There was a story that told of saving the world. Arwen Undomiel was mentioned only twice within its pages.
Her story was an appendix because love stories have no place in epic quests.
Who said this was a love story? (Who said a love story was not an epic quest?)
Arwen stayed for Aragorn as much as Aragorn saved the world for her—entirely and not at all. Her story was a battle, a bravery, a hero’s sacrifice, clinging as hard to the things that mattered as Frodo clung to the fading memories of the Shire.
She ruled the Reunited Kingdom. She rebuilt the world.
Arwen had heard the story of Luthien Tinuviel all her life. She had heard the name whispered, awestruck, in regards to her beauty. When she looked in the mirror, she saw only her father’s brow, her mother’s forgotten smile. She did not want to be Luthien’s ghost.
Arwen did not want pity to be her power. Luthien, an eleven beauty who had fallen in love with a mortal man, had sung a song so sad a great power had mourned with her and brought her beloved back to life. Arwen did not want pity. Arwen wanted the breath in her lungs, her mare’s mane in her hands, something to build with her hands. She wanted to leave things on this earth.
Impermanent things, maybe; just memories in mortal minds, sown fields, walls that would crumble in a thousand years. But for now, she was a thing remembered. For now, the crops were rolling into the market of Minas Tirith in glorious riots of color. For now, the walls stood strong around her city and her people were safe.
These walls would not outlast her father’s life, her mother’s soul lingering on the shores of Valinor. But they would matter while they stood. They would protect the people within them, break the gales of the wide plains, and that was enough for her.
One of the first gifts Elrond had ever given her was a horse. Constancy, patience, respect for life, he had explained to her, were important to learn. Arwen cleaned its stall and combed it, fed it carrots she’d only have to clean up again the next morning. She dragged herself out of bed in the cold dawns, a gangling youth not yet grown into herself, and groaned aloud when no one could hear her. She wrapped her arms around the mare’s neck, buried her face in its mane, and the cold was still in her. But her horse nickered in her ear and she laughed aloud. The mornings were never not cold, but she got up anyway.
Her father gave her gifts, books, horses, and sunlit rooms. Elrond was desperate to keep her, this best part of him, this beauty. He was not quite a beast, this fair lord of fairer halls, but he had seen so much darkness in his life. Here, finally, was light.
Elrond’s greatest gift, she never accepted. Elrond had an eternity of life and peace in the palms of his hands, a ship to take her West. Arwen saddled her horse. Her father rode with her to Gondor and in that high white city, she left him forever.
Arwen was the youngest of three. Her brothers were twins, warriors, accomplices. Her brothers had fought beside Aragorn’s father and watched him die.
When they told her about it, drew her aside on an empty clearing to seek her comfort and her council, she saw the son hiding. Arwen noted his eyes in the bushes where hobbits would hide years later to eavesdrop on a council—she would see them, too, then, from her place at Elrond’s elbow. (She was wrapped in cotton all her life, loved as elves are loved, as beauty is loved, without touching. She would not wish the same on anyone. All the same, when the young hobbits charged forward to volunteer, she felt something rise up in her chest: maybe a preparation for grief).
Arwen was beautiful then, too, but the young Aragorn only had eyes for her brothers’ words. Their first true meeting would be decades later. He would be struck down by her grace. She would be curious about the stories written even then into the lines on his face.
But for now, she was an elf maiden. She was a sister standing with brothers who understood missing mothers who had sailed to fairer shores but not mourning them. She was a child of many centuries who could not understand the depths of grief in the boy crying in the bushes.
Arwen went up to one of her father’s libraries, after. She did not feel wise. Even with all her centuries fluttering behind her, she felt small against the idea that a man was gone from all earth and sky. All creatures had their sacred places, except for men. If human souls had a place to go when they passed through the veil of death, no one knew its name.
Evening fell on Rivendell as a young Arwen walked the shelves looking for dusty curiosities. She wanted stories of mortals, mortal ballads written down by a shaky dying hand. What was it, to be dying? How could you live in a shell that was perishing? Her soul would be reembodied, reblessed, put into an Arwen remade. But the soldiers her brothers fought beside, the mothers in the books she piled at her bedside, the orphan heroes and the brave, quirky sidekicks, the quarreling lovers, the villains—these were impermanent beings. Their end was no choice, no path to something greater and known.
She sent out orders to a bookseller in the closest town of men. She read their stories on early mornings, curled up in the stable with the many-times-removed great-granddaughter of her first mare. She inhaled their incomprehensible griefs and wondered at their joys.
For elves, age meant weariness. Her father was a good soul and a glorious example of the jaded ancient. Too much folly and malice had passed before him. But what about the way my horse lifts her head when she hears my footfall? Arwen wanted to ask him, centuries old and child still. What about the skeletons of my brothers’ clumsy old tree forts out in the hills? What about the way your people look at you, the way they sing and wander? What about the way I look at you, Father?
Her brothers were not the first twins of her family. Her father, too, had a brother once. Elrond had chosen the life of an elf. His twin had chosen the gift of men and Elrond had gotten to watch his brother die.
Arwen was told this by a gossipy Silvan elf sometime before her second century. She watched the way her father watched her brothers play. When he spoke to her of choice, begged her to take the ships west, she understood. She did not make the choice he wanted, but she understood. She liked to think that, by the end, when he left her side in a high white courtyard in Minas Tirith, he understood her, too.
Aragorn liked to sing the lay of Luthien, called Tinuviel, called Nightingale, mortal lover and unearthly beauty. Arwen liked his voice, but one day she started listening to the words. It was a story about a beautiful maiden who had died for love. That was the story they told about Arwen, too. As she grew older, she realized Luthien’s was just as much of a lie.
This was not a story about love or about death, not in the end, not the part that mattered. It was a story about choosing the life you wanted to live and hanging onto that, against all perils, all harms. Arwen wrapped her hands around Aragorn’s, the sword calluses on one, the ink stains on the other, her Ranger, her soldier, her king and her friend. She held on tight, kissed his brow, and thought about the rebuilding of the north wall.
Arwen and Luthien both had been asked to choose between peace and creation; eternal light, or lighting the flame themselves. They were Prometheus, the titan descended to earth. Every death they pulled out of Arwen was worth it for the things she got to build.
Arwen had always been able to tell her brothers apart. Grey-eyed and bold, Elladan and Elrohir always knew where she had wandered off to, even when her father was at a loss.
They made little tree forts in the hills of Rivendell, as children. Arwen with her wild hair, her brothers’ quick sly shared glances, the way they pulled her lovely, knobbly knees out of scrapes. They huddled in little forts that lacked the elegance that would come with a few more centuries, and talked about death.
They had a choice, all three of them: to live as an elf and sail west in the end; to live as a man and die forever.
Her brothers watched their little sister, the best part of them, looking for consensus in her eyes. She was precious, the person they most wanted to protect, but she was also their guiding star. They drifted in her wake, into cookie raids on the kitchens or playacting on the roof.
There was a third way to leave these shores. There was a third choice here. Elladan was the one who said it. “Maybe I will die as an elf,” said Elladan. “There is honor in that.”
His twin scoffed. “You spend too much time with men.”
Arwen wrapped her arms around her slender torso.
(She would die as herself. Aragorn would die as a king, as a father, surrounded by his family, as a lover and a Ranger of the North. He was Strider, for all he had forsaken his tattered cloak. She was Elrond’s daughter, for all she had forsaken so much of his heritage).
Elrohir, the younger twin, died as an elf, fighting a man’s war. He and his brother had not taken the ship with Elrond, instead lingering to mind Rivendell and help Gondor’s new king retake his own in the North.
His brother, who had once said there was honor in that death, rode home to Rivendell. Arwen met him there, new laughlines at the corners of her eyes, new wrinkles at her mouth to hold her griefs. They climbed up to an old skeleton of a tree fort and huddled close.
Elladan was still unblemished. He held her hand and traced her wrinkles. He traveled west, slowly, taking a long last glimpse at the land he had fought for. Arwen went with him. This was her land, too, now.
They stood for a long time on the dock, her head on his chest, his chin on her head. Elladan sailed west, to see if he could find his brother on those fairer, farther shores.
Arwen watched the ship fade. The last child of Rivendell left the shore, got her horse, and went home.
Gondor’s king was a Ranger from the North, its queen a fallen elf maiden who looked more like a legend than a lady. Faramir, the steward, was young and loyal, had spent his childhood pattering over the walls in a too-big uniform, but his wife was a stranger from Rohan. Gondor was accustomed to war. In the echoes of this strange new peace they waited, hesitant, wary.
Arwen could have walked among their ancestors millennia removed. At first she tried to explain to them that a millennia in the same two woodland groves did not lend to wisdom and growth as much as they seemed to think. Her maid stared, holding out her overcoat. The footman stood with a stiff professionalism that belied the ways she could hear his heart beating.
She stopped trying to explain. These men and women had lived shorter years than the older saplings in the courtyard her rooms opened onto. She had no right to belittle their lives’ brevity with a careless wave of her hand, just because she was tired of their awe.
She started walking the walls. She walked the streets and asked questions, sometimes more than once if they only gaped. She listened to stammering women and yammering children with the patience of thousands of winters in her newly mortal bones. They had things to teach her. She had seen so many more comets than them. They had spent so many more nights living lives that would come to an end.
Her bones ached, on cold nights. Aragorn made her laugh, with stories of hobbits; Eowyn with her sharp dry wit; her maid with stories of the young lovers she boarded with; the antics of her children left Arwen nearly breathless with amusement, some days. When she looked in the mirror, there were wrinkles at the corners of her eyes. They crinkled further, deeper, when she smiled. She smiled. This was her life, written out in the crease of her skin.
Arwen and Eowyn would go out on long rides, the queen and the stewardess, and talk about mothers who faded, mothers who withered. Eowyn had turned herself to steel, a sharp-eyed swordmaiden who would bow to no one who had not earned it in blood. Arwen had buried her roots in the earth. She was tied down now, corporeal, solid, dying. Eowyn knew something of death.
They went out riding, these two women to whom the wind in their hair meant such different things. They went out riding, these two strangers in a kingdom not their own, and they sang each other songs in the tongues of their distant kin.
Arwen thought Eowyn very young when she first met her, this new wife of a young steward. Aragorn had thought so, too, of this feisty young horsewoman and her naïve thirst for battle. But Eowyn had seen her war, been bloodied before she ever stepped onto a battlefield. They were both wrong about her.
Eowyn was a wounded soldier. She was a grieving daughter, three times over. She had death in her veins in a way Arwen could not even imagine. Her hands were cold and she and Faramir built something beautiful in Gondor. They grew things in shadows that had not seen the light for years. Eowyn was a healer who was sword-steel at her core; Faramir was a warrior with sunlight in his wounded veins. Arwen had never heard anyone laugh about death the way those two did, so she listened, to their respect and their fury. She never quite understood their humor.
They called Eowyn’s story a love story—spurned love for Aragorn, a quiet reward in Faramir. They called Arwen’s story a love story, a bittersweet sacrifice to inspire the king to save the world. But Eowyn’s was a war story, pitched battles against the things that hemmed her in, against Nazgul, against her own darkness. She did not pick up the pieces afterwards so much as bury them into her soul and reclaim them.
Arwen’s story was this: she made a choice.
Arwen and Luthien had both been children standing in the twilight of their people. Their stories were framed around their beauty, their love, their selflessness, and they were lies. Luthien Tinuviel was a sorceress who embarked on a quest to claim her life for her own. It was about what she wanted, not about her selflessness.
They called Luthien Nightingale and they called Arwen the Evening Star, blessed creatures of a fading light. They called them beautiful. They forgot to call them powerful. They forgot that claiming a life against all others’ wishes, even a dying life, even for love, was a defiance.
The elves who sailed west called them fading, these two women who grasped the things they wanted and dared even up to the teeth of death to claim them. The elves sailed west to fairer, undying shores, and dared to name these women for a darkening twilight, to call them fading.
Arwen was too busy to fade, handling poor harvests and wounded veterans, negotiating with grumpy nobles and diplomats. She taught her children to care for their horses themselves, to speak three languages, and to build tree forts in the gardens. She wrote down elf herblore and old legends and put them up in the library archives. She did not fade. She aged. She sunk her roots down deep and touched the brief lives around her.
Arwen woke on grey mornings to squeals of laughter as her children snuck into the royal chambers and tackled their dozing father. She watched the men of Gondor rebuild their high white walls, taught them elves’ tricks with coaxing stone and learned from them in turn.
This was not a twilight. This was dawn. She stood on the battlements, the golden fields of her kingdom stretching out to high mountains. She could see the barest specks of a shepherd and his flock, hear the city waking to a dull murmuring roar behind her. Aragorn was warm at her back.
This was dawn.
One day, Arwen would die while her father, mother, and so many of her beloved kin lived on. They would grieve her. (They grieved her already). They would string up songs to her in the sunlight, toss stones carved with her name into the frothy waves. All elves go back to the sea in the end.
One day, Arwen would die. When she did, when she stepped through that veil into whatever lay beyond, she expected Luthien to be waiting. They would clasp hands and laugh, these two children named for fading twilight, these two women who had chosen a different life.
And if there was nothing beyond that veil, Arwen would go without regrets all the same.
There was no value in death, but there were things worth dying for. One of them was living.
Companion to this piece.