Testing Tolkien’s Claim that Death is a Gift

By Stephen. August 16th, 2010

So far, no one on this site has discussed the subtle opening “quotation” Oxadrenals places at the beginning of his biographical story,  The Hafeem Saul. I’d like to quote it here, and then discuss it in light of what we know so far.

Here’s the passage:

“To the Elves, Iluvatar granted eternal life,

but to Men he gave the gift of death,

a cause of great suffering for mortal and immortal alike.

And for what purpose he gave this strange gift,

not even the wisest know.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, paraphrased

As Oxadrenals notes, this is not a direct excerpt from the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, but a paraphrase, or more precisely, a merging of multiple passages from the Silmarillion and texts presented by his son, Christopher Tolkien, in his multi-volume explication of Tolkien’s unpublished work.  Generally speaking, the topic is referred to among Tolkien scholars as The Gift of Men, though “the Gift To Men” would seem more appropriate, as the expression refers to the “capacity” to die that the creator (referred to by Tolkien as Iluvitar or Eru) gave to humans, but not to Elves.

There is an intentional paradox here in the use of the expression “gift,” as ordinarily one would not consider mortality as a good to be welcomed. It is therefore called a “strange gift,” recognized as a “cause of suffering” and regarded as mystery.  Among Christian theologians, this is referred to as Tolkien’s “embrace of finitude,*” an acceptance of mortality that resonates with the Christian tradition.

In my opinion, however, there is a distinct hollowness to Tolkien’s presentation; The Gift to Men is more a paradox asserted than a paradox explored. One can easily invent paradoxes along this pattern. “Riches are a curse.” “Sickness is gift.”  “Beauty is a punishment.” “Power is weakness.” But to justifiably call such easily dashed off statements “mysteries” one needs to show what one has in mind; one needs to fill in the gap left between the oppositions juxtaposed.

And here Tolkien provides little. In fact, I can think of only one** concrete way in which he illustrates the proposition that mortality is beneficial. It goes as follows: In the fantasy world created by Tolkien, elves do not grow old. They can, however be killed. But such death is only temporary, for after death they are reincarnated in the Hall of Mandos in Valinor, whereupon they are given a new body identical to the one they had before. The newly reborn elf may then choose to return to the world. (Glorfindel is an example.) However, significantly, most elves do not choose to do so, for they are said to have grown weary, melancholy and tired of earthly life.

Men, in contrast, are shown to have a robust and powerful attitude toward life, and it is states that this is because their lives are short. In other words, the proposition here is that mortality saves us from ennui.

This is a reasonable hypothesis.  But is it true? Here, we have an advantage over Tolkien. Whereas he  had only an imaginary realm in which to present the hypothesis, we have a real world laboratory in which we can test it: We can explore the differential experience of life between mortals, Hafeems and True Immortals.  And, here, I would say, the evidence we have contradicts Tolkien’s claim.

Certainly, The Hafeem Saul presents us the picture of a man dealing with melancholy; and, further, this emotional state is undoubtedly related to Saul’s long experience of life. However, at many moments, Saul displays a fundamental exuberance. He is not exhausted in spirit; he had temporarily become so, but a simple change in environment (moving to Santa Cruz from the Soviet Union) and an admonition from a caring friend (The Eldest) sufficed to reawaken him. This type of experience is common even among mere mortals. And, in the current installments he is filled with compassion, a man of considerable vitality and, moreover, possessed of a deep and abiding sense of humor. In other words, he does not fulfill Tolkien’s thesis at all.

Of course, Saul is a Hafeem, and therefore subject to aging and death, though more slowly than the norm. One could therefore argue that he is not properly analogous to one of the Elves, but rather to the men of Numenor, who, despite their long lives, were described by Tolkien as essentially the same in essence as ordinary men. A True Immortal might be a better analogy, for, like Tolkien’s imaginary Elves, these actual individuals do not age. But are True Immortals in fact subject to the melancholy Tolkien envisions in his fantasy world? So far, this has not been born out by experience.

The Eldest, as directly described by Flyss and Strattera, and whose encounter with Saul is retold by Oxadrenals, seems anything but ennervated. She is full of a primal power that seems greater rather than less than that of ordinary mortals. Certainly Speed Demon presents the picture of a woman of great fervor and intensity. And what we know of Antipollus and Sollaya suggests that while they may be dangerous, they are not devitalized by their long life.

Thus, actual evidence seems to falsify Tolkien’s single fleshed out example of a way in which death could be seen as a gift and not a curse.

It remains to be seen if there are truly any benefits to finitude as Tolkien asserts (without evidence to back the claim) or whether Immortality is the true gift and mortality the curse. – Stephen [thread continued here]


*Simply reading the paraphrase at the top of this post, one might conclude that Tolkien is using the term” gift” ironically (Eg., Describing an STD as a gift. ) However, taken in context with the rest of his writings, one sees that no irony is intended, though he does understand that it is difficult to accept mortality as a gift. But he believes the very difficulty resonates with mystical meaning, and contemplation of it induces spiritual growth. At least, that is my interpretation.

**Tolkien also suggests that humans have greater free will than Elves, and that this is in some way bound up in mortality. However, the connection is far from obvious, and furthermore it is difficult to see in what manner this is shown in Tolkien’s writings. Galadriel, for example, seems to exercise free will when she declines Frodo’s offer of the ring.

1 Comment

  1. Janni Lloyd says:

    Hi Stephen,
    Really like this discussion!
    You said – It remains to be seen if there are truly any benefits to finitude as Tolkien asserts (without evidence to back the claim) or whether Immortality is the true gift and mortality the curse.

    I’m feeling that humanity has done a lot of ‘rationalising’ with the ‘physical death is inevitable’ belief system. Perhaps attempting to make something they felt no control over somehow more palatble.
    blessings Janni

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