Saturday, May 21, 2011

Fear of Death and the Dead

Immortality plays a major role within Tolkien’s world.  It is one of the few works I have read  in which a great number of the major players are immortal, in that, if uninjured, they will never die. The Valar, Maiar and Eldar all have the gift of immortality bestowed on them by Ilúvatar. But to them it is not a gift, especially to the Eldar, as they must watch much that was beautiful be destroyed by malevolence, or wither and die from indifference. This remains a theme until the last ship sails from the Havens, when those that had the biggest part in keeping the remains of the beauty of the West in Middle Earth finally leave this responsibility to the hand of Man. This marks the final sundering of the immortal and mortal lands until “the world is mended.” 
In spite of his heavy usage of immortality, Tolkien is not quick to reincarnate characters. The only characters that are truly reincarnated are Beren, Luthien, Gandalf and Glorfindel, the latter simply because Tolkien reused an elven name from the Silmarillion and later decided that they were one and the same, despite dieing at the hands of a Balrog after the Fall of Gondolin. Beren and Luthien’s reincarnation was an extraordinary gift by Mandos, after Luthien sang a song of such beauty that the couple was allowed to return to Middle Earth to live out mortal lives. It is not clear what happens to men. “Halls of waiting” are mentioned in various places in Tolkien’s writings, but the mechanics behind this is never made clear. It is said that the Valar themselves do not know where the go upon leaving theses halls.  Elves are said to awake in new bodies in Valinor, but that is never shown within canon, except  This seems to be another instance of Tolkien’s mythology mirroring Christianity. Men and elves both have in effect a “heaven” that they go to when they die, but elves do not have to die to find rest there, but merely take the westward ship.

The fear of death also played a major role in the mythology. The most obvious example being the Numenoreans, who tried many ways to extend their lives, until driven to folly by Sauron, they try to assail the Uttermost West itself in an attempt to gain everlasting life. Instead, they are imprisoned until the “changing of the world,” when Melkor/Morgoth returns and the final battle is fought. In the Lord of the Rings, the most pertinent example of this is the death of Denethor, when he throws himself into a burning pyre. This fear of death also manifests itself in the fear of the dead themselves. The Rohirrim fear the “Paths of the Dead,” and believe that it is certain death for any that tread there; once Aragorn and company raise the dead, both good and evil fled in their wake.

In stark contrast to this fear, most of the protagonists, especially within the Lord of the Rings, do not fear death. Aragorn, like Denethor, picks his time of death, but unlike Denethor, he knows that he has lived a full life, and it is time to hand over his kingdom to his son. Once he has laid himself in the long rest, Arwen follows, laying down on the hill of Cerin Amroth, where they had first pledged their love for each other. Others find redemption in death, most notably Boromir, who, having tried to take the Ring from Frodo, comes to the aid of Merry and Pippin and defends them to the uttermost brink of death. Many other characters are quick to risk their own lives for the chance, however slight, that they may make some small stroke against evil. Beren and Luthien, rush forward to what should have been certain death within Thangorodrim and look pure evil in the eye,  somehow escaping with a Silmaril from the crown of Morgoth himself. Then there is Theoden rising up from his throne to fight in battle one last time, facing death head on instead of waiting for it in on his throne at Meduseld; though he falls in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, by leading his army to Gondor he saves Minas Tirith and helps rid the world of the terror of the Chief of the Ringwraiths by unknowingly leading his niece into battle.  Indeed, the Fellowship itself barely had hope of completing the journey to Mordor, much less making it to Mount Doom. In Tolkien’s legendarium there is much honor in undertaking a journey or battle in which there is likely no hope. Those that do and die in their undertaking are honored by those that lived: The Rohirrim save the bodies of those who fell at the fords of the Isen and raise a cairn, Snowmane is interred where he fell in the fields, though Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas could have immediately followed the orcs to Isengard, they first take the time to see that Boromir is given a fitting burial.

Tolkien was always quick to claim that his writings were not allegorical, but his presentation of death is very similar to death within Christianity. The righteous do not fear death and see it as a release from the pain of the world and as a path to the next, while those who are not righteous fear death and what may come after. Upon death, elves and men awaken in a pure land, free of hurt and evil. The case of men does stray from this allegory; upon waking up in the west after death, they depart to a fate that only Iluvatar knows. Perhaps it is this fear of the unknown that drove so many to attempt to avoid death, instead of trusting Iluvatar.

(I've been trying to post this since Friday morning, hopefully it will finally work this time)


  1. You rightly point out the complexity of death in Tolkien’s world. Men and Hobbits (and presumably Dwarves) die in the way that people die in our primary reality: their bodies cease to live and their souls go we-know-not-where. But Elves simply go to a different part of Eä. And then there are so many exceptions: Elves who chose mortality and follow the path of Men; humans who are allowed to go to Valinor before they die. A few points of clarification: The “Halls of Waiting,” also called the Halls of Mandos, are the place in Valinor where Elves go when they “die,” there to wait for the end of Middle Earth (or, rarely, reincarnation), to which their existence is inextricably linked. When Elves cross the sea, they go to Valinor, presumably to hang out until the end of time. Men do not exactly go to “heaven,” but rather their feär go outside Eä, outside existence, to that which only Iluvatar knows.

    I wonder about a few points that you make. Does Denethor throw himself onto a pyre because of a fear of death? This seems illogical; my understanding was that Denethor kills himself rather than watch his city and kingdom fall. You make a good comparison between Denethor’s death and Aragorn’s, but can you elaborate on why their situations are different? You also point to the Numenoreans as a striking example of a group of people who suffer greatly because of their fear of death. What significance do you then give to their practice of embalming the dead and building tombs greater than the homes of the living? Is this because of a fear of death? A regard for its power?


  2. I find your analysis very interesting, but I would also like to add an additional two questions, one pertaining to the "passing" of men and elves respectively.

    Were these people you mentioned no longer afraid of death or never afraid of death to begin with? I think it is different for different characters, but I ask because fear of death is one of Morgoth's many corruptions. It was Morgoth entering into the world that helped make the Numenoreans fear death, and it was the love between Beren and Luthien that overcame that fear (ie. love conquers all).
    For Boromir, you hint at him having a conversion moment. He was tested greatly by the ring, and only in having the temptation of Sauron taken away from him could he finally be unafraid of death.

    Finally, consider the elves who leave at the end of the Return of The King, the elimination of evil in Middle Earth finally quiets their fears and they are able to pass into the west.

    I think considering the interplay between good and evil forces throughout the story this is an important component of Tolkien's views on death.

    Charles Martino

  3. Very nicely observed on how many of Tolkien's heroes are said to fight on even though there is no hope: but hope of what? Victory? Or Heaven? It has always seemed to me that Aragorn and Theoden fight without hope of either, and yet, they fight. Why? For Tolkien as a Christian, hope came into the world with Christ: prior to the Incarnation, there could properly speaking be no hope, only faith in God. This is how I have always read his characters' lack of hope: they fight without hope of redemption whether in this world or the next.


  4. Though Tolkien's heroes face great odds, I think that there is always an inkling of hope throughout the struggles of the story. This hope makes the mortals of the story even more exceptional; they cling to a diminishing thread of hope, in spite of the overwhelming darkness of Sauron's influences.
    The reason I find hope omnipresent is in one of Aragorn's names, Estel, or Hope. He is called this name during his childhood in Rivendell, and when he leaves his mother Gilraen for the last time, she says, "I gave Hope to the Dunedain, I have kept no hope for myself." Aragorn is hope personified, and the fact that he is the last hope of Numenor, and not just its heir, is a heavy burden. He must succeed, because defeat means not only his death, but the death of the civilization of Numenor. The other side of this burden is that Aragorn inspires hope in men, and lead them against Sauron.


  5. It is very interesting to note the suffering that is accorded to Men, based on their reaction to death and the fear of death. It seems that the Nazgûl have a place in this discussion – they are, after all, the only Men to ever become “deathless,” and they suffer greatly because of this. Their fate seems tied up in that of the Númenoreans; in offering them the Nine Rings, Sauron essentially embodied the same desire that was carried out through the elaborate temples and human sacrifices that characterized late Númenorean “religion.” In the rings, power and immortality were compounded in cocktail irresistible to these wicked Kings, one that ultimately overpowered and consumed them, until they were all desire, all self-preservation, and utterly in the service of the Dark Lord. This resistance of the fate of Men, as embodied in the Nazgûl, is clearly represented as odious and evil. Like the wicked Númenorean kings, because of their selfishness and their resistance to relinquish power, the Nazgûl receive retribution in the form of not immortality, but an existence of endless death, death embodied and mobilized to bring death to other Men. Unlike Morgoth, whose power was much greater, Sauron’s key tactic is in turning men’s nature’s against their true interests, promising life and giving death.
    - j. wetherell

  6. I agree with Prof. F-B on the importance of the heroic characters continuing to fight when they seem to have no hope. I'd like to make a couple expansions on that.

    First, that the "I give hope to Men; I keep none for myself" ties in well with how we see the story. The characters, for example after receiving Frodo's armor, have no hope "for themselves", but since (as we know) it will turn out alright in the end, there is hope somewhere. The race of Men (and others) has abstract hope, but its members do not have specific hope.

    Second, I think the idea of fighting when there is--or rather, when you have--no hope is very relevant to the Christian basis of the work. Now, that could be misinterpreted. I'm not saying that it's Christian to have no hope. However, it is Christian to do something without thought of reward, simply because it is the morally right thing to do. Consider, as a good example, Psalm 96. (Psalm 145 is also good.) Psalm 96 says, in part,

    3 Declare His glory among the nations,
    his marvelous deeds among all peoples.
    4 For great is the LORD and most worthy of praise;
    he is to be feared above all gods.
    5 For all the gods of the nations are idols,
    but the LORD made the heavens.
    6 Splendor and majesty are before him;
    strength and glory are in his sanctuary.

    There is no mention of praising God because you're going to get something out of it--rather, the LORD is to be praised because it's the right thing to do. It's especially appropriate that, like the Lord of the Rings, the Psalms are Christian works of a pre-Christian era; "prior to the Incarnation, there could properly speaking be no hope, only faith in God", as Prof. F-B said.

    --Luke Bretscher

  7. I greatly enjoyed your post and was reminded of an oft forgotten character in the Lord of the Rings; Halbarad. Halbarad is Aragorn's kinsman and for those of you who don't remember before entering the Paths of the Dead, at the Dimholt, he prophesies his own death. Nevertheless, he ventures forth and indeed, he dies at Pelennor Fields. He is mentioned in that long dirge which has the names of all the fallen warriors.
    There is no depth to the character of Halbarad. Therefore his actions (which are unilaterally good) are all we have to judge him by. He is 'good' in every way that his character should be; loyal to his liege and fearless in the face of death. He is awarded some sort of immortality in that his name finds its way into song. He is one of those few characters who we see so little of that there can be no other reading than that he is a 'good' man. And he willingly faces death. I think, BCL, Halbarad very neatly reinforces your point.

    R Rao