More Than Memory: Death as Eucatastrophe in ‘The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen’
In the fullness of time, Aragorn and Arwen come to their parting after many long years together. Unlike his Númenorean ancestors who were poisoned by the deceits of Sauron and grew to fear death so greatly they did anything they could to prevent the inevitable, Gondor’s King willingly embraces his mortality. As he tells his beloved wife, “to me has been given not only a span thrice that of Men of Middle-earth, but also the grace to go at my will, and give back the gift. Now, therefore, I will sleep” (The Lord of the Rings, Appendix A, 1037). Aragorn realizes his long life is not his own but a gift loaned to him which must be returned. To give it back of his own free will was one way he showed love, faith, and trust in the God of his ancestors, who was also his own. In several different letters, J. R. R. Tolkien notes this belief in God Aragorn’s Númenórean forefathers held to and their freedom to return the gift of mortality He gave them. “The Elder [Elves] and the Númenóreans believed in The One, the true God…. A good Númenórean died of free will when he felt it to be time to do so” (Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien 243, 205).
The Númenóreans were pure monotheists. The top of the Mountain [in Númenor] was dedicated to Eru, the One, and there at any time privately, and at certain times publicly, God was invoked, praised, and adored. But Númenor fell and was destroyed and the Mountain engulfed, and there was no substitute. Among the exiles, remnants of the Faithful [those who had not succumbed to Sauron’s deceits and survived to come to Middle-earth] … religion as divine worship…seems to have played a small part….
[During Aragorn’s reign, Tolkien presumes,] the worship of God would be renewed, and His Name (or title) be again more often heard. (Letters 193-194, 207)
With this rich backdrop of belief, Aragorn shapes his life by Biblical principles that will not exist in such form for thousands of years, yet already live in him. Throughout the tale recounted in the Red Book of Westmarch, composed by hobbits in his lifetime, there are examples he walks “by faith and not by sight” and “fought the good fight…[ran] the race to the finish…kept the faith” (Jerusalem Bible Reader’s Edition 2 Cor. 5.7, 2 Tim. 4.7). He is one of those who could be counted, as “Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20.29).
On his deathbed, Aragorn obtains for himself through humility, trust, and faith what those of his ancestors who fell away from worship of the One tried to take by force. Sauron’s deceits caused them to fear death, to wish to do anything to live forever, and drove them to break the Ban against entering the Undying Lands in their bid to obtain eternal bodily life. Aragorn’s lineage comes, however, from the Faithful who remained true to God, and so he willingly surrenders his bodily life to enter eternal spiritual life. The fallen Númenóreans not only destroyed themselves but their entire kingdom with their faithlessness; Aragorn receives a great reward with his faithfulness. Tolkien notes, “It was…the Elvish (and uncorrupted Númenórean) view that a ‘good’ Man would or should die voluntarily by surrender with trust before being compelled (as did Aragorn)” (Letters 286, emphasis in original). The King gave his heart, body, mind, and soul to the One who made him, and now returns them before they degrade into such a condition death comes from this and not from free will. “Only faith can guarantee the blessings that we hope for, or prove the existence of the realities that at present remain unseen” (Heb. 11.1). With such fearless acceptance and embrace of death, Aragorn speaks some of the most inspiring and faith-filled words in the entire tale: “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!” (LotR, Appendix A, 1038).
Aragorn does not know any more than anyone where the Road will next take him, but still he trusts, as even today the Christian trusts. For someone who lives in a pre-Incarnation, pre-Resurrection time, the King’s faith is even more admirable because of this ignorance. The modern-day Christian has two millennia of faith and belief to buttress their own hope and trust, but in Aragorn’s time, this is 4000 years in the future. Yet the same strong hope, faith, and trust lives within him. Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull note, “In [Tolkien’s] unpublished letter to Eileen Elgar, begun 22 September 1963, he says that although no one knew the purposes of the One in regard to Men beyond the end of the world, or beyond their death, Aragon trusted that they were good, and that if he and Arwen bound themselves in obedience to that trust they would be reunited” (The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion 702).
Aragorn’s words do not ease Arwen’s grief. She has no foundation to base this hope on for her husband or herself, as her Elven upbringing does not include knowledge of where Men go after they leave the Halls of Mandos. Tolkien noted, “The Doom (or the Gift) of Men is mortality, freedom from the circles of the world. Since the point of view of the whole cycle is the Elvish, mortality is not explained mythically: it is a mystery of God of which no more is known than that ‘what God has purposed for Men is hidden’: a grief and an envy to the immortal Elves” (Letters 147). As far as Arwen knows, this separation is permanent. She faces mortality now in all its bitterness and does not at all consider it a gift. Aragon, however, foreshadows what St. Paul will speak of: “For we must be content to hope that we shall be saved – our salvation is not in sight, we should not have to be hoping for it if it were – but…it is something we must wait for with patience” (Rom. 8.24-25). The King tries to relay this to his beloved Queen, but he knows he cannot comfort her. She cannot, as yet at least, share in something so totally outside her experience. Linda Greenwood observes:
As with Luthien, Arwen surrenders immortality and takes on mortality as a gift to Aragorn. …however, the blessing given in love to Aragorn becomes a curse to Arwen. Hence her great sorrow in the end. She speaks at the deathbed of Aragorn and shares her new knowledge about mortal men: ‘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,’ (RK, Appendix A, 347). … For Aragorn death has become a gift instead of the doom his line had perceived it as in the past. For Arwen, the mortality that her line had viewed as a blessing to man becomes a curse: ‘She was not yet weary of her days, and thus she tasted the bitterness of the mortality that she had taken upon her.’ (343)
Just after Aragorn falls into the sleep of death, there is evidence his gift is well-received: “Then a great beauty was revealed in him, so that all who after came there looked on him in wonder; for they saw that the grace of his youth, and the valour of his manhood, and the wisdom and majesty of his age were blended together. And long there he lay, an image of the splendour of the Kings of Men in glory undimmed before the breaking of the world” (LotR, Appendix A, 1038). From this, it can be guessed the One greets him by the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt 25.23).
After Arwen chooses her own time to fall to sleep, it would taken even more trust than Aragorn shows, if she did not know or believe on her own what was beyond, yet still surrendered, holding onto her husband’s belief.
Greenwood, Linda. “Love: ‘The Gift of Death’.” Tolkien Studies: An Annual Scholarly Review, Volume II, edited by Michael D.C. Drout and Douglas A. Anderson, West Virginia University Press, 2005, pp. 171-195.
Hammond, Wayne G., and Christina Scull. The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion. Houghton Mifflin, 2005.
The Jerusalem Bible Reader’s Edition. Edited by Alexander Jones. Doubleday, 1966, 1967, 1968.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter. Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
—. The Lord of the Rings. 2nd ed., Houghton Mifflin, 1965-1966.
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