On the topic of human mortality, our class has so far mostly focused on the topic of the demise of Númenor. Sauron’s manipulations encouraged the final King, Ar-Pharazôn, to quest to assault the Valar’s homeland in Valinor in the interest of achieving eternal life (the treasure promised by Sauron, but obviously not something the Valar would be willing –or able, for that matter—to provide) thanks to his overwhelming pride and boredom thanks to the relatively stagnant lives the Númenorians led. As the Valar couldn’t harm humans on basic principle, Manwë petitioned to Eru to respond; Eru’s response was on the extreme side, resulting in the absolute destruction of the rebel Númenorians, as well as the removal of Aman from the greater Arda.
Now, what intrigued me in this story is that the reader never really gets to see what would happen if a human were to gain functional immortality. While the threat of the concept is obviously enough to force Eru’s hand to essentially take the nuclear option, no specifics are really given in the Akallabêth. However, much as in his temptation of Ar-Pharazôn and the Númenorians, Sauron continues his temptation of immortality towards mankind in a particularly demonstrable and notable avenue: the creation of the Nazgûl. This example illustrates the fate that Eru was so desperate to avoid in his destruction of Númenor, and how death is considered a gift to Men from Eru, rather than a curse.
Throughout the span of the greater Lord of the Rings saga, Tolkien makes his views on death rather clear: by embracing its inevitability and appreciating the freedom it provides, Men are able to live their lives to the fullest. The most basic (and pervasive) of contrasts Tolkien employs is the disparity between the lives of Elves and Men, as the Elves are provided with the Gift of immortality, and the Men are provided with the inverse. From the Silmarillion, “The doom of the Elves is to be immortal, to love the beauty of the world, to bring it to full flower with their gifts of delicacy and perfection, to last while it lasts, never leaving it even when ‘slain’, but returning... The Doom (or the Gift) of Men is mortality, freedom from the circles of the world” (The Silmarillion, preface).
The Nazgûl are objectively some of the most horrifying characters in Tolkien’s menagerie, on both a physical and metaphysical level. On a visual level, the Nazgûl were largely described as wildly unsettling black-robed creatures; the second Frodo sees them in the Ring world, however, their true shapes come forth. “Immediately, though everything else remained as before, dim and dark, the shapes became terribly clear. He was able to see beneath their black trappings. There were five tall figures: two standing on the lip of the dell, three advancing. In their white faces burned keen and merciless eyes; under their mantles were long grey robes; upon their grey hairs were helms of silver; in their haggard hands were swords of steel” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Ch11). These are identifiably human creatures, except explicitly “haggard” with “burn[ing] eyes”. This depiction ties deeply into the recurrent description of the malicious Undead throughout human mythology, playing to our fears of invisible and desperate predators in the night.
On a deeper level, the Nazgûl operate on pure horror as well, as “one by one, sooner or later, according to their native strength and to the good or evil of their wills in the beginning, they fell under the thralldom of the ring that they bore and of the domination of the One which was Sauron's. And they became forever invisible save to him that wore the Ruling Ring, and they entered into the realm of shadows. The Nazgûl were they, the Ringwraiths, the Enemy's most terrible servants; darkness went with them, and they cried with the voices of death” (The Silmarillion, Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age). These creatures are literally death incarnate. As Sauron prevents their fëar from transcending to where Eru designed them to go, the Nazgûl are abominations constantly in agony, as their necessary fate is denied from them again and again. "A mortal, Frodo, who keeps one of the Great Rings, does not die, but he does not grow or obtain more life, he merely continues, until at last every minute is a weariness. And if he often uses the Ring to make himself invisible, he fades: he becomes in the end invisible permanently, and walks in the twilight under the eye of the dark power that rules the Rings. Yes, sooner or later - later, if he is strong or well-meaning to begin with, but neither strength nor good purpose will last - sooner or later, the dark power will devour him" (The Fellowship of the Ring, Ch2). This consumptive fate is provided through no real fault of the ring’s owners on their own, as no matter how strong the human was, initially, their estrangement from death at the hand of Sauron drives the user absolutely mad, transforming them into the twisted and horrible beings the readers know as the Nazgûl.
Beyond the obvious “cosmic firestarter” connotations, Sauron seems to perhaps have a deeper purpose in this corruption: a deep-seated envy of the Gift of mortality. Tolkien claims, re: Men, that “Death is their fate, the gift of Ilúvatar, which as Time wears even the Powers shall envy” (The Silmarillion, Quenta Silmarillion, Ch1). Once Morgoth was exiled from Arda’s plane of existence, Sauron, who had previously only operated under a Master’s orders (as Maiar were essentially created as servants to the Valar), was cut adrift in Middle Earth, as the only immortal of his stature left to operate freely. This situation seems to scream a “misery loves company” –esque scenario to me, as Sauron would likely have wanted to surround himself with beings equally as tortured as he was. The only way to exceed this was to truly break living creatures in a cosmic sense, partially as a way to create servants and partially as a way to further insult the Creator that he absolutely despised, which led to his effective immortalization of the Nazgûl.
Tolkien, J. R. R., and Christopher Tolkien. The Silmarillion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. Print.
Tolkien, J. R. R. The Lord of the Rings. New York: Mariner/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. Print.