Death as Gift in Tolkien and Peter Damian

In the Bible, death is not natural, but is an alien intrusion into God’s created order, brought about by man’s sin and rebellion. In Tolkien’s legendarium, by contrast, human mortality is (as the Elves at least viewed it) the peculiar and even coveted “gift of Ilúvatar,” a blessed reprieve–granted to Men but withheld from the Elves–of being able to depart after a time from the wearying, confining circles of the world.

As Tolkien well knew, despite the obvious tension between his “fictional” representation of death and the Scriptural account (which he affirmed as a Christian), there was nevertheless a deeper, even purposeful harmony between the traditional perspective on death and that represented in his world of Middle-earth. One example of this understanding of “death as gift” may be found in the eleventh-century theologian Peter Damian (1007-1072) who, in his letter On Divine Omnipotence, explains that, although the introduction of death was an evil for man, it was nevertheless a good where the justice of God was concerned. He writes:

it was an evil that man, after the fall, should suffer the penalty of death even though this occurred by the just judgment of God; for God di dnot make death, since he is rather the death of death, as he says through the prophet Hosea, “O death, I will be your death.” Nevertheless, at least after the mystery of our redemption, it would certainly have been something good for man to have become immortal, if divine forbearance had annulled the sentence he had once pronounced. The omnipotent God cannot, in fact, be said to be unwilling or unable to do this for the reason that it is evil for a mere man to become immortal, but because, in his just judgment and for the greater assurance of our salvation, which was known to him, he wished death to remain merely as a penalty owed by man already redeemed. (Letters of Peter Damian 91-120, trans. Blum)

Irven Michael Resnick, in his book on Damian’s On Divine Omnipotence, even further bridges the gap between Tolkien’s innovative view of death and Damian’s traditionalism:

Damian explains [that] there are many things which are evils for us although they are not evils in themselves. Although immortality is a good, it would have been an evil after the Fall if man had obtained the immortality he sought, since then his condition would no longer admit of change. Death, on the other hand, although we regard it as an evil, is good insofar as it is our just punishment for sin. What is more, the anticipation of death may lead the sinner to return to God. In our post-lapsarian condition, then, immortality–which was previously a good–is an evil for us, while death–which seems to be evil–now works for our good. Thus, it is wrong to say that God is unable to bestow immortality upon man in his present condition; rather, He does not because it would be evil to do so. (Resnick, Divine Power and Possibility in St. Peter Damian’s De Divina Omnipotenia, 72)

Or, as Tolkien himself put it one letter,

A divine ‘punishment’ is also a divine ‘gift’, if accepted, since its object is ultimate blessing, and the supreme inventiveness of the Creator will make ‘punishments’ (that is changes of design) produce a good not otherwise to be attained: a ‘mortal’ Man has probably (an Elf would say) a higher if unrevealed destiny than a longeval one. To attempt by device or ‘magic’ to recover longevity is thus a supreme folly and wickedness of ‘mortals’. Longevity or counterfeit ‘immortality’ (true immortality is beyond Ea) is the chief bait of Sauron – it leads the small to a Gollum, and the great to a Ringwraith. (Letters no. 212)

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4 thoughts on “Death as Gift in Tolkien and Peter Damian

  1. This is very interesting — I have two quick comments that I would add.

    First, I think this approach works quite well once we realise that even in Tolkien’s legendarium the primary Fall, and thus the immutable fate that Man would have to live in Arda Marred, occurs before Eru bestows his gift upon Men.

    Secondly, I think it is important to keep in mind that Eru’s gift is not death in itself: the gift is one of freedom, “a virtue to shape their life, amid the powers and chances of the world, beyond the Music of the Ainur, which is as fate to all things else” (this from the Ainulindalë D version), and that “it is one with” this gift that Men should die and leave the Circles of the World. It is my opinion that Tolkien treats the two sides of the gifts as a whole, and that it is therefore a mistake to consider either without the other: none of the two sides can exist without the other, the freedom (and the promise that the fulfilment of Creation would be achieved through the operations of Men) depends on death, just as leaving the Circles of Arda depends on the freedom.

    • Merry Christmas, Troels!
      Your first point intrigues me, and I wonder what else might be said along these lines. As you know, in the “Athrabeth” Finrod tells Andreth that he thinks the redemption of Arda is somehow bound up with the peculiar anthropology/psychology of Men. If, as you point out, the Marring of Arda is determined prior (prior, at least, in terms of the order of creation itself–the “order” in the mind of Iluvatar may be another matter entirely) to the introduction of Men and their gifts of mortality and freedom, it raises the question to what extent (if any) Man’s nature is in fact designed by Iluvatar with the Marring of Arda specifically in mind. I don’t, to be clear, think Tolkien’s legendarium is necessarily committed to the latter being the case: Men, including their mortality, may have eventually been part of the Great Music even without Melkor’s corruptions. If so, it would further imply that the role that Men and their mortality would eventually play in the unmarring of Arda was on Iluvatar’s part more of an innovative appropriation of Man’s nature than an inherent design feature of that same nature (though I would want to revisit the “Athrabeth” to see how well this comports with what Finrod says there).
      Having said this, however, I think the more fascinating possibility is that Man and his mortality not only historically or temporally follow after Melkor’s fall and the Marring of Arda, but in some sense they ontologically _presuppose_ Melkor’s fall and Arda’s Marring as well. If so, then the difference between Tolkien’s cosmogony and that of the Bible is potentially even greater than I had realized, as I had never really thought of Man’s nature in its unfallen state as specifically (as opposed to only accidentally) tied to the fact of Arda Marred in this way. One metaphysical implication of this, it should be said, is that insofar as Men represent a distinct species of being, it has God creating (in the fullest sense of that term), not just “ex nihilo,” but in a sense “ex malo” (i.e., from the specific nothing or privation that is evil). It would also put Men in a very complex and paradoxical relationship to the fact of Arda Marred, inasmuch as they would seem to owe their very existence to the fact of that Marring. It is this paradox, moreover, that one might say finds itself recapitulated within (if not constitutive of) Man’s peculiar nature: just as the Marring (“death”) of Arda becomes the “gift” that leads to Man’s creation/existence, so Man’s own nature (by a divine irony) involves the “gift” of death that Man must pass through before the freedom he is ultimately destined for can be realized.
      Well, I’m sure there are lots of holes in there. What do you think? If I’m not completely off base here (I have a nagging feeling that I’m overlooking something obvious), maybe I’ll do a series of posts examining this issue in more careful detail.
      Regards,
      Jonathan

  2. Hello, Jonathan, I discovered only today your blog and facebook links. It seems to me your work shows very interesting points of view on Tolkien and the philosophy. I’m Italian and I haven’t much time to spend to read and understand well all your works. I’ve read something here and there. And when I find this considerations of San Pier Damiani on the question of death, I was very pleased in finding some relationships of it with this Book: http://www.walking-tree.org/books/the_broken_scythe.php. (The Broken Scythe: Death and Immortality in the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien). I’ve participated to the Italian version of the book (http://www.mariettieditore.it/catalogo/scheda.asp?IDFolder=137&IDOggetto=10430), but my essay wasn’t translated in the English version of the book and now it is translated (in a not very good English) in http://www.scribd.com/doc/110436401/Elven-Immortality-as-a-Literary-Narrative-Experiment-in-J-R-R-Tolkien-s-Legendarium.
    About the death as a gift, I think that in Genesis’ Text there isn’t a completely plain idea that death would be a simple punishment, and moreover we can find in Hebrews (2:14-15) these words: “{2:14} Therefore, because children have a common flesh and blood, he himself also, in like manner, has shared in the same, so that through death, he might destroy him who held the dominion of death, that is, the devil, {2:15} and so that he might free those who, through the fear of death, had been condemned to servitude throughout their entire life”. Here, only here, certainly, if I remember well, the problem with men’s death is the fear of death (promoted by the Devil) more than death itself, and in The Silmarillion there is the well known phrase: “But Melkor has cast his shadow upon it, and confounded it with darkness, and brought forth evil out of good, and fear out of hope”. So I think that the ‘gift of death’ can be found also in the Bible, and Pier Damiani (I like him very much, even if I haven’t read too much of him) had the merit to underline something that already in the Bible could be found in some form. Nowadays Tolkien is considered having interpreted death in real modern theological way, but in fact, he used a very ancient Christian point of view and also remained rooted in the Scripture. (Excuse me for my English).

  3. From Letters, 208:
    “But certainly Death is not an Enemy! I said, or meant to say, that the ’ message’ [in LOTR] was the hideous peril of confusing true ‘immortality’ with limitless serial longevity. Freedom from Time, and clinging to Time. The confusion is the work of the Enemy, and one of the chief causes of human disaster. Compare the death of Aragorn with a Ringwraith. The Elves call ‘death’ the Gift of God (to Men). Their temptation is different,: towards a faineant melancholy, burdened with Memory, leading to an attempt to halt Time.”

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