Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The already-dead, the not-quite-dead, and those who have clearly overstayed their welcome

It just so happens that your friend here is only mostly dead.
There’s a big difference between mostly dead
and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive.
— Miracle Max, The Princess Bride*

I read an interesting blog post on the morality of the torture of Gollum yesterday, and some of the comments reminded me of another issue which has long preoccupied me: death and its exceptions in Middle-earth. One commenter wonders “about Aragorn summoning the Dead and compelling them to participate in the war against Mordor. This seems awfully close to the cursed practice of necromancy. I take it that Sauron is called ‘the Necromancer’ on account of the Ringwraiths, who are dead men.”

But the Nazgûl aren’t dead men. Not quite, anyway. They can’t be killed in any of the usual ways — “The power of their master is in them, and they stand or fall by him,” says Gandalf — but they do appear to be more or less “alive”. If not, how else is it the Witch-king of Angmar can be hurt and then killed by Merry and Éowyn? Perhaps Miracle Max would say the Nazgûl are mostly dead, but slightly alive. In the text “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age”, we find the best description of them:
Those who used the Nine Rings became mighty in their day, kings, sorcerers, and warriors of old. They obtained glory and great wealth, yet it turned to their undoing. They had, as it seemed, unending life, yet life became unendurable to them. They could walk, if they would, unseen by all eyes in this world beneath the sun, and they could see things in worlds invisible to mortal men; but too often they beheld only the phantoms and delusions of Sauron. And one by one, sooner or later, according to their native strength and to the good or evil of their wills in the beginning, they fell under the thraldom of the ring that they bore and under the domination of the One, which was Sauron’s. And they became for ever invisible save to him that wore the Ruling Ring, and they entered into the realm of shadows. The Nazgûl were they, the Ringwraiths, the Enemy’s most terrible servants; darkness went with them, and they cried with the voices of death. [emphasis added]
But this passage raises more questions. If they are (or were) living men, how is it within Sauron’s capacity in the context of Tolkien’s larger theogonic structure to extend their lives so far? For Men, Death is the Gift of Ilúvatar (at least, according to the traditional Elvish interpretation), so how does Sauron have the authority to delay or circumvent it? If he could, does that mean Gandalf would have this power also? It seems hard to swallow. Some may point to “voices of death” to suggest the Nazgûl are, in fact, dead, but I don’t think that’s the intended reading. Rather, I think Tolkien means they are bringers of death, their cries perhaps meant to echo those of the Celtic Banshee.

One might be inclined to argue along these lines: (1) Sauron himself is immortal; (2) he put the greater part of his own power (hence, his immorality) into the Ring; (3) with the power of the Ring, he ensnared the Nine; (4) thus, he imparts to them some measure of his own immortality, making them, if not immortal, then at least longaeval. The same basic argument might be made to explain the extension of the lifespans of the bearers of the Ruling Ring, come to that, and here the argument might be a little stronger because Gollum, Bilbo, et al., actually wore Sauron’s ring, rather than merely becoming enslaved to its creator. (The Seven Rings of the Dwarves are another matter altogether!)

But the argument is problematic either way. The Ainur had no part in the making of the Children of Ilúvatar, and it is too great a leap to suppose that Sauron (who is only a Maia, not even one of the Valar [< Ainur]) could impart any of his own nature to Men. Sauron’s slaves might imitate him, but could Sauron fundamentally alter their nature? Again, the idea is hard to swallow. Could even Melkor have done this? It was within Melkor’s power to “ruin” Elves and Ents (the genesis of Orcs and Trolls). This is also problematic from the standpoint of Tolkien’s fictive theology, though he states it explicitly (but may have become uncomfortable with the idea later in life). The Valar have the wherewithal to promote to Eärendil to something like immortality, though one could argue that his nature is altered with and through the direct authority of Eru. And there are other exceptions. But those who have utterly rejected Eru (e.g., Melkor, Sauron) could make no such appeal and channel no such power. There are no exceptions to the design of Eru except through Eru, and since through Eru, they are not exceptions at all, but merely his will and his design. This is how supreme godhead works!

But the Ringwraiths are more than 4 ,000 years old by the time of the War of the Ring. How could Sauron accomplish this, and why would it be permitted by the theology Tolkien has established for his fictive world? Unless of course, Tolkien is not playing by his own rules — a distinct possibility.

The other plotline which seems to present difficulties for Tolkien’s theological structure is the journey on the Paths of the Dead. Tolkien explains that the Men of the White Mountains had worshipped Sauron in the Dark Years before the establishment of Gondor, but they swore allegiance to Isuldur in the Second Age. When Isildur called them to war, they failed in their trust, and Isildur cursed them never to depart the earth until their oath should be fulfilled. This would have occurred in the waning years of the Second Age, making the spirits of the Dead roughly 3,000 years old, give or take. If we are skeptical of Sauron’s power to prevent or delay the Gift of Ilúvatar, we should be even more dubious that Isildur could do so!

Unlike the Ringwraiths, the Dead that haunt the Dwimorberg are actually dead, not even slightly alive. Is Tolkien cheating at his own game? Can we reconcile this with what Tolkien has written elsewhere about the fates of Men and Elves? I’m not sure we can, though one obvious strategy might be to point out that all that is written in the “Silmarillion” is from the Elvish point of view. They could be mistaken about the fate of Men, or the transmission of their mythology could be faulty or incomplete, or they could be unaware of “exceptions” permitted in the design of Eru.

Another possibility would be to argue that Eru — or at least the Valar, through Eru — is taking a hand here. That Isildur’s curse would normally carry no more weight than an ordinary curse (“words, words, words”), but Eru heard his plea and empowered it with his own authority. But this seems like rationalizing away a thorny slip in the logic of Arda. And in any case, it’s hard to see how the same argument could be made for the lifespans of the Nazgûl. I don’t see any of their actions as “providential pivots” in the events of the War of the Ring.

For a novel that is “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision” this is a tricky problem to resolve. The actual answer may be that Tolkien is indeed “cheating”. That is to say, he sometimes bends the rules of his carefully ordered theology in the service of storytelling. And why not? It’s his story, not history, after all.

* I would have quoted the “bring out yer dead” exchange from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but the banter isn’t easily excerpted, and many of you probably know it by heart anyway.


  1. These are good points. However, the Ringwraiths and The Dead *feel* right in the context of the story, so I suspect there is a reasonable coherent explanation to be had - at least implicitly.

    My hunch is that this has to do with what are termed ghosts in our culture; and this was a subject which seemed to interest Tolkien specifically and probably the Inklings in general - and also their fictional representations in the Notion Club:


    There is a section in HoME vol Twelve (I think, from memory) concerning ghosts - and what they were - some were elves who had 'faded' but refused to leave Middle Earth.

    I suspect that this may be a clue to what is going on in LotR - that these are ghosts who have in some sense chosen not to leave Middle Earth, and remain in this partial form of existence (the wraith being a more substantial form of ghost - presumably due to the effect of the Ring), suspended and therefore not aging.

    This is not a full or satisfying explanation - but might be en route to one.


    Interestingly, a fearful or clinging refusal to leave earth and 'go on' to the next world (outside this world, beyond 'the veil') is also the explanation given for ghosts in the Harry Potter series. Maybe, indeed, it is simply the standard British folklore explanation which Tolkien and Rowling have both adopted?

  2. Tolkien seems not to have felt any inconsistency in letting the Numenoreans have both the gift of mortality and the gift of a slow route to claiming it. From Letters, p. 151: 'The doom or gift of God, of mortality, the gods of course cannot abrogate, but the Numenoreans have a great span of life.' Which might suggest that human lifespans are permitted to be flexible so long as death comes eventually--except that if you push that to the point at which death needn't come until the end of the world then you've circumvented the great difference between Elves and Men.

    Given that both the Ringwraiths and the Dead do in fact find their mortality within the narrative of LotR, maybe this is Eru's will manifesting itself in the events of the world.

  3. (1) Sauron himself is immortal; (2) he put the greater part of his own power (hence, his immorality) into the Ring; (3) with the power of the Ring, he ensnared the Nine; (4) thus, he imparts to them some measure of his own immortality, making them, if not immortal, then at least longaeval.

    Just an idea (rather Thomistic): Sauron's "gift of immortality" is not necessarily the bestowing of something ontologically positive. Life in Tolkien's scenario is such a thing, but so in some mysterious fashion is Death (mortality), the "Gift of Men" that even the Valar can envy. They aren't logical opposites in such a way that the affirmation of the one implies the negation of the other. Immortality cannot be equated to Life; it is only a negative concept (the negation of Death) and as such is not something that can be "given", except indirectly by withdrawing Death. I think that what happens with Rigwraiths is that they are deprived of both Life and Death.

    Sauron's artifacts don't give more life: "A mortal, Frodo, who keeps one of the Great Rings, does not die, but he does not grow or obtain more life, he merely continues, until at last every minute is a weariness" (LR:1:II). Bilbo's bread-and-butter metaphor in the first chapter conveys the same idea. Hence the qualification "as it seemed, unending life".

    If this is so, the Gift (mortality) is taken from Men or Hobbits, and nothing is given in return. Annatar indeed.

    [It's one of those topics where everyone has an opinion, which is perfectly right, and feels compelled to express whenever he has a chance, which is how things are.]

  4. I suppose I should point out that most of my Tolkien/ Inklings-related musings are on my Notion Club Papers blog:


  5. Jason

    Great posting (as always) - the fates of Elves and Men is very interesting and I have been doing some work on Tolkien's early thoughts on this in The Book of Lost Tales.

    For example - in The Music of the Ainur it is interesting that comparing the early pencil draft that Christopher reports with the final ink version - there is a direct contradiction in Tolkien's thoughts on Elves and Men

    In the text (ink) version -

    Now Eldar and Men were of Iluvatar's devising only, nor, for they comprehend not fully when Iluvatar first propounded their being, did not any of the Ainur dare in their music to add anything to their fashion; and these races are for that reason named rightly the Children of Iluvatar. This maybe is the cause wherefore many others of the Ainur, besides Melko, have ever been for meddling with both Elves and Men, be it good or evil intent; yet seeing that Iluvatar made the Eldar most like in nature If not in power and stature to the Ainur, while to Men he gave strange gifts, their dealings have been chiefly with the Elves.

    But in the original pencil version-

    “Now Eldar and Men were of Ilu's devising alone, nor had any of the Ainu not even Melko aught to do with their fashioning, though in truth his music of old and his deeds in the world nightly affected their history thereafter. For this reason maybe, Melko and many of the Ainu out of good or evil mind, would ever be for meddling with them, but seeing that Ilu had made the Eldar too alike in nature if not in stature to the Ainu, their dealings have been chiefly with Men. (60)

    Tolkien changes the last line and this is a point for investigation. I am thinking it has something to do with the fact that in the ink version (this is also the version where Tolkien introduces the idea of the "Secret Fire") Tolkien has added the idea of the "strange gifts" given to Men which is possibly the gift of death - the chance to escape from the influence of Melko's evil - but this is just a conjecture.

    The other interesting point on this subject is the fact that there is possible evidence that men, and women, can be brought up to the level of Valar. In Turambar and the Foaloke after the tragedy of Turin and his sister Tolkien says that the
    the hapless hero and his sister are purified in the baths of flame “and they dwelt as shining Valar among the blessed ones, and now the love of the brother and sister is very fair [an interesting statement]; but Turamabar indeed shall stand beside Fionwe in the Great Wrack and Melko and his drakes shall curse the sword of Mormakil.” (Lost Tales 2: 116).

    Depending on how you take the word "as" there is some evidence that Turin and Nienor have been promoted to the ranks of the Valar - Turin especially in a very Norse way to fight at the final battle - the Great Wrack.


  6. Jason,

    I'm actually playing around with some ideas in this very vein that I am hoping to present at MythCon this year. So stay tuned!


  7. I’m enjoying these comments, everyone. Some rejoinders:

    @bgc: However, the Ringwraiths and The Dead *feel* right in the context of the story […]

    You’re right: they do. And we have to remember that Tolkien’s theological writings were still unpublished and in flux. For all we know, had he gotten around to it, he would have written something late in life to explain these seeming contradictions.

    The idea of ghosts is an interesting one. I have certainly always thought of the Paths of the Dead as Tolkien’s “ghost story”. But the idea is inconsistent with Roman Catholicisim, isn’t it? But again, we have to remember that while Tolkien referred to The Lord of Rings as a Catholic work, he was never so explicit about the “Silmarillion” material. Moreover, he admitted that some aspects of his fictive structure might be “bad theology”. This comment and others in letter #153 may bear on the subject.

    @Robert: Tolkien seems not to have felt any inconsistency in letting the Numenoreans have both the gift of mortality and the gift of a slow route to claiming it.

    True, but there’s a big difference between the extended lifespans of the Númenóreans and the Ringwraiths. Even Elros lived but 500 years, compared with more than eight times that span for the Ringwraiths, and with no end in sight. And again, the extended span is bestowed on the Númenóreans with the implicit authority of Eru; whereas, that of the Ringwraiths is in spite of it.

    @Hlaford: If this is so, the Gift (mortality) is taken from Men or Hobbits, and nothing is given in return. Annatar indeed.

    Yes, I agree this is how it seems in the novel, but that’s the very issue I’m raising, the very issue that becomes so tricky when ones takes into account the “Silmarillion” writings. If Death is the Gift of Ilúvatar, which may not be abrogated, how could Sauron take it away? Why would Ilúvatar permit it? Now if one sets aside the “Silmarillion”, no problem! But in his letters and other later writings, Tolkien attempts many times to connect the Middle-earth of The Lord of the Rings with the burgeoning mythology and theology of the “Silmarillion” and to reconcile inconsistencies — so he is the one who opened the door! :)

    @Andy: You raise an important point here — that we must always keep in mind that the “Silmarillion” material was in flux, constantly rewritten, never quite settled. I do think you’ve spotted an interesting change. Perhaps you should develop this into a paper for Return of the Ring in August? :)

    The introduction of the Secret Fire is a specifically Roman Catholic (or at least Trinitarian) idea. Tolkien told Clyde Kilby that it was intended to represent the Holy Spirit — a different kind of ghost from the ones we’ve been discussing! And this idea persisted until the end. What I find interesting, then, is this Elvish notion that Death is the Gift of Ilúvatar; whereas, in Christianity, Death is the “wages of sin” and the Gift of God is eternal life (Romans 6:23). These seem to be direct opposites: reward in one case, punishment in the other. Again, this is the Elvish tradition. But it’s somewhat difficult to resolve this with Tolkien’s personal faith, so often (but clearly not always) reflected in his fiction.

  8. Doug, excellent! I missed your comment while composing replies to those preceding it. :)

  9. @Jason - " But the idea is inconsistent with Roman Catholicisim, isn’t it? "

    I don't think this is correct - esepcially not if the whole sweep of nearly two thousand years of Christianity is considered.

    The following seems to be a reasonable account of how the Roman Catholic Church might think about ghosts:


    At any rate, JRRT was a devout Catholic, and he did believe in ghosts!

  10. @bgc: Thanks for the link! Very intersting. I am not Roman Catholic myself, so I appreciate all the help I can get! By the way, Tolkien apparently also believed in leprechauns. Just saying. :)

  11. @Jason - "Tolkien apparently also believed in leprechauns."

    What - and you don't?!


    I think I know the reference you mean - when he was shown a tiny shoe that seemed too small to have been made by human hand.

    1. My memory is that Tolkien himself displayed the shoe. I don't remember where that is, though.

  12. @Jason A big difference relative to what, though? Elros' living 'but 500 years' is the kind of lifespan that would make a big difference to a being with a lifespan like mine. Living over eight times longer than that makes a bigger number still, but if a human lifespan (albeit unusual) of 500 years doesn't peturb Eru, what's the constraint on the occasional (8*500) or more? (That it was brought about 'in spite of' Eru's authority (i.e. transgressive? - hubristic? - immoral? - sinful?) doesn't automatically tell us an awful lot about what's metaphysically possible in Eä, I think, since Eru plainly does permit evil things to happen, and the Ainulindalë provides an apparent theodicy: 'And it essayed to drown the other music by the violence of its voice, but it seemed that its most triumphant notes were taken by the other and woven into its own solemn pattern.')

    That's why I suggested that the difficulties start obviously arising once a human lifespan begins to approach limitlessness within the timespan of the world - a sort of Wandering Jew predicament - because that's when it clearly starts to rival Elvish immortality. (Which is not itself the greatest longevity in the legendarium, since Eru and the Ainur are in some sense older than the world.) Since the Ringwraiths die before the Fourth Age, let alone the Dagor Dagorath, we're a bit stuck when it comes to postulating counterfactuals (counterfictives?) about what would have happened to them if their 'butter' had been stretched over much more 'bread'.

  13. @Robert —

    As difficult a problem as theodicy poses in the real world, I certainly don’t think we can get much further with Tolkien’s fictive theodicy!

    I find that such debates always implode, however interesting they might be. For example, taking Eru’s theodicial statements to their logical extreme, we could say that Sauron was meant by God to forge the One Ring and subjugate tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of people, all for the “greater good”. Some fall back on the free will argument, suggesting that Sauron was not meant to do any such thing, but chose to, but that choice was turned to ultimate good in spite of him. But it’s never been clear to me that the Valar and Maiar have free will in the same sense as the Children of Ilúvatar. Free will iself is another of those insoluble problems, in both the real world and Tolkien’s! :)

    And the classic obstacle to theodicy — why wouldn’t an omnipotent god create the best possible world ab initio? — still remains unanswered, and probably unanswerable.

    All I can say is that it makes me a bit uneasy to think that Sauron could circumvent, or even seem to circumvent, Eru’s Gift. But from the view inside The Lord of the Rings, they do “feel” right.

  14. Jason, you are right in taking me up on my un-nuanced remark about the Ringwraiths as ghosts, in my posting at Dr. Charlton's blog. The word "wraith" suggests ghosts, but a wraith can also be an apparition of a living person who is near death. I should've thought a little more before posting that message.

    Why, then, is Sauron "the Necromancer"?

  15. Incidentally, the Ringwraiths may well owe something to the "ghosts" that appear in the stories of M. R. James. (We know from the extended edition of On Fairy-Stories that Tolkien was acquainted with at least James's first [of four] volumes.) These creatures typically are not translucent shades but alarmingly physical in their manifestation, like the Ringwraiths.

    I have suggested in a piece or two published in Beyond Bree that Tolkien's imagining of Gollum may owe something to the creature in James's "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book."

    Dale Nelson

  16. Hi Jason, Happy St. Patrick's Day! The weather here is absolutely to die for and quite unusual for this area so early. Hope you are enjoying some sun and warmth too. :)

    I love that quote from Princess Bride! I think it fits the wraiths quite well. I haven't read the other comments so maybe this has been covered already, but I thought the wraiths had their long life from the Rings. I think Michael Martinez speaks somewhere about their terrible existence because the body of a mortal man was of course not made to last anywhere this long. Sauron was immortal because he was a Maia. He's still around just not able to act so he wouldn't have put his immortality into the Ring. That's what I understand. I read somewhere that I can't remember that Isildur wouldn't have had the power to curse the Dead to remain trapped in Arda even after they died, but Iluvatar would and it was He who did it, as you suggest as a possibility.

    Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie :)

  17. To me, a plausible explanation for the Ringwraiths and their longevity is to assume that the Rings kept their bodies from aging, or at least dying. We see this preserving effect in Gollum and Bilbo, too. Off course, they were very obviously physically changed, becoming permanently invisible and ‘supernaturally’ resistant to harm. Nevertheless, they had bodies – which they were either clinging to or unable to give up. The latter – being able to willingly dissociate body and spirit – is not common among Men in the first place.

    Incidentally, there is one piece of writing (the exact location of which I unfortunately can’t give off the top of my head at this time of night) in which Tolkien ‘speculates’ on what would happen if humans were to come to Aman, concluding that they would turn into a sort of mindless zombie. Theoretically, this should apply to the Ringwraiths as well – perhaps somewhere down the road.

    As for the Dead, just a tentative suggestion: Didn’t Isildur bear the One Ring when he uttered the curse? And remember Frodo’s curse on the slopes of Mount Doom, uttered while holding the Ring?

  18. Tolkien uses the word 'undead' to describe the Nazgûl, which of course at once tells us that they are not dead. This would also be inconsistent with their having material bodies (their insubstantial nature being one of the characteristics of the Army of the Dead). He also, however, implies that they are not living — both by choosing 'undead' rather than 'living' as the complement of dead and in the description of the Mouth of Sauron who is said to be 'no Ringwraith, but a living man.' All in all I think the implication is of something that ought to be dead, but isn't quite.

    I'll not go into the philosophical problems of it, but it does indeed seem that Sauron had the power to prevent the souls (or fëar) of the Ringwraiths from leaving Arda — and not just by trapping them in their bodies, at least if we accept Tolkien's footnote to a letter that describes Éowyn's deed as merely rendering the Witch-king impotent. Only with the destruction of the Master Ring does it seem that the souls of the Ringwraiths were free to leave Arda. One might possibly say that while Sauron could not take away the Gift, he could prevent them from accepting it.

  19. Hello, Jason.

    Very much enjoyed your use of Miracle Max’s quote from The Princess Bride for a bit of welcome comic relief. I also like to use movie quotes in discussions when they appear appropriate.

    I've posted some of my thoughts on your very interesting main topics of discussion through my blog because, unfortunately, they are too much to post here.

    I'm very much interested to hear your thoughts on any of those topics.

    Chip / g-stormcrow

  20. Hey, Chip. Glad you liked the quote, and thanks for telling me! My wife and I quote movies, television shows, books, songs, etc., on an almost constant basis, and it’s nice to know when it’s appreciated (as opposed to when we overdo it).

    I’m trying to dig out from under a big workload (or, to paraphrase When Harry Met Sally, I’ve been trapped under something heavy ;), but I hope to get back over to your blog to read your expanded thoughts on this topic. Thanks for tucking in!