In his mythology, Tolkien has his gods (or spiritual beings), the Valar, create the races of Elves and Men. The Valar give Men the “gift” of a mortal life. In Tolkien’s view, mortality isn’t something we should fear or strive to keep at bay. The ability to die is a “gift of freedom.” Men live a short while (compared to the Elves), and are not bound to the world. Men have free will while they are alive, and then they die. Death is their fate, and Tolkien considers this a great gift to give his Men.
In contrast to Men and their mortality, Tolkin developed Elves who are immortal, “the Elves remain until the end of days, and their love of the Earth and all the world is more single and more poignant therefore, and as the years lengthen ever more sorrowful. For the Elves die not until the world dies, unless they are slain or waste in grief…neither does age subdue their strength, unless one grow weary of ten thousand centuries…” (The Silmarillion, 42, italics added).
The first Elves were very beautiful, but the later races of Elves were even more beautiful because of their sadness and wisdom. This is a lovely thought, that sadness and wisdom enhance one’s beauty. Our culture is so enamored of youth and it’s beauty that we forget about the beauty that comes from having lived a full life.
I think all of this speaks volumes about J.R.R. Tolkien. He lived during a tremendously turbulent time in history. He experienced two world wars, fighting in one and watching his son fight in another. Many of his friends and loved ones died in these wars. I can imagine that to someone like Tolkin, the very thought of living forever must have been horrifying. How many more wars and atrocities would one have to live through if he were immortal? I think of his character, Elrond, the half-Elf, who lived for thousands of years in Middle Earth and experienced many of its wars and who fought evil over and over again.
Just thinking about it makes me world weary.
This world weariness of the Elves and the gift of mortality for the Men is just one more lesson that we can learn from Tolkien. Our culture is caught up in the adulation of youth and we seem to want to live forever. Perhaps we need to take a collective step back and really consider what living forever would mean. Of course, this is where fiction like Tolkien’s can help us. His world weary Elves, like Elrond, are a perfect example of what happens when you live forever. You lose loved ones. You fight evil again and again. You become sorrowful. His Men, on the other hand, burn brightly with life. They are energetic and passionate. Just like us. They are this way because they know they will die.
I think Tolkien had it right–mortality is a gift.