The topic of death is one of the most important pillars that Tolkien’s mythology is supported by. He used different approaches to explore death in his writings, careful to show various aspects of this delicate topic. Escape from death as a notion was one of the most important purposes of fantasy and fairy-tales in Tolkien’s view. He calls it the Great Escape in On Fairy-Stories. “Fairy-stories provide many examples and modes of this—which might be called the genuine escapist, or (I would say) fugitive spirit” (1), Tolkien writes. But this perspective, this need for the Great Escape, is human. What if we walk in Elvish shoes for a while and look at death from their point of view?

“The Human-stories of the elves”,  Tolkien goes on,  “are doubtless full of the Escape from Deathlessness” (2). He develops a similar idea in The Silmarillion, which states that with time even the Valar will envy the doom of mortal Men. Written from the Elvish perspective, the narrative calls death the Gift of Ilúvatar. So what the Elves see as a blessing, Men see as a curse. We can say, of course, that the grass is always greener on the other side and in all times living beings wish for something they cannot have. Shall we look at immortality through the Elvish eyes and see why they believe death to be a gift?

By their nature the Elves are bound to Arda, with their bodies being made of  “the stuff of Earth”. They live as long as the world endures. What is often called immortality is, in fact, serial longevity. Tolkien writes in On Fairy-Stories:

But our stories cannot be expected always to rise above our common level. They often do. Few lessons are taught more clearly in them than the burden of that kind of immortality, or rather endless serial living, to which the “fugitive” would fly.

(On Fairy-Stories)

What Men crave for and desire with all their hearts is, in fact, a burden. More accurately, this serial longevity becomes a burden with time. The Elves age very slowly, but during the course of their long lives they know death of wounds or grief, though not, like Men, of old age, and they fear death, too. Elvish ageing shows in their ever-growing weariness of the world. One of the best descriptions of this state was provided by the Hobbit Bilbo Baggins, who experienced such longevity due to his possession of the One Ring. He compared his unnaturally long life with being “all thin, sort of stretched, […] like butter that has been scraped over too much bread” (Fellowship of the Ring, p. 42). So probably that is exactly how the Elves could feel many thousand years into their lives.

As the Sun went up into the skies, it marked the beginning of the waning of the Elves and the start of the dominion of Men. This has several aspects to it, none of which are in the Elves’ favour. Being bound to the world, the Elves love it and do so deeply. However, their love is often sorrowful, and is growing even more so with time. The world is changing, and these changes are not comforting to the Elves. In their opinion, Men cause grief to Manwë and mostly resemble Melkor, notorious for his ability to cause destruction to everything he sets his hands to.

Everything the Elves hold dear is destroyed and altered by Men. This leads to their desire to preserve what they love. This leads Celebrimbor to creating the Three Elvish Rings of Power which have the virtue to keep things unspoilt, unchanged. In the Third Age the best examples of such preservation, aided by the Rings, are Rivendell and Lothlórien. The latter, ruled by Galadriel and Celeborn, is the embodiment of the Elder Days in the Middle-earth of the Third Age. This land does not know fading or stains. Galadriel knew the world before the rising of the Sun and Moon, she lived in Aman, so she does her best, wielding Nenya, to recreate the Elder Days in her realm:

As soon as he [Frodo] set foot upon the far bank of Silverlode a strange feeling had come upon him, and it deepened as he walked on into the Naith: it seemed to him that he had stepped over a bridge of time into a corner of the Elder Days, and was now walking in a world that was no more. In Rivendell there was memory of ancient things; in Lórien the ancient things still lived on in the waking world.

(Fellowship of the Ring, p. 458)

Galadriel is homesick. An exile, she remained in Middle-earth after the War of Wrath at the end of the First Age. By the end of the Third Age she is no longer sure she will be able ever to return back to Aman, which she craves for. However, there is more in travelling to the Blessed Realm for the Elves than mere desire to relocate to the place where they truly belong. Going to Aman is necessary for the Firstborn if they want to survive and continue living in their bodies.

Among the many names bestowed on Men by the Elves is the Usurpers. Men are substituting the Elves in everything, and where the Firstborn used to have leading positions and power, the matters are no longer so. In a way, the Elves have to give way for the younger race, having shared their wisdom and skills with those who heeded them. As Men are waxing, the Elves are fading.

By their nature Elvish spirits are stronger than their bodies. Thus they have a better command of their flesh than Men do and find it easier to heal wounds that could prove fatal to mortals. The downside of this is that Elvish spirits consume their bodies during the course of their lives, so they fade if they do not go to the Blessed Realm but stay in Middle-earth:

In after days, when because of the triumph of Morgoth Elves and Men became estranged, as he most wished, those of the Elven-race that lived still in Middle-earth waned and faded, and Men usurped the sunlight. Then the Quendi wandered in the lonely places of the great lands and the isles, and took to the moonlight and the starlight, and to the woods and caves, becoming as shadows and memories, save those who ever and anon set sail into the West and vanished from Middle-earth.

(The Silmarillion, p. 117)

Thus the formerly mighty race is reduced to a mere memory and becomes forgotten. Elvish realms of later ages are all characterised by secrecy. Rivendell, Lórien or the kingdom of the Wood-elves in Mirkwood are all secluded places, the way to which is barely known to anyone. Mostly they are a rumour at best, part of folklore no one believes in at worst.

Finally, there is an uncertain final destiny that is in store for the Elves. It is stated that Men will join the Ainur in the Second Music after the world ends, but the Elves’ fate has not been revealed by Eru. Men are not bound to the world. They can shape their lives outside the Music and after death they go beyond the confines of the world, the Elves do not know whither. The Elves, on the contrary, are reincarnated after death and either their fëar dwell in the Halls of Mandos or they become incarnate again to live in Aman. So even if they die, they still remain in the world and watch it unfold or take part in its life.

In his conversation with Andreth Finrod tells her that according to the Elvish belief there is a shadow in front of them, which they are slowly moving to. The Elvish hunter, which is a reference to death, is moving slowly but surely. It seems that once the world is no more, the Elves will perish together with it:

But the end will come. That we all know. And then we must die; we must perish utterly, it seems, for we belong to Arda (in hröa and fëa). And beyond that what? “The going out to no return,” as you say; “the uttermost end, the irremediable loss?”

(Morgoth’s Ring, p. 312)

This knowledge is not a light burden to carry throughout one’s life.  Because of the prospect of total annihilation, the concept of estel is very strong in Elves. Estel represents ultimate trust in the creator and his higher design, belief that whatever Eru has in store for them, it is for the better and the end will be good.

Elvish serial longevity, which is often referred to as immortality, is not an easy lot for them. Poignant love of the world, sorrow from the deeds of Men and hurts done to Arda, desire for preservation, the ever-growing weariness of the world, the prospect of fading and a very uncertain final destiny — all these are the things the Elves have to live with. Who wants to live forever after this?


(1) On Fairy-Stories

(2) On Fairy-Stories

Works consulted:

  1. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1999.
  2. J. R. R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien – Morgoth’s Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2015.
  3. J. R. R. Tolkien –J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
  4. J. R. R. Tolkien – Tales From the Perilous Realm; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2008
  5. H. Carpenter – The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien; with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012 (Kindle edition).

36 thoughts on “Who wants to live forever?

      1. Death is called Iluvatar’s gift for a reason. It’s food for thought, especially by comparison of this.

      2. Although, Bilbo was certainly the lucky one, being able to shed the Ring. I’d really love to know what his final days were like after he got on the boat with Frodo.

      3. So true. Just thinking what he could have turned into had he not left the Ring behind is spooky.
        I like to think that his days were peaceful and full of bliss.

  1. Hi Olga,
    Another thought provoking essay. I note that the elvish kingdoms in the first age were hidden due to the onslaught of Morgoth. I think the elves see “men as weak and easily corrupted”. They don’t trust men and therefore are reclusive and hidden. Their isolation also is a means of escape, a way to avoid becoming attached to all that is mortal. And much of what I note of Gondolin, Rivendell, and Lothlorien is a desire to replicate or prolong the beauty of Kor Tirion which the elves built in Valinor.

    The elves desire to escape their weariness reminds me of Buddha’s desire to escape the Wheel of Samsara, the world of impermanence.

    1. Hi Robin,
      Thanks for stopping by! That’s a great insight. The Elves had a keen sense of perception, I think, so they noticed many things others could not. No wonder they compare Men with Morgoth. Being exiled, they miss their true home, so it’s only natural that they try to recreate the landscape that is dear to them in Middle-earth.

  2. I came to the conclusion in my early twenties that old age was very different to youth and life, with all the pains of the body and the weariness of spirit would slowly turn you towards welcoming death, or at least be very accepting of it. Now, almost thirty years on, I’m more sure of that. The main problem is the body. It breaks. If it didn’t, living a lot longer would be everyone’s wish surely. But living forever? Living itself is a constant nergotiation of life’s troubles. The world is the problem. The world changes and that change itself is painful. The Elves tried to prevent change but the world is Fallen. Think of all of the generation gaps…increasing beyond measure if you lived forever. The alienation from culture and society and children as it changes beyond all recognition. If pace of living and change is increasing, society itself will ultimately change so quickly that by Tea Time it will be a different world than in the morning. Man will be separated by time itself, stretched. A futuristic notion. Multiple streams of evolution where with science the wealthy are able to change themselves physically beyond all recognition, or with avatars. Imagine the youth living life, and augmented reality, at full tilt, accustomed to a society that was radically different in the evening than it was in the morning. They are the early adopters. That is stream A. And the slower, more Elvish of us in stream B, and us Ents still reading Tolkien in Stream C, etc. haha The identity of the human family will be separated, stretched across these time zones within the compass of even one day. Even language itself would change by Tea Time. Memes would proliferate in society, reflecting and driving reality like the stock exchange, out of control. And when we cannot even communicate with our children, and children’s children, exiled like the Elves, even from that part of ourselves which is us: our children. Ourselves sundered from ourselves. A dizzying merry-go-round. The nature of the fallen world is best seen in the tree itself. Tolkien knew that of course. In its divided branches. Each branch sundered from its brother or its parental family. Each then bears more branches, children. It finds a good expression in Emanation. The idea that the origin is God and is perfect. All that emanates from that point of origin becomes increasingly less perfect. The wish to return to the origin is the desire to live forever, but it is misunderstood. It is not a place with a physical space. what could be more remote and lost to us, than the past? Space without Time is a closed loop. The Ring. No change. The Circles of the World. The Enemy seeks to imprison within this the fugitive and stop natural flourishing organic life. Conversely, Time without Space is a serial longevity, it slowly fades like memory. Like the Elves. It is the Anduin which buries the gold of the Ring and seeks possession of it forever. The still waters of the Gladden Fields where time, the Great River, is a mazy briar, and all recollection is lost to the world. The True Path, The Straight Road, back to the origin is between the two, between Time and Space. At the place of Two lights. At Twilight. That is the Old Straight Road. East of the Sun West of the moon.

    1. Thank you for this commentary, Carl! I agree about the Fallen World. It can’t be stopped. It’s with fear that I’m looking at all the changes taking place now. The world used to be very different 5-10 years ago, to say nothing of more years back into the past. I don’t even want to think what will happen in the future. So I’m totally on the Elvish side here. Either preserve, or get out. Sadly, none of these options is available to us, slow ones, today.

  3. Time without Space is an abstention from the World. Tolkien warned himself against that fate also. His Art wanted Escape but you cannot escape and you must live within the world. The Elves were increasingly reluctant and wanted to forget and be forgotten.

  4. This is an excellent summation of the attitude towards the perceived ‘immortality’ of Tolkien’s elves, a potent reflection of their own nature. Well done.

  5. Another great essay Olga, I don’t seem to be receiving email notifications when you publish new posts, so forgive me if you receive a few notifications of me re-following your blog as I try to figure it out haha!

    I look forward to the next thought-provoking post!

      1. Yeah it’s pretty confusing but not to worry, I’ll just have to keep checking haha 😂

  6. I don’t know how old any of you are, but I was born in 1951 and Carl’s reflections on how the pace of change has markedly increased over time is something I have experienced. I lived in a little place called Cottage Grove. It was very much like Hobbiton!

      1. Oh dear Olga. I think there are sill many wonderful places and lots of us Hobbits still live all over Indiana!!! I myself live an intentional life of simplicity and what the Danes call hygga!

      2. That’s really reassuring to hear! I think you’re doing a wonderful thing. Modern life with all its technologies, extravagancies and abundance can get overwhelming.

  7. I have really enjoyed the debate here. I tried to leave a comment last week when I was working in Munich but I had an unreliable internet connection.
    I was working in a school in Munich close to the city art gallery where there was an exhibition on the body and our increasing fascination with the the possibility of a “post-human” future in which humans are increasingly digitised. This may be a fascination driven by Silicon Valley but I know that Ray Kurzweil, the Director of Engineering at Google, gave a lecture in Moscow a few years ago on his personal hope for digital immortality.
    Tolkien’s work seems even more relevant today than it was in his own time and even more important. The serial longevity of which he spoke seems to be drawing closer and many of our fellow human beings are queuing up to try to become wraiths. The spiritual sons and daughters of Morgoth, Sauron and Saruman long for the engineered society and the engineered human over which they can exercise power and control. As C.S Lewis argued such a project will lead to the abolition of man yet instead of causing horror many seem to welcome this possibility.
    The Elves were right to suspect the men who they encountered and yet while there were those, and many of them, who fell under the sway of the darkness, still the greatest could see the greater wisdom among the Elves and desired that for themselves. Faramir’s wonderful discourse to Frodo expresses this wonderfully. I know that I want to be on Faramir’s side and not the wraiths either then or now.

    1. Thank you for this insight, Stephen! I absolutely agree with your thoughts on what technology does to us. Even now, when this kind of digital immortality, is still thankfully some time away, there are so many people who are like wraiths to the power of technology. They dwell in the virtual reality and forget to look around, to enjoy the world as it is. They resemble Morgoth, who wasn’t aware that flowers existed in the world, and knew only about the things that had or could give power. This is truly scary.

      1. What a terrifying image! That Morgoth did not even know that there were flowers in the world. Sadly if he had known some modern pharmaceutical company executives he would have found that they were after his own heart trying to gain intellectual property rights over flowers in the hope that they might make money out of them.

  8. Hi Stephen and Olga,
    Tolkien did not like the combustible engine and strikes me as an environmentalist. I’m a substance use counselor and note that people are now talking about smart phone addiction. I don’t spend much time on my smart phone. For me, it’s a phone!!!! I wrote a song titled “Put that computer away”. And one of the lines is ‘sweetheart, you can’t kiss me when you’re lost out in cyberspace!” I look at people and think not only of wraiths but also of the Borg in Star Trek. I’m so glad that there are people like me who have misgivings about “virtual reality”! Immortality in cyber space. No thanks.

    1. Hello Robin,
      One should indeed be careful with phones. It’s so easy to become addicted to them. I’m so glad that in my job I communicate with people a lot and don’t use a computer or a phone much. It’s great to stay in touch with the real world in the time when technology is growing ever dominating.

      1. Wow. I am on the phone and computer all day at my job. So glad to hear you don’t have to do that!
        I wish I lived next door to you!

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