I am fascinated by the descriptions of Tolkien's Numenoran Men; and how one of their gifts was to know when it was that they should die. This evoked one of the most beautiful passages Tolkien ever wrote:
Then going to the House of the Kings in the Silent Street, Aragorn laid him down on the long bed that had been prepared for him. There he said farewell to Eldarion, and gave into his hands the winged crown of Gondor and the sceptre of Arnor, and then all left him save Arwen, and she stood alone by his bed.
And 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. "Lady Undómiel," said Aragorn, "the hour is indeed hard, yet it was made even in that day when we met under the white birches in the garden of Elrond where none now walk. And on the hill of Cerin Amroth when we forsook both the Shadow and the Twilight this doom we accepted. Take counsel with yourself, beloved, and ask whether you would indeed have me wait until I wither and rail from my high seat unmanned and witless. Nay, lady, I am the last of the Númenoreans and the latest King of the Elder Days; and to me has been given not only a span thrice that of Men of Middle-earth, but also the grace to go at my will, and give back the gift. Now, therefore, I will sleep.
"I speak no comfort to you, for there is no comfort for such pain within the circles of the world. The uttermost choice is before you: to repent and go to the Havens and bear away into the West the memory of our days together that shall there be evergreen but never more than memory; or else to abide the Doom of Men."
"Nay, dear lord," she said, "that choice is long over. There is now no ship that would bear the hence, and 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 Númenoreans, 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."
"So it seems," he said. "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 for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory, Farewell!"
The Numenoreans had been gifted (by the Valar, the gods) with a lifespan several-fold greater than ordinary Men; and they were also immune to both illness and the degenerations of ageing. So they would (unless killed) remains healthy and vigorous until they became aware that their proper lifespan was ended; and at this recognition they - willingly, by choice - ought-to embrace death, as did Aragorn.
If they rejected death, the Numenoerans could indeed live about a decade longer; but at the cost of rapid decline in physical health and the onset of what we would term dementia. But more significantly, by clinging to life, they had succumbed to spiritual corruption. And this corruption itself shortened their life span.
It was when the Numenoreans, especially their Kings and Queens, began clinging to life; that the corruption of the race began to get a grip and to accelerate. Because this clinging represented their rejection of the divine will that Men (but not elves) should naturally die and their souls would then leave the circles of the world.
I feel that there is a deep lesson in Numenor about life and death. Our life is of value, as a time of experience and learning, and for so long as this life continues it is ordained by God. Death is inevitable for men - however, the inevitability can be accepted or rebelled-against; can be embraced at the proper time, or delayed for a while.
There will come a time when we know that Christians ought to surrender life willingly - and more with faith and hope onto the next stage.
But - for this choice to be a real choice, it is possible to refuse to die now and move-on - and it is possible that death can be delayed. There is no guarantee of successful delaying of death, for those who choose that path - but the spiritual crux is whether we accept timely death, or whether we strive to delay it.
We can either acknowledge that this mortal life has now fulfilled its divine purpose and that it is now best to undergo the transformations of death and resurrection...
Or, we can refuse death, and remain alive for some while longer - but at the cost of physical and mental degeneration and spiritual corruption.
In other words, we can - at death - align our-selves with God's purposes; or we can turn-away-from God's purposes and hold to our own.
When I talk of willing embrace of death at the right time, I mean more than a stoic acceptance of the inevitability of death; and more than the acceptance of death as the least-worst of alternatives - for someone worn-down by pain and weariness. In other words, the willing embrace of death means more than death as analgesia, sleep and rest.
Death should go beyond mere passive acceptance to a voluntary and positive choice. When a Christian follows Jesus through death to resurrected life eternal; this is an active and conscious matter - which entails repentance (recognizing and discarding the sins that are incompatible with Heaven).
The willing embrace of death was modelled by Jesus in the Gospel accounts; but it follows naturally from a desire for salvation - which can only come via death.
It may be of vital importance to know the point at which the price of life becomes too great.
A Man may find himself confronted with the possibility of 'clinging to life' at the cost of doing, saying or thinking some-thing that he knows to be a deep and damning sin. At such a point; a Christian needs to be able to recognize that this is the time to die.
Such a situation may become more frequent in the world as it has become. In this totalitarian world of surveillance and control, ruled by powers of evil; more and more Men are in a position analogous to the slave of a wicked master.
Ultimately a slave may be compelled to do his master's will, or else die: there may be no other alternatives.
Therefore, we need to be prepared to die, prepared willingly to accept death; when what we are being asked to do is would destroy our own capacity for repentance.
Each Man will know when this point is reached (God will make sure of this) - although he may, of course, choose to pretend that he does not know.
Obedience and death-delayed; or refusal and death-now...
The devil delights in presenting such a choice when he feels confident of the outcome; and he must surely be confident that most modern Men would do or destroy literally anything when they believe it may delay their own death - as the 2020 birdemic made crystal clear.
If that choice comes to us, and when the price of obedience is damnation; a Christian needs to acknowledge the fact, and the irreversibility of the decision. To refuse martyrdom may be to embrace damnation.
It is as well to be prepared. The cost of wrong choices we can see depicted in the History of Numenor.
Given that LotR was inspired... then...
I would think it follows that the work contains a number of lesser-appreciated, less-obvious lessons. Lately I've been interested in searching those out.
Another line whose significance is perhaps under-appreciated is Gandalf's stern lecture to Denethor:
"Authority is not given to you, Steward of Gondor, to order the hour of your death,' answered Gandalf. 'And only the heathen kings, under the domination of the Dark Power, did thus'".
I take this very personally, in view of ongoing discussions about assisted suicide and so forth.
I was never able to get into Tolkien but I like that line in Gumerre's translation of Beowulf in the prologue:
Forth he fared at the fated moment, sturdy Scyld to the shelter of God.
Beautiful passage from a wise man . . . well, wise he was, but I'll follow Matthew above in granting that Tolkien's works were inspired, just like everything that reflects well the divine splendor. So, in creating, he channeled the wisdom of the ages.
My comment last week -- and now this post -- have moved me to ask you to write about how "death" works with the elves in Tolkien's mythology. I remember being confused about it when I read _The Silmarillion_. The Halls of Manwë and all that. Do the spirits of slain elves go there and await having their bodies reformed for them? Were there ever instances of an elf's "dying" in Middle Earth and then later returning to Middle Earth, or did all the unfortunate ones learn their lesson and thereafter remain in the undying lands? What about the Avari -- if they made their way to Valinor upon violent death, that doesn't seem like much of a choice in answering the Valar's call. Do they just become specters, not knowing where to go?
I know that this may be a tangential issue, but the details of such things interest me in fictional world-building. I guess that I cannot leave my mechanical mind behind -- I want to see how it all functions. Given Tolkien's comprehensiveness, I'd be surprised if he didn't think such a thing through.
@ Joseph - You could probably find what you want by browsing The One Wiki to Rule Them All. But it would be far more satisfying if you read about it in JRR and Christopher Tolkien's words. Much is in Unfinished Tales and The Peoples of Middle Earth (volume 12 of the History of Middle Earth).
Most of the questions you ask about have answers - probably; but are caught up by Tolkien's shifting conceptions over the years, because The Silmarillion remained unpublished - and also because his ideas changed (he was prepared to go back and revise what was already published - to some extent - as with the Gollum scene in The Hobbit.
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