Though there is a small chapter devoted to Dwarves, the Silmarillion is mainly concerned with two races: Elves and Men.
Hopefully by now Peter Jackson’s Trilogy has gotten enough cultural traction so that we have some idea of what Tolkien has in mind when he says Elves. He does not mean this:
Neither are Tolkien’s elves as androgynous as Jackson portrayed them. (When I watched the Two Towers movie, and the Elves arrived at Hem’s Deep, someone behind me whispered, “are those the fairy people?”)
In Tolkien’s vision, Elves were beings of power and wisdom, a picture of unfallen humanity. Humans believed Elves to be immortal, though in actuality their life-span was bound up with the life span of the world. When the world passes away, so will Elves. And what then? No one knew.
Ironically, Men envy the Elves because of their “deathlessness”. And the Elves envy Men, viewing mortality as a gift, because it means escape from weariness and the circles of the world. Both races thus represent Tolkien’s thematic commentary on Death and Immortality:
“the mystery of the love of the world in the hearts of a race ‘doomed’ to leave and seemingly lose it [Men]; the anguish in the hearts of a race ‘doomed’ not to leave it [Elves], until its whole evil-aroused story is complete.”
While humanity strives to make their lives endure in futility, Elves strive to make their works endure with equal futility. The former is the doom of mortality, the latter of deathlessness.
This dynamic of death and deathlessness is played out most memorably in the story of Aragorn and Arwen. Aragorn’s doom is to die; Arwen’s is to watch as all that she loves diminishes and dies. Tolkien’s message (communicated mythically) is “the hideous peril of confusing true ‘immortality’ with limitless serial longevity.”
Think of the weariness of Gollum, who has been stretched beyond his ordained lifespan by Sauron’s ring. To Tolkien, Death is not ultimately an enemy, because “serial longevity” would mean the weariness of enduring in a world in which all else is passing away.
Does this contradict the Christian vision of death as a punishment for sin? Tolkien did not believe so. He points out that the idea of death as a gift is an “Elvish view”, meaning that from the perspective of the Elves, freedom from the circles of world is enviable. Furthermore, however death came to be humanity’s fate, if accepted it can become a gift: “a divine ‘punishment’ is also a divine ‘gift’, if accepted, since its object is ultimate blessing, and the supreme inventiveness of the Creator will make ‘punishments’ (that is changes of design) produce a good not otherwise to be attained.”
Recall that in the Genesis narrative, humanity is expelled from Eden lest they take also from the Tree of Life, and live forever in a sinful state. Expulsion thus is judgment mingled with mercy, and death can be received as a gift for to live forever in a broken world would be a fate far worse.
Next: My favorite passage in Tolkien!