December 17, 2001

Arwen is 'Essential' Says Tolkien Himself
Chris P.

There has been a lot of talk about the role that the character of Arwen will play in the coming films, and about whether this constitutes an unacceptable modification of Tolkien's original story. I'd like to weigh in with an observation and then argue why I think that there is no reason to be worried about this particular issue.

The observation is this: that Tolkien himself considered Arwen to be a character of central importance to the overall story of the events at the end of the Third Age. In the edited volume "The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien", Tolkien makes the following statement: "... I regard the tale of Arwen and Aragorn as the most important of the Appendices; it is part of the essential story, and is only placed so, because it could not be worked into the main narrative without destroying its structure: which is planned to be 'hobbito-centric'..." (Letter no. 181). Elsewhere, he says of Arwen that "Her renunciation and suffering were related to and enmeshed with Frodo's: both were parts of a plan for the regeneration of the state of Men" (footnote to Letter no. 246). To include Arwen as a major character, therefore, in no way contradicts Tolkien's vision, but accomplishes something that Tolkien would have liked to do but for various reasons did not.

So what are these reasons? Why did Tolkien himself not give Arwen a more prominent role in the main narrative of The Lord of the Rings? I think there are two answers to this, both of which vindicate Jackson's decision to give her an expanded prominence in the movies.

The first reason has to do with the narrative structure Tolkien chose for the books. That structure is, as he said in the quotation above, "hobbito-centric". You'll notice that although the story is narrated in the third person, Tolkien does not use the device of the omniscient narrator. Instead, everything that happens is told from the point of view of one of the characters, and specifically one of the four hobbits. This 'hobbit's-eye view' is consistent with the fictive claim that The Lord of the Rings is actually a translation, by Tolkien, of the Red Book of the Westmarch, written in the main by Frodo himself and also by Sam, with perhaps some emendations by Sam's daughter Elanor. (In a similar way, "The Hobbit" is fictively supposed to be a translation of "There and Back Again" as written by Bilbo himself.) And beyond these devices, the hobbito-centric structure of the narrative reflects Tolkien's theological interest that the book be "primarily a study of the ennoblement (or sanctification) of the humble". Arwen's marginality within the main narrative is a product of this hobbito-centric view: Frodo and the other hobbits simply would not have had much direct interaction with her during their stay in Rivendell, while after the destruction of the ring and Arwen's arrival at Minas Tirith, we are only shown as much of her (and of Aragorn himself) as is relevant to the plot. In a movie, however, it's possible to step outside of this 'hobbito-centric' model, using flashbacks and cut-ins that show the audience details that are relevant to the story but which are not directly experienced by the hobbits, without disrupting the impression that we are seeing things essentially from the hobbits' point of view. Compared to the novel, film is a relatively nonlinear medium, which means that Jackson can do things that Tolkien couldn't without harming Tolkien's story at all.

The second reason is biographical or psychological. As the Humphrey Carpenter biography shows, Tolkien’s life was marked by a deep division between masculine and feminine spheres of activity. He greatly enjoyed the company of an all-male circle of friends (first the T.C.B.S., later the Inklings), and Carpenter observes that "one side of him only came alive when he was in the company of men of his own kind" (p. 159). Although he loved Edith (his wife) very much, he never involved her in the activities of the Inklings, or in his professional philological work, or in the process of writing The Hobbit and LOTR. So take, for example, the fact that when the hobbits reach Rivendell for the first time, Aragorn goes to meet Arwen 'off camera' as it were. If Tolkien had been concerned that the story was becoming too 'male-centric', he could very well have given Arwen something to say to Frodo, or made her a participant in the Council of Elrond. That he didn't think to do these things might be an unconscious reflection of the division between masculine and feminine that he practiced in his own life.

And frankly, the degree to which some people have gotten upset at the 'Arwen modifications' makes me wonder if they don't practice a similar distinction: if these aren't the complaints of guys who just hang out with their male friends all the time, who don't have any female friends, and who would prefer that Middle-Earth remain an almost entirely male domain.