Wednesday 31 January 2018

Tolkien nods - the introductory description of Arwen

I am currently reading aloud The Lord of the Rings, as a bedtime book; and am again absolutely delighted by it. I find every scene, indeed almost every sentence, to be effective and beautiful.

But yesterday I came across the introductory description of Arwen - as observed by Frodo at a feast in Rivendell; and I realised explicitly something which has nagged at me ever since I first read the book. In his writing at this point, Tolkien fails to communicate the beauty of Arwen.


In the middle of the table, against the woven cloths upon the wall, there was a chair under a canopy, and there sat a lady fair to look upon, and so like was she in form of womanhood to Elrond that Frodo guessed that she was one of his close kindred. Young she was and yet not so. The braids of her dark hair were touched by no frost, her white arms and clear face were flawless and smooth, and the light of stars was in her bright eyes, grey as a cloudless night; yet queenly she looked, and thought and knowledge were in her glance, as of one who has known many things that the years bring. Above her brow her head was covered with a cap of silver lace netted with small gems, glittering white; but her soft grey raiment had no ornament save a girdle of leaves wrought in silver.

So it was that Frodo saw her whom few mortals had yet seen; Arwen, daughter of Elrond, in whom it was said that the likeness of Lúthien had come on earth again; and she was called Undómiel, for she was the Evenstar of her people. Long she had been in the land of her mother's kin, in Lórien beyond the mountains, and was but lately returned to Rivendell to her father's house. But her brothers, Elladan and Elrohir, were out upon errantry: for they rode often far afield with the Rangers of the North, forgetting never their mother's torment in the dens of the orcs.

Such loveliness in living thing Frodo had never seen before nor imagined in his mind; and he was both surprised and abashed to find that he had a seat at Elrond's table among all these folk so high and fair. 


It should be noted that Tolkien does a great job of communicating the beauty of Goldberry, and Galadriel - and the special appeal of Eowyn. It is only Arwen where he fails.

I recall, when first reading the book back in 1973, being astonished by the appearance of Arwen to marry Aragorn after the ring had been destroyed - having entirely forgotten about her and who she was; and being even more astonished that Eomer could regard her as more beautiful than Galadriel (in his discussion with Gimli) - since I had a very clear impression of Galadriel's beauty, and none at all of Arwen's.

(By comparison, if Goldberry had turned up at the end of the story, I would certainly have remembered her. Not least because I had a clear picture of her in my mind.)

I think it can easily be seen how the passage on Arwen, which I quote above, fails: she is introduced as looking like Elrond - who is a male; the writing tries to describe her beauty by negatives (young yet not so, hair touched by no frost, grey eyes like cloudless night, flawless skin...); there is too much point by-point description of her features and clothes, without ever putting the 'pieces' together...

And, there is no impression of the effect Arwen has on those around her. The hobbits are stunned by Goldberry's beauty; and the Fellowship almost paralysed by that of Galadriel... Here we have a brief, ineffective paragraph on what Arwen does not look like - then we are off into history and background information.

So, here is a very rare, and yet narratively important, place where Tolkien nods, or lapses. It causes a structural fault in the book - small but significant.

Why here? Most likely because Arwen was a visual reincarnation of Luthien, and Luthien was based on Tolkien's wife Edith - and Tolkien was (understandably) perhaps somewhat impaired in his ability to evaluate his own writing objectively (i.e. for its effect on the reader) when it came to writing about his own wife.


Anonymous said...

Interesting! It never struck me... Would it make a difference if "Such loveliness in living thing Frodo had never seen before nor imagined in his mind" came before the descriptio embodying his reflection on what are distinctly (half?-)Elvish characteristics? Or is that clause, for all its delicate 'heightening' through alliteration and syntax, too much description rather than evocation, wherever it were placed?

David Llewellyn Dodds

Zach said...

I was going to say "it's the Luthien thing", but then you nailed it. He had Luthien as his Beatrice for so long that maybe he just never had to work to define Arwen the way he did, say, Goldberry or Eowyn. It's also maybe that Arwen is sort of a nullity as a character in the book. Obviously of great importance, but without even so much of an arc as Galadriel (let alone Eowyn). I don't know where you'd squeeze in an Arwen plot, of course, and I have no quibble with her being on the sidelines for this story. In fact, the attempts to shoe-horn Arwen into the film plots are some of the weakest elements, in my opinion. Anyway. It just seems like maybe Arwen was too close to home to write fairly about.

Makes me think about how Le Guin was reluctant to even write female characters, because of her tendency to hide herself by writing about the "other". (Based on an article in the New Yorker I read last week, reflecting on her death.) Arwen/Luthien/Edith might just be too close for perspective or for more intimacy in description.

I've just finished reading LotR to my children again this last week. It's been a wonderful experience. I can't remember if this is the second or the third time through with them, but some are young enough that it's like new, and the older ones are catching the deeper details with me. My oldest (13) even read the Silmarillion so he could understand references to Elbereth and eagles, and all the other references to the "legendarium" sprinkled through LotR.

Thanks to some of the notes and thoughts here in your blog, I was able to share some new thoughts with them; I've been grateful to follow along with your ideas and thoughts, and the great references you've shared.

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - I think that would improve things. I presume if JRRT had realised there was a problem, he could easily have fixed it.

@Zach - Thanks for that nice comment!

Philip Neal said...

I think the real problem is Aragorn. Tolkien took a long time to see that Trotter had to make way for Strider, the ranger who is really the man born to be king. Of all the characters other than the hobbits, it is Aragorn who changes and develops the most as the story unfolds. Think of his decisions at the breaking of the Fellowship, his claiming of the palantir and so on. But we see the process entirely through the eyes of others, and in consequence Arwen's great choice between the elves and men is only revealed at the back of the book.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Philip - I don't see any problem with Aragorn - although his origin was insecure

I'd say that this was invisible in the final text.

Anonymous said...

Thinking out loud...

Goldberry remains incidental (so to put it), as does the mysterious, quietly magnificent Tom (I like the speculation that he may be one of the Valar...!), and Galadriel, though far more central, is both secluded and august, a long-established Elven Queen, but the centrality of Arwen to the whole action of the story requires a much more delicate touch: too prominent attention to the fact that she is 2711 years old when she first meets Aragorn, could easily be jarring to a reader - or even an Elf-loving hobbit. Her impressiveness (to use an inadequate word) must glimmer rather than flash out, and the reader by quiet pondering be allowed eventually to figure out the full picture.

It would be interesting to compare the artistry (and/or inadequacies) of Tolkien's handling and its effect with those in various works like Rider Haggard's She (and sequels, etc.), Buchan's "The Grove of Ashtoreth", and the Iliad, where Peleus and Thetis and even more so the Aeneid where Anchises and Venus are concerned.

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

@David - Something of that sort might explain what Tolkien was aiming at - but I still think he missed the mark!