The Half-Elven are vital to the history of Middle-earth. More than almost any other individuals, they shaped how the world progressed through their deeds. These characters struggle, either blatantly or indirectly, with mortality and immortality.
The real theme for me is about something much more permanent and difficult [than power]: Death and Immortality: the mystery of the love of the world in the hearts of a race ‘doomed’ to live 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. (Letters, 246)
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! (Letters, 262)
Middle-earth is indeed heavy with the burden of immortality and the burden of mortality. I’m certainly not trying to claim that Tolkien was “saying” something about mortality. It wasn’t in his nature to deliberately weave a “message” into his stories, as if he were writing an after school special. However, his mythos is deeply informed by his own belief system and there is value to considering the two in relation to each other.
Death and Release
In Middle-earth, mortality seems to be the default state, so to speak. Half-Elven, unless otherwise given the choice, are mortal. Does this mean that mortality is somehow superior to immortality? The Silmarillion says, “Death is their [Man’s] fate, the gift of Ilúvatar, which as Time wears even the Powers [Valar] shall envy” (Silmarillion, 42). The Valar will envy men because they’ll get so tired of living that they want to die.
Why would anyone desire death? Isn’t suicide a bad thing? In Arda, the desire of death is quite different from suicide (which is rarely mentioned–I can’t think of a specific example off the top of my head when it happens). Even in the early chapters of The Silmarillion, death is seen as a release from weariness and burden.
Míriel, the wife of Finwë, High King of the Noldor, gives birth to their son, Fëanor. Fëanor’s spirit of fire is overwhelming; giving birth to him was more than Míriel could handle. She sought rest in death (Silmarillion, 63-4). While this was considered strange at the time, apparently even the Valar will feel the same way eventually. Míriel is held blameless in her decision to leave her body (Morgoth’s Ring, 237). The Valar saw her excessive weariness as a sad result of Arda Marred. She sought “release from the labour of living” and incurred no guilt for doing so (Morgoth’s Ring, 257-8).
Equating death with release is a common theme in Tolkien’s works. Around 1925, Tolkien began telling the tale of Beren and Lúthien in poem (The Lays of Beleriand, 183). Although he never finished it, he kept the title consistent and even referred to it in later works. The title was “The Lay of Leithian Release from Bondage” (The Lays of Beleriand, 188). Christopher Tolkien commented that his father never explained the meaning behind this title (The Lays of Beleriand, 188). Looking at the story of Beren and Lúthien, bondage and slavery don’t really play an important role. It is true that Thingol tried to keep Lúthien from leaving Doriath and the sons of Fëanor also imprisoned her briefly. Beren was also jailed by Sauron for a time. However, these pieces of the story are not the most important. What, then, is the bondage? Could the Lay of Leithian be the story of release from the bondage of immortality?
Immortals vs. Mortals
The interpretation seems reasonable, considering that mortality is frequently referred to (by Elves) positively and even called a gift. This ties in with mortality being the default state for Half-Elven. One might almost say that mortals are superior to Elves.
The text even seems to support this theory of superiority. The Silmarillion states, “…the Sun was set as a sign for the awakening of Men and the waning of the Elves, but the Moon cherishes their memory” (Silmarillion, 99). The Elves are essentially on their way out and Men are destined to take over (as we see happening at the end of the Third Age).
What is it that makes Men superior? To say that they possess the gift of mortality is to use circular logic. Why does the gift of mortality make them superior?
The state of the Elves in the Third Age is rather sad.
These were the fading years of the Eldar. For long they were at peace, wielding the Three Rings while Sauron slept and the One Ring was lost; but they attempted nothing new, living in memory of the past (RotK, 1059).
It almost seems like they were just existing, rather than actually living. They cling to an old way of life, a memory. All they can do is preserve what they have, but they have no will to move forward. When contrasted with the life that is exhibited by men, from Bree to Rohan to Gondor, this seems almost tragic. Men seem to have a stronger sense of industry and a desire to move forward. One might almost say that Men live more because they have to; their lives are so short that they have no choice but to do as much as they can and to push themselves forward.
Does all of this add up to Men being superior to Elves? Not objectively. I’m still partial to Elves myself. However, going through this exercise and pondering all of this has certainly given me more respect for and interest in the Men of Middle-earth.
The Choice of the Half-Elven
Half-Elven Part II: The Choice of Lúthien
Half-Elven Part III: Those Denied the Choice
Half-Elven Part IV: The Union
Half-Elven Part V: The Children of Choice
Half-Elven Part VI: The Last Ones
Half-Elven Part VII: Concluding Thoughts on Mortality
Photo credit: Arvee Marie