The Gift of Mortality, Part II—Choosing to Die

J.R.R. Tolkien gave his Men the “gift” of mortality. They could die, unlike the Elves, whose lives were connected to Middle Earth itself. As I wrote in a previous blog, Tolkien thought that mortality was a blessing given to his Men. Because their lives were finite, Men could live big and bright—they would never die from the world weariness that could strike the Elves.

Another boon Tolkien gave to these first Men, the Numenoreans, and especially the Kings of Numenor, was the ability to choose the time of their deaths. When a Numenorean came to the end of his life, he could decide that it was time to die. It was considered more honorable to choose to die like this than to become old and feeble and weak. This was especially true for kings who often chose to die when they had a son who was old enough and ready to take over as king.

The character of Aragorn is a good example of this as he is a descendant of the Numenorean line. After the One Ring was destroyed, he became High King of the Reunited Kingdom and reigned for 120 years. When he was 210 years old, Aragorn decided that it was time to go, “…to me has been given not only a span thrice that of Men of Middle-Earth, but also the grace to go at my will, and give back the gift” (my italics).

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His son was grown and able to rule without him. Aragorn recognized that it was his time. He went to the Houses of the Kings and laid down on a bed that had already been prepared for him. He bade farewell to his son and wife (the Elf, Arwen), gave his son the crown of Gondor and sceptre of Arnor, and died.

I find this to be a beautiful idea, giving back the gift of life. If Aragorn couldn’t go out fighting (as did King Theoden and Boromir), then the next best thing was to go out gracefully. I think this shows a different view of death than what we encounter in contemporary society. In our society we tend to think of death (if we think of it at all) as something scary and horrible and to be avoided at all costs. We do everything we can to keep people alive for as long as possible, without giving much thought to quality of life.

I don’t know, but perhaps it is possible to choose to die; I’ve certainly heard stories of people waiting to be alone to die, or hanging on until they see a loved one for the last time, or deciding they didn’t want to live without a beloved spouse. I’ve heard of people letting go after being told by loved ones that it’s okay to go.

This gives me comfort. I think many of us are not afraid of death, but of becoming feeble and helpless in our old age. Tolkien gave his warriors brave deaths fighting the forces of evil, and he gave his King a long life and then the wisdom to give it up when the time came. Perhaps Tolkien, as good authors do, was channeling this human desire to be able to choose when and how we die.

I listened to this song as I wrote this blog post today. It’s a beautiful and haunting instrumental cello piece by the group Apocalyptica. It captures the feeling for me of ‘giving back the gift.’

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