Friday, May 19, 2017

Shipwreck and Guiding Stars

For all the interesting and problematic quotes that Tolkien's Letter 43 gives us, one line that I found quite beautiful and that really struck home with me is when Tolkien is talking about how his son and men more generally should think about the women in their lives "as companions in shipwreck not guiding stars".  Simply as a metaphor for love this line is quite beautiful as Tolkien paints a striking image of a seafarer wandering the oceans following the next brightest star that draws his attention living a life that is forever unfulfilled and lacking in true happiness and love until he finds himself shipwrecked and discovers companionship that will be with him through the tragedy and Fall that is human existence.  As a way of thinking about love and one's life this appears to be a concept that Tolkien may have idealized and believed in, but one which he struggled with.  It appears that Tolkien highly idealized his wife whom he viewed as his own Luthien.  As was pointed out in class, many of the women in Tolkien's stories tend to be highly idealized and lack a certain amount of deeper characterization that deals with their flaws which causes them to be thought about as "a kind of guiding star or divinity".

In the relationships between male humans and female elves (Luthien and Beren, Aragorn and Arwen) the female elves are held up as nearly prefect divinities whose light the men cannot help but be drawn into by.  The decisions of the female elves to give up their immortality for the mortal men whom they love appears to usually be used as one of the more sexist or problematic parts of Tolkien's work.  I think however there might be much more to these decisions than the women simply being forced into choosing the 'family life' and therefore being somehow subservient or having less free will than their mortal men counterparts.  Tolkien certainly wants us to see these decisions as being the 'correct' choice and I have no issues with this and do not see this as problematic as others have said (see Is Tolkien Seixst?).

In order to think about why we should see the decisions to forsake immortality for love as the correct choice we first need to think about what immortality means in Tolkiens legendarium.  The gift of death was given to humans by Illuvatar to allow them to operate beyond the music of the Ainur and to shape their own lives as they wished.  The consensus in class seemed to be that elves are not therefore better off than humans.  The elves have to live with the regret of the whole history of the world, and they cannot escape the burden of the countless sorrowful memories that have plagued them throughout their existence.  Therefore while humans want immortality and envy the elves, the elves in turn envy the humans and want to be able to escape this world which they have been trapped in.  The fear or spirit of men upon death departs from the world for a destination unknown even to the Valar.

When thought about from this angle a few questions arise for me.  How is Arwen able to make the choice to forsake her immortal life?  By giving up their immortal lives, are Luthien and Arwen then able to operate outside the music of the Ainur and shape their own lives as the please?  Is this a choice many elves would make if they were able to?  It seems that the love between Aragorn and Arwen and Luthien and Beren allowed the elven women to be freed from their ties to the Earth that the rest of the elves are unable to escape because of how they were made.  Arwen especially seems to have had the best of both world because not only did she get to live for a few thousand years as an immortal, she also got to be with the person she loved and escape all her sorrowful memories an finally die.  From the perspective of Tolkien's world i am having a hard time seeing how this could be anything but the most correct choice.  Additionally just being able to make the choice to be with the person that you love at the end of the day seems to be the right choice.  Tolkien, in my view at least, seems to be trying to get us to believe that humans because of this gift from Illuvatar are better off than elves, so it only makes sense that the choice is made for the couple to both be human and that this is good.  In this case of the human that chose immortality to be with the elf he loved i think that we are supposed to also believe that is a fine decision to make because humans have free will and can make that choice if they so choose.  He may however have regretted that choice after a couple thousand years.

Lastly, i think it is not only important that the choice is given to the women in the case of Luthien and Arwen and not to the men, but going back to the quote about guiding starts and companions in shipwreck it is quite beautiful that the 'stars' choose to literally Fall from the sky to be companions with the loves of their life in the greatest tragedy and shipwreck of all existence, mortality.  I know i have argued throughout this blog post that death is supposed to be a better choice than immortality, but that does not change the fact that death is still not sad and tragic, especially when it comes too soon.  The argument over whether Tolkien is sexist or not and whether the characters of Arwen and Luthien somehow contribute to this to me seems somewhat moot because at the end of the day Tolkien is a man, and all men are sexist to some degree.  In letter 43 Tolkien is speaking from his heart, and while many problematic quotes can be drawn from this letter, i hope they do not detract from his greater work.



  1. Nicely argued. I agree: Luthien's and Arwen's choices (and they make real, free choices) need to be set in the context of Tolkien's discussion of Death as a Gift, not a punishment. They accept Death--and thus are given the Gift of Men. That we, Tolkien's readers, find this a bitter choice says as much about our attitudes toward death as it does our attitude toward marriage. In fact, as I mentioned in class, choosing Mortality gave Luthien and Arwen life--in the life of their children, who go on in their various ways to save Middle Earth. To coin a phrase, it's complicated! RLFB

  2. "Arwen especially seems to have had the best of both world because not only did she get to live for a few thousand years as an immortal, she also got to be with the person she loved and escape all her sorrowful memories an finally die." All right, I'm not entirely convinced by this sentence, it seems to oversimplify Arwen's (already not-so-complex) character. I counter: What is so indubitably "correct" about this? Does Arwen not love her father, and her people? Why does it need to be her romantic love which is most powerful? And is there truly nothing but "sorrowful memories" for her to escape? I don't agree that Tolkien's view is that elves are unequivocally worse-off than humans. I think the most convincing counterargument to the existence of a "correct choice" is Tolkien's emphasis on Free Will. Letter 153: "Elrond chose to be among the Elves. His children -- with a renewed Elvish strain, since their mother was Celebrían dtr. of Galadriel -- have to make their choices. Arwen is not a 're-incarnation' of Luthien (...) When she weds Aragorn, she 'makes the choice of Lúthien', so the grief at her parting from Elrond is specially poignant.' She makes /the/ choice, not the /right/ choice. Furthermore - "Immortality and Mortality [are] the special gifts of God to the Eruhini (...)" Elrond's children, not just Arwen, but Elladan and Elrohir his /sons/ also, have to make choices (he states this explicitly in his letter!) We do not know what love or fear compels them to make their irrevocable choice to choose "which kin's fate they will share." In the same letter, he acknowledges "The entering into Men of the Elven-strain is indeed represented as part of a Divine Plan for the ennoblement of the Human Race, from the beginning destined to replace the Elves." Humans are the future, but are they "better off"? I'm not convinced. Males can love just as well as females, and one kin is not absolutely superior to the other. Each must choose. I see no reason why it is more fitting for females to choose mortality out of love than it is for males.

  3. First, while I'm not entirely sure what it would contribute to this particular argument, I do want to bring up that there is a very contrasting example to what you just talked about: Earendil and Elwing. Both of them are given the opportunity to pick being mortal or an elf and here the woman, Elwing, decides that she wants to remain an elf and even though Earendil doesn't love the idea of being an elf, he decides to become an elf so that he can continue to be with Elwing. If nothing else this lends itself to the idea that 'romantic love' is somehow the ultimate great / right decision a person can make. This is arguably problematic in its own way, but it at least makes Arwen's and Luthien's choice seem slightly less sexist.

    I'd also like to add a bit more to your argument as to why Arwen's and Luthien's choices could be seen as the 'right' choice, largely based off of a later blog post. Estel is described as a sort of 'trust' in the unknown, rather than an expectation than things will work out. Both Arwen and Luthien displayed estel in their choices, and the language surrounding Luthien's choice especially reveals this since Mandos tells her that choosing a life as a mortal will not guarantee her any happiness, but she chooses to trust in the unknown and go with Beren. Given the way that Tolkien sets up estel as somehow being greater than how we usually perceive hope, Luthien's and Arwen's choices could be seen as the correct ones purely because they do display estel.