Who Were the Real Heroes of Middle-Earth?
- Many Tolkien fans know that Beren and Luthien were a metaphor for the romantic relationship between Ronald Tolkien and Edith Bratt, but seldom is the impact of the reality of their romance upon Tolkien's stories taken up in full consideration by scholar or critic. Tolkien was three years younger than Edith, as Beren was the equivalent of thousands of years younger than Luthien. But it was Tolkien's guardian, Father Francis Morgan. Father Francis had cultivated Ronald's education and intended for him to achieve something greater in life than simply to settle down with a girl and have a family. He seemed to feel that Ronald's relationship with Edith threatened the pursuit of higher education. Thingol felt Luthien deserved a better mate than a mere Man, especially one whose house had been ruined in war.
Father Francis succeeded in separating Ronald and Edith for a period of three years, but when the young man reached his majority he wrote to Edith and assured her his feelings were as strong as ever. Humphrey Carpenter, Tolkien's biographer, writes "there had been declarations and promises...that Ronald felt could not be lightly broken. Morever Edith had been his ideal in the last three years, his inspiration and his hope for the future. He had nurtured and cultivated his love for her so that it grew in secret, even though it had to be fed solely on his memories of their adolescent romance and a few photographs of her as a child...." (Carpenter, "Biography", p. 68).
Their early romance had included private, secretive excursions, much as Beren and Luthien had met secretly in Doriath, especially after Father Francis first learned of the relationship and demanded that Ronald break it off. As Beren in the woods of Doriath, Ronald began his "payment of anguish for the fate that was laid on him" when he had to say good-bye to Edith for three years. "Three years is awful" Ronald wrote in a diary he kept at times when he was feeling low.
The relationship between Beren and Luthien brought immense personal changes to their lives as well as to the people around them. Though some parallels might be found in the relationship of Ronald and Edith, it would be a fantastic if poetic stretch to identify them strongly. Beren was a warrior but also an outlaw and outcast. In a way he was orphaned, but unlike Ronald and Hilary Tolkien Beren grew to manhood with his father, and lost his mother first when Emeldir led the last women and children out of Dorthonion.
War overshadowed the early lives of both couples. Beren's people were slain or driven off in the Dagor Bragollach and its aftermath, and Luthien's people were finally drawn back into the periphery of the long war between the Noldor and Morgoth when Orcs began attacking Doriath's borders. Tolkien went off to serve in the British army during World War I, and while recovering from an unusually persistent case of Trench Fever which had led to his early return to England, Tolkien began writing the Lost Tales. By this time all but one of his old friends from Oxford had been killed in the war, so much like Beren (whose companions and kinsmen had mostly died in Dorthonion) Tolkien was isolated from his past.
Perhaps the most touching death in the small circle of friends Tolkien experienced was that of Geoffrey Bache Smith, who had joined Ronald's group of friends in school known informally as the T.C., B.S. (Tea Club, Barrovian Society). With Smith's influence joining Ronald's love of the great epics the group began to develop a full appreciation for poetry, and near the end of his brief life Smith wrote to Tolkien: "My chief consolation is that if I am scuppered tonight
- I am off on duty in a few minutes -- there will still be left a member of the great T.C.B.S. to voice what I dreamed and what we all agreed upon. For the death of one of its members cannot, I am determined, dissolve the T.C.B.S. Death can make us loathsome and helpless as individuals, but it cannot put an end to the immortal four!..." (Ibid., p. 97)
In many ways I think Tolkien kept alive the dream voiced by Smith, and he proved Smith's words prophetic, for now many years after Tolkien's own death his "Lay of Leithian" though incomplete is treasured by the many fans who have been privileged to read it. The poem is rich and moving, romantic and epic in theme and style. And it details the love of Beren and Luthien with a passion that will never die.
We are provided only a glimpse of the fire and depth of the story as Aragorn seeks to comfort the hobbits of the Shire in the darkness on Weathertop. "
I will tell you the tale of Tinuviel,said Strider, 'in brief -- for it is a long tale of which the end is not now known; and there are none now, except Elrond, that remember it aright as it was told of old....'" (Tolkien, "Fellowship", p. 203) Much the same could be said of the story of Ronald and Edith, for at the time he wrote this passage they had yet many years ahead of them, and he did not know how their tale would end.
Aragorn's words were a foreshadowing, however, of Sam's own observation many chapters (and months) later in "The Stairs of Cirith Ungol" that he and Frodo were in the same tale as Beren and Luthien, for they were carrying part of the light of the Silmaril rescued by Beren and Luthien in a phial prepared by Galadriel, and they were pursuing the downfall of Sauron, who had struggled with the pair ages before when he himself was but a servant of a greater Dark Lord.
And in real life Aragorn's words were reflected in the fact that Tolkien never completed the Lay. He knew more-or-less how Beren and Luthien's lives would end, but the details had not been written. Aragorn could not have told the end of the tale no matter how worthy it might be for the story in The Lord of the Rings. But as many have remarked, Aragorn's own story is very similar to that of Beren's. Like Beren Aragorn lost his father to servants of the enemy, but Aragorn's father died when he was still a child and Aragorn never really got to know him. Here the parallel is much closer between Aragorn and Tolkien himself, whose father died when he was three years old, the same age as when Aragorn lost his father.
Aragorn's heritage was never really tarnished, though it had been diminished through the centuries. He was a descendant of kings whose heirs had become chietains of a mysterious wandering folk. The Tolkiens had emigrated to England from Germany in the 18th century. They founded a family business in the piano industry, but the father of Arthur Reuel Tolkien had gone bankrupt and he was forced to seek his fortune elsewhere, accepting an assignment in South Africa where his sons John Ronald and Hilary were born. Arthur never saw England again and his wife Mabel returned to England with their sons shortly before he died.
Aragorn grew up with his mother, Gilraen, whose father had opposed her marriage to Arathorn II in a similar fashion to the way Mabel's father John Suffield had opposed her marriage to Arthur Tolkien. Aragorn grew up with a foster father, Elrond, who was wise and developed a deep affection for the boy. Tolkien's guardian after his mother's death, Father Francis, was not particularly wise, but he and Ronald had an affection for one another and Ronald respected Father Francis' decisions though he might disagree with them. Hence, there is a resonance of the trouble between Ronald and Father Francis concerning the relationship with Edith when Elrond summons Aragorn to him and warns the boy he is aiming for a high mark, and as well forbids Aragorn to take any wife until he proves himself worthy.
Although Arwen did not pledge herself to another man (or elf) in the years after her initial meeting with Aragorn as Edith eventually became engaged during the three year hiatus from Ronald, Aragorn preserved his love for her, and when they met again in Lorien he won her heart. When Ronald learned that Edith was engaged he went to win her back, and succeeded, but Father Francis did not receive the news of their engagement happily. Neither did Elrond receive the news of Arwen's choice -- to marry Aragorn and become mortal -- happily, and he decreed that she should marry no less than the king of Arnor and Gondor.
Through the long years Aragorn and Arwen worked steadily toward their goal. She seems to have contributed little in the eyes of many Tolkien fans save the weaving of a mysterious banner which proclaimed Aragorn's heritage to the people of Gondor. But in the rare glimpses we are permitted of Arwen Tolkien shows us something of a deeper wisdom and a strength and faith which are as enduring as Aragorn's love. She is the first person to perceive the depth of Frodo's spiritual wound, and in one of his letters Tolkien credits Arwen with setting into motion the events which lead to Frodo's taking ship over Sea to find rest and healing before he dies.
Aragorn's struggle in the broad world is a long and hard one, but his personal struggle is deeper and more committed than most of those around him can see. It may be that only the Wise, such as Gandalf, Elrond, Galadriel, and Arwen (and her brothers) understood just how much of the future Aragorn had committed to his choice. The Line of Isildur would not continue if he did not lead the West to victory over Sauron. It was not simply a matter of the direct line of the heirs ending with Aragorn. His people were few in number and would be lost in the storm if Sauron succeeded in recovering the One Ring.
Tolkien's life never reached so desperate a gamble, but he lived through World War II and there were times when people wondered how it would all turn out. When London and other cities were being bombed, the English surely were justified in asking how long it would be before the Germans landed on their shores. Two of Tolkien's sons served in the British armed forces during the war and having seen the devastations wrought by great countries upon each others' sons himself in his own youth he knew fully well the dangers they faced in battle.
There is little echo of the second world war in Tolkien's story, but the first world war seems to have left an indelible sense of determined but desperate perseverence on his spirit. The futility of the great offensives rings clearly in the hopeless war of the Noldor against Morgoth. The senseless slaughter and gradual abandonment of civilization by Europeans hovers across the starkly denuded landscape of Eriador as Tolkien's "Tale of Years" records the gradual withering of the Dunadan realms in Middle-earth. And yet the Dunedain lived on. The Dunedain of Arnor did not fade away or die out when their kingdom came to an end. They passed into the wilderness and carried on their ancient war against the creatures of evil, and through ten centuries preserved the line of their leaders despite all the odds turning against them.
The success of the family over the adversities of life is the core of the strength in Aragorn's character, and it is a quiet tribute to Tolkien's own familial perseverence. Arthur Tolkien and Mabel Suffield Tolkien made the best of their opportunities for themselves and their sons, and Ronald was left in the care of a stern but concerned guardian who ensured the boy would achieve something as a man.
Aragorn is a later reflection of Tolkien as Beren is an earlier one. Beren is something of a rogue and an outlaw, defying the limits set upon him by authority without actually challenging the authority, strengthened in his resolve by the steadfast love of Luthien. Aragorn is not an outlaw but a man dispossessed of his heritage who forges a new heritage for his descendants, encouraged and sustained by the love and faith of Arwen.
The story of Aragorn and Arwen is in some ways a continuation of the story of Beren and Luthien. Instead of leaving Doriath for the quiet solitude of Ossiriand the heroes remain in the north and help turn the tide against the forces of darkness. The latter couple do not match the earlier couple in daring and deeds, but their achievement proves to be longer lasting. The coronation and subsequent marriage of Aragorn is perhaps a final reconciliation by Tolkien with his deeper passions. He has come to realize that he has indeed achieved his potential, which is perhaps not what Father Francis foresaw but is nonetheless equally worthy.
Michael Martinez is the author of Visualizing Middle-earth, which may be purchased directly from Xlibris Corp. or through any online bookstore. You may also special order it from your local bookstore. The ISBN is 0-7388-3408-4.
And be sure to download your free copy of Parma Endorion: Essays on Middle-earth, 3rd edition at Free-eBooks.Net!