Misc. Tolkien

All about J.R.R.Tolkien's life, his beliefs and philosophies, and his interests
Riv Res
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Misc. Tolkien

Postby Riv Res » Sun May 24, 2009 4:49 pm

Miscellaneous Tolkien



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A place to discuss all aspects of Tolkien the man.

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Riv Res
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Postby Riv Res » Sun May 24, 2009 5:04 pm

I opened this thread specifically because I have a question about Tolkien's beliefs and his ethics for life. Merry, you should feel free to chime in here. :wink:

In many USA news reports this weekend is the story os a woman in Washington State. She suffers from incurable cancer with a prognosis of a maximum of 6 months to live, and under the State's new Assisted Suicide Law, has decided to terminate her life now before the pain and suffering and loss of human dignity become too much to bear. Washington State law now permits her to do so in partnership with her doctor.

In all of the news reports, much is being made of her being able to call the shots on her own life and because of her terminal illness, choose the best time for her to die.

As I was listening to one of these news reports while running errands the other day, all of a sudden this passage from Tolkien's LOTR Appendix A came vividly to mind...Aragorn speaking to Arwen...

"Take counsel with yourself, beloved, and ask whether you would indeed have me wait until I wither and fall from my high seat unmanned and witless. Nay, lady, I am the last of the Númenoreans and the latest King of the Eldar Days; and to me has been given not only a span thrice that of Men of Middle-earth, but also the grace to go at my will, and give back the gift. Now, therefore, I will sleep."

So...

:arrow: Was Tolkien a proponent of picking your own time to die, be it sleeping or assisted suicide?

:arrow: If not, why would he give this power to the mightiest of the Kings in his mythology? Is he not making that choice a noble cause?

Thoughts?
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Iolanthe
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Postby Iolanthe » Sun May 24, 2009 7:29 pm

:arrow: Was Tolkien a proponent of picking your own time to die, be it sleeping or assisted suicide?


Interesting you should pick up on this. I have my long unfinished essay on Death in Tolkien: “Freedom from Time and clinging to Time” which looks at the Numenoriean gift of giving up their own life.

I really don't think he was advocating a sort of suicide - this is a bit of my essay as it's easier to post an extract rather than try to explain it:

Good deaths and bad lives

Death is the Gift of Iluvatar to men. Tolkien muses in his letter to Rhona Beare in 1958 about whether it was in fact a ‘punishment’ because men fell, though perceived by the elves as a good thing because all Iluvatar’s apparent ‘punishments’ were in fact gifts, turning bad events into unforeseen blessings: “A divine ‘punishment’ is also a divine ‘gift’, if accepted, since it object is ultimate blessing”. Or whether death was a gift from the start – always men’s destiny (unlike the Christian viewpoint). Interestingly he comes down on the side of the latter in his own footnote [with the qualifying word may:

It was also the Elvish (and uncorrupted Númenórean) view that a ‘good’ Man would or should die voluntarily by surrender with trust before being compelled as did Aragorn). This may have been the nature of unfallen Man…The Assumption of Mary, the only unfallen person, may be regarded in some ways as a simple regaining of unfallen grace and liberty: she asked to be received, and was, having no further function on earth.

Letter 212 (draft continuation) to Rhona Beare Oct ? 1958


In Tolkien’s developing mythology, death was Man’s destiny before the Fall. Unfallen man may choose his time of going and Tolkien even finds a Christian argument for it. Aragorn - and the first Númenórean Kings before their fall - are possibly (because Tolkien is still trying to discover his own mythology here) given the grace of the unfallen. So man at his noblest and most advanced embraces it in the fullness of his life, before decay sets in.

So not only is death the gift of Iluvater, the ability to relinquish it and move on is perhaps part of the original intent for all men. This makes the clinging to life that the Ring imparts even more evil than it first appears as the desire to live beyond the allotted span is in itself against the original will of Iluvater. The Ring is designed to seduce all fallen men and maybe Aragorn’s strength to reject the Ring and his ability to give up his life when he feels his powers fading are one and the same.

© Iolanthe




I really ought to finish this essay which is based on a comment of his that LotR was actually 'about Death and the desire for deathlessness'!! There is a lot more in the essay but this part does say a lot in answer to your question! I'll have to start working on it again.... :roll:

I am certain, though, that he would have been totally against assisted suicide, or any kind of suicide. It would go totally against his faith. He clearly doesn't think of Aragorn's departure or the deaths of any of the Numenorean kings in that way, but as the acceptance of a lost gift.
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Postby Merry » Sun May 24, 2009 9:40 pm

Interesting distinction, Iolanthe--yes, definitely, finish that essay! I don't remember reading the letter that includes the reference to Mary's Assumption. I agree that Tolkien would never have considered such a thing, in additon to Aragorn's choice, as a suicide. For one thing, it did not involve violence to oneself or others. The process is never described, but it is almost as if Aragorn surrenders his will to Iluvatar and his life is taken.

'He [Faramir] calls,' said Gandalf, 'but you cannot come to him yet. For he must seek healing on the threshold of death, and maybe find it not. Whereas your part is to go out to the battle of your City, where maybe death awaits you. This you know in your heart.'

'He will not wake again,' said Denethor. 'Battle is vain. Why should we wish to live longer? Why should we not go to death side by side?'

'Authority is not given to you, Steward of Gondor, to order the hour of your death,' answered Gandalf. 'And only the heathen kings, under the domination of the Dark Power, did thus, slaying themselves in pride and despair, murdering their kin to ease their own death' . . .

'What then would you have,' said Gandalf, 'if your will could have its way?'

'I would have things as they were in all the days of my life,' answered Denethor . . . 'But if doom denies this to me, then I will have naught: neither life diminished, nor love halved, nor honour abated. . . But in this at least thou shalt not defy my will: to rule my own end.'


This is how Tolkien thought of suicide, assisted and legal or not. I do not think that those who wait for death lose their dignity.
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Postby Chrissiejane » Mon May 25, 2009 8:15 am

Thanks, Iolanthe and Merry for your citations and explanations. I have no insights to offer about what the professor may have been thinking, either about the characteristics with which he endowed the Númenoreans, or about his own ethical and moral values; I only have more questions!

I wonder what he may say today about the current philosophies we pursue towards death and dying? I am thinking of the other end of the spectrum from a suicide: I'm thinking about the concept of the "living will", and about conscious refusal of active therapy for disease, with the substitution of palliation. These are essentially non-violent courses of action, that do, in my experience, often change the course of the end of a life and also restore a sense of control to the individual. Perhaps to lose that sense of control over ones self epitomises the ultimate loss of free will and therefore of dignity. Is that the ultimate burden of "fallen man"?

Tolkein must have pondered these matters during, and in the wake of, his WWI service. When he endowed the Numenoreans with that ability to end their own life at their conscious individual will, was he touching on a deep, subconscious human need - a need which simply could not be met in the horrific circumstances of the professor's experience of death and dying in the war? And are we now touching on that same need again in our "modern" approaches to dealing with incurable disease and impending death? We cannot become Númenoreans, so do we attempt to atone via our current approaches to the management of death and dying?
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Riv Res
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Postby Riv Res » Mon May 25, 2009 11:52 am

Merry, I had totally forgotten that passage with Denethor, and it is very powerful, and it certainly throws a new light on my wonderings but I still now have questions as to why he would then give Aragorn the ending he did. Perhaps I would not think of Aragorn's death and the assisted suicide debate in the same light had it not been for the news agancies using almost the exact words from Tolkien in describing the reasoning/justification for the new laws.

... wait until I wither and fall from my high seat unmanned and witless... but also the grace to go at my will


It is as if they had read the passage and perhaps they had. Tolkien made a case for this kind of thinking whether he knew it or not, with his scene at Aragorn's death, and because he was such a devout Catholic, I guess that is why I wonder at it. I wonder if he knew that no matter the character's lineage, and no matter how delicately he dealt with it, picking your own time to die could be debated as suicide.

Merry wrote:I do not think that those who wait for death lose their dignity.


I agree with you here Merry, but what if waiting for death is excruciatingly painful, or involves living while having lost one's intellect, recognition, and reasoning, I debate with myself whether that is truly life.
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Postby Merry » Mon May 25, 2009 4:17 pm

You know, I'm told by experts in the health care field that there is no need for people to be in that kind of pain any more. The field of palliative medicine has made huge leaps within the last few years. I'm told that it used to be the case that if a doctor couldn't cure you, you were on your own, sad to say. But now there is a lot of meaningful life that can be lived between a terminal diagnosis and the end, and lots of advances in the treatment and management of pain. The Hospice program is a great example of this.

The Catholic view makes the distinction between active and passive euthanasia, marbretherese. Active euthanasia occurs when the cause of death is something other than the injury or disease, an active killing. This is wrong. Passive euthanasia occurs when a person is allowed to die of his/her injury or disease without treatment. Here, the distinction is made between 'ordinary' and 'extraordinary' means of preserving life. Ethically, ordinary means of preserving life must be used. These are what all of us use to preserve our own lives: food, water, warmth when it is cold, basic medications like simple antibiotics, etc. Extraordinary means to preserve life may ethically be used, but they may ethically be refused as well. These are the more technological or experimental treatments. The Catholic view is that, after a terminal diagnosis, if these means only prolong life with no hope for improvement, they are not required to be used.

I should say that these ideas are not commonly understood, even by a lot of Catholics. Some think that all possible means of prolonging life must be used, but this is mistaken. Natural death is a part of life and must be accepted. It's just that Catholics think that it should not be hurried along by violent means.

So why did Tolkien include this thing about the Numenoreans? I think that Iolanthe is on the right track with this idea of 'unfallen Man' and I'd like to see more about this! I'm not a theologian, but coincidentally, I've been conversing with some about this topic. The famous ungrammatical "The wages of sin is death" line sort of indicates, I guess, that had we not sinned primordially (what is mythologized in the Adam and Eve story), death would not have been part of human existence. But it sort of seems that anything made of matter changes and ceases to exist. So how would this happen? This is just theological speculation, of course, but it is possible that humans could pass on to the next stage of existence, but death would "be removed of its sting". Maybe this is what Tolkien was trying to imagine. But I'm sure he would not have wanted us to think of ourselves as unfallen Numenorean kings!

As I approach the last part of my life, and watch the previous generation doing so, I also worry about the losses that it will inevitably bring, RR. I'm already starting to get forgetful! But research also shows that the great majority of people who favor the legalization of suicide change their minds when asked if they would still favor it if they could be assured of good care when the time comes. American culture pushes us to be so perpetually young and independent, to the point of solipsism. People who give their lives to the raising of children and hard work and the service of others ought to be able to expect good care in their turn, by families and community and government. Then the loss (and, according to my faith, at least, the final surrendering of our wills to God) can be a meaningful and beautiful and holy thing for all involved. I have witnessed this, so it is possible.
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Sing and be glad, all ye children of the West,
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Riv Res
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Postby Riv Res » Mon May 25, 2009 4:41 pm

Merry wrote:This is just theological speculation, of course, but it is possible that humans could pass on to the next stage of existence, but death would "be removed of its sting". Maybe this is what Tolkien was trying to imagine. But I'm sure he would not have wanted us to think of ourselves as unfallen Numenorean kings!


Yes, I think this sounds very much like what my understanding of Tolkien's beliefs and thinking is as I have garnered from reading his fiction and non fiction (letters :wink: ).
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Postby Chrissiejane » Mon May 25, 2009 5:32 pm

Forgive my ignorance, but does Professor Tolkein present other examples of characters exercising this Númenorean gift of choice, besides Aragorn? He presents Aragorn as a man who is acutely aware of his destiny and who diligently prepares for his rôle as King of Gondor, and then strives his whole long life to be the best he can, for the benefit of all beings. Is this the Professor's archetype, or are there others in the mythology who have been similarly graced but perhaps do not mirror Aragorn's achievements?
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Riv Res
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Postby Riv Res » Mon May 25, 2009 6:14 pm

CJ, it appears to be a Númenorean trait only. There is the reference in Appendix A, but I would have to look to see if he mentions it to anyone else specifically in writing about any of Aragorn's predecessors.
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Postby marbretherese » Mon May 25, 2009 7:11 pm

I'm late to this discussion, and have enjoyed reading your insights into this question. Iolanthe, you do need to finish and publish that essay! That quote from Tolkien's letter to Rhona Beare is spot on. I would be amazed if Tolkien were advocating euthanasia, given his Catholic faith.

Personally I'm uncomfortable with the idea of euthanasia or assisted suicide, partly because such things are open to abuse and partly because I think the way that we face death is, like everything else in life, a learning process. Merry , you are right about the improvements in palliative care. It's also worth noting how, when someone is allowed to slip away peacefully, they go in their own time.
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Postby Merry » Mon May 25, 2009 10:15 pm

Woops! Chrissiejane and marbretherese, I got you two confused above. My apologies--see, the Great Decline has started already!

I seem to remember--for what it's worth!--one of the decendants of Elendil laying down his life, but don't ask me which one. I'll try to look it up. It does seem to be unlike Tolkien not to have some historical precedent.

Another aspect to this question might be to think about how Tolkien himself handled his own decline, as well as Edith's. I've always gotten a bit of an impression that Edith 'lost it' a little sooner than most, and that the great joyful life that they anticipated when they married kind of dissipated as they grew older. But that comes from reading between the lines: he doesn't seemed to have complained much, other than by taking his pint in the pub of an evening. It has always struck me that he seemed to grow happier as he aged and took the losses in relatively good humor. But, you know, now that I think of it, he never did have a great deal of control over the events of his life, in some ways, and so maybe he accepted the decline as a part of life.
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Postby Lindariel » Tue May 26, 2009 1:30 am

This is an excellent discussion!

My perspective on Aragorn's beautiful act of "giving back the Gift" is not so much that he ended his life, but that he was given the grace to recognize the moment of Death when it was approaching and then make an important decision: To take the remaining time he had left to bid a loving goodbye to his family and loved ones, to arrange the lawful succession of his reign, and to accept the moment of death with humility and dignity and joy; or to succumb to the weaknesses of some of his ancestors, who used unnatural means to prolong their lives past the moment of natural death, thereby rejecting the Gift.

Recall this passage from the Tale of Aragorn and Arwen:

"Would you then, lord, before your time leave your people that live by your word?" she said.

"Not before my time," he answered. "For if I will not go now, then I must soon go perforce . . . . Take counsel with yourself, beloved, and ask whether you would indeed have me wait until I wither and fall from my high seat unmanned and witless."


I think it is pretty clear from this passage that the time of Aragorn's natural death was near, and that the only way to prevent that death would have been to indulge in the follies of his ancestors and then die an unnatural death "unmanned and witless".

Also, remember what Faramir told Frodo and Sam about his people:

Death was ever present, because the Numenoreans still, as they had in their old kingdom, and so lost it, hungered after endless life unchanging. Kings made tombs more splendid than houses of the living, and counted old names in the rolls of their descent dearer than the names of sons. Childless lords sat in aged halls musing on heraldry; in secret chambers withered men compounded strong elixirs, or in high cold towers asked questions of the stars. And the last king of the line of Anarion had no heir.


This is exactly what Aragorn would NOT do. Instead, he chose to die a Man, rather than be "unmanned" by the weakness of rejecting his impending natural death.

Yes, Death was the Gift of Iluvatar to Men -- to be released from the confines of life, rather than live with perpetual loss, as do the Elves. I think the "Gift" made especially to the Numenoreans was to recognize impending death -- to have that opportunity to prepare themselves and their loved ones, and to express their confidence and trust in The One to give back the Gift of Life willlingly when that natural time had come.

I think in our day and age we are dealing with the same problems and temptations of the ancient Numenoreans. Our medical, technological, and cultural advances have already significantly lengthened our "natural" lives long, long past our childbearing and childraising years. We are now dealing routinely with the diseases of advanced old age that were rarely encountered by our more ancient forebears, who simply never lived that long. We have the technology to keep people alive who would have died of their illness or injury not too terribly long ago. The ethical questions we face as a result of our "Numenorean" ability to prolong life are of our own making.

But do I think Aragorn's death is an example of assisted suicide? Certainly not! His natural death came -- and he welcomed it and returned to his Creator in Joy.
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Postby Chrissiejane » Tue May 26, 2009 4:13 pm

Riv Res wrote:CJ, it appears to be a Númenorean trait only. There is the reference in Appendix A, but I would have to look to see if he mentions it to anyone else specifically in writing about any of Aragorn's predecessors.


What a dunderhead I am. :roll: If I had taken the time to read on a little further in Unfinished Tales, Part II, The Second Age, I would have got to chapter III, The Line of Elros, Kings of Númenor. There, I have learned more about this whole issue of longevity, who took advantage of the "grace' granted to them and who didn't. Christopher Tolkein's note 1 gives a great account of how it worked. Apologies to those for whom this is very familiar - I find it fascinating and so informative:

Thus (as the Eldar) they grew at much the same rate as other men, but when they had achieved "full growth" they then aged, or "wore out'" much more slowly. The first approach of "world-weariness was indeed for them a sign that their period of vigour was nearing its end. When it came to an end, if they persisted in living, then decay would proceed, as growth had done, no more slowly than among other Men. Thus a Númenórean would pass quickly, in ten years maybe, from health and vigour of mind to decrepitude and senility. In the earlier generations they did not "cling to life" but resigned it voluntarily. "Clinging to Life" was one of the changes brought about by the Shadow and the rebellion of the Númenóreans; it was also accompanied by the shrinking of their natural lifespan.

© The JRR Tolkein Copyright Trust and CR Tolkein 1980

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Postby Iolanthe » Wed May 27, 2009 10:54 am

It's very enlightening, isn't it? I ramble on about it in my unfinished essay somewhere. This is (as I see it) one major connecting factor between the early tales and LotR, with the Nine Rings of Power (offering long life to the nine kings) and Sauron's exploitation of the weakness of men - a clinging on to life and power beyond it's natural end - which he saw at first hand in Numenor. The Nine kings become wraithes, neither living nor dead. With the Ruling Ring Gollum lives hundreds and hundreds of years beyond his time and has less life than anyone in the book. Bilbo feels stretched thin...
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