Embodied Immortality in Tolkien and Anselm

Another similarity between Tolkien’s Athrabeth and Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo to add to the list: the identity of man as a unity of body and soul in their respective arguments concerning the destiny of humankind. In the preface of Cur Deus Homo, Anselm writes:

human nature was instituted with the specific aim that at some stage the whole human being should enjoy blessed immortality, ‘whole’ meaning ‘with both body and soul’…

As Anselm observes, man was created for “blessed immortality,” a state transcending and surpassing his mortal experience here on earth. At the same time, whatever this immortality was, it was not something had by the soul only apart from or at the expense of his body. “Blessed immortality” was and is to be an embodied immortality.

In the conversation of the Athrabeth, Tolkien similarly strives to strike a balance between the alleged other-worldly orientation of Man’s soul and the this-worldly orientation of his body. On the one hand is Finrod’s characterization of the difference between Elves and Men on this wise:

the Eldar say of Men that they look at no thing for itself; that if they study it, it is to discover something else; that if they love it, it is only (so it seems) because it reminds them of some other dearer thing? Yet with what is this comparison? Where are these other things? ‘We are both, Elves and Men, in Arda and of Arda; and such knowledge as Men have is derived from Arda (or so it would appear). Whence then comes this memory that ye have with you, even before ye begin to learn?

As Tolkien argues in “On Fairy-Stories,” they are the Fairies who are “natural,” whereas they are the Men who are, by comparison, “supernatural.” If Men are ordered away from Arda/Earth in this way, however, it raises a question as to the unity of the human person. Finrod asks:

‘But what then shall we think of the union in Man: of an Indweller, who is but a guest here in Arda and not here at home, with a House that is built of the matter of Arda and must therefore (one would suppose) here remain? ‘At least one would not hope for this House a life longer than Arda of which it is part. Yet you claim that the House too was immortal, do you not? I would rather believe that such a feä of its own nature would at some time of its own will have abandoned the house of its sojourn here, even though the sojourn might have been longer than is now permitted. Then “death” would (as I said) have sounded otherwise to you: as a release, or return, nay! as going home! But this you do not believe, it seems?’

Andreth’s response is emphatic and unequivocal:

‘Nay, I do not believe this,’ said Andreth. ‘For that would be contempt of the body, and is a thought of the Darkness unnatural in any of the Incarnate whose life uncorrupted is a union of mutual love. But the body is not an inn to keep a traveller warm for a night, ere he goes on his way, and then to receive another. It is a house made for one dweller only, indeed not only house but raiment also; and it is not clear to me that we should in this case speak only of the raiment being fitted to the wearer rather than of the wearer being fitted to the raiment.

‘I hold then that it is not to be thought that the severance of these two could be according to the true nature of Men. For were it “natural” for the body to be abandoned and die, but “natural” for the feä [soul, spirit] to live on, then there would indeed be a disharmony in Man, and his parts would not be united by love. His body would be a hindrance at best, or a chain. An imposition indeed, not a gift. But there is one who imposes, and who devises chains, and if such were our nature in the beginning, then we should derive it from him – but that you say should not be spoken.

‘… I hold that in this we are as ye are, truly Incarnates, and that we do not live in our right being and its fullness save in a union of love and peace between the House and the Dweller. Wherefore death, which divides them, is a disaster to both.’

So according to Finrod Men are spiritually ordered away from this world towards a reality they-know-not-what, and yet the equally belong to the bodies which are a part of this world. What’s the solution to this conundrum? The solution is what I’ve referred to earlier as Tolkien’s and Anselm’s shared “metaphysics of Mary” (something I hope to address more fully at a later date). Finrod responds:

‘Ever more you amaze my thought, Andreth,’ said Finrod. ‘For if your claim is true, then lo! a feä which is here but a traveller is wedded indissolubly to a hroa [body] of Arda; to divide them is a grievous hurt, and yet each must fulfil its right nature without tyranny of the other. Then this must surely follow: the feä when it departs must take with it the hroa. And what can this mean unless it be that the feä shall have the power to uplift the hroa, as its eternal spouse and companion, into an endurance everlasting beyond Ea, and beyond Time? Thus would Arda, or part thereof, be healed not only of the taint of Melkor, but released even from the limits that were set for it in the “Vision of Eru” of which the Valar speak.’

In his commentary on the Athrabeth, Tolkien expressly refers to this conjectured process by which the human soul would have “taken with it” its soul as an act of “assumption,” a clear allusion to the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Assumption of Mary, according to which the Blessed Virgin, at the end of her earthly life, was taken up into heaven both body and soul into a state of glory. In Tolkien’s fictional eschatology, accordingly, the original fate of all Men was to have been that enjoyed by the Virgin Mary. Or to return to Anselm’s own argument for why God became a man, man’s destiny was and still remains that of an embodied immortality.

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