Posted in Christianity, Thoughts

Tolkien on Death

First of all, I would like to acknowledge a couple of my good friends who have blogs who wrote their own versions of my post last week. I intended it to be an easy post for a day I didn’t feel particularly inspired; apparently it was an interesting idea. You can find their posts here, here, and here.

Now, further up and further in.

In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes. – Benjamin Franklin

It’s no secret that I love The Lord of the Rings. But beyond that, I’ll read anything by J. R. R. Tolkien I can get my hands on. One of those books is The Silmarillion.

The Silmarillion is a bit different. Tolkien never had it published, partly because he was never content with it. It always needed improving. After he died, his son, Christopher, edited it and published it.

The Sil contains quite a wealth of information. It’s sort of Middle Earth’s history textbook (though it’s significantly more interesting than most history textbooks I’ve encountered). It is, admittedly, rather slow reading, especially the first time through. But, if you’re a fan of Tolkien, it’s well worth a second and third reading to see through the history and pull out the stories. But that’s kind of off topic.

In Middle Earth, Elves are immortal, while men are not. (Well, that’s the simple way to put it. Elves’ spirits can, in certain circumstances, be separated from their bodies, but they still remain on earth, while men’s souls do not. Complicated, I know, but you’ll need to know it later in this post.) It’s an excellent opportunity to explore the intricacies of death verses immortality. Tolkien brings out a rather unusual perspective. Look at these quotes:

The Doom (or the Gift) of Men is mortality, freedom from the circles of the world.

For it was not permitted to the Valar to withhold Death from him, which is the gift of Ilúvatar [God].

Then the Messengers said, ‘Indeed the mind of Ilúvatar concerning you is not known to the Valar, and he has not revealed all things that are to come. But this we hold to be true, that your home is not here, neither in the land of Aman nor anywhere within the Circles of the World. And the Doom of Men, that they should depart, was at first a gift of Ilúvatar. It became a grief to them only because coming under the shadow of Morgoth it seemed to them that they were surrounded by a great darkness, of which they were afraid; and some grew willful and proud and would not yield, until life was reft from them.’

We don’t often consider death a gift. We may occasionally say that someone is in a better place, but that is more a desire to find something good in something bad.

As a disclaimer, I’m not denying the fact that death (especially spiritual death) came into the world because man sinned. But I think Tolkien has a point: in such a world of sin, death is a gift. Not that it’s always painless or welcome or appreciated. But have you ever thought about the alternative, immortality – really thought about it?

I had the opportunity to do so a few years ago when I was writing a piece of fan-fiction based on a character from The Sil: Maglor, an Elf. He and his six brothers committed some pretty nasty crimes during the course of a long, drawn out war. The other six brothers “died” – their spirits were separated from their bodies. So I wrote a story about what happened to Maglor thousands of years later. He was the last elf who still lived in Middle Earth; the rest had gone over the sea. There was no one left around of the people he had known, and even the land had changed its shape in that much time.

None of that is very pleasant, but what really convinced me that immortality in this world isn’t something to be desired was the guilt he felt. He had trouble forgiving himself for the things he had done. Being the author, I had the opportunity to get in Maglor’s head and feel some of that with him. I’m young, and there are already things I’ve done that I don’t want to think about. Dealing with that for thousands of years? Ugh. Not pretty.

The idea of not wanting immortality on earth occasionally pops up in the Bible, especially in Job:

“Why is light given to him who is in misery,
and life to the bitter in soul,
who long for death, but it comes not,
and dig for it more than for hidden treasures,
who rejoice exceedingly
and are glad when they find the grave?
Why is light given to a man whose way is hidden,
whom God has hedged in?”
– Job 3:20-24

Paul talks about it, too:

My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. – Philippians 1:23b

Life on this earth, of course, has good points and bad points. Perhaps, as much as we don’t like to admit it, the same can be said for death.

2 thoughts on “Tolkien on Death

  1. Have you posted the Maglor story anywhere? I’ve wondered about what happened to him since reading the Sil last summer. I suppose Tolkien thought that having him singing by the sea forever made for a good tragic ending….

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