Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Suicide in The Lord of the Rings

I didn't sign up to post anything for yesterday's class, but our discussion about Denethor made me wonder about the story-internal role of suicide.  As far as I can recall, there are only two points at which the topic of suicide surfaces in The Lord of the Rings.  One is Denethor's death; the other is when Sam comes across Frodo's apparently lifeless body:

             "He looked on the bright point of the sword.  He thought of the places behind where there was a black brink and an empty fall into nothingness.  That was to do nothing, not even to grieve.  There was no escape that way.  That was not what he had set out to do."

Obviously, Tolkien's moral and religious objections to suicide found their way into The Lord of the Rings.  But what happens to people who kill themselves?  We can only guess at the great purpose Eru has for Men and where they go when they die.  Do suicides take part in Eru's great plan after their deaths?  Is there a distinction between a suicide like Denethor and an Evil man like the Mouth of Sauron?  Is suicide meant to be an inappropriate abdication from responsibility or a selfish desire to control one's life and fate?  Lots of questions, and thin textual ice on which to stand.  Nevertheless, I'd be interested to hear what people think about this matter.

-G. Lederer


  1. I think Tolkien, being a Christian, would have frowned upon suicide. Everything you say in your argument is totally valid. Denethor's suicide is a selfish act, literally fleeing from responsibility and his duties as a father. He's too much of a coward to repent for his horrible life; I think Denethor could have been a much more interesting character if he had to deal with the repercussions of his actions. What would his relationship with Faramir have been like, if he had lived to see his son become a war hero? Would Faramir be able to forgive his father, or would he shun him?

    I like the idea of a limbo for suicides. Tolkien paints the afterlife in such a peaceful and beautiful way. I wonder what an in-between space looks like to him. I imagine limbo would just be the lack of life. Totally blank, stark, unchanging...just stuck, yanno? Maybe it's the fangirl in me, but I think Tolkien could have done something really cool with an epic story about a suicide victim who tries to redeem himself and get to heaven. (Or maybe I've seen "What Dreams May Come" too many times...)

    A. Demma

  2. I agree with what you and A. Demma have said here. Catholicism especially takes a hard line on suicide—not so long ago, anyone who took his or her life wasn't allowed the right of a Christian burial. (. Because committing suicide leaves one in a state of irreconcilable mortal sin, and so the final resting place can't be consecrated ground.)

    I think the idea of suicide being selfishness is very apt, especially since we just talked about Tolkien’s view of men as hroa and fea. With his emphasis on death coming when the fea “outgrows” the hroa, Tolkien would have seen suicide as a premature and artificial rending of soul and flesh. It flies in the face of what is intended for an individual—and really all men.

    Not only that, but in Catholic theology, suicide is framed as an outgrowth of the sin of despair. The sin of despair is the theological opposite of hope—it is the belief that God cannot bring good out of a given situation. So when Denethor throws himself and Faramir on the pyre, he is not simply being selfish. He is giving up all hope. Contrast this with the superhuman effort of Frodo, in far worse circumstances, or the way Aragorn steps up to grow into his role as king. They keep the faith—in themselves and in their paths.

    ~Sarah Gregory

  3. One chapter of the Silmarillion that effectively reflects Tolkien's thoughts on suicide is the chapter "On Turin Turambar", where he explicitly states that the greatest sin committed by Turin (and also by his sister) is of suicide. This is even after all of the evil things that Turin does throughout his life including making people run naked through trees and killing all of his friends.

    As for plans after death, we know that Turin plays a great part in the final battle against Morgoth, so I really think this kind of thing may be handled on a case-by-case basis.

    Of course, what would really be an interesting discussion is whether suicide in the way that Denethor takes it is different or similar to having a death wish, which seems to plague many characters within the series, (Eowyn, Eomer, Faramir etc...)

  4. Obviously Tolkien is taking a hard line on suicide here - his religious convictions and, I think, his broader views of life all point to that. I just thought it would be interesting to draw a contrast between suicide and the kind of heroic death wish that seems to be going on with, for instance, many of the Rohirrim, because it seems to me that they ARE different in character. In some sense both of them are responses to despair, the loss of hope. But I think the significant difference is that one is a surrender and the other not. Denethor's suicide is not just an acknowledgment of hopelessness (in fact, false hopelessness) but a desire for death, a wish to stop fighting for the good and for life. In contrast, I think part of the death-wish is a feeling of helplessness - but the response is the desire to keep fighting even in a doomed battle. In some ways, it's almost life-affirming in opposition to Denethor - to keep fighting in the doomed battle. I feel like it's also very much a part of ancient or heroic virtue - to be merry in defeat and death, and to continue fighting.

    So while, I think, both suicide and the heroic deathwish issue out of hopelessness, one represents a surrender to that inevitable end; the other represents a desire to fight against it even to the end though it be hopeless. And ultimately, for Tolkien, one of those is almost cowardly and the other heroic.

    D Ryan

  5. I believe that we have very general agreement that Tolkien would have viewed suicide in a very negative light. For humans, it is succumbing to despair. It is not along our natural order to kill ourselves because we sever ourselves as creations out of the creation. It is a form of disobedience to God to lose hope in this way.

    Interestingly, I am not sure if Tolkien feels the same way about elves, who have a different purpose. Ultimately, after beautifying the world, the elves are supposed to exit to a place like Valinor. However, another option is for the elves to fade. On the one hand, it makes sense that an elf with substantial human lineage can become essentially a mortal elf through an act of Ilúvatar because they are between natures. However, on the other hand, one can also perceive this as giving up on life in a way a kin to suicide. I can’t think of any explicit examples of Elf suicide. However, we do have Mírel, Fëanor’s mother, who after pouring all her life into Fëanor, languishes for a time, and she lays down on the grass. Her body did not wither, but she had given up her soul to Mandos. This would seem to violate the nature of the elves by separating their body and their spirit, yet it might be more acceptable for an elf to fade after a great effort in subcreation such as bringing life to Fëanor. Tolkien does not provide any commentary on her death, and indeed her body keeps on living, but she gave up on life from fatigue rather than despair. Perhaps, fatigue is more acceptable than despair?

    -Andrew Wong

  6. In the original post we see two different motives for suicide laid out, despair and control. Denethor is clearly despairing when he kills himself. The control aspect of suicide is particularly interesting when you comparer it to the lives of the Numenoreans. After they begin to fear death,

    "Atanamir lived to a great age, clinging to his life beyond the end of all joy; and he was the first of the Numenoreans to do this, refusing to depart until he was witless and unmanned, and denying to his son the kingship at the height of his days.*"

    Two things seem striking about this passage. First, it suggests that the Numenoreans had control over when they died. When they got to a good point and their son could take over they decided to die off and this was perfectly fine. They have the same control over their destiny that a suicide has, but this is not a crime.

    Second, Atanamir's mistake is not killing himself, but keeping himself alive for too long. Life does not seem to be a virtue in and of itself. Rather there is a correct lifespan, not too long, not too short. Going outside of one's proper timespan in either direction is a sin.

    *The Silmarillion, p. 308

  7. Sorry for the triple post, but in my first post I meant to cite page 318 of The Silmarillion, not page 308.

  8. DjM, I thought bringing in the Numenorean's apparent control over their departure from Arda was very interesting in a discussion of suicide. The argument against suicide is that is cuts short a life which has not yet been lived, while the Numenorean deaths are portrayed as a calm, heroic and prideful culmination to a full life. Presumably then, this can be seen as a similar case to that of the death wish we seen in the Rohirrim. This apparent death wish seems to point back to the ancient idea in mythology that the hero dying in a battle is a proper end, not despairing in the face even of certain defeat.
    If we view death as the final battle, then the Numenoreans who fear death and hold onto their lives until ancient and decrepit are on the same level as Denethor when he commits suicide. The Numenoreans cling to life because they view death with despair. Likewise Denethor lights himself and Faramir on fire because the despair he sees in life is even darker than whatever could await him in death.

  9. In response to Andrew's comment:

    I agree with your statement that perhaps Miriel's death is acceptable to Tolkien because it came about as a result of her act of subcreation -- namely, the birth of Feanor. I think then that it's not a matter of fatigue being more acceptable than despair, but rather that dying as a result of subcreation means that you have spent your creative energy properly (particularly if more recent blog posts are correct in asserting that subcreation is a high form of worship), while dying because you have given in to despair means that you are refusing to exert any of your energy and would rather not partake in the communion of creation and life.

    It seems to me that Miriel's death, though admittedly different in form, is more akin to the situations Arwen and Luthien find themselves in. By giving up their immortality to be with mortals and have children (one of Tolkien's most highly praised forms of subcreation), they too are choosing death. Since it is death for the sake of creation of life, it seems that they are not condemned. In the same way, since Miriel dies for the sake of her child, she avoids condemnation.

    -Catrina D.