Joy and Death in Tolkien

Full disclosure? I’m a Tolkien nerd. Now, before you chuckle and stop reading, visions of LARP-ers in elven robes dancing through your brain, allow me to defend myself. There are three kinds of Tolkien-ites: readers, re-readers, and fanatics. Everyone starts as a reader. Some become re-readers, and some fewer become avid re-readers. I myself have read the Lord of the Rings 'trilogy' (technically a single book comprised of three volumes) way more times than I’d like to admit in writing. But in order to be the kind of fan that elicits a rueful neck-rubbing and a gentle “d’you think maybe there’s a world out there worth participating in?,” you have to do something drastic—like learn elvish. I submit that the relative size of the third category leaves plenty of room in the second for all we merry fantasy geeks.  

Still with me? Good. Let’s begin.

It’s tempting to think that reading fantasy is about escaping from one’s own world. I’d bet that everyone has wished at least once that they could join their favorite characters in their world—things always turn out better, or at least they seem far more exciting through the eyes of our favorite authors. But I think to dismiss fantasy literature as escapism is to ignore the central attraction of a good fantasy novel: its capacity to recast universal truths in winning ways.

Tolkien holds, alongside giants such as MacDonald and Lewis, top honors in this regard. Virtually every fantasy author to follow Tolkien stands in his shadow. I believe this popularity stems from a simple root—he tells the truth, more of it and more winsomely than almost anyone else. He built a world possessed of enough fancy to steal away our hearts, and yet suffused entirely with meaning of the deepest sort.

A sterling example of this is Tolkien’s treatment of death, and so, at long last, I’m going to get to the point. Join me in perusing this passage from Chapter 12 of good old J.R.R.’s Silmarillion:

“From this time forth were reckoned the Years of the Sun. Swifter and briefer are they than the long Years of the Trees in Valinor. In that time the air of Middle-earth became heavy with the breath of growth and mortality, and the changing and ageing of all things was hastened exceedingly; life teemed upon the soil and in the waters in the Second Spring of Arda and the Eldar increased, and beneath the new sun Beleriand grew green and fair.”

Perhaps the most beautiful facet of this almost biblically-worded passage is its position within the story of Tolkien’s world; it foreshadows that Men will be born into a world already broken and remade, in which pain and comfort, joy and sorrow, and (most importantly) rebellion and reconciliation have all been introduced. Everywhere in the passage we find descriptive thematic elements set against one another, all pointing to a truth vital to Tolkien’s project: life comes from death.

As only Tolkien can, he has pent up thematic import in every single word. Watch this: the Years of the Sun are “swift” and “brief” unlike the previous blessed Years of the Trees in Valinor. So that’s negative right? After all, when we are talking about a shortening of a blessed kind of life, it must be negative. At least it would be, if Tolkien didn’t immediately juxtapose “heaviness” and “mortality” with the “breath of growth” that springs up as all things in his world begin to “age.” Death entering an immortal world is indeed a heavy thing, but Tolkien clearly differentiates between the mortality begat by age and the mortality of the murders perpetrated a chapter or two earlier. He describes this mortality as “the breath of growth.” Breathing and growing are irrefutably natural phenomena.

What’s more, Tolkien, as a Professor of Anglo-Saxon Literature first at Pembroke College, Oxford, and later at Merton College, was most certainly aware of the linguistic tradition in which he participated. Breath, not only in Scripture, but also widely in poetry, evokes imagery typically associated with the presence of the Holy Spirit. Dante’s Divine Comedy, for example, brims with instances of this symbol. Invoking it here, Tolkien implies not only that breathing, growing, aging, and even death are natural, but also that they are one in the presence of God. United, they are a truer life than the immortals can attain.

Even more interestingly, the Anglo-Saxon poetic tradition spends a lot of time dealing with the notion of death. Many of the poets in this tradition were monks, desperately trying to communicate the beauty of Christ’s self-sacrificial mission to a culture in which giving oneself up without a fight was weak and disloyal to one’s family. A lord who went down to death voluntarily was a lord who deserted his followers. You can see, I’m sure, the evangelistic dilemma this poses.

The poets solved it via the narrative of the harrowing of Hell. Christ, recast as an aggressive warlord, climbs voluntarily onto the cross as a vehicle for his descent into hell, where he does battle with Satan over those of his followers caught up in death’s snare. He then rises victorious, having defeated death itself. The most beautiful part about this whole narrative is that it doesn’t stop at painting Christ as a victor; it redefines Death itself as a tool in Christ’s hands. In some senses, death ceased to be man’s enemy, and became his greatest ally, that which would convey him permanently into the presence of his Lord. This was an easier pill for the average Anglo-Saxon warrior to swallow—a savior who raids the ultimate enemy’s stronghold and steals away his greatest weapon for his own use.

Tolkien knew his stuff, and plays on exactly the same tradition here. By twinning natural death with the fullness and excitement and wholeness of life in the Second Spring of the world, he tips his hand. For his race of man, the mere fact of mortality enlivens, enhances, and actualizes their living. One can almost taste the air as he describes a teeming, frenetic energy that is at once less noble and more fair than the deep reverence of the immortal world inhabited by the Elves. The truly blessed life, in Tolkien’s mind, is one that ends.

This is true, folks. You might even say that this is the Truth. Tolkien’s fantasy is describing a reality that has the capacity to suffuse our ‘real life’ with a new sort of joy. We are the objects of God’s greatest gift. We will live (or die) to see an end to our striving, and a rebirth to eternity. And so far as I’m concerned, reading about ideas like this one is what mortal life is for.

So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go spend a few more intoxicating hours with Tolkien. Because life is blessedly short, and that is well worth remembering.