Along with the fear of heights and of public speaking, thanatophobia — the fear of death — usually makes most Top Ten Fears lists. Given the grim statistic that one out of every one person dies, death is commonly either greatly feared or greatly ignored. Interestingly, according to some religions, a few men have not died. Others even claim that some have come back to life. The possibility of resurrection can inspire hope in the face of death, but still the customary cloud of dread does not always readily dissipate. Helpful knowledge may assuage worry, but no one can visit death experimentally to retrieve data for the living. So what can be done to bring consolation? Well, we can tell good stories. Stories (especially fairy tales) thematically featuring death are invaluable in positively processing it. Michael Miller notes, “Fairy tales and other good stories set out a moral universe, and they teach truth about reality.”[1] According to J.R.R. Tolkien, they speak to “the oldest and deepest desire, the Great Escape: the Escape from Death.”[2] The Lord of the Rings[3] is a fairy tale par excellence and “is about something much more permanent and difficult: Death and Immortality.”[4] Given this helpful revelation by Tolkien and the book’s status as a respected and loved fairy tale, LOTR can be extremely beneficial in finding consolation when confronting death.

Encountering death in fantasy or fairy stories can help one come to terms with his own mortality. In “On Fairy-stories,” Tolkien notes, “it is one of the lessons of fairy-stories (if we can speak of the lessons of things that do not lecture) that on callow, lumpish, and selfish youth peril, sorrow, and the shadow of death can bestow dignity, and even sometimes wisdom.”[5] Tolkien did not by any means intend LOTR to be allegorical,[6] but in many ways, readers can be comforted in sympathizing with the characters’ responses to death. Many people acknowledge that suffering and struggle can refine one’s character and assist him in his journey toward maturation. This applies also to the imagination. Readers can relate to characters like Gandalf, Sam, and Pippin as they show resolve and courage when all hope seems lost.

In word and deed, the wizard Gandalf aptly responds to the common complaint, “Life’s not fair!” He admonishes Frodo: “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life.”[7] He not only addresses this paradox, he lives it by dying for the Company of the Ring in his battle with the Balrog. He is a good character and did not by any means deserve death. However, his sacrifice provides clues to unravelling the injustice many ascribe to death. Can it ever be inherently redemptive? Gandalf’s sacrifice seems to imply “yes,” given his resurrection as the more powerful Gandalf the White. Additionally, he helps the Company along toward destroying the Ring. His selflessness can be encouraging when wrestling with the idea that survival may not be Man’s highest goal. Perhaps reality has something deeper and richer about it that calls for one to “lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”[8]

In LOTR, the good characters recognize virtue in fighting against Sauron, who is threatening their beloved homeland. They realize the necessity of warring to save their way of life, given the alternative of either slavery or death (or both) at Sauron’s hand. Servitude would not be much of a life: the oppression would be so bad as to remove any chance of a satisfactory day-to-day existence. Faced with the alternative of surrendering or fighting, the latter would be a for a higher cause. Elrond, speaking of Isildur, says that death may not be the worst-case scenario: “Yet death maybe was better than what else might have befallen him.”[9] Even amid deathly fears, this realization gives courage and comfort to those fighting to destroy the Ring. As Pippin loses consciousness in battle, his thought reacts to what appears his passing from life: “‘So it ends as I guessed it would,’ his thought said, even as it fluttered away; and it laughed a little within him ere it fled, almost gay it seemed to be casting off at last all doubt and care and fear.”[10] Something from deep within Pippin recognizes the good life; a life worth fighting and (possibly) dying for gives him a worthy aim. Becoming immersed in the magic of the story, a reader can relate to Pippin’s position. Someone fighting to preserve the Good in our Primary World[11] can be encouraged by the positive shift in Pippin’s perspective.

Elven wrestlings with immortality can, in a way, sympathize with human worries about death. “As for the Elves. . . . The Elves were sufficiently longeval to be called by Man ‘immortal’. But they were not unageing or unwearying.”[12] Usually, immortality means either the soul’s capacity to survive the body’s death or it indicates the body’s power to live forever. Tolkien imagines the elves to be “confined to the limits of this world (in space and time), even if they died, and would continue in some form to exist in it until ‘the end of the world’.”[13] Normally, elves would live as long as the world lasted. If killed, they could be reincarnated: “After a certain period of time and rest, their spirits (fear) are incarnated in bodies (hroar) identical to their old ones.”[14] Slain elves first go to the Halls of Mandos — the Halls of Waiting — before the Valar approve their reunion to the body. Thus elves are perpetually linked, in one way or another, to the world until its end. It is understandable if the repetition of worldly cycles causes grief or weariness in the elves. But those responding to their situations in positive ways (Galadriel resisting temptation to power or Legolas humbly befriending Gimli) can hugely encourage readers who may carry burdens of their own. By maintaining in their lives a robust sense of wonder and adventure, elves can bring hope to those who may have lost it.

The juxtaposition of the natural fates of elves and men can provide a fresh perspective on immortality and mortality. An indefinite life span must feel much different than a definite one. To the elves, the finitude of men’s lives “meant ‘liberation from the circles of the world’, and is in that respect to them enviable.”[15] Readers can place themselves in the elves’ shoes, pondering the possibilities of living indefinitely: how would an endless experience of Earth’s ages and epochs feel? Children and grandchildren are blessings, but to meet ten, twenty, or more generations of them? The experience could be strange, monotonous, and may evoke the question, “Where does lasting happiness originate? Is it only to be found on Earth?” These questions could magnify the futility of seeking fulfilment only in temporal things. The longing, therefore, for “something more” may grow more acute, and God would start to seem for the soul what food is for the body — a necessity.

Immortality can be imagined to be good and peaceful — not unbearable like a continuous carnival, conceivably causing suffering. Discontent of immortality manifests in how some atheists view heaven. Atheists tend to liken heaven to a “celestial theme park”[16] — a constant churning of mediocre complacence, soon becoming nothing short of Chinese Water Torture. Failing to imagine a qualitative improvement in heavenly consciousness, they imagine heaven as an eternal bore. It is true that no one can fully fathom the afterlife: the elves also did not know what “‘the end of the world’ portended.”[17] But this did not make thoughts of the afterlife terrifying or insipid. At the close of LOTR, those sailing for Aman (the Undying Lands), “left the physical world,”[18] and the “sojourn was a ‘purgatory’, but one of peace and healing and they would eventually pass away (die at their own desire and of free will) to destinations of which the Elves know nothing.”[19] Aman is not Middle Earth’s equivalent of heaven (its mortal visitors do not become immortal). It can, nevertheless, help one imagine heaven because it is the home of the Valar — good, powerful angelic beings who make it the “Blessed Realm.”[20]  The purgatorial transformation of those in-transit can represent becoming holy to enter heaven. The believability — what Tolkien terms “the inner consistency of reality”[21] — of LOTR makes the characters’ peace and acceptance seem realistic and coherent with the rest of the story.  Therefore, their last journey can inspire faith in the goodness and peace of heaven.

Another principle of good stories is that ruin results for those who reject their natural fate and grasp for what they pridefully deem a better alternative. In Middle Earth’s history, Sauron manipulates the mortal King Ar-pharazon to war against the “Blessed Realm [Aman] itself, and wrest it and its ‘immortality’ into his own hands.”[22] But the king’s improper groping for immortality is “wicked because ‘unnatural’, and silly because Death in that sense is the Gift of God (envied by the Elves), release from the weariness of Time.”[23] In Tolkien’s myth, “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.”[24] Ar-pharazon’s folly consequently precipitates the destruction of the great land of Numenor. If he had viewed death as a gift from his creator this calamity could have been avoided. Instead, he attempted to overcome death in his own way, on his own terms. Once again, Tolkien’s Secondary World urges acceptance and wise preparation for the unavoidable deadline of natural death.

Sam Gamgee’s loyalty is a great example of keeping courage and hope when all seems lost. Overcome by fear and helplessness, Sam resolutely retains a sense of duty: “‘So that was the job I felt I had to do when I started,’ thought Sam: ‘to help Mr. Frodo to the last step and then die with him? Well, if that is the job then I must do it.”[25] Sam’s firm determination stems from a commitment to his master, Frodo. Morality informs his mortality—duty unto death. Unlike Gollum, who waives good will in order to survive, Sam’s good nature prompts him to keep his promises, even in extreme peril. A Primary World manifestation of Sam’s resolve is a soldier fiercely fighting for freedom. He embraces possible death with steeled face and unwavering will. Pain and terror may assail him, but they need not dominate, drowning him in despair. Bombs or bullets may be at any turn, but he can make ready his soul. In LOTR, many face death with courage and hope. Sam’s staying true to duty is an example of how one can prepare for death.

Conversely, Saruman selfishly asserts himself and desires undue power and personal safety. Unlike those mentioned above who would rather die than serve Sauron, Saruman “wishes to be the Lord and God of his private creation. He will rebel against the laws of the Creator – especially against mortality. Both of these (alone or together) will lead to the desire for Power, for making the will more quickly effective, – and so to the Machine (or Magic).”[26]  Because his will is bent enough, Saruman will employ whatever means necessary to save his own skin. This and the ulterior motive to gain the Ring drive him to align with Sauron. In the long run, these choices begin to warp his mind and motivations: “He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things. . .”[27] Opting to be the artificer of a megalomaniacal orc-powered machine, he uses magic for malevolence. The elves use magic (their Art) for “product, and vision in unflawed correspondence;”[28] Saruman, wanting to conquer death and nature, uses it for “domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation.”[29]

Both elves and men can either accept their natural fates contentedly or try to circumvent them unreasonably. Inescapably, the latter leads to peril if pursued long enough. This parallels sin in the Primary World: to desire what someone thinks good for him, while rejecting the good things God has willed results in a distancing from God. In LOTR, submitting fully to the will of the Creator is pivotal to having a strong character. If one submits to God, he follows Tolkien’s good characters, ultimately improving his life. By not grasping at unnaturally long life, he will feel more fulfilment. John Garth highlights this axiom of Faerie: “Enchantment, as we know from fairy-tale traditions, tends to slip away from envious eyes and possessive fingers . . .”[30] Stories can exemplify obedience to God which stabilizes stray strands in Man’s fallenness. Sin will affect Man until the end of time, but by living properly to his created nature, his soul will be renewed daily — not descending toward decay, like Saruman’s.

Not all in Middle Earth are involuntarily fixed with mortality or immortality: the “half-elven” may choose. Arwen is given the chance “to divest herself of ‘immortality’ and become ‘mortal.’”[31] Toward the end of LOTR, Arwen does not accompany those departing for the Undying Lands. She says, “for mine is the choice of Luthien, and as she so have I chosen, both the sweet and the bitter.”[32] Her choice is bitter, separating her from Elrond: (“the grief at her parting from Elrond is specially poignant”[33]); simultaneously, it’s sweet because she can be with Aragorn. As she promises, “I will cleave to you, Dunadan, and turn from the Twilight,”[34] she is realizing her own desire that is stronger than that for immortality. She mirrors the martyr or soldier who would die for a higher cause. Her love for Aragorn becomes a worthwhile reason to choose mortality. As the good characters in the story would rather die than live an imitation life under Sauron, so Arwen would rather live a mortal life with Aragorn than spend indefinite days alone. How packed is literature’s past with stories of love that defy death? The impact of Romeo and Juliet would be much different if their love wasn’t strong enough to die for. Good stories can bring this point home with passion and poetic beauty that other mediums lack.

The One Ring contributes to the theme under consideration by unnaturally increasing the wearer’s life span and thereby providing its own (albeit counterfeit) consolation. “The chief power (of all the rings alike) was the prevention and slowing of decay (i.e. ‘change’ viewed as a regrettable thing), the preservation of what is desired or loved, or its semblance. . .”[35] To anyone desiring preservation of his life’s goods, acquiring the Ring would seem serendipitous, “for it gave long life.”[36] But there is more to the Ring than meets the eye. It inexorably consumes Gollum, as drink does an alcoholic; even Bilbo also has difficulty parting with it in Hobbiton. One cannot possess It without It eventually possessing him. The Ring, like some sin, does not seem so bad at first since it could be used to save one’s life or the lives of his friends. Tolkien mentions that it is “more or less an Elvish motive”[37] to want to preserve desirables. But a difference exists between using corrupt, artificial means to preserve life and submitting to the natural Source of life. Many disregard the moral chasm yawning between the two. As Tolkien’s story shows, despair awaits those devising to be gods of their destiny. Trusting in the Creator’s design, however, brings peace and joy, regardless of length of life.

Good stories and fairy tales can sympathize with the not unreasonable fear of dying: they can help anyone find lasting peace about it. Tolkien reminds us that stories are extremely valuable, providing “consolation” and “the imaginative satisfaction of ancient desires.”[38] Good stories foster joy of a particular quality most helpful in fulfilling primordial longings, such as that of transcending death. Without this joy, one is much more susceptible to life’s pitfalls and temptations. Sauron, due to his bloated desire for power and immortality, was blind to the approach of Frodo and Sam. He would never have guessed it possible that such meekness could be his undoing. Because his ambition blinded him from the deepest powers at work in his world, he was in due course defeated. This sudden, breathtaking triumph of good over evil is the “Consolation of the Happy Ending,”[39] which Tolkien considered essential to good stories. Those open to its heart-changing effects will glimpse the world’s most profound power — that of selfless Love. Frodo and Sam set the example by embarking on a quest to save their beloved people and country, despite mortal danger. Eventually they tap into immortal truths which are as distant to Sauron as the East is from the West.


[1] Michael Matheson Miller, “C. S. Lewis, Scientism, and the Moral Imagination,” in The Magician’s Twin (Seattle: Discovery Institute Press, 2012), 327.

[2] J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-stories, eds. Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson (London: Harper Collins, 2008), 74.

[3]LOTR” from here on.

[4] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), 246.

[5] Tolkien, On Fairy-stories, 59.

[6] Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 41.

[7] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1994), 58.

[8] John 15:13 (NABRE).

[9] Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, 237.

[10] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1994), 874.

[11] Tolkien uses this term to refer to our real world, in contrast to the Secondary World of the sub-creator.

[12] Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 325.

[13] Ibid., 325.

[14] “Elven Life Cycle,” Tolkien Gateway, accessed October 20, 2016, http://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Elven_Life_cycle.

[15] Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 325.

[16] Tim Claason, “There is No Benign Religion,” Tim Stepping Out, May 22, 2015, accessed June 12, 2018, https://timsteppingout.wordpress.com/2015/05/22/there-is-no-benign-religion/.

[17] Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 325.

[18] Ibid., 411.

[19] Ibid., 411.

[20] Ibid., 205.

[21] Tolkien, On Fairy-stories, 59.

[22] Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 205.

[23] Ibid., 205.

[24] Ibid., 205.

[25] Tolkien, The Return of the King, 913.

[26] Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 145.

[27] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1994), 616.

[28] Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 146.

[29] Ibid., 146.

[30] John Garth, Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth (New York: Mariner, 2005), chap. 4, iBooks.

[31] Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 193.

[32] Tolkien, The Return of the King, 952.

[33] Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 193.

[34] Tolkien, The Return of the King, 1036.

[35] Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 152.

[36] Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, 58.

[37] Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, 152.

[38] Tolkien, “On Fairy-stories,” 75.

[39] Ibid., 75.

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