Monday, March 3, 2008

Man-Elf Love

With the Spring festival in the air, it seems a good time to address a particular roleplaying issue that can cause a lot of arguments among lorehouds. As most Tolkien enthusiasts know, romantic relations between Elves and Men are very rare in Middle-earth. Indeed, each is a legendary pairing. The first, Beren and Luthien, was so personal to Tolkien himself that he had these names inscribed on the tombstones of he and his wife. Elendil and his wife sired Elros (first King of Numenor) and Elrond (first king of the Superior Study). The most famous example of Man-Elf love, of course, is that of Arwen and Aragorn; this love affair, betrothal, and marriage is the archetype for most romantic roleplay in Lord of the Rings. Purists will note that there is one other example of inter-racial love in the setting; Imrazor the Numenorean, who despite his name was the lord of Dol Amroth in Belfalas, rescued a handmaid of the elf-maid Mithrellas and had two children with her before she disappeared without a trace. The son went on to found the line of the Princes; we are told nothing of the daughter.

That’s it. To be completely loyal to the setting, there should be no other marriages between Men and Elves. But players are players, and they want to have fun. Surely, there must be a way to make that possible? Is abstinence the only lore-appropriate solution? Where can we find wiggle room, in a way that honours Tolkien’s design yet still gives players room to, well, play?

There are some obvious routes to take. First, is anonymity. The Lord of the Rings is a manuscript written by people who lived in Middle-earth. They didn’t know everything, and did not record everything they did know. There might be marriages between Men and Elves which they knew nothing about, or for whatever reason decided weren’t important enough to be collected with those of Luthien, Ellendil, and Arwen. The example of Imrazor is a good one for inspiration here: the note about a strain of Elvish in that family line is actually from unpublished sources like Unfinished Tales and the People of Middle-earth; it was slated for inclusion in the Appendix to Return of the King but cut for reasons of space. Surely there could have been other examples like it, which were also cut? To answer yes, we have to acknowledge what makes Imrazor’s romance inferior to the others: Mithrellas’ handmaid was not an Elf of any particularly legendary stature. She did not have Luthien as an ancestor (as Arwen does) and she’s not descended from Noldor or anything fancy like that. She’s just a plain old Sindarin Elf. For his part, Imrazor was a great Man, but not one of the Dunedain. His two children were not Elves. They were counted among the people of Men. (Please don’t use the word “Human” while you are in Middle-earth. No one in Tolkien’s writings ever refers to a man or a woman as “Human.” Dwarves and Elves do not refer to “humans.” Every time you say “Human” in LotRO, you make meta-Strider cry.)

Another easy way out of this is to play the Avari card; the Avari are what Tolkien and some in the setting refer to as “dark elves.” They’re not black skinned, they don’t use poison, and they don’t worship spiders. Instead, they are “dark” because they never saw the light of Aman, the Eden-like paradise across the sea. They have always, and will always, remain in Middle-earth until the end of the world. And this means that, since they don’t know the Valar, their culture and ways could be quite different than what we expect. Indeed, Tolkien tells us almost nothing about them. Frankly, they didn’t interest him very much. But they can be very useful to us, since it is somewhat easy to imagine a Dark Elf who did not realize that marrying a Man was wrong. Odd, perhaps. Remarkable, even. But not wrong. And since the deeds of the Avari are not included in the Lord of the Rings, it makes sense that this marriage is not included there either.

These two methods have a common drawback: they have little interaction with the setting. They both rely on sketching in details around the hard facts. You can’t make an Avari if you select a homeland from one of the Elf options in the LotRO menu. Imrazor’s coupling with an Elf will never be mentioned in LotRO because it exists only in texts which Turbine does not have the rights to use. We’re carrying our flashlights into the darkness here, and while that can be rewarding and fun, it doesn’t give us the frission of interacting directly with the things that Tolkien did actually write, and which can actually appear in the game.

And that, of course, means Aragorn and Arwen. This relationship, between a Man and an Elf, is happening right in front of us while we play. The War of the Ring is followed by the wedding of these two illustrious individuals. It’s only natural to want to follow suit. Indeed, let’s see if we can get out of our dilemma by asking, “What Would Arwen Do?”

Arwen has loved Aragorn for decades. She met him when he was a young man; he was pretty innocent and na├»ve, despite the death of his father and some adventures with Elladan and Elrohir. He loved her instantly, but this does not seem all that unusual. Everyone who sees Arwen falls a little bit in love with her; she’s just that beautiful and good. Aragorn’s love was of a different kind, but he had a hard time persuading Elrond of this. All Elrond could see was a young kid, and he certainly was not about to allow his daughter to marry just anyone, even if she wanted to (and it is not at all clear at this point that Arwen did want to marry Aragorn.) So Elrond laid down the law: if Arwen was going to marry a Man, then that Man would be no ordinary Man. He would be the Elessar, the king of restored Arnor and Gondor. If Aragorn could become that, then – and only then – would Elrond give his permission for Arwen to wed.

Clearly, Aragorn was not very good at meeting his girlfriend’s parents. He should have worked a bit more on that “Good to meet you, sir” handshake.

Tolkien’s characters live by a code of honour that is full of absolutes. If Elrond had created these conditions, then the only thing Aragorn could do was fulfill these conditions. The alternatives – running off together, carrying on a secret affair under Elrond’s nose – would be dishonourable and therefore unthinkable. Elrond had a gold ring above his head, and Aragorn clicked on it. Now he had a quest chain. Maybe he would rather be rolling off for Putrid Slime, I don’t know, but he didn’t stand around. He got right on it. He rode off to Rohan and served the King there as a warrior and counselor. He went on to Gondor and led an invasion of Umbar which extended Gondor’s power to the farthest it had been in centuries. He traveled with Gandalf, and learned much of the world from this Wizard. He went even to the far East and South, off any map Tolkien ever drew, where “the stars are strange.” Maybe he met Cthulhu. Well, okay, maybe not.

Eventually, he returned. And when he did, he was no longer the wet-behind-the-ears noob he had been before. He had leveled up. He was now a great man. But he was not yet great enough. He was not yet the King, and so Elrond’s approval had not yet been gained. He and Arwen could walk through Lorien, holding hands and exchanging sweet words, but not much more than that. By now, Aragorn was impressive enough that Arwen had a new respect for him, and she truly loved him in return. With a little help from Galadriel, they became engaged.

That’s pretty much where our story picks up, and the end is yet to be seen in the game. Aragorn has a lot to do: he’s Gandalf’s right hand man up through Moria, then leader of the Fellowship all the way to the Falls of Rauros and Boromir’s death. Then it’s off to rescue Merry and Pippin, find Gandalf along the way, help Theoden fight off the army of Saruman at Helm’s Deep, use the palantir to challenge Sauron (!), go through the Paths of the Dead, summon an army of Oathbreakers to the Stone of Erech, take over an entire fleet of Corsairs out of Umbar, and lead that fleet of black-sailed ships to a last minute rescue of Minas Tirith. Last on his to-do list: March to Mordor and call out Sauron. But what does Arwen do? She eventually comes to Minas Tirith, of course, but for the entirety of the War she seems to be sitting out in Rivendell, sewing Aragorn’s banner and … what?

I suggest she’s talking up Man-Elf love, that’s what.

Back in the late Middle Ages there was a thing called the “Court of Love.” It grew up in France around Eleanor of Aquitane, her daughters, and courtiers. Chretien de Troyes was one of these courtiers, and the romance “the Knight of the Cart,” which introduced Lancelot to the world, was written in this environment. The Court of Love was about encouraging romance and putting women in charge of the relationship. To do this, women assigned tests to their lovers, and only granted increasingly intimate favours to those lovers as each test was successfully completed. This was a marathon, not a sprint; men who lost patience with waiting had no sympathy from the ladies involved and were fit only for ridicule and contempt.

It’s easy to picture Arwen as a kind of Eleanor of Aquitane figure. She’s the most famous female of her age, related by blood to some of the most important and influential individuals in history. Her home, Imladris, is the destination for the world’s powerful elite. And like Eleanor, she has a lot of time on her hands with little to do. How does she pass that time? She gets some of the smartest, cleverest, most beautiful and interesting people in Rivendell and she becomes the leader of their social circle. While she sews Aragorn’s Pristine Master Standard of Hope, she and her close companions tell stories of love to one another and, in the process, define a new kind of romance – a romance between Men and Elves. A romance which will strengthen the Kingdom of Gondor and Arnor Restored. A romance which will last for not one lifetime, but for centuries. A romance which will bring new light and power into the bloodlines of the West. Tolkien almost tells us about Arwen’s court when he writes in the Tale of Years that Sam’s daughter went to Minas Tirith to become a handmaid of Arwen. And what was the name of this little hobbit-lass? Eleanor. (No, really.)

In Arwen’s Court of Love, marriage is far more important than it was in Eleanor of Aquitaine’s. Indeed, marriage and child-rearing is the ultimate goal, to be awarded only after the lover has proven his quality in test after test. Go kill that elite goblin over there and then you can walk the gardens with me. Go kill a hundred trolls and then you can hold my hand. Go learn how to play the harp and then you can touch my hair. Go get me a trophy from Carn Dum and then we can kiss. After each challenge is met, the intimacy between the two lovers goes up one incremental step. (You should read the manuals on courtly love that were actually written in the period, detailing exactly what part of your lover you could and could not touch at each stage of courtship. Hilarious.)

While all the Man-Elf loves we see in the setting are always between a Man and an Elf-maid, there’s no reason to limit Arwen’s encouragement in this way. Her Court of Love can include Elf-lords and ladies, Men and Women, all sharing their tales and between them constructing a new social order. How should Men and Elves love one another, from here on out? You see, the Lord of the Rings really only tells us how things have been up to the War. It has very little to say about what happened after. Arwen is the trend-setter in Middle-earth. She has all the style, the grace, the influence. She wears the most beautiful clothes and has the bravest husband. She’s the future Queen of the West, the Jackie Kennedy of Middle-earth. Everyone wants to be like her. And if she’s marrying a Man, well … then marrying is suddenly in. Marriage is trendy. And marrying across your race is even more trendy.

Which is all according to her plan. Sure, Aragorn will be wearing the crown and mopping up all the Orcs left over after Sauron is defeated, and he’ll be heroic and all that. But Arwen’s contribution is more long-term. If her Court of Love is successful, she will have created a whole new social class of Half-elven families who are fanatically loyal to her and Aragorn. And their lifespan is measured in centuries. Most of the Elves are leaving Middle-earth, but Arwen’s Court of Love will persuade some to stay, and their children will be mortal, part of the aristocracy of Gondor. If the new Kingdom is to last beyond Aragorn’s life, it will be in no small part due to Arwen, her influence, and the existence of these Half-elven Gondorian families.

So cheer up, all you would be lovers. There may not be a lot in the novel that encourages your romance between Man and Elf, but you have a role model to work from and she has plenty of reasons to encourage you. Find Arwen in Rivendell and pull up a spot on the floor. Start telling your tales and setting your challenges. Put your love to the test, as Arwen’s father has for her. Make sure your lover is really worth your affection. You want a love that will stand the test of time, a love for the centuries, not just for the moment. And when this War is done, and Arwen’s champion has proven himself to be a true lover, and become King, you and your love will join him and Arwen in Minas Tirith, there to bring new light and luster to the White City.


  1. Elrond and Elros's father was Earendil, and their mother was Elwing, FYI :)

  2. I write pages and pages, and that's all you have to say?!

    You are, of course, correct.

  3. Very, very interesting read. I am not really a roleplaying character, but I was really intrigued. I love how you took a very serious delve into Tolkien Lore and splattered a bunch of in-game humor in it (the parts about Aragorn wanting to farm Putrid Slime and Arwen sewing his Standard of Hope had me going). Thanks for the excellent article!

  4. What an extraordinary site you have! I'm not in the RPG either (yet?) but was introduced to your posts by a friend who is.

    I'm away from my books at the moment but have a couple of thoughts, based on shakey memory.

    One, on the subject of mixed marriage, isn't there a reference to hobbit-elf connections somewhere? Aren't the Tooks rumoured to have had elvish blood? Or am I just smoking pipeweed?

    Two, wasn't Melian the Vala married to an elf? Did they have any offspring?

    Of course, you haven't really touched on the curious state of the half-elven, which is, you can't be half-elven forever. You have to choose mortality or the qualified immortality of the elves. I don't think people who have only seen the movies really get this. Elrond is an elf because he was a half-elf who chose immortality. Arwen only faces her decision, not because she marries Aragorn, but because she is of mixed blood too.

    Complicated stuff but a pleasure to encounter a community that is discussing it so intelligently.


  5. I wanted to follow up on the hobbit-elf connection; it's right there in the first chapter of The Hobbit. It discusses rumors that the Tooks "had fairy blood" but then immediately dismisses the possibility as nonsense.

    I mis-remembered the "fairy" reference in my own mind as being Elvish-- and this raises an interesting question, was Tolkien making a distinction? We know Middle Earth has Elves. Does it have Fairies? An if so, are they different?

    Tolkien was usually dismissive of diminuitive Victorian-style winged fairies. About the only place I can think of where he intentionally used them was in Errantry.

    In older British folklore, the faeries have much more in common with Elves than fairies-- they are larger, wingless, fey and beautiful or grotesque but never just cute.

    Who is the narrator here? Tolkien himself, I suppose, reading to his children. Is the assertion that the Took-fairy connection wasn't real one that we should accept at face value or does it invite a winking "we know better" from the children being read to?

    I'd like to believe so.