“For if joyful is the fountain that rises in the sun, its springs are in the wells of sorrow unfathomed at the foundations of the Earth.” —J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion
Light and hope break into the stories of J.R.R. Tolkien from every direction—with the descent of eagles, the arrival of friends, the return of wizards, and the fireside meals of hobbits. However, his stories remain tightly encased within a realm of death and separation. Yes, Aragon leads the armies of elves, dwarves, men (and even a few hobbits) in a desperate bid to distract Sauron himself and to allow Frodo, Sam and Gollum to overthrow him decisively. However, the real point of the older stories—first written years earlier by a pious young language scholar and further developed after his return from the devastation of the First World War—is that Arwen must say farewell forever to her father and then again to her husband who must leave her to receive death alone. Tolkien offers no final escape from death and separation for all of time.
True, we get an even larger story within which our world of death and time fit. As Eru Ilúvatar conceived the Ainur from his thought and taught each of them how to make music before the start of time, their singing weaves Eä into being as an embodied world (the cosmos of stars containing Arda as the planet holding Middle Earth). However, this world is almost immediately corrupted following the discordant song of Melkor who is allowed to enter Eä where he seeks domination over it and most especially over the Children of Ilúvatar (the divided households of Elves and Men) who have Eä as their home.
There are only two small hints given by Tolkien regarding any possible recovery from this containment of Ilúvatar’s children within a world bound by time, death, and eternal separation. First, from outside of time, we are given the account of the third theme in Eru’s music that Melkor found to be sweeter, more beautiful and ultimately unquenchable. What this theme might have contained is hinted at from within the history of Eä by only one obscure tale that went unpublished in Tolkien’s lifetime: “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth.”
This brief story describes a connection between this world of time and death and the timeless realm of Eru Ilúvatar which would allow communion to be restored one day between the Children of Ilúvatar and the Ainur—between the embodied world and that of solid light and song. In this story, Andreth (a wise-woman among humans) shares with Finrod (a wise-man among elves) about a set of ancient and almost entirely lost beliefs among some humans regarding the nature of human embodiment and the indissolubility of body and soul. Tolkien’s myth is so deep that it contains its own metaphysics, so body and soul here are not exactly what we might think of in our own understandings of these words, but to translate fëa as “soul” and hröa as “body” is the best that we can do here. They share of the mysterious bond between these two aspects of the Children of Ilúvatar (men and elves) in terms that suggest the inevitability of incarnation so that God’s image within embodied creation might be restored and all (or much) that is now bound by death might be restored:
What can this mean unless it be that the fëa shall have the power to uplift the hröa, as its eternal spouse and companion, into an endurance everlasting beyond Eä, 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.“Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth” (likely completed in 1959 but not printed until 1993 within Morgoth’s Ring, the tenth volume of Christopher Tolkien’s 12-volume series The History of Middle-earth)
Therefore, I say that if this can be believed, then mighty indeed under Eru were Men made in their beginning; and dreadful beyond all other calamities was the change in their state.
Beyond these two points of ultimate hope beyond the horizon of history, however, Tolkien keeps his stories confined tightly by the horizon of death and separation across all of time. Not only is there no reunion possible within history for elves and men, but humanity ultimately can do no more than accept their own death willingly (with no promise of a reunion between their fëa and hröa that would constitute a communion between the timeless realms of Eru and the storied cosmos of Eä—the union of earth and eternity).
Within this life, we should gaze upon the fountain in the sun but accept that it springs from “the wells of sorrow unfathomed at the foundations of the Earth.” This confinement to the realm of death is a great part of Tolkien’s faithfulness and gift to his readers. In part, it is related to his insistence that one-to-one allegory be strictly avoided within mythology and fairytale, but it goes beyond this to his insistence upon eucatastropy as the only truth available to us now. If Tolkien is right that we have nowhere to turn in this life but to “the wells of sorrow unfathomed at the foundations of the Earth,” how is this in any sense a hope? We can only recall what the Christian scriptures place at the foundations of our cosmos: a slain lamb (Revelation 13:8). This world is founded upon God’s own death.
Here Tolkien is within an old Christian tradition that considered death itself a gift prepared by God from the foundation of the cosmos as “the limits that were set for [Eä] in the ‘Vision of Eru’ of which the Valar speak.” This is a limit that even Finrod (an elven loremaster) is astounded to learn from the woman Andreth might ultimately be overcome. For virtually all the inhabitants of Tolkien’s mythical earth, this bondage to estrangement or death is a limit that was assumed to be a permanent aspect of their creation. Tolkien only hints at the incarnation and resurrection within one unpublished story, but the eucatastropy of the cross is clearly within view throughout his work. A death that must be accepted as a gift is central to Tolkien’s work and may be considered a basic aspect of the third theme in Eru’s music—the theme that finally overcomes Melkor’s discord.
As difficult as this cross is to bear, we must insist with Tolkien that the only way to the resurrection is through the grave. Tolkien took this so seriously, that he would not allow any form of human resurrection to enter into his mythology (other than the smallest hint within one unpublished story). This shows us not only the essential nature of death as a gift that we must receive but also the power of a truly human resurrection. When a human life overcomes death, “what can this mean unless it be that the fëa shall have the power to uplift the hröa, as its eternal spouse and companion, into an endurance everlasting beyond Eä, and beyond Time?” With death overcome, humanity has the capacity to unite all of embodied creation with God’s eternal life.
This is not to say that our world as we know it right now, under the bonds of death, is not also beautiful and communicative of the life, love and glory of God. However, this beauty of the Creator is only fully seen by a heart that has accepted death. Saint Pavel Florensky says:
The goal of the ascetic’s strivings is to perceive all of creation in its original triumphant beauty. The Holy Spirit reveals itself in the ability to see the beauty of creation. Always to see beauty in everything would be “to be resurrected before the universal resurrection,” to have a foretaste of the last Revelation, that of the Comforter.From “Letter Nine” in The Pillar and Ground of the Truth: An Essay in Orthodox Theodicy in Twelve Letters by Pavel Florensky (translated by Boris Jakim)
Tolkien insists that the catastrophe is good and fills his stories with the in-breaking of this goodness (typically at its most wonderful when it comes from the most humble of sources, as we see within the goodness of Shire life). However, Tolkien insists with his mythology that our lot in this world is, ultimately, to take up our cross (Matthew 16:24-26) and to pray that, in our own flesh, we might be “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body” (Colossians 1:24, ESV). This is the ascetic’s strivings of which the saints teach which allows us to see the beauty of creation. Like the believing thief who hung beside Christ, may we die willingly with him.