Tolkien's Essays and Letters on Elvish and Human Death and Reincarnation

Important Questions

  1. What is the relationship of Elvish death to Aman's existence and history? What about dwarvish death?
  2. Is the anthropology of Elves different than that of humans? Given a difference, is it in any way important to Tolkien's mythology?
  3. Is death a gift and/or a curse for human beings?
  4. Is "reincarnation" the right term to describe Elvish rebirth?
  5. What is the relationship between Tolkien's Catholic beliefs and his mythology in this area?
  6. How does his understanding(s) of death apply to other works, such as The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, or Smith of Wooton Major?
  7. How important is to account for the potential perspectives of the fictional authors of the various pieces?
  8. What do the essays' notions of death imply about the world, Eru, the demonic and angelic, the eschaton, etc?

Laws and Customs among the Eldar

Laws and Customs (HoME vol. 10) is meant to a study of Elvish culture from an outsider's perspective, likely human. It considers how the Valar came to the decision to allow Finw to marry after the death of Míriel. It looks at a number of factors that would have likely entered into the decision, including Elvish marriage, procreation, families, types of naming, gender equality, work division, and Elvish anthropology.

Laws and Customs represents an earlier version of Tolkien's ideas about Elvish reincarnation, one in which the fa (approx. "soul") of a dead Elf may return from the Halls of Mandos by being born anew. In later prose explorations, such as the Athrabeth and "The Converse of Manw and Eru" (HoME 10.361-366), Elves may only be reincarnated by special permission of the Valar and that in a reconstituted body (hrondo). This process could assume that the Elvish soul has a powerful memory of its bodily life and existence, but it more likely simply recognizes the reconstitution by the Valr.

This potential duality in Elvish anthropology raises the question as to whether the body is simply superfluous or at least secondary. There is some hint of this. The "unhoused" are those far who refuse to go to the Halls of Mandos and/or Valinor. Elves also experience fading over centuries as their bodies are worn down by the fire of their fear. Yet, overall, the Elvish connection of soul and body is one of deep dependence.  One soul is intended for one body. The body is more than a shell; it is deeply fitted to its fa. Tolkien shifts in his presentation of Elvish reincarnation precisely because the earlier view would undercut this stress. There is in Elvish understanding the awareness that the person continues to exist even after death and will always exist as long as Arda exists.

The statute of Finw and Míriel arises after a debate among the Valar as to whether Finw may marry even though Míriel continues to exist. Their debate breaks down thusly:  

Manw--Principles of justice and healing must be kept in mind. Death is unnatural. Since Arda is Marred, the work of justice is not always the work of healing. What is just exists amidst a world that is broken and can, while not desiring to add new evils, perpetuate present evil. The work of healing, which operates out of suffering and patience, must always keep in mind the end of Arda Restored .

Aul--Perhaps death is natural and the intent of Eru is to bring creatures beyond Arda.

Ulmo--Death is an evil. Míriel's death is the result of grief. The fault in in the creatures of Eru. To justify Míriel is not enough.

Yavanna--But the Shadow (of Melkor) works on Arda; Míriel's death is part of that shadow.

Nienna--Justice needs pity; The Elves are weak, and Míriel died out of that weakness. Eru did not give her power to resist the suffering.  

Vair (Varda)-- Míriel is determined not to return. Finw is trapped, unable to follow his wife in death nor fulfill his marital duties as a husband.

Manw--There are two kinds of death--one intended for evil by Melkor; the other intended for good by Eru. Likewise, there are two Ardas Unmarred--the aspects of the unmarred that remain in this present world and the expectation of Arda Healed.  Manw fears to allow Finw to marry again is to continue the evil of Míriel's death.

Mandos--The statute is just since while the better choice is to wait, the Valar cannot violate the free will of the Children. Mandos also prophecies the greatness of the descendants of Indris and Finw.

This is also summarized in "The Shibboleth of Fanor" (HoME 12.333-336).

Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth

The debate of Finrod the Noldor and Andreth of the House of Bor is concerned with their differing takes on death and immortality, as well as differing views of the causes of human fallenness. The debate also considers the question of the eternal destiny of both races beyond Arda, and it explores the relationship of Eru to his creation in its current state.

 

Finrod

Andreth

Is death normal?

Elves assume that death is part of normal human existence.

Death is a grief for humans; it is not what their original state was.

What are we intended for?

Elves intended for Arda, but now that it is Marred, they wear out quicker than they would have.

Humans were intended for life beyond Arda in an eternal state.

Is death a good end?

Untainted death would be a good end (meaning to leave Arda?) Elves may die.

Death has been imposed upon humans, and is not good.

Is this world our final destiny?

Elves are bound to Arda. Existence beyond Arda is only speculation among the some Elves.

Humans are meant to exist beyond Arda.

Are our bodies part of the problem?

Perhaps the fa would eventually abandon its home, but this is not the fault of the body.

No. The body is intended for its one dweller. It is not to be despised.

What, then, is the eternal state?

Finrod wonders if Eru's purpose for humans might be to have their fear uplift their hra to an eternal state.

 

The purpose of humanity would, then, be to uplift and surpass the present state for Elves as well.

Unsure.

Is there a place for hope where there is no certain knowledge?

Eru's designs for his Children are for their ultimate joy.

Fears that Morgoth is the King of the World and that there is no hope.

What is the answer to Arda Marred?

Would not Eru then have to enter his own tale, being both inside it and outside it since he is the only one who may heal Arda completely? Is this possible?

Those of the Old Hope say that Eru himself will enter Arda and heal humans.

"The Tale of Adanel" (HoME 10.345-350)

An appendix to the Athrabeth, it tells the story of a human fall to the deceptions of Morgoth. It is both parallel to and divergent from the biblical Genesis account. The narrator conjectures that this is an addition added during the Númenórean Second Age, though it may be the product of genuine tradition.

Late Essays on Glorfindel (HoME 12.377-384)

These two short, late essays form a good test case for the doctrine of Elvish reincarnation.  Glorfindel's special sanctity in Lord of the Rings is perhaps due to be one who has returned to Middle-Earth from the Halls of Mandos. Glorfindel's state may have to do with being one who even finally lived bodily among the Valar for a time before his return. (A fa's return to bodily existence may also be delayed, even denied, if the elf was guilty of great evil. The opposite of the case with Glorfindel.)

Another brief texts on Elvish reincarnation mentions in passing some ideas about dwarvish reincarnation and later existence. Dwarves believe that the spirits of the original Seven Fathers are reborn in kindred at various times.

Letters

131 (pp.146-147, 151-152)--Elves variously see human death as both a gift and a grief, a doom to be pitied and an escape to be envied. Those Elves who remain in Middle-Earth do so out of a desire for prestige and memory. They fade over time, and their culture becomes "a kind of embalming."

153--A defense of Elvish reincarnation as an authentic expression of sub-creation. Tolkien sees it as a mode of existence for certain kinds of "rational incarnate creatures." He sees Elves as a certain kind of human existence explored imaginatively.

208--The Elvish temptation is to put the world on hold and to be "burdened with Memory." "[T]he hideous peril of confusing true 'immortality' with limitless serial longevity. Freedom from Time, and clinging to Time."

212--Points out the view that death is the Gift of God to men is an Elvish perspective and not a denial of the Christian view that death is a result of sin and human rebellion as the Fall. Tolkien stresses that even divine punishment can be also a divine gift since its ultimate end is for a restoration of the good God intended originally. Likewise, Tolkien understands that the Silmarillion myth locates the entrance of death into creation at a different point than typical Christian belief. Death enters the world before the creation of Elves and men. Tolkien also explores the notion that a good man can choose to die before being forced to do so (e.g. Aragorn) and compares this to teaching on the Assumption of Mary.

 

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding