Chris Seeman There is no such thing as a natural death. Nothing that happens to Man is ever natural, since his presence calls the whole world into question. All men must die, but for every man his death is an accident. And even if he knows it and consents to it, an unjustifiable violation.
These words come from the pen of the French existentialist, Simone de Beauvoir. They have been widely quoted, but perhaps never more unexpectedly than on the lips of JRR Tolkien, in an interview which he conducted with the BBC in 1968. “You may agree with the words or not,” says he, “but those are the keyspring of The Lord of the Rings
.” Since the advent of Aubrey Beardsley’s intentionalist fallacy, denizens of English Departments have, of course, been warned against equating an author’s statements with any totalizing claim to having discovered “The Meaning” of a literary work. And Tolkien would no doubt have concurred with this view, as he himself spilt a good deal of ink dis-owning other people’s allegorical or didactic interpretations of LotR. “As for any inner meaning or ‘message’,” Tolkien wrote in his foreword to the second edition, “it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical. As the story grew it put down roots (into the past) and threw out unexpected branches…”
Tolkien’s use of organic metaphor to describe his own creative process is no mere rhetorical feint. It rings true with virtually all his commentary on his own writings. And now, with the hindsight afforded by the publication of the manuscript history of LotR, any intentionalist argument about the genesis of the work is definitively undermined. In a letter to a prospective publisher, Tolkien confesses that in its beginnings, his mythology had no overweening purpose: “The mere stories were the thing. They arose in my mind as ‘given’ things.”
One need not mystify these words in order to grasp that Tolkien was an intuitive artist—as many artists are. Nevertheless, recognition of this fact should not lead us to downplay Tolkien’s capacity—and indeed predilection—for reflecting on his art and offering an interpretation of it. It is this—Tolkien’s own retrospective statements on what LotR is about—that I wish to explore here tonight. My intention (to risk the wrath of Aubrey Beardsley) is two-fold. First, to decode Tolkien’s language. Death as an existential problem does not exactly leap out as an obvious motif or preoccupation of LotR. Clearly, there is need for exegesis here. But there is also a more expansive—and, I think, more interesting—dimension to this; namely, the fact that in making such statements, the author was not simply bringing closure to a finished work. Quite the contrary, at the time of its publication, Tolkien had come to view LotR as merely one part (albeit a crucial part) in a much larger, yet incomplete mythological cycle, upon which he was now bending all of his creative energies. Viewed from this perspective, Tolkien’s pronouncements about the underlying import of LotR signify not closure, but rather give voice and focus to the continuation
of a creative process which began long before LotR was conceived, and which was to persist all the way to the author’s death in 1973. So why Death? As the account of a war, LotR is not, of course, lacking in carnage. There is death aplenty throughout the narrative. But nowhere is Death as such treated as an occasion for existential crisis. Indeed, Tolkien’s heroes willingly sacrifice themselves for a noble cause without ever questioning its necessity. But while Tolkien’s characters do not suffer angst about their own mortality, Tolkien does foreground a kind of aporia in characters whose natural lifespan has been suspended through the agency of the Ring. In a pivotal scene in The Fellowship of the Ring
, Gandalf explains the effect thus: “A mortal, Frodo, who keeps one of the Great Rings, does not die, but he does not grow or obtain more life, he merely continues, until at last every minute is a weariness.”
In an earlier chapter, Bilbo remarks to Gandalf: “I feel all thin, sort of stretched
, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread. That can’t be right.”
The extremity of this unnatural prolongation of life, in both its physical and psychological effects, finds expression in the wretchedness of Gollum and the dehumanization of the Ringwraiths. Yet, important as these characters are in their own right, their victimization is at best a side-effect, not a prime motive. The One Ring, as we all know, was never intended to be worn by anyone but its maker, and despite the use Sauron made of the other rings to enslave the “Mortal Men doomed to die,” those rings had originally been forged—as far as we know—not for mortals, but for use by the deathless Elves. Nor is it anywhere explicitly stated by Tolkien that the recipients of the Nine Rings were deluded specifically by a desire for immortality. In short, if LotR is about death and the desire for deathlessness, that motive is not exemplified by the characters in the story. How, then, is Death the “keyspring” of LotR? The answer depends in part on the context in which we take Tolkien’s dictum. If the context is simply LotR as a discreet story, Death as existential problem clearly takes a back seat to more obvious themes like Power and Self-Sacrifice. If, on the other hand, the context is Tolkien’s mythology as a whole—especially the links between that mythology and the LotR—both the scope of the motif, and its latent presence in or applicability to other themes, expands notably. In Tolkien’s 1951 letter to the publisher Milton Waldman, to whom he was then pitching the dual publication of The Silmarillion
and LotR, we encounter Tolkien’s earliest recorded reflection on the theme of Death. “All this stuff,” he writes: is mainly concerned with Fall, Mortality, and the Machine. With Fall inevitably, and that motive occurs in several modes. With Mortality, especially as it affects art and the creative (or as I should say, sub-creative) desire….This desire is at once wedded to a passionate love of the real primary world, and hence filled with the sense of mortality, and yet unsatisfied by it. It has various opportunities of ‘Fall’. It may become possessive. Clinging to the things made as ‘its own’, the sub-creator wishes to be the Lord and God of his private creation. He will rebel against the laws of the Creator — especially against mortality. Both of these (alone or together) will lead to the desire for Power, for making the will more quickly effective, — and so to the Machine (or Magic). By the last I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of development of the inherent inner powers or talents — or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognised.
For an author so avowedly hostile to allegory, the degree of abstraction with which Tolkien navigates the grand themes of his mythology is striking. How to dissect and unpack this lofty verbiage? It may be useful to begin by putting some narrative flesh onto these philosophical bones. When Tolkien speaks of “Fall,” he is speaking in a Christian theological context: a fall from grace. He speaks of this occurring in several “modes.” A rehearsal of The Silmarillion
offers prime examples of what is meant. To begin with, there is the angelic fall of Melkor, who rebels against his Creator and his peers by laying claim to the created world and everything in it, the failure of which leads to the desire to destroy that world. The “Machine” or “Magic” by which Melkor makes his will effective—as we learn from Tolkien’s late metaphysical ruminations published in Morgoth’s Ring
—was the dissipation of his malevolent spirit throughout all creation, so that it was irrevocably marred, and hence, a “fallen” world. Sauron’s tale too represents the fall of an angelic being—this time not through a nihilistic urge to destroy, but through a coldly rational calculation to dominate and organize it under his rule. The Ring becomes the “Machine” by which Sauron attempts to achieve this. Since both Sauron and Melkor are immortal beings, death plays no role in their fall. The same cannot be said for Tolkien’s myth of the Fall of Man. Here, however, Tolkien injects a significant revision into the traditional Christian notion of the primordial fall. Tolkien’s Man is mortal, but it is asserted that this is a natural state intended by the Creator. The “Fall,” then, is not a devolution from immortality to mortality, but a change in Man’s perception of and attitude toward Death—as a thing to be feared and avoided, rather than a gift to be accepted willingly. The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen in the appendices of LotR celebrates the recovery of this lost ideal. The climactic exchange between the two at Aragorn’s death-bed is worth quoting in full. Arwen speaks first: ‘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 Númenoreans, 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 Eldar say, the gift of the One to Men, it is bitter to receive.’ ‘So it seems,’ he said. ‘But let us not be overthrown at the final test, who of old renounced the Shadow and the Ring. 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!’
Here, then, is a character in LotR who clearly defines Death as an existential challenge. Yet it appears only in the appendix, and otherwise finds no significant echo in the main narrative (at least in connection with Aragorn). Arwen, however, speaks of the “tale of your people,” drawing the matter into the larger context of the mythology, and it is there, in Tolkien’s story of Númenor and its Downfall, that the problem of mortality occupies center-stage. The Númenórean fall from grace, recounted in the story “Akallabêth,” involves several stages. The proximity of Númenor to the Undying Lands awakens envy of the deathless. To compensate for their frustration, the Númenóreans turn to the pursuit of political and economic power in Middle-earth, which brings them into rivalry with Sauron. Ultimately, Sauron deceives them into seizing immortality for themselves by invading the Undying Lands (which have been forbidden to them). This rebellion against the created order results in the drowning of Númenor and the gradual shortening of their lifespan. Not all the Númenóreans fell from grace, of course. Those who abstained from the evils committed by their countrymen escaped to Middle-earth to become leaders in the fight against Sauron, culminating ultimately in the War of the Ring. This background is set in high profile by Tolkien throughout LotR, but its specific connection to the cause
of Númenor’s fall (the desire for deathlessness) remains muted. As far as Men are concerned, then, the keyspring of death forms part of the backstory
of LotR and is not explored as part of the narrative as such. But Tolkien would not have thought of this as a mere “backstory,” since the very act of writing LotR had led him to a vision of a unified myth, in which the War of the Jewels and the War of the Ring were coeval movements. But this conclusion—that the theme of death is central to the mythology as a whole but is only indirectly present in LotR—does not tell the whole story. To stop there would be to ignore a third principal exemplar of the theme of Fall; namely, the Elves, whose tale forms the centerpiece of the published Silmarillion
. As with the Númenóreans, the fall of the High Elves of the West (the Noldor), is highly complex and cannot be recounted in full here. A few key points must suffice. Being deathless by nature, the Elves’ problem is not themselves, but their environment, the world around them, which, unlike them, is anything but immutable. Being subject to Melkor’s marring, all things are transitory. The Elven temptation, in other words, is to arrest change. Tolkien once distinguished this Elven failing from Man’s fall as “Freedom from
Time, and clinging to
One of the motivations (or rather justifications) for Fëanor’s original rebellion against the Valar, subsidiary to his revenge against Morgoth, was the untrammeled enjoyment of Middle-earth: “Shall we return to our home? In Cuiviénen sweet ran the waters under unclouded stars, and wide lands lay about, where a free people might walk….No other race shall oust us!”
As with the Númenórean rebellion, however, dire consequences came of the Noldor’s return to Middle-earth. And though the war against Morgoth ended in final victory, thanks to the intervention of the Valar, many of the surviving Noldor remained unrepentant in heart—or at least unwilling to return to the Undying Lands in the West, the only place now free of Morgoth’s taint. Why did these survivors prefer continued exile in lands of now diminished joy to the prospect of a return to their former happiness in the West? Tolkien explains their mentality as follows: The Elves are not
wholly good or in the right. Not so much because they had flirted with Sauron; as because with or without his assistance they were ‘embalmers’. They wanted to have their cake and eat it: to live in the mortal historical Middle-earth because they had become fond of it (and perhaps because they there had the advantages of a superior caste), and so tried to stop its change and history, stop its growth, keep it as a pleasaunce, even largely a desert, where they could be ‘artists’ — and were overburdened with sadness and nostalgic regret.
It was this desire (perceived and exploited by Sauron)—to turn Middle-earth (or at least their part of it) into a paradise where they would be at the top rather than at the bottom rung of power and reverence—which led to the creation of the Rings of Power. According to Tolkien: The chief power (of all the rings alike) was the prevention or slowing of decay
(i.e., ‘change’ viewed as a regrettable thing), the preservation of what is desired or loved, or its semblance.
as such is not represented as ‘evil’: it is the unfolding of the story and to refuse this is of course against the design of God. But the Elvish weakness is in these terms naturally to regret the past, and to become unwilling to face change: as if a man were to hate a very long book still going on, and wished to settle down in a favourite chapter. Hence they fell in a measure to Sauron’s deceits: they desired some ‘power’ over things as they are…to make their particular will to preservation effective: to arrest change, and keep things always fresh and fair.
For the Elves, such halting of change had no (immediate) detrimental effects. It was by the power of Elven-rings that Lothlórien and Rivendell became islands of beauty and delight—to mortal visitors as well as Elves. But because the power underlying them was implicated in the spell by which Sauron bound all the rings to himself, his destruction necessarily entailed theirs as well. Inasmuch as this Elven failing constitutes an existential problem, the problem of the death—not of themselves, but of the worlds they have created—it may be said with justice that LotR (the story itself, not just the backstory) is indeed about Death. This judgment, it might be argued, finds confirmation in the very structure of the story. Were this Elven problem not crucial to Tolkien’s vision, The Return of the King
could have ended several pages earlier than it did. One might also observe the amount of space Tolkien devotes to the Fellowship’s sojourn in Lothlórien—three whole chapters’ worth!—with its explicit and sustained focus on the grim consequences for Galadriel’s world should Frodo’s quest succeed
. A profound sense of loss and melancholy colors her song of parting, as it does in her declaration of the Elves’ fate: “We must depart into the West, or dwindle to a rustic folk of dell and cave, slowly to forget and to be forgotten.”
If LotR is not fundamentally about Death, then it is certainly about loss—which, for the Elves, is virtually the same thing.
If themes of death and loss pervade Tolkien’s stories, they should not be mistaken as the inspiration for his legendarium
. In his foreword to the second edition of LotR, he writes: I did not go on with this sequel, for I wished first to complete and set in order the mythology and legends of the Elder Days, which had then been taking shape for some years. I desired to do this for my own satisfaction, and I had little hope that other people would be interested in this work, especially since it was primarily linguistic in inspiration and was begun in order to provide the necessary background of ‘history’ for Elvish tongues.
The linguistic component of LotR—the invented languages which supply its nomenclature, songs and occasional snatches of dialogue—is basic to understanding Tolkien’s life and work. This may be seen above all from the fact that the development of these languages actually preceded
the inception of the mythology in its written form by almost a year. The earliest of these works, the Qenya Lexicon, was begun sometime in 1915, and ran about 172 pages. In this tome one can find already formed many of the verbal roots which would persist through nearly six decades of transformation and refinement by Tolkien. Here too can be found many of the names which would later be assigned to characters in his stories, suggesting that the invention of language was not just a pretext, but also a medium, for the emergence of the mythology. What provoked so idiosyncratic an outpouring of creative energy? Just as Tolkien resisted attempts to identify ulterior motivation for his stories, so too he insisted throughout his life that, alongside all of its practical and communicative functions, language also possesses a purely aesthetic dimension—the invention and speaking of words solely for the pleasure which their sound and shape give to their creator. Tolkien believed that this impulse was quite widespread, but that it rarely developed beyond childhood due to lack of opportunity and the absence of any socially recognized outlet for it—unlike, say, calligraphy, writing
undertaken for its aesthetic value. In other words, a chief handicap of linguistic invention was its lack of an audience and a venue. As it turned out, Tolkien’s mythology provided him with both. The long and intricate history of Tolkien’s invented languages is a vast subject with a scholarship all its own, and is today the most prolific source of posthumously published materials relating to Tolkien’s legendarium
. What I would like to explore in the time remaining are some interconnections between Tolkien’s ongoing linguistic output, and his reflections on the meaning of LotR after
its publication in 1955. I take as an example a short essay entitled Ósanwe-kenta: ‘Enquiry into the Communication of Thought,’ which Tolkien composed around 1959 or 1960. This highly technical commentary is of interest because it discloses aspects of Tolkien’s philosophy of language as it might have been conceptualized by Elvish loremasters within his imaginary world. It also draws attention to moral themes of free will and coercion which figure prominently in LotR. Perhaps most interesting, though, is that nearly every metaphysical concept articulated in this essay has clearly recognizable narrative precedents in LotR. The episode which forms the locus classicus
for the essay appears in The Return of the King
, as the remainder of the Fellowship, accompanied by Gandalf, Galadriel and Celeborn, journey home from Gondor: Often long after the hobbits were wrapped in sleep they would sit together under the stars, recalling the ages that were gone and all their joys and labours in the world, or holding council, concerning the days to come. If any wanderer had chanced to pass, little would he have seen or heard, and it would have seemed to him only that he saw grey figures, carved in stone, memorials of forgotten things now lost in unpeopled lands. For they did not move or speak with mouth, looking from mind to mind; and only their shining eyes stirred and kindled as their thoughts went to and fro. (RotK.263) Another key scene that provided food for thought was Faramir’s interrogation of Gollum in The Two Towers
: ‘Come hither!’ said Faramir. ‘Look at me! Do you know the name of this place? Have you been here before?’ Slowly Gollum raised his eyes and looked unwillingly into Faramir’s. All light went out of them, and they stared bleak and pale for a moment into the clear unwavering eyes of the man of Gondor. There was a still silence. Then Gollum dropped his head and shrank down, until he was squatting on the floor, shivering. ‘We doesn’t know and we doesn’t want to know,’ he whimpered. ‘Never came here; never come again.’ ‘There are locked doors and closed windows in your mind, and dark rooms behind them,’ said Faramir. ‘But in this I judge that you speak the truth. It is well for you.’ (TT.298-299) The language of locked doors and closed windows echoes Galadriel’s words to Frodo as he gazes into her mirror: ‘I know what it was that you last saw,’ she said; ‘for that is also in my mind. Do not be afraid! But do not think that only by singing amid the trees, nor even by the slender arrows of elven-bows, is this land of Lothlórien maintained and defended against its Enemy. I say to you, Frodo, that even as I speak to you, I perceive the Dark Lord and know his mind, or all of his mind that concerns the Elves. And he gropes ever to see me and my thought. But still the door is closed!’ She lifted up her white arms, and spread out her hands towards the East in a gesture of rejection and denial. (FotR.380) How does Tolkien the linguistic philosopher reflect upon Tolkien the narrator? He prefaces his discussion by making a distinction between mental cognition
and mental communication
: A mind by its nature perceives another mind directly. But it cannot perceive more than the existence of another mind (as something other than itself, though of the same order) except by the will
of both parties. (VT 39.23) Tolkien immediately qualifies this statement, adding that the degree of will “need not be the same in both parties” in order for the transmission of thought to occur (ibid
). He goes on to explain that a mind is capable of three “states” with respect to another mind. A person may be either “open” or “closed” to communication. Openness, however, may come about not only as the result of a conscious
act of will, but also as the mere absence
of resistance to the probing of another mind. The inherent capacity of a mind to probe another mind raises moral issues. Tolkien focuses the matter by insisting that a mind that is closed by the barrier of avanir
(“unwill”) cannot be forced to open itself to another mind, regardless of the strength of the latter. By asserting this, Tolkien is defending the notion of free will, locating the moral responsibility to resist evil squarely with the individual. While this view is, in itself, entirely consonant with many other remarks Tolkien makes about the implicit moral stance of his mythology, it nevertheless seems to generate incongruities with the actual course of its imagined history. In The Silmarillion
, for instance, Melkor, having served his term of imprisonment in Valinor, is released again, despite the persistence of evil in his heart. If the Valar are capable of inspecting other minds, why would they have failed to perceive Melkor’s heart? If, on the other hand, Melkor had willfully blocked such inspection, the Valar would surely have been aware of this. Why, then, did they release Melkor, knowing that he was concealing his full intentions from them? Tolkien answers these objections by explaining that, regardless of its expedience or indeed even its practicability, an attempt to violate the privacy of another mind would have placed the Valar on a par with Melkor. They would, in effect, have been trying “to defeat their enemy with his own ring,” and thus would have rendered themselves morally equivalent to him. Yet even if they had tried to survey the darkest reaches of Melkor’s hidden thought, Tolkien insists that the attempt would have failed; because, once a mind has closed itself by an act of will, no power is capable of breaching it. How, then, is it that Melkor in fact succeeded in deceiving and enslaving so many Elves and Men? It is at this point in the essay that Tolkien returns to the relationship of thought-transmission to language, and Melkor’s use of language as a tool of deception and entrapment. Melkor, he observes, found that the open approach of a sáma
of power and great force of will was felt by a lesser sáma
as an immense pressure, accompanied by fear. To dominate by weight of power and fear was his delight; but in this case he found them unavailing: fear closed the door faster. Therefore he tried deceit and stealth. Here he was aided by the simplicity of those unaware of evil, or not yet accustomed to beware of it. And for that reason it was said…that the distinction of openness and active will to entertain was of great importance. For he would come by stealth to a mind open and unwary, hoping to learn some part of its thought before it closed, and still more to implant in it his own thought, to deceive it and win it to his friendship….In this way he won entry into many minds, removing their unwill, and unlocking the door by the only key, though his key was counterfeit. (VT 39.26) Among the most prominent examples of thought-transmission in The Lord of the Rings
are those scenes involving the palantír
, an artifact whose express function is to facilitate telepathic communication. Pippin’s initial encounter with the Orthanc-stone illustrates several themes of Ó-k nicely. After his vision of the Nazgûl, Pippin says to Gandalf: ‘I tried to get away, because I thought it would fly out; but when it had covered all the globe, it disappeared. Then he
came. He did not speak so that I could hear words. He just looked, and I understood.’ (TT.198) Still more interesting is Gandalf’s analysis of the encounter: ‘If he had questioned you, then and there, almost certainly you would have told all that you know, to the ruin of us all. But he was too eager. He did not want information only: he wanted you
, quickly, so that he could deal with you in the Dark Tower, slowly.’ (TT.199) Here the emphasis in Ó-k on the tendency of fear to close rather than lay bare the mind to inspection would seem to be at odds with Gandalf’s prediction. But to do this would be to ignore another dimension of Tolkien’s argument, that the threat of bodily destruction can be exploited to weaken the barrier of avanir
. One obvious conclusion can be drawn from all this: not only the underlying themes, but also the narrative motifs and descriptions—right down to the vocabulary employed—were present in some form in Tolkien’s mind and pen well before the writing of Ó-k. But whether the essay was a reaction to LotR exclusively, or whether LotR was itself in this connection merely a crystallization of ideas predating it, cannot easily be determined. Indeed, the very attempt to make such a distinction may be off the mark. The essay discloses a speculative interest in systematizing the metaphysics (or, more properly speaking, the anthropology) of the legendarium
, combined with a desire to use the Elven tongues as a vehicle
for expressing that anthropology. In practice, of course, the exercise also served as a pretext for furthering the development of those languages. I say “characteristically” because those who are familiar with Tolkien’s post-LotR writings will be familiar with their metaphysical bent. Ó-k is but one topic among many which Tolkien explored with great enthusiasm in the interim between the completion of LotR and the never to be realized finalization of The Silmarillion
. Ó-k was no mere idle musing, it was of fundamental importance to the unification of Tolkien’s mythology under a consistent philosophical framework. Because language was so central to the actual unfolding of Tolkien’s mythology, that framework had to integrate not merely a philosophy of language, but equally a model of communication that was non-linguistic. This would have been necessary even in the absence of explicit cases of telepathy, replete as Tolkien’s stories are with characters who “read the secrets of hearts beyond the mist of words,” or who are gifted with foresight. In fact, though, the very concept of a non-linguistic transmission of thought was an irresistible temptation to Tolkien the linguist, because it offered a convenient foil (interesting in its own right) by which to explore the nature and limitations of the tongue—the “incarnate mind,” as Tolkien once called it.