My husband recently asked me, “Why do the elves need to leave Middle-earth?” as we sat and watched Return of the King for the ten-thousandth time. While the answer is in the texts, I think that the movie creates some confusion with how they handled the Exodus, as well as Arwen’s choice.
It is said a few times throughout the films that the age of the elves is ending, and the age of men is coming. This is true, although it is never exactly explained what that means. It is also unclear what would happen to them if they did stay, and Arwen’s choice makes that even more confusing because it’s actually unrelated to the fate of the rest of her kin. What is she choosing exactly? Do other elves get that choice? Can the other elves stay?
Throughout the movies, Arwen continues to say that she is choosing a mortal life. It is unclear if she means that she is choosing to live as a mortal but retain her long life, or if she is in fact somehow giving up that immortality to become mortal as Aragorn is. Based on her father’s grief about her decision, it seems safe to say that she’s giving up her actual immortality, right? To make matters a little more confusing, though, in his visions of her mourning Aragorn (after his long life and death), she doesn’t appear to have aged a bit, which makes little sense if she is no longer immortal and thus should be aging as well. Elrond also weaves in the fact that Arwen is “dying,” the longer the conflict for the ring goes on, but never explains what dying means or why she is dying. Her fate being “tied to the ring,” is naturally confusing, if taken at face value.
Elf Immortality & The Rings
The elves, or the Eldar, are immortal in the sense that they cannot die from illness or old age, however they can be slain. If they do die, they are summoned to the Halls of Mandos on Valinor, where they may eventually be returned to a physical form, although only in Valinor. This is different from the fate of men, who are said to “leave this world,” and go elsewhere, although no one knows exactly where they go.
If living elves are separated from Valinor too long, however (such as those that chose to live in Middle-earth instead), they can experience a sort of dying that is explained as fading. Fading is not exactly death, but as an elf fades they lose the ability to interact with the physical world. It is avoidable, and correctable, by returning to their home lands of Valinor, where the Valar can heal and sustain them. Many of the elves, however, wished to remain in Middle-earth.
If the elves were guilty of anything, it was their desire to preserve everything, which presumably is an extension of their own “fading.” The Rings of Power were thus created by the elves, with help from Sauron (who was convincingly pretending to be their ally and assisted them) with the intention of using the rings as a method of preserving Middle-earth and preventing it from inevitable change. It can be debated whether those are good intentions are not, but it seems obvious, at least, that they were not evil ones; perhaps misguided. Of course, we know that Sauron was not really such a nice guy after all, and he created the One Ring, as a way of exerting power over the wearers of the other Rings of Power. We know this worked with the nine kings of men, who became his wraiths. The dwarves were able to use the rings to their advantage in amassing more wealth, but there’s no evidence that Sauron was able to control any of them. The elves, who were smarter than he counted on, sensed Sauron’s presence when he first wore the One Ring and immediately took them off, and only were able to wear them actively during the Third Age when Sauron was not in control of the Ring.
At the time of the War of the Ring, the three elven rings were with the following: Gandalf (Narya), Elrond (Vilya), and Galadriel (Nenya). Elrond and Galadriel had used their rings to fortify and sustain Rivendell and Lothlorien, respectively. Gandalf’s results were less tangible, but it is said he used his ring to “kindle hearts” and inspire others.
The other benefit these rings provided through preservation was a slowing-down, so to speak, of the fading process. This allowed the Eldar to remain in Middle-earth longer than they probably could have without this help. As the abilities of these rings were now tied to the fate of the One Ring, once it is destroyed then the powers of the other rings disappear as well. Elrond and Galadriel understand that whether the ring is destroyed, or falls back into Sauron’s hands, their rings- and by extension, the benefits they’ve wrought from those rings- will no longer be able to do what they did for them before.
By the time of the War of the Ring, many of the Eldar had already exited Middle-earth and returned to Valinor. There were obviously still some left, but the population had been quickly reducing since the Valar began calling the Eldar home, and the few that remained seemed to either be biding their time for various reasons, or willing to accept their fates by staying (many of the wood elves, for example, never took the ships to the Blessed Realm). We also know that some did stay behind even after Elrond and Galadriel left on the “last ship.” Celeborn, for example, stayed for awhile, first in Lorien and then in Rivendell for a while before finally taking a ship (presumably they could still build more) to the Blessed Realm as well.
It could also be said that the elves felt pretty crappy about the current situation in Middle-earth, since in a lot of ways they were responsible for it, having been the creators of the rings to begin with. This seems to be a motivator for teaming up for the Last Alliance of Elves and Men (when the Ring was ultimately taken by Isildur), rather than just abandoning their handiwork and going home. After that, some, like Elrond, seemed to remain as a result of that guilt and the desire to assist and see the situation through to conclusion. Others probably left in sorrow of their deeds.
So when it is said that the Age of Elves is over, this is largely what is meant; that the elves had their time in Middle-earth for three ages, longer probably than they had any business having, and now it is time to return to Valinor to live as the Valar intended. Middle-earth was always intended to be the dwelling-place of Men, and now it was time to let them govern it.
What About Arwen?
Arwen would have fallen under the same situation as her kin, but her specific situation is also unique. She can thank her grandparents for this.
Elwing, a half-elven (a descendant of Luthien), married Earendil, from the race of men. Elwing came into the possession of a Silmaril that was passed down through her parents. The recovery of the Silmaril was but a small victory, as Morgoth continued to increase the terribleness of his campaign against the peoples of Middle-earth. Elwing and Earendil risked their lives to enter Valinor and plead with the Valar to intervene on behalf of the people’s of Middle-earth. The penalty for anyone with human blood stepping on the shores of Valinor was death, but the Valar were moved by their efforts and instead decided to help them, and they put together an army to enter Middle-earth and take down Morgoth. Due to their bravery, the Valar gave Elwing and Earendil the choice of kindreds: they could both remain mortal, or join the immortal elves. They chose immortality.
Although there were other examples of mixed blood and half-elven, it was only these two who were given the choice to choose a side. That choice also extended to their direct descendants. They had two sons, Elrond and Elros. Elrond made the choice to remain immortal among the elves. Elros, however, chose to become mortal instead. He and his people were gifted with longer life-spans, and he became the first King of the Numenoreans (thus, Aragorn is a descendant of Elros, and going back further still, Beren and Luthien as well, and even Thingol. Of course, we are talking about MANY generations).
As children of Elrond, Arwen and her brothers Elladan and Elrohir also are given this choice. The choices of her brothers remain unclear (we know they stayed in Rivendell for a while after Elrond left, but it isn’t said whether they eventually took the ships or stayed and remained mortal). Arwen, however makes her choice to become mortal, in order to stay and be with Aragorn.
So, based on this edict from the Valar concerning the descendants of Elwing and Earendil, we know that Arwen’s choosing to become mortal is a literal one.
It is unclear how much she has aged at the time of her death. Technically she was almost three-thousand years old, but her mortal life was just over a century (they ruled Gondor for 122 years). Her actual death seems to come from sorrow of Aragorn’s passing than from old age itself. This is the passage in the Appendices of Lord of the Rings that tells of Arwen’s passing:
But Arwen went forth from the House, and the light of her eyes was quenched, and it seemed to her people that she had become cold and grey as nightfall in winter that comes without a star. Then she said farewell to Eldarion, and to her daughters, and to all whom she had loved; 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.
Other obscure comments from the movie, such as her fate being “tied to the ring,” or her “dying” can probably be explained quite simply. Her fate was tied to the ring now that she had chosen mortality, just as the fate of all men on middle earth was tied to it. If the ring came into Sauron’s hands, they would all perish or be subjected to a life of tyranny and terror. If the ring was destroyed, then her fate would take a better turn and she could join with Aragorn and become Queen of Gondor.
Her dying seems to be a reference to the fact that with the choice she has made, she is in fact dying in the same way all men grow, age, and die. If Aragorn and the Fellowship do not succeed in their mission, it is very likely that she will die.
Although I can’t speak for Peter Jackson’s motivations here, I can only guess that he thought that for the casual viewer, the vagueness around both the elves’ departure from Middle-earth, and Arwen’s fate would be sufficiently told without full explanation, as the introduction of Arwen as a pivotal character in the movies (replacing Glorfindel in saving Frodo, for example) seems to be done for the reason of adding an emotional attachment for the audience and an additional motivation for Aragorn to succeed in his mission. It’s hard to be critical of the adaptation simply because the decision of what to include and what not to include had to be a very difficult one, especially know Peter Jackson is a big fan himself. The good news is that the answers to these questions are more clear in the books.
Note: The paintings here are from John Howe and Alan Lee. The other pictures are screen grabs from the movies.