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The Tragedy of Gilraen, Aragorn's Mother

I've been a Tolkien fan since Legolas' actor was in diapers, and I used to play Elrond on TV.

In the Fellowship of the Ring film, Aragorn's mother's tomb bears this Elvish inscription:  "gilraen /  onen i-estel edain /  ú-chebin estel anim" ... (see below for translation)

In the Fellowship of the Ring film, Aragorn's mother's tomb bears this Elvish inscription: "gilraen / onen i-estel edain / ú-chebin estel anim" ... (see below for translation)

"I Gave Hope to the Dúnedain"

One of the many half-told tales behind Tolkien's masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings, is the haunting story of Gilraen, Aragorn's mother. We get the bare bones outline in the appendices, but most fans don't get that far.

If you were wondering about that sad scene in The Fellowship of the Ring where Elrond and Aragorn are talking before Gilraen's tomb (here's a screencap to jog your memory), here's the story. As usual, it's rather different than in the films.

The Parents of Aragorn

To understand Gilraen's tragic history, we have to go back in time during the Third Age, right back to the beginning, 3019 years before The Lord of the Rings.

At that time there were two kingdoms of the Dúnedain, the Men of the West: Arnor in the northwest, Isildur's realm, and Gondor to the south, ruled by Isildur's nephew after Isildur's brother and father both died in the great war against Sauron. For many hundreds of years, both kingdoms prospered, but by the mid Third Age they had fallen into decay, weakened by wars, feuds, invasions, Sauron's minions and plague. Gondor lost its royal line, while Arnor was eventually sacked (Third Age 1975).

The refugees of Arnor became the Rangers of the North. Their chieftains were descended from Isildur through Aranarth, son of the last king of Arnor (the "ar-" root in Elvish simply means "king"). Arathorn his descendant was born in T.A. 2873. Through all that time, Elrond and Rivendell protected the children of Isildur's line and guarded their heirlooms for the day when, they hoped, a king of their line would arise once more. In contrast to Peter Jackson's "I never wanted that power" Aragorn, they were trained alongside Elrond's sons to fight orcs and prepare for the day when they could reclaim the throne of both kingdoms.

Aragorn's father Arathorn, a hardened warrior, fell in love with Gilraen the Fair, another distant descendant of Aranarth. Her father Dírhael objected on the grounds that Gilraen was too young (paralleling Tolkien's real-life courtship of his own wife). Also, like many of the Dúnedain, Dírhael had some power of foresight, saying that "my heart forebodes that he will be short-lived." However, his wife Ivorwen said, "If these two wed now, hope may be born for our people; but if they delay, it will not come while this age lasts."

So Gilraen married the heir of Isildur. However, Arathorn was slain by orcs only four years after their union, when Aragorn their son was but two years old.

Aragorn's Upbringing

Gilraen took her child to Rivendell, where Elrond named the boy Estel ("Hope") to conceal his identity and raised him as a foster-son.

All went well until Aragorn was twenty, when he first encountered Arwen and fell in love with her on the spot. (She had been staying in Lothlórien during his childhood.) Aragorn's mother, a stern and deeply pessimistic woman, feared that Aragorn would lose Elrond's favor and lose the protection he had long given to their family.

In fact, she (and Peter Jackson) underestimated Elrond: he was gracious and kind to the young man, although he was grieved, and simply set steep requirements: Aragorn could not wed Arwen until he became king of Arnor and Gondor. ("Arwen Undómiel shall not diminish her life's grace for less cause.") Since the Aragorn of the books was earnestly striving to accomplish just that, Elrond's bride-price was a motivator, rather than an outright "no."

Aragorn then went out to prove and prepare himself for the coming war with Sauron.

Gilraen Fades Away

Aragorn's mother should have been proud of her son: he made a name for himself in Gondor and Rohan as a great captain of men (admittedly under the pseudonym Thorongil). Arwen returned his love and pledged herself to him, which was a high honor not given to ordinary mortals.

Yet as Aragorn grew in renown and strength, earning the respect of elves of men in many lands, Gilraen seems to have retreated into her grief. She left Rivendell and returned to her own people in the desolate wilds of the north, where the Rangers were a people in hiding.

I sometimes wonder if Gilraen's pessimistic words about Aragorn's courtship were unconscious sympathy for Arwen: if they wed, she knew the grief of widowhood that Arwen would face all too soon.

A handful of years before events in The Lord of the Rings began to unfold, Aragorn found his mother spent, grieving, and aged beyond her years, although the Dúnedain generally lived twice an ordinary human lifespan. When he consoled her with hopes that Sauron would be defeated, she said:

Onen i-Estel Edain, ú-chebin estel anim.
"I gave hope to the Dúnedain; I kept none for myself."

She died within a year and did not live to see her son's triumph.

Gilraen has the characteristics of most of Tolkien's female characters: stern, proud, self-sufficient, reluctant to accept "alms" from others, often raising a child alone. This, again, describes Tolkien's own mother and childhood all too well (and she died when he was young, leaving him an orphan). In some ways, Gilraen's mistrust for others' aid led to greater hardship for her son.

Again, she helps illustrate the "hope" theme of The Lord of the Rings by its lack. In Elvish, there are two words for hope, (1) amdír, literally "ahead + looking," i.e. a projection based on current circumstances, and (2) estel, "a hope akin to faith," an irrational hope that takes no account of obstacles. If you follow the trajectories of many of LOTR's characters, you'll see how often those with amdír give way to despair and fail, while those with estel ("a fool's hope") keep going.

Hidden Meanings in Elvish Names

One of the reasons that Tolkien's fantasy world of Middle-Earth seems so real is that he was a linguist, undestanding that mythology is conveyed partly through language, even if the meanings of old words and names are forgotten. So nearly every place-name means something — Arnor, Gondor, Mordor = King-land, Stone-land, Dark-land for example.

The names of Elves and their allies are all in Sindarin Elvish (save for the High-elven Elessar, the equivalent of Latin in Middle-earth). All the Dúnedain, the Rangers, have Elvish names.

  • Ara + thorn = Royal/kingly + eagle
  • Dír + (s)ael = man + wise (Sam's name in Elvish is Perhael, "half-wise," although Aragorn says he should instead be called Panthael, "full-wise".)
  • Ivor + (g)wên = crystal + maiden
  • Gîl + raen = star + net, a jeweled hairnet used by Elves and Númenorian nobles

Unfortunately, we don't know anything about Arathorn's parents, but we see at once that there is some power of prophecy on Gilraen's side of the family (and that women tend to get named for ornaments.)

Gîl interests me. There are two Elvish words for star: gîl, also translated "glint," and êl, also translated elf, because the Elves were so tied to starlight that they called themselves eldar, "people of the stars," and el- is a frequent component of their names (Elrond, Elros, Elladan, Elrohir, etc).

Gilraen's name picks up on the word that lacks the more immortal sense of êl. She is mortal, tragically so. (Gil-galad could also tell you that your life expectancy is somewhat better with an el- name.)

Aragorn and Arwen, however, named their son Eldarion. (son of the Eldar, the Elves, with an emphasis on that more hopeful êl- root.)

Amazing Fan-Made Film: Born of Hope

Amazingly, an award-winning fan film has been made dramatizing the story of Gilraen, Arathorn and young Aragorn: Born of Hope. Here's the official website, and here's the video (you'll probably want to watch it full-screen):

Gilraen Fanart

  • Gilraen and Estel
    Lovely sketch of mother and child in happier days. (There's some great fanart in this artist's gallery, including several of Estel.)

Born of Hope: Fan-Made Film


Paul L P on February 24, 2018:

Very interesting !

I wish I could learn more about Tolkien's use of language and etymology. Thank you so much !

Sara Copley on January 08, 2016:

Very interesting hub! I had never heard her story before. I was wondering if you might be able to tell me which book or appendix I could find this story in? Thanks!