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.
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.