At the root of Tolkien’s fantasy is a meditation upon death. Paradoxically, this is the reason that Tolkien strikes such deep chords and yet remains so little understood. For death is the last taboo. An author who has thought long and hard about death can tell us much that we yearn to know but dare not ponder aloud.
Meditation on death is deemed morbid in our modern culture. Death does not sell commodities, nor politicians. We are bombarded with feel-good images of life that are inherently superficial because our mortality is airbrushed out of the glossy pictures supposed to represent ourselves. Yet not only is death the inevitable doom for all of us, it is also our fate to possess this knowledge throughout our lives.
Tolkien engraved our mortality upon the One Ring: “Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die.” He also understood that the greatest fantasies of the human heart are spun from our yearning to escape our doom. Elves and Ring-wraiths together provide a lesson in what we desire and what is forbidden to us. The immortal Elves reveal an image of our heart’s desire, but teach us that to become immortal within this world is to become a different kind of being altogether. The Nazgûl show the inescapable human condition, wherein death can be postponed only at the price of relinquishing life.
Tolkien reminds us that knowledge of death is the source of many of our fantasies. But he also teaches us that not all such fantasies are evil.
Consider his early story of the ‘The Fall of Númenor’ (published in The Lost Road). Desiring immortality, the Númenoreans are preparing to sail to the undying lands in the West. Then Ilúvatar (God) intervenes: Númenor is overwhelmed by the sea and the hitherto flat world is bent into a globe so that the straight way to the True West is lost. A remnant of the Númenoreans escape to Middle-earth, where they become kings of men. But the thought of Death remains heavy on these exiles. They build great tombs for the dead, and “in the fantasy of their hearts, and the confusion of legends half-forgotten” they conjure up an image of an undying land in the West, a land of wraiths where dwell the departed spirits of the dead:
For which reason in after days many of their descendants, or men taught by them, buried their dead in ships and sent them in pomp upon the sea by the west coasts of the Old World.
But some few among the Númenóreans preserved a true memory of the old line of the world, and could still half see the paths to the True West. These few “believed that at times from a high place they could descry the peaks of Taniquetil at the end of the straight road, high above the world. Therefore they built very high towers in those days.”
But most, who could not see this or conceive it in thought, scorned the builders of towers, and trusted to ships that sailed upon water.
Tolkien offers here, first of all, a fairy-tale reflection on ancient paganism, which conjures up a dream of a land of shadow on the further shore in which mortal men achieve a wraith-like immortality. The sea burials of old are but an echo of the Númenorean resolve to live forever, a sea-crossing achieved now in death rather than life.
But he offers, too, a different kind of mortal perspective on the undying lands. He shows us a glimpse that inspires a striving to see more clearly, but not an aspiration to reach the immortal realm.
Tolkien held the human heart to be intrinsically good; its yearnings placed within us by a benevolent Creator. Evil is but a corruption, not an inherent condition. Our fear of death is intense, and the fantasies that arise in its wake are astonishing, but they should not in themselves be scorned. Where we fall into error is by mistaking the vision for a goal, in striving to reach that which is given to us only as vision. We fall because we try to grasp for ourselves that which is not for us, but which we are allowed, on rare occasion, to catch sight of.
To see the fantasy of our heart’s desire, Tolkien teaches us, is good. Our fantasies of escape from death are not in themselves evil; indeed, they may be dreams of heart-piercing beauty.
It would be easy to dismiss this contrast of towers and burial-ships as just another marginal detail dug up from the now vast treasure of obscurities that is Tolkien’s posthumously published writings. But such dismissal would be a mistake: the image of the tower stands at the heart of Tolkien’s mature thought, both his scholarship and his fairy stories.
Christopher Tolkien dates the ‘The Fall of Númenor’ to 1936, the same year that Tolkien delivered his famous British Academy lecture, ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.’ This lecture presented the Old English poem as a meditation upon death – the tale of a hero who meets the monsters he must fight with courage, yet knows what the eventual outcome of his struggles must be. And the poet who crafted this poem, Tolkien insisted, had built a tower that looked out upon the sea:
A man inherited a field in which was an accumulation of old stone, part of an older hall. Of the old stone some had already been used in building the house in which he actually lived, not far from the old house of his fathers. Of the rest he took some and built a tower… from the top of that tower the man had been able to look out upon the sea.
And Christopher Tolkien, in his editorial notes on ‘The Fall of Númenor,’ identifies his father’s account of the towers built by the Númenoreans as “the first reference to the White Towers on Emyn Beraid, the Tower Hills.” Within a few years, Tolkien had placed within the tallest of these towers a palantír that looked back over the sundering sea into the uttermost West, into which Elendil would gaze when his heart was heavy with the yearning of exile.
It is of just this tower that Frodo dreams in his last night in the Shire before setting off on a journey that will take him all the way to Mount Doom.
He was on a dark heath, and there was a strange salt smell in the air. Looking up he saw before him a tall white tower, standing alone on a high ridge. A great desire came over him to climb the tower and see the Sea.
Tolkien’s fantasy begins from a recognition that knowledge of death haunts our waking lives. He meditated long on the ways in which such knowledge touches our hearts and sparks our imaginations. And at the heart of his fantasy is a profound discernment between grasping and seeing, between the error that we fall into when we try to realize our dreams of escape, and the beauty that is discovered when we simply unveil them.
This post derives from my attempts to write the introductory chapter to a new book on Tolkien. I am still grappling with these ideas and welcome comments.
Image credit: runmonty: ‘Robe Coastline.’