What ‘The Lord of the Rings’ Can Teach Us About Love
Through his characters Aragorn and Arwen, J.R.R. Tolkien offers insights on love and sacrifice, death and mortality
Following the chapters in The Lord of the Rings is the bittersweet story of two of the trilogy’s characters — Aragorn and his wife, Arwen.
Most followers of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic saga know that this couple waited decades to marry, until the larger tasks of saving Middle-earth and re-establishing the throne of Gondor and Arnor were accomplished.
The story of love and sacrifice, found in one of the work’s appendixes, also delves into questions about death and immortality. In their long and happy marriage Aragorn and Arwen find that love is “strong as death” (Song of Songs 8:6), but death eventually does separate them. Their world is not real, but they aren’t exempt from the realities of loss and aging.
The lovers first encounter each other walking in the woods. Aragorn is a 20-year-old heir to a kingdom of mortal men while Arwen, of elven descent, is immortal and has lived much longer. Their differences don’t matter to Aragorn — he falls in love.
When Arwen’s father learns of Aragorn’s feelings, he initially objects because of his daughter’s higher lineage and because marrying a mortal would mean forfeiting passage to another land to spend eternity with her people.
The question of their relationship isn’t settled until 30 years later, after Aragorn has matured by living in the wild as a ranger. While visiting an elven land he meets Arwen and the couple renew their love for each other.
As she looks toward the land where her family will spend eternity, Arwen pledges to relinquish her immortality:
“‘I will cleave to you, Dunadan, and turn from the Twilight. Yet there lies the land of my people and the long home of all my kin.”
A princess in Psalm 45 is encouraged to make a similar decision to leave her family and marry a king in the line of David:
Listen, my daughter, and understand;
pay me careful heed.
Forget your people and your father’s house,
that the king might desire your beauty.
He is your lord;
honor him, daughter of Tyre.
After peace is restored in Middle-earth through defeat of the enemy Sauron’s forces and destruction of the Ring, and then as Aragorn has been installed as king of Gondor and Anor, the couple finally marry. Their joy is tempered by the bitterness of Arwen’s permanent separation from her father.
Aragorn and Arwen are blessed with a long marriage because Aragorn’s royal lineage entitles him to live three times as long as other men. After 120 years together, Aragorn senses he is approaching the end of his life. An ancient prerogative allows him to choose the time of his life’s end and he decides not to wait until death comes for him.
He tells a distraught Arwen: “Take counsel with yourself, beloved, and ask whether you would indeed have me wait until I wither and fall from my high seat unmanned and witless.”
I don’t think Tolkien was advocating suicide, even though this reasoning seems in line with that of assisted-suicide advocates. The fictitious land of Middle-earth has its own laws and customs.
Still, this seems like a bitter pill for a woman who gave up immortality to spend her life with a mortal. Aragorn’s last words to Arwen before “falling asleep” offer hope for an afterlife for Middle-earth mortals: “In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! We are not bound forever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory. Farewell!”
Arwen is devastated by Aragorn’s death and after saying goodbye to her children, she returns to the land of her betrothal. All the elves are gone and since she also has lost the man for whom she gave up immortality, Arwen lays herself to rest on the hill where long ago she accepted the eventuality of her own death.
Of Arwen’s death Tolkien writes, “and there is her green grave, until the world is changed, and all the days of her life are utterly forgotten by men that come after …”
Even though Arwen is a character in a work of fiction, it’s sad to think that future generations wouldn’t remember the love and sacrifice of her life.
As is found in book of Ecclesiastes (9:5):
For the living know that they are to die, but the dead no longer know anything. There is no further recompense for them, because all memory of them is lost.
Besides showing the beauty of self-sacrificing love, Aragorn and Arwen’s story is a reminder of the wisdom elders have about the Christian life, marriage and pretty much everything else. By spending time with them and listening to their stories we can give them comfort that they won’t be forgotten.