"Godfather Death" by Johnny B. Gruelle (1880-1938)
This post is a part of the online book Philosophical Counseling with Tolkien.
The most eyecatching aspect of Man as a natural being is, that we have a body, and that we with the body are a part of the rest of nature. With his body Man is a subject to the laws of nature. This you see in old age where the body goes in decay, goes in dissolution, often under tragic circumstances.
We are subjects, knowers; how can we make that same reality an object, a thing known? Yet we must. What knowledge may not be able to do, nature does. Death puts life into question. Death forces us to think, prods us to become wise, as nothing else does. Kreeft says that the most quoted quotation of the most quoted man (besides Shakespeare) in English literature, Doctor Johnson, reads: “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
Of all physical evils, death is the worst, the final one, the sum of them all, the loss of all earthly goods. But as Kreeft says: “Yet it also is the best thing for us if it is the door to Heaven”. Abolishing death by artificial immortality would make us all into rotten eggs. We are designed to hatch. And if our culture´s new summum bonum, the “conquest of nature”, is pushed to its apotheosis of the conquest of death, we will see stunning parallels between Sauron and ourselves. There is a natural connection between this point about death and the previous one about the two magics and the spiritual danger of technology. Death is nature´s trump card. Until death is conquered, nature is not conquered. And that is the point we have cracked now. We are on the brink of the last frontier, as Kreeft says, our Crack of Doom.
Readers are almost always surprised when they learn that Tolkien himself considered the fundamental theme of The Lord of the Rings to be death and immortality: “I do not think that even Power and Domination is the real center of my story…The real theme for me is about something much more permanent and difficult: Death and Immortality” (Letters, no. 186, p. 246).
Richard Purtill comments wisely on this surprise:
This statement by the author of the story must be taken seriously, but it is surprising, and at first we are inclined to resist accepting it. Very few of the characters die in the story. There is little talk of death or immortality, and there is certainly no description of or description on a life after death. Once we start thinking along these lines, however, we can see that there is perhaps more emphasis on death than we thought at first: The Barrow-wights, the Dead Aragorn leads from the Paths of the Dead, the dead Elves and Men Frodo and Sam see in the Dead Marshes, and even the Black Riders are all reminders of death. Boromir, Denethor, Théoden, and Gollum all die in scenes important to the plot; Gandalf and Frodo both seem to have died at key points in the action. Furthermore, some of the important images in the story could be taken as death images: the blasted land of Mordor, the destruction of the Ring, the passage over the Western Sea.
About immortality, however, Tolkien at first seems to have almost nothing to say…But…Tolkien is a writer who achieves many of his most important effects by indirection, and what is most important to him is often not stated but underlies the whole story. As he says of religion “the religion element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism”.
If the reader at first does not realize the centrality of death to the story, and then later, upon refelction, does, Tolkien himself seems to have gone through the same two stages of awareness. He writes that “it is only in the reading the work myself…that I become aware of the dominance of the theme of Death” (Letters, no. 208, p. 267). Aware not only of false immortality, “the hideous peril of confusing true ‘immortality’ with limitless serial longevity”.
Like the two magics, the two immortalities are opposites. With false immortality, as life´s quantity approaches infinity its quality approaches zero. Gandalf explains, “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…He fades…Sooner or later the dark power will devour him” (LOTR, p. 46). In another letter, Tolkien explicitly connects this point with the one of the two magics: “to attempt by device or ‘magic’ to recover longevity is thus a supreme folly and wickedness for ‘mortals.’ Longevity or counterfeit ‘immortality’…is the chief bait of Sauron – it leads the small to a Gollum, and the great to a Ringwraith” (Letters, no. 212, p. 286).
However, Tolkien does not condemn the desire for true immortality, and immortality consonant with our nature and our destiny as designed by a wise divine providence, as distinct from the depraved desire for a false and unnatural immortality under our own foolish control. In “On Fairy-Stories” he says that the highest purpose of fantasy, or the fairy tale, is the satisfaction of deep desires, and most especially the desire for immortality, “the oldest and deepest desire, the Great Escape: the Escape from Death…Almost I would venture to assert that all complete fairy-stories must have it…The eucatastrophic tale is the true form of fairy-tale, and its highest function” (pp. 67-68).
The “good catastrophe” is clear in “Leaf by Niggle”, a fairy tale about death. Niggle´s train journey is so obviously one of death that it is impossible not to see the story as an allegory. And the eucatastrophe is clearly true immortality, or Heaven, attained through self-giving, self-agnegation, and purgation – in fact, not a bad description of the “moral lesson” of The Lord of the Rings. This moral truth is not as simple, as clear, or as allegorical in The Lord of the Rings as it is in “Leaf by Niggle”, but that does not mean that it is not present.
Kreeft says that two opposite kinds of death are required to attain two opposite kinds of immortality. The false immortality requires the death of conscience. The real immortality requires the death of egotism. We can see this most clearly on the Hobbit level, in the contrast between Frodo and Gollum. Both physically die: Gollum at the Crack of Doom, Frodo by taking ship at the Grey Havens. But Gollum has died to his conscience, his soul, for the sake of his ego´s craving for the Ring. Frodo has renounced possession of the Ring, and thus of his ego (for that is the Ring´s power over him; that is why it has no power over Tom Bombadil). At the Crack of Doom it is not Frodo who falls into the fire of hell but Gollum, the incarnation of Frodo´s false self, the ego that craves the false immortality of power over everything, even death.
Kreeft says that we could call this theme “good versus bad death”, death of the self (ego) versus death of the soul. Kreeft claims that it is also a central theme of one of the greatest books of the nineteenth century: The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoyevsky insisted that John 12:24 (“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit”) be placed before his story, and he quoted it twice within the story. The point is not simply “Don´t be egoistical, be unselfish.” It is much more mysterious and wonderful than that. It is that he who voluntarily loses his life, gives up life, for others, will save it, and he who chooses to cling to his life, for others will lose it. When we try to be the lords of our own life, the life we cling to as our own is a miserable shadow of the true life that the true Lord wants to give us. But that life is so large and inconceivable that we cannot receive it unless our hands and minds are open, unless we give up our toys, our egos, our Rings.
Clearly this is the strange, surprising, even scandalous Christian vision of immortality: the road to immortality is the death of the ego. The pre-Christian classical world could conceive immortality only in an Olympian way, as an eternalizing of our natural human life and desires, not qualitatively transformed but only quantitatively amplified by unlimited longetivity and power. Kreeft says that our culture still lives by three dreams of immortality from paganism, only one of which is consonant with Christianity. One dream is the ancient longing to become gods by moral heroism, like Oedipus. Another is the longing to become like gods by cleverness, like Odysseus. (The modern version of cleverness is science and technology). The third is the Christian promise of immortality by the drowning of baptism, by being born again in blood and water from the Cross.
Sigmund Freud was a famous and influential critic of the Christian dream, but even he admits the failure of the pagan one. In Civilization and Discontents, he lays out this puzzle: (1) all men desire happiness; (2) all gods are only dreams born of wishful thinking; (3) modern man has left his gods behind because he has become a god himself, having fulfilled in his own person, and by his own scientific cleverness and technological power, the ancient dreams that gave birth to the fairy-tale fantasies of religion; yet (4) modern man is not happier than ancient man. In fact, he is probably unhappier. And Freud does not know why.
Kreeft says that Tolkien´s heroes are crypto-Christians. They do not know, believe, mention, wonder about, or allegorize Christian doctrine. But they exemplify exactly what life would be like if the Christian claims are true, especially its central paradox about immortality through death and resurrection of the self, self-realization through self-sacrifice. Frodo gives himself up for the Shire, and for Middle-earth, but accepting the burden of the Ring and not lusting after it. It is this death, this self-abnegation, that is precisely the central point about death that Tolkien is making. It is not just Frodo´s courage and suffering, the inner torment of Frodo´s soul ascending Mount Doom; that is part of pagan wisdom too. It is not just Frodo´s incurable sadness and his inability to enjoy the Shire that he is left with afterward; that too is part of the pagan tragic wisdom. Nor is it just the sad necessity for Frodo to take ship from Middle-earth forever at the end: that too is simply the pagan wisdom of “know-thyself” mortality. Those are all images of what Kierkegaard calls “the knight of infinite resignation” rather than “the knight of faith”. Rather, in The Lord of the Rings we find the uniquely Christian kind of death, as our incorporation into that. For Tolkien believes that “the greatest examples of the action of the spirit and of reason are in abnegation” (Letters, no. 186, p. 246). If this is not so, Jesus Christ was not the greatest man who ever lived but a failure and a fool. And so are all His followers, especially the saints.
The depraved desire for a false and unnatural immortality under our own foolish control is the Ego. The ego is the One Ring. And the Ego has to do with identity. Is the Ego our true identity?
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