What are elves? Are they good, evil, or neutral? Are they closer to angels or human? They certainly look human, or at least, they look more human than creature. They are wise, but is that an inherent trait or is their wisdom a byproduct of their immortality? In Tolkien’s letter to Michael Straight, he writes, “The Elves represent, as it were, the artistic, aesthetic, and purely scientific aspects of the Humane nature raised to a higher level than is actually seen in Men. That is: they have a devoted love of the physical world, and a desire to observe and understand it for its own sake…” (Letters, 236). So, elves are grounded in “the physical world,” perhaps because they spend so much time “alive” in this world? There is really no need to think about spirituality and the after life because death is not an inevitable event. However, Tolkien also says elves are “artistic, aesthetic, and purely scientific,” implying a coldness to their wisdom, as if prolonged life drives away passion and emotion so characteristic of men.
Now, this begs the question: what are men? It seems like so many people wrote to Tolkien inquiring about the nature of elves, dwarves, and Hobbits in The Lord of the Rings, but no one really asks about the men. Perhaps this is because we are men ourselves, and therefore assume an inherent understanding of the men in Tolkien’s stories. However, I think stepping back and trying to understand men from an objective standpoint may be a useful exercise in breaking down Tolkien’s ideas about death and immortality.
If we look at men as just another race in Middle-Earth, it seems like they possess a will, a yearning to move forward that the other races do not have. Hobbits, for example, like (for the most part) to stay in the Shire, tend to their Hobbit-holes, and keep to themselves. Elves, as Tolkien states in his letter, “have a devoted love of the physical world” (236) and move relatively slowly compared to other races. Dwarves are perhaps a little more aggressive than men, but not in the same way. Dwarves work with (and under) the Earth, mining and gathering materials . Men, on the other hand, take on a more exploratory place on the Earth. In The Silmarillion, we see the movement of men westward, much to the chagrin of the Elves living in the western parts of Middle Earth. Most notably, Haleth “desired to move westward again; and though most of her people were against this counsel, she led them forth once more; and they went without help or guidance of the Eldar, and passing over Celon and Aros they journeyed in the perilous land between the Mountains of Terror and the Girdle of Melian” (146). For Haleth, there is a sense that progress must be made now rather than later, an urgency to move forward and accomplish. Even in the face of “perilous land” and “without help or guidance of the Eldar,” the men journey onwards. What makes men different in this sense? Perhaps we can say the dwarves do not have the same exploratory nature that humans do because they are not Children of Iluvatar. But what about the elves? To me, death is a driving factor in the separation between elves and men because it forces a sense of urgency in those who know death is coming.
The first sense of this urgency to do jumped out at me in the 17th chapter of “Quenta Silmarillion.” Tolkien writes an entire paragraph dedicated to kinship and lineage: “The sons of Haldor were Galdor and Gundor; the sons of Galdor were Hurin and Huor; and the son of Hurin was Turin the Bane of Glaurung…” (148) and so on and son on. Although we see familial descriptions in the Elven lore, it is not as long and as comprehensive as this paragraph. The fact that Tolkien felt it necessary to write out each generation points to the greater emphasis of lineage in human culture than elven culture. In a way, humans are creating their own kind of immortality through their children, which may be why familial relationships are so important; for the men, your children are a part of you that lives on after you die. I don’t think it is a far stretch to assert that men and elves alike would like to keep on living. It is just a matter of how that immortality is achieved that differs between these two races, whether that be physically (like the elves) or symbolically (like the humans).
Of course, this argument runs into some pitfalls when we consider death as a gift for men. In The Lord of the Rings, Faramir’s tale of men includes, “Kings made tombs more splendid than houses of the unchanging. Kings made tombs more splendid than houses of the living, and counted old names in the rolls of their descent dearer than the names of sons. Childless lords sat in aged halls musing in heraldry..” (678). Are we seeing the negative effects of men who yearn for death but must keep living? For the men with extended age, is that a blessing or a curse? On one hand, it is almost a best of both worlds situation because these men have more time on Earth and then die. However, without the urgency of a close death, do humans lose a sense of purpose? Because humans are not focused on the Earth and the physical world as much as elves, perhaps death is not just a gift, but a necessary part of humanity.