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



  1. I think you hit on something that I’ve been struggling with really well here: the fact that physical death and the pain it causes, something that is shared by both races, are what is feared, not the end result of where the soul goes. The great gift of Illuvatar to Men is not the death of the body, but the departure of the soul from Arda. The death of the body is still something that is painful both to the person who dies and their loved ones. My problem with this is that the Numenoreans and the Line of Kings are blessed with unusually long lifespans, living into the hundreds of years old. The reason why this is a blessing is because the pain of death is delayed and the amount of time spent in the world is longer. Those with longer lifespans have longer stories, though their stories still come to an end. Continuing this out to its logical conclusion, the longer one’s lifespan is, the better off they are, and the shorter it is, the worse off. This seems contrary to the gift of Illuvitar, however, where the departure of the soul is a positive thing. If having your soul depart Arda is a great gift, then it would seem that the shorter your time in the world and the quicker you can have your soul depart, the better it would be.

  2. Nicely observed on the role of jealousy in Morgoth's corruption of Men and Elves. I think this gets closest to what Tolkien was doing with his contrast between the two races: each has something the other envies, and it is the envy and jealousy that poisons them, not death or immortality as such. RFLB