Friday, May 19, 2017

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 


  1. I largely agree with the points you make about the necessity of accepting one's immutable fate in Tolkien's mythology, but I would like to point out a line that appears just a little ways into the Silmarillion proper, on page 41 of my edition, where it is written that Iluvatar willed that Men alone "should have a virtue to shape their life, amid the powers and chances of the world, beyond the Music of the Ainur, which is as fate to all things else." This passage, I think, is essential to understanding why, exactly, death is considered a gift in Tolkien's world. It is specifically because humans can die that they alone are free from the constraints of fate, because there is some part of their existence which, incarnated or not, is beyond Arda. Of course, because Men still have their genesis in the Music, there is a question of how complete this freedom actually is, or indeed how much freedom Iluvatar, by his very nature, is able to grant, but there does at least seem to be an intent here on Tolkien's part to equate death with a kind of freedom.
    —Nathaniel Eakman

  2. I think you put your finger on the real questions Tolkien is struggling with in trying to understand the difference between Elves and Men: it has to do with faith in God. The Elves have seen the Valar and spoken with them, which makes the Men jealous and mistrustful in a way the Elves are not. Is the question so much about Death then as it is lack of knowledge? This fits with the problem of fate, which as Nate points out, is complicated for the Men. Often the characters (especially Gandalf) mention things being "fated or by chance"--somehow both and neither. Which again comes down to knowledge of God's will and the role of free will in approaching Death. RLFB

  3. The important issue at hand here is the concept of death. Melkor and Sauron can be viewed as lords of death, but for some reason, the elves do not wish to be immortal. They yearn for the gift of death. There may be two different kinds of deaths being discussed here. One is the death of others, and the second is the death of self. Melkor and Sauron do everything to establish their own power and destroys anyone who threatens their goal. Conversely, the elves seek a death of self. This death of self, however, is not an end but a beginning to something new and greater. Galadriel gives Sam the gift of earth with the seed of a Mallorn tree in it. Like this seed, which dies and gives life to the entire Shire, the elves also yearn to end their lives no matter how pleasant because they know that something greater is out there. Being immortal as an elf is living in a constant state of mediocrity.

    Peter L. (Blog post #5)