Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Mortal vs. Immortal Clock

Everybody knows that as you grow older, time passes at a much faster rate. I feel like a certain time of my childhood lasted for a lifetime when in fact it was only a few years. Now, every school year appears to fly by faster than I can adjust to it. And it seems that as we grow into adults, our years will fade away without us ever noticing. My grandpa always tells me how he thought I was a baby just yesterday and he is unable to recall many specifics of all the days of all the years passing by him as he sleeps and watches television through his retirement. Either my grandpa is developing Alzheimer’s disease or as anyone ages, time just seems to pass by so much faster and massive periods turn into brief forgettable moments, which is the more believable explanation. I believe this occurs because a day becomes a smaller and smaller length of time in proportion to your entire life as you get older, meaning a day is a much larger part of your life when you are four than when you are eighty. What exactly does this mean for Elves? And how does this perspective of time change when an Elf such as Luthien or Arwen accepts a mortal life?

Legolas tells Sam, “For the Elves the world moves, and it moves both very swift and very slow. Swift, because they themselves change little, and all else fleets by: it is a grief to them. Slow, because they do not count the running years, not for themselves. The passing seasons are but ripples ever repeated in the long long stream” (Shippey 60). Events and even the lives of other creatures pass before the Elves like the blink of an eye when viewed in proportion to their entire life. This is how Elrond is able to remember the Second Age as if it happened yesterday. But why does Legolas view this swift time change as a “grief?” In Athrabeth Finrod Ah Andreth, Finrod says, “we love… the beasts and birds who are our friends, the trees, and even the fair flowers that pass more swiftly than Men. Their passing we regret” (Tolkien 308). In order to regret something, there must be something that is the fault of the Elves. They have no responsibility in the deaths of these other creatures, so a valid interpretation would be that the Elves regretted something in the life of the creature. Since the life of a Man is only a brief moment in the life of an Elf, perhaps there is the grief that it will forever be a challenge to have a meaningful relationship with a Man. There is no time to devote enough attention to a single being outside of their species. That is why those rare relationships that develop between different species throughout the history of Middle Earth are even more special. Those bonds between Beren and Luthien, Aragorn and Arwen, and even Legolas and Gimli defy nature.

 So what does choosing a mortal life fully entail? A major part of The Lord of the Rings is Aragorn’s journey to regain the crown of Gondor and take Arwen as his bride.  The problem standing in their way as Elrond sees it is that Arwen is immortal and Aragorn is but a miniature segment of her life. Aragorn is destined to die like a Man and Arwen shall cross into the West with the rest of her people. The problem of time and perspective can only be solved by the Elf opting for a mortal life. How that works is not as important as how that changes the Elf. The Elf becomes a mortal woman and we do not know what other characteristics she may retain. But she is destined to die with her husband, albeit Arwen still lived a short while longer. But does the time after she chooses this new fate slow down for her or flow at the same rate as it always has? 

It seems like the whole point of choosing the mortal life is to slow down time in the woman’s perspective in order to spend as much time as possible with her new spouse and also devote that time to him until the end of her newly short life. So the rapid passing of days like how Elves normally perceive time would defeat the purpose of the final days of the mortal Elf. Before Aragorn and Arwen could be together, Aragorn spent thirty years fighting the forces of Sauron. This time encompassed more than half of his life, as he was only twenty when he began this campaign. This proportion probably means that it felt like an eternity before he finally earned Arwen in comparison to the time Arwen had to wait. They ruled over Gondor for another “six score years” of peace throughout the land, which would still have flown by if Arwen’s perspective had not changed. Though she has been alive already for a few thousand years and remembered it all, she must have slowed down in order to fully immerse herself in her new life like a Man.
There is no way we can tell how different species perceive the length of their lives. It is absolutely possible that though the Elves live on for thousands of years before passing on into the West, the Elves only feel like they have been alive for as long as a Man perceives his lifetime, since the days pass by at an unnoticeably fast rate. This has grievous results for Elves who want to connect with beings of shorter life spans. And it makes me wonder how great this acceptance of mortality was for Arwen and Luthien. I like to think that they were able to view the rest of their lives slowly, taking in every day one by one.

- Alex A. 


  1. Hm, that is very interesting. As this school year has been coming to a close I have been thinking more and more about how fast time seems to go by. I had never thought about what it must be like for the Elves. However, I think that there is something slightly different about the way that the Elves must see this 'speeding up' of time. For us, or at least for me, the problem with the speeding up of time is the subconscious realization of death. We want time to slow down because we know that we only have a finite amount of it left. I don't know if an Elf would feel the same way--they could, theoretically, repeat their third year over and over until they finally got to take all the classes they wanted.

  2. This is definitely an interesting perspective and one which I had not thought of. However, it does bring two more questions to mind:
    The Elves are not guaranteed immortality; it is simply the most likely scenario barring all other mishaps. They can die of exhaustion, of poisoning, of battle. I wonder if, when faced with these finite moments, their perspective shifts to become much more focused on the present or if they perhaps begin to think ahead even more to the future- the world which might change because they commit this act which places them in peril. I especially wonder how this perspective may or may not shift during times of violence and warfare- the times when Finrod says Elves are unwilling to enter into marriage or bring forth children.

    Which brings me to my second question: would this mentality be true of all Elves turned mortal? Or is there some reason why our only examples are Elven women? (Back to the gender disparity here...)

    Final random thought, which is something I always wondered: so why did Elros choose mortality?

    J. Trudeau

  3. I liked your statement that for immortal Elves, it would “forever be a challenge to have a meaningful relationship with a Man,” because Men die, but I think it goes even deeper than that. This dilemma is present for every creature in Middle Earth. If having a relationship between an immortal and a mortal is a challenge, then two mortals is even worse; both would mutually fear the other’s death. A good example would be Theoden and Merry. Merry never got to speak to him, as a friend, of the tales of the Shire in peaceful times. Theoden died before their relationship could continue unmarred by darkness.

    The immortal/mortal relationship is different. When the Elves “regret” the death of mortal things, what they are really regretting is that they themselves live. They regret their own fate: to live with the absence of others. In the movie, when Arwen and Aragorn are speaking to each other in Rivendell, Arwen says (in a sultry voice as Aragorn tucks his hair behind his ear) something like: “I would rather live and die for one age, then to spend a thousand ages alone.” While Men can be consoled by the death of a loved one because they themselves will share the same fate, Elves have to face eternal loneliness. Their clock doesn’t stop ticking.


    I can definitely see how the school where “Fun Goes To Die” might appeal to an immortal Elf!

    Sam D.

  4. I am intrigued by your suggestion that what choosing a mortal life means for an Elf is choosing a different experience of time. When I think of the Elves as they see Men, it is like a human being experiencing the life of a mouse or a butterfly: we enjoy them, but we regret that they cannot stay with us longer. But what would it be like to be a mouse or a butterfly having been a human? Would we experience our few remaining months more intensely? A hard thought!


  5. Thanks for posting about perception of time’s passage: I realize I had rarely considered the eons the Elves spent living prior to the events in LOTR and indeed outside of the specific stories related in the Silmarillion. I also thought hgruber’s comment regarding the steady approach of death as a factor in our desire to slow time down was apt. I would say our realization of this is a conscious, rather than subconscious wish. There is one element that I think might shed further light on this issue, however. Tolkien’s Elves being fictional creations, the stories he wrote for them are the only actual “experience” we may gain of their conscious lives. While the thousands of years Arwen spends alone before Aragorn’s birth are implied, the reader receives no direct conduit to them. For that matter, the deeds of Aragorn prior to meeting Frodo in Bree are treated by summary rather than full narrative account. Tolkien has structured the mortal-immortal love stories for the benefit of mortal readers, whose fellow feeling for the mortal character necessitates the alienation of the literally untold eons in the immortal partner’s past.

    My point here, I suppose, is that Tolkien’s manipulation of time by narrative methods might contribute to the notion that time passes swiftly for the Elves (barring romance with mortals). Those summarized periods, after all, pass equally swiftly for the reader. Despite this, I do think time consciously perceived speeds up and slows down depending on the observer (say, child or retired person). But this process may intimately depend upon the making into narrative of our own remembered time: our lives as stories with important ‘scenes’ vividly remembered and whole expanses elided, perhaps forever. If one were to record every moment of a human life on film, that diary would take an entire lifetime to ‘read’. We do not remember in that way; instead we summarize and even revise the remembered past as our minds change so that it cannot be interpreted in the same manner as the present. What results may be something like narrative, or rather that which literary narrative is a crude representation of. It is in any case quintessentially human. In this sense, I think Tolkien’s Elves and Men, as facets of ‘humanity’, must share a common perception of remembered time – as narrative – with the different being merely one of the extent of the tale.

    -Philip R.

  6. I think you ar quite right about the relativity in the perspective of time. The elves have more in common with ents in this respect compared to any other sentient life in Middle Earth. As for elves becoming mortal...unless they forget their past immortal life or loose the ability to enumerate time within their memories, their perspective of time should not change. Since Arwen was almost 2700 years older than Aragorn, the totality of their acquaintance would only be about 5% of her percieved experience. Perhaps a very happy 5%, but still a very small part of a long memory.

    However, although the lives of others (compared to elves) are very short and fleeting, that does not mean that the elves view them all as insignificant or forgetable. There is little indication that forgetfulness of details accompanies an elf's long memory. In some way, it might be easier for them if the could forget rather than remember the loss of countless treasured things (animals, trees, people, etc.) in perfect clarity. If their psyche is similar to ours, there could be a strong temptation to withdraw into one's own inner world and mediate on thousands of years of memories rather than engage with the world any further. Perhaps sailing off to Aman is the way to satify that urge.

    -Jason A Banks