Friday, May 19, 2017


The stories of union between Elves and Men serve to explore many important themes in Tolkien’s work, including free will and fate, doom and choice, love and possessiveness. Important particularly to the question of death and immortality is the concept of Estel, essentially the embrace of the unknown future contrasted against the embrace of the known past. While Estel is particular to the realm of Men because of the Gift of Iluvatar of death to them, it is an illusive feeling even for Tolkien’s mortal characters.
Tolkien explicates the concept of Estel in the “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth,” a conversation between Finrod Felagund, an Elf Lord, and Andreth the Wise-woman. There are two distinct Elvish words for “hope.” One word is Amdir, or “looking up,” which is “an expectation of good, which though uncertain has some foundation in what is known.” The second word is Estel, or “trust.” Finrod explains that Estel is not founded in the known but instead in “our nature and first being,” and it is trust in Eru, the highest power, that “all His designs the issue must be for His Children’s joy.” (“Athrabeth,” 320) While Finrod explains Estel to Andreth, it is clear that this type of hope unique to Men: he tells her, “it is still to me but strange news that comes from afar. No such hope was ever spoken to the Quendi. To you only it was sent. And yet through you we may hear it and lift up our hearts.” (“Athrabeth,” 322)
            The concept of Estel is prominent in the Tale of Aragorn and Arwen, with Aragorn serving literally as its embodiment. Ivorwen foretells that through the marriage of Gilraen and Arathorn, “hope” would be born for their people; taken to Imladris, Aragorn is called “Estel, that is ‘Hope.’” Aragorn imposes the choice to embrace or reject Estel onto Arwen: Elrond tells him, “there will be no choice before Arwen, my beloved, unless you, Aragron, Arathorn’s son, come between us and bring one of us, you or me, to a bitter parting beyond the end of the world.” Conversely, Arwen serves as a source of hope for Aragorn: in Lothlorien, Aragorn tells her he does not know how the Shadow will be defeated, “yet with your hope I will hope.” As Arwen does for him, Aragorn similarly embraces the unknown, and unfounded hope, through his love for Arwen.
Aragorn seems to be the exception to the rule, however, in his embrace of Estel. In particular the female characters Andreth and Gilraen express skepticism. Before her death, Gilraen says the notable linnod to Aragorn: “Ónen i-Estel edain, ú-chebin estel anim” (“I gave Hope to the Dunedain, I have kept no hope for myself”). Aged as one of “lesser Men,” she cannot face “the darkness of our time.” The implication is that Gilraen has sacrificed something of her own life, to give Aragorn as an embodiment of Estel to the world. (Appendix A.v) In her conversation with Finrod, Andreth considers it as part of the doom of Men that their Estel “should falter and its foundations be shaken.”  She views Estel as Amdir “but without reason: mere flight in a dream from what waking they know: that there is no escape from darkness and death.” (“Athrabeth,” 320) There are Men of the “Old Hope,” who believe that the “Nameless” can be defied, yet to Andreth “there is no good reason” for that belief, and that “all wisdom is against them.” (“Athrabeth,” 320) While Estel may be particular to Men, so also is doubt of it.
In Flieger’s reading of the Tale of Beren and Luthien, she argues that their deaths “carry a message of qualified hope,” in that they are given a resurrection to return to Middle-Earth as mortals (Flieger, 143). Release from bondage, through death, comes through the embrace of the unknown, the acceptance of death without assurance of the future, through reliance on faith (Flieger, 144). This is largely the case for Beren and Luthien, who represent the foremost joining of the two races, where the song of Luthien that achieves their resurrection weaves “two themes of words, of the sorrow of the Eldar and the grief of Men.” Luthien is offered a choice to either go to Valimar, “to dwell until the world’s end among the Valar, forgetting all griefs that her life had known,” or to remain with Beren by returning to Middle-earth, to dwell there without “certitude of life or joy” and “subject to a second death…ere long she would leave the world for ever, and her beauty become only a memory in song.” She chooses to be joined with Beren, which means embracing uncertainty and so “died indeed.” (Silmarillion, Chapter 19)
            The tale of Aragorn and Arwen is a purposeful reiteration of the tale of Beren and Luthien, but there are important differences. Like Thingol to Beren, Elrond gives Aragorn a seemingly impossible task: to become the King of both Arnor and Gondor.  Unlike Thingol though, Elrond’s request is not grounded in covetousness (nor does he secretly hope for Aragorn’s death): he tells Aragorn, “I fear that to Arwen the Doom of Men may seem hard at the ending.” In the telling of the story, Elrond seems to be right. In the scene of Aragorn’s death, Aragorn is composed and at peace with his decision, but Arwen clearly is not. She pleads for Aragorn to stay despite her “wisdom and lineage,” she finds the “gift” of death “bitter to receive,” the “light of her eyes was quenched,” she was “cold and grey as nightfall that comes in winter without a star.” While in Lothlorien Arwen perhaps make the “choice of Luthien,” she does not make a choice at the time of Aragorn’s death: she must “indeed abide the Doom of Men, whether [she] will or nill: the loss and the silence.” Unlike Beren and Luthien who retreat together to the wilderness to await death, the deaths of Aragorn and Arwen are separate and different. While Aragorn rests “in glory undimmed before the breaking of the world,” Arwen dies alone, in winter, under fading trees, and the “days of her life are utterly forgotten by men that comes after” –she dies, to a certain degree, in ignominy. (Appendix A.v) What is the reader to make of this pointedly sad ending? Flieger's reading of death as a good release from bondage seems too simplistic for this iteration of the tale. Is Arwen really failing at the “final test,” by not recognizing that death and “release from bondage” is good? (And is she, literally and figuratively, without Estel after Aragorn’s death?)
As we discussed in class, Elves are characterized by resistance to change and a clinging to the past, essentially living in memory. Finrod explains to Andreth why her love for Aegnor remained unrequited: “’Andreth adaneth, the life and love of the Eldar dwells much in memory; and we (if not ye) would rather have a memory that is fair but unfinished than one that goes on to a grievous end.” (“Athrabeth,” 325) Aragorn frames the choice before Arwen as “to repent and go the Havens and bear away into the West the memory of our days together that shall there be evergreen but never more than memory; or else to abide the Doom of Men.” (Appendix A.v) The choice seems to be to have a “fair but unfinished memory,” or to continue on to a “grievous end.” Maybe Estel is Tolkien’s solution to the problem of death, but it does not seem like even many of his characters, except Estel himself, have it.

Works Cited:
Tolkien, Appendix A.v: “The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen."
Tolkien, “Quenta Silmarillion,” chaps. 17, 19, and 24, in The Silmarillion
Tolkien, “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth,” HME 10, pp. 303-66.
Flieger, Splintered Light, pp. 131-46.

1 comment:

  1. I agree: other than Aragorn and maybe Sam, Tolkien's characters talk quite despairingly of hope. I don't quite know what to make of this. On the one hand, Tolkien is being theologically rigorous, in that his characters could not have what he would consider the true hope that comes with the Incarnation of Christ. But on the other, their hopelessness sometimes seems to express much of his own, almost as if he wanted to convince himself of the hope he ought to have in Christ but didn't. But he is constant in his letters about his faith, which makes this latter reading hard to accept as well. Perhaps he means to show the absolute hopelessness without Christ--but then why give Aragorn such a peaceful death? RLFB