By: Yosef Roth
Death is seen as a gift in Tolkien’s writing. To portray mortality as a benefit is a commonly expressed idea. In an episode of Star Trek: Voyager the ship meets an immortal race that is thoroughly bored with the universe. In Isaac Asimov’s Robots of Dawn, a scientist explains that the fast paced scientific progress on earth is due to man’s short life span. Without long life, men must cooperate and pool their discoveries with others’. Tolkien has his own unique perspective on why mortality is beneficial.
Tolkien is able to express this perspective through fantasy. Because he is writing fantasy and not sci-fi, he is able to draw upon themes such as life after death and relating to God: themes normally absent from sci-fi. Sci-fi usually limits itself to stories of science and the natural world. For the most part, Sci-fi stories merely stretch our understanding of how the universe works. Any concept that goes past the realm of the natural world is not within the common scope of sci-fi.
Fantasy, on the other hand, is not bound to this-worldly themes. It includes concepts such as life after death and God: otherworldly themes. This allows Tolkien, in his fantasy works, to express an otherworldly perspective of mortality. He sees mortality as man’s greatness in that it passes man onto his ideal existence and allows him to connect with God. He looks at death not as the end of our purpose but rather as the maturation of our existence into its ideal form.
That view of mortality comes forth the clearest in his work The Simarillion. In this work, the author sets the foundations of his fictional universe and explains the peculiarities and hierarchy of its races. At the top is God, the creator of all. The next in might are the angels: God’s first creation. God then created two races of physical beings: elves and men. The elves in The Simarillion are immortal. They are extremely beautiful and similar to Star Trek’s Vulcans in their strength and intelligence. Indeed they seem to be the greatest physical race. However God gave to man a special gift: mortality.
The peculiarities of each race fully express themselves as the story unfolds. The elves become the wisest and most beautiful of the physical creations. They build magnificent cites and command armies terrible in their might. Being immortal, the elves endure forever. They are established permanently in the world. Mortal men, on the other hand, never achieve this degree of splendor. Though they do build cities and command armies, it does not come close to the magnificence and might of the elves. Man’s mortality does not allow him to achieve this. Mortality makes man an impermanent resident of the world.
But mortality, in the The Simarillion, is a gift. It gives to man a purpose in creation wholly different from that of the elves. The elves are immortal and thus forever tied to the natural world. Their souls cannot escape even if they wish to, as their purpose is within the world itself. They were created to improve the world and to beautify it. Their purpose is similar to that of an inventor or scientist. The inventor hopes to improve the natural world through his inventions. At least in regard to inventing, he views his purpose as being in this world. The elves do what the inventor does but with art and beauty rather than science. Since the entire purpose of the elves is the improvement of this world, they are able to build the fairest cities, command the mightiest armies, and create the most beautiful art. It is their existence in its ideal form.
Though man cannot achieve this degree of splendor in the natural world, mortality allows for man’s greatness on an entirely different plane. It is here that Tolkien’s perspective reaches the otherworldly. Mortality allows man greatness and purpose in the afterlife. Though within the natural world the elves may accomplish more than man, it is only because man has not reached his final state of existence. Within the world man is like a child awaiting maturation. After death, man grows into his ideal state. It is not revealed what that state is, but his purpose lies beyond. Therefore it is the next world where man’s state of being reaches his highest. Mortality is the gift of man passing onto his ideal existence.
But existence beyond the physical world is not the only blessing of mortality. Even within the world it gives man, in The Simarillion, a closeness with God impossible for immortals. The immortal elves do not end up worshiping God; it doesn’t come into their consciousness. Immortality forever binds one to the physical universe, and they therefore have no way of interacting with a transcendent God. The elves’ only purpose is improving the natural world; worshipping God for them would be unnecessary and indeed impossible. But man does worship God, and it is his morality that allows him to do so. It unchains him from the world and is therefore a transcendent being himself. Though man has physical form he is essentially otherworldly and therefore able to relate to God. Mortality is also a reflection of God’s direct rule on man. God placed the universe within the custody of the angels. The elves therefore, being part of and bound to the universe, are under the rule of the angels as well. But man, not being chained to the world, is ruled by no one save God himself.
Many writers comment on the advantages of mortality, but Tolkien expresses a perspective that is truly unique. When sci-fi addresses mortality, it is frequently expresses mortality’s worldly advantages. Tolkien, on the other hand, is able to draw from celestial themes. Mortality allows man to have his ideal existence in the afterlife. It establishes man’s purpose as beyond the natural world to the extent that even within the world, man’s gaze is toward the heavens. It is death that gives man the transcendence to worship God and moves him onto his ideal existence in the afterlife.