The Brilliance of the Evenstar

There are three important female characters in The Lord of the Rings.

Galadriel, the super powerful, super cool one, whose beauty, wisdom and general awesomeness is unparalleled.

Arwen, the beautiful one who has a tragic but fulfilling love life.

Eowyn, the rebellious warrior prince who does things that no man can do.

If these three formed a clique, I would assume that Galadriel would be the brains, the leader, the effortlessly cool one; Eowyn would be her slightly sporty, energetic second in command and Arwen…Arwen would be the girl in the relationship.


arwen 1There are few characters in the fantasy trove who confuse as much as Arwen Undomiel, alias Evenstar. On the one hand, she is a powerful Elf in her own right, someone who literally gives away her place in the Undying Lands to Frodo, a favour that he can never pay back. On the other, her role in the book is severely limited, condensed into an Appendix where she is little more than a beautiful presence who sighs and ‘cleaves’ to Aragorn, playing no further active role in his struggle.

In the movies, Arwen veered between a warrior princess like role, rescuing Frodo and facing down nine Ringwraiths, and then becoming a pawn who is quite literally passed from father to husband at the close of The Return of the King. In The Two Towers she is told what awaits her if she actually goes through with the mad plan of marrying Aragorn, and seems swayed by her father’s desire to hustle her out of Middle Earth. ‘Do I not also have your love?’ Elrond asks her and, weeping, she confesses that yes, of course he does.

arwen and el

There are many things that I think Peter Jackson did wrong in the movies (namely Faramir), but his evocation of Arwen’s struggle is nearly on par, for me, with his depiction of Thranduil. It’s quite amazingly perfect. In the book, we never really get a sense of what Arwen herself went through—even in the Appendix, it’s Aragorn we are focussed on, and the quest he has to complete. Arwen’s sacrifice is summed up thus:

And she stood then, as still as a white tree, looking into the West, and at last she said: ‘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.’ She loved her father dearly.

Jackson puts the romance front and centre, shocking those fans who felt his way ‘brutish’ and ‘so not subtle’. He plays out Arwen’s role in her own destiny, stressing how she rebels against both Aragorn and her father in the making of her choice. In the movie, it’s Aragorn who loses hope in their relationship, who tells her ‘it was a dream Arwen, nothing more’, even crassly and rather insensitively trying to give back a gift that symbolized, to her, the ultimate sacrifice. I love how there is just the hint of a bite in Arwen’s retort: ‘It was a gift. Keep it.’

Like, what are you saying?

Like, what are you saying?

Seriously Estel, learn some manners.

Arwen is the one who keeps ‘hope’ for both her and Aragorn, in the face of his demoralisation. He turns to her in his dreams to find inspiration and strength to carry on, dreamand it’s very strongly implied that Arwen is consciously reaching out to him, watching over him in some form. This is not entirely impossible, given that she is the descendent of very powerful Elves, including Galadriel, Elrond and, of course, Luthien Tinuviel, whose form and fate she brings to life again.

If The Two Towers chronicles her rebellion against Aragorn’s loss of spirit, The Return of the King follows her revolt against her father and his desire to protect her. ‘Ada, whether by your will or not, there is no ship that will bear me hence,’ she says, striving to make Elrond understand that he no longer has the ability to force her to emigrate, that it is no longer really a matter of choice for him, or for her, for that matter, to stay in Middle Earth with Aragorn.

Whether he, or her intended, want her to or not, Arwen is staying put.

Deal with it.

Deal with it.

Now is where Jackson, in my opinion, messes up. For some reason, he makes Arwen a weakening force from this point on. Her fate, for some reason, become tied to the Ring. She becomes the physical embodiment of Middle Earth, in some ways, fading as Sauron’s power grows. Though it is her idea to reforge Anduril, it’s Elrond who carries it to Aragorn. If Jackson had to tweak canon, wouldn’t it have been awesome if he’d gone the whole hog and had Arwen bring the sword to him instead, thereby underlining how much of an independent spirit she is? The exchange would have gone like this:

Aragorn: Arwen! But I thought you were sailing to the Undying Lands…

Arwen: Whether by your will or not, there is no ship that will bear me hence. I’ve made my choice, respect it and take this wonderful sword I had made for you.

Eowyn peeks into the tent, is confused, but then realizes that Aragorn really was just a random crush who is way too old for her and besides, she is not ready to handle his angsty moods.

It's so much better when you just let me go ahead and do things.

It’s so much better when you just let me go ahead and do things.

See, this is why it’s so easy to dismiss Arwen as ‘the girl in the relationship’. She is set up as this amazing character, but then for some reason, the film makers, and the author, made her fall a little flat. So she doesn’t do the obviously amazing things that Galadriel and Eowyn do—but neither of them, in my completely unbiased opinion, go through the sort of emotional maelstrom that Arwen does in the course of the film. Imagine being, for all want himintents and purposes, rejected by the man you have given up your immortality for, and being told you don’t really know your own mind, that it was all some sort of fairytale ‘dream’.

This despite the fact that the man is about 2000-odd years younger than you. What a patronising prick.

Despite this, you persevere, only to be sent away ignominiously by your dad for your own ‘good’. When you come back, claiming once again that there is still hope, he tells you—in fancy fantasyish words—that there’s very little and your boyfriend is probably going to die. You hurl away the negativity and tell the men to stop being idiots and just get on with defeating Sauron already.

Arwen’s emotional strength is amazing, and it doesn’t get praised enough by readers, viewers or feminist critics. She is not, despite appearances, a doormat. It’s a sad fact that
centuries of literature and decades of film have told us that while love may be a powerful tool for a man (please read the Loving Hero Paradox), a woman in love is not a rational being. A woman in love is weak, confused and apt to go where her hormones lead her, to be the sort of crazy figure Taylor Swift ironically brings to life in ‘Blank Space’. A woman in love is not the captain of her own ship, and is prone to doing disastrous things. Witness Dido, Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s play, Hermione’s rare bursts of irrationality, even the doughty Katniss can’t be entrusted with ‘real objectives’ of the rebels because her silly ‘feelings’ will get in the way.

Arwen rebels against this reading, and tells her lover, her father, the rest of Middle Earth, to sod off and respect her decisions. Dying a lonely death on a hilltop? It may not have been ideal, but it was something she chose to do. It’s about time we started respecting that, and realising that ‘the girl in the relationship’ is not always the boy-crazy, silly figure we’ve long imagined her to be.

The Magician’s Land


Cover.TheMagiciansLandAll fantasy series come to an end. Cataclysmic, complicated or clownish, eventually the writer tires of playing with the world she’s created and decides to retire gracefully while the going’s still good. Or while the heroes are still young and relatively good looking. No one wants to spend time casting an 80-year old Harry Potter after all, even though audiences would probably still go to the Imax to watch that movie.

Lev Grossman’s ‘The Magicians’ trilogy came to end last year, but thanks to my habit of being chronically late to many parties, I just about watched it fold its covers and retire to a hallowed space on my shelf. It didn’t compel me as much as The Magician King did (oh Julia, you were just something else), but true to Grossman’s form, The Magician’s Land did leave me with a lot to think about, something I always appreciate in a fantasy book.

I’ve said it before, and I think I will continue to say it for years to come: Lev Grossman is a writer who can take the fantasy conventions you’ve taken for granted all your life and turn them upside down. Even in this book, which, in many ways, has the most staid premise of them all, he manages to surprise.

Quentin has been expelled from Fillory, the magical land he once ruled over with his magician friends. Unable, or unwilling, to sink back into the slough of despair that had ruled his return the last time (in The Magicians), Quentin sets himself a new project, and along the way, falls into a number of crazy adventures that unite him with friends old and new, as well as make him some unexpected enemies.

(It is hard to write a book review of a book in a series, I realize. You really can’t give much away at all.)

The Magician’s Land harps on many of the same themes that riddle Grossman’s previous books. What do you do when you have unlimited power and no villain to destroy? What use is idealism and nobility, all the things that the fantasy books teach you, in this ‘wretched, desolate place, a desert of meaninglessness, a heartless wasteland, where horrific things happened all the time for no reason and nothing good lasted for long’? How does all that reading and learning really help you handle this ‘heartless wasteland’?

I am, of course, looking at ‘magic’ as Grossman’s metaphor for higher education, or the sort of crazy idealism that many fantasy readers secretly harbour deep beneath their most cynical surfaces. Quentin, the fanboy, reflects on the lack of ‘obvious’ use/meaning of magic in a world devoid of monsters and dark lords and other obvious personifications of Evil:

‘What do you think magic is for?…I used to think about this a lot. I mean, it’s not obvious like it is in books. It’s trickier. In books there’s always somebody standing by ready to say “hey, the world’s in danger, evil’s on the rise, but if you’re really quick and take this ring and put it in that volcano over there everything will be fine.”

‘But in real life that guys never turns up He’s never there. He’s busy handing out advice in the next universe over. In our world no one ever knows what to do, and everyone’s just as clueless and full of crap as everyone else, and you have to figure it out all by yourself….There’s no answers in the back of the book.’

Quentin is older, more sure of himself in this book, and the burden of being a lost lamb is taken up by a new entrant: Plum. A comfortingly Hermione-like character, Plum is the smart, driven girl who seems to be a fixed type in Grossman’s universe. She steps into the competent friend/caregiver/supporter role vacated by Alice, and disdained by the distant and rather inhuman Julia. The absolute lack of romantic affiliation between Quentin and her probably adds to her appeal, and also makes her the perfect Hermione foil to Quentin’s brooding and distant Harry.

The book provides a good close to a great trilogy, and definitely leaves you wanting more. Will Grossman indulge us with more Fillory books? Will he continue to follow the adventures of Quentin and his friends, or let them walk away into the horizon, triumphant for now? Probably the latter. There’s only so many times you can pose and answer the same questions, until the originality wears off. I wonder, though, how well this very cerebral series will translate when it goes onto TV screens. Not going to lie, I’m a little apprehensive about that.

But screw it, I’ll definitely watch the show anyway.

The Magician King


magician-king-tree2-2It took me more than a year to get to the sequel of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, in spite of the fact that I found the first book very thought provoking. Maybe it was precisely because it was so intellectually demanding that I took my time to pick up the next. Whatever the reason, I’m glad I waited till now to do it, because I don’t think I would have connected to The Magician King as deeply as I did if I had read it a year ago.

The Magician King picks up soon after The Magicians leaves off. Quentin, Eliot, Janet and Julia and the kings and queens of the magical land of Fillory, Quentin’s childhood fantasy. The royal life is starting to get a bit boring, though, so Quentin decides it is high time for an adventure. Accompanied by a band of misfits (including the mysteriously changed Julia), Quentin sets out for Outer Island, the easternmost post of his empire, where he finds a mysterious key that sends him back, dramatically enough, to the cold streets of Chesterton, Massachusetts, and back to the real world. Quentin and Julia quickly realise that the adventure they find is not always as grand as the one they might imagine, and even when things do turn out as dramatic as Quentin might wish, the price he has to pay is not one he might have chosen at all.

The Magician King is a great follow up to its predecessor. If The Magicians was about a bunch of directionless college kids with access to seemingly unlimited power, its sequel captures the aimlessness and quarter life crisis that assails many over educated, under employed and entitled twenty somethings. As great as Quentin is (and I totally sympathise with his needing-to-be-a-hero angst), the character who really spoke to me in this book was Julia.

Like Quentin, Julia’s life changed the day she sat that examination in Brakebills. Unlike Quentin, Julia didn’t get into university, and it destroyed her. The Magician King narrates, in flashback mode, her struggle to learn magic on her own, one that involves long bouts of depression, loneliness, and ultimately, a terrible sacrifice. Julia is the smart kid who was dealt a raw hand by fate, or destiny, or whatever magical being holds the playing cards in a human life. The girl who’s always followed the rules and worked hard and is used to overachieving, and then suddenly things spiral out of control and life lands her hard on her back. Funnily enough, she reacts to this loss in a manner that might sound familiar to a lot of crisis-ridden twenty somethings:

She was dipping a toe in the pool of bad behaviour and finding the temperature was just right. It was fun being a problem. Julia had been very very good for a very long time, and the funny thing about that was, if you’re too good too much of the time, people start to forget about you. You’re not a problem, so people can strike you off their list of things to worry about. Nobody makes a fuss over you. They make a fuss over the bad girls. In her quiet way..Julia was causing a bit of a fuss, for once in her life, and it felt good.

Julia watches Quentin from afar, sees him get brighter, happier, ahead in a field she had never once considered for herself, but when denied access to it, hungers for all the more. Grossman describes the differences between their attitudes to magic thus:

When he walked into that room he’d buckled right down and killed that exam, because magic school? That was just the kind of thing he’d been waiting to happen to him his whole life. He practically expected that shit…

Whereas Julia had been blindsided. She had never expected anything special to just happen to her. Her play for life was to get out there and make special things happen, which was much more sensible…from a probability point of view..

While Quentin is the classic fantasy fan boy who yearns for the kind of adventures he’s read about all his life, and then ends up in one, Julia stumbles into one by accident, and then realizes it’s something she wants. Magic ends up messing with both of them, of course, but while Quentin almost seems to deserve it (almost…), Julia has a much rougher experience. As a result, while Quentin is blithely ironic and stylishly detached from his new magical universe (or pretends to be), Julia is openly dedicated to her art, and will go any distance to get something down right.

James Potter versus Hermione Granger, if you will.

What I loved about The Magician King was the characters’ idealistic and rather naive desire to ‘do something’, to make big things happen now that they were adults living the dream. I think it’s exactly what assails a lot of liberal arts grads (I’m speaking from personal experience here) when they leave their schools—what happens now? What do you do with all the lessons on history and literature and human endeavour in the real world, a world that doesn’t seem to care what you think about Prufrock’s meanderings? Surely there is more to life than work and sleep and making money? Quentin and his fellows find that meaning sometimes, in snatches, but they still experience an almost overwhelming sense of muted surprise. Being the king of Fillory is wonderful, Quentin reflects, but is that all there is for him after four years of breaking his back, learning spells? After such knowledge, what purpose?

Harry has graduated from Hogwarts, but there are no more bad wizards to chase down. Frodo destroyed the Ring and didn’t manage to catch that ship to the West. Rand mastered the secrets of channeling only to be told that the Dark One was a myth and his services wouldn’t be needed anymore.

Magic isn’t always the answer, evidently. And even if it is, you’re not sure you should have ever asked the question in the first place—just ask Julia.

The Magician King is, finally, a great read and Grossman is a genius. Call yourself a Potter fan or a Narnia nut? This book is definitely for you.