When Arwen made her choice it was with the greatest of men standing before her in his glory. It was Aragorn that she chose even as she bade the twilight farewell. But Elrond knew that the day would come at the ending when her choice would seem hard.
The years of Aragorn’s life were long beyond that of his people. He was a Númenorean in whom the blood of kings ran true “yet at last he felt the approach of old age and knew that the span of his life-days was drawing to an end, long though it had been.”
This was the point in his existence at which Ar-Pharazôn, the last king of Númenor, sought to grasp hold of immortality for himself by launching an invasion of the Undying Lands. He believed that the Valar withheld the gift of immortality from Men and gave it to Elves maliciously. Indeed he believed that his own mortality and death was a kind of punishment. And although the followers of Elendil rejected Ar-Pharazôn’s rebellion, in the years of Gondor’s decline they too did all that they could to extend their lives. It was Pippin who gazed in wonder at the great stone city of Minas Tirith even as it was falling into decay with empty houses in every street. “They were silent, and no footsteps rang on their wide pavements, nor voice was heard in their halls, nor any face looked out from door or empty window.”
So Aragorn reaches the moment in life in which a choice must be made. He could choose the sullen resentment of Gondor in its long decline and do all that lay within his considerable power to extend his existence for as long as possible. Or he might even choose the way of rebellion as did Ar-Pharazôn or the Witch King of Angmar. But he chooses to embrace his mortality and not to rail against it.
When Arwen realises that she is about to lose Aragorn she suddenly understands the bitterness of Ar-Pharazôn and pities him. “If this is indeed, as the Eldar say, the gift of the One to Men, it is bitter to receive.”
Aragorn recognises that this is the greatest of tests but he bids her not to be overthrown at it who renounced both the Shadow and the Ring long before. “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.”
In the early years of the church the Fathers taught that the life of faith begins with the renunciation of despair. This is the great renunciation that opens the way for the daily embrace of goodness, beauty and truth. It is a way that looks the reality of our mortality full in the face and chooses not to be afraid. It is a dying before we die but it is a choice to live. It is the choice not to hold onto life until it becomes stretched out thin. Théoden made this choice when he stepped out of his chair in which he had been withering away and embraced life after the manner of his glorious ancestors. Gollum, on the other hand, chose the misery of endless existence. Denethor expressed his despair through suicide trying to take Faramir with him. Aragorn turns his face courageously to his mortality and trusts the One who calls him. He does not know what lies ahead. He does not know his own destiny but trusts that love and goodness have the last word.
Arwen is heartbroken at her loss and she is not so sure. Yet she too embraces the mortality that was her choice laying herself to rest on the hill of Cerin Amroth where she chose Aragorn long ago. In a comment on last week’s blog post Tom Hillman suggested that Arwen’s choice might open the door for her people to a destiny that lies beyond the circles of the world. It is a beautiful thought that seems to me to be in keeping with a divine consummation that will unite all things earthly and heavenly. Faery will enrich Humanity and Humankind will open the way to Faery. Of course Tolkien was looking forward to the Incarnation in his great legendarium. The tale of Aragorn and Arwen points to this more than any of his tales. It is a tale of sorrow but not despair and it draws us into its hope even as Arwen’s last words to Aragorn are the calling of the name of his youth, “Estel, Estel!”
When Aragorn first met Arwen Undómiel in the hidden valley of Rivendell he could have no idea what journey was to lie ahead of him. It was loveliness that first called out to Aragorn just as it is with every young man who falls in love but just as it is with every young man falling in love this can never be just a private affair. And if this is so for every young man how much more it is with the heir of Isildur in the very year in which Sauron openly declares himself in the land of Mordor after his long exile and secret returning.
On the day in which Aragorn and Arwen marry in the City of Minas Tirith Tolkien tells us that “the tale of their long waiting and labours was come to fulfilment.” This tale lasted for sixty-eight years.
At first Aragorn has to deal with his mother’s anxiety. For Gilraen the long slow years of the decline of her people have left her fearful about the future. It is not greatness that she sees when she looks upon her son but dependence upon the protection of Elrond. And Elrond himself knows that the long years of his sojourn in Middle-earth draw now to a close and that Arwen will go with him into the West unless something calls her to remain.
“There will be no choice before Arwen, my beloved, unless you, Aragorn Arathorn’s son, come between us and bring one of us, you or me, to a bitter parting beyond the end of the world.”
And so begins the years of labour and of separation. Aragorn becomes Thorongil, the Star Eagle, and serves Thengel King of Rohan and Ecthelion, Steward of Gondor doing great deeds among them and encouraging them to prepare for the crisis that will come. In Gondor he leads a fleet to the Havens of Umbar, destroying the fleet of the Corsairs and overthrowing their captain but at the height of his fame he leaves Gondor and begins his lonely journeys into the South and the East “exploring the hearts of Men, both evil and good, and uncovering the plots and devices of the servants of Sauron.”
And so Aragorn leaves behind the young man exulting in his glory, heir of great kings, captivated by the beauty of an Elven princess, the greatest among her people, even as was Beren long before, the mightiest of his forefathers. The long years of labour and separation leave their mark. He becomes “somewhat grim to look upon” unless he smiles but he becomes the hardiest of living men, skilled in craft and lore and “elven-wise”, the hero of his age who gives no thought to his own greatness but only to his task and to his longing.
“His face was sad and stern because of the doom that was laid on him, and yet hope dwelt ever in the depths of his heart, from which mirth would arise at times like a spring from the rock.”
This is a beautiful picture of a man who has been shaped first by joy and then by the adversity that has to follow joy in order to refine it into something of lasting greatness. Aragorn’s majesty will be something that will not be for his benefit alone but will bring life and prosperity to all people. His is a journey from a princeling to a king. Readers will call to mind the moment in the story when he turns aside from his journey to Minas Tirith in order to undertake the pursuit of the orcs who have taken Merry and Pippin. To all extent this is a hopeless task and takes him from what seems far more important. He could try to follow Frodo and the Ring or go to Minas Tirith in its hour of need. His decision to follow the “unimportant” young hobbits proves crucial but he could not have known in what way. He makes the choice not upon a whim but because of the years in which his character has been forged. He trusts in the story of which he is a part sure that Frodo does not need him and that he will come to Minas Tirith at the right time and he risks all the years of hope for a single act of loving kindness whose reward is hidden from him. This is the true king!