Theoden and the Wraith: Looking Along Death and Immortality

Death and Immortality: two words that men contemplate, and shudder. Yet, these two words have occupied the imagination of men since, at least, the epoch of flickering fables orated around fires in Bedouin camps of contemporary man’s long dead ancestors. From The Epic of Gilgamesh and Moses’ Torah to the Bhagavad Gita, from Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid to the Mesoamerican stories about Ceiba (the World Tree), the collective imagination of men has perpetually bequeathed myths from one generation to the next. And though myth “is a master key” that opens whatever door the recipient likes and points to the realm the recipient lives in most,[1] the myths bequeathed to men, those stated above and many more, are ‘primarily concerned with’ two dreadful yet ubiquitous themes, Death and Immortality. The current generation is no exception to this tradition, for one of the primary myths, if not the most important myth bequeathed to the modern West from its more immediate predecessors—certainly the only one that can be said to “advance” on the Romance of older myths or to be conquering “new territory”[2]—is a tale “mainly concerned with Death, and Immortality,”[3] J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. As with millennia-old orated fables and their poetic progeny, Tolkien’s modern mythic novel is an imaginative feat meant to draw its recipient to ‘look along’[4] its interwoven themes—Death and Immortality—and implicitly bring clarity concerning how the themes, inside and outside of the myth, ought to be viewed. And it is the conclusion that the reader comes to in due course concerning Death and Immortality that makes Tolkien’s myth an invaluable imaginative apologetic befitting the world which occasioned it.

With the opening pages of chapter one, an ominous shadow begins to grow over the green hills of the shire. The eleventy-first birthday of a hobbit who has remained “unchanged[5] for half a century and the inkling of a curse hinted at by the silly, yet prophetic, chinwag of other hobbits turns the reader’s mind, from the start, to the doom (inevitability) of death and the curse that awaits those who try to escape it. From the disappearing act at the party, to Bilbo’s fitting description of himself as one who has “stretched” his life thin, “like butter scraped over too much bread,”[6] to the dark and secretive tones about Bilbo’s ring, and the reticence of Gandalf in regards to what this ring is, the strenuous sense of something amiss continually heightens. After the long-awaited return of Gandalf in chapter two and the unveiling news concerning the ring’s power and gift of longevity, the lingering shadow is shown to have grown to an enormous height—a shadow of certain doom that cannot be turned from but must be faced head-on, like death itself.

It is by casting this familiar peril of inevitable doom over the story that Tolkien hooks the reader. The fate of a ring which is said to bestow immortality upon mortals is of great interest to mortal beings who often think immortality in the here and now would be a gift. Yet, the doom of the mortals that must bear the ring, mortals who must face the shadow of death to destroy a key to deathlessness in the here and now, is of just as great an interest; albeit, of a different kind. Implicitly, in this captivating plight, Tolkien compels the reader to begin considering two questions—questions that will continue to confront the reader throughout the tale and which cannot be fully conceived until the tale is through; questions which are inseparable and, in the flow of the story, naturally lead to one another; questions ever-present in and ever-relevant to the minds of mortal men and which will require the reader to ‘look along’ Death and Immortality in order to discover the answer: ‘Is death a doom that should be fled?’[7] and ‘What is true immortality?’[8]

The question that is most naturally forefront in mortal minds and, therefore, seemingly more explicitly displayed before the reader throughout Tolkien’s myth, is that of death’s doom. The idea even occupies a key line in that ancient verse of Elven-lore about the rings of power that is often used as an epigraph to The Lord of the Rings: “Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die.”[9] Moreover, Mount Doom, the volcanic mass whose feet are “founded in ashen ruin” and whose “reeking head [is] swathed in cloud,”[10] the pinnacle that rises high into the sky of Middle-earth and, early in the story, becomes the destination of a journey that is certain to end with the death of those who seek it, places a continual reminder of mortality in the heart of the reader. With imagery, plot, and lore, Tolkien appears to leave no doubt: “mortal men” are “doomed to die”[11]—but, is it a doom?  Is even Mount Doom, though seemingly a harbinger of certain death, really a doom? If so, why would the mortals in this myth run to it with all their might and not flee from it?

This is where the question of ‘true immortality’ naturally follows. Though the theme of death may be easier to notice, Tolkien dangles the concept of immortality in front of the reader just as consistently. From the continual youth of Bilbo to the stretched out, weary life of Gollum and the Ringwraiths, from the perpetuity of Gandalf’s counsel to the wisdom of Elrond and light of Galadriel, beings of one kind of immortality or another are just as pivotal to and present in the story as the mortals. But, are these beings truly immortal? Meaning, do these beings define immortality? Do they not have a doom of their own? And, past that, if these beings are what define ‘true immortality’, for what hope do mortals ride to death? The reader cannot help but see the discrepancy that would arise in the suggestion that those who seek to destroy deathlessness, with the likely cost of dying, may only be motivated by a hope no greater than immortality inside the bounds of Ea, for when Ea ends, they will still die. There must be more. Tolkien draws the reader to desire more.

Tolkien’s answer to these questions and his manner of satiating the desire was in his time and remains now to be much needed. To know the answer to these questions which arise in response to looking along the theme of Death and Immortality in The Lord of the Rings it would almost be best to follow the direction of the myth’s author, “Compare the death of Aragorn with a Ringwraith.”[12] But, it would actually be best of all to follow the myth itself and, rather, compare the death-scene of the Witch-lord of Angmar with that of the King of the Rohirrim.

The Ringwraiths are Sauron’s “most terrible servants.”[13] Once mortal men, through acceptance of the nine rings of power, the Nine kings of men became the Nine Nazgul. Through their prevailing desire to flee the doom of death (cling to Time[14]), they were “ensnared”[15] by Sauron’s subterfuge and, thus, have been stretched thin, into shadow. They are arrogant, prideful, hissing, sniffing creatures: menacing slaves sent to and fro to fulfill the Dark Lord’s wishes. These tragic beings have cast their mortality into the mist of time in hopes of fulfilling their desires and lusts, in hopes of immortality; but, in casting away their mortality for immortality via accepting rings of power, they have really only found, as Tolkien has called it “counterfeit immortality”[16]—their immortality, in the end, is not any higher than that of the lowliest of sneaks, Gollum. Consequently, once the Wraiths finally come to face the fact that there is no true immortality inside of Ea,[17] things go badly, even for those who are able to slay them.

The spectacle of death is all around in the last few books that comprise The Lord of the Rings. Of the numerous deaths, the Witch-king of Angmar, makes the greatest show, giving the reader plenty to chew on concerning the question of death’s doom. His death is not peaceful, comforting, courageous, or honorable. When Merry slits “the sinew behind his mighty knee,” there is no gladness in his eyes. When Eowyn’s sword passes “between crown and mantle,”[18] there is no laughter in his breath. It is all “bitter” and tumultuous, with “shrill wailing” and “thin” vanity.[19] There is no glory in his death. It is all commotion and agony, despair and surprise. His death is so foul that it even poisons those who strike him down, for his very being has withered into nothing save a curse; his very essence is a cruel spell, like unto a Morgul-knife. By pursuing immortality in this world above all, the Witch-king has, as with all the Wraiths, truly made death a doom. Not just a doom in the sense that it is inevitable; doom in the sense that it is the most dreaded conclusion, for it swings the mace of finality. This is not ‘true immortality.’ This is not the kind of immortality that motivates men to lay down their lives for a cause greater than themselves. The Witch-kings death is filled with the doom that he had so long fled.

Naturally following the Witch-lord’s death, though beginning before, and further drawing the reader to ‘look along’ the myth’s themes is the death of an honorable king of men, Theoden. Theoden is not a man that seeks immortality in Ea: he does not desire life beyond that granted by Iluvatar: he does not want the immortality of Wraiths or Elves. He does not desire power beyond that which has been given to him by his fathers: he does not seek the dark yet terribly powerful throne of Sauron. Theoden is a king that seeks to protect and serve his people—the real purpose of kingship. And when this man is finally faced with what will likely be certain death, he does not appear to regard it as a doom. Rather, as the “boom” of war resounds off the fields of Pelennor, Theoden rises “in his stirrups” and cries “in a loud voice,” clearer than any mortal voice: “Arise, arise, Riders of Theoden!… Ride now, ride now! Ride to Gondor!”[20] Of course, the Witch-king gladly rides to war as well, but he does not ride for the sake of another by his own will, nor does his arrogance permit him to imagine a mere man can slay him. Theoden, on the other hand, rides not just for Rohan but Gondor. Theoden knows that he can fall at the sword of a man or a Wraith, but rides anyway, with courageous cries: “Fear no darkness!”[21]

Unlike the Wraith, Theoden King of the Mark, welcomes death; thus, his death-scene is the antithesis of the Witch-king. Theoden does not ride to facedown the Wraith with arrogance. In almost a beguiled manner, Theoden and his horse topple to the ground in the shadow of the fellbeast. Not a word of plea, protest, or pride comes from Theoden’s lips; he, like any other man, falls, though not yet dead, under the weight of his great enemy. And once the Witch-king’s haughtiness spells his own demise at the hands of a hobbit and a woman, the reader is allowed to be witness of a truly great yet quiet death: a death accompanied with hope and peace; a death of forgiveness and blessing; a death that assures the one dying that he can take comfort that once he steps from this life to the next, he will be gifted with the right to stand in the “mighty company” of his fathers and “not now be ashamed.”[22] For Theoden, death is not an agonizing doom; it is a hard-earned gift.

For mortals who see death not as a doom but a gift, death, as long as it is honorable or preceded by an honorable life, is not met with ‘shrill wailing’ but quiet blessing, nor does it motivate those who remain in the grief of death to run from death. Death, when perceived as a gift, even in its grief, causes courageous men to lay down their lives in peace, and those left behind to face it with defiant victory on their tongues—“Death!”[23] Gladly, those who see death aright are willing to receive it as it comes and give it as they must, for death is not a dreaded doom to the righteous.

It takes numerous chapters to get to this point, but as the great battle for Middle-earth finally rages, the concept of death as a gift and not a doom is, in a most timely fashion, arrived at. Death, as a gift, is no less a strange concept for many in Tolkien’s myth, specifically the hobbits, than it was in the world Tolkien lived in, and is in the modern world. This idea is one that has to be eased into. Therefore, a good death is something that Tolkien takes significant time to more explicitly imagine and he primarily does this by holding death against false immortality. Tolkien does not abruptly throw this idea at the reader; through chapter upon chapter of looking along Death (with immortality always, at least, in the back of the mind), often from the purview of shirelings, the reader is eventually drawn into the mindset of the great heroes of men like Theoden, Eowyn, and Eomer. And so, finally, with Theoden’s last breath, death stands as an honor to be gloried in and not a doom to be mourned at—“Death is not an Enemy!”[24]

Yet, without a proper view of immortality, there cannot be a proper view of death. In comparing the death-scenes of the Witch-king and Theoden a decision on what ‘true immortality’ may mean comes into view. The ‘counterfeit’ of the Witch-king is a sad idea of immortality that makes his death a tragedy because the honest reader immediately recognizes that such an immortality is longed for by many mortals. The hoped for halls of Theoden, on the other hand, bring gladness to the heart. And the gladness that is presented by this scene is a gladness even the elves of Rivendell cannot know, without choosing mortality, until the end of Ea, for they too are encumbered by a nature that is not, though it appears to be, immortal—as Tolkien called it, “limitless serial longevity.”[25] When considered fully, in Tolkien’s myth the only beings living in Ea who have hope of ‘true immortality’ before the end of the world are, ironically enough, mortals. Mortals alone can be said to have “Freedom from Time.”[26] Even the beautiful Galadriel, in her own way, is found living in a land “unchanged[27] by “clinging to Time,”[28] a time long gone in Middle-earth. Theoden, on the other hand, is a mortal man who, in not seeking immortality in Middle-earth and not being bound by his nature to Middle-earth, is free from time in Middle-earth and, after his death, will finally step into the halls of freedom he has hoped for. Truly, this is a gift from God, not a doom.[29]

Though at this place in the story there are many chapters left before Sam closes out the last page, the reader has come to a point where they likely will not, while reading the remainder of the myth, fear or disdain death but hope in it. With Tolkien’s contrasting death scenes, it is made apparent that those who have a wrong view of death seek the wrong kind of immortality, while those who have the right view of death—those who see death not as a doom but a gift—embody the apologetic of Tolkien’s themes: death is not an end or an evil or a doom, only a beginning of new glories—glories that can only be found in truly immortal halls of the fathers who have come before. And by this, the reader may even begin to change their own mind about death in their own story; the reader may begin to be, like those drastically changed hobbits, Merry and Pippin, “fortified.”[30] Theoden’s death, when contrasted with that of Witch-king is, like The Lord of the Rings as a whole, a great apologetic feat that compels the reader to not only ‘look along’ Death and Immortality but, once they have looked along it, step back and contemplate their own mortality. And in contemplating their own mortality, the reader considers, possibly without shuddering, what it may mean in their world to die, as well as what glories may lie beyond their own last breath.

Bibliography

Lewis, C. S. “Meditation in a Toolshed,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. Edited by Walter Hooper. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 1970.

Lewis, C.S. “The gods return to earth” in Image and Imagination. Edited by Walter Hooper. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Tolkien, J.R.R. “131 To Milton Waldman” in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.

Tolkien, J.R.R. “208 From a Letter to C. Ouboter, Voorhoeve en Dietrich, Rooterdam” in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.

Tolkien, J.R.R. “211 To Rhona Beare” in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.

Tolkien, J.R.R. “212 Draft of a continuation of the above letter (not sent)” in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004.


[1] C.S. Lewis, “The gods return to earth” in Image and Imagination, ed. by Walter Hooper (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 102.

[2] Ibid., 99.

[3] J.R.R. Tolkien, “211 To Rhona Beare” in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), 284.

[4] C. S. Lewis, “Meditation in a Toolshed,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman’s Publishing Co., 1970), 231.

[5] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2004), 21.

[6] Ibid., 32.

[7] J.R.R. Tolkien, “131 To Milton Waldman” in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), 147;  “The Doom (or the Gift) of Men is mortality.”

[8] J.R.R. Tolkien, “208 From a Letter to C. Ouboter, Voorhoeve en Dietrich, Rooterdam” in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), 267.

[9] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 50.

[10] Ibid., 923.

[11] Ibid., 50.

[12] Tolkien, Letters, 267.

[13] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 51.

[14] Tolkien, Letters, 267.

[15] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 51.

[16] J.R.R. Tolkien, “212 Draft of a continuation of the above letter (not sent)” in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), 286.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 842.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 837-838.

[21] Ibid., 840.

[22] Ibid., 842-843.

[23] Ibid., 844.

[24] Tolkien, Letters, 267.

[25] Tolkien, Letters, 267.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, 338.

[28] Tolkien, Letters, 267.

[29] Tolkien, Letters, 147.

[30] Lewis, Image and Imagination, 103.

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