Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Death: the Gift to Men... Return to Sender?!

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.” 

-Se. Mi. 


  1. Very good post!

    I too had thought about the subject of death in Tolkien’s legendarium, and I thought the post did a good job in exploring it and the question about why it is considered a “gift” for men.

    I think another reason why death is viewed so differently by Men and Elves is because of what each race considers most important to them. Like the post said, the fate of Men lied beyond Arda, but it seemed that they all yearned to remain in Arda for as long as possible, which is where their desire for immortality stemmed from. According to them, Immortality would equal infinite power and wisdom and riches and happiness; they put more importance on their earthly lives instead of the fate that was theirs.

    The Elves, on the other hand wanted to resist change as much as possible, and because change is ultimately inevitable, they had to accept and witness the world they loved change and destroy itself. If, as the post says, they saw Death as an “escape”, would that escape only be for themselves? Would it be for their peace of mind at not having to be in a deteriorating world? If the men put more importance in their physical lives in Arda, then it seems the Elves hold their own tranquility and peace in higher regard. Their fate, unlike that of Men, is tied to Arda ‘till the very end, but apart from wanting to preserve beauty and all that is good, they don’t seem to pay much attention to anything else.

    I am NOT criticizing or “dissing” Elves; I quite enjoy reading and learning more about them. I just wanted to comment on the point that they seem to be looking at Death from different standpoints that stem from desires that seem to, at least to me, go against the fate given to each of them by Iluvatar.

    - Seleste M. :)

  2. I really liked your description of how the sorrow of the elves leads them to envy Iluvatar’s Gift to men. Unsurprisingly, I have heard a parallel interpretation of Genesis (alas, I cannot remember from where): Before the Fall, men lived immortally in bliss. After the fall, immortal life full of the pain caused by sin would have been unbearable. To save mankind from this fate of eternal suffering, God made man mortal. Tolkien’s separation of mankind into two different reflections, elves and men, allows him to really highlight the distinction that you make in your post: the gift of mortality only makes sense in a corrupted world –if Arda was perfect, Iluvatar’s Gift to men wouldn’t really be a gift. And while immortality would be ideal in a perfect world, immortal life in a corrupted world is not ideal. I find it interesting that in Arda, Iluvatar makes men mortal from the outset, the marring of Arda having been foreshadowed, whereas in Genesis God does not make man mortal until after the Fall. In light of the fact that Tolkien does not seem to make a distinction between his men’s free will and mankind’s free will in Genesis, I wonder why this is. I suppose it might be just that God and Iluvatar are not quite the same; God gives mankind the chance to not Fall before turning them moral, whereas Iluvatar doesn’t bother. Hmm.


  3. In your blog post, you dichotomize between the elves, who hate 'change', and men, who are agents in change. You argue that elves are envious of mens' mortality because they see death as an escape from constant change. Men, meanwhile, are change embodied.

    However, I think that there are good reasons for thinking that men and elves actually have very similar perspectives on change. Men fear death because it is the ultimate change - replacing the known (and often loved) physical world with a completely unknown change. Thus, they are forever trying to avoid the ultimate change in their own realities - their own deaths.

    Elves, being immortal, still fear death, but in a different way. Elves do not depart the world in the way men do, but in a way their world departs them. For them, Lothlorien and Rivendell fading away into nothing would be like 'death' - the change that replaces childhood security and love with an unknowable future.

    So, for men death is internal - irrevocable change in one's internal state of existence. For elves, it's external - irrevocable, inevitable change in the external realty.

    -D Mane

  4. I really enjoyed reading your post! I appreciate how you tied together so many of the readings from this class. However, I do think you missed one important point in your discussion of men in Tolkien’s legendarium. You mentioned near the beginning that men were not created to be indelibly tied to Arda, but rather to continually seek beyond it and to be the agents of change within creation. Later in your post you stated that men always want more, more power, more beauty, more of everything, and because of this fear death. However, I think it’s essential to note that this fear of death is not natural, but rather was propagated by Melkor. The fear of death is not inherent, because if fact it is man’s natural fate, and no man possessed that fear until Melkor began spreading his lies.
    This is quite interesting to think about. Men are created to be agents of change, yet because of Melkor they begin to fear one of the most fundamental changes in creation: death. Not only are they going against their nature as beings confined to finite lives, but they are going against their nature as architects of change. Is this Melkor’s role then, to lead Iluvatar’s creatures away from their inherent nature?


  5. Very nice incorporation of a Christian perspective on the question of death and change, but I agree with some of the above comments: I am not sure that the Elves as such resist change in quite the way you suggest, nor that Men do not seek to resist change (think of the Numenoreans!). Rather, it seems to me that what the Elves resist is change for the worse; but what then do we do with Men as agents of change? Not all change is good--or bad. But how do you tell the difference?


  6. Much like Sa Tha, I was struck by your remark that the nature of Man in the legendarium is to “want more of everything, of life and time, material things, happiness, love, power.” To Tolkien, Men understood the world “as a material for use or as a power-platform,” and were not invested in Arda with the same “‘sub-creational’ or artistic faculty of great excellence” as the Elves because Illuvitar gifted Men with the “release from bondage to the circles of the world” upon their deaths. Tolkien represented men as archetypes for accepting “Hope without guarantees.” Unlike the Elves, Men do not remain within both the space and time of Arda. To Tolkien, Men accepting such a release on mere faith ultimately manifest his concern with “Death as part of the nature, physical and spiritual, of Man.” Indeed, death was as much part of the physical and spiritual nature of humanity as was the artistic faculty embodied by the Elves. As Sa Tha argued, Melkor propogated Man’s preoccupation and fear of death/unknown existence beyond the vales of Arda. I agree that this fear led Men to forsake an inherent part of their creation (death). However, does this necessarily undermine their role as architects of change in Arda? Did Tolkien define their role as agents of change without the expectation that corrupting forces could turn initially good changes into evil, marring things for the world?

    As described above, Man’s errand was to heal the Marring of Arda, something already foreshadowed before their emergence in Arda. Melkor played an important role in the foreshadowed Marring of an Arda habitable for the Eruhini because he fought with the Ainur, deceived Elves, and the like. These actions were all inherent to Illuvitar’s design for Arda. Much like how Illuvitar harmonized Melkor’s rebellious themes during the Ainulindale, Melkor’s attempts to corrupt extreme heat and severe cold in order to ruin Ulmo’s Water ultimately produced unanticipated (save for Eru himself) changes to the physical and metaphysical landscape. Not only do Melkor’s actions produce snow, frost, rain, and clouds, but Ulmo, moved by the sub-creations, seeks Manwe: “‘Truly, Water is become now fairer than my heart imagined, neither had my secret thought conceived the snowflake, nor in all my music was contained the falling of the rain. I will seek Manwë, that he and I may make melodies for ever to thy delight!’” This was no different in how Eru incorporated Melkor’s discordant music's "most triumphant notes…and wov[e] [them] into its own solemn pattern.” These Happy Faults are akin to the discordance (fall of Adam and Eve or murder of Christ by men) made possible Christ’s coming and resurrection, respectively. No matter what discord, for instance, Melkor played into the third theme, Illuvitar made something good of it (even though discord in itself was still bad). Is the fact that men are the products of some of Melkor’s discord the reason why they both “resemble Melkor most of all the Ainur” and are so vulnerable to his deceits? Eruhini like the Numenoreans feared death so badly that they openly worshipped Melkor and sailed West to save themselves from both death and the “shadow of sameness,” in which each path on was “hard trodden, every tree and grass-blade counted.” However, their ultimate folly to defy the Will of Illuvitar by breaking the ban created a new Happy Fault or period of change that drove the narrative toward the healing of a Marred Arda: Elendil and sons took refuge on Middle Earth, Sauron was no longer able to manifest himself in fair forms, etc.


  7. This is a wonderful post. However, I would like to play off of some of the previous posts and continue to expand on Elves as resisting change versus Men as the agents of change. I agree very much with the point that Men are the primary agents of change in Arda, but some trouble arises when we try to say that Elves are opposed to change. It might be more appropriate to say that Elves wish to adhere to original song; because their spirit and body are indelibly bound to Arda, they wish to see the world perfectly beautiful as Iluvitar first intended it, and wallow in its marring. They are indeed in line with a “change for the better,” a change in favor of the perfect, unmarred Arda.

    On the other hand, Men in their mortality are the agents of change in Arda, yet Tolkien makes it clear in the Silmarillion that they are most like Melkor of Iluvitar’s children. Melkor is the cause of the marring of Arda, and thus it follows that while Men may be agents of change, they will not necessarily always change Arda in favor of beauty. Because of their mortality, their spirit’s capacity to leave Arda, they have less of an appreciation of the beauty of Arda. Despite their duty to restore it, they do not understand in what we it should be restored.

    Thus, we come to a bit of a predicament. Elves know what Arda should be yet are incapable of changing it, whereas Men do not see the same beauty yet have the duty of molding it and repairing it. Perhaps this says something about their roles at the end of days: Men in their transcendence will restore Arda, but this may require the insight of the Elves, the only of Iluvitar’s children whose spirit is linked to Arda, the only who truly see the beauty of Iluvitar’s design.

  8. Oops, forgot a signature.

    Max L.

  9. You make a good observation about the nature of hröa and fëa: I find it fascinating that the souls of Elves bound to Arda and its fate, while the souls of Men are bound only to a mortal body, destined to ultimately be released. You make a good point about Elves being more closely tied to the physical, natural world because their hröar and fëar are more closely bound together. Does this close connection to the earth and the fear of change that it brings stem from a kind of loss of identity? Are changes in their world difficult for the Elves because they themselves do not, cannot change with it?

    Men change more quickly than Elves, and live for a relatively short period of time (apparently the shortest lived peoples of all of Middle Earth!) so that each successive generation can adapt to whatever changes have taken place, and they always have the ability to leave the world. But it seems that this makes Men more fearful of change (and, by the same token, especially fearful of the great unknown: death), while Elves do not fear it so much as dislike it. I think the real “gift” in death is that Men are the only beings in Middle Earth who will ever experience anything that is outside of it, outside of the cycles of change that they know.


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