--- In mythsoc@y..., "Vincent Ferre" <ferretolk@h...> wrote:
> When I read (mostly in England, for there's hardly a book
> on him in France, even at the Bibliothèque Nationale) many English
> and American critics for an essay on Tolkien, I was surprised to
> see that most of them work on sources, on the question of power,
> fantasy, etc. but that death and immortality, the core of the Lord
> of the Rings (and not only because Tolkien said so !), are often
> alluded to, but not really examined.
> Am I mistaken ? do you know interesting analysis on that point ?
I read a lot of Tolkien criticism when I was in college, but I find
most of it to be rather boring and repetitive nowadays. There are
only so many ways to mangle the story line so as to present some half-
cocked theory on what Tolkien was really trying to say (that is
intended to be a light-hearted jab at what can often be a rather
stuffy process of which Tolkien himself was sometimes critical).
Of course, before one can delve into Tolkien's fascination with death
and the search for deathlessness, one really has to study Tolkien's
own essays on how the Elves viewed mortality and immortality. Of
course, a lot of people point to "Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth" but I
think they overlook valuable material (or undervalue it) in "Laws and
Customs among the Eldar". Both works were published by Christopher
Tolkien in MORGOTH'S RING.
I don't pursue traditional literary criticism myself. I think the
author knew best what he wanted to say, and I'm much more interested
in looking at the ramifications of what he actually said. That point
of view brings me into conflict with many people (mostly of the "Uzi-
toting Orc" variety, that is, people who feel that if Tolkien didn't
specifically deny something was in Middle-earth then it must have
been there -- hence, there had to be Orcs carrying Uzis in every
scene, since Tolkien never said there weren't any).
If I may be a little self-promoting here, I've looked at some of the
issues raised by Tolkien in my Suite101 column. One essay, "Middle-
earth Connections: Lore of the Rings" (styled on the
PBS "Connections" series format), examines how the Rings of Power
worked and Elvish motivations for making and, later (after the One
Ring was forged), using them. Tolkien provided us with quite a bit
of information on the subjects.
"What Can We Expect From the Upcoming Movies?" (written in September,
1999) looks at Elvish perspectives on death and immortality.
I got a lot of email over that article, and ended up posting some
followup information in the discussion section:
I revisted Elvish motivations in "Gil-galad was an Elven-king..."
But I think I covered some of the most interesting aspects of
Tolkien's Elves and their search for deathlessness in "Shhh! It's a
secret Ring!" (January 2001).
People don't like to think of Tolkien's Elves as suffering
from "death". They die in their own ways. Their greatest fear, and
the reason they made the Rings of Power, was that they would fade and
become wraiths, or be driven to sail over Sea. They were trying to
hang on to their lives in Middle-earth as tenaciously (or more so) as
any Men tried to hang on to their lives, except for the rebellious
Numenoreans who invaded Aman.
Now, issues that I haven't pursued include the more traditional
themes that you would find in typical literary criticism: other
writers who have explored similar perspectives; epic traditions about
immortals' quest for immortality (oddly, Hercules: The Legendary
Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess introduced a new twist on this
theme with their multi-season exploration of the deaths of various
pantheons of gods -- Renaissance Pictures gets too little credit for
being creative and innovative); the burden of guilt which can weigh
upon immortals; etc.
Some of these themes might be compared to the Biblical fall of
angels. The Elves were not angels (Tolkien compares the Valar and
Maiar to the angels), but they were not entirely human, either. The
Elves were something like the apocryphal angels who rebelled against
God and married the daughters of men (I think there were two hundred
of them). They wanted to return to a state of grace, IIRC, but were
unable to disassociate themselves from their worldly lives. It's
been many years since I read that story, so I may have mangled it
Tolkien only speaks of one true "fall" for the Eldar, specifically
the rebellion of Feanor, but he does point out that the creation of
the Rings of Power was a challenge to the natural order of things.
In Eregion, Tolkien notes, the Elves came the closest to succumbing
to the "machine".
I think the "machine" is another issue that gets overlooked,
undervalued, or misrepresented a great deal. People hear about
Tolkien's aversion to industrialization and his complaints about
the "machine" and they conclude he was an anti-technologist. I
didn't know the man, but I wouldn't call him that any more than I
would call him an environmentalist. These are late 20th century
terms, as we use them, and they describe political and almost
Technology is the puppet of the "machine", but the Noldor (according
to Tolkien) were "technologists". Were they therefore inherently
bad? No more so than we, and perhaps less so. It's not the
technology itself that is the problem, but the perverse applications
of it which destroy or repress the natural order. Tolkien created
Ents because the trees had no champions of their own. Ents are in a
sense the defenders of the free expression of trees. It was free
expression that Tolkien returned to time and again in his letters.
And the great threat that the One Ring posed to all of Middle-earth
was the loss of free expression. Sauron would have dominated
everyone and everything had he regained the One Ring.
The Elves had to struggle with the consequences of their choices, and
they elected to deny the natural order when they made the Rings of
Power. Such themes are certainly to be found in older literature
which was available to Tolkien. He was well read in many bodies of
literature and certainly made more than one reference to classical
literature. I certainly doubt he would have been asked to
participate in the Jerusalem Bible project if he were underqualified
to do so.
You know, it's becoming fashionable to associate the Silmarils with
the Sampo of Finnish myth, but I think they had more to do with life
and death than they did with "an attempt to solve the mysterious
riddle", as Tom Shippey puts it. The cornerstone of Tolkien's myths
is always tragedy: what happens when someone makes a choice? The
consequences of choice were explored endlessly by the Greek poets.
Without choice, Achilles would never have crept back to his lonely
tent, heartbroken and jealous over a slave girl. Without choice,
Priam would have ruled Troy forever, and Helen would have been
forgotten as just another wife of some little-known Greek king.
If there are few happy endings in Greek literature, there seem to be
even fewer in Tolkien. Is it really a happy ending for Tuor and
Idril to go sailing off with Voronwe, or just a convenient exit of
three characters who are no longer needed for the main play, which is
about to introduce the third Kinslaying?
If a more modern writer were to take up the subject of what happens
when an immortal elects to alter the natural balance (by tampering
with nature or killing another immortal), the story would almost
certainly turn upon the disruptions nature would experience. But
when Tolkien explores these themes, the story turns upon the
disruptions which individuals experience. Feanor sets the stage for
a long and difficult journey and then he dies. His death has no real
consequence. It's his choices in life that visit tragedy upon his
people and others.
Where is the fun in having massive upheavals, if they are not the
emtional upheavals experienced by men and women? One of the greatest
questions to come out of the Silmarillion mythology is whether Turin
is really responsible for his own fate. Are his choices as important
as, say, the choices of his father (who defied Morgoth and so drew
down a curse upon his family), of the Eldar (who brought their war
with Morgoth to Middle-earth), or his ancestors (who joined that war)?
"Narn i Chin Hurin" is a very complete story, if told only
incompletely in two separate volumes. It has a beginning and an end.
It doesn't end happily, even though there should be cause for great
celebration (the death of the dragon, an end to Turin's nightmarish
leadership, and the reaffirmation of the natural through the
punishment of Turin for his sins). Even "Beren and Luthien" ends
unhappily. They get to live together, but they are cut off from all
whom they love, except one another. The Greeks had happier myths (on
occasion). The Greeks might have had Beren and Luthien turn into two
new trees in Valinor, using the light of their Silmaril to rekindle
the light which once was. But Tolkien seemed to feel that history
compelled itself to move forward. The apparent repetitions were not
There were two Dark Lords and both had to be overthrown. But without
Morgoth there could be no Sauron. Sauron's tenure as Dark Lord was a
direct consequence of Morgoth's own career. In a way, Sauron, too,
seemed to be looking for a way to cheat death. Morgoth had been
executed, after all, and rendered so weak as to be made impotent. At
least by investing a great part of his power in the One Ring, Sauron
was able to endure two deaths which otherwise he might not have
So, what does it mean when an immortal being not only seeks to alter
the natural order, but so fears death that he seeks to cheat it? A
lot of good ink could certainly be thrown on paper over that
question. It's a pity, I think, that so little thought has been
given to the primary theme in LoTR.
But perhaps the real reason people don't get into all that stuff is
that it just doesn't interest them. So, you'll have to wait until
someone comes along who develops a fascination for studying how
literature deals with the themes of death and the search for
deathlessness, as well as facing the consequences of disturbing the