Please welcome today’s guest writer, Kelvyn Koning. Kelvyn graduated from Calvin University in 2016 with a BA in music theory & composition. He now flits around Boston, where he got his MM in composition at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee, and spends his time writing fantastical music and quirky poetry, singing and playing piano with friends, and teaching music and theatre to people of all ages. Kelvyn’s vision is to foster empathy, healing, and social justice for individuals and communities through the arts.
In my Lord of the Rings fangirling with other nerds, I have often been surprised and bothered by powerful antagonistic feelings against Tolkien’s character Arwen (played in Jackson’s films by Liv Tyler), particularly as vocalized by staunch feminists. As a staunch feminist myself, I would often ask why my friends felt this burning animosity toward my favorite character. The responses would be along the lines of “she doesn’t do anything” or “she’s just a pretty face” or “she mopes around the castle while everyone else is out fighting” or “Eowyn is such a strong female character while Arwen makes women look weak and helpless.” In the rest of this essay, I will explain why I disagree with these surface-level analyses, and describe the similarities I see between the strength of Eowyn (played by Miranda Otto) and the strength of Arwen.
No good author creates meaningless characters. When Tolkien was writing Arwen, he did not have her role in mind simply to be “Aragorn’s girlfriend.” Her character, like Eowyn’s, has a purpose to the story, an influence on what happens, a reason for existing and being worth the ink! Tolkien, as an acclaimed author, knew this and created two different characters with some comparable challenges.
In American culture, a character like Eowyn really shines on the screen! She’s a strong, courageous woman who, even though discouraged by the men around her, stands alongside her people on the intense and terrifying battlefield and kicks serious butt! She’s a free spirit and an obvious favorite for feminists, who say—“look, women can do what men can do!” This is particularly potent with Eowyn’s classic one-liner “I am no man” when she kills one of her strongest foes, the Witch-king of Angmar, emphasizing that you do not have to be a man to be strong and brave. Her character obviously has a reason for being part of the story, namely to defeat an archvillain.
While I love Eowyn’s character (and her punchy one-liner), I would argue that Arwen is just as strong and brave, though in a different manner. While Eowyn may represent characteristics such as courage, loyalty, freedom, and competency, Arwen’s character represents gentleness, hope, grace, and love. We may forget that Arwen’s father, Elrond, is a powerful and wise ruler, warrior, tactician, and healer and that his daughter has no doubt been trained to be likewise. We even see some glimpses of this in the way she interacts with and teaches other characters, in the sword she carries at her side, and in the healing her words and actions administer. In elven culture, gender roles are relatively equal—men and women both learn to fight, learn the trades, work in the arts, work in nature, cook and clean, etc. Arwen as a princess was no doubt well-educated in politics, history, culture, tactics, trained combat, and more.
Yet in spite of her undoubted ability to be a reckoning force, Arwen’s power comes in her gentleness, wisdom, and love. While many of the other characters yell and present themselves and their opinions loudly, Arwen listens and speaks quietly. When she speaks, her words carry weight and truth. Our culture often equates gentleness with weakness, but this is far from the truth for it takes great strength to be gentle. Gentleness insinuates compassion and care for the wellbeing of others, willingness to listen, confidence and peace within oneself, and a healthy blend of humility and wisdom. Gentleness is something most of us are bad at. We’d rather jump into battle with the other characters and do things! But Arwen has a way of being that makes other characters stop and think, a type of inner strength that doesn’t force itself upon others but nonetheless has a great impact on them.
Arwen is often referred to as “the most beautiful elf,” but her true beauty is not in her physical appearance. Her true beauty is her heart for others. Every time her story is brought up, she is portrayed encouraging others, showing them the light, and giving them hope. Aragorn would never have claimed his identity as a leader and king if not for the encouragement and wise words of Arwen. Where would any of us be without people in our lives who believe in us and encourage us to be all that we can be? And where would the rest of the world have ended up, if Arwen had not been behind the scenes, giving Aragorn the hope and strength that he needed to defeat the darkness? She is ceaselessly giving of herself to others, exemplified when she says to Aragorn, “as grace has been given to me, so I give to you.” Multiple times she says, “hope is not lost,” and though—like Eowyn—others try to diminish her heart and her hope, she perseveres and emerges through the darkness, victorious!
Arwen’s strength is further evident in the personal sacrifice that she makes. She is presented with the choice to run away from the darkness and live forever or to face the darkness head-on, carrying the light with her, though it means her imminent death. While the other characters are on a physical battlefield, Arwen is on a battlefield of the heart. And for the love she has for others, she chose a mortal life, though it would mean suffering, sorrow, and death for her. How powerful is a love that looks pain and darkness directly in the eyes and enters in for the sake of others, carrying the light to them. This is Arwen’s role in the story.
For all these reasons, Arwen the princess is just as strong and necessary to the story as Eowyn the warrior; whether we are highly visible or barely seen, our words and actions can powerfully impact each other and the world.