Death and the Tower

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.’

8 thoughts on “Death and the Tower

  1. Pingback: Simon Cook: Death and the Tower | TRUE MYTHS

  2. johncarswell

    Great stuff Simon! A topic very close to my own fascination with Tolkien. Reblogged a favorite passage over at True Myths.

    One comment:

    You say: “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.”

    While I concur that Tolkien frowned upon the grasping for immortality by mortal beings, I think it’s important to keep in mind that, in a way, the undying lands are a goal. After all, they are given to Frodo and Sam as a gift/reward in LOTR. Furthermore, Tolkien was certainly a believer that man is an immortal soul within a mortal body. I’m not sure if you’re fixing the bounds of your essay so as to exclude his religious beliefs. However, I think they are quite relevant to the topic, especially as Tolkien speaks of Christianity in On Fairy-stories as the real eucatastrophe of human history, the actual escape from death.

    Anyway, brilliant work, hope my comment is helpful.

    1. simon Post author

      John, thanks!

      The undying lands as a goal: this I am not sure about. I will think about it, but I’m not sure it is right that they were a goal for Frodo and Sam.

      On your wider point about Tolkien’s Christianity and belief in man’s immortal soul: yes, you are, of course, 100% correct. In fact the passages in the Lost Road I was quoting go on to say something like ‘the wise understand that man’s soul is destined for somewhere else altogether, neither for the straight nor the round road’ – better put than that, but meaning that humans achieve eternity outside the walls of the world, rather than immortality within it (which I think has a bearing on why the undying lands cannot be a valid goal).

      When I started to write the post I had intended to use these last quotes, but by the time I had got to (what I felt was) the end, they seemed unnecessary to the point I was trying to make here.

      More generally, my attitude to religion when writing about Tolkien is as follows: ultimately, one cannot understand Tolkien without grasping the centrality of his Catholic faith; but part of Tolkien’s genius is that he managed to write his stories without bringing religion in to his world in any overt way; and therefore as a sort of ‘methodological strategy’ I always aim to get to the root without mentioning the religion if I can – not because I don’t want to mention the religion, but because it seems to follow the line that Tolkien himself set out.

      That said, one cannot truly grasp how Tolkien thought of Middle-earth in relation to the undying lands and the immortal Elves without appreciating how he thought of both in relation to eternity and God.

      1. johncarswell

        I see. It certainly makes sense as “methodological strategy”, as it would otherwise be extremely difficult to sort it all out, since Tolkien left it all something of an overlapping mess.

        BTW, in doing some other research, I came across a particularly interesting passage in Letter 212 that I think pertains, the passage from: “In this mythical ‘prehistory’ immortality…” to “…and refused rebirth.”

        It appears that Letter 211 is also a treasure trove on this matter.

        Can’t wait to read the whole book!

        1. simon Post author

          John, thanks for the references – I will explore.

          I have to say now that I’m having second thoughts about what I wrote above. That is, I’m not sure its possible to fully explicate Tolkien’s distinction between seeing and grasping at fantasy without bringing his religious ideas into the picture. Because otherwise (and what the post as it stands leaves us with) is the idea of Tolkien as a kind of stoic, or perhaps better, a noble pagan, who holds that we must recognize our dreams as only dreams and, while appreciating their beauty, carry on in our life without hope. And this is obviously off the mark. I need to think on this quite a lot more, but I have the sense that what I wrote above presupposes a faith that knows that the ultimate fate of Men is not to be found over the ocean, and that unless this is stated explicitly the difference between those who build towers and those who send the dead across the water in ships remains arbitrary.

          I’m not being clear, and this is making my head hurt. As I said, I need to think more on it…

  3. Troelsfo

    Simon, thank you – that was a very enjoyable read!

    It got me thinking in several directions all at once, but mostly in the direction of Tolkien’s sub-creative connection with the sea (and perhaps water, more broadly). There is something powerful there, which I feel most be more than the symbolism you seem to be proposing. Not that it would, I think, preclude or deny the symbolism – I imagine it would rather interact with the symbolism in some complex way …

    So far, I am afraid it is mostly a set of only loosely connected observations / ideas:

    There is something about an echo of the Music being caught in the play of water, including the surf of the Sea. This is somehow tied back to Ulmo, but it also ties water, and the sea as the ultimate water, strongly to the idea of the Fate of the World.

    We have people looking out across the Sea in much of Tolkien’s work, but they nearly always look to the west. Mordred looking out for Arthur’s fleet in The Fall of Arthur the exception that comes to mind right now (I am sure that there must be other exceptions).

    Sea-longing and out-longing seems to be one and the same thing. Not even Aragorn is entirely an exception: Though his reputation as a traveller is mostly at land, he is nonetheless also a Sea-traveller, as he proved when he, in his Thorongil disguise, attacked Umbar from the Sea-side.

    Pertinent to the last point is also the Hobbits who are both the quintessential stay-at-homes and terribly afraid of not only the Sea, but any water large enough to drown in … (with the same Hobbits being the exceptions in both cases).

    Though he didn’t really make a point of it (and wasn’t entirely consistent about it), Tolkien did say that the Nazgûl were afraid of water – that ties very well with your points, I think.

    This seems to me (I am making this up as I write, so please bear with any foolishness!) to suggest that the idea of water & the Sea, and of looking out over, or even sailing, the Sea, is tied to a broader desire to learn, to discover the world. Not just what lies beyond death, but that which lies beyond our horizons in every sense, to perceive and understand the Other

    I know I am rambling on, but I cannot right now figure out if there is any actually worthwhile in those rambling thoughts, but in any case thank you very much for provoking the, :)

    1. simon Post author

      Hi Troels,

      Your comments, ramblings or other, are always informative and welcome.

      I agree that there is more going on here than set out in my post; more, indeed, than I could say. Reading your comment I was reminded of a moment in a Prancing Pony podcast on The Music of the Ainur (at 1:04:54) when the significance of the Sea is discussed but no clear answer found. Which is a way of saying that others who have meditated long and deep on Tolkien also recognize yet find it hard to fully account for the place of the sea in Tolkien’s mind.

      For what it is worth, I have a feeling that a good place to start pondering more on all this is the description of Frodo’s enchantment as he listens to the Elvish minstrels in the Hall of Fire at Rivendell:

      Almost it seemed that the words took shape, and visions of far lands and bright things that he had never yet imagined opened out before him; and the firelit hall became like a golden mist above seas of foam that sighed upon the margins of the world. Then the enchantment became more and more dreamlike, until he felt that an endless river of swelling gold and silver was flowing over him, too multitudinous for its pattern to be comprehended; it became part of the throbbing air about him, and it drenched and drowned him.

      This certainly connects ‘out-longing’ and the sea, and it is striking how we move from the sea to a river.

      To ramble myself: Rivers are perhaps mini-versions of the sea within Middle-earth, operating as borders between worlds (think of Lothlorien) and even centers of enchantment in their own right (Withywindle) – and Aragorn does have a particularly notable river voyage (‘born upon a wind from the Sea to the kingdom of Gondor’).

      But there does seem to be a profound difference between water that moves (rivers and the sea) and water that is still (Mirrormere, the water before the entrance to Moria, and the Dead Marshes). Still waters are not without their ‘magic’, and it is not necessarily an evil magic (Mirrormere), yet it is as if we find here (excuse the pun) but a mere reflection of the mysterious power of water that is flowing.

      But now we arrive at Galadriel’s Mirror…

      1. Troelsfo

        … and through Galadriels Mirror perhaps to the idea of water as a portal to a generalised Otherworld? But a conceptual Otherworld that can include the ‘otherness’ of e.g. Gondor when seen from the eaves of Mirkwood …

        (I thought of Galadriel’s Mirror earlier, but forgot it again)

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