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)


  1. Beautifully argued. You do an excellent job making clear how Tolkien portrays the Elves' immortality as a lengthening sorrow. Which begs the question: why did it need to be? There is an Augustinian element to this way of thinking about existence, that it is fallen, but need this be a given? It is interesting what you say about Glorfindel not being given sufficient time to recover in the Halls of Mandos before he is reincarnated--as if incarnation of itself is necessarily sorrowful. And yet, in the Music of Ainur, that sorrow held great beauty. Would the Elves' experience of beauty have been lessened without the sorrow? RLFB

  2. First of all, I totally agree with what RLFB said regarding the argument of your post, and I don't disagree with anything you said. One thing I think you could have also included, however, is how death as the unknown (as you claim in your third paragraph) relates to our concept of the hero in our "Nature-Culture-Monsters" schema.

    That is not to say that elves cannot be heroes, as they clearly play that role against Sauron and Morgoth in the earlier ages. Yet in the Third Age--specifically, in the Lord of the Rings--there are two heroes (as we discussed in class today), each depicting a different heroic archetype. Aragorn is the romantic kingly archetype, while Frodo is the Everyman. Yet both of these characters are mortal. If we use the hero schema from several classes ago, it is the hero's job to go out into the unknown: to learn and to slay monsters. In this, Aragorn's willingness to face death certainly fits with his heroism in this respect. He is willing to go out and face the final unknown, the final monster.

    Frodo's trip to the Grey Havens then makes him seem somehow less heroic. By sailing away to the Undying Lands, Frodo is shielded from death. He does not complete his heroic journey--which I think fits his character. At the end, Frodo is so hollowed out by the Ring's will (whoever phrased it that way in class really captured Frodo's state by the end of RotK, I think), that he has ceased to be the "Hero" in the conventional sense. He cannot complete his quest; he cannot destroy the Ring, he does not get the "happily ever after" in the Shire as Aragorn gets; and he is rescued from the final monster and the final unknown of death.

  3. I think another aspect of the elves' immortality is the resulting degree of responsibility laid onto each individual elf, in contrast with the sort of deeds expected of the average human. Being a fantasy epic, we can expect most of the central characters of the story to be involved in the great motions of the world; but being the firstborn, the elves are the trailblazers and, therefore, the most collectively accountable of the races. Their extended lifespans are required to fulfill their needed position in the world story. Living through three ages of the world caused them to suffer, but in a twisted sort of way, that suffering allowed them to individually become great.

    I'm not trying to claim that immortality is a prerequisite for greatness, or that the elves have it good - like the above, I absolutely love your treatment of the question of death. I suppose I find it distressing that death should be the ultimate impetus for change, rather than an inherent desire to make things better. If that is the purpose of the humans of Tolkien's world - to set the world story in motion, after the Valar and Eldar have set the stage - it is an honor enough to render the title of 'Gift' an understatement. But it still leaves me with an uneasy feeling.

    -AJ Corso

  4. I love your argument on the sorrows of immortality. As you describes, a lot of that sorrow has to do with the situation that everything around them decays and dies while they live on. I suppose elves living in Valinor and Eressea would be in a much different situation, where they are surrounded by beautiful things that do not die (bad things do occasionally happen, but much rarer). Therefore, the exile of Noldor from Valinor (analogous to heaven) is indeed a Fall (almost a punishment, though they seek it themselves), yet interestingly it is through this Fall that everything is redeemed: without the valor of Noldors, and especially without Earendil, in whom runs the blood of three kindreds, Morgoth would likely come to dominate the entire middle-earth, and grey elves and men would live in darkness and misery. From the sorrow and burden of the exile elves springs a joy as poignant as grief—Eucatastrophe. The Vanyar and Teleri might have had less sorrow in general, but their stories are not remembered.

    In response to Lucas, I do not think Frodo is “shielded from death” by sailing to the West. The valars cannot take away the gift of Iluvatar and change the fate of men. I think he have to go there because his pain is too much for him to bear on middle-earth, but he should die eventually. I don’t think Frodo is a failure either, in the sense that every great man fails sometimes. To forgive him is to forgive ourselves, who are naturally imperfect and need “grace” to complete our Quest.

    - Kay Liao