A Book About Death I


LotR as a "Fundamentally Catholic and Religious Work"    

A Book About Death I

Tolkien said that The Lord of the Rings was a book about death which, he continued, simply meant that it had been written by a Man.

In an earlier essay, I said that one of the paradoxes we find in Tolkien's cosmos is that the curse of death is also the Gift of Ilúvatar. But if, as Saint Paul says, death entered the world through sin, how could it be a gift from God? There's a traditional Catholic way of looking at this that might shed some light. I want to be clear that this isn't a basic part of Catholic belief - it's more of a theological theory, but it's a very traditional one and Tolkien was a very traditional Catholic so I believe it's likely that he was influenced by it.

This concept separates two things that we tend to think of collectively as "death": passing from this world to an eternal life, and the separation of the soul from the body. The first was always part of God's plan for humanity, which fits with Tolkien's cosmos where passing beyond this world is seen as part of human nature itself. It's something we're made for. But before sin entered the picture through Adam and Eve, this passing beyond was meant to occur without bodily death - without the separation of the soul from the body. There's a reason that the Apostles Creed specifically states a belief in the resurrection of the body. Humans are meant to be body and soul; the separation of the two is an unnatural aberration caused by sin. At the end, when Christ puts all enemies - including death - under His feet, this separation will no longer exist. Our bodies will be different than they are now, as we see in Christ's glorified body after the Resurrection, but they will still be bodies.

When the immortal Elves, especially, consider death to be the Gift of Ilúvatar, they're not looking at the suffering that comes with the separation of body and soul (and the aging or illness/injury process leading up to it - which is also traditionally considered to be a product of sin) but at the ability of humans to pass beyond this created world to another existence. Elves are bound to this world until the end of time; those who are killed or "die" of grief are gathered into the halls of Mandos (one of the Valar) which exist in this physical, created world, so even those Elves that humans would consider to be dead are bound to this world as long as it exists.  

Continuing with the traditional theory about death, the life of Adam and Eve before the fall was "preternatural" (can you believe we learned that word - along with this theory - in first grade?). In the pre-Silmarillion days, I thought High Elves were unfallen, preternatural beings; the Sil, with its stories of kin-slaying and rebellion, quashed that idea. After the fall of Adam and Eve, the life of humans became "natural." With the bridging of the gap between God and humans through the Incarnation, death and Resurrection of Jesus, Men became "supernatural" beings. God brought good out of evil by giving us a state of life even higher than that originally enjoyed by Adam and Eve. Instead of perfect human life, we have the capacity to actually share in God's divine life because God has shared in our humanity. The Exultet, sung every year at the Easter Vigil, calls the sin of Adam a "happy fault" because of this: "O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam that merited for us such a Redeemer." For some reason, that line brings tears to my eyes when I hear it every year - and even while I'm typing this.

Of course, the pre-Christians living at the end of the Third Age in Middle-earth wouldn't have known about the Incarnation. Although in the debate of Finrod and Andreth, an account Tolkien wrote of a discussion between an Elf and a human, the human says that some believe that the One Himself will at some point enter into creation, we aren't told that any of the characters in LotR hold that belief. The descendants of the Númenoreans we meet in LotR believe in something beyond Elvenhome "that will ever be," and in an existence after death where love will be "more than a memory," but where and how this happens isn't spelled out. Another traditional Catholic idea says that after holy pre-Christians died they had to wait in a state of limbo until the death of Jesus opened the gates of heaven but, personally, I think that concept ignores the Eternal Now. I don't know how Tolkien thought about this, but I'd find it difficult to believe that Beren and Lúthien, or Aragorn and Arwen, had to wait millennia before being together in love that was more than a memory.















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