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)