When I started reading The Lord of the Rings as an undergraduate, I was half-embarrassed to be doing so. I might become one of those girls who left each other messages on the dorm message board in elvish runes and stayed up late discussing the geography of Middle Earth in fake English accents. Even after I had overcome my snobbery and discovered the book’s magnificence, literary pretensions still kept me away from the appendices: Detailed explanations of invented anthropology and linguistics—what could they be but the self-indulgent folly of an otherwise great writer? But when chance or boredom finally led me to leaf through them one day, I came upon what I still find the most exquisitely sorrowful moment in a book filled with exquisitely beautiful sorrow.
The wise and good Arwen, who has given up her elvish immortality to be the mortal Aragorn’s queen, is overcome at his deathbed and pleads for him to stay with her longer. He refuses, saying that it is right for him to go with good grace and before he grows feeble. Then he tells her:
I speak no comfort to you, for there is no comfort for such pain within the circles of the world. The uttermost choice is before you: to repent and go to the Havens and bear away into the West the memory of our days together that shall there be evergreen but never more than memory; or else to abide the Doom of Men.
Arwen replies that she has no choice:
I must indeed abide the Doom of Men whether I will or nill: the loss and the silence. But I say to you, King of the Numenoreans, not till now have I understood the tale of your people and their fall. As wicked fools I scorned them, but I pity them at last. For if this is indeed, as the Elves say, the gift of the One to Men, it is bitter to receive.
In this new and bitter knowledge, she goes away alone after Aragorn’s death, “the light of her eyes . . . quenched . . . cold and gray as nightfall that comes without a star.” She dies alone in the dead land of Lorien, where deathless Elves once lived.
For Arwen, otherwise infinitely wiser than we, death is the one unknown, a new and unexpected discovery. Aragorn knows better; he knows, as all mortals should, that comfort is impossible and even unworthy in the face of death. Yet he still holds fast to what Arwen has only known as an abstract theological tenet: that death is truly God’s gift.
I cry whenever I reread this passage; it haunts me like no other, though it’s hard to explain why. At the heart of it is the phrase “the gift of the One to Men.” Tolkien looks unblinkingly at “the loss and the silence” of death, but remains steadfast: Death is our curse, but also our blessing.
He has hidden this particular tale away in an appendix, but the same idea of mortality permeates the whole book. The plot centers on a ring that gives immortality and corrupts its bearer. Much of the book’s character interest arises from the interactions between mortal and immortal races, who both mystify and fascinate each other. The structure of the work also echoes mortality itself. I have heard friends criticize the long and leisurely denouement (over a hundred pages), but I’ve never understood such complaints. Myself, I was grateful for every page, always vividly aware that they would run out all too soon. Those closing chapters are a portrait of mortality: However happily a story ends, it must end, and that itself is our great sorrow. All that is beautiful and beloved dies. The Fellowship of the Ring accomplishes its quest, but with the end of its troubles comes the separation of its members. Gandalf and the High Elves win the war, but their own victory banishes them from Middle Earth. With them “many fair things will fade and be forgotten.” Frodo has saved the world but now longs to leave it. This has to be one of literature’s saddest happy endings. Tolkien makes us savor the bittersweet, for he knows (like Gandalf) that “not all tears are an evil.”
Clearly, mortality is at the heart of this story. The subject has become a hot topic today, with Leon Kass and other “mortalists” arguing against a research culture that sees death and aging merely as foes to be overcome. If medicine succeeds in making man immortal, or even much longer-lived, the mortalists argue, much that makes human life worthwhile will be lost. Kass has used the wisdom of such ancient authors as Homer to illustrate his vision of mortality’s benefits. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien makes a Christian case for the same claim. In Tolkien’s world, immortality and long life lead even the noblest creatures to a spiritual dead end, or to outright corruption.
The virtues of mortality are most obvious in the great paradox of the book: that the very mortal Hobbits are the only ones who can resist the Ring’s seduction and destroy it. Seemingly the most insignificant and lowliest race of all, they spend their (relatively) short lives in small pursuits. They have little use for lofty “elvish” ideas. As most characters in The Lord of the Rings remark, they are unlikely saviors of the world. In fact, their lowly mortality may be their greatest asset.
The Hobbits are firmly enfleshed. They love gardening, visiting, eating and drinking—“six meals a day (when they could get them)”—and parties and presents. Also, unlike the other lands we see, the Shire is full of children, for Tolkien tells us that Hobbits have very large families, Frodo and Bilbo being “as bachelors very exceptional.” This is true of no other people in Middle Earth. The immortal Elves, of course, need few children. Arwen seems to be spoken of as one of the youngest of her people; they call her their “Evenstar.” Legolas has apparently been his father’s heir for aeons. The Dwarves, though mortal, are very long-lived, and they have children so seldom that many believe they are not born, but grow from stones. They have few women, and even fewer children, as many women choose not to marry; likewise with the men, “very many also do not desire marriage, being engrossed in their crafts.” The Ents seem to live more or less forever, but even they are dying out. “There have been no Entingsno children, you would say, not for a terrible long count of years,” Treebeard tells the Hobbits. “The Ents gave their love to the things they met in the world, and the Entwives gave their thoughts to other things.” Finally the Entwives disappeared altogether.
It is not only the older and the lesser races that have ceased to bear children. Barrenness also characterizes Gondor. Once great, the city has declined. Pippin sees there many houses that have fallen empty, so that “it lacked half the men that could have dwelt at ease there.” Beregond the guard tells him, “There were always too few children in the city.” When Faramir, younger son of the Steward of Gondor, meets Frodo, he explains his country’s decay more fully:
Death was ever present, because the Numenoreans still, as they had in their own 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 old men compounded strong elixirs, or in high cold towers asked questions of the stars. And the last king of the line of Anorien had no heir.
Personal immortality, or the lure of it, seems to turn members of all these races in on themselves. The Elves dwell more in their memories than in the present; the long-lived mortal races turn to glorious deeds in an attempt at personal immortality. For the Elves and the Ents, the result is a kind of lethargy. For men it can be far more sinister: In Boromir and especially in Denethor, Tolkien shows the pride and despair that come from the pursuit of personal immortality through individual glory.
The Hobbits have no illusions that they can in any sense live forever. As a result, they concentrate on immediate and animal concerns. They pursue immortality only by a far humbler and more mortal path, the ordinary, impersonal, animal immortality of parenthood. It’s no accident that everyone who meets the Hobbits mistakes them for children at first. Even after long acquaintance, they are to Legolas “those merry young folk” and to Treebeard “the Hobbit children.” Something about the Hobbits is so lively and natural that they invariably turn the minds of others toward childhood and children.
This fertility, this willingness to pass life on to a new generation rather than grasping for “endless life unchanging,” is the Hobbits’ great strength, as it should likewise be mankind’s proper strength. It makes them at once humbler than immortals, since they place less confidence in their own individual abilities, and more hopeful, since their own individual defeats are not the end of everything. The life that lives for its offspring may never achieve perfection, but neither is it ever utterly defeated or utterly corrupted. Some hope always remains. The Elf Legolas and the Dwarf Gimli discuss this tenacity of mortals when they first see Gondor. Gimli observes in the older stonework of the city a promise unfulfilled by the newer:
“It is ever so with the things that men begin: there is a frost in Spring or a blight in Summer, and they fail of their promise.”
“Yet seldom do they fail of their seed,” said Legolas. “And that will lie in times and places unlooked for. The deeds of Men will outlast us, Gimli.”
Here and throughout the book, seed is Tolkien’s symbol for the hope peculiar to mortals. Gandalf tells Denethor that he too is a steward, charged with preserving all good things. He will not have failed completely, he says, “if anything passes through this night that can still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again in days to come.” Gondor’s emblem, a white tree, withered centuries ago. Even after Sauron’s defeat, Aragorn is anxious for his realm until he can find a seedling to replant in the Citadel. For as he tells Gandalf, however long his life, he is still mortal. Gandalf’s answer tells Aragorn to seek hope in mortality: “Turn your face from the green world, and look where all seems barren and cold.” Aragorn finds the seedling—growing alone on a stony, snowy slope—that signifies the continuance of his reign through his heirs. He seeks life in a place of death, as he did before in the Paths of the Dead, as Arwen did when she chose mortal life with him, as the Hobbits did when they undertook the hopeless quest, and as Gandalf did when he died, though immortal.
The hope of life that mortality offers is far from certain. Legolas and Gimli’s conversation continues with Gimli wondering if men’s deeds will “yet come to naught in the end but might-have-beens.” “To that the Elves know not the answer,” replies Legolas.
We do not know the answer either. Tolkien is not cheerily trying to pretend that our condition is ideal, or that mortality guarantees us any kind of virtue. But unlike the earthly immortality he has envisioned for us, our mortality offers another and higher hope beyond this world, however uncertain it may seem. This hope is the comfort Aragorn offers Arwen in his last words: “In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold, we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory, Farewell.”
Anna Mathie is a graduate student of philosophy at the Catholic University of America.