For most men on Middle-Earth death is a source of great dismay, especially because they are in the constant presence of deathless Elves.
Our first true description of immortality comes from Strider, who, not yet revealed to be Aragorn, wows Frodo and his companion hobbits with the tale of Beren and Lúthien: the mortal Beren, lost in the Neldoreth forest, falls in love with Lúthein when he first sights her and from that moment, “doom fell on Tinúviel,” whose love for Beren prompts here to choose a mortal life (LOTR 193-4). Thus, from the very outset, we observe that mortality presents a conflict between characters who have it and those who do not.
For the men in Tolkien’s ‘legendarium’ immortality is a powerful prospect. This is especially true for Numenorians, whose ancestral memory even has them turn West before any meal in remembrance of the long lives they had lost, “hungering after endless life unchanging” (LOTR 678). As Andreth laments: “no heart of Man is content,” she says, “All passing and dying is a grief to it,” (Athrabeth 307).
However, the immortality of the Elves that they desire is a melancholy one. The elves are tied to Arda in a unique way, prospering and suffering according to its condition in time. Fingor: “we must perish utterly, it seems, for we belong to Arda (in hroa and fea)…” (Athrabeth 312). This makes Tolkien’s description of Galadriel particularly fitting: “…present and yet remote, a living vision of that which has already been left far behind by the flowing streams of Time,” (LOTR 373). The elves are more of a part of the natural world than men and so their immortal lives shift alongside it. And like Bilbo, who as a result of the artificial prolongation of his life with the One Ring feels like himself ‘stretched thin’, the elves are hardly immune from weariness and pain.
Prolonged life is a taxing thing.
(2) Origin of Mortality:
However, although their crafts, their houses in the tree in Lothlorien, their finely crafted cloaks and even their elegant weaponry evidence a deep appreciation for the natural world that they inhabit and shape, the unique relationship the elves have with the land is a function of their immortal state, not the source of it. Thus the origins of the immortal state merit some extended discussion before we examine the greater implications of mortality.
In the lengthy debate in the Athrabeth Finrod Ah Andreth, Finrod, corrects Andreth’s claim that Melkor created death and that “Men are not be nature short-lived”, by explaining that not only is it impossible for Melkor to have ‘created’ death but that the lives of men and elves differ qualitatively and that therefore men’s souls are unsuited to immortal life (Athrabeth 314).
Firstly, Melkor (and not even Manwe) could have created death; only Eru possesses that sort of power (Athrabeth 313). The experience for Men and Elves with their mortality is, for the most part, immutable. As Finrod explains: “the Children of Men were not a matter that [the Valar] could govern” (Athrabeth 314).
But not only is mortality immutable; what Fingor tells us is that because of the qualitative difference between the souls of men and elves it should be. We learn in Aman and The Laws and Customs of the Eldar that this fitting qualitative difference between the lifespans of Elves and Men stems from the different relationships between their minds and spirits. Although “the fear of the Elves were destined to dwell in Arda for all the life of Arda,” Men’s spirits are inherently different and are not at home in Arda (Laws 225, Athrabeth 315). The fear of elves somehow nurtures their bodies, their hroar, and the consonance between the two grants them long lives. The fear of men are also immortal; however, because they are of another world, possibly related to Illuvutar himself, their hroar decay more speedily, not being in consonance with their spirits.
The most important conclusion we ought to draw from their exchange is that we find out that the lives of men and elves differ not only because of their predetermined and immutable span but because of a difference in quality stemming from the spirit-body distinction.
(3) Implications of Mortality:
We have now examined the distinctions between the mortal and immortal lives (in span and quality). However, we still need to address the most important question (and the one Tolkien gives answers only obliquely): Why is mortality a ‘gift’ to humanity?
Firstly, granting immortal life to a being whose fea isn’t suited to it would be punishment more than gift. Not only would artificial lengthening of life weary the recipient (as it did to Bilbo), it would tear them apart eventually. Elves prosper in Aman, since the Elf hroar ages “apace with the fear” and the two would mutually support each other; however, were Men to gain immortality, “the fea and hroa of a Man in Aman would not be united and at peace but would be opposed to the great pain of both,” (Aman 406). Weariness would give way to loathsome hate for the immortal life, until eventually men would desire death but then be denied it; “the Man would not be blessed but accursed,” (Aman 406). Flieger corroborates, arguing that it is death, not immortality, that is a “release from bondage” and it is folly for me to refuse to let go and refuse Illuvatar’s “greatest gift” (Flieger 142).
However, there is second reason that we refer to death as a “gift” in Tolkien’s world that neither Flieger nor any of the denizens of Middle-earth address directly.
Men’s ability to die ennobles their existence just as marriage to the immortal elves, whose grace and dignity Tolkien so admires. Men are humble because they are forced by the limitations of their hroa to live short lives. However, courageous response in the face of sure death, especially for those who risk falling in love with immortal elves, ennobles them beyond measure. It is through this brave exercise of their “immeasurably greater potential” despite being “visibly less great” that men live up to this potential. The marriage of Aragorn and Arwen, which Tolkien himself referred to as “the most important part of the Appendices,” illustrates this (Letters 237). Aragorn, whose Elvish name Estel embodies trust, is the epitome of this brave behavior because he (tragically) loves Arwen and is rewarded for it with immeasurable glory: upon his deathbed, Arwen observes that “the valour of his manhood, and the wisdom and majesty of his age were blended together. And long there he lay, an image of the splendor of the Kings of Men in glory undimmed before the breaking of the world,” (LOTR 1063). Thus, mortality is a far greater gift for men than prolonged, weary life might be.
Likewise, only Elves who make as great and powerful a sacrifice by daring to love mortal men are given the choice to become mortal themselves and access this tremendous opportunity for ennoblement. It is after all, because “of her labours and her sorrow” and because of her service to Beren, that Luthien is allowed partake in the gift of a mortal life (Silmarillion 221). As Flieger so succinctly closes: “In Tolkien’s world, as in our own, it is only through darkness that one may come into light,” (Flieger 146)
- Prasan Srinivasan