. Alas, not me: Arwen's Green Grave

06 February 2024

Arwen's Green Grave

"... and she went out from the city of Minas Tirith and passed away to the land of Lórien, and dwelt there alone under the fading trees until winter came. Galadriel had passed away and Celeborn also was gone, and the land was silent.

"There at last when the mallorn-leaves were falling, but spring had not yet come, she laid herself to rest upon Cerin Amroth; and there is her green grave, until the world is changed, and all the days of her life are utterly forgotten by men that come after, and elanor and niphredil bloom no more east of the Sea."

(RK App. A, The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen, p. 1063)

Tolkien says that "The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen" is "the highest love story" in The Lord of the Rings (Letters #131 p. 229). He also referred to it as "the most important [tale] 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 [hobbit-centered] structure" (Letters #181 p. 343). Since Arwen also makes the Choice of Lúthien, which is the heart of what Tolkien calls "the kernel of the mythology" (Letters #165 p. 320), and The Lord of the Rings is famously part of the story of Beren and Lúthien, it is undeniably a very important tale. 

Now sometimes people take the paragraph I quoted at the start to suggest that Arwen despaired at the last, that she lacked the faith Aragorn displayed in his last words: "Behold! We are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory. Farewell!" In my book, Pity, Power, and Tolkien's Ring: To Rule the Fate of Many, I argued that this was not so (254-58). She is grieving, yes, and full of sorrow, but that is not the same thing as hopelessness. Indeed Aragorn concedes the bitterness of their parting, and that sorrow and grief are a natural part of it. But despair need not be. I am not going to repeat the evidence and arguments I made there, but I would like to add some points here that I think lend additional weight to what I wrote there. 

The words that stand out to me as most important are "her green grave" and the most important fact is that her green grave shall endure until the ending of the world and Arda is healed. If we look at an earlier version of these words, which Tolkien abandoned, I think we can notice something else of significance.

Then Arwen departed and dwelt alone and widowed in the fading woods of Lothlórien; and it came to pass for her as Elrond foretold that she would not leave the world until she had lost all for which she made her choice. But at last she laid herself to rest on the hill of Cerin Amroth, and there was her green grave until the shape of the world was changed.

(Peoples 355)

The tone here is quite matter of fact. It's a very prosy account, certainly when compared to the high romantic regster of the passage as published. The draft version records the passing of a world; the published version evokes the sorrow and beauty of its passing. The most significant change, however, is the shift in tense. The original passage simply reports the past. While the published text also begins in the past tense, once Arwen has "laid herself to rest upon Cerin Amroth," that changes. After a brief rest at the semicolon, the sentence begins again with a new movement in the present tense. The combination of the present tenses with the three clauses governed by "until" gives the sentence the vivid prophetic quality that anticipates the future. And the green grave shall be there when that future comes. 

Of course her grave's greenness by itself suggests life and growth amid death and the oblivion of time. It's as if the world itself will remember her even if we do not. I did a quick survey of signficant hills and mounds that I could recall. Unsurprisingly, many of those places called "green" are graves, but not all. 

But first here's a few hills, which are not graves, and other places where the green seems significant:

  • "Before its western gate there was a green mound, Ezellohar, that is named also Corollairë; and Yavanna hallowed it, and she sat there long upon the green grass and sang a song of power, in which was set all her thought of things that grow in the earth" (S 38).
  • "To [the Teleri] the Valar had given a land and a dwelling-place. Even among the radiant flowers of the Tree-lit gardens of Valinor they longed still at times to see the stars; and therefore a gap was made in the great walls of the Pelóri, and there in a deep valley that ran down to the sea the Eldar raised a high green hill: Túna it was called. From the west the light of the Trees fell upon it, and its shadow lay ever eastward; and to the east it looked towards the Bay of Elvenhome, and the Lonely Isle, and the Shadowy Seas. Then through the Calacirya, the Pass of Light, the radiance of the Blessed Realm streamed forth, kindling the dark waves to silver and gold, and it touched the Lonely Isle, and its western shore grew green and fair. There bloomed the first flowers that ever were east of the Mountains of Aman' (S 59).
  • "Then Tuor looked down upon the fair vale of Tumladen, set as a green jewel amid the encircling hills" (S 239).
  • "There came a time near dawn on the eve of spring, and Lúthien danced upon a green hill; and suddenly she began to sing. Keen, heart-piercing was her song as the song of the lark that rises from the gates of night and pours its voice among the dying stars, seeing the sun behind the walls of the world; and the song of Lúthien released the bonds of winter, and the frozen waters spoke, and flowers sprang from the cold earth where her feet had passed" (S 165).
  • Cerin Amroth had "... grass as green as Springtime in the Elder Days" (FR 2.vi.350).
  • "Three Elf-towers of immemorial age were still to be seen on the Tower Hills beyond the western marches. They shone far off in the moonlight. The tallest was furthest away, standing alone upon a green mound. The Hobbits of the Westfarthing said that one could see the Sea from the top of that tower; but no Hobbit had ever been known to climb it" (FR "Prologue" 7). 
  • "And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise" (RK 6.ix.1030).

Now here are some graves that are definitely not green, and that's definitely no surprise:

  • "the Death Down" under which the orcs slain at Helms Deep had been buried by the Huorns: "no grass would grow there" (TT 3.viii.553).
  • "With toil of many hands they gathered wood and piled it high and made a great burning and destroyed the body of the Dragon, until he was but black ash and his bones beaten to dust, and the place of that burning was ever bare and barren thereafter" (Children of Húrin 257).
The Barrow Downs are of course as full of graves as their name suggests, but the evil there is invasive and comparatively recent, having been summoned by the sorcery of the Witch-king (FR 1.vii.130; RK Appendix A 1041; UT 348). For thousands of years before that the dead had rested there in peace and shepherds had pastured their flocks on the downs. Contrast the sunlit green grass outside the mounds, on which Bombadil spreads the treasure hoard to break the spell on the barrow, with the cold "pale greenish light" within the barrow, which is a prelude to the incantation and human sacrifice the wight is about to perform (FR 1.viii.140-45). The present evil of the Barrow Downs, brought by a hostile force from the outside, uses the green of the grassy downs to hide.

Consider also a series of graves in which despite all attendant sorrow the green grass has positive connotations. 
  • "By the command of Morgoth the Orcs with great labour gathered all the bodies of those who had fallen in the great battle, and all their harness and weapons, and piled them in a great mound in the midst of Anfauglith; and it was like a hill that could be seen from afar. Haudh-en-Ndengin the Elves named it, the Hill of Slain, and Haudh-en-Nirnaeth, the Hill of Tears. But grass came there and grew again long and green upon that hill, alone in all the desert that Morgoth made; and no creature of Morgoth trod thereafter upon the earth beneath which the swords of the Eldar and the Edain crumbled into rust" (S 197).
  • "‘Yes,’ [Túrin] answered. ‘I fled [the darkness] for many years. And I escaped when you did so. For it was dark when you came, Níniel, but ever since it has been light. And it seems to me that what I long sought in vain has come to me.’ And as he went back to his house in the twilight, he said to himself: ‘Haudh-en-Elleth! From the green mound she came. Is that a sign, and how shall I read it?'" (UT 124; Children of Húrin 218).
  • "They buried the body of Felagund upon the hill-top of his own isle, and it was clean again; and the green grave of Finrod Finarfin’s son, fairest of all the princes of the Elves, remained inviolate, until the land was changed and broken, and foundered under destroying seas. But Finrod walks with Finarfin his father beneath the trees in Eldamar" (S 175-76).
  • The burial mounds of the kings of Rohan, Théoden's included (TT 3.vi.507; RK 6.vi.976) are all green."Green and long grew the grass on Snowmane’s Howe, but ever black and bare was the ground where the beast was burned" (RK 5.vi.844-45).
  • "Then Thorondor bore up Glorfindel’s body out of the abyss, and they buried him in a mound of stones beside the pass; and a green turf came there, and yellow flowers bloomed upon it amid the barrenness of stone, until the world was changed" (S 243).
  • Elendil's grave: "...the hallow was found unweathered and unprofaned, ever-green and at peace under the sky, until the Kingdom of Gondor was changed" (UT 309).

Finally, I would note how phrases like "until the world is/was changed" convey a sense of the promise of the endurance of the green grass. In the passages quoted above we've seen a half dozen variations on the phrase. The Silmarillion ends with a reference to a change coming to the world someday: 
Here ends the SILMARILLION. If it has passed from the high and the beautiful to darkness and ruin, that was of old the fate of Arda Marred; and if any change shall come and the Marring be amended, Manwë and Varda may know; but they have not revealed it, and it is not declared in the dooms of Mandos.
(S 255)

The change it mentions is carefully presented in a conditional statement, but the main verb of the "if" clause is "shall," which all but promises that the change will come, and that Marring of Arda will be amended. Think of how differently this would read with even slightly different wording. For "if any change should come," or "will come," or "is to come," or "comes" are all less forceful than that prophetic "shall." 

Compare this to Tom Bombadil's enchantment as he breaks into the barrow to rescue the hobbits:

Get out, you old Wight! Vanish in the sunlight!
Shrivel like the cold mist, like the winds go wailing, 
Out into the barren lands far beyond the mountains! 
Come never here again! Leave your barrow empty! 
Lost and forgotten be, darker than the darkness, 
Where gates stand for ever shut, till the world is mended.
(FR 1.viii.142)
He casts the wight not only out of the green grave he has invaded, but also out of the world itself into the outer darkness "till the world is mended." If anybody in Middle-earth knows for sure that the world shall be changed and amended, it's Old Tom. That is the change that he and the grass on Arwen's green grave look forward to.

1 comment:

  1. I immediately remembered Snowmane's Howe, because horses can be high romantic, too. Green is interestingly bivalent. It would have to be, I guess, since both grass and algae are green.