An underappreciated aspect of The lord of the rings (TLOTR) by JRR Tolkien is in how the author dealt with death, longevity and ageing in the work. During his early years, Tolkien endured first the passing of both parents and then the deaths of most of his friends during the First World War. It was not surprising that a search for the meaning of life and death became a preoccupation of Tolkien. Tolkien’s Roman Catholic faith underpinned his thoughts about mortality. He also found solace in Northern myths that held that there was intrinsic worth to courage in the face of our inevitable demise. Along with his colleague, CS Lewis, he took an opposing stand to JBS Haldane, Olaf Stapledon and other precursors of transhumanists, who felt that bioengineering would allow us to extend human life span virtually without limit. Although Tolkien acknowledged the urge to try to escape our mortality, TLOTR is a story about accepting the need to let go with all of the attendant regrets and sorrow.
- TLOTR, The lord of the rings
- JRR Tolkien
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Jonathan Swift wrote “Every man desires to live long, but no man would be old.”1The lord of the rings (TLOTR) is a literary work that explores both longevity (the length or duration of life) and ageing (the process or condition of growing old).2 Although generally viewed as being about the conflict between good and evil, Tolkien wrote that “… the real theme [of TLOTR] … is about something much more permanent and difficult: Death and Immortality.” 3 He made this point repeatedly in his correspondence:
“… [Tolkien’s mythology] is mainly concerned with Fall, Mortality, and the Machine … [the desire for a longer life] will lead to the desire for Power, for making the will more quickly effective, - and so to the Machine (or Magic) …” (Carpenter,3 p 145)
“… [TLOTR] is not really about Power and Dominion: that only sets the wheels going; it is about Death and the desire for deathlessness.” (Carpenter,3 p 262)
“Though it is only in reading the work [TLOTR] myself (with criticisms in mind) that I became aware of the dominance of the theme of Death. (Not that there is any ”original’ message in that: most of human art & thought is similarly preoccupied.) But certainly Death is not an enemy! I said, or meant to say, that the ‘message’ was the hideous peril of confusing true ‘immortality’ with limitless serial longevity. Freedom from Time, and clinging to Time. The confusion is the work of the Enemy, and one of the chief causes of human disaster . . .” (Carpenter,3 p 267)
“It [TLOTR] is mainly concerned with Death, and Immortality; and the ‘escapes’: serial longevity, and hoarding memory.” (Carpenter,3 p 284)
In this paper, we will examine how Tolkien dealt with ageing, longevity and mortality in his subcreation of Middle-earth. We will use his other writings and correspondence to explore both the underlying basis for his beliefs and the methods he chose to express them. In TLOTR, much is not explicitly stated, but rather is “incarnate in the world of history and geography”. 4
JRR TOLKIEN AND THE THEME OF DEATH
Death surrounded Tolkien during his early years. His father died when he was only 4 and his mother before his 13th birthday.5 Following these losses, Tolkien’s service during the First World War was a transforming event.6 By its end, all but one of his closest friends were dead.7 TA Shippey, the Tolkien scholar, has noted, “There is no difficulty in seeing why Tolkien, from 1916 on, was preoccupied with the theme of death, and escape from it.”8
In On fairy-stories, Tolkien wrote that our “oldest and deepest desire” was “the Great Escape: the Escape from Death”,9 but “few lessons are taught more clearly in them than the burden of that kind of immortality, or rather endless serial living, to which the ‘fugitive’ would fly”. (Tolkien,9 pp 61–2). A touchstone for Tolkien throughout life was his Catholic faith (Carpenter,3 p 174). Tolkien felt that TLOTR was “… a fundamentally religious and Catholic work … the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism.” (Carpenter,3 p 172). While acknowledging the desire to escape mortality, he felt that this urge was impossible and, in fact, forbidden.10 To Tolkien, death was “part of the nature, physical and spiritual, of Man” (Carpenter,3 p 237). He believed that “Men are essentially mortal and must not try to become ‘immortal’ in the flesh” (Carpenter,3 p 189). Christian belief holds that true immortality can be obtained only by accepting one’s physical death.11–13 Life is viewed as a gift from God, and our mortality as part of an ordained design. Conservative Christians such as Tolkien felt that altering our life span would be an infringement on the divine prerogative.14 In Genesis, Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden not for eating the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil but to prevent them from eating off the Tree of Life, which would have made them immortal.
Tolkien viewed ancient legends in a sympathetic light as precursors of Christianity (Kreeft,11 p 221). He was very familiar with Northern myths, where “the figure of the strong and unrelenting old warrior is rather prominent—age to them seems to correlate with sternness and resolve” (TA Shippey, personal communication). Tolkien wrote, “The old that is strong does not whither.” (Tolkien,7 p 260). The Wizard Gandalf was described in these terms—“Old and weary you seem now, and yet you are fell and grim beneath.”15 Aragorn, the heir of Isildur, was “… ancient of days … and yet in the flower of manhood”.16
In Northern myths, although man can triumph at times, he will ultimately fail. Tolkien felt these myths celebrated the value of “despair of the event, combined with faith in doomed resistance” (Tolkien,4 p 23). They exalted “undefeated will” (Tolkien,4 p 18). As said in Beowulf, “For every one of us, living in this world/means waiting for our end. Let whoever can/win glory before death.”17 Tolkien wrote about what he called the “theory of courage”—the belief that “even ultimate defeat does not turn right into wrong”, that “defeat is no refutation” (Shippey,10 pp 120, 156).
A goal of TLOTR was to dramatise this perspective. References to it are encountered throughout the work.18 Galadriel (the Lady of Lothlórien) said that the Elves had “fought the long defeat”(Tolkien,7 p 372). Tolkien used similar wording when he explained that he did not “expect ‘history’ to be anything but a ‘long defeat’—though it contains (and in legend may contain more clearly and movingly) some examples or glimpses of final victory” (Carpenter,3 p 255). The Elf-lord Elrond had seen “many defeats, and many fruitless victories” (Tolkien,7 p 256), but this did not make him seek compromise with the enemy. The dwarf Gimli said, “Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens.” (Tolkien,7 p 294). When reflecting on the past, Gandalf stated:
“That is a chapter which it might be good to recall; for there was sorrow then too, and gathering dark, but great valour, and great deeds that were not wholly in vain.” (Tolkien,7 p 61)
Tolkien’s friend and fellow Oxford don, CS Lewis, was particularly moved by this, saying that “all my philosophy of history hangs” on it.19
The story of Théoden, King of the Rohirrim, offers an example of winning glory before death. He was 71 years old at the time of the events recounted in TLOTR. When first encountered, the King was described as “a man so bent with age that he seemed almost a dwarf” (Tolkien,15 p 116). Events were overwhelming him. He complained that, “.... these evil days should be mine, and should come in my old age instead of the peace which I have earned … The young perish and the old linger, withering” (Tolkien,15 p 121).
His despondency was primarily due to the machinations of the fallen Wizard Saruman (Tolkien,16 p 350). Gríma Wormtongue, his agent, had undermined the King. He counselled Théoden to “not weary yourself, or tax heavily your strength” (Tolkien,15 p 123) during “… his failing years” (Tolkien,15 p 124). A fear of the Rohirrim, given voice by Éowyn (the niece of Théoden and sister of Éomer, his successor), was to “stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire” (Tolkien,16 p 58). Théoden was falling into “a mean dishonoured dotage” (Tolkien,16 p 143).
Gandalf was able to free Théoden from Saruman’s spell. Gandalf wore one of the three rings of the Elven Lords, the Ring of Fire or Narya the Great, which could “rekindle hearts in a world that grows chill” (Tolkien,16 p 366). After the breaking of the spell, Théoden “drew himself up, slowly, as a man stiff from long bending over some dull toil” (Tolkien,15 p 120). His men “looked in wonder at him, standing now proud and erect. Where was the old man whom they had left crouching in his chair or leaning on his stick?” (Tolkien,15 p 121)
Although the King overcame his years, his “old age is not feigned … It is an ill that no leech can wholly cure.” (Tolkien,15 p 149). Théoden almost withdrew from the effort to relieve the city of Minas Tirith as he seemed to “shrink down, cowed by age” (Tolkien,16 p 112). It appeared that he would “quail, bow his old head, turn, slink away to hide in the hills” (Tolkien,16 p 112). However, with the coming of morning, the King rallied and led his men into battle, where he met his death on the Fields of Pelennor (Tolkien,16 p 112). His dying words were, “And even in their mighty company [his ancestors] I shall not now be ashamed. A grim morning, and a glad day, and a golden sunset!” (Tolkien,16 pp 117–18).
Tolkien wrote that Beowulf is a work by “a learned man writing of old times, who looking back on the heroism and sorrow feels in them something permanent and something symbolic” (Tolkien,4 pp 26–27). The same can be said about Tolkien and TLOTR.
NATURAL LIFE SPAN
Naomi Mitchison, in an otherwise favourable review of The fellowship of the ring, wrote that there were “uncertainties [deficiencies or problems] on the scientific side”.20 Tolkien took criticism of this kind seriously. In TLOTR, he wanted “to work things out in detail” (Carpenter,3 p 174). Tolkien felt that fantasy should not “destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity … The keener and the clearer the reason, the better the fantasy will be.” (Tolkien,9 p 54).
In Tolkien’s secondary world, each of the various beings had a natural life span that was “integral to its biological and spiritual nature” (Carpenter,3 p 155). Living beyond this was “like stretching a wire ever tauter … it becomes an intolerable torment” (Carpenter,3 p 155).
The Firstborn, the Elves, were “… sufficiently longeval to be called by Man ‘immortal’ but they were neither unageing nor unwearying” (Carpenter,3 p 325). Elves could not forget their past and wanted to arrest change.21 The Three Rings of the Elven Kings (Tolkien,3 p 177) were endowed with the power of preservation. Tolkien called them the “embalmers” of Middle-earth (Carpenter,3 p 197). To the Elves, time in the world:
“… moves both very swift and very slow. Swift, because they themselves change little, and all else fleets by: it is a grief to them. Slow, because they do not count the running years, not for themselves. The passing seasons are but ripples ever repeated in the long long stream. Yet beneath the Sun all things must wear to an end at last.” (Tolkien,7 pp 404–5)
Tolkien agreed that the chief difficulties with TLOTR were “scientific and biological” (Carpenter,3 p 189). A particular issue was the relationship between Elves and Men. They belonged to the same species since they could interbreed. As longevity is a biological characteristic, Tolkien worried about how to explain the near immortality of Elves and the very evident mortality of men. Although he noted that “modern ’gerontology’ … finds ‘ageing’ … less clearly inevitable”, Tolkien could not resolve this conundrum. He finally concluded that it was not necessary to explain it (Carpenter,3 p 189). Henry Gee has speculated that the longevity of Elves could be explained by a combination of genetic endowment and caloric restriction.22 Tolkien spent the last year of his life trying to deal with the theological implications of Elvish longevity.23
The mortality of man was given an ambivalent quality. Tolkien called it the Gift of Men from Ilúvatar, the creator God of Tolkien’s world. By dying, they were allowed to leave the confines of the world. But, it was also known as the doom of men. Arwen (the daughter of Elrond who gave up her Elven near immortality to wed Aragorn) said, “… if this is indeed, as the Eldar [a term for the Elves] say, the gift of the One [Ilúvatar] to Men, it is bitter to receive” (Tolkien,16 p 344). Tolkien acknowledged the sorrow of death, but felt it allowed men to attain true immortality.13 The most thorough exploration written by Tolkien of the differing fates facing Elves and Man is Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth (the debate of Finrod and Andreth),24 a dialogue between the Elf-lord Finrod and the wise woman Andreth.
Men who lived the longest were the Númenoreans. They had “triple, or more than triple [the] span of years” lived by lesser races of men (Carpenter,3 p 154).
The Númenoreans received their prolonged life span and the realm of Númenor on the Isle of Elenna, westernmost of all Mortal lands, as gifts from the Valar (in Tolkien’s mythology, they were powerful spirits who took physical form and entered the world after its creation; Tolkien,16 p 315). The Valar forbade them from setting foot on the Undying Lands (the continent then lying in the far west of the world that was inhabited by the Valar, Maiar and Elves; it was just within sight of the Isle of Elenna). Although their longevity did allow them time for “achievements in art and wisdom”, it also led to “a possessive attitude … [and awoke among the Númenoreans a desire] for more time for their enjoyment” (Carpenter,3 p 154).
Akallabêth—the downfall of the Númenor tells how the desire for physical immortality led to their destruction.25 The Númenoreans became convinced that they could attain immortality if they could reside in the Undying Lands. Their last King, Ar-Pharazôn, tried to take the Undying Lands by force. When the Númenoreans set foot on its shore, the Valar called upon Ilúvatar. In a retelling of the Atlantis myth, Númenor was swallowed by the sea and the Undying Lands were removed from our world.
After its destruction, Númenor was called Atalantë (meaning “the downfallen”) in Quenya (the tongue of the High Elves)—the similarity of this name to Atlantis is obvious. Tolkien viewed the Númenor-Atlantis story as part of “the essential background” to TLOTR (Carpenter,3 p 151). In a letter to Father Robert Murray (grandson of Sir James Murray, the founder of the Oxford English dictionary, and a close friend of the Tolkien family), he explained that, in his mythology:
“… Death – the mere shortness of human life-span – is not a punishment for the Fall, but a biologically (and therefore also spiritually, since body and spirit are integrated) inherent part of Man’s nature. The attempt to escape it is wicked because ‘unnatural’, and silly because Death in that sense is the Gift of God (envied by the Elves), release from the weariness of time.” (Carpenter,3 p 205)
From an early age,26 Tolkien had a recurring dream of a “stupendous and ineluctable wave advancing … over the land” (Carpenter,3 p 361). His son Michael had the same dream and Tolkien “bequeathed” it to Faramir, the character in TLOTR that he said most closely resembled himself (Carpenter3 p 213; Tolkien,16 p 240). Tolkien wondered if this dream was “a dim memory of some ancient history” (Carpenter,3 p 347), and felt that he had “exorcised” it by his writings (Carpenter,3 p 347). Peter Kreeft wrote that this giant wave symbolised “God, and Heaven or Paradise, or union with God” (Kreeft,11 p 113). If that was the case, the dream should have been a pleasant experience. It was not. Tolkien described it as a terrible, dreadful dream that would end with him waking up gasping for breath (Carpenter,3 pp 213, 347). The available data indicate that he suffered from a nightmare disorder as described in the 4th edition of the Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM-IV) and in the International classification of sleep disorders.27,28 This condition typically begins at an early age and is most likely to appear in children who go through severe psychosocial stresses. The nightmares generally diminish in frequency and severity over time. Experiencing the death of a relative or a close friend at an early age can lead to both ruminations about death and recurrent nightmares.29 We think it is likely that Tolkien’s recurrent dream was linked to the early loss of his parents. It is also possible that the nightmares were part of a post-traumatic stress disorder related to his war service, but Tolkien wrote that they began “with memory”, well before the First World War (Carpenter,3 p 213).
The remnant of the Númenoreans who remained loyal to the Valar escaped to Middle-earth, where they founded the Kingdoms of Gondor and Arnor. Initially they retained a longer life span, but, “… the length of lives of the Dúnedain [a term used in Middle-earth for the Men of Númenor and their descendants in Arnor and Gondor] grew ever less” (Tolkien,16 p 324). This was due to the “slow withdrawal of the gifts of the Númenoreans after the downfall of the land of the Star [Númenor]” (Tolkien,16 p 328), or their mingling with lesser men (Tolkien,16 p 365), or a combination of the two. As the decline in life span began even before the destruction of Númenor, we feel that the withdrawal of heavenly favour was the primary cause (Tolkien,16 p 316). As their life span shortened, the Dúnedain “hungered after endless life unchanging … Childless lords sat in aged halls musing on heraldry; in secret chambers withered men compounded strong elixirs, or in high cold towers asked questions of the stars” (Tolkien,15 p 286). Their healers, although “skilled in the healing of wound and hurt, and all such sickness … mortal men were subject to”, found no cure for old age (Tolkien,16 p 136).
Gruman has described three types of myth about longevity—antediluvian (ie, people in the past lived longer); hyperborean (ie, people in remote parts of the world live longer); and fountain type (ie, it is possible to prolong life by means of some remarkable substance).30 The story of the Númenoreans could represent either an antediluvian (as time progressed, their life span declined) or a hyperborean (their prolonged lives seemed tied to their inaccessible homeland) longevity myth.
Both Aragorn and Denethor, the ruling Steward of Gondor, were Númenoreans. At the time of the events described in TLOTR, their respective ages were 88 and 89 years. Aragorn “was old”, but his age was not accompanied by “any physical decay” (Carpenter,3 p 323). In contrast, Denethor was “… aged before his time by his contest with the will of Sauron” (Tolkien,16 p 337). Their deaths made a striking contrast. During the siege of Minas Tirith, Denethor committed suicide and tried to kill his son, Faramir. He acted like one of “the heathen kings … slaying themselves in pride and despair, murdering their own kin to ease their own death” (Tolkien,16 p 129). Denethor showed an “excess of heroic temper – the ancient Ragnarök spirit” (Shippey,18 p 130). Aragorn’s death is described in an appendix to The return of the king. When 210 years old, he felt that his span of years was coming to an end. Before he could “whither and fall from my high seat unmanned and witless”, Aragorn voluntarily gave up his life (Tolkien,16 p 343). As a Númenorean, he had been “given not only a [life] span thrice that of Men of Middle-Earth, but also the grace to go at my will, and give back the gift” (Tolkien,16 p 343). Tolkien viewed the story of the fate of Arwen and Aragorn as the most important one in the appendices (Carpenter,3 p 237). For an author known for his painstaking methods, he wrote this section quickly with few subsequent alterations.31 Tolkien felt that “a ‘good’ man would or should die voluntarily by surrender with trust before being compelled” (Carpenter,3 p 286).
Hobbits, a branch of the human race (Carpenter,3 p 158), often reached 100 years of age (Tolkien,7 p 19). TLOTR begins with the announcement that Frodo’s uncle Bilbo would be shortly celebrating his “eleventy-first” (111) birthday. Even for a Hobbit, Bilbo seemed surprisingly hardy. “Time wore on, but it seemed to have little effect...At ninety he was much the same as fifty” (Tolkien,7 p 29). This was not normal ageing. He confided to Gandalf that, although he did not look at his age, he was “beginning to feel it in my heart of hearts. Well-preserved indeed … Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scrapped over too much bread. That can’t be right” (Tolkien,7 p 41). This “stretching” was attributable to his possession of the ring, and after giving it up he resumed normal ageing. Bilbo became “very old, but peaceful, and sleepy” (Tolkien,16 p 264) as well as “confused in mind” (Carpenter,3 p 328). Cared for by the Elves, he slipped into an honoured dotage. In Bilbo’s last poem, “sleep” symbolises death:
“The Road goes ever on and on
Out the Door where it began
Now far ahead the Road has gone
Let others follow it who can!
Let them a journey new begin,
But I at last with weary feet
Will turn towards the lighted inn,
My evening-rest and sleep to meet.” (Tolkien,16 p 266)
The story of how Bilbo obtained the ring in the The Hobbit contains a reference to ageing. Gollum had challenged Bilbo to a riddle game (Tolkien,7 pp 20–21). His last riddle asked what:
“This thing all things devours;
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays kings, ruins town,
And beats high mountains down.”32
Bilbo accidentally came up with the correct answer of “time”. This riddle was based on one found in the old English poem Solomon and Saturn II.33 Solomon answered “old age” in response to:
“What is that wonder which travels throughout the world, proceeds inexorably, beats at the foundations of things, wakens tears of weeping, it often struggles hither. Nor can star, nor stone, nor the exalted jewel, water nor the wild beast, escape it at all. There goes into its power both hard and soft, big and small. It devours every year three thirteens by thousand-count of dwellers on the earth, of flyers in the air <and> swimmers in the ocean.”33
Tolkien had an abiding “sense of the aliveness” of trees.34 In TLOTR, he described the Ents, a giant tree-like race, who were the most ancient sentient beings of Middle-earth (Tolkien,16 p 408). Most of what we know of them comes from the interchanges between Treebeard, the “the eldest and chief of the Ents … the oldest of all living thing” (Tolkien,15 p 164), and Pippin and Merry, two of the childlike Hobbits.35 Pippin said that when looking into Treebeard’s eyes, “One felt as if there was an enormous well behind them, filled up with ages of memory and long, slow, steady thinking; but their surface was sparkling with the present; like sun shimmering ...” (Tolkien,15 p 66).
The Ents were heading towards extinction, primarily because they had stopped reproducing (declining fertility). As explained by Treebeard,
“None have died from the inside, as you might say. Some have fallen in the evil chances of the long years, of course; and more have grown tree-ish. But there were never many of us and we have not increased. There have been no Entings – no children, you would say, not for a terrible long count of years. You see, we lost the Entwives.” (Tolkien,15 p 78)
Even if the Entwives were found, the Ents were probably doomed by habitat loss (Gee,23 pp 88–96). Ents were tree-herds. By the end of the Third Age, the great forests of Middle-earth had dwindled. Fangorn was only a remnant of one that once covered the western half of the continent (Tolkien,15 p 72).
A seeming paradox of TLOTR is that men outlasted Dwarves, Elves and Ents. Compared with these longer-lived races, however, men “seldom … [failed] in their seed” (Tolkien,16 p 149). In TLOTR, children are encountered only among hobbits and men—although even the people of Gondor were experiencing a decline in their numbers. Like the demographically mature societies of Western Europe, they were known for marrying late and having few children (Tolkien,16 p 324). As a result, their city, Minas Tirith, held only half the number of citizens who could easily have populated it (Tolkien,16 p 24).
Gandalf, Saruman and the other Wizards were Maiar, who as Istari, “came in the shape of Men” (Tolkien,16 p 365). They first appeared about the year 1000 Third Age and disappeared after the destruction of the ring. The Istari were “Emissaries (in the terms of this tale from the Far West beyond the Sea)” whose “proper function, maintained by Gandalf, and perverted by Saruman, was to encourage and bring out the native powers of the Enemies of Sauron” (Carpenter,3 p 180). From their first appearance, the Istari appeared old. A nickname for Saruman was Sharkey, derived from an Orkish word (sharkû) that means “old man” (Tolkien,16 p 298). Gandalf was described as “always old”, but aged as time went on, as “all things wear in Middle-Earth” (Carpenter,3 p 182). Tolkien was following a long tradition in using the image of the wise old man. This frequently appears in both fantasy and folklore.36 As a guide, they help in the achievement of a difficult task.37
In TLOTR, not only living things but also the earth itself ages. There are frequent references to the past. Ents talked about “When the world was young and the woods were wide and wild” (Tolkien,15 p 78). Dwarves sang of when “The world was young, the mountains green/No stain yet on the moon was seen” (Tolkien,7 p 329).
In Rivendell (the hidden refuge of Elrond) and Lothlórien (a forest inhabited by Elves), time did not seem to pass (Tolkien,7 p 243). When Frodo set foot in Lothlórien, “... a strange feeling had come upon him ... it seemed to him that he had stepped over a bridge of time into a corner of the Elder Days, and was now walking in a world that was no more” (Tolkien,7 p 364). There are elements of Shangri-La in the description of Lothlórien:
“Frodo stood awhile still lost in wonder. It seemed to him that he had stepped through a high window that looked on a vanished world ... All that he saw was shapely ... and ancient as if they had endured for ever ... No blemish or sickness or deformity could be seen in anything that grew upon the earth.” (Tolkien,7 p 365)
But Rivendell and Lothlórien were aberrations that reflected the desire of the Elves to arrest change. As Treebeard said about Lothlórien, “They are falling rather behind the world in there” (Tolkien,15 p 70). During Frodo’s walk in Lothlórien, their Elf guide struck a pessimistic note, “Yet I do not believe that the world about us will ever again be as it was of old, or the light of the Sun as it was aforetime. For the Elves, I fear it will prove at best a truce, in which they may pass to the Sea unhindered and leave the Middle-earth for ever” (Tolkien,7 p 363). When Treebeard of the dwindling Ents parted with Celeborn and Galadriel of the fading Elves, he said, “For the world is changing; I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth, and I smell it in the air. I do not think we shall meet again” (Tolkien,16 p 259). As time cannot be permanently turned back, a sense of loss pervades TLOTR. The Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger has noted that it is “a story about the ability to let go”.38
TOLKIEN AND HUMAN ENHANCEMENT
Although rooted in the past, Tolkien’s work can also be seen as a response to the modern world. During the 1920s and 1930s, JBS Haldane, Olaf Stapledon and other writers proposed an agenda of eugenics and human bioengineering to speed up human evolution.39–41 This would eventually allow the extension of the human life span beyond recognition.42 They were precursors of the transhumanists of our day who believe that scientific progress will allow us to enhance our basic biology, leading to a fundamental alteration of human nature.43
Haldane proposed ectogenesis or “test-tube babies” in his book Daedalus or science and the future (Haldane,39 pp 63–8). He wrote that death would become “a gentle decline into the grave at the end of a completed life’s work” with the abolition of diseases by selective breeding, but did not comment on any increase in our maximum life span (Haldane,39 p 73). The book caused a good deal of controversy when it was published. Julian Huxley in his autobiography wrote that Daedalus or science and the future was the talk of Oxford.44 The noted British philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote Icarus: or the future of science in response to the work.45 In The last judgment, which came out in 1927, Haldane expanded on his earlier work and predicted that, in the future, individuals would live 3000 years and the human species could survive forever due to its ability to reshape both itself and its environment.46,47
With CS Lewis, Tolkien took an opposing stand to this secular vision of immortality.42 Lewis said that he wrote his space trilogy (Out of the silent planet, Perelandra and That hideous strength) to counter the “desperately immoral outlook” of Stapledon and Haldane.48 We know that Tolkien did read science fiction (Carpenter,3 p 377) and Stapledon in particular (Tolkien,26 p 175). As a coincidence, Tolkien entered Exeter College at Oxford in 1911 as a Stapledon Exhibitor (Carpenter,3 p 12), but we are unaware of any personal connection between the two. The polymath Haldane is best known as a geneticist, a populariser of science and a communist.49 He and Tolkien were born the same year and attended Oxford as students during the same period. Haldane was the brother of Naomi Mitchison, the author and feminist.50 She was an early supporter of Tolkien’s work and a proofreader of TLOTR (Carpenter,3 p 173). Mitchison’s commendation of TLOTR appeared on the dust jacket of the first edition (Carpenter,5 p 291). She called Tolkien’s work “super science fiction” (Carpenter,3 p 181)—a description Tolkien felt was valid if she meant that it possessed the sense of wonder that can be produced by good science fiction.51 They exchanged correspondence (see The letters of JRR Tolkien) as well as visits to each other’s homes (Carpenter,3 pp 181, 199).
Haldane believed in science as strongly as Tolkien adhered to Christianity.47 George Orwell, in a brilliant essay written in 1941, contrasted those who believed in “science, order, progress, internationalism, aeroplanes, steel, concrete, hygiene” with those who lined up with “war, nationalism, religion, monarchy, peasants, Greek professors, poets, horses”.52 Tolkien and Haldane personified these differing world views in many ways. In TLOTR, there are aspects of Saruman that speak of the first belief system. Tolkien wrote that Saruman’s greatest crime was a form of genetic engineering, the “interbreeding of Orcs and Men” (Tolkien,15 p 77; Tolkien,24 pp 418–19). Tolkien referred to reforming by the exercise of power as “Sarumanism” (Carpenter,3 p 197). When trying to convince Gandalf to join him in an alliance with Sauron, Saruman’s argument that the ends justify the means sounds like those given by apologists throughout the 20th century—“We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order” (Tolkien,6 p 272).
“There is the tragedy and despair of all machinery laid bare. Unlike art which is content to create a new secondary world of the mind, it attempts to actualize desire, and so create power in this World; and that cannot really be done with any real satisfaction. Labour-saving machinery only creates endless and worse labour. And in addition to this fundamental disability of a creature, is added the Fall, which makes our devices not only fail of their desire but turn to new and horrible evil. So we come inevitably from Daedalus and Icarus to the Giant Bomber. ” (Carpenter,3 pp 88–9)
In contrast, Haldane had seen Daedalus as a heroic figure, the first modern man, who demonstrated “that the scientific worker is not concerned with gods” (Haldane,39 p 48). He felt that “there can be no truce between science and religion” (Haldane,39 p 90).
Tolkien viewed efforts to prolong life “by device or ‘magic’ … a supreme folly and wickedness for ‘mortals’” (Carpenter,3 p 286), and would hold the desire of the transhumanists to strive towards physical immortality by the means of science as something to be shunned (Somerville,41 pp 179–84). As can be seen with Bilbo, Gollum and the Ringwraiths, the rings of power represented a fountain type myth of prolonging life.30 Their major quality “… was the prevention or slowing of decay” (Carpenter,3 p 152), but at a cost. As Gandalf explained, “A mortal ... 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 … He fades … sooner or later the dark power will devour him.” (Tolkien,7 p 56).
In this paper, we can be accused of “taking the construction [TLOTR] to pieces”, an approach that Tolkien opposed.51,55 He felt that an over-reliance on analytical reasoning might “kill [the significance and enjoyment of a literary work] … by vivisection”.4 He described it as akin “to a man who having eaten … uses an emetic, and sends the results for chemical analysis”.51 He was also sceptical about the relevance of the biography of the author to literary criticism (Carpenter,3 p 257). Although acknowledging these reservations, we have tried to make explicit Tolkien’s views on ageing and mortality, while investigating their origins.
Tolkien was deeply interested in death and immortality. This concern about death was probably influenced by the loss of both parents at an early age. Ageing, although ubiquitous and inexorable, was a relatively benign process in Middle-earth. Tolkien felt that “the old should be treated kindly and with courtesy, and should be suffered to live out their life-days in such ease as they could”.56 Mortality, however, was intrinsic to our nature. Théoden’s heroic death, Aragorn’s voluntary surrendering of his life and Bilbo’s gentle decline were marked by an acceptance of their mortal fate. Tolkien felt that death had to be endured, trusting that through it we would gain true immortality. As Aragorn told Arwen at the time of their parting, “In sorrow we must go, but not in despair.” (Tolkien,16 p 344).
Competing interests: None declared.
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