Wednesday 25 January 2023

Tolkien's Elves, Men and 'entropy'

Tolkien's Elves and Men can be regarded as differing, most fundamentally, in terms of how each race interacts with the fact of 'entropy' - by which I mean the inevitability of physical (bodily) change, disease, decay, and death in the mortal lands of Middle Earth. 

The Elves have many subdivisions following the 'sundering' that occurred on the Great Journey - which was aiming to take the elves to the Undying Lands of Valinor. 

At the extremes of Elf types are the Avari and the Vanyar. 

The Avari were the 'unwilling' who refused even to embark upon the Great Journey. These Elves seem to have no desire at all to leave Middle Earth, and will therefore inevitably experience the 'fading' which happens to all Elves who choose to remain in the mortal lands. 

Fading is described in terms of the progressive disappearance of the Elf's body until all that remains is an unchanging and immortal spirit. Thus the Avari elude entropy by discarding their bodies, including all for which bodies are necessary in mortal lands. 

What remains of such Elves is much like we would call a 'ghost' - either invisible for just an illusory image; and without self-awareness or the capacity to learn - but immortal in that state.  

The Vanyar are those Elves who unambiguously wanted to live in Valinor, with the Valar, for eternity (or until the end of 'the universe'). 

Since they inhabit the undying lands, the Vanyar expect not to decay or die - their bodies are not subject to disease or ageing. Indeed, their condition may approximate to changelessness - which includes that they would cease to learn, and would live lives in such complete harmony with the will of the Valar (amounting to passivity and total obedience) that they would only be creative agents in a very limited sense - only 'within' what had already been-created and not beyond it. 

(The Vanyar are therefore much like that Catholic conceptualization of the Angels in Heaven; but incarnated in everlasting bodies, and living in the presence of 'the gods', rather than the One and original Creator God.) 

We might therefore see the condition of the Vanyar as analogous with the Avari in terms of 'eluding' entropy by becoming changeless. 

And this can be seen, therefore, as the 'destiny' of the Elves as a race of humans. 

Changelessness is the 'price' that Elves pay for eternal life. 

(It may, however, be that the Elves life is not eternal but finite; bounded by the end of the universe as Tolkien often stated. On the other hand; the Second Prophecy of Mandos suggests that Elves, as well as Men, may be eternal.)

The situation for men in Tolkien's world is the same as for Christians in our world. That is; the bodies of mortal Men (living in Middle earth) are subject to entropy and will inevitably experience change, disease and decay - and mortal death of the body. 

After mortal death, the spirit separates from the body and leaves 'the universe'; with the possibility of undergoing resurrection (after the time of Jesus Christ, which came later than The Lord of the Rings) - which is an immortal incarnation (embodiment) dwelling in 'Heaven' - where entropy is absent and all that is Good will be eternal. 

It is resurrection that overcomes entropy for Men; and the final situation of resurrected Men is one in which they have everlasting bodies and become Sons and Daughters of God. 

The situation of resurrected Men is therefore one of much greater agency and creative potential than is possible for Elves. 

What is fascinating about Tolkien's contrasting of Elves and Men is that the two races develop in contrary (if not opposite) directions. Elves begin as much less subject to entropy than Men, and therefore more creative and powerful than Men. 

But Elves are less free and less creative as they develop, and eventually almost cease to change; ending as essentially passive and contemplative and with little distinction from their environment (whether Middle Earth or Valinor).   

Whereas Men are more and more subject to entropy, and with short lives; which - in many ways - tends to thwart their capacity for creativity and power. And then they die: overcome by entropy, as it were. 

After which, Men may be resurrected; and attain to an embodied, eternal state of greater agency and creativity than Elves could ever attain. 

The different destinies of Elves and Men, and the contrary direction of their developments, means that there was only a limited period when the two races interacted significantly (the First and Second Ages of Middle Earth); and it was mainly with the intermediate - and therefore more Man-like - types of Elf that Men had much to do: principally the Noldor and Sindar. 

And while Elves converge upon the Valar (the 'gods' or secondary sub-creators); Men have the higher potential destiny of Converging upon God - (the primary creator). 

So death is the 'price' that Men pay for a resurrected life that overcomes entropy; while (unlike the Elves) remaining capable of change, learning, development and creativity. 


WW said...

Perhaps Jesus opened the door for Elves/ Angels as well? If the resurrection is a gift for Men, then the solution, and opportunity, for Elves would be to incarnate as Men in order to also share in this gift.

Jesus already showed that it is possible for someone of a different kind to be born as a Man (God the Creator, in this case) , so I don’t see any reason why the Elves could not do likewise if allowed to. That may be one thing that became more clear after Jesus returned to Heaven following his resurrection, and would have been seen and heard by the Elves still living there. The potential next step for them was to make the same choice Jesus did: to leave Heaven, come to earth born as Men, take part in all of our sufferings, with the hope of following him through death and into resurrected eternal life.

For the Vanyar, as an example, this may have been and still be a difficult choice (at least for some, maybe). To leave the place and situation that is their greatest desire (Heaven), coming to fallen Earth as fallen Man in order to receive this gift would have been a leap of faith, having to do just as Jesus said is necessary: losing their life in order to find it.

And the situation of Elves like the Avari would be much different, as you mention. Spirits in a prison of their own making, they don’t have the same choice the Vanyar and the other Elves in Heaven have. Maybe these are at least among those spirits/ ghosts that Jesus went and preached to during the space between his death and resurrection, and this in some way created a path whereby they also would be able to reincarnate as Men and ultimately follow him through death and resurrection.

My thinking, then, is you have a common destiny made by Jesus for all Beings, whether Elf or Man (Dwarves, too?), to be re-united with him and each other as Resurrected Men, though the choices various groups and individuals made and continue to make to enter on that path would be very different.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WW - That's an interesting idea.

I suspect, though, that Tolkien would have wanted some answer that would have retained the separate identity of Elves and Dwarves - yet also saved them. That seems to have been the intention behind his brief accounts of Dagor Dagorath - the Last Battle - and what followed, and the hints in 'The Marring of Men'

Luke said...

That's an interesting connection.

Lady Mermaid said...

The original story of The Little Mermaid (not the Disney version) had a similar concept. In Hans Christian Andersen's tale, mermaids can live up to three hundred years and then dissolve into sea foam. The little mermaid wished to become a human in order to gain an immortal soul despite having a much reduced lifespan of around 80 years. Humans are physically and spiritually weak yet they have the most potential for divinization. Scripture mentions that we will actually judge angels.

WW's idea of other beings incarnating into humans is an interesting one. Tolkien explored this concept somewhat w/ the half elves choosing to become fully human or elf. C.S Lewis did the same w/ the stars in Narnia. I believe some people's "experiences" of reincarnation may be explained by the fact that God gives other beings the choice to become a true "Son of Adam" in order to fully benefit from the resurrection.

However, I have to agree w/ Bruce and Tolkien that there may be a separate destiny for other creatures that is separate from man. I'm not Mormon, but the concept of different levels of salvation w/ theosis being the highest rings true. Mormons believe that many people will be saved yet not become fully divine children of God. They become as angels ready to serve glorified humanity. I suspect that will be true for our pets.

WW said...

That definitely could be the case, Bruce.

Its hard to say what answer might have been most satisfactory to Tolkien, but given his Catholic faith, a situation where at least both races of the Two Kindreds (leaving aside the question of Dwarves) are saved by following Eru/ Illuvatar/ Jesus as “the way” and becoming his children, truly like him, may have fallen within his overall vision or scope. Only he would know.

I do suspect that at least by the time of the Lord of the Rings (i.e., 3rd age), and likely well before, the distinction between or ability to definitely state who is, at heart, an Elf, Man, or otherwise was not as straightforward as may be assumed given outward appearances (and thus not important, or even possible, to try and maintain distinct salvations or destinies dependent on what wnd with whom a Being identified with during a given lifetime).

Take Frodo, for example. Following the Fellowship’s escape from Khazad-dum, and discovering Frodo clothed in Mithril, Aragorn exclaims:

“Look, my friends! Here’s a pretty hobbit-skin to wrap an elven princeling in!”

Though said about the Mithril shirt, and Aragorn himself at this time may not be fully aware of the deeper meaning of his words, I think that quote can possibly be considered literally. Meaning, that Frodo is in fact an Elvish prince born again in the person or body of a hobbit. Given other statements and hints throughout the story, this is something I feel can be logically considered. I don’t think it can be easily dismissed out of hand, at least.

Hints and statements are scattered regarding other individuals, too, but this is a comment section so maybe I just leave it off at Frodo for now. I will say also, though, that whole groups or peoples seem to be implied as being something more than what they appear - perhaps Elves or even individuals of other types or orders being born as Men. But not all Elves, as perhaps some/ many, as I was thinking through in my earlier comment, were unwilling or unable to do so until after the Resurrection.

Last quick thought: I also guess that the core identify of an individual long predates whether they were designated as an Elf, Man, or otherwise here in Arda. My thinking aligns somewhat with Mormon theology in terms of development and activity of individuals and families prior to the creation of this Earth. It well may be that through their own choices and circumstances individuals developed or revealed themselves as Beings later distinguished as what would become Elves, Men, etc., but this distinction may not have been so in the Great Before, and thus the preservation of said distinction or separation, at least in those forms, perhaps need not be a critical factor in the salvation that Jesus offers.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WW - You may be interested by a couple of earlier posts on the theme of characters being described as 'elvish':

WW said...

Bruce -

I think I remember reading your first post linked below a few years ago, and found it interesting then as well as now, so thanks for linking and allowing me to re-read. I haven’t had a chance to read the second link yet.

I guess my only additional thought for you to consider is your assumptions around cause and effect as it relates to Gildor's blessing may be in some way be backward, or at least not complete.

Rather than Frodo becoming something fundamentally different at the core as a result of the blessing, perhaps the blessing was given as a result of who Frodo already was and served as a source of power in unlocking Frodo’s inherent self to aid him in his quest.

The best analogy or corollary I can think of at the moment is the experience of Jesus. The blessings and gifts given to him during his life (e.g., his baptism by John, and the miracles coming afterward) didn’t make him any more the Son of God than he already was, but rather were a result or revelation of that fact, and important aids in his own mission. If there was any change, it was a change closer to or a revelation of what he already was.

I view Frodo’s experience with Gildor similarly. A fellow High Elf, maybe, (and perhaps more), receiving a blessing from another High Elf who saw that spark in him, and consequently gave him a gift/ blessing/ aid that allowed Frodo to become or tap into more of what he at his core was, notwithstanding his Hobbit veneer.

So, I agree with you that the blessing was important, and there was a change for Frodo, but in my opinion the blessing was given because of who Frodo already was, and the resulting change brought him closer to that identity. The ‘Elvishness’ was already there for people to see before the blessing, as Gildor himself says.

Bruce Charlton said...

W - I take your idea seriously as a critique of what I said; but if we are to go deeper I would not go in that direction - because it seems to be based in an understanding of reality where everything that can be already is. And apparent change is at root just a recognition.

A Platonic picture of reality, in other words.

But I believe in a reality where there can be real creation. Therefore I would need to explain the Frodo Gildor interaction in a way that was rooted in Frodo's capacity to create elvishness as a consequence of the interaction with Gildor.

So - you are right that it is not a merely passive business of Frodo receiving; but a creative choice - which Frodo could have refused, and then it would not have happened, and Frodo would not have become an elf-friend.

Frodo was not, therefore, always an elf friend - both before and after Gildor; but became an elf-friend as a consequence of what Gildor did and rooted in potential within Frodo (as you say) but the crux of the matter was Frodo's choice to become an elf-friend.

I would say that the same happened, mutatis mutandis, when Jesus was baptised by John and became fully divine, while still mortal.

(This, I regard as compatible-with and derived-from Mormon metaphysical theology - BTW.)

WW said...

No, you misunderstand my comment, I think. And I guess comment sections are hard to ensure understanding, and that is why most of the time when I do read them it consists of individuals talking/ writing past each other in some form or another in an effort to be heard. Probably why I haven't commented on any blog for a couple years until now (and likely won't for another couple!)

So, last attempt to clarify and then I will let it go.

I know you favor the Gospel of John. In that account, Jesus mentions his sheep. That he knows them, and that they know his voice and follow him. He even mentions sheep that he hasn't yet visited, but they are still his sheep (identified as such prior to him visiting them) and states that they will also hear his voice and follow him. He says this with some level of certainty, it seems.

What makes them his sheep? How does he know they will hear his voice and follow him? I think because the course of a long history prior to their coming here, Jesus came to know them through their choices, and they came to know him. So that even after coming here to this earth, and forgetting everything, these sheep, once hearing again their shepherd, would know to follow him. Now, would it be possible for them to suddenly choose to not follow him? I guess, perhaps. They still have choice, and this life complicates things for sure, but I consider it unlikely. The choice to follow Jesus in this life makes them his sheep, but the ability to make that choice is because they were his sheep all along.

And the choice to follow him doesn't merely reveal a static picture... it actually creates something that wasn't a thing before for them - a resurrection to eternal life. So, I have no disagreements with you on that, ongoing creation, etc., as I hope you see.

What does this have to do with my earlier comments on Frodo? I feel that Frodo would have been one of those sheep who had made these types of choices long before his turn as a hobbit. The task and trust given to him to carry the ring and take on the burden is evidence enough of this, and his inherent ability to make the right choices in difficult circumstances were a fruit of sorts that came out of who he was as a result of those choices.

In other words, the interactions that happened during the story were indeed creative acts, as you say, as the story needed to unfold and come into being. But, the choices and opportunities Frodo found himself in, in addition to being creative acts, were also revelatory ones, revealing Frodo as someone 'different'... a Great One, I think, sent to accomplish a task. That initial thought of Frodo's elvish connection (and my belief that an identity as an elf at some point in time, but not limited to that identity only) springs from or is connected with this thought.

Anyway, I have crazy thoughts, and because they are crazy, I don't expect anyone to really agree with them. I would be surprised if you did. One of my failings, though, is I do get anxious about being misunderstood. At least if a person disagrees, I feel better if I was at able to clearly communicate what it is that is being disagreed with, or at least take my best stab at it.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting!

I've enjoyed The Nature of Middle-earth (most recently among posthumous publications including attention to Elves) but do not have everything at my fingertips. I think you are right about all kinds of Elves with respect to "until the end of 'the universe'", and the Valar and Maiar, too. But what is the evidence about Tolkien's thoughts about changelessness and ceasing to learn and loss of creativity?

A feature of, e.g., Catholic thought within Tolkien's lifetime, from the mid-1940s at least, is new attention to St. Gregory of Nyssa's understanding of St. Paul's Letter to the Philippians 3:12-14 in terms of epektasis: a 'perfection' characterized by never-ending growth (and, I take it, creativity). I don't know if we have evidence of Tolkien's attention to this as a 'scholarly development' though he could have arrived at something of the sort on his own.

How much that could take place with respect to Elves any and everywhere, and especially in Valinor, though not only "until the end of 'the universe'", and maybe all the more so thereafter, seem matters inviting consideration. (Something I remember too vaguely from The Nature of Middle-earth - and do not pause to look up - is Tolkien's attention to the possibilities of the continuing change of Elven languages: including in Valinor? - I cannot recall just what likely contours and limitations to language growth and change he pondered.)

David Llewellyn Dodds

Bruce Charlton said...

DLD - I have never seen anything that indicated Tolkien was trying to check the deep consistency between his beliefs. His devout Roman Catholicism was mostly a matter of obedience to the church, which he tried to regard as fixed - he does not display any interest (quite the opposite) in developments in theological speculation or controversy.

His own creative and speculative tendencies were not coherent with the mainstream of the church teachings. These pointed in the direction of continual creative change. Language did continue to change in Valinor, just more slowly than on Middle Earth, and change was more improvement than corruption.

I would regard the speculations in "Marring of Men" (Athrabeth...) about the ultimate fate of elves and Men beyond the Last Battle, as representing Tolkien's deepest desires.