Death and Deathlessness

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Death and Deathlessness

Postby MithLuin » Tue Feb 27, 2007 8:44 pm

Death and Immortality are obviously important themes in all of Tolkien's work. The choice of Luthien (and later Arwen) hinges on actually being able to decide whether or not to die. Aragorn is able to lay his life down at will. The strange concept of Death as a "Gift" from God :!: (bitter to receive indeed....) From Numenor to the Nazgul cheating death, it is a clear thread running through the story.

I certainly have noticed this when watching the LotR movies with people who have recently lost someone. The song "Into the West" is only a thinly-disguised version of losing someone to death. But the entire trilogy has moments of loss - Gandalf and Boromir, Theodred and Haldir, Theoden and Denethor...even Gollum, Saruman and the Witch-King die in...well, semi-meaningful ways. Much of the time, we don't like to think about death, but LotR is one story that does not shy away from this reality.

I was not surprised to learn that Tolkien had bouts of depression. Hope is such an important theme in his work that it is obviously something he never took for granted. But I do not find him morbid, nor needlessly obsessed with the macabre - death is a reality, not to be dwelt on, but not to be ignored, either. One of the most touching scenes (to me) in the Battle of the Pelennor is when Eomer speaks poetry at Theoden's death.
'Mourn not over much! Mighty was the fallen,
meet was his ending. When his mound is raised,
women then shall weep. War now calls us!'

That would seem so cold, so heartless, if Tolkien did not write immediately 'Yet he himself wept as he spoke.' He is from a people accustomed to War, and he can carry on when a soldier falls...but he will weep for the man who was a father to him. To see him (almost) master himself here and then to go and discover Eowyn...well, as I said, I think this scene is the most powerful. (And I realize I am in the minority to raise it above Eowyn's confrontation with the Witch-King, but once you know what happens, that's not nearly as exciting any more :P)

But what inspired me to start this post was actually Bilbo's poem in Rivendell. I had never noticed just how concious Bilbo was of his own mortality...until I heard another version of the poem that pulled the punches. And so here is the original:
    I sit beside the fire and think
    of all that I have seen,
    of meadow-flowers and butterflies
    in summers that have been;

    Of yellow leaves and gossamer
    in autumns that there were,
    with morning mist and silver sun
    and wind upon my hair.

    I sit beside the fire and think
    of how the world will be
    when winter comes without a spring
    that I shall ever see.

    For still there are so many things
    that I have never seen:
    in every wood in every spring
    there is a different green.

    I sit beside the fire and think
    of people long ago,
    and people who wil see a world
    that I shall never know.

    But all the while I sit and think
    of times there were before
    I listen for returning feet
    and voices at the door.
The other version is a song by Lingalad. I love their music - they translate Tolkien's work into Italian, but they do have English versions of some of their songs. Here are the lyrics to their song, "Beside the Fire:"
    I sit beside the fire and think
    Of all that I have seen,
    Of gold meadow-flowers and butterflies
    In summers that have been;
    Of yellow leaves and shining gossamer
    In autumns that there were,
    With morning mist and silver sun
    And cool wind upon my hair.

    I sit beside the fire and think
    Of how the world will be
    When winter comes without any spring

    For still there are so many many things
    That I have never seen
    In every wood clearing in every new spring
    There are so many different kind of green.
    I sit beside the fire and think
    Of people long ago,
    And people who will see a world
    That maybe I shall never know

    But all the while I sit and think
    Of times there were before,
    I listen for returning feet
    And voices at my door.
www.lingalad.com

As you can see, their version leaves a bit more doubt about the end. Bilbo's poem is about someone who may not live out the winter, and knows that someday, he won't. A spring will come that he will not see. And there is no way to rush and make up for it now, because each spring is different, unique - if you miss that one, you've missed it.

As I said, I like Lingalad's music (a lot!), but I do think they've softened the blow of this poem, made it less brutally aware of impending doom. Is it just me? Tolkien's poem reminds me of another I have seen:

    Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
    Is hung with bloom along the bough,
    And stands about the woodland ride
    Wearing white for Eastertide.

    Now. of my threescore years and ten,
    Twenty will not come again,
    And take from seventy springs a score,
    It only leaves me fifty more.

    And since to look at things in bloom
    Fifty springs are little room,
    About the woodlands I will go
    To see the cherry hung with snow.

    -- A.E. Housman (1859-1936)

(And yes, I could not help but do the math, out of curiosity if he did have 'threescore years and ten' - he actually lived to 77, so he had 57 years left when he wrote this [assuming he was a man of 20 when it was written].)

But even this poem puts off the moment of death for 50 years, so though it is very conscious of mortality, it does not seem as immediate.

I do not know how many years are left to me, but I do know that I am young, and I think as all young people do that I will live virtually forever. I cannot imagine myself getting old or sick, let alone...dying. And I don't want to. Tolkien had less than 20 years left to him when LotR was finally published. He was much more likely to take a mature view of such things as mortality than I do, and he certainly had experienced more loss than I have. Both my parents are still living.

And yet...I thought of this now because when I stepped outside today, it was like a breath of spring. The air is still cool, but the snow and ice are melting, and there are little rivulets of water everywhere. The sun was shining and there was a fresh breeze. No blossoms yet, but it did remind me, all in an instant, that this is happening now, and if I miss it...the moment slips away and is gone.

I have no idea if this post has any clear point at all, so I am not going to direct you how to respond to it. Just, don't miss this spring! (and if you are in the Southern Hemisphere, revisit my post in 6 months :P)
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Re: Death and Deathlessness

Postby Ivriniel » Tue Feb 27, 2007 9:19 pm

MithLuin wrote:Death and Immortality are obviously important themes in all of Tolkien's work. The choice of Luthien (and later Arwen) hinges on actually being able to decide whether or not to die. Aragorn is able to lay his life down at will. The strange concept of Death as a "Gift" from God :!: (bitter to receive indeed....) From Numenor to the Nazgul cheating death, it is a clear thread running through the story.

I certainly have noticed this when watching the LotR movies with people who have recently lost someone. The song "Into the West" is only a thinly-disguised version of losing someone to death. But the entire trilogy has moments of loss - Gandalf and Boromir, Theodred and Haldir, Theoden and Denethor...even Gollum, Saruman and the Witch-King die in...well, semi-meaningful ways. Much of the time, we don't like to think about death, but LotR is one story that does not shy away from this reality.


If you watch the documentary footage that comes with the extended edition, Fran wrote the lyrics to "Into the West" after the death of a young filmaker that she and Peter had befriended.

http://www.thehotbutton.com/today/hot.b ... 9_mon.html

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Postby MrsSmeagol » Wed Feb 28, 2007 4:08 pm

My father has had cancer for a few years but is now very close to the end (he was 81 yesterday, and for the past few weeks has been paralyzed and very gravely ill). And I've re-watched the films in the past few weeks - I suppose because on some level they are comforting. The whole idea of 'into the west' is an appealing one, not just for the recently bereaved (or about to be bereaved), but for anyone who's lived a bit and seen a bit of life.

Like Tolkien, I lost my mother at a very young age. That makes you permanently different to others, especially in childhood, adolescence and the 20s when they feel invulnerable and eternal. A child who has lost the closest person to them on earth will always grow up with a much deeper knowledge, and a sense of loss that will continue to leak out, throughout later life. And I think that is what we see in LOTR and elsewhere. That sense of mortality. (The books are also the workings of a middle aged man. We belong to a 'youth oriented' culture now - but Tolkien didn't. That informs the stuff we get re. Aragorn and his mum, too. For a person who grew up without a mother it is very hard to think from the point of view of the other 98% of the population - especially in the heroes and big parts, when writing. Hence Frodo, Bilbo, and Aragorn have no mothers. It's not a superficial plot-driven Harry Potter style device (or a fairytale like device as used by a more skilful writer than Rowling, eg: Dahl)... but almost an impossibility to come from a starting point that doesn't incorporate that awful loss. This is hard for someone who grew up with a mother to understand but for those of us in the awful minority - second nature. I hope that makes sense. :)
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Postby Durins_Day » Wed Mar 07, 2007 7:03 pm

Well you've clearly put alot of though in this post so I feel bad about posting with less work (which is of course what I'm doing! Oy.).
Anyway, here goes.

I read the LoTR when i was pretty young, I was about 12 when I read them the first time. My favorite parts were 'The choices of Master Samwise', Eowyn killing the Witch King, Helm's Deep, stuff like that. And I thought the Scouring of the Shire was boooooring!
Oh and I disliked the ending immensely. Why did Frodo have to leave?

Okay, I'm not really that much older now than I was then but I am older and since then several people in my life have died and I've lost touch with many more. As I re-read the series again I find that I'm getting something different out of it. I still like all the things I used to like, it's just, the feel has changed for me. The little moments I breezed over before are full of meaning. Sam's optimism, Eomer's reaction to his uncle's death, and especially the Scouring of the Shire and Frodo's journey to the West. How poignant! We cannot save everything, the world will always change for good and for ill. That loss is apart of life and Tolkien doesn't ignore this. He could easily have given the Hobbits a happy ending, but chose to, well not exactly making it unhappy, throw some melancholy into the mix.

Thanks for the Bilbo poem, I had never thought of it that way. Certainly adds some perspective to the scenes in Rivendell!

Oh and when I think of spring I always think of Chaucer so...for the lovers of spring the intro to the Canterbury Tales in old(e) and modern English, whatever your pleasure may be!
Enjoy the Spring!


Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
5 Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
10 That slepen al the nyght with open eye-
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
15 And specially from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke.



When in April the sweet showers fall
That pierce March's drought to the root and all
And bathed every vein in liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
5 When Zephyr also has with his sweet breath,
Filled again, in every holt and heath,
The tender shoots and leaves, and the young sun
His half-course in the sign of the Ram has run,
And many little birds make melody
10 That sleep through all the night with open eye
(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)
Then folk do long to go on pilgrimage,
And palmers to go seeking out strange strands,
To distant shrines well known in distant lands.
15 And specially from every shire's end
Of England they to Canterbury went,
The holy blessed martyr there to seek
Who helped them when they lay so ill and weak
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Postby rwhen » Wed Mar 28, 2007 2:00 pm

Hello Mith, no I am not stalking you, but it might seem that way.

I also can tell you put much thought into your research of the subtle layering of the Professors views and handling of death.

I am not that far from the jumping off point I think and I find that His works are a soothing balm, not so scary if you get my meaning. Whether one is religious by nature or not, most of us like to think that there is "something" more than this one chance. Tolkien gives us a fantasy "chance" to think on and one that I like to relate to in real life.

When Bilbo reached Rivendell in the Fellowship, he knew/could see the effect not having the ring was playing on him, it would be normal for him to be contemplating never seeing another spring. So I see how you draw that conclusion and thanks for posting it from this perspective. Seems logical now, to me.

I also find it interesting that you quote Eomer speaking at Theoden's death, which I found so touching in the movie (Theoden's death), that I went back to the book and read that part. Of course there was no Eomer speaking in the movie, but when I went to the book to read what Tolkien had written about that part, I reread the poem by Eomer and thought...geesh that should not have been left out, it was already heartbreaking, but this would have even made more of an impact I think.

I have my own metaphore for life/death as a train that is put on the tracks when you are born...many stops along the way, breakdowns, derailments, new adventures, but eventually the train comes to the end of the line for all of us, just depends on which ticket we purchased gettin' on.

Don't know why I shared that with you, but it was in my head to do so.

Peace.
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