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 Awesome Women of Middle Earth

In Middle Earth, people set a lot of store by convention and tradition—for instance, hobbits take a long time to accept the idea of change or straying from a beaten path (that’s why Frodo and Bilbo are considered weirdos in the Shire), and the people of Gondor would rather spend years and years waiting for the return of a king rather than setting up a new line/system of government. The Elves as a people can’t handle change at all, and prefer to forsake a world that’s outpacing them and retreat to a timeless zone where everything stays just the same forever and ever.

aragornIf you’re a ‘good’ man, the chances are that, during any of Ages of Middle Earth, you are engaged in fighting to preserve this order. Your duty dictates that you give your all in the effort to end Morgoth/Sauron/whatever evil comes afterwards, that you learn the art of war and horseback riding and other such manly pursuits and stay far from morally compromising technology. The only men who really go ‘against’ the dictates laid down on them (and by ‘men’ here I’m referring to males both Elven and human) are some of the High Elves, and of course, Feanor and his sons.

But if you’re a woman in Tolkien’s world, your duty is to rebel.

Yes, this might be a strange thing to say. After all, enough and more people have pointed out how the Tolkienverse is a ‘boys’ club’, how no women were made part of the Fellowship, how there are all of three important women in a book as fat as The Lord of the Rings, all of whom are royalty, beautiful and set impossible standards for female readers. The Hobbit has no important female characters at all, but The Silmarillion makes up for both with a bevy of well drawn, smart female Elves and humans who push the story in decisive directions while, more often than not, their men sit around, ‘doing their duty’.

One glance at Tolkien’s women should be enough to convince anyone of the importance of quality over quantity. All his named female characters are fighters, going against convention in ways that the men never dare to do. Let’s just illustrate this with a few examples:

Galadriel—Galadriel turned her back on a comfortable life in Valinor and ventured forth into Middle Earth, and was exiled from the West for her actions. She braved the Crossing of the Ice, lived through Ages of war against Morgaladriel-the-hobbit-an-unexpected-journey-97371goth, and even when the Elves were granted pardon after the War of Wrath, chose to stay on and rule her own kingdom in Middle Earth. Galadriel is a woman of ambition, who left the West primarily because of the pull of adventure and the lure of her own dominion. And there’s no denying the fact that Lothlorien is really run and sustained by her, not Celeborn.

Arwen and Luthien—I know a lot of people think Arwen is nothing more than a beautiful love interest for Aragorn, but you have to stop for a moment and appreciate the magnitude of her choice. She chose to give up her immortality, to sunder herself from her family forever—no one else pushed her into ‘cleaving’ to Aragorn. Tolkien stresses that again and again, even permitting her a very ‘human’ reaction to Aragorn’s death wherein she finally laments and understands what she’s signed up for.

Luthien, well. She’s a superElf. I don’t think any Elf, male of female, accomplishes what she does in the course of her quest. Standing up for her right to love a human, breaking out of house arrest, convincing a hound to aid her quest rather than drag her back to her father, breaking her lover out of Sauron’s prison, coming face to face with Morgoth and luthienbesting him, convincing Mandos, the Keeper of the dead himself to let her lover out—can anyone claim these feats? And she accomplished all this because she refused to stay at home and sing and wait like a good little Elf maiden.

Aredhel—Before warrior woman Eowyn, there was Aredhel, who wandered on her own through forests and lands unmapped by her kindred. Tolkien presents her as an Artemis-like figure, one for whom domesticity is a confinement. Even after she gets married and has a child, Aredhel feels the need to explore and thinks nothing of walking out on her husband.

Eowyn—The only human to actually kill a Nazgul in single combat. Eowyn refuses to stay behind, awaiting news from the battlefield, to do the caregiving and shepherding duties expected of her as a woman. She breaks away from that line of duty with truly astounding consequences.

eowyn3

Morwen and Nienor—Turin’s mother and sister spent years moving from sanctuary to sanctuary, searching for him. Morwen never allowed despair to overcome her, trudging on until she had found the stone that marked the grave of both her children. Sure, neither of them had the greatest of lives, but they also took charge, plunging out into the field to find their loved ones rather than sitting meekly by and allowing Elf lords to dictate their lives.

Given the context, Tauriel is a perfect fit in the Tolkienverse. She’s spirited, brave and has tauriela healthy disrespect for convention, defines her own duty and role as she sees fit. If it’s the male way to prescribe and maintain settled codes and systems in Middle Earth, it’s the female who questions and pushes back. And through these rebellions, Tolkien’s women advance the storyline, throw back the Enemy and, quite literally at times*, function as lights ‘in dark places, when all other lights go out’.

*Seriously. Luthien, Aredhel, Galadriel, Elwing—these women are literal lamps in dark settings at various points of Middle Earth’s history.

Confessions of a Thranduil Fan

Confession 1: When I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time, I did so without reading The Hobbit. As a result, I had no idea of Bilbo’s journeys, no clue who the hell Gollum was, or get any of the allusions the characters made (especially in The Fellowship of the Ring) to the adventures chronicled in that book. Nonetheless, I enjoyed my first brush with Tolkien immensely, and closed the covers quite satisfied with my foray into Middle Earth.

Didn't get half of that, but i liked it!

Didn’t get half of that, but I liked it!

Confession 2: That first journey into Middle Earth was not entirely without some annoyances. The number of songs in the book threw me off a bit. I didn’t understand why these people, who were supposedly going off on a dangerous quest, spent their energy singing ridiculous songs about leaving home or, even worse, sometimes singing in another language. The Elves particularly irritated me in this regard.

Confession 3: Being someone brought up on tales of tiny elves, like those that helped the shoemaker, I was meandering through LOTR picturing tiny people whenever ‘elven’ characters showed up. This may account for my confusion when presented with descriptions of Legolas the Elf ‘standing tall above’ Frodo and shooting down a Nazgul, or even trying to figure out how on Middle Earth Arwen could be seen as a likely candidate for the hand of the human, Aragorn. I confess that this might have made them look more irritating to me.

Seriously, do you ever stop singing?

Seriously, do you ever stop singing?

Confession 4: This sort of fits into the earlier point, but it stands out so clearly in my literary memory that I just had to allow it its own space. Remember that part where they’re all struggling up Caradhras in Fellowship, getting snowed under by a terrible storm, and Legolas is the only one jumping around and making sly digs at their unfortunate inability to walk on snow? And then he runs off to ‘fetch the sun’? I thought he was such a b*tch. If I were in the Fellowship, drowning like the hobbits in all that snow, or toiling under the weight of packs and weaponry like the others, I would have hated him so much right then, rubbing his privilege in my face.

Plus, he was a total know-it-all sometimes.

Plus, he was a total know-it-all sometimes.

The point of all these confessions is to set the stage for this, the ultimate one: When I read The Lord of the Rings I had a very definite image and impression of the Elves. They were weird, not very likeable people, and I thought they tended to lord it over the others with their unfair advantages. Obviously perceptions changed as I read on, and once I had seen the movie adaptations. I became an ardent Elf-fan–possibly spurred on, like most girls my age and older by Orlando Bloom’s undeniable gorgeousness. I learned Sindarin and attempted Tengwar, and The Silmarillion became, and remains, my favourite Tolkien book.

But the impression lingered, only fostered by the The Silmarillion. I thought the movies were not entirely true to text in their presentation of the Elves. All of them were depicted as beautiful, gracious, skilled in some particular way. But none of them reeked of the raw danger and slight unhinged-ness that was my overriding impression of them. Come on, are you really telling me that immortal beings with a crazy past have no sort of otherworldly neuroses that make them seem downright weird to those less in tune with the music of the spheres?

Enter Thranduil

I'm so fancy.

I’m so fancy.

And so I was pleasantly surprised by Lee Pace’s Thranduil. I thought that, unlike all the other Elves, he came loaded with a sense of dark charisma. With a sense of history, of the woes of Middle Earth that the Elves, especially the older Sindarin and High Elves, have been witness to.

The Silmarillion is a history mainly of the Feanorian and High Elves, but it does make brief allusions to the Sindar. Before the Noldor returned to Middle Earth, the Sindar dealt with the ‘darkness’ of Morgoth all on their own, in the days before ‘days’, before the moon and the sun were set in their place in the sky. They have always had to fend for themselves, never had the Valar to shelter behind. As a result, they have a certain defiance and pride that is missing in the Noldorin, or manifested differently. They are known to be more secretive, less trusting of outsiders, especially non-Elven folk, and act first and ask questions later. Certainly, that’s what happens many times in The Silmarillion, with characters like Eol and even Thingol being great examples. Defend your boundaries before you help others—that is their logic.

Thranduil perfectly personifies this brand of Elf in The Hobbit movies. He is twisted by his time in Middle Earth, has learned a lot by living through the early wars of Beleriand, and is probably one of the few remaining Elves who can remember an Age before men. He even mentions having faced ‘the great serpents of the North’, no doubt a reference to the wars around Angband—Morgoth’s northern fortress, where he unleashed his dragons.thranduil snow

Thranduil, more than any of the other Elves, came layered with history and a sense of remotenesss from the present. Galadriel too has lived through a lot, and played a great role in the shaping of Elven history, but somehow, this wasn’t communicated to me over the course of the movie. But a few minutes with Thranduil acting weird and unpredictable and I was convinced that this was someone who had dealt with more sh*t than Thorin could ever imagine. ‘Do not talk to me of dragon fire!’ indeed.

And the weirdness, the flouncy hand gestures and rather ‘androgynous’ behaviour that he displays: perfect. The Elves are not human. They are a completely different species. They don’t subscribe to the codes of behaviour and ‘manliness’ that we do. Just look at the fact that it’s completely normal for them, in the movie-verse at least, to have a female head of the Palace guard. Besides, all these weird gestures and eye-rolling and utter disgust he displays for the lowly, dwarven folk just fits in with the image I had of the Elves as, sometimes, being downright annoying and rubbing their superiority (both physical and ‘cultural’) in others’ faces. Hence the whole ‘A hundred years is a mere blink in the life of an Elf. I can wait.’

hehe gif

Thranduil freaked me out; he came with a sense of raw power and charisma that only Galadriel overtly displays. Thranduil thrilled me because he was undeniably beautiful, but in a way that was remote, unreachable, utterly inhuman. He was deadly, he was devoid, seemingly, of emotion and compassion, reacting to protect his own before extending his arm to shield others, and overall, layered with an aura of loss and history that, I think, Tolkien describes best after all. The following lines were used by him to describe Frodo’s impression of the Lady of Lothlorien, but I think they work as well for Lee Pace’s Thranduil:

‘Already she seemed to him, as by men of later days Elves still at times are seen: present and yet remote, a living vision of that which has already been left far behind by the flowing streams of Time.’

with retinue

Kicking off the lead up to Women’s Day, fantasy style

So in a grand comeback gesture, I’ve decided to post every day (a bit ambitious, I know, and there are going to be hurdles, like travel and friends in the way) about a different female fantasy character who I see as being a ‘worthy’ model for a modern woman. There I go, stepping into dangerous territory, by dragging in categories worth debating like ‘modern’, ‘woman’and ‘worthy’. There’s no way to de-politicize this however, and I’ve sort of made my peace with that (I think). Besides, why SHOULD I de-politicize and de-radicalize my stance in a world where EVERY THIRD woman is raped and/or sexually abused, and most are subjected, no matter what their race, caste, colour or class background, to verbal and physical sexual harrassment nearly every day of their lives. Yes, living in a city like Delhi in India has served to make this disgusting reality much more immediate than it has been for the past 20 years of my life, and yes, the recent incidents have served to underline the horror and sheer banality of these happenings, but here, in my blog, I want to remind myself of WHAT reading fantasy literature has taught me, how its women have shone as beacons in what often seems a lightless world, and given me the courage to not despair and just give up on humanity.

Though sometimes it seems so, so tempting.

Anyway to turn from darker thoughts. Let me start with my oldest fantasy love, the Ur-text of my musings and writerly daydreams, The Lord of the Rings. Here, I shall shamelessly plagiarize from one of my own old essays, and wax poetic on the Lady of Light herself, Galadriel of Lothlorien.

Fitting, really, given that she is the oldest on my list by, oh, millenia.

 ‘The Lady of Lothlorien’, Galadriel is presented to the reader as ‘no less tall than [her husband]…grave and beautiful.’ She is ‘clad wholly in white…[with] hair of deep gold.’ She bears ‘no sign of age’ (being, in fact, immortal) but for the ‘depths of [her] eyes, for these were as keen as lances in the starlight, and yet profound, the wells of deep memory.’

 

In the creation of this character, Tolkien drew upon sources both literary and religious in nature. Galadriel embodies the ‘missing mother figure’ that is a common icon in many fairy tales. She provides guidance and hospitality to the Fellowship: feeding, clothing and lading them with gifts before sending them on their way. She is, in this way, reminiscent of the Biblical figure said to be her source: the Virgin Mary.

 

 The parallels between the two are obvious when TLOTR is compared to a late nineteenth-early twentieth century ballad by Chesterton: ‘The Ballad of the White Horse’. The hero in this poem is called Alfred, a dispossessed king on a quest to win back his rightful kingdom from the usurping Danes. Chesterton’s poem begins with Alfred’s vision of the Virgin, who counsels him to fight on against the Danes, but refuses to ‘read the future’ for him:

 

 

But if he fail or if he win

To no good man is told…

 

I tell you naught for your comfort

Yea, naught for your desire

Save that the sky grows darker yet

And the sea rises higher.

 Galadriel’s Mirror, which Frodo looks into during his stay in Lothlorien, shows the viewer many images, but there is no knowing whether they are set in the past, the present, or the future. When Frodo asks whether she advises him to look into it, Galadriel responds:

 ‘I do not counsel you one way or the other. I am not a counselor. You may learn something, and whether what you see be fair or evil, that may be profitable, and yet it may not. Seeing is both good and perilous. Yet I think, Frodo, that you have courage and wisdom enough for the venture, or I would not have brought you here. Do as you will!’

 Galadriel urges the Fellowship to continue on their Quest, but refuses to ‘read the future’ for them. Like the conventional mother figure, she offers a refuge for the weary travelers, and is a provider of miraculous gifts and articles that will help them overcome obstacles and achieve their aim. Even the Ring she wears- Nenya- is the Ring of preservation with the power to save and nurture- gifts traditionally ascribed to the mother.

 The Elven Queen also bears traces of another Biblical figure by the name of Mary, but this one is a far cry from the Virgin Mother. Mary Magdalene, the fallen woman who is redeemed by Christ, is also a source for Galadriel. Like Magdalene, she too once sinned. She rebels against the Valar (the great spirits who created the world) and leaves their kingdom (Valinor) to come to Middle Earth and ‘be free’. Once there, she rises to great power, becoming one of the holders of the Three Elven Rings, and Queen of her own realm, but barred from entering Valinor. Her great test comes in the form of the One Ring. When Frodo offers it to her she is momentarily tempted (or so it seems) by the desire for more power. The Hobbit sees her standing before him:

 ”…tall beyond measurement, and beautiful beyond enduring, terrible and worshipful. Then she let her hand fall , and suddenly she laughed again and lo! She was shrunken: a slender elf woman, clad in simple  white, whose gentle voice was soft and sad.

“I pass the test,” she said, “I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.” ‘

By giving up her chance instead of swooping upon and seizing the One Ring when it is offered to her ‘freely’, Galadriel redeems herself and the ban on her is lifted. She is allowed to sail away to Valinor at the end of the book.

 How well does Galadriel conform to any fairy tale type? As far as being a good powerful woman goes, Galadriel defeats the general run of the group members by being quite capable of exciting admiration among men. Yet, like other good powerful fairy tale figures, she is detached from the action in a sense, appearing only to aid the Fellowship, then slipping back into the green shadows of her land. Frodo sees her as ‘present and yet remote; a living vision of that which has already been left far behind by the flowing streams of Time.’ Samwise Gamgee attempts to capture the Lady of Lorien with words:

“Beautiful she is…! Lovely! Sometimes like a great tree in flower, sometimes like a white daffadowndilly, small and slender like. Hard as di’monds, soft as moonlight. Warm as sunlight, cold as frost in the stars. Proud and far off as a snow mountain, and as merry as any lass I ever saw with daisies in her hair in springtime. But that’s a lot o’ nonsense, and all wide of my mark.”

 Galadriel seems to defeat all definition, instead remaining a curious blend of conflicting qualities- both nurturer and redeemed, immediate and remote, gentle and imperious. Rigidly delineated categories seem to stutter and fall before her- all rendered a ‘lot o’ nonsense’ and ‘wide’ (perhaps in this case too narrow!) ‘of the mark’.

Image