is a flawed one because it “tends to make the Lady a kind of guiding star or divinity,” which is, in Tolkien’s words, “false and at best make-believe.”[2]  In men, the major consequence is that it leads to “exaggerated notions of ‘true love’, as a fire from without, a permanent exaltation, unrelated to age, childbearing, and plain life and unrelated to will and purpose”.[3]  This “exaggerated notion” is dangerous because it ignores the reality of the object of affections’ needs and desires.  This exclusion from the tradition as anything more than objects makes women less interested in making the man a “guiding star or divinity”.[4]  Instead, they desire to reform men.  Tolkien writes that women aren’t under the delusion that men should be turned into a guiding star, instead women are under the delusion that they “can ‘reform’ men.  They will take a rotter open-eyed, and even when the delusion of reforming him fails, go on loving him”.[5]  Both of the sexes aren’t acting correctly, the man with his divinification of the woman and the woman with the preoccupation with the salvation of the man.  Tolkien then writes stories that incorporate these themes of divinification and salvation into his stories, while also subverting them.

               The best example of this incorporation followed by subversion is the story of Beren and Luthien.  The incorporation of these elements is that Luthien possesses some divine character due to being the offspring of an elf and a Maia.  This divine character is represented in the secondary world by connecting the epithet Beren gives to her, “Tinuvel” to light as Flieger does via “The Etymologies”.[6]  Light has a divine quality to it as it is all originally derived from the Two Trees, Telperion and Laurelin.  Thus Luthien possesses a divinity that Beren did not confer to her through some misguided chivalric notion.  Conversely, Beren is flawed (fatally so) in comparison to Luthien.  He is mortal!  However, crucially, Luthien does not attempt to raise Beren to immortality.  Rather, she accepts his mortality.  Tolkien writes that upon meeting, “As she looked on him, doom fell upon her, and she loved him… in his fate Luthien was caught, and being immortal she shared in his mortality, and being free received his chain; and her anguish was greater than any other of the Eldalië has known”.[7]  Already there is divergence from the romantic chivalric notions.  Luthien does not try to “reform” Beren, but rather links her fate to his.  This isn’t just a reversal of the ‘male believes female is divine’ mode of thinking.  She doesn’t think he is divine, she links their fates because she loves the man (mortality and all) that he is, not because she thinks she can make him into an elf-like being.  Beren’s subversion of the chivalric trope occurs later.  When he steals away to Morgoth’s lair while Luthien sleeps, he is ignoring her will.[8]  However, Luthien catches up to him and, with her help, he is successful in stealing the Silmaril.  This is the second divergence.  Beren initially fails to consider her will, but when confronted by a demonstration of it (the following him to Angband) he accepts it and works with her to retrieve a Silmaril.  Thus, Tolkien subverts both the elimination-of-will for the divine woman trope and the rehabilitation of man via woman trope.  Through the tale of Beren and Luthien, Tolkien describes a mythical, but healthy, relationship between a man not deifying his lover and a woman not fixing her man.

               There is one more crucial element that Tolkien introduces into his female elf-male human relationships.  And that is the concept of mortality.  There is a reason that Tolkien has the female elves (Luthien and Arwen) become mortal rather than the male humans (Beren and Aragorn) become immortal.  This reason is alluded to in Letter 43, where he writes, “Death: By the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste (or foretaste) of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy be maintained”.[9]  Thus death is necessary, in Tolkien’s view, for love to be truly appreciated.  Another aspect of Iltuvar’s Gift of Men is revealed.  True appreciation of one’s life and one’s love is only possible amongst the mortal species.

-Peter Alexieff

[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Christopher Tolkien, “The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien”, Letter 43, page 49
[2] Ibid     
[3] Ibid
[4] Ibid
[5] Ibid, page 50
[6]Verlyn Flieger, Splintered Light, Chapter 16, page132
[7] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, chapter 19, page 165
[8] Ibid, page 178
[9] J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Christopher Tolkien, “The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien”, Letter 43, page 53-54


  1. I really enjoyed reading your post! Some of the ideas you brought up about the relationship between Beren and Luthien inverting the typical efforts of men and women in a relationship, and displaying what a right and healthy love should look like, were very interesting. I agree with you that Tolkien did this on purpose because, to him, the relationship between Beren and Luthien reflected his relationship and marriage to Edith Tolkien. From the time he first saw her to after she left this earth, she was always his Luthien. I think there is also an element of sacrifice of oneself and one’s own purposes (desire to reform or desire to make divine) in Beren and Luthien’s relationship and I believe Tolkien would deem this necessary to a healthy romance. In order to overcome the natural inclination of reforming or of following a “guiding star,” one must sacrifice those ideas so that he or she can give of himself or herself to the other. Both Beren and Luthien sacrifice parts of themselves for each other: Luthien gives up her immortality (as well as not seeking to reform Beren) and Beren gives up his hand and many years of his life.

    Overall, I really liked your post. Thanks and good job!

  2. I found you're last note on mortality very interesting and thought-provoking. I have a challenge for you, thus; why then, given the "surrender of all" that taking on mortality is, are there no love stories between a male elf and a woman? Why are there no instances of the male in the love-story taking on the complete sacrifice? Is it as simple as he just didn't have two more characters to write into a love story? Or is there a bigger reason?

    I also wonder how you think Arwen and Aragorn's relationship fits in? I would be interested in a similar explanation of them as you did so well with Luthien and Beren. What were the sacrifices of the Third-Age couple?
    I can't help sometimes feeling that Aragorn did little to truly deserve Arwen, a princess of the elves and the closest likeness to Luthien that the elves then had.

    Great post, altogether. I found it very helpful and interesting.
    ~Brendon Mulholland