Tuesday, May 17, 2011

What God Gave Men

This isn’t a post I initially saw myself writing, because I’ve always been far more concerned with, and fascinated by the Elves than Men, and if pressed about which has the better form of mortality (or immortality, depending on what happens to the fear of men after they die) I would choose the Elves. Reading Lord of the Rings, I always wanted to be an Elf. (Admittedly, I still prefer Elves, but that’s neither here nor there).

What changed my mind (to the degree that it has been changed, not completely), was the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth. For the majority of the debate, I found myself pitying Andreth and the plight of Men in and Age of Elves, certainly, but not to the degree that I ever really agreed with the thread of envy and resentment that occasionally surfaced. Yet what struck me was the belief of Men in the eventually Incarnation of Eru. There is no proof or justification for this belief, and it set me to wondering about the roles of faith and religion in the lives of Elves and Men.

Of course they both worship Eru, at least those among Men who are good. The roles of the Valar for both races, however, are different, especially in the time period of the Athrabeth. The Elves have dwelt in Valinor, amongst that Valar themselves, for some time, and have spoken with them. They don’t need to speculate about the origins of the world, or of Elves themselves, or about the existence of divine spirits in Arda. The Elves already know all of these things, simply by virtue of having lived in something that could be called a Paradise.

More than that, as I understood it, the Elves know exactly how their fëar and hröar will behave for the duration of Time. Should the two parts of their being ever be separated, they will go to the Halls of Waiting, and it is more natural for a disembodied fëa to receive a new hröa than not. What happens to Elves after the end of the world is more unclear; do they or do they not join in the Second Music?

This question troubles Elves less than matters of death trouble Men. They know that their hröar decay and their fear leave the circle of the world, but nothing beyond that. Men do not have the Elvish privilege of dwelling with the Valar in Aman, and the knowledge about the divine that they may offer. Even if they did, it is worth noting that the fate of Men once they die is a mystery even to the Valar.

Aside from leaving them more easily corrupted by Morgoth, who can prey on their fears of death more easily than the Elves’, the race of Men have something that the Elves do not: legends of the Fall. The Fall of Elves is well documented, not only because memory for the Elves is something different and more clear than for Men, but because it happened long after their awakening. In addition, the Elves do not themselves refer to it as a Fall, and the consequences of the Noldorin Exile and the Kinslaying are obvious and well-know: their bodies age faster, and their powers are diminishing in the face of Morgoth.

Men, rather, have a (very biblical) Fall that robbed them of an Elven immortality that some of the Wise believed was the natural birthright of Men. Not only do they hold this belief, but it accompanies the belief that Eru Incarnate will come into his Arda and unmar it. (And presumably, unmar Men). The Elves have no such belief, and Finrod is astounded that Men do. Men have no proof, or knowledge, or understanding of the divine beyond what some of the Wise have gathered from the Elves. What Men do have is faith, and Andreth refers to those who hold this faith as “Those of the Old Hope.”

There is hope among the Elves, too: estel, which Finrod translates as “trust.” “It is not defeated by the ways of the world, for it does not com from experience, but from our nature and first being,” he tells Andreth (Morgoth’s Ring, p. 320). But for Elves this sort of “trust” may have less of a basis in true faith, since I’ve been trying to argue that they are much more aware of their natures than Men are. Trust for Men requires a faith in the divine that Elves cannot muster because of their knowledge.

This ties in to the description of Elves as masters of the aesthetics and materials of the physical world. They know it, and they are a part of it in a way Men are not. Men, then, must turn to the spiritual world that their capacity for faith opens to them. This might be the true gift of Eru to Men: not just that their fear may leave the world and join in the Second Music, but that they are creatures of faith in a way Elves are not. And in a world as deeply (if not overtly) religious as Arda, that cannot be ignored.


  1. The point you make, about Elves being more aware of the extent of the life of their fёar and hröar than are Men, reminds me of a question I've heard people ask each other fairly often: If it were possible to know how or when you're going to die, would you want to?

    Almost everyone I know who has been asked that question hesitates. On one hand, it's tempting to know your fate and live without such uncertainty, but on the other, living with that knowledge would change the way you act and think on a daily basis. I love the way Tolkien plays this out with the contrast between Elves and Men; each race has its own brand of melancholy about the end of life. Perhaps, in a world before the Fall, we would all know what happens in the true end of Time. But perhaps not; maybe we, as the Elves, would only know our fates as far as they are tied to Earth (or, I suppose, Paradise in the world pre-Fall), and not beyond. I find this an interesting thought exercise that helps me better understand the way Tolkien characterizes the Elves.

    E. Minehart

  2. I would also echo the question asked by E. Minehart above, about whether or not knowing your fate is preferable to the unknown.

    This reminds me of a quote from somewhere (I think it may have been Fullmetal Alchemist or Mass Effect) which goes something like "Humans are a short-lived people, and because our time on earth is so brief, we make the most of it. You (referring to longer-lived beings) would never understand human tenacity." And I think that the sentiment is echoed in Tolkien's universe. Faced with the unknown of death, humans mush make much more of the brief time they have than elves, and we definitely see that in the things that humans accomplish during the second and third age while elves are more content with the status quo.

  3. First of all, this is a fantastic insight on the role of death, knowledge, and faith. The contrast between elves and men is not just in their mortality, or their culture, but how these two things are intertwined. I’ve always been slightly confused (or at least disinterested) when I heard that The Lord of the Rings was about the nature of mortality in many respects. I never saw that as a major issue in the book, or at least the defining one. However, considering this right now I have to say I’ve changed my mind.
    Faith is (pardon the cliché) is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”. (Hebrews 1:11). Tolkien at this point seems to point out what men must have is faith. They are without the historical knowledge, the evidence per se, that would make their world view different. Maybe that is why humans are so frantic and changing? Does the unknown state of death make humans more dynamic?
    The contrast between these two races is much more pronounced in the conversation between Finrod and Andreth, and I am glad I got a chance to read that piece. I know it will deeply change the way I see LOTR when I inevitably reread it.


  4. I think what you strike upon here is a persistent problem with which many Christian theologians (and probably others) have grappled—that is the proper roles of faith and reason in the relationship between man and God. In this light, elves can be seen as reason. They know the answers to their existential questions. It is not so much that they cannot must faith. But rather that faith is not needed for them to find answers to these questions. There is a certitude to their origins since some of the elves have been continuously alive since the beginning of their emergence in the world, and even for merely a generation or two removed. Almost all of existence is within living memory for them. Those mysteries of being that predate their birth were revealed to those that went to Valinor by the Valar, who withheld little knowledge from the elves. However, their sense of themselves, the gods, and the world (their reason) is entirely earth-bound. The spiritual world about which one has no true knowledge or experience defies reason.

    The one mystery to which the elves remain ignorant is what happens after the passing of Arda. The whole notion of that is beyond reason. For the elves, Arda is existence, so to imagine what is beyond existence and beyond experience is beyond reason and crosses over into blind faith. The elves “trust” I believe is firmly rooted in experience rather than the truly unknown. They trust that what the Valar have told them is true, and likewise stories passed down over the ages. They trust what they perceive and know, and so are perhaps less susceptible to the seeds of fear and doubt sown by Morgoth or Sauron. Ultimately, the fate of the world/existence AFTER the passing of Arda is really not a concern for them. They know and trust that their existence is co-terminous with Arda. As long at it exists, so do they and when it does not, neither will they. They are resigned to the certainty of oblivion when the world ends. But, until that day comes far, far, far down the road, they enjoy eternal life. A single lifetime for the entire world is a long time, even for an elf.

    If the date of the end of the world was known, then perhaps the elves would share a more profound sense of mortality as humans do. Then maybe the elves would envy humans who (allegedly) have some future beyond Arda even if it is unknown.

    -Jason A Banks

  5. I, too, liked very much the way in which you identified faith as perhaps the most significant difference between Elves and Men. I think Jason says it very nicely above: Elves represent Reason, Men represent faith dependent upon Revelation. Who would you prefer to be? Tolkien was definitely aware of the tendency in our culture to prefer the certainties of reason over the indeterminacy of faith; what does it say about Elves and Men respectively that while the Men envy the Elves their continuous knowledge, they find it hard to appreciate their own experience of longing for something other than what they can know of this world?


  6. I like the title of this post: "What God Gave Men". For me, a lot of the posts on man's mortality, versus the 'immortality' of elves, have failed to recognize death as a true gift. When I think about the different sense of time that elves have from men (see the post "The Mortal vs Immortal Clock"), I don't envy it. I've never "wanted to be an elf". They are really awesome, but they feel intangible and unreal. I like that men have to cherish the passing of the seasons, rather than watch them pass by in the blink of an eye. Life is more brutal for men, but more real. They don't know what comes after death, as CQC points out, and so they must value life all the more. Man's uncertainty, and his consequential faith, give meaning to his life.

    It interests me that many of the posts on this topic have openly declared a preference for either men or elves. Much of the preference for men seems centered around a dislike of the aloofness of elves, or their lack of responsibility in their abandonment of Middle Earth to its fate. What does this say about us? Do we, like the men of Middle Earth, resent 'What God Gave to Men,' and envy the elves in LotR?


  7. James T: I think the idea you mention comes from Mass Effect. A character is noting that humanity has risen far faster than any of the species, even the ones that at the moment seem far more advanced. The short life span of humans is given as an explanation.