If there is any such thing as the perfect relationship in Tolkien’s legendarium, it would be the union of a Man man (male Man? Human man?) with an elven woman. Beren and Luthien are clearly the poster couple of Middle Earth, the gold standard against which all other marriages are compared. Aragorn and Arwen seem as close as the diminished Third Age can come to the perfection of their ancestors, while Tuor and Idril of Gondolin manage to give birth to one of Tolkien’s favorite half-elves, Earendil the Mariner. Clearly there was something in the coupling that Tolkien liked. The combination of the feminine grace and beauty of the elves with the militaristic prowess of warrior men is the paragon of romance in Tolkien’s world, especially in these cases, where Luthien, Arwen, and Idril are described by superlatives of beauty while their three human lovers are all great kings and lords of high birth amongst men. And these relationships are not just put on a pedestal as examples of perfect human-elf relations, they fundamentally shape the course of Middle Earth. Beren and Luthien achieve in a few months of loving and adventuring what Feanor’s sons couldn’t in thousands of years, Aragorn with Arwen reunite just about all the free people of Middle Earth, and each couple produces progeny that figure prominently in the legends of Arda.
With these three examples of perfect human-elf marriages in mind, it is easy to forget that marriages can also be unpleasant or even disastrous affairs in Tolkien’s world. And interestingly enough, it’s the wedding of like figures that ends up being dangerous, whereas marriages between members of two races, or even of two distinct lineages, are not as perilous. As we mentioned in class, Thingol and Melian, elf and Maia, make an effective couple and together maintained one of the strongest kingdoms in Middle Earth for centuries. However, unequal marriages need not always be across species, nor must the woman always be of higher status than the man. At the end of The Return of the King Faramir, a man of Westernesse and the Steward of Gondor, could safely wed Eowyn, shield maiden of the Rohirrim, a race akin but apart from the heirs of Numenor.
The dangerous relationships are those that occur when two members of close kinship become united. As a caveat, not every relationship of related peoples ends badly; however, most of the prominent courtships in The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and Unfinished Tales follow this trend.
First and foremost is the greatest marriage disaster of them all, the story of Turin Turambar and his accidental incest. Like his kinsman Beren and his cousin Tuor, Turin is at first romantically associated with an elven lady, and seems set up to be the third great Man husband of the First Age. When Turin arrived in Nargothrond with Gwindor the elf, he quickly stole the heart of the beautiful Finduilas, the daughter of Orodreth the king. Finduilas loved Turin deeply, and though this love was initially unrequited, there was a good chance that Turin’s fortunes could have been reversed had he in turn fallen in love with her (The Silmarillion, pp. 209-211). However, Finduilas was driven from Nargothrond by the malice of Glaurung, and, just like everyone else who managed to get close to Turin, fell into suffering and eventually died one of the most gruesome deaths of any of Tolkien’s women characters, speared to a tree by marauding orcs (The Silmarillion, pp. 214, 216). Overcome by grief, Turin is then susceptible to fall in love with the next available woman to cross his path, who just so happened to be his amnesia-addled sister Nienor, with disastrous consequences for them both.
In the Turin story, we see the elf-human versus human-human problem taken to two different extremes. For one, Nienor is about as different from an elf as a human could be. Elves are graceful, beautiful, and refined. They live often in the woods, but they maintain a sophisticated aesthetic that surpasses even the most kingly courts of men. Entering the groves of Caras Galadhon, the fellowship is impressed not with the wildness of the tree city, but with its carefully cultivated beauty – the paths, fountains, and flets, as well as with the kingly radiance of Celeborn and Galadriel (The Lord of the Rings, Book II Chapter 7 pp. 353-354). Nienor, on the other hand, first meets Turin in the least sophisticated way possible – running naked through the woods, completely crazy and unable to speak. She is the opposite of an elf, a wild, uncouth human lost in the woods (The Silmarillion, p. 219). Moreover, in as much as elves are defined by their memory, of the wisdom and skill acquired through long centuries of life, Nienor is defined by her lack of memory. She remembers nothing prior to her flight from Glaurung, not even how to speak.
While Niniel is definitely an extreme example of not-elvishness in contrast with Finduilas, she and her husband Turin are also the closest akin of any of Tolkien’s lovers, unwittingly sister and brother as well as wife and husband. And obviously, incest is bad. In the case of Turin and Nienor, their terrible mistake leads to their joint suicide following the defeat of Glaurung. Another example of incest ends equally poorly: the lust of Maeglin of Gondolin for Idril his cousin leads to the destruction of elfdom’s greatest stronghold, the hidden city of Turgon (The Silmarillion, pp. 241-242). However, while the story of Turin Nienor could have been just a similar story of incest and its consequences, the inclusion of the character of Finduilas makes it something more. Contrasted with the happy elf marriage that could have been, the marital failures of Turin highlight the problem of intra-species marriage, and the dangers of wedding a bride of one’s own race.
Other, less extreme marriages of human men to closely-related women seem equally doomed to failure. Aldarion and Erendis, of Unfinished Tales fame, were both humans of Numenor, he the son of the king and heir to the throne, and she a woman of high birth in Westernesse. Their union was marred by Aldarion’s love for the sea and for sailing, and her displeasure with his frequent absences led to their estrangement and bitter relationship. Similarly, Denethor, Steward of Gondor prior to the battle of Pelennor Fields, was married to a woman of Gondorian descent (from Dol Amroth) also named Finduilas. However, living with her husband in Minas Tirith led to her discontent, and she withered in the city of stone and eventually died, to the dismay of her husband (The Return of the King, Appendix A, p. 1056).
If the pattern of kinship versus marital compatibility holds through this laundry list of relationships, what does it tell us about Middle Earth? The answer may lie in Tolkien’s letter to his son Michael, in which he condemns the male tendency to put women on a pedestal, to adore their lovers as Guiding Stars rather than real people. Tolkien’s legendarium is told for the most part from a very male perspective. All the great heroes, ring bearers, and elf-friends are men, and even the stories of Luthien and Eowyn that feature strong women characters are grounded in a very masculine frame; Luthien is encountered by Beren in the woods, and it is his perception of her the reader sees, rather than hers of him, while Eowyn’s story is told from the perspective of Merry.
In this world of male protagonists, the female love interest must somehow be distinct from the man in a significant way. In most cases, the women are simply higher beings than their husbands – the lords of men marry elves, while the elf king Thingol requires a Maiar to be enchanted. Celeborn is a lordly elf among Thingol’s silvan kingdom, but is still not as noble as Galadriel, Lady of the Noldor, who had looked upon the splendor of the Valar. However, sometimes the woman is merely something distinct from her husband. Eowyn and Faramir are both courageous warriors and effective leaders; their relationship works because Eowyn, as a Rohirrim lady, is distinctly characterized from Faramir, and the two only meet and fall in love after they had both been established as strong personalities and effective leaders. The marriages that do not work out are the ones that seem the easiest to enter into. Denethor and Aldarion marry women of noble lineage within their own societies, but who are unspectacular when compared to their royal husbands.
In this sense, it seems that ordinary marriages don’t work out in Tolkien’s world. All the conventional husband and wife parings end poorly for their participants. The marriages that do succeed, however, are the unlikely matches, the unions of two distinct, unlike characters who meet and fall in love, and then must battle the fates and fortunes of Middle Earth to maintain the relationship. In this regard, Tolkien seems almost to be a bit of a pessimist: only the marriages that achieve the special status of uniting unlike people are allowed to survive. In light of the comments made in his letter to Michael about his own relationship to Edith, it makes one wonder- was she somehow distinctly non-human, an elf or Maia in his eyes? Was his Luthien a proper Eldar, and their marriage the kind of union that defied the boundaries of race and lineage? It would seem such a [pairing] is, in the world of Middle Earth, the paragon of love and the highest model of what love can achieve.
APPENDIX A: See comments.
APPENDIX A: See comments.