In Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion, the race of mankind has been given a different fate than that of the ageless elves, who never grow old and die. Men are given the gift of death.
Understandably, it is often not clear why death should be considered a gift, unless it be an under-handed one. Rather than receive it, many men try to prolong life. The history of Middle Earth is in part the tale of men scorning their fate and seeking to overthrow the gift of the One, Illuvatar, the Creator of the World and the Father of Men and Elves. Readers of The Silmarillion will here recall the tale of the Akallabeth, the fall of Numenor, in which men attempted to seize eternal life by traversing the seas to the Undying Lands, only to be swallowed in a great wave sent by the One Himself.
As I’ve read Tolkien’s works over and over again, the significance of this theme has seemed more prominent, and now I think it may be altogether the most central idea. And reading again this morning, in the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings, the question hit me once more, “Why should death be considered a gift?” I was reading the story of Aragorn’s death and his parting from Arwen, many years after the events involving Frodo and the Ring. King Aragorn senses his time has come to depart life and to say goodbye to his wife. Even though she has long known this time would come, she finds it more grievous than she imagined: “for all her wisdom and lineage she could not forbear to plead with him to stay yet for a while. She was not yet weary of her days, and thus she tasted the bitterness of the mortality that she had taken upon her.”
After vainly pleading with Aragorn to stay, she says, “I must indeed abide the Doom of men, whether I will or I nill: the loss and the silence. But I say to you, King of the Numenoreans, not till now have I understood the tale of your people and their fall. As wicked fools I scorned them, but I pity them at last. For if this is indeed, as the Eldar say, the gift of the One to Men, it is bitter to receive.”
But Aragorn replies, “So it seems. But let us not be overthrown at the final test, who of old renounced the Shadow and the Ring. In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! We are not bound forever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.”
The mystery of God’s gift to men is here revealed, because death is not a destination, an ending, but a doorway to something beyond–something “more than memory.” It is indeed a gift. For without death what would become of man in his weakness and sin?
“Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever–” therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden … He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Gen. 3:22-24).