Sunday, May 21, 2017

Man-Elf Jealousy

One of the most interesting things about death in J.R.R. Tolkein’s legendarium is the idea that death is a gift from Iluvatar, but that men have been corrupted into thinking of it as a curse. This is repeated several times throughout the history of Arda. According to The Silmarillion, Morgoth was able to convince from almost the beginning of their existence that death was a curse. This distorted belief, logically, must have been reinforced by the apparent nature of death. It is associated with pain, and permanently removes the person from Arda. And even if a man could comfort himself in the knowledge that, in the grand scheme of things, death is really a gift, the everyday reality of living without a loved one would certainly lend credence to the idea that Iluvatar had cursed mankind. When Urwen (nicknamed Lalaith), the sister of Turin Tarumbar, dies from a disease sent by Morgoth known as “the Evil Death” in The Children of Hurin, Turin, then eight, immediately states that he would rather be an elf than a man, because that would mean that he would be reunited with his sister.
But this is not true because elves experience all the accompanying negative effects of death even if they are eventually resurrected. They still experience pain when they die and they still lose their loved ones for God knows how long. Even if Turin had been an elf, he would not be reunited with his sister for an immensely long amount of time. Finrod makes this exact argument in his debate with Andreth, and she essentially admits that, responding only that while the elves do experience death, it is not final. This is essentially admitting that elves and men have functionally the same fate. It is only with respect to their final destiny that death for elves is different. The fact that this argument, false though it may be, comes up repeatedly confirms that the belief that death is a curse is indeed a work of Morgoth. As Finrod explains, it is intended to create jealousy between men and elves, thus dividing Morgoth’s principal adversaries. It appears, on some level to work, for Turin’s companion Sador immediately replies to him that “it might have been better if we had never met them.” Turin doesn’t respond to this statement in his reply. There is not a clear reason in the text why mankind’s jealousy never rose to such a level as to cause a split between them and the elves (at least with respect to the Edain) in the First Age, but did in the Second.
I think the reason for this is twofold. The first reason is the obvious one: They had a common enemy in Morgoth, whereas there was no threat to men and elves in the Second Age after Sauron was captured. The second reason relates to death: The War of the Great Jewels resulted in massive amounts of death and bloodshed for the Noldor and for the Edain. Getting stabbed in the face is going to kill you, no matter whether you’re one of the princely sons of Fingolfin or a random peasant for Dor-Lomin. The most common form of death in that time affected both races equally. It was only, as I’ve said before, with respect to their eternal destiny that they were different. However, this changed dramatically once Sauron was subdued. With the threat of imminent death gone, the difference between elves and men became unmistakable. Even in that prosperous age, men still faced the fear of inevitable nothingness, the sorrow of losing a cherished family member. Sauron capitalized on this. Thus, the jealousy that men felt for elves, and their hatred for the valar with whom they lived increased dramatically.
As I have said before, elven and human death differed dramatically particularly with respect to their eternal destiny. Elves returned to the Halls of Mandos in Valinor and were bodily resurrected whereas men left Arda altogether. It is not known where they go in particular, but they presumably enter the Timeless Halls of Iluvatar. Thus, in a sense, men are closer to Eru than the elves, though they are clearly more beloved by the valar. The idea is that elves, though they are deathless, are permanently bound to Arda, and to its fate, whereas men can escape it. The idea is essentially that elves cannot turn their back on the world since they are inextricably bound up in it. I think this is just completely wrong, however, since elves can leave Middle Earth and go to Valinor which, while still part of the created world, is its own separate planet that only elves can reach. Moreover, the elves explicitly shirk any responsibility to fight Sauron. They all leave Middle Earth! I don’t agree that their immortality necessarily “binds” them to the world.
Finally, I want to speculate a little bit about Numenor. After the destruction of Beleriand, the valar created an island for the remnants of the Edain to live on as a reward for their loyalty in fighting against Morgoth. The original term for the island was andor “gift of men.” I think it is very likely that Tolkien intended us to connect the gift of men (Numenor) to the gift to men (death). This is probably foreshadowing that the downfall of Numenor would result from their inability to accept death as a gift. It implies that no matter how great the gifts men receive, they inevitably want more, and it is this greed that causes the downfall of mankind.
The Silmarillion
The Children of Hurin
The Lord of the Rings
Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth

Friday, May 19, 2017

Surviving Immortality

There is a rather large disparity between what men and elves are endowed with by the Valar. The elves are the First-born, the “artistic, aesthetic, and purely scientific aspects of the Human nature raised to a higher level than is actually seen in Men” (Letters #181), gifted with greater intelligence, stronger bodies, and immortality. On the other hand, men are the Followers, physically and aesthetically inferior mortals who have only a short time on Middle-Earth before death takes them. Yet Tolkien calls immortality the doom of the elves and mortality the gift of men. I will admit, the first time I read this I was skeptical, but now a few years later, I am far more inclined to agree with Tolkien on this point. In the comparison between the capabilities and characteristics of men and elves, men are generally thought to have gotten the short end of the stick in essentially every category, but what if we consider the elves’ enhanced faculties as a compensation for immortality?
To Tolkien, the immortality of elves seems to be tied to stagnation, while the mortality of men appears to be linked with progression. Immortality as doom and mortality as a gift might not seem convincing, but stagnation as doom and progression as a gift is very much so. The weakness of the elves is “to regret the past, and to become unwilling to face change: as if a man were to hate a very long book still going on, and wished to settle down in a favourite chapter” (Letters #181). They desire a state of stasis, “to arrest change, and keep things always fresh and fair” (Letters #181). As a change-driven society and as individuals cognizant of our limited time on Earth, we tend to veer away from living in the past, instead desiring to see how far we can go before our time is up and we must leave. The elves do not have the choice to leave Arda and so holding on to fairer times is the best substitute they have. This is radically different for Aragorn, for men are not bound to Arda:

“ask whether you would indeed have me wait until I wither and fall from my high seat unmanned and witless. Nay lady, I am the last of the Numenoreans and the latest King of the Elder Days; and to me has been given not only a span thrice that of Men of Middle-Earth, but also the grace to go at my will, and give back the gift. Now, therefore, I will sleep.” (LotR Appendix A)   

Aragorn does not fear death and rightly so, for in Tolkien’s world, death is not something meant to be feared. Rather, it is an unknown: “mortality is not explained mythically: it is a mystery of God of which no more is known than that what God has purposed for Men is hidden” (Letters #131). Notably, death is never called an ending either, implying that it serves as a passage to somewhere or something else. It is not the lot of either elves or men to know what comes after death, but men will eventually experience it while the elves must wait until the ending of the world. Men are meant to trust that mortality is a gift, but this gift becomes their doom when by twisting the mystery of death into something to be feared and shunned and the double-edged sword of immortality into an illusion of paradise, Sauron convinces Ar-Pharazôn to sail to the Undying Lands, resulting in the destruction of Numenor and the removal of the Undying Lands.
Because of their immortality and their tie to Arda, the elves have no choice but to “last while it [the world] lasts, never leaving it even when ‘slain,’ but returning” (Letters #131). For me, this concept of being tied to the earth and having to return even after death has always been one of the saddest aspects of Elven immortality, of which Glorifindel is a prime example. Glorifindel was a great warrior during the First Age who died while defeating a Balrog, but was sent back during the Second Age to act as an emissary of the Valar and assist in the war against Sauron. Glorifindel deserved a lot more R&R (the casualness of this abbreviation is deliberate) for his deeds in the First Age. He fought long and hard for the peoples of Middle-Earth and died in defense of them. While Glorifindel’s loyal and steadfast character means that he would never object to being sent back to Middle-Earth to aid his brethren, what saddens me is the lack of choice he had in returning to Middle-Earth as well as the dark circumstances that necessitated his return. Glorifindel is called back not to a time of peace, but to a time of war, and that is yet another sorrow of the elves’ immortality, that foes and destruction are constant companions.
As the First-born, the elves were able to “love the beauty of the world, to bring it to full flower with their gifts of delicacy and perfection” (Letters #131). This is the sort of idyllic imagery used to paint immortality as an existence of endless creativity and joy, but it is far from representative of the lives of the elves, who had to live through three Ages of seeing the aforementioned beauty ravaged by war and greed and doing their best to defend it. A common lament that I have heard goes along the lines of “So-and-so fought so hard and dedicated their lives to [insert deed here, usually a military, political, or civil rights feat]. Wouldn’t they be heartbroken to see how their progress has been undone?” This is a somewhat crude example, but that is exactly what the elves are going through not just once, but constantly over thousands of years. The mental and physical toll of continually having to defend and rebuild through each generation of conflict is an enormous one. Humans are admired for their fortitude in overcoming such obstacles, yet elves aren’t because of their immortality, which is quite a double standard. Immortality grants longevity, not mental fortitude.
To conclude, while immortality under the right circumstances could be very appealing, the immortality of elves in Tolkien’s world is most certainly more like doom than like a gift. It is easy to be envious of the elves’ enhanced beauty, artistry, intelligence, and skill, but the question is whether these qualities make up for the burden of immortality – that decision I leave to the reader.


J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.

J.R.R. Tolkien, Letters, ed. Humphrey Carpenter with Christopher Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000; first published 1981)


The stories of union between Elves and Men serve to explore many important themes in Tolkien’s work, including free will and fate, doom and choice, love and possessiveness. Important particularly to the question of death and immortality is the concept of Estel, essentially the embrace of the unknown future contrasted against the embrace of the known past. While Estel is particular to the realm of Men because of the Gift of Iluvatar of death to them, it is an illusive feeling even for Tolkien’s mortal characters.
Tolkien explicates the concept of Estel in the “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth,” a conversation between Finrod Felagund, an Elf Lord, and Andreth the Wise-woman. There are two distinct Elvish words for “hope.” One word is Amdir, or “looking up,” which is “an expectation of good, which though uncertain has some foundation in what is known.” The second word is Estel, or “trust.” Finrod explains that Estel is not founded in the known but instead in “our nature and first being,” and it is trust in Eru, the highest power, that “all His designs the issue must be for His Children’s joy.” (“Athrabeth,” 320) While Finrod explains Estel to Andreth, it is clear that this type of hope unique to Men: he tells her, “it is still to me but strange news that comes from afar. No such hope was ever spoken to the Quendi. To you only it was sent. And yet through you we may hear it and lift up our hearts.” (“Athrabeth,” 322)
            The concept of Estel is prominent in the Tale of Aragorn and Arwen, with Aragorn serving literally as its embodiment. Ivorwen foretells that through the marriage of Gilraen and Arathorn, “hope” would be born for their people; taken to Imladris, Aragorn is called “Estel, that is ‘Hope.’” Aragorn imposes the choice to embrace or reject Estel onto Arwen: Elrond tells him, “there will be no choice before Arwen, my beloved, unless you, Aragron, Arathorn’s son, come between us and bring one of us, you or me, to a bitter parting beyond the end of the world.” Conversely, Arwen serves as a source of hope for Aragorn: in Lothlorien, Aragorn tells her he does not know how the Shadow will be defeated, “yet with your hope I will hope.” As Arwen does for him, Aragorn similarly embraces the unknown, and unfounded hope, through his love for Arwen.
Aragorn seems to be the exception to the rule, however, in his embrace of Estel. In particular the female characters Andreth and Gilraen express skepticism. Before her death, Gilraen says the notable linnod to Aragorn: “Ónen i-Estel edain, ú-chebin estel anim” (“I gave Hope to the Dunedain, I have kept no hope for myself”). Aged as one of “lesser Men,” she cannot face “the darkness of our time.” The implication is that Gilraen has sacrificed something of her own life, to give Aragorn as an embodiment of Estel to the world. (Appendix A.v) In her conversation with Finrod, Andreth considers it as part of the doom of Men that their Estel “should falter and its foundations be shaken.”  She views Estel as Amdir “but without reason: mere flight in a dream from what waking they know: that there is no escape from darkness and death.” (“Athrabeth,” 320) There are Men of the “Old Hope,” who believe that the “Nameless” can be defied, yet to Andreth “there is no good reason” for that belief, and that “all wisdom is against them.” (“Athrabeth,” 320) While Estel may be particular to Men, so also is doubt of it.
In Flieger’s reading of the Tale of Beren and Luthien, she argues that their deaths “carry a message of qualified hope,” in that they are given a resurrection to return to Middle-Earth as mortals (Flieger, 143). Release from bondage, through death, comes through the embrace of the unknown, the acceptance of death without assurance of the future, through reliance on faith (Flieger, 144). This is largely the case for Beren and Luthien, who represent the foremost joining of the two races, where the song of Luthien that achieves their resurrection weaves “two themes of words, of the sorrow of the Eldar and the grief of Men.” Luthien is offered a choice to either go to Valimar, “to dwell until the world’s end among the Valar, forgetting all griefs that her life had known,” or to remain with Beren by returning to Middle-earth, to dwell there without “certitude of life or joy” and “subject to a second death…ere long she would leave the world for ever, and her beauty become only a memory in song.” She chooses to be joined with Beren, which means embracing uncertainty and so “died indeed.” (Silmarillion, Chapter 19)
            The tale of Aragorn and Arwen is a purposeful reiteration of the tale of Beren and Luthien, but there are important differences. Like Thingol to Beren, Elrond gives Aragorn a seemingly impossible task: to become the King of both Arnor and Gondor.  Unlike Thingol though, Elrond’s request is not grounded in covetousness (nor does he secretly hope for Aragorn’s death): he tells Aragorn, “I fear that to Arwen the Doom of Men may seem hard at the ending.” In the telling of the story, Elrond seems to be right. In the scene of Aragorn’s death, Aragorn is composed and at peace with his decision, but Arwen clearly is not. She pleads for Aragorn to stay despite her “wisdom and lineage,” she finds the “gift” of death “bitter to receive,” the “light of her eyes was quenched,” she was “cold and grey as nightfall that comes in winter without a star.” While in Lothlorien Arwen perhaps make the “choice of Luthien,” she does not make a choice at the time of Aragorn’s death: she must “indeed abide the Doom of Men, whether [she] will or nill: the loss and the silence.” Unlike Beren and Luthien who retreat together to the wilderness to await death, the deaths of Aragorn and Arwen are separate and different. While Aragorn rests “in glory undimmed before the breaking of the world,” Arwen dies alone, in winter, under fading trees, and the “days of her life are utterly forgotten by men that comes after” –she dies, to a certain degree, in ignominy. (Appendix A.v) What is the reader to make of this pointedly sad ending? Flieger's reading of death as a good release from bondage seems too simplistic for this iteration of the tale. Is Arwen really failing at the “final test,” by not recognizing that death and “release from bondage” is good? (And is she, literally and figuratively, without Estel after Aragorn’s death?)
As we discussed in class, Elves are characterized by resistance to change and a clinging to the past, essentially living in memory. Finrod explains to Andreth why her love for Aegnor remained unrequited: “’Andreth adaneth, the life and love of the Eldar dwells much in memory; and we (if not ye) would rather have a memory that is fair but unfinished than one that goes on to a grievous end.” (“Athrabeth,” 325) Aragorn frames the choice before Arwen as “to repent and go the Havens and bear away into the West the memory of our days together that shall there be evergreen but never more than memory; or else to abide the Doom of Men.” (Appendix A.v) The choice seems to be to have a “fair but unfinished memory,” or to continue on to a “grievous end.” Maybe Estel is Tolkien’s solution to the problem of death, but it does not seem like even many of his characters, except Estel himself, have it.

Works Cited:
Tolkien, Appendix A.v: “The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen."
Tolkien, “Quenta Silmarillion,” chaps. 17, 19, and 24, in The Silmarillion
Tolkien, “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth,” HME 10, pp. 303-66.
Flieger, Splintered Light, pp. 131-46.

The Cruelty of Sauron

On the topic of human mortality, our class has so far mostly focused on the topic of the demise of Númenor. Sauron’s manipulations encouraged the final King, Ar-Pharazôn, to quest to assault the Valar’s homeland in Valinor in the interest of achieving eternal life (the treasure promised by Sauron, but obviously not something the Valar would be willing –or able, for that matter—to provide) thanks to his overwhelming pride and boredom thanks to the relatively stagnant lives the Númenorians led. As the Valar couldn’t harm humans on basic principle, Manwë petitioned to Eru to respond; Eru’s response was on the extreme side, resulting in the absolute destruction of the rebel Númenorians, as well as the removal of Aman from the greater Arda.

Now, what intrigued me in this story is that the reader never really gets to see what would happen if a human were to gain functional immortality. While the threat of the concept is obviously enough to force Eru’s hand to essentially take the nuclear option, no specifics are really given in the Akallabêth. However, much as in his temptation of Ar-Pharazôn and the Númenorians, Sauron continues his temptation of immortality towards mankind in a particularly demonstrable and notable avenue: the creation of the Nazgûl. This example illustrates the fate that Eru was so desperate to avoid in his destruction of Númenor, and how death is considered a gift to Men from Eru, rather than a curse.

Throughout the span of the greater Lord of the Rings saga, Tolkien makes his views on death rather clear: by embracing its inevitability and appreciating the freedom it provides, Men are able to live their lives to the fullest. The most basic (and pervasive) of contrasts Tolkien employs is the disparity between the lives of Elves and Men, as the Elves are provided with the Gift of immortality, and the Men are provided with the inverse. From the Silmarillion, “The doom of the Elves is to be immortal, to love the beauty of the world, to bring it to full flower with their gifts of delicacy and perfection, to last while it lasts, never leaving it even when ‘slain’, but returning... The Doom (or the Gift) of Men is mortality, freedom from the circles of the world” (The Silmarillion, preface).

The Nazgûl are objectively some of the most horrifying characters in Tolkien’s menagerie, on both a physical and metaphysical level. On a visual level, the Nazgûl were largely described as wildly unsettling black-robed creatures; the second Frodo sees them in the Ring world, however, their true shapes come forth. “Immediately, though everything else remained as before, dim and dark, the shapes became terribly clear. He was able to see beneath their black trappings. There were five tall figures: two standing on the lip of the dell, three advancing. In their white faces burned keen and merciless eyes; under their mantles were long grey robes; upon their grey hairs were helms of silver; in their haggard hands were swords of steel” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Ch11). These are identifiably human creatures, except explicitly “haggard” with “burn[ing] eyes”. This depiction ties deeply into the recurrent description of the malicious Undead throughout human mythology, playing to our fears of invisible and desperate predators in the night.

On a deeper level, the Nazgûl operate on pure horror as well, as “one by one, sooner or later, according to their native strength and to the good or evil of their wills in the beginning, they fell under the thralldom of the ring that they bore and of the domination of the One which was Sauron's. And they became forever invisible save to him that wore the Ruling Ring, and they entered into the realm of shadows. The Nazgûl were they, the Ringwraiths, the Enemy's most terrible servants; darkness went with them, and they cried with the voices of death” (The Silmarillion, Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age). These creatures are literally death incarnate. As Sauron prevents their fëar from transcending to where Eru designed them to go, the Nazgûl are abominations constantly in agony, as their necessary fate is denied from them again and again. "A mortal, Frodo, who keeps one of the Great Rings, does not die, but he does not grow or obtain more life, he merely continues, until at last every minute is a weariness. And if he often uses the Ring to make himself invisible, he fades: he becomes in the end invisible permanently, and walks in the twilight under the eye of the dark power that rules the Rings. Yes, sooner or later - later, if he is strong or well-meaning to begin with, but neither strength nor good purpose will last - sooner or later, the dark power will devour him" (The Fellowship of the Ring, Ch2). This consumptive fate is provided through no real fault of the ring’s owners on their own, as no matter how strong the human was, initially, their estrangement from death at the hand of Sauron drives the user absolutely mad, transforming them into the twisted and horrible beings the readers know as the Nazgûl.

Beyond the obvious “cosmic firestarter” connotations, Sauron seems to perhaps have a deeper purpose in this corruption: a deep-seated envy of the Gift of mortality. Tolkien claims, re: Men, that “Death is their fate, the gift of Ilúvatar, which as Time wears even the Powers shall envy” (The Silmarillion, Quenta Silmarillion, Ch1). Once Morgoth was exiled from Arda’s plane of existence, Sauron, who had previously only operated under a Master’s orders (as Maiar were essentially created as servants to the Valar), was cut adrift in Middle Earth, as the only immortal of his stature left to operate freely. This situation seems to scream a “misery loves company” –esque scenario to me, as Sauron would likely have wanted to surround himself with beings equally as tortured as he was. The only way to exceed this was to truly break living creatures in a cosmic sense, partially as a way to create servants and partially as a way to further insult the Creator that he absolutely despised, which led to his effective immortalization of the Nazgûl.

Works Cited

Tolkien, J. R. R., and Christopher Tolkien. The Silmarillion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. Print.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings. New York: Mariner/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. Print.

A. Jaffe

Siblings, Light, and Wisdom

           Elves and Men are brothers and sisters. They are explicitly referred to as the elder and younger children of Iluvatar, and it is this sibling relationship which gives reason to their respective life spans. While Iluvatar’s final design is impossible to know, we can know parts of his plan, that he designed the Elves to teach the Men, and the Men to eventually take their place as masters of Arda. As the Elves faded, having fulfilled their purpose as mentor, they move on to another purpose which Iluvatar has ordained for them. Like an older sibling, they follow their parent’s wishes more faithfully, and Men, who strive to prove themselves, strike out find new paths which their parent has not chosen for them. Because of this relationship, it is essential that the Elves are immortal while Men are not. Elves’ immortality lets them more effectively teach Men without interfering with Men’s path. We can see the evidence for this necessary structure in the Silmarillion and how the Elves and Men awake and interact.

First we will examine how the Elves awoke, and what they were like in their beginnings. Before the Sun was made, Mandos foretold that, “It is doom that the Firstborn shall come in the darkness, and shall look first upon the stars. Great light shall be for their waning.” It is important to note that the Elves come in darkness lit only by the stars. This darkness at their birth is important because it signifies the lack of wisdom in their part of the world up to that point. As the Elves grow in wisdom and craft, so too does the light in the world. Evidence for this claim lies in Tolkien’s own writing, as he describes the Elves, “In the beginning the Elder Children of Iluvatar were stronger and greater that they have since become; but not more fair…” We know that light, and beauty, and wisdom are deeply intertwined in Tolkien’s mythology as we saw last week in the issue of jewels. As the Elves grew in wisdom and beauty, they diminished in vital force. The Sun rose, giving rise to Men in a world already filled with vast wisdom and experience.

“At the first rising of the Sun the Younger Children of Iluvatar awoke… but the first Sun arose in the West, and the opening eyes of Men were turned towards it…” Men wake up in a world which has already long been populated by peoples far wiser and greater than they are, but as time passes, the children of the Sun eclipse their elder siblings. This rise of Men is because they live relatively short lives. Because they are imperfect, frail, and mortal, they strive for more. Additionally they do not possess the long memories of Elves, a factor which is greatly in Men’s benefit as the Elves are perpetually crippled by the sorrow they feel brought on by long ages of the World. The Elves’ memories are necessary to Men’s development however, and the ages in which Men and Elves mingled are just as important as the first and last ages of the World in which each race walked the earth alone.

        When Elves and Men interact, Men gain much from their elders’ experiences, learning from mistakes previously made, although not completely avoiding them. When Felagund came among the men of the House of Beor as they slept, he sang a song of such wisdom which, “was in the words of the Elven-King, and the hearts grew wiser that hearkened to him…” It is critical that Felagund is immortal and therefore separate from the men he influences because this allows him to have great personal wisdom to impart to their culture. The Elves’ purpose is to gather personal experience, and in communication with Men, impart that wisdom onto entire cultures, thereby maximizing the experience gained by Men. Once this wisdom has been imparted, however, the Elves begin to fade because their immortality is of a different character than that of the Valar or of Iluvatar.

While Elves are indeed ‘immortal’ in the sense that they can live for an indefinite amount of time, and even when they are slain, their spirits persist within Arda, they are still of a more mortal substance than the Valar, and are therefore frail in a similar way to Men, although lesser in degree. “[The elves’] bodies indeed were of the stuff of Earth, and could be destroyed; and in those days they were more like to the bodies of Men, since they had not so long been inhabited by the fire of their spirit, which consumes them from within in the courses of time.” Men and Elves are most similar in the time when they mixed in the middle times of the world. The Elves awoke in darkness of unwisdom and were taught directly by the Valar. When the Elves arrive in Middle-Earth, their coming is accompanied by wisdom and light, which awakens Men, who are born into a world already wizened while they are still vital and strong. Men benefit from their older sibling’s accomplishments and failures as the Eldar pave the way for Men’s dominion in Arda. Elves are the vessels of Iluvatar’s wisdom, and Men are the receivers of this wisdom.

N. Reuter

To be or not to be...THAT is the question!

What are elves? Are they good, evil, or neutral? Are they closer to angels or human? They certainly look human, or at least, they look more human than creature. They are wise, but is that an inherent trait or is their wisdom a byproduct of their immortality? In Tolkien’s letter to Michael Straight, he writes, “The Elves represent, as it were, the artistic, aesthetic, and purely scientific aspects of the Humane nature raised to a higher level than is actually seen in Men. That is: they have a devoted love of the physical world, and a desire to observe and understand it for its own sake…” (Letters, 236). So, elves are grounded in “the physical world,” perhaps because they spend so much time “alive” in this world? There is really no need to think about spirituality and the after life because death is not an inevitable event. However, Tolkien also says elves are “artistic, aesthetic, and purely scientific,” implying a coldness to their wisdom, as if prolonged life drives away passion and emotion so characteristic of men.

Now, this begs the question: what are men? It seems like so many people wrote to Tolkien inquiring about the nature of elves, dwarves, and Hobbits in The Lord of the Rings, but no one really asks about the men. Perhaps this is because we are men ourselves, and therefore assume an inherent understanding of the men in Tolkien’s stories. However, I think stepping back and trying to understand men from an objective standpoint may be a useful exercise in breaking down Tolkien’s ideas about death and immortality.

If we look at men as just another race in Middle-Earth, it seems like they possess a will, a yearning to move forward that the other races do not have. Hobbits, for example, like (for the most part) to stay in the Shire, tend to their Hobbit-holes, and keep to themselves. Elves, as Tolkien states in his letter, “have a devoted love of the physical world” (236) and move relatively slowly compared to other races. Dwarves are perhaps a little more aggressive than men, but not in the same way. Dwarves work with (and under) the Earth, mining and gathering materials . Men, on the other hand, take on a more exploratory place on the Earth. In The Silmarillion, we see the movement of men westward, much to the chagrin of the Elves living in the western parts of Middle Earth. Most notably, Haleth “desired to move westward again; and though most of her people were against this counsel, she led them forth once more; and they went without help or guidance of the Eldar, and passing over Celon and Aros they journeyed in the perilous land between the Mountains of Terror and the Girdle of Melian” (146). For Haleth, there is a sense that progress must be made now rather than later, an urgency to move forward and accomplish. Even in the face of “perilous land” and “without help or guidance of the Eldar,” the men journey onwards. What makes men different in this sense? Perhaps we can say the dwarves do not have the same exploratory nature that humans do because they are not Children of Iluvatar. But what about the elves? To me, death is a driving factor in the separation between elves and men because it forces a sense of urgency in those who know death is coming.

The first sense of this urgency to do jumped out at me in the 17th chapter of “Quenta Silmarillion.” Tolkien writes an entire paragraph dedicated to kinship and lineage: “The sons of Haldor were Galdor and Gundor; the sons of Galdor were Hurin and Huor; and the son of Hurin was Turin the Bane of Glaurung…” (148) and so on and son on. Although we see familial descriptions in the Elven lore, it is not as long and as comprehensive as this paragraph. The fact that Tolkien felt it necessary to write out each generation points to the greater emphasis of lineage in human culture than elven culture. In a way, humans are creating their own kind of immortality through their children, which may be why familial relationships are so important; for the men, your children are a part of you that lives on after you die. I don’t think it is a far stretch to assert that men and elves alike would like to keep on living. It is just a matter of how that immortality is achieved that differs between these two races, whether that be physically (like the elves) or symbolically (like the humans).

Of course, this argument runs into some pitfalls when we consider death as a gift for men. In The Lord of the Rings, Faramir’s tale of men includes, “Kings made tombs more splendid than houses of the unchanging. Kings made tombs more splendid than houses of the living, and counted old names in the rolls of their descent dearer than the names of sons. Childless lords sat in aged halls musing in heraldry..” (678). Are we seeing the negative effects of men who yearn for death but must keep living? For the men with extended age, is that a blessing or a curse? On one hand, it is almost a best of both worlds situation because these men have more time on Earth and then die. However, without the urgency of a close death, do humans lose a sense of purpose? Because humans are not focused on the Earth and the physical world as much as elves, perhaps death is not just a gift, but a necessary part of humanity.


Shipwreck and Guiding Stars

For all the interesting and problematic quotes that Tolkien's Letter 43 gives us, one line that I found quite beautiful and that really struck home with me is when Tolkien is talking about how his son and men more generally should think about the women in their lives "as companions in shipwreck not guiding stars".  Simply as a metaphor for love this line is quite beautiful as Tolkien paints a striking image of a seafarer wandering the oceans following the next brightest star that draws his attention living a life that is forever unfulfilled and lacking in true happiness and love until he finds himself shipwrecked and discovers companionship that will be with him through the tragedy and Fall that is human existence.  As a way of thinking about love and one's life this appears to be a concept that Tolkien may have idealized and believed in, but one which he struggled with.  It appears that Tolkien highly idealized his wife whom he viewed as his own Luthien.  As was pointed out in class, many of the women in Tolkien's stories tend to be highly idealized and lack a certain amount of deeper characterization that deals with their flaws which causes them to be thought about as "a kind of guiding star or divinity".

In the relationships between male humans and female elves (Luthien and Beren, Aragorn and Arwen) the female elves are held up as nearly prefect divinities whose light the men cannot help but be drawn into by.  The decisions of the female elves to give up their immortality for the mortal men whom they love appears to usually be used as one of the more sexist or problematic parts of Tolkien's work.  I think however there might be much more to these decisions than the women simply being forced into choosing the 'family life' and therefore being somehow subservient or having less free will than their mortal men counterparts.  Tolkien certainly wants us to see these decisions as being the 'correct' choice and I have no issues with this and do not see this as problematic as others have said (see Is Tolkien Seixst?).

In order to think about why we should see the decisions to forsake immortality for love as the correct choice we first need to think about what immortality means in Tolkiens legendarium.  The gift of death was given to humans by Illuvatar to allow them to operate beyond the music of the Ainur and to shape their own lives as they wished.  The consensus in class seemed to be that elves are not therefore better off than humans.  The elves have to live with the regret of the whole history of the world, and they cannot escape the burden of the countless sorrowful memories that have plagued them throughout their existence.  Therefore while humans want immortality and envy the elves, the elves in turn envy the humans and want to be able to escape this world which they have been trapped in.  The fear or spirit of men upon death departs from the world for a destination unknown even to the Valar.

When thought about from this angle a few questions arise for me.  How is Arwen able to make the choice to forsake her immortal life?  By giving up their immortal lives, are Luthien and Arwen then able to operate outside the music of the Ainur and shape their own lives as the please?  Is this a choice many elves would make if they were able to?  It seems that the love between Aragorn and Arwen and Luthien and Beren allowed the elven women to be freed from their ties to the Earth that the rest of the elves are unable to escape because of how they were made.  Arwen especially seems to have had the best of both world because not only did she get to live for a few thousand years as an immortal, she also got to be with the person she loved and escape all her sorrowful memories an finally die.  From the perspective of Tolkien's world i am having a hard time seeing how this could be anything but the most correct choice.  Additionally just being able to make the choice to be with the person that you love at the end of the day seems to be the right choice.  Tolkien, in my view at least, seems to be trying to get us to believe that humans because of this gift from Illuvatar are better off than elves, so it only makes sense that the choice is made for the couple to both be human and that this is good.  In this case of the human that chose immortality to be with the elf he loved i think that we are supposed to also believe that is a fine decision to make because humans have free will and can make that choice if they so choose.  He may however have regretted that choice after a couple thousand years.

Lastly, i think it is not only important that the choice is given to the women in the case of Luthien and Arwen and not to the men, but going back to the quote about guiding starts and companions in shipwreck it is quite beautiful that the 'stars' choose to literally Fall from the sky to be companions with the loves of their life in the greatest tragedy and shipwreck of all existence, mortality.  I know i have argued throughout this blog post that death is supposed to be a better choice than immortality, but that does not change the fact that death is still not sad and tragic, especially when it comes too soon.  The argument over whether Tolkien is sexist or not and whether the characters of Arwen and Luthien somehow contribute to this to me seems somewhat moot because at the end of the day Tolkien is a man, and all men are sexist to some degree.  In letter 43 Tolkien is speaking from his heart, and while many problematic quotes can be drawn from this letter, i hope they do not detract from his greater work.


Should We Want to Be Elves?

Would it be better to be an Elf? This is a question that it is hard not to consider after reading Tolkien’s stories. After all, it is hard not to be envious of them. They seem full of light and wisdom. Their deep love of the woods and glades of the world, inspires in one a similar awe, so that immortality on this earth starts to seem desirable. However, there are some indications that immortality is not as flawless as it seems. The Elves are forced to endure all the ages of the earth, to watch the things the created get destroyed and their beauty fade. Meanwhile, the Men are given a chance to escape from this world through death. Though their lives may be short, they aren’t forced to face the endless nostalgia and regret of the Elves. Suddenly, one begins to wonder whether the life and death of Men is not the happier path. After all, is death not referred to as the Gift of Men?

However, in truth, all of these are the wrong questions to be asking. A very important theme in Tolkien’s work, is accepting the path God has laid out for you. Both the immortality of the Elves, and the death of the Men, are gifts from Eru, and both come with their burdens. One is not better than the other, but it is wrong to desire what one does not have. Just as it is wrong for the Númenóreans to desire immortality, so too would it be wrong for the Elves to desire the death of Men. This is most clear in the conversation of Andreth and Finrod. Finrod expresses that the long life of the Elves can be a burden and declares, “Nay, death is but the name that we give to something that he [Melkor] has tainted, and it sounds therefore evil; but untainted its name would be good” (310). Furthermore in the notes it says of the Elves that “To be perpetually ‘imprisoned in a tale’ (as they said), even if it was a very great tale ending triumphantly, would become a torment” (332). However, despite all of this, Finrod never expresses jealousy of the death of Men, whilst Andreth is clearly jealous of the Elves’ immortality. This can be explained by the different relationships of men and Elves to Eru. While the Men doubt the supremacy of Eru, it is said of the Elves that they have always remained faithful. Thus, instead of envying the death of Men the Elves “were obliged to rest on the named estel’ (as they said): the trust in Eru, that whatever He designed beyond the End would be recognized by each fëa as wholly satisfying (at the least)” (332). That death is the natural path for Men and not for Elves seems wholly clear to Finrod, and whatever pains were contained in those two paths were to be accepted as part of Eru’s plan. Thus, Finrod is shocked when Andreth expresses that this faith is not shared by Men. For the Elves faith in Eru implies accepting the situation He has given. This shows that for Tolkien there is nothing wrong with these inequalities amongst the peoples, and in fact what is wrong is attempting to usurp them. It would be wrong for us to want to be Elves, not because being and Elf is better or worse, but simply because we are not, and in desiring the Gift of Immortality we are ignoring the Gift of Death and represents a lack of faith in God’s plans.

This idea of the importance of accepting your position occurs in other places in Tolkien’s legendarium, and his great heroes are those who nobly step into their preordained roles. Aragorn, as the descendent of the kings of Númenór is destined to become king. Yet, it is his quiet and simply assumption of this role that makes him so heroic. In Tolkien's world it world be just as wrong for Aragorn to renounce the kingship, as it would be for Faramir to try to take it. Both are destined to their role in life, and they show their nobility in the acceptance of that. Similarly Galadriel accepts her fate to let Lothlorien fade, and Sam accepts his fate to be the servant of Frodo. Meanwhile the evil characters are the power-hungry characters who desire more than what Eru has allotted to them.

This idea that we are born to a certain fate, tied into our race, gender, and social class, and that to deny that fate is to deny God, does not fit well with our modern ideas of morality. And yet, I think to understand Tolkien’s works one has to view them through this lens. For Tolkien there is something very pure about this view of the world. Although it does imply certain structural inequalities, for the characters who embrace their place in life, they achieve a certain equality. Thus Sam and Aragorn achieve equally happy endings, despite coming from radically different social backgrounds, because they both fully embrace who they are, and live without envy. 

This carries over into the characters who give up one of their gifts for love - Lúthien, Eärendil, and Arwen. Although it may seem that the are going against their place, none act out of a desire to be other than they are, but rather out of love. Furthermore, there is an emphasis placed on the fact that these characters then accept the burdens of their choice.

So Tolkien councils us to put our faith in God’s plan, and accept our place in the world. Although I still have some problems with this conception of the world, I think that the central message to focus and the gifts and good things in your life, rather than being envious of the possessions of others is valuable. As Gandalf says, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” 

Works Cited Tolkien, J. R. R., and Christopher Tolkien. "Athrabeth Finrod Ah Andreth." Morgoth's Ring: The Later Silmarillion. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1993. 303-66. Print.
- Elise DF 

Incarnation and Death

A confusing aspect of Tolkien’s treatment of men and elves is the idea of incarnation—the union of hröa (body) and fëa (soul). What does it mean for men and elves to be incarnate? What bearing does incarnation have on Tolkien’s views on death as it applies to men and elves? These questions are, in part, answered in Tolkien’s collected works, but aspects of them remain only partially clarified.

Men and elves, Tolkien makes clear, are incarnate races, unlike the Valar or Sauron. Sauron and the Valar, Tolkien writes, are “spirit[s]” but “not of a kind whose essential nature is to be incarnate” (Letters 259). They can be “self-incarnated,” but their bodies are more like clothes than true bodies (Letters 259). Thus, such spirits can take physical shape, but these shapes are separate from their essential beings. In contrast, Tolkien conceives of men and elves as being possessed of “incarnate intelligence” (Letters 259), “rational creatures of free will,” with the union of body and soul a vital part of their being (Morgoth’s 337). Men and elves are incarnate by nature, able to make choices and influence the world around them with their physical bodies. This belief is echoed by Tolkien’s characters. “Harmony of the hröa and fëa” is vital to “the true nature unmarred of all the Incarnate” (Tolkien, Morgoth’s 315), says the elf Finrod in a debate with Andreth, a human. The true nature of elves, in his view, relies on harmony of body and soul. Andreth clearly agrees. She says that “the body is not an inn to keep a traveler warm at night, ere he goes on his way” (Morgoth’s 317). Rather than being simply a spirit’s temporary house, as clothes that can be removed without true consequence, the body and its tie to the soul is an essential part of Man’s nature, just as with elves.

In this context, the relation of men and elves to death becomes complex. In Tolkien’s works, elves and men are “in their incarnate forms kindred, but in the relation of their ‘spirits’ to the world” quite different (Letter 236). Elven fëar and hröar are bound to Arda, their home, until the end of the world, even if their bodies are destroyed. Elves, Tolkien writes, cannot “escape from Time” and instead “remain in the world, either discarnate, or being re-born” (Letters 254). The union of Elven bodies and souls continues until the end of Arda. However, men’s fëar are visitors in Arda. As Finrod tells Andreth, men’s fëar are not “confined to Arda,” and “Arda is [not] their home” (Morgoth’s 315).  They depart the world after death, while their bodies remain in Arda, as they are built from Arda and not whatever lies beyond (Morgoth’s 317). This reasoning, however, conflicts with Tolkien’s insistence on Man’s incarnate nature. If men are only whole when fëar and hröar are united, how can death be called Eru’s “gift” to men when it involves the sundering of body and soul? If, as Tolkien states in his commentary on Finrod and Amrath’s discussion, separation of the hröa and fëa is “unnatural” and “proceeds not from the original design, but from the ‘Marring of Arda,’” (Morgoth’s 330-331) is death even a part of Man’s original nature?

       Finrod and Andreth’s discussion demonstrates that elves believed that Man’s short lifespan was “part of [his] nature” (Morgoth’s 308), and other Tolkien writings supports this view. Tolkien writes that Frodo’s journey across the western sea was “an opportunity for dying according to the original plan for the unfallen”: to die of one’s “own free will” (Morgoth’s 341). Thus, it seems clear that men are supposed to die, but that a fearful, unwilling death is unnatural. This thinking is confirmed by Aragorn’s final conversation with Arwen, when he says that he has been given the “grace to go at [his] will” and depart the world (Tolkien, Lord 1179). The intended gift of Man was to choose to depart from Arda without fear. The fall of Man came with this gift’s perversion, in which death was perceived with “horror and anguish” (Morgoth’s 347), and the search for endless life became a ruinous preoccupation (Lord 751). Men were intended to die, although willingly without fear.

If death is indeed Man’s nature, how might if qualify as a gift? Finrod reasons that death might be seen as a gift in that it allows the fëar of men to be “release[ed]” from life’s struggles and return, “as going home” to some place beyond the world (Morgoth’s 317), sparing men the grief felt by elves at the passage of time. In this sense, death might be seen as a positive. However, accepting such a gift, Andreth argues, would be a “severance” of body and soul that “could [not] be according to the true nature of Men,” (Morgoth’s 317) instead resulting from the machinations of evil. In the context of this argument, and Tolkien’s statements that separation of body and soul deviates from Eru’s plan, the gift of Man, even if received as originally intended, becomes even more mystifying.

This conflict is never explicitly reconciled by Tolkien, but educated speculation is possible. Finrod concludes that “the fëa when it departs must take with it the hröa” somehow, and “the fëa shall have the power to uplift the hröa" into an endurance everlasting and beyond Time” (Morgoth’s 318). He posits that mankind’s fëar are reincarnated into an eternal body in an Arda remade or beyond it, addressing the tension discussed. However one must be careful when conflating the views of the character Finrod with Tolkien’s ideas about death in his world. The Bible holds that men are resurrected in the same bodies they possessed in life, but in immortal forms (1 Corinthians 15:35-58), an idea that aligns with Finrod’s thinking and to which Tolkien, a Catholic, would have been exposed. Although Tolkien never directly confirms a Christian aspect of death in his legendarium, his ideas about the fall of Man, for instance, resemble Christian thinking somewhat. Adam and Eve fall to temptation, and God, angry, dooms them to difficult lives and death, declaring that Man “must not be allowed” to “take fruit from the tree of life” and cannot “eat of it and live forever” (Genesis 3.14-24). Andreth’s account of the fall of Man partially mirrors this idea. Men, seduced by evil as a result of their greed, are punished by hardship and shortened lives and eventually begin to fear death, although death itself is a natural state (Morgoth’s 347-49). Thus, Christian thinking may well have also informed Tolkien’s thinking about death and incarnation. It is plausible that men in Tolkien’s universe are eventually raised in a reunion of fëar and hröar and a restoration of their natural state as incarnate beings.

Tolkien’s insistence that men and elves are both intrinsically incarnate has extensive implications for his mythology’s treatment of death. If men are incarnate beings in the same manner as elves, and death is truly Eru’s gift, it seems implausible that men’s fëar simply depart the world, never to be incarnated again. What ultimately happens to men after death is not explained by Tolkien, but Christian ideas and the thinking of his characters may provide insight.


Holy Bible. The New American Bible, Fireside Catholic Publishing, 2010.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter & Christopher            Tolkien, Houghton Mifflen, 2000, New York.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. HarperCollins E-Books, 2002.
Tolkien, J.R.R. Morgoth’s Ring. Edited by Christopher Tolkien, Houghton Mifflen, 1993, New York.