Elvish immortality: a matter of “mind over matter”

The profound differences between Tolkien’s Men and Elves may be no less accounted for in hylomorphic (matter-form) terms. What gives Elves their immortality or, more properly speaking, their “serial longevity” (the natural Elvish life being limited to the lifespan of Arda–Morgoth’s Ring 331), is the greater power or strength their souls exercise over their bodies. As a more powerful bodily form or forming principle, in other words, the Elvish soul exercises a greater degree of “command,” “control,” or “mastery,” as Tolkien variously puts it, over its matter, the body (211, 218, 233, 331, and 334). (In another passage Tolkien writes of the Elvish body being “modified by the indwelling fëar” or soul [337].) The consequence is that the Elvish soul is capable of keeping its body indefinitely alive (provided it is not catastrophically injured), strong, and in good health (427), not to mention “by nature continent and steadfast” (211-13). As Tolkien writes at some length of the Elvish physiognomy:

They were thus capable of far greater and longer physical exertions (in pursuit of some dominant purpose of their minds) without weariness; they were not subject to diseases; they healed rapidly and completely after injuries that would have proved fatal to Men; and they could endure great physical pain for long periods. Their bodies could not, however, survive vital injuries, or violent assaults upon their structure; nor replace missing members (such as a hand hewn off). On the reverse side: the Elves could die, and did die, by their will; as for example because of great grief or bereavement, or because of the frustration of their dominant desires and purposes. This willful death was not regarded as wicked, but it was a fault implying some defect or taint in the fëa, and those who came to Mandos by this means might be refused further incarnate life. (341)

In Tolkien’s Elves, it would seem, we get a fictional and dramatic exaggeration of the Aristotelian-Thomistic doctrine that it is through the formal principle of the soul that the material principle of the body has its being, its life, and its operations.

“Yearn for your bodies”: Tolkien and Thomas’s rejection of Platonic dualism

Like Thomas, Tolkien in his mythology expressly rejects Platonic dualism in favor of a view of the soul as “indwelling,” “cohering with” (Morgoth’s Ring 218), and generally “desiring to inhabit” its body (243). In the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, in response to Finrod’s suggestion that perhaps it is part of Man’s original nature that their soul (fëa) should eventually leave behind its body (hröa), the human (mortal) woman Andreth emphatically denies that for Men the body is a mere “inn” for the soul to temporarily dwell in, as such a position would involve a “contempt of the body.” And while she does, in somewhat Platonic fashion, refer to the body as a “raiment,” she says that we should speak not only of the “raiment being fitted to the wearer,” but also “of the wearer being fitted to the raiment” (Morgoth’s Ring 317). St. Thomas, by comparison, criticizes Plato for his view that man was merely an anima utens corpora, a “soul making use of a body” (Summa Theologiae 1.75.4). On the soul’s “desire to inhabit” its body, we also have the testimony of the “Doom” pronounced on the Noldor Elves in The Silmarillion:

“For though Eru appointed to you to die not in Eä, and no sickness may assail you, yet slain ye may be, and slain ye shall be: by weapon and by torment and by grief; and; and your houseless spirits shall come then to Mandos. There long shall ye abide and yearn for your bodies, and find little pity though all whom ye have slain should entreat for you.” (Silmarillion 88, emphasis added)

For Tolkien and St. Thomas, human beings are naturally embodied creatures, such that even in death the soul, though continuing to exist, retains its fundamental orientation towards and even desire for its body.

Body and soul: Tolkien and Thomas’s hylomorphic anthropology

If Tolkien’s hypothesis of non-naturally but voluntarily incarnate angelic beings captures something of the “freedom” but also the problematic character of modern mind-body dualism, his fictional anthropology of Elves and Men, by contrast, seems to channel the hylomorphic (matter-form) theory of body and soul propounded by Aristotle and Aquinas.[1] According to this tradition, the human soul is not extrinsically related to the body, as per the soul-body dualism of Plato and Descartes, but is the formal, final, and efficient cause of the human body, the form and actuality through which, by which, and for which the body has its very being as a body (Summa Theologiae 1.76.1).[2] It follows from this, for both Thomas and Tolkien, that, on the one hance, the soul (or what the Elves call “fëa”), is incorporeal and incorruptible and thus capable of existing from the body (see, for example, Summa Theologiae 1.75.2 and Morgoth’s Ring 223, 245, and 330). (Although Tolkien says in one note that hröa and fëa are “roughly but not exactly equivalent to ‘body’ and ‘soul’” [Morgoth’s Ring 330], he does not specify how they are in fact different, and elsewhere he simply asserts that fëa “corresponds, more or less, to ‘soul’; and to ‘mind’” in its immaterial aspects [349].)

On the other hand, we find both Thomas and Tolkien eager to maintain that the soul, its ability to exist apart from the body notwithstanding, nevertheless does not constitute the whole of man. Thomas argues this position in Summa Theologiae 1.75.2, and we find Tolkien in basic agreement when he writes, for example, that when a man receives an injury it is not merely the soul-principle, the “Indweller,” that suffers the wound, but “Man, the whole: house, life, and master” (Morgoth’s Ring 353). As Tolkien explains elsewhere, the soul is indeed the principle or source of “identity” (227), being both “conscious” and “self-aware,” and yet he also adamantly affirms the body to constitute an integral and necessary part of the “self” of the person (349). St. Thomas also argues that, however much the soul may be able to go on existing apart from its body, it still remains greatly dependent on its body in order to carry out its own proper acts of knowing, as this requires the operation of the bodily powers of sensation and imagination (Summa Theologiae 1.84.7). Tolkien may be seen to echo this point when he says that, although it is the soul that has “the impulse and power to think: enquire and reflect,” its mental processes, like Thomas’s incarnate soul, are nevertheless “conditioned and limited by the co-operation of the physical organs” of the body (Morgoth’s Ring 349).


[1] For an alternative (and somewhat underdeveloped) reflection on Tolkien’s anthropology in light of St. Thomas’s philosophy of man to the one I am offering here, see Nimmo, “Tolkien and Thomism: Middle-earth and the States of Nature.” As the title of Nimmo’s article suggests, the author takes up the five states of nature distinguished by Aquinas, namely the “hypothetical” states of (1) pure nature and (2) integral nature, and the “historical” states of (3) innocence or original justice, (4) fallen nature, and (5) restored or repaired nature, and attempts to correlate these with the different species of rational beings and their respected states found in Tolkien’s mythology.

[2] For Aristotle’s hylomorphic doctrine of the soul, see book two of his On the Soul. For an explanation and defense of Thomas’s hylomorphic anthropology in light of some of its contemporary criticisms, see Klima, “Man = Body + Soul: Aquinas’s Arithmetic of Human Nature.”