Friday, May 19, 2017

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.


  1. Nice analysis of Tolkien's use of the concepts of fear and hroar to talk about the embodied nature of Men and Elves. I agree: I do not think Tolkien ever quite worked out what place Death had in his mythology's insistence that it was natural for Men to die. It is odd that he insists as much because in Christian teaching, it is not clear whether Adam and Eve would have died had they not sinned. My sense is that this is another case of Tolkien's trying to have his cake and eat it, too: he does not want to parody Christian doctrine by having his characters know the history of salvation before it happens but neither does he want anything in his legendarium directly to conflict with Christian teaching. But he is also clearly struggling with why Death is the lot of humankind as against the desire for immortality. RLFB

  2. I am not certain that the tension here is quite so dire. Maybe I am giving Tolkien more credit than is due, but in my reading of Christian revelation on Death the same complexity exists in the Scriptures, so maybe Tolkien is simply reflecting this. After all, it is as true for the Christian as it is for an Elf that the Creator of the world did not intend Death to affect composite, Incarnate creatures, but that it is in fact a consequence of the “marring” of Creation. It seems, then, that at the heart of this difficulty regarding the destiny of men of both Earth and Arda is a single paradox: the problem of theodicy. How can evil (the sundering of soul and body) be an unintended symptom of a broken world, and simultaneously the gift of a good God without which the Resurrection is impossible? Such a question is beyond my reach here, but I wanted to suggest that this is hardly a simple issue even for the Catholic Church to address. So, while it is one perspective that Tolkien is trying to “have it both ways,” so to speak, the same charge might be levelled at Catholicism too. In another place in 1 Corinthians 15, cited above, Paul addresses death, “O Death, where is your victory?” and this sense of vindication and glory seems to summarize best the complex relationship for Tolkien and his faith with death.