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