Saturday, 27 September 2008

Tolkien's ‘The Marring of Men’


Heaven and the Human Condition in ‘The Marring of Men’ (‘The debate of Finrod and Andreth’)

Bruce G Charlton. The Chronicle of the Oxford University C.S. Lewis Society, 2008; Vol 5, Issue 3: 20-29

The Argument from Desire

One of C.S. Lewis’s most famous arguments in support of Christianity is that the instinctive but otherworldly yearning emotion of ‘joy’ (in German, Sehnsucht) implies that there exists some means of satisfying this urge; otherwise humans would not experience it.

This is sometimes termed the ‘argument from desire’. In brief, it states that because humans profoundly and spontaneously desire something not of this world, the experience suggests the reality of the supernatural. Lewis used the argument in many of his best known Christian writings. In Mere Christianity, he argues that ‘[i]f I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world’. In ‘The Weight of Glory’, he notes that ‘we remain conscious of a desire which no natural happiness will satisfy’. And in the autobiographical Surprised by Joy, he comments that ‘[i]n a sense, the central story of [his] life is about nothing else’.

But Lewis is not the only among his friends to formulate an argument from desire. Perhaps the idea’s most powerful and compelling exposition can be found in a little-known and recently-published (1993) story by Lewis’ great friend J.R.R. Tolkien; a tale which was written in about 1959 and appears in the middle of Volume X of The History of Middle-earth, edited by Christopher Tolkien and published in twelve volumes between 1983 and 1996 [1]. Since The History of Middle-earth is read only by Tolkien scholars and enthusiasts, this wonderful dialogue is at present little known or discussed.

It is, of course, no coincidence that both Lewis and Tolkien should write of the argument from desire, since Lewis’s own conversion to Christianity was shaped by this argument: both Tolkien and Hugo Dyson used it in the famous late night conversation of September 1929 on Addison’s Walk in Magdalen College – an event which was recorded by both Lewis and Tolkien. Tolkien’s epistolary poem ‘Mythopoeia’ (addressed to Lewis) outflanks the counter-argument that this is mere wishful thinking or day-dreaming by asking the question: ‘Whence came the wish, and whence the power to dream?’ And Tolkien used the argument again in a letter to his son Christopher dated 30 January 1945, in reference to the human yearning for the Garden of Eden:

…certainly there was an Eden on this very unhappy earth. We all long for it, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with the sense of ‘exile’ [2].

But in ‘The Marring of Men’, Tolkien makes the argument from desire the basis of a fiction – and, as so often, Tolkien’s most personal concerns are most powerfully expressed in the terms of the mythic ‘secondary world’ he created.

‘The Marring of Men’

Tolkien’s story was never formally named – but probably the most compelling of its alternative titles was ‘The Marring of Men’ which I have adopted here . In the History of Middle-earth, the story is given its Elven name, ‘Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth’, translated as ‘The Debate of Finrod and Andreth’. The text of J.R.R. Tolkien’s story is about twenty pages long, with a further forty pages of notes and supplementary material compiled from other writings by J.R.R. Tolkien and notes by Christopher Tolkien.

‘The Marring of Men’ is part of the Silmarillion body of texts, which were composed over many decades, from Tolkien’s young adulthood during World War I right up until his death in 1973. This body of texts is sometimes referred to in its totality as Tolkien’s ‘Legendarium’, to distinguish it from the single volume Silmarillion selected by J.R.R. Tolkien’s son Christopher, and published in 1978.

The situation in ‘The Marring of Men’ is that of a conversation between Andreth, a mortal human woman, and Finrod Felagund, an immortal Noldo, a ‘High’ Elf. The explicit subject of their conversation is the nature and meaning of mortality, and its implications for the human condition – a subject which is probably the most fundamental of all religious topics, and which is certainly the single main interest and underlying theme of most of Tolkien’s fiction, including The Lord of the Rings. The implicit subject of the conversation is original sin and the fallen nature of Man – which is why the title ‘The Marring of Men’ seems appropriate.

But the conversation between Andreth and Finrod is not simply an abstract philosophical debate: It is fuelled both by world events and by personal experiences. The protagonists are aware of the imminent prospect of Middle-earth being irrevocably overrun and permanently destroyed by Morgoth. (The selfishness and assertive pride of Morgoth, the corrupt Vala or ‘fallen angel’ analogous to the Christian devil, are the primary origin of evil in Tolkien’s world.)

The personal element comes from the fact that the now middle-aged woman Andreth had fallen mutually in love with Finrod’s brother Aegnor in her youth, and had wished to marry the immortal Elf; but she was ultimately rejected by the Elf, who left to follow the call of duty and fight in the (believed hopeless) wars against Morgoth. It emerges during the conversation that Aegnor’s most compelling reason for rejecting Andreth was that he did not want love to turn to pity at her advancing age, infirmity and ultimate mortality – but (in Elven fashion) wished to preserve a memory of perfect love unstained by pity.

The ‘marring’ referred to in the title is mortality. The first question is whether Men were created mortal, or whether Men were originally immortal but lapsed into mortality due to some event analogous to original sin.

Immortal Elves and Mortal Men

While mortality is a universal feature of the human condition as we know it in the primary world, the Elven presence in Tolkien’s secondary world brings to this debate a contrast unavailable in human history. Tolkien asks in which ways the issue of mortality would be sharpened and made inescapable if mortal Men found themselves living alongside immortal Elves – creatures who, while they can be killed, do not die of age or sickness, and, if killed, can be reincarnated or remain as spirits within the world.

Tolkien’s Elves are fundamentally the same species as Men – both are human in the biological sense that Men and Elves can intermarry and reproduce to have viable offspring (who are then offered the choice whether to become immortal Elves or mortal Men). Elves are also religious kin to Men in that both are ‘children’ of the one God (Elves having been created first). But Elves seem, at the time of this story, to be superior to Men, in that Elves are immortal in the sense defined above. Elves do not suffer illness; they are more intelligent (‘wise’) than men, more beautiful, more knowledgeable and more artistic; Elves also have a much more vivid, lasting and accurate memory than Men.

The question arises in the secondary world: If Elves are immortal and generally superior in abilities, what is the function of Men? Why did Eru (the ‘One’ God) create mortal Men at all, when he had already created immortal Elves? Implicitly, Tolkien is also asking the primary world question why God created mortal and imperfect Men when he could have created more perfect humans – like the immortal Elves?

Tolkien’s answer is subtle and indirect, but seems to be related to the single key area in which the greatest mortal Men are superior to Elves: courage. Most of the ‘heroes’ in Tolkien’s world, those who have changed the direction of history, are mortal Men (or indeed Hobbits, who are close kin to mortal Men); and there seems to be a kind of courage possible for mortals which is either impossible for, or at least much rarer among, Elves. Elves have (especially as they grow older) a tendency to despondency, detachment and the avoidance of confrontation. On a related note, Tolkien hints that Men are free in a way in which Elves are not, and that this freedom is integral to the ultimate purpose of Men in Tolkien’s world – and by implication also in the real world.

C.S. Lewis once stated (albeit from the pen of a fictional devil!) that courage was the fundamental human virtue, because it underpinned all other virtues: Without courage other virtues would be abandoned as soon as this became expedient:

"Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means, at the point of highest reality. A chastity or honesty, or mercy, which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful till it became risky." [3]

At any rate, courage seems to be one virtue in which the best of Tolkien’s mortal Men seem to excel.

The Fall of Men

The first question is whether Tolkien’s One God ‘Eru’ originally created immortal Men, who had been ‘marred’ and made mortal by the time of Andreth (and, by implication, our time). This is Andreth’s first view – the mortal woman suspects that Men were meant to be immortal but have been punished with mortality:

‘[T]he Wise among men say: “We were not made for death, nor born ever to die. Death was imposed upon us.” And behold! the fear of it is with us always, and we flee from it ever as the hart from the hunter’ [4].

‘We may have been mortal when first we met the Elves far away, or maybe we were not.... But already we had our lore, and needed none from the Elves: we knew that in our beginning we had been born never to die. And by that, my lord, we meant: born to life everlasting, without any shadow of an end’ [5].

Naturally, this prompts the Christian reader to think of parallels with the Fall of Man and original sin; and this analogy is clearly intended by Tolkien.

Andreth talks of a rumour she has heard from the wise men and women among her ancestors, that perhaps in the past Men committed a terrible but undefined act which was the cause of this marring. The implication, never made fully clear, is that Men in their freedom may have deviated from their original role as conceived by ‘the One’, and been corrupted or intimidated into worshipping Morgoth, or at least into doing his will and in some way serving his purposes. This, it is suggested, may be the cause of Men’s mortality as such, along with a progressive shortening of their lifespan and a permanent dissatisfaction and alienation from the world they inhabit and even their own bodies. In the dialogue, Finrod asks:

‘[W]hat did ye do, ye men, long ago in the dark? How did ye anger Eru?... Will you not say what you know or have heard?’

‘I will not’, said Andreth. ‘We do not speak of this to those of other race. But indeed the Wise are uncertain and speak with contrary voices; for whatever happened long ago, we have fled from it; we have tried to forget, and so long we have tried that now we cannot remember any time when we were not as we are’ [6].

Men’s Lifespan

By contrast to their uncertainty about the origin of mortality, the decline in mortal lifespan caused by Morgoth’s corruption of the world seems certain to both Andreth and Finrod. Later in Tolkien’s history, those Men who help defeat Morgoth are rewarded with a lifespan of about three times Men’s usual maximum, i.e. about 300 years; greater strength, intelligence and height; and a safe island off the coast of Middle-earth on which to dwell (Numenor, Tolkien’s Atlantis).

It seems possible that the enhancements of ‘Numenorean’ Men are simply a restoration of the original condition of Men. Or it may be that these enhancements are compensations of Elvenness, rendering Men more Elven (though still mortal), perhaps with the ultimate aim of a unification of Elves and Men. At any rate, the majority of Numenoreans eventually succumb to corruption and evil, and are destroyed by Eru in a massive reshaping of the world, which drowns the island and the vast Numenorian navy that is landing on the shores of the undying lands.

For Tolkien, it is a characteristic sin of Men to cling to life, and it is this clinging which corrupts the mortal but long-lived Numenoreans who try to invade the undying lands – either in the mistaken belief that they will become immortal by dwelling there, or with the intention to compel the Valar to grant them immortal life.

While Men are characteristically tempted to elude mortality – to stop change in themselves – the almost-unchanging Elves are tempted to try to stop change in the world – to embalm beauty in perfection. This Elven sin is related to the first tragedy of the Silmarillion, when ultimate beauty – the light of the primordial trees – is captured in three jewels; and it later leads to the creation of the Rings of Power, which are able to slow time almost to a stop, and thereby to arrest the pollution and wearing-down of Middle-earth.

As well as having an increased lifespan, Numenoreans surrender their lives voluntarily at the appropriate time, and before suffering the extreme degenerative changes of age. This voluntary death (or transition) at the end of a long life is described in the most moving of the appendices to The Lord of the Rings, when Aragorn (the last true Numenorean) yields his life at will to move on to another world. His wife Arwen pleads with him to hold on to life for a while longer to keep her company in this world; however Aragorn kindly but firmly refuses her request:

‘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. Farewell!’ [7]

Arwen’s fate is tragic, because she is one of the ‘half-elven’ who may choose whether to become Man or Elf; she chooses to become mortal in order to marry Aragorn and share his fate. However, her resolve to accept mortality at the proper time is undermined by her ‘lack of faith’ in Man’s destiny of life after death. In the appendix, she is portrayed as regretting becoming a mortal instead of an Elf; and as having succumbed to the sin of clinging to mortal life rather than accepting mortality and trusting that there is life after death.

"…and the light of her eyes was quenched, and it seemed to her people that she had become cold and grey as nightfall in winter than comes without a star." [8]

The half-elven Arwen has failed to embrace the mortal need for courage to underpin all other virtues; and one possible interpretation of this passage is that this has consequences for her fate in the next world.

At Home in the World, or Exiled?

For Tolkien (and Lewis), the sense of exile is a ‘desire’ which implies the possibility of its gratification; in other words, it reflects the fact that Men have indeed been ‘exiled’ from somewhere other than this world.

Finrod makes clear that Elves, by contrast, feel fully at home in the world to which they are tied:

‘Each of our kindreds perceives Arda differently, and appraises its beauties in different mode and degree. How shall I say it? To me the difference seems like that between one who visits a strange country, and abides there a while (but need not), and one who has lived in that land always (and must)’. [9]

‘Were you and I to go together to your ancient homes east away I should recognize the things there as part of my home, but I should see in your eyes the same wonder and comparison as I see in the eyes of Men in Beleriand who were born here’. [10]

Elves therefore care for the world more than Men, and do not exploit nature as Men do, but nurture and enhance the world. And indeed Elves are not truly immortal, since when the world eventually ends, they will die; and to Finrod it seems likely that this death will mean utter annihilation:

"You see us...still in the first ages of being, and the end is far off.... But the end will come. That we all know. And then we must die; we must perish utterly, it seems, because we belong to Arda (in [body] and in [spirit]). And beyond that what? The going out to no return, as you say; the uttermost end, the irremediable loss?" [11]

Partly because of this prospect, the almost-unchanging Elves become increasingly grieved by the ravages of time upon the world, and cumulatively overcome by weariness with their extended lives. Hence the characteristically Elven temptation to try to stop time, to arrest change.

By contrast, Men seem to Finrod like ‘guests’, always comparing the actual world of Middle-earth to some other situation. This opens up the question of Tolkien’s version of ‘the argument from desire’. Finrod thinks that Men have an inborn, instinctive knowledge of another and better world. Hence, he thinks that they never were immortal, but have always known death as a transition to another, more perfect world – not as the prospect of annihilation which Elves face. Thus, he considers the possibility that Men’s ‘mortality’ is ultimately preferable to Elven ‘immortality’.

But even in this world Finrod suspects that the destiny of Men may eventually be higher than that of Elves. He acknowledges that at the time of his debate with Andreth the Elves are the superior race in most respects; but he can envisage a time when mortal Men will attain leadership, and the Elves will be valued mainly for the scholarly and artistic abilities fostered by their more accurate and vivid memories. This projected role of Men will be related to the healing of the world from the evil that was permeated through it by Morgoth.

One possible interpretation of this is that Elves cannot heal the marred world because they are tied to, part of, that world; but that mortal Men may be able to heal it because, although they themselves share the marring of the world, they are ultimately free from that world through death.

Tolkien’s Vision of Heaven

Building on hints by Andreth, Finrod intuits that if things had gone according to Eru’s original plan, there would have been no need for Men. The first-born, immortal Elves would have been the best inhabitants and custodians of an unmarred world, because their very existence was tied to it.

But since the demiurgic Morgoth infused creation with evil at a very early stage, Eru made a second race of mortals – Men – who lived in the world for a while, then passed on to another condition. Because mortals were not tied to the world, they had the freedom to act upon the world in a way that Elves did not. This freedom of Men could be misused to exploit the world short-sightedly; but it could also be used to heal the world, to the benefit of both mortals and immortals alike.

[Finrod]: ‘This then, I propound, was the errand of Men, not the followers but the heirs and fulfillers of all: to heal the marring of Arda’.

Indeed, Finrod perceives that to clarify this insight may be the main reason for their discussion: so that Andreth may learn the meaning of mortality from Finrod, and pass this knowledge on to other Men, to save them from despair and encourage them in hope.

[Finrod]: ‘Maybe it was ordained that we [Elves], and you [Men], ere the world grows old, should meet and bring news to one another, and so we should learn of the Hope from you; ordained, indeed, that thou and I, Andreth, should sit here and speak together, across the gulf that divides our kindreds’. [12]

Andreth suggests that Eru himself may intervene for this hope.

[Andreth]: How or when shall healing come?…To such questions only those of the Old Hope (as they call themselves) have any guess of an answer.… [T]hey say that the One will himself enter into Arda, and heal Men and all the Marring from the beginning to the end’.[13]

Finrod cannot at first understand how this could be, and Andreth herself seems to regard it as highly implausible – a wishful dream. But on reflection, Finrod argues:

‘Eru will surely not suffer [Morgoth] to turn the world to his own will and to triumph in the end. Yet there is no power conceivable greater than [Morgoth] save Eru only. Therefore, Eru, if he will not relinquish His work to [Morgoth], who must else proceed to mastery, then Eru must come in to conquer him’. [14]

The Christian parallels are obvious. Indeed, ‘The Marring of Men’ can be seen as part of Tolkien’s lifelong endeavour to make his legendarium (originally conceptualized as a ‘mythology for England’) broadly compatible with known human history, particularly Christian history [15].

Andreth’s hints inspire Finrod to a vision which offers ultimate hope to the immortal but finite Elves as well as to mortal Men:

‘Suddenly I beheld a vision of Arda Remade; and there the [High Elves] completed but not ended could abide in the present forever, and there could walk, maybe, with the Children of Men, their deliverers, and sing to them such songs as, even in the Bliss beyond bliss, should make the green valleys ring and the everlasting mountain-tops to throb like harps’.

‘We should tell you tales of the Past and of Arda that was Before, of the perils and great deeds and the making of the Silmarils. We were the lordly ones then! But ye, ye would then be at home, looking at all things intently, as your own. Ye would be the lordly ones’. [16]

This, then, is Tolkien’s vision of Heaven, pictured in the context of Arda, his sub-created world.

Myth and reality

The conversation of Andreth and Finrod occurs during a lull before the storm of war breaks upon Middle-earth; and Finrod foresees that the next stage of war will claim the life of his brother Elf Aegnor, whom the mortal woman Andreth loved in her youth and loves still. The fragment ends with Finrod bidding Andreth farewell by reaffirming, ‘you are not for Arda. Whither you go you may find light. Await us there, my brother – and me’. Andreth’s destiny lies beyond the world, and Finrod dares to hope that this is true for the Elves also.

In Tolkien’s legendarium, loss or transmission of knowledge is always a matter of concern. The message we take away from ‘the Marring of Men’ is hopeful. We are called to infer that this conversation has ‘come down’ to us today: that it was remembered, recorded, and has survived the vicissitudes of history, possibly because we modern readers need or are meant to know this.

Just as Morgoth’s marring of the World and of Men is analogous to the Christian account of the Fall of Satan and of original sin, Finrod and Andreth’s intuitions and hopes, Tolkien implies, were vindicated in real history by the coming of Jesus Christ. And Tolkien’s sub-creative vision of heaven, as explicated by Finrod, is meant to be taken seriously as an image of true heaven, in which Tolkien believed as a Christian. It is entirely characteristic that Tolkien’s heaven should have a place for Elves as well as for Men.

Tolkien’s story ‘The Marring of Men’ – though so brief a tale – seems to me one of his most beautiful and profound: a product of deep thought and visionary inspiration. It encapsulates nothing less than Tolkien’s mature understanding of the human condition and the meaning of life. Scholars and admirers of C.S. Lewis, who are unfamiliar with Tolkien’s legendarium, may find a way into his magnificent fantasy by reading it as complementary to Lewis’s great idea of ‘joy’ and his characteristic ‘argument from desire’: Tolkien engaged in developing and completing themes which underpin much of his old friend’s best and most serious work.

1. J.R.R. Tolkien, Morgoth’s Ring: The History of Middle-Earth, Volume X, ed. Christopher Tolkien (London: HarperCollins, 2002[1993]), pp. 301-366.
2. Humphrey Carpenter (ed.), Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1981), p110.
3. C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Macmillan, 1951), p148.
4. Morgoth’s Ring, p. 309.
5. Ibid., p. 314.
6. Ibid., p. 313.
7. The Return of the King (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1974), p. 309.
8. Ibid., p. 309.
9. Morgoth’s Ring, p. 315.
10. Ibid., p. 316.
11. Ibid., p. 312.
12. Ibid., p. 323.
13. Ibid., p. 321.
14. Ibid., p. 322.
15. This is the subject of Verlyn Flieger’s book Interrupted Music: The Making of Tolkien’s Mythology (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2005).
16. Morgoth’s Ring, p. 319.