During Wednesday’s discussion, we talked about the conversation between Finrod and Andreth regarding immortality and death, and the different natures of Elves and Men. Tolkien’s writings on these topics become extremely complex and metaphysical – it seems as though even he did not fully figure out what he wanted to say. Based on the complicated notions of body and soul, eternal existence and final doom, it can be difficult to judge which race gets the better deal.
Is one any objectively better than the other? It often seems to be immortality: Elves want to keep it and humans wish they had it. Eärendil and Elwing are the only couple who have the option to be immortal together, and they choose it, while the female Elves who love Men are portrayed as making a huge sacrifice in giving up immortality, as though the best situation would be union without death, which they are not offered. Still, death is certainly not supposed to be completely negative, even if most characters don’t appreciate the Gift of Ilúvatar. Some characters see the positive aspects of it, even choosing it for themselves without being influenced by romance, or at least acknowledge that there must be a purpose. Does it simply come down to personal preferences? Eärendil happens to be fond of Men, some beings grow weary of the world, others feel that they are being cheated. I would argue that ideas regarding death and immortality in Tolkien’s work, particularly the Elvish attachment to life, are primarily the result not of an inherent superiority of one over another but of cultural identity and interpersonal relations.
I believe that Elves have three main reasons for their insistence on retaining immortality: (1) they feel that it is their nature as Elves, (2) some have a personal leaning toward it and thus try to influence others in that direction, and (3) they don’t want to be separated from those they love who can choose something different.
Immortality has great social significance for Elves. It distinguishes them from other races and emphasizes themselves as Eru’s first children. “Laws and Customs Among the Eldar” states, “From their beginnings the chief difference between Elves and Men lay in the fate and nature of their spirits” (Morgoth’s Ring 218). Death itself might not be that terrible – no one knows. It is supposed to be a “release from bondage to the circles of the world” (Flieger 144). The Elves generally do not view death negatively because of what it is but because it is not theirs. Finrod tries to comfort Andreth’s concerns, believing that Eru gave death to Men intentionally, not that Melkor took away their immortality. He tells her, “Nay, death is but the name that we give to something that he has tainted, and it sounds therefore evil; but untainted its name would be good” (Morgoth’s Ring 310). Perhaps it would be good for Men, but not for Elves. Thingol and Elrond, who points out to Aragorn that Arwen “is of lineage greater than yours,” clearly do not want their daughters to turn from the ways of their people (Return of the King [Ballantine Books 1983] 373).
While Finrod shows respect for the end of Men, some Elves may be biased against death as a concept, and others take it over immortality. Elrond and Elros, being half-Elven, are given a choice to embrace their humanity or elvishness: Elrond chooses the latter and Elros takes the former, a fact we should keep in mind when thinking about Elrond’s reaction to Arwen and Aragorn. We don’t know why he made the decision, but maybe he is projecting his own fear of or distaste for death onto Arwen. Elrond’s parents, Elwing and Eärendil, faced the same choice, “[a]nd Elwing chose to be judged among the Firstborn Children of Ilúvatar, because of Lúthien; and for her sake Eärendil chose alike, though his heart was rather with the kindred of Men and the people of his father” (Silmarillion 249-50). These two happened to have different opinions based on identification and closeness with the races, but ultimately stayed together.
This brings me to what I think is the main motivation of Elves to cling to or reconsider immortality, and why their kindred becomes so riled up at the idea of one of their own choosing death. Understandably, one wants one’s friends and family to stay with them. The desire to be with others affects some choices similar to those of Lúthien and Arwen, which may indicate that the issue is not just death or immortality being better. Galadriel, for example, “[f]or love of Celeborn, who would not leave Middle-earth…, did not go West at the Downfall of Melkor” (Unfinished Tales 234). Sir Orfeo does not save his wife from death forever (“…and long they lived, till they were dead…”), but rescues her so that they can spend the rest of their lives together after her untimely and seemingly unnatural demise (Sir Orfeo line 595). Elves, however, can stay together indefinitely. The expressions of love caused by this hope and expectation sometimes go too far. Verlyn Flieger observes, “Thingol’s actions, always motivated by apparent good, turn more and more toward isolation and possessiveness” (Flieger 135). He ends up objectifying Lúthien and even imprisoning her in order to hold onto her. Elrond is similarly guilty of trying too hard to protect his daughter because of his love for her. He warns Aragorn that romance with Arwen will “bring one of us, you or me, to a bitter parting beyond the end of the world. You do not know yet what you desire of me” (ROTK 374). When father and daughter are separated, it is described thus: “grievous among the sorrows of that Age was the parting of Elrond and Arwen, for they were sundered by the Sea and by a doom beyond the end of the world” (ROTK 376). The real fear that death brings is not leaving the world but the people one cares for within it.
Some of the extreme tension caused in the Elvish community by questions of death and immortality is based on a social construct. If the Valar allow someone a choice, then either choice must be acceptable. They wouldn’t let someone take a path that was completely inappropriate or impossible for them, and they are more willing to let Ilúvatar’s Children choose other Elves are. Eru had a different path for each race, by which they abide in cases that don’t involve extenuating circumstances, but the few difficult decisions are about taking the road less travelled by and diverging from one’s people.
Maybe the dead will be reunited with their loved ones again, maybe the departure from Arda is actually more pleasant than existing as long as Arda does, but “Tolkien’s text gives no guarantees; what’s to come is still unsure” (Flieger 144). To address the main concern of Elf parents, Albus Dumbledore questions, “You think the dead we loved ever truly leave us?” And for the humans stressed about the lack of certainty regarding death, Dumbledore says, “To the well-organized mind,” – one that remembers that Eru is the One doing the planning – “death is but the next great adventure.”