Though many characters arcs in the cinematic adaptation of The Lord of the Rings hold my affection, one particular story line moved me unexpectedly. The tale of a daughter contemplating a life married to a Ranger-Turned-King, who would forsake her immortality for many years of happiness. Arwen, the Elf-Maid, wanted to wed Aragorn, but she faced not only pressure from her father against it, but the inevitable truth that he and his descendants would die off, and she would be “alone” until she chose to cease to exist (which Elves can do).
Though a less controversial expansion of a female character than the invention of Taurel in Peter Jackson’s prequel of The Hobbit, Arwen met with mild resistance upon the trilogy’s initial release, from book puritans who did not see the need to “waste time” on her side of the story. I beg to differ, not because I am opposed to masculine-driven narratives (of which Tolkien, with his history in the first world war, and the camaraderie of “brothers in arms” felt comfortable), but because the story needs Arwen in a prominent role for us to understand why Aragorn cannot be with Eowyn, the more obviously “cinematic” heroine—the woman who cross-dresses and sneaks into the army, who chafes at the men who control her, and who deals the final death blow to the King of the Nazgul, the ‘supposedly’ immortal Ringwraiths that have tormented Frodo from the beginning.
Eowyn is an easy character to love and admire, and her obvious affection for Aragorn means that we would naturally have rooted for them to come together, two lost souls in the great expanse of Middle Earth, who find and heal each other’s fears. At least, that’s what I thought when reading the books, because there, Tolkien does not devote much time to Arwen. She appears a few times, makes a semi-memorable impression, and then fades away, lost in his male-driven narrative (… until Eowyn shows up, that is).
But Arwen faces an enormous sacrifice, much like Frodo—where he loses his spiritual life in carrying the great and evil Ring thousands of miles across the world to throw it into the fire, and almost loses his soul, Arwen faces an eternity of division from her lost loved ones, separation from her beloved father, and the harsh reality that as an immortal, she will outlive Aragorn, no matter how much she loves him. Thus, the interactions between she and her father, Elrond, become painful. He does not want to see her “die.” She does not want to leave the man she loves. Arwen decides his love for even a brief time is worth her sacrifice, and her father challenges Aragorn to “become the king you were born to be.”
In the books, Aragorn is not running away from his fate and is not full of fear of what he might become… but I think Peter Jackson and his writing team did a splendid job with fleshing out the first trilogy and making Tolkien’s incredible characters even more “real.” And among them is Arwen—no longer an evasive Elf dressed in white, but a living, breathing, fierce female character, who now challenges the Nazgul and raises the river to wash them away, who gives Frodo some of her precious life force so he might live long enough to reach her father’s healing touch, who wants to obey her father but cannot ignore her heart, and who almost dies because of the great evil spreading across Middle Earth, because she gave her protection, the Evenstar, to the man she loved.
I’m not a sappy romantic, though I love a delightful love story in which two characters come together as equals, but I always tear up when Aragorn sees her, after they have defeated the great evil. She is his bride. His “reward.” And he is hers. Their union reminds me of what a marriage “should” be—two strong, capable people who improve each other, for without him and the promise of his love, she might not have the strength to ignore her father’s advice (however practical), and if not for her, Aragorn might have run away from his destiny forever. He “became” so he could save her. Since Tolkien was a devout Catholic, it’s also easy to see in their union symbolism for the Church and Christ—a sacrificial act, the giving up of one’s Self and one’s Life paralleling the sacrifice of Christ, to ensure the spiritual redemption of mortals. Arwen becomes one of the many “Christ-figures” in the story which includes Frodo (iconic as the “suffering” Christ), Sam (the ever-present Holy Spirit and Servant Christ), Aragorn (the “hidden” King), and Gandalf (the “resurrected” Christ).
The first time I saw The Fellowship of the Ring, I had never read Tolkien. I wept over Gandalf’s fate and that Frodo had to leave his friends. All except the loyal Sam, who also brought me to tears (“I’m going alone, Sam.” “Sure you are, and I’m comin’ with you!”). I could not stand to wait a year to find out what happened, so I bought and read the books. Imagine my surprise to meet Tom Bombadill and… find so little of the fabulous Arwen on my screen. It’s fine if you dislike her expanded role, but I love it. It will forever remain close to my heart.