Friday, May 23, 2014

Mortality Examined

(1) Description of Mortality:

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


  1. Another interesting question remains: where do dwarves, hobbits and orcs fit into this schema of mortality? We know very little about the Dwarves and their society. We know they have an elaborate tomb culture, as shown by Balin’s tomb (assembled despite Moria’s state of peril), and Thorin’s tomb. However, we know very little about their attitudes towards death
    Hobbits are similarly secretive, though we can glean a little more from their own passing remarks. Their reverence for Old Took and his longevity seems to indicate that age is important to them. However, they do not seem to be much afraid of death. Bilbo’s Ring sponsored longevity worries the Shire, despite the apparently positive effects. Also, when Saruman conquers the Shire, the hobbits seem less afraid of death as they are of pain and discomfort.
    I find orcs to be the most troublesome. If the orcs are bastardized elves, does that mean they are also immortal? We see them die in droves, but there never seems to be any less of them. It would make sense that orcs, when slain, go to a sort of pseudo-hall of Mandos built by Morgoth/Saruman, and are respawned. However, this is far from assured.
    On a final note, all of these races (dwarf, hobbit, orc) apparently die. Does this cheapen Illuvatar’s Gift to men?

  2. In response to the above comment:

    This is a very interesting point you bring up: Death is usually considered within context of Men and Elves. The mortality of Men is a concept that we should be familiar with, especially considering Lord Denethor's obsession with death at the end of his life; Elves are associated with death via their association with Men. However, none of the other races have as pronounced a connection with death though those that participate in the War of the Ring are assuredly mortal. I suspect that this might be the result of Tolkien's fascination with the Elf-friend, a concept we explored early in the quarter. It is not that the mortality of other races was not important, nor is it that Illuvatar's gift to men is a cheap one; rather, it is that the connection between mortal Men and the immortal Fae that is most central to his philosophy. Men can reach and hold faerie, but when he dies, their respective Faeries dies with them.

    Another interesting angle to consider is the fact that the Lord of the Rings chronicles the end of immortal races in Middle Earth. In particular, we see the end of the Elves' dominion and the corresponding deaths of their sanctuaries. Similarly, we see the Ents, long-lived if not immortal, going into decline as more of their number go to "sleep." What messages can we extract from these deaths of the undying?

    N. Malaqai Vasquez

  3. Thank you for a very interesting conversation about death throughout Tolkien’s works. One point that I am somewhat confused about is in your last paragraph you talk about Elves only gaining an “opportunity for ennoblement” after “daring to love mortal men”. Does this mean that Elves cannot be ennobled if they do not love mortals? It seems to me that this is just one opportunity for Elves to achieve ennoblement, especially because we do not see examples of male Elves loving female Men. In LOTR, Elrond and Galadriel are two of the noblest Elves, especially considering that they are ring bearers, and neither of them loves mortal Men. However, another question to consider is what is meant by “love?” It appears that you are talking about love that one would find between a husband and wife, but what about the love of fellowship or friendship? Are there any other types of great sacrifices for their friends that would allow Elves to obtain the same level of ennoblement? Also, if Elves can become mortal by marrying Men, then it seems as though mortality is no longer a “gift” specifically to humanity since anyone can experience it. I am wondering if this also contributes to the idea of Iluvatar’s gift to Men being cheapened as mentioned by the previous commenters?

    --Will Long

  4. I agree with a comment made above: the lack of information on the mortality of some of the other races troubles me slightly. However I think some progress can be made. Tolkien once mentions that Hobbits, although in many ways unique, are a sort of Men (I will cite this if I can find it but I distinctly remember reading it somewhere), so I think we can safely say that Hobbits are mortal in the same sense that Men are.
    Orcs, on the other hand, are very likely immortal in the same way that Elves are. As mentioned Tolkien states in the Simarillion that Orcs are a mutilated form of Elves. Although he proposes other possibilities (including interbreeding between ruined elves and ruined men, which would significantly complicate matters), this seems to be the origin he was most set on. If we incorporate Finrod’s claim that Morgoth cannot impose death on an immortal race because this is solely the province of Eru, spoken in the context of Men but applicable to Elves, Orcs must be immortal. Given the multiple century reign of Bolg, son of Azog, as an Orc chief in the Misty Mountains, they are at least exceptionally long-lived compared to ordinary Men (although not, perhaps, when compared to Numenoreans).
    Regarding Dwarves, I have fewer coherent ideas on the matter. They are clearly not immortal with regard to Middle Earth in that they age to the point of apparent death, but what happens after that is less certain. There is a tradition amongst the Dwarves that every so often Durin is reborn, which seems to support the theory that they do not partake in the Gift of Illuvatar in the same way as Men, but whether or not the Dwarves themselves are correct in their own beliefs is unclear.
    Ian Chronis

  5. I think the idea of the idea of the extension of life being taxing on hroar that are not suited for it very interesting. It is consistent with what we found about the design of Iluvatar. Artificially extending life is unnatural and therefore goes against the Music of Illuvatar, which means it is not sustainable I quibble with this statement: “Men are humble because they are forced by the limitations of their hroa to live short lives.” Men are certainly limited in their life span but it does not make them humble. I think men are incapable of total humility due to their fallen nature. Events like the fall of Numenor and the tower of Babel prove that unthreatened human beings are not humble. There is no humility in characters like the witch-king of Angmar who seek total control of Arda. You might argue that these are less than admirable characters and that explains their lack of humility. This is true and while I cannot think of a “good” human character, lack of humility cannot be just among “bad” characters because it is a result of our fallen nature. There is a certain lack of humility in those who seek to do great deeds in threatening times because really they have just accepted that physical immortality is impossible and are seeking another path to immortality through great deeds and under the disguise of fighting evil. This is not a bad thing because as Sauron and Saruman can testify, it gets the job done.

    -Javon Brown