When Death Does Us Part

Last Words of a Long Lost Love

When it works as it should, marriage is a tragedy.

I have seen the quiet courage it takes for a widow to walk to her pew as the funeral begins. Once she entered the sanctuary as the radiant bride, and all eyes were upon her in her glory. Now she enters as the bereaved, and all eyes are upon her again, watching to see how she will hold up. I have seen the children of the widower worry as their dad made his precarious way to his funeral seat. Once he was the beaming groom watching for the first sight of his bride. So proud, so strong, his life before him. Now he shuffles. But he has resolutely rejected that blasted walker. He’ll go unaided, once more, for her.

What a grievous plight! A couple cleaves together for fifty or sixty years. They learn to know each better than anyone else. They communicate often without words but still with clear understanding. For some twenty thousand days and nights, they have given themselves to each other, died for each other, and lived for all the life that came from their love. Then, just as nerve fails and frailty rises, one of them dies. One is left to carry on alone, just when the deceased is most needed. One endures, heartbroken but resolute to live from love and vows pledged so long ago.

As Aragorn tells Arwen in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, “There is no comfort for such pain within the circles of this world.”

Aragorn and Arwen

I don’t remember reading the appendix of The Lord of the Rings before I was married. The saga of destroying the Ring and setting right Middle-earth had been enough for me. But early in our years together, Rhonda and I read the trilogy aloud. We didn’t want it to end. So I paged through the extras and stumbled on the history of the relationship between Arwen, the undying elf princess, and Aragorn, the rugged Ranger who was heir to the throne of Gondor.

Tolkien pierced me with beauty and sorrow in places of my heart I didn’t even know I had. I still can’t read those few pages without, at some point, popping tears. But neither can I stop returning to this story so filled with not only the sorrow, but also the choice and the hope of every enduring love. Following it will lead us to a set of the most beautiful and true sentences ever written.

The Meeting

As a young man of 20, Aragorn walks one evening in the woods of Rivendell, one of the fair realms of the elves. He sings as he wanders, taking up the ancient lay of Beren and Luthien, a man who dared to love an elven princess and she who gave up immortality to marry him. Just then, he sees Arwen walking among the birch trees. Smitten by her graceful loveliness, Aragorn feels he is living inside the song. For Arwen is the daughter of Elrond, the elf lord who rules that land. With confidence beyond any renown he has yet earned, Aragorn approaches Arwen. His heart is hers.

But the future appointed for them seems a block to any relationship. Though young in appearance, Arwen has already lived the years of many human lifetimes. Her destiny is to sail at the end of the age with her father and kin to the undying lands of the West. Aragorn has yet to win his way through the battles with the Shadow and undertake the near-hopeless quest to see the Ring of Power destroyed. Elrond will permit no talk of union with his daughter until Aragorn has proved himself faithful and victorious.

Decades pass. Then it happens that in Lothlorien, another edenic woodland of the elves, Aragorn comes again upon Arwen under the trees. This time, she loses her heart to him, seeing him grown into the fullness of manhood. For some days, they walk and talk together blissfully. Yet both know that the Shadow of Sauron deepens. His malevolence threatens the world. Great struggle lies ahead. Victory seems unlikely. Choices must be made. Will Aragorn forsake the war, withdrawing with his beloved as long he can? Will Arwen choose to depart for the West, mysteriously referred to as the Twilight, safe from war but never able to return to Middle-earth except in memory?

The Choice

In the moment of choosing one another, they also pledge their lives to the desperate struggle for the renewal of the world. “And the Shadow I utterly reject,” says Aragorn. Arwen replies, “And I will cleave to you . . . and turn from the Twilight [though] there lies . . . the long home of all my kin.” Their lives together will be in the mortal realm, where evil must be fought and a kingdom built through faithful service.

The more Rhonda and I have personally pressed into the depths of living from Christ and for Christ, the more we have realized our call to fight the evil one through our love. Trust in Jesus’s promised future fuels us to live in hope, even as the days seem to grow darker. We realize our marriage is a weapon against the unraveling of the world. Fidelity, forgiveness, hearing one another, giving grace — these are militant choices for love.

“Our marriage is a weapon against the unraveling of the world.”

In cleaving together as Christians, we renounce the Shadow — understood as living for ourselves, merely to consume what we can of the good life. We also decline the Twilight — understood as withdrawing from the struggle and snatching as much peace alone together as we can afford. Of course, challenges to this vision enter every life stage. The time of our parting will, no doubt, nudge our faith toward despair. But courage can be found in the rest of Aragorn and Arwen’s story.

The Hope

Against all odds, Aragorn wins through. On midsummer’s day after the Ring is destroyed, Aragorn and Arwen marry. They have more than a century together while the kingdom flourishes. But at last, the time comes for parting. Though long lived, Aragorn still has to face the doom of men. On his deathbed, he says to his beloved the words already quoted: “I speak no comfort to you, for there is no comfort for such pain within the circles of this world.” Only long and joyful love could grow such sorrow.

It seems a rotten system. This sorrow can tempt us to give up. To curse God. To be cynics. To declare love only an exercise in futility. The pain in parting becomes the fiercest challenger. So Aragorn continues, “But let us not be overthrown at the final test, who of old renounced the Shadow and the Ring.” All love in this world still languishes under the “futility” of our mortality and our ever-more-apparent “bondage to decay” (Romans 8:20–21). The choice for hope takes continuing effort. The vocation of committed love to bless the world demands renewed engagement of the last enemy’s challenge, especially when strength fades. Right in the teeth of the pain ahead, we look death and evil and sorrow straight in the face and nevertheless renounce selfishness and sin. We reject withdrawal into the shadows, and choose to love to the very end.

“Only long and joyful love could grow such sorrow.”

So we come to Aragorn’s beautiful sentences: “In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound forever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory! Farewell!”

Within the world we experience, nothing now can remove the pain when two so interconnected must part. But that is not the final word! Reality is not limited to this world of time and space. We go to something more. Something more than oblivion, that awful emptiness of the atheistic future. Something more than a shadowy existence, that underworld the ancients perceived as the realm of the dead. Something more than merely living on in another’s memory, or as an impersonal part of the vast universe. Rather, something more real, more us, than ever before. Something founded on the rising of Jesus, who burst through these mortal constraints into an embodied and relational eternity.

Beyond the Circles of the World

Tolkien detested allegory and eschewed any one-to-one correspondence between the characters in his fiction and the people we meet in Scripture. Yet his faith undergirded all he wrote. Tolkien explored these underpinnings in his essay “On Fairy-Stories.” He wrote that great stories fully acknowledge the sorrow and the failure in the world, and even the fear that these will be all that’s left. Yet the Christian story “denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat . . . giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”

For Tolkien, this hope flows from the veracity of Jesus’s resurrection. Christ has conquered death and so altered the future of the world. “The story begins and ends in joy. . . . There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true.” This great turn toward joy against impossible odds is the enduring beauty in The Lord of the Rings, and on his deathbed, Aragorn became the spokesman for the faith that joy wins out. We cling to this.

How much did Tolkien believe his character? How deep did his faith run that in the world he created he was rendering truths from Christ’s redemptive reality? Ronald and Edith Tolkien share a headstone in Wolvercote Cemetery in Oxford. I think it’s quite telling that under her name is etched “Luthien.” Married 55 years, she was his elf princess, his Arwen and true love. Under his name, “Beren” is carved, for he won her heart and proved his troth through the decades. Now they know that we are not bound forever to the circles of this world. Beyond them is more — oh, so very much more.