As Tolkien himself said of The Lord of the Rings, "The real theme for me is about something much more permanent and difficult: Death and Immortality: the mystery of the love of the world in the hearts of a race 'doomed' to leave and seemingly lose it; the anguish in the hearts of a race 'doomed' not to leave it, until its whole evil-aroused story is complete." (Letters 246) Obviously, death is an important concept within Tolkien's legendarium. It provides a backdrop to his stories that gives them much of their flavor. For one to properly understand Tolkien's stories, it is essential that one has a knowledge of what death means for the peoples of Arda. Death in Arda is a complex concept and is different for Elves and Men; it plays an important part in Tolkien's legendarium.
The peoples of Arda each have different fates. Death's meaning varies between races. Elves are immortal, while Men are mortal. "[T]he point of view of this mythology is that 'mortality' or a short span, and 'immortality' or an indefinite span was part of what we might call the biological and spiritual nature of the Children of God, Men and Elves (the firstborn) respectively…" (Tolkien, Letters 204)
The peoples of Arda are made up of a fëa and a hröa that roughly correspond to soul and body, respectively. For the Elves, the hröa is made to fit the fëa and it is unnatural for them to be separated. The fëar of Men, however, become separated from their hröar at death, and in this case separation is natural because it is in accordance with the nature of Men.
Ideally, Elves do not die; their lives are bound to that of the world. They are 'immortal' but not 'eternal;' their existence is "measured by the duration in time of Earth." (Tolkien, Letters 204) However, with the introduction of evil into the world, death came into the picture and marred Eru's plan for the Elves. "The Elves were not subject to disease, but they could be 'slain': that is their bodies could be destroyed, or mutilated so as to be unfit to sustain life." (Tolkien, Letters 286) They can also die of grief--essentially, give up on life. For the Elves, however, 'death' is not a true death; the fëa never leaves the world. Instead, it flees to the halls of Mandos, where it may rest and find release from the weariness of the world.
This 'death' contradicts the intrinsic nature of the Elvish being by separating the fëa from the hröa, which are meant to complement and complete each other. Thus, Eru found a means to amend the situation. After a time of waiting in Mandos's halls, the Elvish fëa may, if it chooses, be reincarnated in a hröa identical to the one in which the fëa was formerly housed. The Valar were given permission and power by Eru to see to the construction of a new hröa for the 'houseless' fëa, and they can judge that a fëa may not be reimbodied, or at least not yet, in certain situations.
Normally, the reincarnated Elf remains in Aman. Only in special cases is the Elf sent back to Middle-earth, generally because he has some task yet to complete there. "Therefore, if they dwelt in Middle-earth, their bereavement of friends and kin, and the bereavement of these, was not amended. Death was not wholly healed." (Tolkien, Morgoth's Ring 365)
Glorfindel is an example of a reimbodied Elf. Many will recognize Glorfindel's name as the Elf who came to the aid of Aragorn and the Hobbits on their way to Rivendell after Frodo was stabbed at Weathertop. Frodo rode Glorfindel's horse to the safety of Rivendell while being pursued by the Ringwraiths. Many do not know, however, that Glorfindel was also a hero of the First Age who was killed while fighting a Balrog in Gondolin. "When Glorfindel of Gondolin was slain his spirit would according to the laws established by the One be obliged at once to return to the land of the Valar. Then he would go to Mandos and be judged, and would then remain in the 'Halls of Waiting' until Manwë granted him release." (Tolkien, The Peoples of Middle-earth 380) When reimbodied, Glorfindel dwelt for a while in the Blessed Realm, but eventually returned to Middle-earth, most likely around the year 1600 of the Second Age.
It is interesting to note that Tolkien had originally considered rebirth as a child in a new hröa to different parents as an option for the rehabilitated Elvish fëa. Upon further contemplation, however, Tolkien decided there were too many problems with this idea and eventually abandoned it:
A hastily written manuscript on small slips of paper, entitled 'Reincarnation of Elves', seems to show [Tolkien's] reflection on the subject… In this discussion he referred in rapid and elliptical expression to the difficulties at every level (including practical and psychological) in the idea of the reincarnation of the fëa as the newborn child of second parents, who as it grows up recaptures the memory of its previous life: 'the most fatal objection' being that 'it contradicts the fundamental notion that fëa and hröa were each fitted to the other: since hröar have a physical descent, the body of rebirth, having different parents, must be different, and this must be a condition of pain to the reborn fëa.
He was here abandoning, and for good, the long-rooted conception… Of rebirth as the mode by which the Elves might return to incarnate life: from his scrutiny of the mythical idea, questioning its validity in the terms he had adopted, it had come to seem to him a serious flaw in the metaphysic of Elvish existence. But, he said, it was a 'dilemma' for the reincarnation of the Elves 'seems an essential element in the tales: 'The only solution,' he decided in this discussion was the idea of the remaking in identical form of the hröa of the Dead… (Tolkien, Morgoth's Ring 363)
Even though Elves cannot die of old age, that does not mean they do not feel the effects of time. After many long years of living in the world, they grow weary. "The Elves were sufficiently longeval to be called by Man 'immortal'. But they were not unageing or unwearying." (Tolkien, Letters 325) "This [immortality] becomes a great burden as the ages lengthen, especially in a world in which there is malice and destruction. In fact, sometimes the Elves would begin to wish for true death, that is, leaving the confines of the earth, but this desire was wrong. Indeed, it could be said that the 'fall' of the High Elves was partly brought about by an Elf who wished to die: Míriel, the wife of Finwë and mother of Fëanor. Míriel did die and her fëa went to the halls of Mandos, but she could not leave the world as she desired. She nevertheless refused to be reimbodied, and her husband, who was still young and yet desired more children, eventually wanted to remarry. Elvish law forbade any Elf to have two spouses among the living, however. The Valar discussed Finwë's request, and finally a new statute was made. If a married couple were separated by death, the one still living could remarry only if the one who had died vowed never to be reimbodied. Finwë's remarriage could be seen as an indirect cause of the Kinstrife.
Men are mortal, meaning they die of natural causes. They cannot be reimbodied except in very special cases, like that of Beren, the only known case of a Man being sent back from the dead. Men live in the world a very short time. They grow old quickly; their average life span is about seventy to eighty years, though the people of the 'nobler' houses of Men may live longer, especially the houses with an Elvish strain.
Unlike death for Elves, death for Men is a 'true death.' Their fëar actually do pass beyond the confines of the world. When a Man dies, it is thought that his fëa goes to the halls of Mandos just as the fëar of the Elves, but the place it goes is separate from that which is prepared for the Elves. The fëa may linger for a time, but will eventually leave the world entirely. Neither Men nor Elves know where the fëar of Men go after leaving Arda.
Death is part of Man's original nature and, therefore, is a gift of God. Tolkien's writings are actually slightly unclear on this point, though perhaps deliberately. In one place it is said that some Men believe that death is a result of the fall of Men, but the Elves believed rather that the fear of death was the result of the fall. Due to the ever-changing nature of Tolkien's views on his own mythology, one has difficulty deciding whether Tolkien was actually changing his mind or merely presenting the views of the people within his mythology without changing his own views. Nevertheless, the idea that death is not a result of the fall seems to be well enough established--indeed explicitly stated in some places--for one to assume it is the proper belief. "But the view of the myth is that Death--the mere shortness of human life-span--is not a punishment for the Fall, but a biologically (and therefore also spiritually, since body and spirit are integrated) inherent part of Man's nature.... Death, in the penal sense, is viewed as a change in attitude to it: fear, reluctance." (Tolkien, Letters 205)
Death for Men is "release from the weariness of time." (Tolkien, Letters 205) Whereas the Elves' fate is to remain in Arda until its ending, Men leave it after a brief time. The Elves grow weary with the long ages, but the gift of Men is to be freed from time and to be spared the weariness that comes with it. The Elves sometimes even envied Men's gift. "They believed that it [death for Men] meant 'liberation from the circles of the world', and was in that respect to them enviable." (Tolkien, Letters 325)
On the other hand, Men often envied Elvish immortality and sought to capture it for themselves. This was wrong, however. "The attempt to escape it is wicked because 'unnatural', and silly because Death in that sense is the Gift of God…" (Tolkien, Letters 205) "[A] 'good' Man would or should die voluntarily by surrender with trust before being compelled (as did Aragorn)." (Tolkien, Letters 286) That is death in its purest form, the way it was meant to be. When a Man grows weary of the world, he should accept the gift of freedom from the world and die of his own accord. His destiny is to leave the world.
[A] 'mortal' Man has probably (an Elf would say) a higher if unrevealed destiny than a longeval one. To attempt by device or 'magic' to recover longevity is thus a supreme folly or wickedness of 'mortals'. Longevity or counterfeit 'immortality' (true immortality is beyond Eä) is the chief bait of Sauron--it leads the small to a Gollum, and the great to a Ringwraith. (Tolkien, Letters 286)
Aragorn, King Elessar of the reunited kingdoms of Gondor and Arnor, is an example of voluntary death. Aragorn had lived two hundred and ten years and had reigned for one hundred and twenty years when he felt his time had come. He informed his wife Arwen and his son and daughters of his decision, but Arwen had difficulty accepting his choice and tried to convince him to linger a while more. Aragorn speaks with her:
"'Take counsel with yourself, beloved, and ask whether you would indeed have me wait until I wither and fall from my high seat unmanned and witless. Nay, lady, I am the last of the Númenoreans and the latest King of the Elder Days; and to me has been given not only a span thrice that of Men of Middle-earth, but also the grace to go at my will, and give back the gift. Now, therefore, I will sleep.'" (Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings 1037)
The matter still remains of Hobbits and Dwarves. The Hobbits' fate at death may be concluded to be identical to that of Men, for Hobbits are simply a branch of the race of Men. "The Hobbits are, of course, really meant to be a branch of the specifically human race (not Elves or Dwarves)…" (Tolkien, Letters 158) The fate of the Dwarves is more difficult to pin down. Dwarves have a myth that the spirits of the Seven Fathers of the Dwarves--the seven Dwarves that were originally created (not including their spouses)--are at times 'reborn.' Whether or not this is true is not known.
The Dwarves add that at that time Aulë gained them also this privilege that distinguished them from Elves and Men: that the spirit of each of the Fathers (such as Durin) should, at the end of the long span of life allotted to Dwarves, fall asleep, but then lie in a tomb of his own body, at rest, and there its weariness and any hurts that had befallen it should be amended. Then after long years he should arise and take up his kingship again. (Tolkien, The Peoples of Middle-earth 383)
This, if true, would appear to be a rare exception; little else, or perhaps even nothing, is said of what happens to other Dwarves at death (if indeed Tolkien himself even knew), so one can conclude nothing for certain on the matter.
One more question must be dealt with if one desires a clear and thorough perspective on death in Arda: the fates of the peoples of Arda at the world's end. The fate of Men is clearly outlined. "Yet of old the Valar declared to the Elves in Valinor that Men shall join in the Second Music of the Ainur…" (Tolkien, The Silmarillion 42) Unfortunately, nothing is known of what will happen to the Elves at Arda's end. "Illúvatar has not revealed what he purposes for the Elves after the World's end…" (Tolkien, The Silmarillion 42) The Elves had ideas but knew nothing for certain. "But what the end of the world portended for it or for themselves they did not know (though they no doubt had theories)." (Tolkien, Letters 325) They trusted Illúvatar, however, and believed that whatever he had planned for them would be good and would perfectly satisfy their nature.
As one can see, the complex concepts of death for the different races of Arda provide a rich backdrop for Tolkien's stories. At first glance, death may not seem such an integral part of Tolkien's legendarium, but upon reflection, one can understand how important a knowledge of these concepts is to acquiring a deeper understanding of the tales themselves. For, as Tolkien once said, "[The Lord of the Rings] is not really about Power and Dominion: that only sets the wheels going; it is about Death and the desire for deathlessness. Which is hardly more than to say it is a tale written by a Man!" (Tolkien, Letters 203)
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Tolkien, J.R.R. Morgoth's Ring: The Later Silmarillion, Part One. The History of Middle-earth Ser. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1993.
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Peoples of Middle-earth. The History of Middle-earth Ser. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1996.
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