Unions between immortal Elves and mortal Men were rare in Middle-earth: the fates of these two kindreds are very different to be interwoven easily. When Elves and Men did intermarry, it was usually for a high, noble purpose, but had a sorrowful end.

The best-known unions took place between an Elvish maid and a mortal Man. Those couples left a special trace in the history of Middle-earth, had a profound influence on the course of events, and they were Beren and Lúthien, Tuor and Idril, Aragorn and Arwen. The fate of Tuor and Idril differs considerably from those of Beren and Lúthien or Aragorn and Arwen, so it is not discussed in the present reflection.

One of the most crucial aspects of these two unions of the First and Third Ages was that the immortal wives accepted mortality, shared it with their husbands and embraced the doom of Men. Both Lúthien and Arwen did so out of great love for their spouses, and for that they chose the fates asunder from their kin. So, for their parents the consequences of their choices were clear from the very beginning, and thus bitter. Very poignantly the pain of realisation is seen in Melian, mother of Lúthien, and Elrond, father of Arwen.

Before proceeding, let us look at the fates of Elves and Men after death to understand why Lúthien’s and Arwen’s decisions caused such grief to their parents. The First Children of Ilúvatar were doomed to dwell in Arda as long as it endured. If Elves died (they could be either slain, or die of grief), they went to the Halls of Mandos and stayed there for some time. Then they, with a few notable exceptions, were restored to their bodily forms and returned to life in Aman. Therefore Elves could reunite with their kin and loved ones: even death could not part them forever.

The doom of Men was very different. Mortals lived only for a short time in the world, and when they died, they did so never to return to the living, at least not until the end of Arda. Elves did not know where Men went after death, but they supposed that mortals departed beyond the Circles of the World. This is precisely why death was referred to as the Gift of Ilúvatar to Men: contrary to Elves they were not bound to Arda, shaped their lives the way they wished to and after death did not linger in the world. Thus after dying the fates of Elves and Men were sundered and the chances of their meetings were highly unlikely.

The partings of Lúthien and Arwen from their respective parents should be viewed through the prism of the immortals’ beliefs concerning the fate of Men after death. After her death Lúthien was the first of Elves to face the choice: either to return to immortal life in Valinor without Beren, or to go back to Middle-earth with him, but as a mortal and die once again — a second time — but never to return. Lúthien chose the latter option, and that was what Melian saw in her daughter the moment she returned from the dead, from the Halls of Mandos:

But Melian looked in her eyes and read the doom that was written there, and turned away; for she knew that a parting beyond the end of the world had come between them, and no grief of loss has been heavier than the grief of Melian the Maia in that hour.

(Silmarillion, p. 222)

Melian belonged to the Maiar — divine beings created by Eru, immortal  and eternal, and no death could touch them. She was wise and foresighted, so for her Lúthien’s choice, which she was able to see from her eyes alone, meant their parting forever in and beyond the world.

A very similar feeling haunted Elrond since the moment he learnt that Aragorn loved Arwen. Speaking to Aragorn about the doom of the Elves in Middle-earth, the fate of mortals and Arwen’s choices, Elrond stated that whichever way his daughter opted for, it would lead either for him, or for the Dúnadan “to a bitter parting beyond the end of the world” (Return of the King, p. 417)

Elrond’s words here echo Melian’s closely: they both speak about the parting beyond the end of the world. Elrond was wise and had seen many years with deaths and bitter partings in Middle-earth. He and his brother Elros belonged to the kindred of the Half-elven, so they could choose whether to be counted among Men or Elves. Elros chose the mortal life and became the first king of Númenor, and thus Elrond knew about this bitter grief of parting with someone very dear from his own experience.

This choice was also relevant for Elrond’s descendants, with the reappearance of the Elvish strain in his line through Celebrían his wife:

The Half-elven, such as Elrond and Arwen, can choose to which kind and fate they shall belong: choose once and for all.

(Letters, № 154)

So once made, this choice could not be changed. By accepting Aragorn and deciding to marry him, Arwen also chose a mortal life. That meant that she was to die and her spirit was to depart beyond the Circles of the World, sundering from the fate of her kin. And her parting with her father was a bitter one:

None saw her last meeting with Elrond her father, for they went up into the hills and there spoke long together, and bitter was their parting that should endure beyond the ends of the world.’

(Return of the King, p. 308)

The parting of Elrond and Arwen is accounted amongst the most sorrowful things of the Third Age, “for they were sundered by the Sea and by a doom beyond the end of the world” (Return of the King, p. 420). When Elrond grew weary of Middle-earth and sailed West, Arwen did not follow him, because she had chosen a different life and became mortal. It enabled her to offer her place on the ship to Frodo, who sailed to Tol Eressëa to heal there, but she remained in Middle-earth and eventually died there.

Being very similar in appearance and fate, Lúthien and Arwen made the same choice that caused grief to their parents. Both Melian and Elrond realised very well what their daughters’ decisions meant for them as immortal beings: they would not see their children in this world or beyond it anymore, and it was a grievous doom to accept. However, estel, the high hope that Elves have, implies that they might still meet — somewhere, after countless ages, but there is still hope.

Works consulted:

  1. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1999.
  2. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
  3. H. Carpenter – The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien; with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012 (Kindle edition).

Featured image: Alexander von Wagner – Izabella királyné búcsúja Erdélytől

3 thoughts on “Last goodbye.

  1. Olga, this is a heart breaking piece. I don’t know if it is that I am listening to a programme on Farewells in Opera on the radio as I write this but I find myself wondering why such farewells are so sad and yet so beautiful. Why do we find sadness and heartbreak so beautiful? I wonder if we are invited into something deeper than our loss and that is our longing for union and reunion? The Sehnsucht that Lewis wrote about. This seems to connect with the Estel that you speak of. It seems to me that however certain Melian and Elrond are that their loss is eternal they cannot help but hope. And neither I think can we.

    1. I’ve often wondered about the same thing too, Stephen. It seems that most people would prefer to read a sad book rather than a happy one, or a book with a sad ending, not a happy one. That must be something in our nature that makes us lean towards heartbreak so much. Maybe it is because there is more hope when sadness is nearby?

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