Life, Death, and Immortality in Tolkien’s Works




J.R.R. Tolkien has a large body of works that span over several decades pertaining his fictional universe, its inhabitants, and its geography. One can find stories of love, pain, internal conflicts and of good versus evil, but one of the most prominent reoccurring themes in all of his works is the struggle of the meanings and effects of life, death, and immortality. In this article, I will analyze life, death, and immortality specifically between elves and men in Arda, Tolkien’s world. Tolkien created nuanced species with complex ranges of emotions and intelligence. In some instances, like the conversation between Finrod and Andreth in Morgoth’s Ring (2015), the struggle of knowing and not knowing the possibilities of death conjured up some strong feelings and attitudes towards the Valar and cause some misunderstandings between species.
Before going further into this conversation, it is critical to first understand Tolkien’s own experiences with death and how they may have impacted his views on immortality and its significance to his work. Tolkien’s work was not always allegorical but it did fall under some constructivist tropes. Death and its effects played a role in Tolkien’s life from a very young age. When he was just four years old, he lost his father due to complications from a fever. Shortly after, at 12 years old, his mother passed away from diabetes (Doughan 2016). He was sent to live with a very close friend of his mother’s, Father Francis, who raised Tolkien and his brother Hilary, as a Roman Catholic. As a young man, around the time Tolkien was beginning to piece together Arda (the fictional world that his books took place in), Tolkien served in World War I at the Battle of Somme, one of the bloodiest battles of the war. He experienced first-hand sacrifices and death and how these things disproportionally affect people of different socioeconomic levels, contributing to his formation of the cultural imaginary.
Dealing with the death of both parents as an adolescent and the deaths of many of his friends in the war, Tolkien devoted a lot of his time to understanding the inner workings of death and the philosophies surrounding it. In Roman Catholicism, death is not viewed negatively. It is viewed as an entry into a second, immortal life with their God and loved ones that have passed, for the soul and the body are not the same though they reside together on Earth. In war, death is a necessity for the advancement of a particular side. There are conflicting moral issues with war and Catholicism, considering that “Thou shall not kill” is one of the ten commandments. Although Tolkien struggled with the meaning of death, he never came to a conclusion.
In his books, discussions about life, death, and immortality between Elves and Men arise in a number of different ways. Some came about due to divorces and marriage issues, others were just philosophical debates between friends of different species. In Morgoth’s Ring (2015), there is a tale told of the stories of Finwë and Míriel. Finwë and Míriel were both Eldar who were thought to be immortal—in a letter that Tolkien wrote to Robert S. Murray (Letter 156), Tolkien notes that immortality is not eternal but instead measured by the duration in time of Earth; it is not true immortality—but needed to figure out the details of death. The Eldar are immortal within the realm of Arda and are comprised of a gendered fëa (spirit) and a hröa (body). The fëa cannot be broken by any external force or action but the hröa can be hurt or destroyed.

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According to the grand theme of Eru (the supreme being that designed Arda), the death of the hröa does not abrogate the destiny of the fëa of the Eldar to remain in Arda until its end. The case of Finwë and Míriel was the very first of its kind which is why so much detailed discussion needed to take place regarding the events. Birth-giving is a very large ordeal for Eldar. It takes a lot of their spirit and body to produce a child which is why they don’t have them very often. After Míriel birthed Fëanor, she was consumed of body and spirit and wished to be pardoned from the labors of living. She willingly separated her spirit from her body and chose to go to the Halls of Waiting where Mandos, a Valar, resided. This was the first willing separation of spirit and body that occurred in Arda to the best of our knowledge.
This separation was unheard of and considered unnatural. Eldar were also comprised of hron, or matter, of Arda. To want to separate and leave something that one is a part of and something that is loved so dearly was considered a rash judgment lacking in hope. The issue that takes center stage in this particular situation is what happens to marriage and divorce in times of death. Permanent marriage was considered a part of Elvish nature and to interrupt that caused a stir. Mandos ultimately declared that Marriage [of the Eldar] is by and for the Living and for the duration of life (Tolkien 217-227). Because the fëa are immortal, in this particular case, death is the separation of fëa from hröa. Marriage is considered to be largely of the body but endures in the will of the fëa so when one partner is disbodied (willingly or unwillingly) the marriage is not considered terminated but in abeyance because their union is still of spirit.
The case of Finwë and Míriel was settled by two options: the will of the dead or the doom of Mandos. The Will of the Dead is a declaration of the disbodied fëa that they will never again return to the life of the body. The Doom of Mandos occurs when the fëa is not permitted to return. In order for Finwë to remarry, Míriel had to proclaim that she had no desire to return back to Arda. I use the phrase “return back” because to the furthest extent of our knowledge on the species of Arda, Elves are the only species that can be truly reincarnated.

“Elves Leave Middle Earth” — Araniart; via Wikimedia Commons

The reincarnation of Elves is also a murky topic. There is not a clear assertion as to what really happens because, in true Tolkien fashion, this issue was sorted and resorted for decades without any real concrete absolutes. In “Laws and Customs Among the Eldar” in Morgoth’s Ring, Tolkien states that the Eldar believed each Elf Child is given their spirit by Eru. “Now the Eldar hold that to each elf-child a new fëa is given, not akin to the fear of the parents (save in belonging to the same order and nature); and this fëa either did not exist before birth or is the fëa of one that is re-born” (Tolkien 220). He quickly sees the fallacy within this statement because just later down the page he adds a new argument. “’If the fëar of children were normally derived from the parents and akin to them, then re-birth would be unnatural and unjust. For it would deprive the second parents, without consent, of one half of their parentage, intruding into their kin a child half alien” (Tolkien 220).
Keep in mind that these are just opinions of the Eldar. Tolkien points out that a houseless fëa that chose to come back to life could only do so through childbirth because the provision of a body for a spirit and the union of the spirit with hrondo was committed by Eru to the Children [Elves] (Tolkien 221). Douglas Charles Kane points out in Arda Reconstructed: The Creation of the Published Silmarillion (2009) that even with that certainty, Tolkien did further change his mind about the topic of reincarnation. “In a later text, he [J.R.R Tolkien] later rejects the idea of Elvish rebirth as a child but indicates that it could be retained in The Silmarillion as a false notion of Mannish origin (Kane 131). Assuming that rebirth was not a frequent occurrence because of, as aforementioned, the nature of the relationship between Arda and the Elves, the issue of the unjust rebirth into another family was certainly not an issue that Tolkien dedicated too much time to. The debate of whether immortality was a good or an evil was, however, a curiosity of Tolkien’s.
In the “Athrabeth Finrod Ah Andreth” a debate is brought up between an Elf and his friend, a wise woman who coincidentally was in love with Finrod’s brother. This debate was mainly about the misconceptions and misunderstandings that Elves have of men’s afterlives and those that men have about the immortality of the elves. Although it’s already been established that Elves are not truly immortal, men believed they were. They also discussed the lack of hope and how that plays into the bitterness that men have towards death and the parting of themselves with Arda. The shadow of Melkor should be clarified here as the phrase comes up in this specific body of work a number of times. Melkor cannot create death nor has he cheated death. What he does is use his cunning and words to induce the fear of death and of unknown immortality. He also used his status as a Valar to entice distrust of the Valar and of their plans.
According to the “Athrabeth Finrod Ah Andreth”, men did not believe that their bodies were supposed to naturally be short lived. Andreth tells Finrod that the brevity of their lifespan is not their true nature but have become that way due to Melkor (Tolkien 309). Andreth says to Finrod, “No heart of Man Is content. All passing and dying is a grief to it; but if the withering is less soon then that is some amendment, a little lifting of the shadow (Tolkien 307). She then goes on to say that Finrod does not understand the plight of men because Elves never have to know death for all men die and nothing is known about what happens thereafter. When an Elf’s spirit is separated from their body, they go into the Halls of Waiting with Mandos and could stay there or be reincarnated. “Otherwise it is with us: dying we die, and we go out to no return. Death is an uttermost end, a loss irremediable. And it is abominable; for it is also a wrong that is done to us (Tolkien 311). The mindset or view that death is an uttermost end shows a lack of hope which plays a large part in the way death and immortality is perceived by men.
Hope is what absolves the pain of not knowing what lies ahead in the afterlife and when this subject arose in “Athrabeth Finrod Ah Andreth”, tempers flared, to say the least. When Finrod asked Andreth if she had any hope, she told him no men did not have hope. It was then that Finrod broke down hope into two distinct categories: Amdir and Estel. Amdir is the “looking up” or the expectation of good. Estel is “trust” in Eru himself rather than in any plan of the afterlife (Tolkien 320). It was here that Andreth expressed one of the greatest concerns of men: that Eru and the Valar did not care about Men and that is why they are not immortal. They feel abandoned by the Valar whom they have very little to no contact with. Without amdir or estel, death is an unfortunate, hopeless end.

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Although just opinions between two species, it gives important insight as to why men feel like they have no hope in death and why Elves are calmer when it comes to death.
Andreth was hurting from a recent loss of her grandfather and also because the Elf that she was in love with would not be with her due to a war in which he was partaking. Eldar and Men rarely fell in love with the other because the pain of parting would be too much to bear. There are two distinct instances where humans and Elves fell in love with each other in which the parameters of immortality and death were negotiated. One is the tale of Beren and Lúthien, the other of Aragorn and Arwen who are coincidentally descendants of Beren and Lúthien. To want to escape from death is not just something that happens in Arda but also in real life. People do not want to die so they come up with all kinds of things (cryogenics, cloning and the like) as a way of preservation.
The shifts of lifespans and the interference of the Valar in these instances made death and even more complex phenomena. In “Of Beren and Lúthien” in The Silmarillion (2001) the tale is told of a man and Elf-woman. This particular story is dear to Tolkien because like the story he and his wife had very strict upbringings and he had his own personal experience with overbearing fathers being raised by an actual Roman Catholic father. Tolkien even went so far as to have Beren engraved on his tombstone and Lúthien engraved on his wife’s tombstone. Beren first met Lúthien when she was dancing and singing in the woods and a spell came over him and he was immediately in love. Due to the difference in their species, Lúthien’s father, Thingol was not pleased with her decision to be in love with this man for he felt that it would demean her because she is a special kind of elf; half-elven and half Maiar. In order for Beren to be acceptable in Thingol’s eyes, he ordered a seemingly impossible mission from Beren; to steal one of the silmarils from the crown of Morgoth.
With help from Lúthien, Beren achieved this impossible task and lived with Lúthien in love until their death. This is where the lines of mortality and immortality become blurred. Because Lúthien was so full of sorrow being torn from her true love — he on the shores of the outer sea and she in the halls of Mandos—she wept and pleaded before Mandos. Mandos (a Valar) was so moved by her sorrow and her song that he brought up her matters to Manwë (the chief Valar) because he could not change the fate or the doom of men and Manwë reveled the will of Eru. Lúthien was given two options: with the first option she could dwell in Valimar among the Valar and forget all the griefs that her life had known (here Beren could not join her because the Valar cannot take away the gift Eru bestowed upon men which is death), or she could forego her immortality and go back to Middle-Earth and remain with Beren without certainty of life or joy (Tolkien 187); she chose the latter.

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Rob Chandler via Wikimedia Commons

The problem with foregoing immortality to become mortal is that it seems a bit like special treatment or favoritism of Eru to the Eldar being that they can choose their fates. From the readings, this is not so, Beren and Lúthien were an exception to the rule, not the rule itself. Tolkien sidesteps this by saying that death is a gift to men that cannot be withheld from them for it is given by Eru. Immortality is a gift and a curse to Elves because the longer they stay in Arda, the wearier they become. What men don’t understand is that mortality and immortality are not heritable. Because human souls long to be elsewhere, if they remained immortal, it would be a painful curse for they would always long to be somewhere else yet they would be confined to the space in which they are.
Aragorn and Arwen suffered a similar fate and although Arwen is like Lúthien in looks, character, and fate, she is not a reincarnated version of Lúthien for Lúthien indeed died a mortal death and cannot be reincarnated so she is forever lost. In Appendix A of The Return of the King (1978), “The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen” tells more about their fates. Like Beren, Aragorn first saw Arwen when she was dancing and singing in the woods and he called her “Tinúviel” because he thought he was seeing Lúthien reincarnated. Arwen’s father was not pleased with her choice of love to a mortal man and thought Aragorn beneath her so he sent Aragorn to achieve an impossible task before he could gain Arwen’s hand in marriage; Aragorn had to become both King of Gondor and of Arnor. In true heroic fashion, he did just that and married Arwen at the end of the Third Age. Arwen chose to renounce her immortality and chose mortality and lived out the rest of her days with Aragorn (Tolkien 343). Only after she had experienced loss as a mortal first-hand did she understand why it was such great sorrow for men to part with their loved ones. The cause of disconnect and confusion is why Elves even have the right to renounce their own immortality when men cannot escape their gift. Technically, the Valar do not completely abrogate free will here because they give options, a kind of metaphysical libertarian version of free will.
Murkier still are the lines between immortality and mortality when the offspring of Elves and humans are involved. In the drafted letter to Peter Hastings in September of 1954, Tolkien talked briefly about the afterlives of hybrid offspring. “The view is that the Half-elven have a power of (irrevocable) choice, which may be delayed but not permanently, which kin’s fate they will share” (Tolkien 209). The offspring can choose to be either mortal or Elven but their decisions affect their entire lineage thereafter. Some can be longaevus (of long life) but still mortal.
In another tale of unique exception within The Silmarillion, Tuor and Idril come into place and even though their tale shares some similarities with aforementioned tales, it is unique in its own right. Tuor was a human man who was taken in as a foster child of the Grey-Elves and Idril was an Elf-woman. When Tuor and Idril were married, it was only the second case of its kind where Elves and men were joined together in this union (the first being Beren and Lúthien). Even though Tuor had come to love all things Elven, including the people, in his older days, his heart yearned for the sea and so he built a ship and named it Eärrámë, which means Sea-Wing. He and Idris set sail upon the ship and went into the west. It is not verified true but it is said that he alone joined the race of the Eldar men and was released from the fate of Men (Tolkien 245). In Letter 153, Tolkien writes that this was also a rare exception to the rule granted by Eru and not the rule.
I argue that there are too many exceptions. Not to err on the side of an either-or fallacy, I understand the complexities of each case and the ramifications surrounding the interchangeability of immortality and mortality. However, granting permission to exceptions one time will make you more susceptible to granting permissions thereafter. Tolkien loved his Elves a bit too much and in doing so, gave them too much of what they wanted and failed to adhere to his own rules and guidelines thus complicating immortality and mortality even further and putting more strain on the relationships between Elves and Men and between the Valar and Men.
In all of the aforementioned texts, Tolkien works through death, life, immortality and its complexities but not to any real conclusion. The conversations and philosophies about life and death are more important than a solution or a conclusion. In fact, it’s not having the conclusion that the conversation of death is all about. It is the unknown after the known and that is what is feared most. Leaving the stories unfinished and the possibilities alive is what gives the stories their longevity. They will be talked about and looked over and studied meticulously and each person will come to their own conclusion about it. It’s not a black and white thing. Like almost everything in Tolkien’s work, there is a gray area. The only thing concrete about death and immortality is that without hope, it is all a burden.

Many that live deserve death, and some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. — Gandalf to Frodo in “The Fellowship of the Ring” by J.R.R. Tolkien