We’ve been talking about the sense of doom that plagues humanity. Most notable here is the haunting anticipation of death. As Ernest Hemingway put it: “Every true story ends in death.” Is this the case?
The subject of death is a complex one within Tolkien’s writings, and in several letters he states that death is the theme of his work. He says that he did not write self-consciously with this theme, but only discovered its prevalence upon reading the work with criticism in mind.
It does loom quite large in the Silmarillion, specifically in the story of the Numenoreans (the great line of human kings from which Aragorn is descended). After the defeat of the evil Morgoth, the Numenoreans rise to ascendancy, building a glorious civilization.
After years of peace and prosperity, their fall comes about as a reaction to their fear of death. Though the Numeroreans live many years beyond a normal human life-span, they are unable to “escape from the doom of death that Iluvatar had set upon all Mankind.”
What begins as mere “unquiet” grows into murmuring, which in turn grows into defiance and finally into outright rebellion against the Powers. By the time Sauron the Deceiver comes to Numenor, he needs only stir up what has already been fomenting in the hearts of Men. Death is their great fear and great doom from which they labor to escape.
But it may be that it was not always so. From the beginning of the Silmarillion, death is spoken of as “the gift of Iluvatar.” The Valar send Elven Messengers to Numenor to reason with them to forsake their quest for immortality:
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 Iluvatar. 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….
There is a distinction here between death as originally intended and death as now corrupted by the shadow of Morgoth. In response to questions from his readers, Tolkien expounds on this theme of death as a gift:
But the view of the myth is that Death — the mere shortness of human life-span – is not a punishment for the Fall, but a biologically (and therefore also spiritually, since body and spirit are integrated) inherent part of Man’s nature. The attempt to escape it is wicked because ‘unnatural’, and silly because Death in that sense is the Gift of God (envied by the Elves), release from the weariness of Time. Death, in the penal sense, is viewed as a change in attitude to it: fear, reluctance. A good Númenórean died of free will when he felt it to be time to do so.
In Tolkien’s conception, death (as originally intended) is a normal part of the human life span, an inherent part of human nature. Just like flowers bloom for a season before dying, so too do humans. It is simply our created nature, and is in this sense, a gift.
But now there is also “Death, in the penal sense”, which means that when we think of death we cannot separate it from the darkness and uncertainty that surrounds it. What happens to us? Where do we go? Is there life beyond the grave?
When it comes to death, fallen humanity has no certain knowledge and no control. Our attitude towards death is thus full of fear, an unwillingness to let go, to grow old, an unwillingness to surrender, a desire to stay longer than the time marked out for us.
For Tolkien, this fear of death leads to great evil.
What do you think? Is there a difference between “fallen” death and “unfallen” death, death as part of nature and death in a penal sense?
Next: Elves Actually Aren’t Immortal and Why It Matters