Friday, May 23, 2014

Ilúvatar's Gift

I would like to discuss the nature of the death of men in Tolkien’s Legendarium. There are two questions to be answered here, (1) what happens to men after they die? and (2) why do they die?

Unfortunately, the first question does not have a very complete answer. The elves believe that the fëar of Men go to the Halls of Mandos after dying, but only stay there for a short while. Afterwards, they depart from the circles of the world completely. Tolkien does not explain completely what happens to the fëar of Men, and given his attention to detail we must assume this is left intentionally vague. Finrod states, in the Athrabeth, that Men must have estel, or hope. He explains that this word does not have the same meaning as when men say “hope”, but is closer to our trust. Finrod thinks that Men should trust that Ilúvatar will care for them, and that after death they will not be abandoned. Andreth has trouble seeing this hope and says it is easy for the Eldar to trust because they know what happens to the fëar of the Eldar after death, but Men have no knowledge of what happens to them. The best answer we are given to this question is the fëar of Men leave the circles of the world after death, but this results in a sundering of their fëar and hröar.

The second question is never fully resolved either, but Tolkien wrote a lot more about it. The first answer is that of the Elves and the Valar. They say that Ilúvatar gave to Men a Gift that made them different from the Elves, or any other beings in Arda. The Gift had several aspects. These aspects were that they would always desire something beyond the world, that they could shape their own lives beyond the Music of the Ainur, and that they would only reside in the world for a short time. The first aspect means that they are never satisfied within the world. Ilúvatar says that because of the second aspect of the Gift, Men will help bring the world to fulfillment. The third aspect is the death of Men, which is the most mysterious part of it. The story of Ilúvatar’s Gift to Men comes from the Silmarillion, which is the history of the First Age and earlier, according to the Elves. In the Athrabeth, Finrod confirms this version as the Elvish one when he tells it to Andreth.

The next explanation of why Men die comes from Andreth in her debate with Finrod. She says that when Men first awoke they did not die. She says that the belief that Men have always died is a lie that comes from the Shadow. She also says that the Wise of her people say that dying is not in their nature, but is the fault of Melkor. She refuses to tell Finrod the story of how Melkor caused death to come among them. Finrod reasons that unless the Elves are grievously wrong, Melkor does not have the power to change the fate of an entire people, thus Eru must have changed the fate of Men because of something Men did. In the Tale of Adanel, Andreth does explain how death came to Men. Very simply, Men began to worship Melkor because he provided knowledge to them and Eru punished them with Death. Again, the origin of this story must be considered. This story is told by Adanel and Andreth, who are Edain. The Edain eventually rebuked Melkor and went West to try to escape his rule. Simply put, the Edain are the Men who realized that Melkor was Evil. Therefore, it is likely that another story would be told by the Men who stayed in the East and likely continue to worship Melkor.

So which of these explanations of death is correct? In his debate with Andreth, Finrod says that Men must have been fated to die from the beginning, otherwise they would just be Elves, and then what is the point of two separate kindreds? Andreth says that he is missing the point, that the Wise among Men are not concerned with the Elves, and just say that Men should not naturally die. The case of the half-elven, when the Valar give them the choice to be either Men or Elves, seems to support Finrod’s claim. If the Valar were wrong in offering this choice, Ilúvatar would have surely corrected them. Even though this tale involves Men and Elves, it still comes to us through the Elves, so there is still potential for bias.

Independent evidence should therefore come from stories of Men. The main story of Men is the Akallabêth. This tale was recorded by Men and therefore should be free of Elvish bias. The relevant part of the Akallabêth is the ability of the Númenorean Kings to die at will, at least initially. When the Númenoreans were still free of the Shadow, their Kings willingly gave up the throne and also their lives. When the Númenoreans begin to hang on to their lives until the bitter end, the Shadow begins to come back. As they grow more and more fearful of death, the Shadow grows in Númenor. This alone seems to be good evidence that death is natural for Men, and avoiding it is rejecting the will of Ilúvatar.

Given that the Númenorean’s descent into Shadow is mirrored exactly by their fear and rejection of death, it seems that the Death of Men must in fact be the original will of Ilúvatar. This is the belief held by the Elves and Valar, but they see it as a Gift because they are so long-lived that they eventually begin to envy Men (indeed, in the end, even the Valar themselves will envy the Gift of Men). The Wise among Men disagree with this view, and believe that Death was imposed on them, but the story of Númenor supports the story the Elves take, so it seems most likely it is the correct reason why Men die. It seems that Tolkien never wanted a definitive answer to this question, but reviewing many of his works, even older versions present in the histories, it is difficult not to come down on the side of the Elves.

-Paul Williams


  1. On the second question of why men die, I agree with you that it is pretty evident that the Death of men is a gift of Ilúvatar. While you lists out the aspects of this gift, you do not explain why this may be considered a gift as opposed to a mere feature of men. Some of the stories in The Simarillion help to explain why death is a gift for men. First, death is a gift because it gives rest to men. You rightly point out that Eru fashioned Men such that they would never find satisfaction in this world, hence death to them, is a form of rest. They are finally able to find peace after years of toil and labor. In the story of Beor and his Eldar friends, Beor died after he lived for three and ninety years. From the Eldar’s perspective this was a “death of weariness which they knew not in themselves” and grieved greatly for this loss. Yet, interestingly it was Beor who had willingly given up his life and it said that he “passed in peace.” (The Simarillion, 149). Death was a form of relief for Beor after going through the trials of life (e.g. competing with the Green-elves in Ossirand and having to leave etc.)

    Second, death is a gift because it is specifically described as “a gift of freedom” (The Simarillion, 42). From the perspective of the elves, death may be a shackle and a burden. For example, when Luthien fell in love with Beren, it is said that in sharing his mortality she who was free was now in chains. Yet, Eru meant death as a form of freedom for men. Men are only alive for a short amount of time in this world and are not bound to it. In the short term, Elves may look down upon this or fail to understand why this is a gift. Yet, in the long run, as time goes on, they shall envy this gift. As the years lengthen, and things change rapidly as time moves, the Elves will gain a poignant sense of sorrow that Men will escape from.

    Hence, death is a gift – a form of rest and a form of freedom. Yet, sadly, the men in Tolkien’s legendarium lost sight of this gift as Melkor cast his shadow upon it. Death was seen as a curse, as the men of Numenor started to yearn for the immortality of Elves. Tar-Atanamir was the first to speak out openly against this and declared that immortality should be his right. Sauron used this desire to lie to Men, telling them that everlasting life would belong to those who possessed the undying lands. As a result, the glory Numenor was thrown down and swallowed into the sea. Alas! What was meant to be a gift was corrupted by darkness, what was meant to be hope was tainted by the shadows.

    G Zhang

  2. I think that the second question was well fleshed out by Grace, I am curious about the first. What does happen to Men after they die? You answer this well from the point of view of the Elves, the fëar of Men go to the Halls of Mandos before departing the circles of world, but there is still some ambiguity to the subject.
    I am curious about this first assumption, along with the estel, or hope that Finrod talks about. It seems that Men need to have faith in Eru if they wish to go to the Halls after death before departing Arda, but that does not seem to make a whole lot of theological sense. If men do not have estel, their fëar leave the world anyway. Either way we look at it, Men do not stay on Arda after death. If that is the case, what is the purpose of estel? Men will leave the circles either way, so there is no reason to possess this hope if it has no measurable effect on the journey of their fëar after death.
    I am wondering if Eru has a completely different afterlife for Men. They are not bound to the world, so their fëar can wander. This is conjecture, but perhaps there is some place beyond the circles of the world (like what is implied in the Tale of Aragorn and Arwen). I could easily be mistaken, but that seems like the most logical deduction.

    Kevin P.

  3. I must admit that I have not finished reading all Tolkien's writings on Middle Earth, so I might be horribly wrong on this issue: it seems that there isn't a Hell or any conception related to punishment after death in the universe of Arda? In the primary reality, world religions/traditions always tell some kind of retribution as an admonition against evil in this life (...I might be horribly wrong on this as well?). In Arda, however, judgments and punishments against evil deeds of the incarnated minds seem to be executed before death (mostly in the form of death). Given such setting, I found the universe has to be very psychological--the quality of life is judged based on the attitude toward life. Following the same logic of "evil destroys evil", evil also administers anguish, jealousy, pain, hatred, insatiable desire and all the unhealthy emotions that are punishments themselves. Otherwise it seems hard to justify that the innocent Man/Elf and the Man/Elf who did wrong are going to the same end respectively (especially in the case where the innocent is killed by the wrong-doer). "Good" Men and Elves can enjoy Life with peace of mind for at least some part, although terrible things can still happen to them in this Arda Marred. But "bad" Men and Elves will suffer from their own evil for sure as long as their evil endure. Estel becomes significant for this sense of peace of mind, so that Men can continue carrying out their duties and enjoying "the time that is given to them"...?
    (Using the traveler's analogy, it is like your trip to a foreign country might not be wonderful with a booked ticket home, but it will be terrible if you know you have to leave the country when your visa expires but do not have anything booked yet......)
    I guess it is still a very Elven perspective since it fits well with the notion of guest? Since the Elves represent the artistic and the scientific aspect of the Humane, perhaps the implication here is that the Mankind should listen to the knowledgable and permanent side and not to be so proud as to consider itself designed to be everlasting...pride leads to lack of contentment, which leads to a hunger insatiable, and the Man psychologically becomes Ungoliant that devours the Light of Life........
    (Interestingly, it is also this desire of change and push beyond limit that can ultimately change Arda and defeat the evil consequences inflicted by Melkor...we see that Ungoliant is one of few who can cause damage to Melkor......)

    Also I am not sure if anyone has discussed on the case of the Orcs? If they are Elves tortured and deformed by Melkor, do they still go to Mandos after death......? Or has the damage done on the hröa great enough to fundamentally change the nature of fëa? But is it their fault to be caught and tortured into something so denatured? Is that a punishment for not giving up on Life? The Elvish longevity seems to be a curse--where is justice in this case?

  4. There some great hashing-out of the implications of mortal death here! I particularly like the section on what “hope” means in this context—I wonder if this is not also part of the Gift of Illuvitar, not just rest and freedom, as your commenters have noted, but also the opportunity to demonstrate trust in their creator.

    I also quite like the way you are reading these texts as we read historical documents and narratives, accounting for bias. The Elves have a certain perspective in their stories, because they see mortality as a Gift, while the men, sometimes influenced by the Shadow, have another perspective entirely. Half-elven do seem like the perfect test case!

    Given this reading perspective, why is it that Tolkien leaves the fate of men ambiguous, do you think?


  5. One question that comes to my mind when "the gift of iluvatar" is referred to like this is the effect of its absence on the elves, and what that implies for Eru's purpose for their race.

    As you brought up at several points, it doesn't make sense for elves and men to be too similar. After all, Eru could have easily just created more of one race and allowed differences to occur afterwards. Thus, men have to be more than "elves that die," and it cannot be a full description to call elves immortal men. I think that the distinction between the two is most fully realized when we consider the elvish explanation for why men die.

    What struck me about your post was your reference to the idea that elves will eventually also tire of middle earth and seek death. This seemed at first to contradict the idea of death being a well-thought-out gift to men. If both races will someday want death, why make one of them immortal? However, I think that the timescale on which elves tire of the world is much, much larger, and doesn't really occur until the end that Eru has planned. With this in mind, I think that the other two aspects of Iluvatar's gift that you describe give some insight into why elves don't need to die.

    Men constantly seek to change the world, and have been given both the desire and ability to do so, pitting them against creation for their whole lives. As you describe this taxes them, and as they age and lose the strength to struggle against the world, the only recourse left is death, as they cannot ever be truly satisfied with the state of the world. This brings to mind the state of affairs on Numenor, which was meant to be a paradise for men. In fact, they loved it so much that most men didn't wish to change it at all, and therefore stopped accepting death as a gift, since they had stopped struggling in the way men are expected to.

    Compared with this, elves can be seen more as caretakers of the world. They do not protest the music of Iluvatar, but do the maintenance necessary to try and keep the world on track with its intent. In this way, they're generally happy with the world, and have no desire to leave it, since it is the source of their purpose, and doesn't need to be changed in their eyes.

    This isn't really any great revelation, but your post got me thinking about why elves don't need to die, a question we really haven't addressed (perhaps because immortality doesn't seem like a "problem" that needs to be tackled)

    -Brian R

    1. To build of Paul's and Brian's comments here, I have another questions about the relationship between Elves, Men, and their destinies: If Men were put on Middle-earth to fulfill Iluvatar's ultimate plans for creation (as shown in the Silmarillion and by Finrod in the Athrabeth) and as such have the Gift of Iluvatar (or death), what is the purpose of the Elves, and why must they live forever?

      Finrod tells Andreth that the greatest gift the Elves possess is their memory--which, as the years and ages wear on, eventually comes to feel more like a curse. Nonetheless, it is only through the Elves, who are closer in character and existence to the Valar, that the Men learn of the existence and teachings of the Valar (save Melkor). The meeting between Finrod and Andreth demonstrates this key turning point in the cultural history of Men, and both characters are very aware of the historical and mythological importance of their discussion.

      The Elves also, being stronger in body and mind than most Men, are able to fight Melkor and his minions in the early years of Creation, before things began to wilt. There's a theme in Tolkien, not often discussed in our class, whereby all things tend to become more and more "ordinary" as years go on-- the Elves, the dragons, and the Valar slowly disappear as Men and Hobbits take the reins of the world. Before that could happen, though, in the earliest ages of the world, it was the Elves who had the strength, fortitude, and will to fight Melkor and prepare Creation for the Coming of Men even while the Valar sat in their ivory halls and seemed to turn a blind eye on Middle-earth.

      So to answer my original question, I think the purpose of the Elves is to prepare the way for Men and to act as interpreters between them and the Valar, who are themselves interpreters between the Elves and Iluvatar. Another interesting question would be why there's such a need for interpretation...

  6. I definitely agree with Grace on the answer to the second question. Death is a gift because it is a freedom that the elves don’t have. As to the first question, I agree that it is difficult as Tolkien wrote so little on what happens to Men after their death. If their death is a gift because it grants freedom, then what is beyond Death that they are now free to enjoy? I believe Tolkien left this purposefully ambiguous. If I am correct, in Tolkien’s universe, Arda and our Earth are the same planet, just at different times. We are in the Seventh Age now, according to Tolkien. As such, we would be descendants of the Men of Lord of the Rings. Assuming everything of the Tolkien universe to be true then their fate, where they go after they die, is the same as our fate. We will go to the same place after our own deaths. And that is something that is rather unknown to all of us. I don’t think Tolkien wanted to answer the question of where Men went after death because that would be creating an answer for modern men as well.
    - N. Lurquin

  7. In addition to the peace after struggle provided by Illuvatar's gift of death to man, I think it's important to consider the idea of this gift as a liberation from responsibility. It's often not approached explicitly in Tolkien's works but usually is touched upon to some degree. It seems that the peoples of Arda, particularly Elves, have a sort of responsibility to at least the fates of their respective races, if not all of Arda. Men's period of responsibility is short since their lives are short by comparison to others of Arda. Perhaps this lack of accountability for the future beyond their period of life explains why men in Tolkien's stories (not all of them by any means, but more often than elves certainly) commit irresponsible and short sighted actions. Not to say that this is the sole reason for such behavior, the fact that he was mortal was pretty low on the list of reasons for why Isildur did not destroy the Ring. Elves, interestingly enough, have an option to abdicate that same responsibility by leaving Middle Earth behind to go to the undying lands. However, this is only after generations of work to preserve Arda and even once there, various stories of mythologies imply that the beings residing there still take responsibility for the fate of Arda, since even the undying lands are not entirely safe from the spread of evil.
    James Mackenzie

  8. It's interesting to consider the problem of death as Tolkien addressed it, but I don't think we have to wonder about some of the answers.
    For why he intentionally left the first question open, it's likely just because we as modern humans don't know the answer. We can trust in God to take care of us, we can believe our own rumors, but in the end we don't precisely know. I enjoy the remark about "hope" vs. "trust", actually, because the word the elves probably lack is something akin to "faith". Early Numenoreans have faith in Illuvatar and the life after death, which is something the elves don't need to have since they simply know already.
    At the same time it's very interesting that Tolkien has no notion of Hell in his story, something which seems so mythological to me, and so befitting of Morgoth. Perhaps the closest thing is the outer Darkness/Timeless Void, but the Darkness isn't ever described as an evil thing, just the place where Morgoth resides and Ungoliant comes from. It's simply a place without the Secret Fire, and may or may not be the place where Men's souls reside after death. Tolkien's notion of punishment in general is actually very light compared with, say, Dante. Morgoth and his servants aren't made to suffer, he is only banished. Evil things are only ever cleansed from the physical world. Perhaps this is because Illuvatar doesn't wish to be a feared God, only a loved one.

  9. The thing I always consider with the Gift of Iluvatar, the mortality of men, is not necessarily the biological difference this implies between the Elves and Men, especially because there is significant evidence of the Half-Elven and they're being quite fertile. The difference between the Elves and Men isn't so much biological but cultural. There is a very different culture built upon participants who cannot die and who can live to see their children's children's children, and beyond from the kind of cultures we ourselves have, being mortal men doomed to die.
    I think Finrod makes a good point when he says that there wouldn't be much point in having two sets of children if there wasn't the difference of mortality. Men come to both value things differently and value different things from the Elves, and that makes them important the cultural growth of Middle Earth. Even the so-called biological differences, such as their hardiness for battle and other such traits can be pinned down to this cultural difference stemming from Men's mortality and their need to achieve in a shorter timespan and to raise children to live in the same way.
    -Josh Greenberg

  10. You did an excellent job tracing the accounts written by Tolkien of why Men die. You alluded to the discussion on creation music, and how Men might live to carry on this music in a way distinct from Elves. One thing you left out, perhaps wisely, are the implications of different stories existing for the death of Men. You gave an explanation for why the Elves might have told the story in terms of being a Gift given to Men, which is derived from Tolkien himself; but you could have gone further and asked, why do they differ from the account of Men themselves? Perhaps Men wrote their story as a parable, while the Elves’ explanation is more or less scientific or linguistic explanation derived from wisdom. That is, perhaps the story of the death of Men by Men is a cautionary tale about the dangers of wishing for immortality, not an actual account of why Men must die. The Elves seem, however futilely, to search for an explanation derived from stories and history, while the Men seem to tell a parable. Since Tolkien is Christian, it is not hard to find parallels in Christian theology with respect to death and immortality; but I will leave this for someone who actually knows Christian theology.

    Scotty Campbell