In the calendar of Middle-earth, March 25 marks the fall of Sauron; it’s also the date chosen by the Tolkien Society to celebrate an annual Tolkien Reading Day. Not that I need a special day to ensure I’m reading Tolkien — I think I must read something by Tolkien on many days in any given week. But still, I like to mark the occasion and to think about the special theme chosen each year by the Tolkien Society. This year’s theme is “Life, Death, and Immortality.”
Most of my published research deals with this theme by looking at how Tolkien writes about war experiences — the friendships, the trauma, the impairment — but today I sought out something different: Appendix A in The Lord of the Rings, the tale of Aragorn and Arwen. It’s the passage in which Aragorn tells Arwen that the hard hour has arrived in which he will use “the grace” he’s been given as the last of the Númenoreans “to go at my will.”
‘I will speak no comfort to you, for there is no comfort for such pain within the circles of the world. The uttermost choice is before you: to repent and go to the Havens and bear away into the West the memory of our days together that shall there be evergreen but never more than memory; or else to abide the Doom of Men.’
‘Nay, dear lord,” she said, ‘that choice is long over. There is now no ship that would bear me hence, and I must indeed abide the Doom of Men, whether I will or I nill: the loss and the silence. But I say to you, King of the Númenoreans, not till now have I understood the tale of your people and their fall. As wicked fools I scorned them, but I pity them at last. For if this is indeed, as the Eldar say, the gift of the One to Men, it is bitter to receive.’
‘So it seems,’ he said. ‘But let us not be overthrown at the final test, who of old renounced the Shadow and the Ring. In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory. Farewell!’
….And long there he lay, an image of the splendour of the Kings of Men in glory undimmed before the breaking of the world.
But Arwen went forth from the House, and the light of her eyes was quenched, and it seemed to her people that she had become cold and grey as nightfall in winter that comes without a star. Then she said farewell to Eldarion, and to her daughters, and to all whom she had loved; and she went out from the city of Minas Tirith and passed away to the land of Lórien and dwelt there alone under the fading trees until winter came….
There at last when the mallorn-leaves were falling, but spring had not yet come, she laid herself to rest upon Cerin Amroth, 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, and elanor and niphredil bloom no more east of the Sea.
The Lord of the Rings. Return of the King. Appendix A (v)
The end of this glorious love story is uncompromising. Although Aragorn asks Arwen not to despair, he knows there is “no comfort for such pain within the circles of the world.” And although Arwen knows the stories and the beliefs about the “Gift of Men,” — she made her choice knowing all this full well — when the moment comes she also realizes just how “bitter” it is. Although they hold to the hope of an unknown after-life, she finds the personal experience of death an unprecedented sorrow — “the loss and the silence” afflict her, in spite of the fact that Aragorn had led a long and successful life and could even choose the time of his going.
And the sorrow of the passage extends further, locating Arwen in a long span of time in which even she is “utterly forgotten” and the world changed. The littleness of our lives in the course of time and the way in which all trace of our existence is eventually obliterated is something Tolkien does not shy away from.
Their story is one that illustrates well what Tolkien believes can be found in fairy-stories: “both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords” (“On Fairy-Stories”).
This post is written with my stepfather-in-law Gordon in mind, who at the age of 99, on this very day is hoping finally to “go at his will” outside the “circles of the world.”