The Rings of Power and the History of Romance Between Elves and Humans Revealed

The below article contains spoilers for The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power and Tolkien’s Middle-earth lore.

The billion-dollar streaming show based on song lyrics, backstory-as-monologue, and a section of the appendix to a fantasy novel is obligated to invent a few things to make a workable series. Given the legal situation facing Prime Video’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power – they hold adaptation rights for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but nothing else of J. R. R. Tolkien’s – showrunners Patrick McKay and J.D. Payne needed to invent quite a bit. Hence, the creation of characters like the lovers Arondir the Silvan Elf (Ismael Cruz Córdova) and Bronwyn, daughter of mortal Men (Nazanin Boniadi).

There’s space within the Second Age of Middle-earth as described within the pages of Lord of the Rings for an Arondir and a Bronwyn. But a strict adherence to Tolkien wouldn’t allow for a relationship between them. He specified that there were only four romances between Elves and Men, three in the First Age and one in the Third. Love affairs between different peoples is a timeless theme, and the cast and crew of Rings of Power have their reasons and dramatic goals for the relationship. But Tolkien had his own reasons and goals with his four unions, and with Elves and Men as reflections of different sides of humanity.

What Are Elves and Men in Tolkien’s Writing?

Elves, in Tolkien’s mythology, are the elder race, firstborn into Middle-earth even before the sun and moon. They are, in the author’s words, the human race in an idealized state, possessed of a greater level of beauty, powers of mind and art (including arts that Men and hobbits took as “magic”), and life unmarred by old age or disease that will endure until the end of the world. They may be slain, but their spirits remain bound to Arda (the Earth). The bounds of Arda include the Undying Lands wherein dwell the Valar (analogous to archangels) and their attendant Maiar (lesser angelic spirits). A good portion of the Elves, the Eldar, traveled there in the First Age, only to rebel under the influence of the lies of Morgoth, the great evil of the mythology. These exiles built great kingdoms in Middle-earth, but all Elves are doomed to desire the Undying Lands, and either depart for those shores or burn away their bodies and linger in Middle-earth as invisible spirits. Their final fate at the end of the world is unknown.

Tolkien’s mortal Men are… well, men, human beings, with all our ideals, desires, and failings. They are the second-born race of the free peoples of Middle-earth. Men were quickly and easily tempted by Morgoth to worship him, but the highest of them, the Edain, repented and made friends with the Elves. The Eldar and the Edain fought side by side in the wars against Morgoth in the First Age, and it was from the Edain that the long-lived Númenóreans of the Second Age descended. But though some may live for centuries, the Men of Arda are mortal. Their mortality is called the Gift of Men by the Elves: the release of their spirits after death beyond the confines of the world, to a place unknown even to the Valar. Morgoth’s deceits led men to see the Gift as a Doom, and the fear of death and futile quest to escape it serve as a key theme in Tolkien’s writings.

The Tale of Beren and Lúthien

In his private letters, Tolkien expressed his concern with “Death as a part of the nature, physical and spiritual, of Man, and with Hope without guarantees” in his writing. Various expressions of this concern can be found in the three unions between Elves and Men (a fourth romance, between Aegnor the High Elf and Andreth of the House of Bëor, was never consummated). These marriages all came to different ends that were met in different ways by the souls concerned, yet each dealt with that fundamental difference between the races and the unknown awaiting them beyond the boundaries of the world.

The first union was between Beren, son of Barahir, hero of the House of Bëor, and Lúthien Tinúviel, daughter of King Thingol and Melian the Maia. Their story is the best part of The Silmarillion and, frankly, the only piece of Tolkien’s work outside The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings proper I’d like to see adapted to film. It was a story of deep significance to Tolkien himself; while far from autobiographical, he saw something of himself and his wife Edith in Beren and Lúthien, particularly Edith’s decision to forsake Anglicanism for Catholicism for his sake. The names “Beren and Lúthien” are inscribed on Tolkien and Edith’s graves.

The semidivine Lúthien, said to be the most beautiful woman to have ever lived, enchanted Beren as she danced among the hemlocks in the wood one day, and the two became chaste lovers. King Thingol disapproved of the rough, outlawed Beren, and gave him the impossible task of recovering a Silmaril, one of three precious jewels beyond worth, from Morgoth.

The quest for the Silmarils was a doom that plagued the Eldar throughout the First Age, but Beren and Lúthien’s part in it constitutes one of Tolkien’s most sweeping pieces of writing. The Elf-maid rescued the mortal hero on more than one occasion, and with the great hound Huan they bested Morgoth and his chief servant Sauron. They won the Silmaril at the price of Beren’s hand, to Carcharoth the werewolf. Beren and Lúthien wed, but when Beren and Huan went forth to slay Carcharoth, driven to a frenzy by the Silmaril burning in his belly, all three died.

Bereft at the loss of her husband, Lúthien gave up her own life. Her sprit came to the Halls of Mandos, Lord of the Dead, and sang a lament that moved even his iron heart. For the only time in the history of the world, Mandos brought a spirit, Beren’s, back from death. Not even the Valar could rescind the Gift of Men, so the choice was given to Lúthien: dwell in eternal bliss in the Undying Lands without her beloved, or return to Middle-earth with Beren as a mortal, accepting their fate and the unknown attached to it. She chose Beren. The lovers returned to Middle-earth until they died of old age, at an unknown date in an unmarked grave.

The Tale of Tuor and Idril

The second union between Elves and Men came when Tuor of the House of Hador wed Idril, daughter of the King of Gondolin. Their story is central to “The Fall of Gondolin,” another piece of The Silmarillion. Tuor grew up in the care of Elves, spent three years a captive of Easterlings in the service of Morgoth, and lived as a feared outlaw and warrior, slaying the enemies of the free people of Middle-earth. Ulmo, Vala of Waters, sent him as a messenger to King Turgon in the hidden city of Gondolin with a warning to flee. As a herald of doom, Tuor failed to sway the king. But while in Gondolin, he met and fell in love with Turgon’s daughter Idril.

Unlike Beren and Lúthien, Tuor and Idril’s marriage was blessed and celebrated by the Elf-maid’s father. Tuor remained in Gondolin and was named leader of one of its houses. But a jealous nephew, captured by Orcs, betrayed Gondolin to Morgoth for the promise of Idril. Tuor and Turgon fought bravely, but Morgoth’s forces destroyed the king, the city, and most of its inhabitants. Tuor was able to rescue his wife and children from the treacherous nephew, and a secret passage created by Idril enabled a small contingent of survivors to escape.

Tuor fell into the sea-longing common among the Elves. He and Idril built a ship and set out for the Undying Lands in the West. As Lúthien became the only Elf to accept the Gift of Men, tradition among the Eldar and Edain held that Tuor became the only Man granted the immortal life of the Elves, and that he and Idril will live together in the West until the end of the world.

The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen

Beren and Lúthien had children, as did Tuor and Idril. These were the half-elven, given the choice of which of the two kindreds they would belong to. The two unions of Elves and Men were united when Eärendil the Mariner, son of Tuor and Idril, wed Elwing, granddaughter of Beren and Lúthien. Both were counted among the Elves. Their sons, the twins Elros and Elrond, would split the line again when Elros chose the fate of mortal Men and Elrond that of the Elves. Elrond served under the High King Gil-galad, established the realm of Rivendell, and became a chief figure among the Wise who resisted Sauron in the Second and Third Ages. Through his marriage to Galadriel’s daughter Celebrían, he had his daughter Arwen. Elros became the first king of Númenor, and an unbroken line of descent from him ended with Aragorn.

By the time of Aragorn’s birth, Númenor had fallen, and its successor kingdoms of Gondor and Arnor (the latter in ruins itself) had been long without a king. Remnants of the Númenóreans, the Dúnedain, lived a hard life as Rangers of the North, and Aragorn was their chief. He was raised in Rivendell under Elrond’s protection, and there he met Arwen in the woods, much as Beren met Lúthien. It was love at first sight for Aragorn; thirty years later, in another encounter in Lothlórien, Arwen returned his affections. But while Elrond loved Aragorn, he was loath to part with his daughter, and declared that she could not marry less than the king of both Gondor and Arnor.

It was his love of Arwen, and her steadfast faith in him, that drove Aragorn throughout The Lord of the Rings, and he indeed came into the kingship. By their marriage, they reunited the severed branches of the half-elven, renewed the line of kings, and began the Fourth Age of Middle-earth with promise and hope. But their parting was the most tragic of the three unions, and the one I find most moving.

Aragorn, descendant of the Edain, could choose to give up his life when still sound of mind and body but advanced in years. Arwen, not yet weary of her days in Middle-earth, pleaded with him to linger. But Aragorn would not succumb to dotage. He passed the kingship to his heir and said his farewells to Arwen. “In sorrow we must go, but not in despair,” he told her, placing his trust in hope without guarantees. “We are not bound forever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.”

But Arwen felt no such trust. “Not till now have I understood the tale of your people,” she told Aragorn. “If [mortality] is indeed, as the Eldar say, the gift of the One to Men, it is bitter to receive.” When her husband passed, all joy and warmth left Arwen. She made her own farewells and went to Lothlórien, now an empty wood. It was there Arwen gave up her own life, in a grave doomed to be forgotten just as she herself will be forgotten by the men her love with Aragorn helped safeguard.

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Simon Costanza
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