The Answer to Life, the Universe, and We Have No Idea (Silmarillion Slow Cooker, p42)

If you were looking for the biggest difference, contention and problem between Elves and Men, look no farther than death and lack thereof. In the two closing paragraphs of Chapter One in the Silmarillion proper, we’ll take a necessarily short look at Men and Elves. We’ll also see how Tolkien’s conception of death for his characters evolved over time. But first, we’ll get a peek at what the Elves thought of Men.

You Can’t Spell Melkor without Me!
During the Music, after Melkor tried to stir up discord, Ilúvatar told him that even if he tried to alter the music, he still “shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.” And when it came to Men, Ilúvatar had something strikingly similar to say about them not using their gifts in harmony. He said that they would “find that all that they do redounds at the end only to the glory of my work.”

To the Elves, this equated Men with Melkor in a pretty serious way. Even though Ilúvatar was somewhat reassuring, they still saw Men as “a grief to Manwë, who knows most the mind of Ilúvatar.” They wouldn’t have said, of course, that Men were a grief to Ilúvatar, but instead took the passive-aggressive approach. Because when your deity tells you it’s cool, it’s probably best to assume you know better. Elves can be dicks in all sorts of ways.

As we’ll see later, Elves had a huge problem with Dwarves. And as we’re seeing now, they have a huge problem with Men. Very often, they have a huge problem with each other, as well. Elves see to have a huge problem with everything. Sure, they’re all sorts of wonderful, but they’re also wonderfully bitchy drama queens.

This specific bit of bitchiness was originally attributed by Tolkien to the Ainur in the early, 1919 draft of the story. (BoLT 1, p59) In the mid-1930s, when Tolkien revised the “Music of the Ainur” of the Lost Tales, he changed it from the Ainur to the Elves. (Lost Road, p163, 165) Otherwise, it’s surprising how incredibly close the 1919 version is to the final 1951 text published in the Silmarillion.

You Lucky Bastards! Best Gift Ever! *coughcough*
The last paragraph of Chapter One is chalked full of nuggety morsels of information. Let’s take them one by one.

  1. Men only live on Earth a short time. When they die, the Elves have no idea where they go. This death is a gift because it just is (apparently).
  2. We’re not told why or how death is a gift to Men. We’re not even told who came up with that little gem. Ilúvatar was keeping this Man thing pretty close to this ethereal vest. All he would say was that “Men shall join in the Second Music of the Ainur,” indicating by omission that the Elves may not. If anything, that is the gift, not death, but maybe the Elves didn’t really want to focus upon that little mystery. At time wears on, even the Ainur are supposed to envy death, or so say the Elves writing this bit. This all sound pretty disingenuous.

  3. The Elves do not have a natural death, but can be killed by being slain or by grief.
  4. Curiously, we never see any examples of Elves dying by grief. There are slews slain by all sorts of salacious means (including poison), but never by grief. As we go on in this story, I’ll take a close look at each mentioned death of the Elves.

  5. When Elves die, they go to the Halls of Mandos. They can return sometimes.
  6. Well this is pretty loaded. The Halls of Mandos aren’t ‘in heaven’, but in Valinor. We have a handful of examples of Elves returning from the Halls – being reincarnated like Glorfindel.

    This wasn’t always Tolkien’s conception, however. In the 1919 version, the Elves didn’t go anywhere, but were “reborn in their children, so that their number minishes not, nor grows.” (BoLT 1, p59) Once dead, the Elves in Tolkien’s early tales simply started over as their own children. This is another bonkers idea that was changed and then changed back before being changed again.

Camera: Holga 120N Film: FujiChrome Provia 100

Camera: Holga 120N
Film: FujiChrome Provia 100

Don’t Fëar the Reaper
In the very first draft of the Ainulindalë, Tolkien had the dead Elves go to the halls of Mandos, stating that only some of the Elves would be reborn as their children. The next draft, which came shortly thereafter, changed it back to the original nuttiness. (Lost Road, p166, 163) This idea was carried through the writing of both The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, and even into the third draft of the Ainulindalë from 1948, which again stated that “often they return and are reborn in their children.” (Morgoth’s Ring, p21)

Surprisingly, this was held as true in 1951’s final draft as well, which is where Christopher Tolkien derived the text for this portion of the chapter. But, as you’ll notice, that’s not what’s printed. Instead, we read that “they may return in time.” If Tolkien wrote that they would be reborn in their children, why did Christopher change this?

Tolkien himself changed this concept, but never went back into the Ainulindalë to revise it. In 1958, when rewriting what would become that last of the Quenta drafts, he penned a chapter called “Of the Laws and Customs Among the Eldar….” It covered things like death and marriage.

Pertaining to rebirth, it had quite a bit to say. Each new elf-child was given a new soul (called fëa), which was “not akin to the fëar [plural of fëa, souls] of their parents (save in belonging to the same order and nature); and this fëa either did not exist before birth, or is the fëa of one that is re-born.” Re-birth, however, was rare, and the Elves even doubted at times that it existed. (Morgoth’s Ring, p220-221)

This is really more in depth than I wished to go, but if you have access to Morgoth’s Ring, read it for yourself. It’s pretty amazing. Anyway, with this greatly changed, Christopher Tolkien was justified in changing the source text to the very uncertain “they may return in time.”

Careless Memories
Though Christopher Tolkien was justified in the aforementioned change, I really don’t get the omission of a short but crucial sentence: “Memory is our burden.” (Morgoth’s Ring, p37)

If you’ll remember, before it was edited by Christopher Tolkien, most of his father’s writing was originally held within the framing that an Elf (Pengoloð) was teaching the Silmarillion to an Englishman (Ælfwine). Pengoloð momentarily broke off from the narrative, and spoke directly to Ælfwine, telling him that “Memory is our burden.” The jarring change from third person to first and back to third again might have been too much for Christopher. But couldn’t he have somehow amended it?

This short sentence gives us a clear understanding of why being deathless is such a pain in the ass. The memories are too much. The gift, then, might be that due to their short life, Men don’t have this problem. Their memories only stretch for a century on average (a bit longer or shorter here and there). The Elves, on the other hand, may last as long as the World. By the end, the entire history of their people might be bound up in their minds. This is no small thing. And yet, this was omitted and we’re left to not even consider this concept.


Some Note:

  • I really meant to get into the “Athrabeth Finrod Ah Andreth” also in Morgoth’s Ring, but didn’t have the time. In it, Finrod and the learned women, Andreth (a human) debate the whole death is a gift business. Seriously, why don’t you have a copy of Morgoth’s Ring?

Pages & Text

  • Page 42
  • Chapter: Of the Beginning of Days, Paragraphs 23-24
  • Starting with:
    “But Ilúvatar knew that men…”
  • Ending with:
    “…and Melkor has not discovered it.”

6 thoughts on “The Answer to Life, the Universe, and We Have No Idea (Silmarillion Slow Cooker, p42)

  1. I can’t say enough about how much I’m enjoying these posts, their level of research, and your writing style. The combination of reverence and irreverence along with a genuine interest in the deepest themes of Tolkien’s work is fantastic. Thank you so much for this series and I sincerely hope you will be able to slow cook the whole Silmarillion!

  2. Come on, I do have a copy of Morgoth’s Ring at home, stop teasing!

    Concerning the thing about Elves being reborn as their own children, I might be able to shed a light on that and make it sound a tad less crazy.
    What Tolkien might have had in mind was the (possible) ancient Germanic belief that new-born children carry the legacy of their grandparents, thus ‘becoming’ them and allowing them to be ‘reborn’. Evidence pointing in this direction is found in the practice of naming children after their grandparents, creating an alternating pattern, as well as in the Modern German word for “grandchild” (Enkel), which literally means “little ancestor”. Now this is not a certain fact about Germanic belief (very little is certain in this field), but it’s a theory Tolkien would probably have heard about. So I suppose that “they are reborn in their children” could refer not to their own first-generation children, but to descendants in general.

    • Perfect! Have you read the piece that I mentioned? It’s pretty brilliant.

      And thanks for the bit about the Germanic beliefs. It does make sense that humans would be reborn in the children of their children, but Elves live much longer. Also the point of it was that their number would stay the same. I think I see what Tolkien was trying to do with it, and it seems likely that it was based on the Germanic theory, but I’m pretty happy that he dropped it. It seems too much like lore and legend and not something that would be known as a solid fact received from the Elves themselves.

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