Around christmas, every year, I read Tolkien’s “canon”, that is, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion. So also this year. And this year’s theme from the Silmarillion is … death. How depressing! Or is it?
Several times after his books took off into a success, Tolkien was asked what they were really about. What was the main theme in The Lord of the Rings, and his other texts? One of the answers he gave, perhaps with the tongue in his cheek, was that ultimately, they were about Death. Reading the Silmarillion, this is more visible than in most of the rest of the legendarium. There is death, sure there is, in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but death, and the fear of it, not as present as in the Silmarillion.
Before some unknown happening in man’s existence (hints of a fall to sin exists in Letters and The History of Middle-earth, but this was dropped in the later Silmarillion), death was the gift of God (Eru Ilúvatar) to man. What happens after death, the Elves (that has the point of view in the Silmarillion), do not know, and to them, death by age is a strange thing. As they say in Of the beginning of days: whereas to men, he gave strange gifts. But men should trust Eru, and receive death without fearing the unknown. But Morgoth, the Enemy, brings fright of the everlasting darkness to them, and they tend to envy the elves for their immortality within this world. Accepting death as it comes, and not strive for longer life, is presented by Tolkien as a purity. And it is a common mark of a corrupted society when this does not happen. So when Theoden dies in battle, or Aragorn lies down to rest after all his deeds, this is a Good Thing. But as heraldry and strong elixirs becomes more important than faithfully giving power over to your heir, Gondor wanes.
Most visible in the legendarium is this in Númenor. The first kings of the Land of the Star lives to a very old age, and when their time comes, they give their crown to their heir when he or she comes to age and hood, and then go to rest. And the people followed their king. But as we read in the Akallabêth, when Sauron gets power over the king, the fear of the darkness comes, and the strive to longer life reappears, as their actual life grows shorter. Parallely, we get the kings’ hunger for power, strife between the Númenoreans and enslavement of the people of the coasts. The unwillingness to accept death as a part of life, and a hope, makes the societies of Middle-Earth suffer.
This reappearing mode must have been important for Tolkien, and his catholic christian view shines through: Death is not to be feared. As Aragorn says to Arwen at his deathbed: Behold, we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.