Tolkien and the Gift of Death
By Fulvio Di Blasi
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, human beings exist alongside many other intelligent creatures. Some of them, like Gandalf or Tom Bombadil, are like incarnated angels, higher in dignity to merely earthly creatures. Others are more like fancy fairies from a typical fantasy world, which are more supposed to stimulate the readers’ imagination than to offer a direct fiction-competing version of the human being. Of course, every earthly intelligent creature is ultimately an image of the human being, but, in the case of hobbits, dwarfs, or orcs, the similarities relate more to specific virtues and vices than to humanity as such.
There is one creature, though, that is not an incarnated angel and that seems to be conceived as the perfect, higher, almost transfigured version of the human being. This creature is earthly and human-like, but it is more powerful and beautiful than mere human beings, and it is immortal. I’m talking about the elves, of course, who can be killed, by violent death or by very strong moral pains, but who never truly die. When they “die,” they abide somehow in a special temporary place for a while, but they eventually return to the earth.
Many people, especially among those who prefer to watch the movie version of the Lord of the Rings rather than read it, believe that, indeed, the elves are higher in dignity than human beings. However, a correct reading of Tolkien, and especially the Silmarillion, reveals that this belief is seriously mistaken.
The Silmarillion is a cosmogony of Tolkien’s fantasy world. It is a collection of short stories telling of events and people from the past, way before the story of the Lord of the Rings took place. In fact, it begins with the very creation of the world. Unfortunately, it is not complete and we will never know if Tolkien would have published it this way because he died before he had the opportunity to do so. His son Christopher put the stories together and edited the book. Maybe Tolkien would have rewritten or modified some of the stories, or added others, or revisited the entire structure of the cosmogony. In any case, this book narrates also of the coming to be of both the elves and the human beings.
Among other things, in the Silmarillion Tolkien explains that the elves tend to dislike human beings. To them, human beings are inferior, strange, and doomed people, who reach their highest potential and development in a lifetime that is extremely short and insignificant, and then immediately die and decay. To make matters worse, nobody knows where humans go when they die. The elves detest the idea of a human and an elf falling in love, since they believe it would be a “step down” for the elf, a relinquishing of his or her superior dignity.
Tolkien sees things differently. By his estimation, not just the elves, but even the highest among the angels at the end of time will envy human beings for their destiny. Indeed, humans received from God—called “Ilúvatar” in Tolkien’s cosmogony— the greatest among all possible gifts, which coincides with what the elves most abhor and do not understand: that is, death. It is revealing that Tolkien calls the greatest of the gifts what to the elves is a meaningless, doomed end early end of human existence. Yet, for Tolkien death is the door to a higher existence. Unlike the elves, human beings are made for something that goes way beyond the earthly reality that we experience every day.
The elves are like Greek mythological gods. They are powerful because they represent the earth, but their power, like the power of a volcano, is circumscribed by the way of existence of this earth. Human beings, by contrast, are foreign to this earth. They are called “the strangers” because they don’t belong here. God “willed that the hearts of Men should seek beyond the world and should find no rest therein… the sons of Men die indeed, and leave the world; wherefore they are called the Guests, or the Strangers” (the Silmarillion).
Human beings have a twofold nature. On the one hand, they live on this earth, but on the other hand they must aim at something beyond it. Tolkien explains that, at the beginning of time, humans used to live longer. But then they developed excessive attachments to the world, forgetting their higher destiny after death. So, God shortened their lives so that they could see death better and be reminded of their higher destiny. So, their real destiny lies beyond death. This is why death is their greatest gift, because it is at the same time the sign of the higher destiny and the path to reach it. God did not want human beings merely for the bodily existence that we experience in this life, so He wanted us to constantly look at death to aim at what lies beyond it.
In Tolkien’s philosophy, death is a sign of our transcendent nature. It is fascinating how much Tolkien’s cosmology matches the image of human existence that we have been developing in Western civilization since Greek Philosophy. Greek philosophers always thought that there is something divine in us, something that belongs to a reality higher than us, and that connects us to that reality. If we don’t think of ourselves as transcendent beings, we miss the most important aspect of our existence, which is our aspiration for eternal life and eternal happiness: the awareness that our ultimate fulfilment is to come after death. We cannot achieve our full completion on this earth, but we are supposed to deserve it through the lives we live here.