What does death mean to me? It’s a question I hadn’t really thought of. Having Christian upbringings meant I had some idea of what it meant to me. So when I heard about Tolkien’s and his concept of Death as the Gift of Iluvatar, I was amazed to say the least. Now, obviously all of us have thought about what it would be like to live forever, to never die of a natural death and have the ability to enjoy all of life’s treasures. But I’ve come to realize that maybe immortality would be all peachy keen; however, that doesn’t mean I’m going to go knocking on Death’s door. So how do we treat death? And what did Tolkien have to say about that?
Now, at this point, we can no longer pretend that any of his writings bear no theological foundations. We have to take this into consideration when dealing with a serious topic such as death. From a Christian perspective, the definition of death is clearly given in the Bible; in Romans 6:23, the apostle Paul states “For the wages of sin is Death.” The fall of man came about through disobedience and sin and this resulted in spiritual and physical death. Besides it being a punishment, it’s also seen as the ultimate doom, the eternal sleep. But what exactly does death mean to us? We must begin by understanding the nature of man and its relation to matter and the physical world.
Tolkien best elaborates on the state of mortality of both the race of Elves and Men in the debate between Finrod and Andreth. We’re made aware that the main difference between these two races is their relation the world and time as well as the limits exhibited upon both races in those two aspects. The nature of Elves is immortality; more importantly, that their spirit is tied to the fate of Arda, of the world itself. Men, however, are naturally mortal; their spirit in uniquely free and ultimately oriented towards the transcendent.
It’s important to consider the relationship between Spirit and matter in regards to Elves. By representing the artistic, aesthetic and scientific aspects of human nature, we can further establish a deeper connection between their spirit and the natural world. Because Elves are the race that is more tied to the physical and natural world, their body and spirit have to also be closely linked. A separation between their hröa (body) and the fёa (spirit) would thus be contrary to their nature, just like a separation between their spirit and the physical world. Elves thus become a perfect representation of what the union between spirit and matter should be.
And yet, the connection that Elves have with the physical realm undoubtedly produces sorrow to the Firstborn. But why sorrow? Surely such glorified and beautiful creatures would be the merriest of all the races in Tolkien’s legendarium. Suffice to say, they are not. To understand why they carry this burden with them requires a greater understanding of their link to nature and the world. One of the most important characteristics of Elves is their dislike of change. It’s not that Elves necessarily think change is evil, but their main desire is to arrest change, to always keep things fair and to preserve their beauty. However, a marred world is anything but completely beautiful and fresh. A fallen world is characterized by constant change, destruction and malice. To have to be witness to this, the gradual destruction of something so closely tied to oneself is bound to cause sorrow, to create a yearning to for some sort of end for it all. And of course, that escape comes in the form of death, which is something that it is not in their nature to experience. Here, it becomes perfectly clear why elves would become envious of Man’s mortality.
It is also important to view our nature in relation to that of Men’s in Tolkien’s world. Within his legendarium, Tolkien refers to death as a Gift from Iluvatar to Men. He refers to it as a mere severing of the hröa and the fёa. Now, having this ability also says something about man’s relationship to matter and the physical world. Primarily, that the fёar of Men is not tied to Arda; Arda is not their home. The only tie that Men have to Arda is their body. And through the union of the hröa and the fёa is how Men fulfill their purpose. And what is their purpose? Finrod puts it best when he says that “this… was the errand of Men… to heal the Marring of Arda, already foreshadowed before their devising” (318). Men are the tools of change within Arda; as long as they remain in it, they are destined to change it. So if the fёar of Men is not tied to Arda, what is it tied to? Here Tolkien places a great emphasis on the understanding that no matter what Men think, they are destined for something beyond the physical, a transcendent realm that is unknown but provides a release form the world and its troubles. Despite this gift, Men cannot help but desire immortality, a chance to remain among the material, to always want more time than we have and to hold on to all that we have.
It’s ironic how both Elves and Men experience envy at the state of mortality pertaining to the other; and yet this irony is important in our understanding and our perspective of death here in the primary world. While gaining a deeper appreciation of Tolkien’s stories, we also find that our perspectives of things in our primary reality can be altered. Tolkien stated that Elves and Men represent two sides of the human nature. Elves represent the side of humanity that yearns for the end of destruction, of pain, suffering and change. It’s the desire to experience the fulfillment of all things and to finally arrive at our intended place. When we get in touch with this part of ourselves, when we see the constant death and destruction in the world, death may truly seem like a Gift. But there’s also the part of us that, like the nature of Men in Tolkien’s legendarium, does not want to depart the physical world, but instead wants more of everything, of life and time, material things, happiness, love, power. Death would only signify the inability to have these things. So where do we stand? Sadly, none of us are immortal, no matter how much we’d like to be. And we can’t deny that despite the hardships and trial we face in life, death still seems like a daunting experience that none of us can escape. One thing we do have control over is how we think about it. Aragorn best puts it when speaking his final words: “Let us not be overthrown at the final test… In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! We are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more that a memory.”