Reading through Tolkien’s letters, I’ve been struck by the constant references to the fact that The Lord of the Rings is about primarily death:
”But I should say, if asked, the tale is not really about Power and Dominion: that only sets the wheels going; it is about Death and the desire for deathlessness. Which is hardly more than to say it is a tale written by a Man!”
Letter 202 to Christopher and Faith Tolkien, 11 September 1957
There are many such references throughout Tolkien’s letters. But before I read them, it never seemed to me that The Lord of the Rings was mainly about death, although it is certainly an important theme. Death and immortality seemed to belong more to his greater mythology, summarised in the Silmarillion. His insistence that this was what The Lord of the Rings itself was about really surprised me. Surely, I thought, it is about Power and Dominion – the consequences of desiring it, the misuse of it, who rightly owns it and the terrible price of fighting against those that abuse it. Surely, I thought, he is thinking of his wider works with LotR as a part of that? Not, of course, the context in which most casual or first-time readers approach or understand the book.”The real theme for me is about something much more permanent and difficult: Death and Immortality: the mystery of the love of the world in the hearts of a race ‘doomed’ to leave and seemingly lose it; the anguish in the hearts of a race ‘doomed’ not to leave it, until its whole evil-aroused story is complete.”
Letter 185 to Christopher and Faith Tolkien, 19 March 1956
Then I read this in a letter to C. Ouboter from the Dutch Lord of the Rings publishers Voorhoeve en Dietrich who had asked Tolkien about whether The Lord of the Rings had a message:
So it seems that this is something that only struck Tolkien on his re-reading of his own work. Maybe this insight was coloured by his own thoughts and feelings at the time of reading, but maybe it was a massive revelation. What does Tolkien mean by ‘about death? Whichever way you look at it he seems to have caught himself unawares here. And is it part of his own discovery of the story which seemed to write itself, emerging as ‘truth’ from somewhere deep within?”Though it is only in reading the work myself (with criticisms in mind) that I became aware of the dominance of the theme of Death.” [my italics].
Letter 208 to C. Ouboter of Voorhoeve en Dietrich, 10 April 1958
Surely this gives scope for Tolkien to make surprising discoveries about his own work as he ‘made’ the links while in the process of writing – and even scope to carry on discovering links long after things were written? As he commented in a letter to Major Bowen in 1957 (letter 200) “Naturally the stories came first. But it is, I suppose, some test of the consistency of a mythology as such, if it is capable of some sort of rational or rationalized explanation.””They arose in my mind as ‘given’ things, and as they came, separately, so too the links grew….yet always I had the sense of recording what was already ‘there’, somewhere: not of ‘inventing’.”
Letter 131 to Milton Waldman, late 1951
But back to death. The letter to Milton Waldman goes on to say:
This then is the nub. Confusion about death is the means by which the whole tale comes about. It is at the root of Sauron’s power, it is the tool with which he manipulates men. Is this, then, really what book is all about? To answer this we need to have a look at how Death and Immortality makes its appearance in The Lord of the Rings.”But Death is not the enemy! I said, or meant to say, that the ‘message’ was the hideous peril of confusing true ‘immortality’ with limitless serial longevity. Freedom from Time, and clinging to Time. The confusion is the work of the Enemy, and one of the chief causes of human disaster.”
Letter 208 to C. Ouboter of Voorhoeve en Dietrich, 10 April 1958
Sauron’s bait and the Valar’s gift
Gollum, of course, didn’t covet longevity, he just coveted the Ring. But he was bewitched by the Ring in ways he couldn’t understand and a terrible longevity was inflicted on him. As eons passed by he ’lived’ less and less, his world shrinking along with his body until neither could pass for a recognisable life any more.To attempt by device or ‘magic’ to recover longevity is thus a supreme folly and wickedness of ‘mortals’. Longevity or counterfeit ‘immortality’ (true immortality is beyond Eä) is the chief bait of Sauron [my italics] – it leads the small to a Gollum, and the great to a Ringwraith.
Letter 212 (draft continuation) to Rhona Beare Oct ? 1958
Gandalf says at the very beginning in chapter 11:
This is the difference between ‘existence’ and ‘life’, they are truly, as Tolkien is very careful to demonstrate in his writings, two separate things. To extend existence against the natural life-span allotted to any creature is a sin in Middle-earth. It brought about the downfall of the Númenoreans when they sailed for Valinor to demand immortality, and Aragorn’s willingness to forsake it was a sign of his greatness. His rejection of the Ring is not just about Power, but a rejection of all that seduced the Nine Kings who received gifts from Sauron. He is a man who knows when it’s his time to go.“A mortal, Frodo, who keeps one of the Great Rings, does not die, but he does not grow or obtain more life, he merely continues, until at last every minute is a weariness.”
The Lord of the Rings Book 1 Chapter 11.
It’s interesting that the well meaning and seemingly good gift of long life which the Valar gave to the Númenoreans by bringing them close to the Undying Lands is the seed that brings about the Númenorean’s destruction and the removal of Valinor from the circles of the world. It is a great gift but double edged. The longer the Númenorean kings live the more they want. They build monuments and memorials and become obsessed with the past instead of relinquishing it for the future. Their obsession is not with power, but with possession, a clarification Tolkien makes in his letter to Milton Waldman when he states that they suffered from a ‘possessive attitude‘. They are eager for any hope Sauron can give them and their desire makes them easy prey to his words about the promises of Morgoth (who can, in fact, promise them nothing).
The ‘hideous peril’ of confusion
As it was with the Númenoreans, so it is with a perverted ‘gift’ of immortality and possession (possession is useless if you have to give up possessions almost as soon as you have got them) that Sauron seduces the Nine Kings into accepting the Rings of Power, creating the Ringwraithes - one of the most terrifying forces of evil in LotR. The longer they live the less human they become. They exist in a world where they are neither living nor dead, unable to grow in wisdom like the long-lived elves or escape from the mortal world like men.
This ‘stretching thinner’ is a theme in LotR, as can be seen by the effect it has on Bilbo, who has only had the Ring for a short time, but who already feels ‘all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean…’. This starts alarm bells ringing for Gandalf, even though he isn’t quite sure yet which bell is ringing. Gandalf, of course, knows all about the tools the enemy has used to exploit the weaknesses of those who are mortal and this is beginning to sound like one. Gollum, of course, suffers worse effects, and even Frodo, who has the Ring for the shortest time of the three, begins to exhibit a sort of transparency to Sam’s eyes as they journey nearer Mount Doom, as though slipping into the ‘neither living nor dead’ world of the wraithes (assisted by the infectious blow of the Witch King‘s sword).”The view is taken (as clearly reappears later in the case of the Hobbits that have the Ring for a while) that each ‘Kind’ has a natural span, integral to its biological and spiritual nature. This cannot be increased qualitatively or quantitatively; so that prolongation in time is like stretching a wire out ever tauter, or ‘spreading’ butter ever thinner’ – it becomes an intolerable torment.”
Footnote to Letter 131 to Milton Waldman, late 1951
The ‘hideous peril’ of confusion is thinking that this is a good thing. That longevity is immortality, not something entirely different. That life, beyond its allotted span, can only mean (to the small) more enjoyment of it. That the longer you live (if you are a man) the greater power and the more possessions you will hold.
Immortals in a transient world
For the elves of Middle-earth, a longer life means the chance to endlessly refine their creations - time to learn, appreciate, improve, continuously creating greater and more beautiful works. But their ‘immortality’ comes with an expiry date - the end of Arda is the end of their world and they have been given no hope of what, if anything, may come after it. Their heaven is on earth. Even the Undying Land of Aman is still within the circles of the world, not beyond where Aragorn hopes to meet Arwen again. The torment of the elves is to see the continual passing and destruction of their world. Not only what they make but everything around them. The ages pass, Elf Friends come and go like autumn leaves, the cycle of the years that seem so long to men rush past them. Arwen will not be long in the world with her Aragorn. Lothlorien is already fading. It is, as Tolkien described it, a long defeat. And perhaps the emphasis here should be on long. They know there is an end - for the elves in Middle-earth the first ‘end’ will be leaving the lands they love and returning to the Undying Lands. But after that there is a greater end that all the elves, including those that never left Valinor, know that time is inexorably marching them to. They know the ‘world weariness’ that told the Númenoreans of old that it was time to leave, but there is nowhere beyond the world to go where regrets and losses can be forgotten and old longing given its rest. The peace and beauty of Valinor can soothe but it cannot cure eons of memory of things past.
O Lórien! The Winter comes, the bare and leafless Day;
The leaves are falling in the stream, the River flows away...
…But if of ships I now should sing, what ship would come to me,
What ship would bear me ever back across so wide a Sea?’
Galadriel’s song of Eldamar, The Lord of the Rings
This is a longing for a renewal of things past that will never be again, a sea no elf can cross. A woe beyond the healing of the world. Tolkien mentions that although elves pitied men, there was also a degree of envy at the sense of immediacy and freedom to live in the now. There was also envy at man’s release. Death comes soon and not in small increments of loss. The elves call men the ’Guests’ or ’Strangers’ (The Silmarillion) and regard their gift as something that “As time wears even the Powers shall envy”. Even the Valar are tied to Arda, to Time, and to the fate of the world. Conversely men envy the elves and their time to build for themselves and not only for the future of others. The answer for men seems to be to fight death with all your strength, to stay in the world as long as possible to see the fruits of your labours grow. Death seems, in fact, like a thief to men that have nothing, as far as they know, beyond the world they actually live in. Aragorn hopes for life beyond the circles of the world and Theoden hopes to rest, unashamed, with his fathers, but there is no great assurance. The fate of men is known to Ilúvatar alone and most men don’t know Ilúvatar. The strong face death as unknowable and inevitable and are ready to meet it whenever it meets them, and go wherever it takes them. The uncertain and weak are prey to the whisperings and promises of a Morgoth or a Sauron.
Good deaths and bad deaths
Although it isn’t always gratefully received, death in Tolkien’s world isn’t the thief it seems, but is the Gift of Ilúvatar to Men. Tolkien muses in his letter to Rhona Beare in 1958 about whether it was in fact a ‘punishment’ because men fell, but perceived by the elves (who’s version of creation and early history is the one we receive in The Silmarillion) as a good thing because all Ilúvatar’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 it was a gift from the start – always men’s destiny (unlike the orthodox Christian viewpoint). In his mythology, Tolkien comes surprisingly and firmly down on the side of the latter in his own footnote [with the qualifying word may]:
In Tolkien’s developing mythology, death was Man’s destiny before the Fall - the seduction of the first men by Morogth about which they do not talk. 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 feel his way around 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.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
So not only is death the Gift of Ilúvatar, 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 Ilúvatar. The Ring is part of Sauron’s design to seduce all fallen men (and enslave the elves, but with - of course - a different snare) and 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.
But knowing when to relinquish life isn’t the same as giving up on it. The gift of the Numnoreans was to recognise ‘world weariness’ (Unfinished Tales) as the time to leave the circles of the world, before physical decay set in. This is a realisation that this world is no longer enough, no longer fulfils you and that the soul is ready to move to something greater. It isn’t the despair of Eowyn, who can no longer value a life without Aragorn in it and who wants to spend it on the battlefield, or of Denethor who isn’t weary with the world, but is tormented by no longer seeing any hope in it. “Battle is vain. Why should we wish to live longer?” he says. There is a sense that Denethor (who, of course, doesn’t have Aragorn’s gift) would have clung on to the bitter end ruling Gondor if he had truly believed that there would still be a Gondor to rule. But misreading the Palantir has destroyed all hope and a terrible madness has siezed him. This is so out of step with what is moral and right in Tolkien’s sub-creation that even though these are pre-Christian times, Denethor wants to burn ‘like heathen kings.’ Although there is no Christian Hope in LotR, there is still hope and, although barely understood, it has enough force for utter despair to be beyond the pale, to be the equivalent of ‘heathen’. Giving up your life when it is your time (either in the way of the Númenorean Kings or through selfless sacrifice in a good cause) is one thing. Suicide quite another.
As Denethor’s is a bad death, Boromir and Theoden’s are good. Boromir dies trying to save Merry and Pippin and sees his death as a payment for trying to take the ring from Frodo. He has made redress and restored balance: ‘I am sorry. I have paid.’ Theoden also redeems himself, going willingly to a death that will restore him in the eyes of his fathers where he will no longer be ‘ashamed’. In fact, for Theoden, the power he now has to do this is more of a life than he has had for a long time sitting as a bowed old man in the shadows of the Golden Hall. Wraith like before (neither living nor dead), he is liberated to become a man again. This is embracing mortality as a gift, to be spent for the good of the land and people you love.
Similarly there is death seemingly awaiting the army at the Black Gate. A ruse that has very little hope is carried out just because very little hope is enough. They will buy Frodo and Sam a chance with their lives. Even when the leaders are shown Frodo’s Mithril shirt, there is no turning back, no surrender or terms. Is this a kind of suicide? Again, no. This is holding your life cheap but selling it dear. There is an intrinsic belief that by doing the right thing and opposing evil, unforeseen good will still come out of it. That a life, given up for the right reasons, holds it’s own blessing even when that blessing cannot be known. At the base of it, somewhere, there is still hope.
Finally we have Frodo and Sam crawling across the wastes of Mordor. There will, they come to realise, be no return that they can forsee. The task seems impossible. But giving up is even more impossible. Whatever the outcome they must go on and complete the task given to Frodo at the Council of Elrond. That there may be - probably will be - death at the end of it has become irrelevant to them. They cannot buy anything with noble or heroic deaths - no redemption like Boromir and Theoden. They absolutely mustn’t despair like Denethor, or all is lost. They cannot buy the lives of others with their deaths, like the army at the Black Gate. They must live until all is done. After that, nothing matters. Both their lives and their deaths are given up to one task. In the end, of course, they live. But this brings us to the last kind of death in the book. The lingering, seeping away from life that Frodo experiences. He is ‘world weary’ but cannot relinquish his life like the Númenorean Kings of old. Like the elves, his world is passing away from him and he needs what soothing Valinor can give. He has, in fact, been touched by the wraithing process, fading out of the every day world that occupies Sam. Alive, but not really living in the way that the old Frodo did before the Ring. This isn’t just the poison from the Witch King’s sword, or even just the effect of the Ring, he has seen too much, done too much, suffered too much. There is more to ‘happily ever after’ than just surviving as anyone who had lived through the WW1 trenches knew. He is becoming ‘dead to the world’, unable to fully take part in it. It’s not a Heroic Death but it is a hero’s death all the same.
To give up so that other may keep
So there are many forms of death in The Lord of the Rings. All the characters are faced with the possibility or the reality of it. It may be a personal death, a living death, the passing of your world or the passing of an entire age, but no character or people are untouched by it. They must all learn to let themselves or their world go and live with the possibility that they, or it, will never return. They must hope that out of that willingness - out of that release - comes new growth and that it will, for a while at least, be better. At the very end of the book, when Frodo finally tells Sam that he is leaving with the other Ringbearers, he says:
This is the opposite of the ‘possessive attitude’ that was the downfall of Númenor. Boromir, Denethor and Theoden will never live to see that world. Faramir, Eowyn, and Merry are taken to the very brink of physical death. Gandalf, in fact, comes back from it. How they deal with it, whether they are cursed for clinging to the threads of life, throw them away pointlessly or offer them up for the greater good defines all the characters for good or ill. In Tolkien’s complex world there is more than one kind of death, more than one kind of life and the two are not always distinct. Even the world he set his story in is passing, subject to decay or already gone, with the leaves of Lothlorien ready to fall and the fallen King of Númenor given his one last flourish of flowers. The great lesson is that no one, Men or Elves, can possess the world for ever and it’s the willingness to gracefully give up, when called upon, that which matters most which - in the end - really matters.“It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: some one has to give them up, lose, them, so that others may keep them.”
To understand why death and immortality are the main thrust of The Lord of the Rings it has to be seen as the culmination of Tolkien’s long history of Middle-earth. Standing alone it’s a harder argument to make, but as the culmination of the long story of men and elves, their desires and weaknesses and how evil can exploit those weaknesses, it makes sense. Death, change (it’s harbinger) and immortality, and how the knowledge of these affect both the Children of Ilúvatar is the main theme that carries over from the larger mythology of The Silmarillion into the story of The Lord of the Rings. It is the glue that holds the two together. I’ll quote the letter to C. Ouboter again:
So it is possible that this wasn’t initially an intentional link. We know that he started The Lord of the Rings as a sequel to The Hobbit, then it grew into an adult story taking place long after the events of his early mythology (primarily because it was chronologically still a Hobbit sequel), then finally, with the weight of his long developed mythology behind it, it became his last chapter on the long struggle of the Elves against the weariness of immortality and of Men against the desire for long life within the circles of the world. As he wrote The Lord of the Rings his larger mythology, of course, took hold of the book, underlying both consciously and unconsciously the events that Tolkien was relating and taking it in directions that even Tolkien didn’t expect. Maybe this is why Tolkien discovered retrospectively that he had been finishing the main theme of his great mythology all along.”Though it is only in reading the work myself (with criticisms in mind) that I became aware of the dominance of the theme of Death.”
Letter 208 to C. Ouboter of Voorhoeve en Dietrich, 10 April 1958