Let’s revisit briefly the concluding passages of Tolkien’s 1936 tale of the ‘Fall of Númenor’.
Seeking immortality, the Númenoreans had prepared to sail to the undying lands in the uttermost West. But Númenor was destroyed by an act of God. A remnant escaped the deluge and arrived on the shores on Middle-earth. Among their descendants we find two views about the undying lands beyond the sundering sea: in the crookedness of their hearts, most imagine a place where dwell the shades of the mortal dead (for which reason they practice ship funerals); yet a wise minority seek to glimpse the undying lands (for which reason they build tall towers on the coast) but understand that it is not a land where Men may dwell.
What arrests my attention here is the contrast between grasping at a (confused) vision and seeing a (true) image without mistaking it for a goal. I think this contrast is key to the perils and rewards of the ‘Faërie sight’ that we encounter in The Lord of the Rings (most obviously, but by no means exclusively, in both the palantíri and Galadriel’s Mirror).
But John Carswell is correct in suggesting that the whole picture requires a consideration of Tolkien’s own beliefs. And the ‘Fall of Númenor’ is a useful text from this perspective because it contains a rare hint of those beliefs (rare at least in the context of the stories of Middle-earth).
Of those Númenoreans who do not seek to reach the undying lands (neither in life nor in death), Tolkien writes:
… they knew that the fate of Men was not bounded by the round path of the world, nor destined for the straight path. For the round is crooked and has no end but no escape; and the straight is true, but has an end within the world, and that is the fate of the Elves. But the fate of Men, they said, is neither round nor ended, and is not within the world.
Now, we who have heard the teachings of Christianity can readily interpret this passage as offering a contrast between immortality and eternity. Immortality is a life within the world that lasts as long as the world; this is the fate of the Elves. Eternity is found outside the walls of the world, the gateway to eternity is death; and this is the fate of Men. From this Christian perspective, the striving for immortality is a false answer to the riddle of death; acceptance of death as the gateway to eternal life is the true answer.
But note that this Christian reading puts into the quoted passage more than it actually contains. All that Tolkien allows his true Númenoreans is a knowledge that the answer to the riddle of death is found beyond and not within the world. The passage bears the imprint of Tolkien’s Christian faith, but in a fashion deemed appropriate for an ancient Northern world that has not yet received the gospels and has not heard of Christ.
The ‘Fall of Númenor’ was conceived as a sort of origin story of the ancient history of the North. Today, of course, we read it as a bridge that connects the stories of the First Age in The Silmarillion with the great story of the Third Age in The Lord of the Rings. But in 1936 this latter story had yet to be conceived, and, as the last line of the ‘Fall of Númenor’ makes clear, this was to be the closing chapter in the Elvish prehistory of the North:
And here the tale of the ancient world, as the Elves keep it, comes to an end.
So the ‘Fall of Númenor’ can be read as a meditation upon two kinds of ancient, yet historical Northern paganism: a heathenism that strove for immortality and a noble paganism that accepted death as the fate of Men, knew that death was not the end but the gateway to a fate beyond the walls of the world, but (prior to the spread of Christian teachings) had no guarantee of its hope of eternal life.*
Putting Tolkien’s Christian faith into the picture allows us to see how Middle-earth enchants both a Christian audience and those who reject Christianity and are fascinated by ancient pagan alternatives. Simply put, the noble paganism that Tolkien fashions is fully compatible with the teachings of Christianity: it contains the same moral virtues but is absent those metaphysical revelations concerning death and what follows it.
Bringing Christianity into the picture also provides a clue as to the nobility of spirit that we find in The Lord of the Rings. Vain dreams of escaping death tempt us all. But the Christian today is armed with the teachings of Christ and the support of his Church. The heroes of Middle-earth must spurn the temptations of the enemy, yet do so with no hope that their righteousness will earn any reward other than death. In The Lord of the Rings Frodo embodies this ideal of heroism, but it is actually a characteristic of all who sacrifice themselves with no thought of earning a place in heaven. Tolkien’s Christian faith entailed that when he imagined virtuous pagans without his own faith he imagined them as particularly noble and heroic.
Tolkien’s imagination of noble paganism thus has its own internal logic. It’s worth bearing this in mind in light of criticisms by Tom Shippey (Roots and Branches, ‘Tolkien and the Beowulf-poet’ and ‘Heroes and Heroism’) that Tolkien airbrushed out of Middle-earth all the nastier elements of the Germanic pagan past (such as human sacrifice). Actually, this heathenism is not absent in Middle-earth, it is merely placed on the periphery of our vision and so hardly touched upon: heathenism is the choice of those Men who worship Morgoth and Sauron. But in making the ‘Fall of Númenor’ the origin, not of the history of the North, but of the history of the Third Age, Tolkien took his conception of noble paganism and made it the dominant attitude among the Dúnedain and the men of Gondor and Rohan. This, of course, is not an historically accurate picture of the ancient North; but it is not simply a presentation of ancient paganism through rose-tinted-spectacles.
But does any of this illuminate what I have called the ‘Faërie sight’ found in The Lord of the Rings? I am not convinced that it does.
Clearly, the worldview of Tolkien’s paganism (be it heathen or noble) is very far from atheism. Those who inhabit such a world may encounter magical and mysterious beings simply by following far enough the road that leads from their door. And certain objects in this world may provide magical visions, even to the extent of providing a glimpse of the undying lands beyond the sundering sea. To look into such objects is perilous, at least for a mortal. And that peril is bound up with the good and evil in the heart of the beholder.** But while such ideas of good and evil are close (if not identical) to the moral lessons taught by Christianity, the very idea of a noble paganism is grounded upon the universality of such ideas.
I’m still thinking about this, but for the present I remain of the opinion that the sight of Faërie is bound up in the fantasies of our heart, of which those born out of our fear of death are the most important, but that such fantasies are independent of any knowledge (or lack thereof) of the Eternity that may (or may not) await us once we die.
Image credit: Kontis Šatūnas, ‘Contemporary Romuvan sacred space in Šventoji, Lithuania.’
* Text revised in light of post linked to by JC in his comment below.
** Text revised in light of astute comment below from TH.