The matter of mortality vs immortality is very prominent in Tolkien’s tales. The Professor makes it absolutely clear that Men are mortal and they must not in any way crave or try to achieve immortality. Otherwise, the consequences might be most unpredictable and far from good. There are many examples in the world of Arda demonstrating what human aspirations for immortality can lead to, and in the present essay I would like to discuss the Númenóreans and their destiny.
At the dawn of their civilisation, the Númenóreans were a mighty race — people from the Three Houses of the Edain richly rewarded by the Valar for their valour in the fight against Morgoth. Among all the mortals the Númenóreans enjoyed the best conditions of life: a comfortable dwelling place in the proximity of the Blessed Realm, a longer-than-usual lifespan, the friendship of the Eldar. Due to all these, they had greater wisdom, skills and knowledge, unavailable to those Men living in Middle-earth and were just like the Eldar in appearance and mind. However, even that ceased to be enough at some point.
The Valar granted great gifts to the Númenóreans, but they could not grant them immortality. Nor was it theirs to give: such things were allotted by Eru alone. Unsurprisingly, that was exactly what the mighty race began to crave for. The motive, however, was far from noble. As Tolkien put it in letter №131, having become so powerful and wealthy, they wanted “more time for their enjoyment”. Those were the first sprouts of pride growing in the hearts of those people. The Númenóreans were becoming arrogant and possessive. They were beginning to value wealth over bliss, and were turning from teachers and givers into tyrants and takers.
There was also the ban. It was forbidden for the Númenóreans to sail westwards, so that they did not become enamoured of the Undying Lands should they see them. This ban, however, instead of keeping them safe, had an absolutely opposite effect on the proud race. While at first the Númenóreans did not even question Manwë’s prohibition and obeyed it unconditionally, they eventually began to murmur against it: first in their hearts, then openly and finally rebelliously. The forbidden fruit is sweet, indeed:
The Downfall is partly the result of an inner weakness in Men – consequent, if you will, upon the first Fall (unrecorded in these tales), repented but not finally healed. Reward on earth is more dangerous for men than punishment! The Fall is achieved by the cunning of Sauron in exploiting this weakness. Its central theme is (inevitably, I think, in a story of Men) a Ban, or Prohibition.
(Letters, № 131)
The ban on sailing westwards alongside the ever-growing envy of the Eldar and their immortality became a trigger for the Númenóreans that brought about their downfall, facilitated and finalised artfully by Sauron, and it was during his sojourn in Númenor that the changes in the Númenóreans’ lives became most prominent, but far from positive.
The shift in the Númenóreans’ attitude, their turning towards the dark side were reflected in the quality of their lives. Once they stepped on the path of craving for what was not theirs to have, there was no going back: the moral downfall was kicked into action. It was a gradual fall, but none the more fatal. The more they murmured, the more they revered the dark, the more dramatic the changes were.
First, there were climate changes. Originally Númenor had a very mild climate with no weather extremities: it was ideal for comfortable life and agriculture. As the Númenóreans were growing more and more rebellious, so was the climate deteriorating. Storms, thunderstorms or earthquakes had previously been unheard of, but as the Númenóreans were spiralling down, they learnt about this fierce side of nature which in some cases led to fatalities among the population.
The most noticeable change was in the Númenóreans’ lifespan, though. If the first kings of Númenor lived until a very advanced age and died peacefully, their rebellious descendants began gradually to live less and less, their lifespan shortened. That sad tradition was started by King Atanamir. He “lived to a great age, clinging to his life beyond the end of all joy; and he was the first of the Númenóreans to do this, refusing to depart until he was witless and unmanned, and denying to his son the kingship at the height of his days.” (Silmarillion, p. 317).
That had happened even before Sauron came to Númenor. With his arrival to the isle the situation became even worse, as the Númenóreans became even more discontent and darkness-bound:
But for all this Death did not depart from the land, rather it came sooner and more often, and in many dreadful guises. For whereas aforetime men had grown slowly old, and had laid them down in the end to sleep, when they were weary at last of the world, now madness and sickness assailed them; and yet they were afraid to die and go out into the dark, the realm of the lord that they had taken; and they cursed themselves in their agony.
(Silmarillion, p. 328)
Tolkien capitalises D in Death to personify it, to show how the Númenóreans’ worst enemy sensed their fears and reacted to them. That unhealthy obsession with immortality had an absolutely devastating effect on people’s lives. The more preoccupied they became with it, the more their lives shortened. Their nightmares became reality, for indeed “a man that flies from his fear may find that he has only taken a short cut to meet it.” (Unfinished Tales, p. 79).
Worst of all, the Númenóreans began to try and play God. Their wise men worked at recalling life or prolonging it, trying to meddle with their mortal nature. Attempts to alter Eru’s designs were not only a perilous thing to do, but also useless. In no way could the Númenóreans gain immortality, nor should they have tried to. It was not in their nature to live forever.
Their fear of death was, however, typically human. Death had a very bad reputation among Men. It was intended by Eru to be a gift giving Men freedom from the bonds of the world. Morgoth, however, cast a shadow on death and people began fearing it, seeing it as a punishment rather than a gift. Their lack of understanding of what happened afterwards, the uncertainty of their further destiny only increased the fear which was grounded in a complete lack of faith on their behalf. By seeing death as a punishment, by fearing it and trying to alter their nature, the Númenóreans doubted Eru himself and his designs. They did not seem to have something that the Elves had — estel: a complete and unconditional belief in Eru and in the goodness of his designs for all his children. Such lack of faith led the Númenóreans to worshipping the dark, turning away from Eru and choosing sweet lies over bitter truths.
Tolkien made in explicit in his writings that Men should by no means try to gain immortality. It was neither their nature, nor their destiny to live until the end of Arda, and any attempts or even mere craving for it can lead to a fatal moral downfall.
1. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1999.
2. J. R. R. Tolkien – Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1998.
3. H. Carpenter – The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien; with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012 (Kindle edition).
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