Tolkien and Immortality

Reading Time: 15 minutes

Written by Mary Biese (Notre Dame) | Edited by Mary Boneno

The following was a college essay written by Mary Biese. It has been edited and approved by Mary Boneno. If you have a Theology essay that you would like published that received a grade of an A- or higher, please be sure to contact us.


It is all too easy to see The Lord of the Rings as just “a tale about war” (Letters #154), about the theme of “Power (exerted for Domination)” (Letters #186). One reads of long battles and a Dark Lord and great armies moving across the plains of Middle-earth (or watches the movies), and this may seem true. But what lies underneath? Is there something deeper at work in Tolkien’s fictional universe? At least the man himself believed this to be true. He wrote that “the real theme… is about something much more permanent and difficult: Death and Immortality: the mystery of the love of the world in the hearts of a race ‘doomed’ to leave and seemingly lose it; the anguish in the hearts of a race ‘doomed’ not to leave it, until its whole evil-aroused story is complete” (Letters #186).

This theme is prominent in one of Tolkien’s core narratives, that of Tuor and Idril. Their story is a curiously unexplained event: “Tuor, alone of all mortal men, is allowed to live with his wife in immortality among the elder race in the West” (Greenwood 187). Tolkien adds that “Tuor weds Idril… and ‘it is supposed’ (not stated) that he as an unique exception receives the Elvish limited ‘immortality’: an exception either way” (Letters 153). As a reader, I have been perplexed by this question for years: Why is Tuor the only mortal in Tolkien’s world to be granted immortality? Tolkien suggests one answer: the supreme Creator God, Ilúvatar, has the power to confer immortality upon a mortal or vice versa. Tolkien explains that Tuor, Lúthien, and Lúthien (and some of their descendants) are all allowed to switch, so to speak, because of “a direct act of God.” While I do believe this to be true, it is the whole answer, and the Divine Providence issue is ultimately intertwined with another aspect of Tuor’s story. Thus, I will go deeper into this issue, to discuss more concrete, complete, and elaborate answers.

To further explore and discover the sources of and reasons behind this exception, I will first explore the nature of Elves and Men in Tolkien’s Legendarium, of immortality and mortality, of being bound within the world and of being able to escape it. This, paired with the general standards of intermarriage in Tolkien’s Legendarium, will give us a better understanding of how death works within his world. I will use textual evidence to further investigate what makes this pair, especially Tuor himself, fundamentally different. Tuor’s case can be explained by looking at the basic inner workings of the text itself, but it is more intriguing and enlightening to also look at the text in light of the author’s intentions, whether they be explicit goals or implicit expressions of his own beliefs.

After a brief explanation of immortality and intermarriage, I will investigate some possible textual theories surrounding Tuor. Then, I will discuss and evaluate theories about Tolkien’s views on death. Finally, I will explain Tuor’s case in light of Tolkien’s beliefs about mortality, loss, death, and divine providence.


Before we can discuss the more narrow topic of intermarriage between the man Tuor and the elf Idril, we must first discuss this broader topic: What differentiates their species in regards to mortality? Tolkien summarizes the nature of Elves and Men thus:

The doom of the Elves is to be immortal, to love the beauty of the world, to bring it to full flower with their gifts of delicacy and perfection, to last while it lasts, never leaving it even when ‘slain’… and yet, when the Followers come, to… make way for them, to ‘fade’ as the Followers grow and absorb the life from which both proceed. (Letters #131)

The Elves’ role is to “love the beauty of the world,” to perfect it, to stay within its circles, and to prepare the way for the dominion of men. The Elves’ fundamental flaw is an obsession with time and preservation, combined with an overdeveloped sense of pride and nostalgia:

They wanted to have their cake and eat it: to live in the mortal historical Middle-earth because they had become fond of it (and perhaps because they there had the advantages of a superior caste), and so tried to stop its change and history, stop its growth, keep it as a pleasaunce, even largely a desert, where they could be ‘artists’ – and they were overburdened with sadness and nostalgic regret. (Letters #154)

A recurring theme within The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings is the remarkable beauty and supremacy of the Elves, as well as their “sadness and nostalgic regret.” As years pass and the Elves grow more weary of life, they tend to cling closer to their own power and art within “the mortal historical Middle-earth,” when at a certain point their task is to fade and go to their resting place in the West, which is still within the world[1], but inaccessible to mortals.[2]

Though it is unclear exactly what the role of Men is or where they go after death, it is certain that they go beyond the physical world: “While the ‘hearts of Men should seek beyond the world and should find no rest therein’ (S 41), Elves should not seek beyond the world and find rest within it—thereby working for completion within Arda and within the Music” (Fornet-Ponse, 184). It is clear that Morgoth has instilled within men a fear of death, and that perhaps this fear is not grounded in reality; this we see in the dialogue between the captured man Húrin and the powerful dark lord Morgoth, who begins by threatening to destroy Húrin and his family:

“All whom you love… shall die without hope, cursing both life and death.”

But Húrin answered… “Such things you spoke long ago to our fathers; but we escaped from your shadow. And now we have knowledge of you, for we have looked on the faces that have seen the Light[3]… Beyond the Circles of the World you shall not pursue those who refuse you.”

… Said Morgoth… “Beyond the Circles of the World there is Nothing.”

… “You lie,” said Húrin. (The Children of Húrin, 64-65). 

Here Morgoth claims that for Men there is nothing after death, but Húrin asserts that this is not so, and that for Men death still holds hope, an undefined hope but a hope nonetheless. Tolkien, particularly through the voice of his (assumedly Elven) narrators, refers to mortality as a gift: “the Doom (or the Gift) of Men is mortality, freedom from the circles of the world (Letters #131, emphasis added). The weakness of men is two-fold: to grab at power and “to attempt by device or ‘magic’ to recover longevity” (Letters #212).[4] Both of these temptations are worsened by the words and contrivances of the Dark Lord Morgoth and his successor: they intensify Men’s fear of death and attempt (often successfully) to rob them of their hope. Men’s role within the world and outside of it is not clearly defined in Tolkien’s world, and this uncertainty plays a larger role within Tolkien’s Legendarium.


Just as Tolkien provides little information about the ultimate fate of men, so too we are told the bare minimum concerning Tuor. While it is difficult to find primary or secondary resources that go into the details of his marriage, other intermarriages are more often discussed. This is exhibited in the sheer amount of space dedicated to each instance in Greenwood’s article, “The Gift of Death.” Beren and Lúthien get a long paragraph and are mentioned a couple of other times, and most of the article goes into the details of Arwen and Aragorn’s intermarriage; Tuor and Idril get exactly six sentences. Even The Silmarillion itself gives sparse details concerning Tuor and Idril, whereas the other two couples get fairly extensive and descriptive coverage. The amount of scholarship on the other two intermarriages and on intermarriage in general, therefore, is relatively extensive, and some of it will be summarized here in brief.

How does intermarriage work within Tolkien’s world? Beren, Aragorn, and Tuor are all great princes of Men who marry beautiful Elven princesses (Lúthien, Arwen, and Idril, respectively). In Tolkien’s world, it is a fundamental but unexplained rule that both man and wife must either be mortal or immortal. This probably has something to do with the unity and equality often assumed within the Christian concept of marriage. Now Tuor is the only mortal to gain immortality; Lúthien and Arwen, conversely, give up their immortality. Beren dies, and Lúthien wills to follow him into death; the Valar are moved by her song of lament and allow the couple to live for awhile longer before dying again. Aragorn and Arwen are their descendants, and this mixed ancestry allows Arwen to choose mortality. Before Tuor and Idril’s marriage, however, no Valar bless or permit the arrangement. Yet we are still told that Tuor is gifted with immortality. When first looking at this question, I considered some smaller details within the text of The Silmarillion, focusing on how Tuor is different and whether or not these differences have any bearing on the immortality that he receives.

Possible Textual Theories

Two possible textual theories that I considered are the fact that Tuor is raised by Elves and, later, directly addressed and commissioned by the powerful Vala Ulmo. After one of the major battles against the dark lord, Tuor’s father dies in battle, and his mother dies of grief shortly after Tuor’s birth. He is then raised by the Grey-elves, who teach him “lore and skill” (Unfinished 17). In each version of Tuor’s story, Tolkien emphasizes that Tuor’s physique is remarkably similar to that of the Elves, and that he can only be identified as a man by his eyes (Unfinished 45). He even finds the abandoned armor of the great Elven King of Gondolin, and arrives at the Elven city thus gloriously arrayed. Notwithstanding, Elven characteristics are not a sufficient explanation for Tuor’s immortality. Turin, whose story is one of the main Silmarillion narratives, and Aragorn, who is half of one of the three intermarriages in Tolkien’s work, are also mortals with Elven upbringings and Elven characteristics–yet neither gains immortality. While Tuor’s familiarity with the Elves may contribute to or cooperate with the gift of immortality that he receives, it cannot be the fundamental basis for this gift.

Ulmo is a Vala, a being that serves the Creator God but is significantly more powerful than most other beings in Tolkien’s universe; it may be helpful to compare his level of power to the Christian concept of angels. Ulmo’s intervention is another textual theory that does not, on its own, explain Tuor’s fate. Once Tuor is grown, he ends up wandering to the sea. There Ulmo speaks to Tuor, and gives him his mission: to find the Gate of the Noldor and the Hidden City of Gondolin. Ulmo teaches Tuor the history of the Noldor (the most powerful group of Elves) and sends him as his messenger to the King of Gondolin. Tuor is not unique in his direct interaction with a Vala; the Vala Melian plays a similarly large part in some of the other major Silmarillion narrative. Ulmo himself admits that his power is limited and currently decreasing within the world of Elves and Men (Unfinished 29). It does not follow, then, that a Vala with limited power could confer immortality onto a mortal like Tuor, especially since Ulmo never enters Tuor’s life again. These two theories, then–concerning Tuor’s upbringing and the interference of Ulmo–are helpful to the discussion, but not the real answer to Tuor’s immortality.

Authorial Theories on Death

The question of Tuor’s immortality does in fact rest on Tolkien’s views and emphasis on death: the author wrote that he had no “conscious purpose in writing The Lord of the Rings, of preaching… But… inevitably one’s own taste, ideas, and beliefs get taken up… it is only in reading the work myself… that I become aware of the dominance of the theme of Death” (Letters #208). Some authorial theories have proposed that Tolkien’s grappling with the question of death involved a great struggle against the Catholicism that he valued so dearly. While this may not be entirely false, and it is common for believers to doubt particularly difficult tenets of their beliefs, I think two of these authors, Rogers and Shippey, should consider more closely Tolkien’s faith and the underlying Christian hope by which he wrote and lived his life. Tom Shippey is one of the most prominent Tolkien scholars (if not the most prominent Tolkien scholar), and it is assumed that anyone who is serious about Tolkien must read and evaluate Shippey’s work. Hope Rogers writes in the Tolkien Studies journal and is a student of English and Linguistics. Though her literary expertise is not as focused (on Tolkien) as Shippey’s, she is nonetheless qualified to discuss Tolkien.

Rogers makes the mistake of equating Tolkien’s concept of change and loss with “the breakdown of tradition,” which she argues goes against “Tolkien[’s] belief in absolutes… as a Christian” (86). In Catholicism, it should be noted, the moral “absolutes” that Rogers refers to are distinct from minor cosmetic “changes” and minor customs that are lost by the passing of time, such as the liturgical permissions post-Vatican II. Conflating major theological truths (Tradition) with minor customs (tradition) is a dangerous misunderstanding of the Catholicism to which Tolkien was so devoted. In his stories, loss is a major theme: loss of beauty, of time, of dominion, of land, of friends, of family. Things decay with time, things age, things are lost, but ultimately the core values of the peoples of Middle-earth remain the same. The ancient creature Treebeard sings of the lands lost to the sea, sunk beneath the waves, never to be recovered–yet the free peoples of Middle-earth are still fighting for their values, their culture, their lives, against an evil power seeking to enslave them.

The “breakdown of tradition,” specifically in regards to “absolutes grounded in… faith,” is harder to see in Tolkien than the “pervasive loss that makes even the happiest and most triumphant of moments bittersweet” (Rogers 86). I think connecting this breakdown with a loss requires a dissociation from these “absolutes,” and inversely an association with lesser customs and traditions. The bittersweetness of death and separation from one’s own kin (via intermarriage) is an important element to this concept of death, but separating it or opposing it to Tolkien’s faith is not properly representative of the man or his religion.

Tom Shippey strikes a more conciliatory note, but I think he goes too far in his theory, which also overemphasizes Tolkien’s supposed conflict with Catholicism. Shippey claims that Tolkien had an “urge to escape mortality by some way other than Christian consolation,” and that he was simultaneously “total[ly] convict[ed] that that urge was impossible, even forbidden” (327). Now Tolkien did see a great deal of loss and carnage during WWI (and WWII, but less directly, and long afterwards), and he did struggle with the idea of death. Contrarily, in one of his earlier letters, we see the professor’s clear adherence to Christian hope. This letter is addressed to Tolkien’s close friend, G.B. Smith, who had just written to Tolkien about the death of one of their closest friends, Rob, who, like his friends, was a WWI soldier.

The greatness I meant was that of a great instrument in God’s hands…

The greatness which Rob [by his death in war] has found is in no way smaller — for the greatness I meant and tremblingly hoped for as ours is valueless unless steeped with the same holiness of courage suffering and sacrifice — but it is of a different kind… What I meant… was that [we have been] destined to testify for God and Truth in a more direct way even than by laying down… several lives in this war…

So far my chief impression is that something has gone crack… [our] work [may] in the end be done by three or two or one survivor and the part of the others be trusted by God to that of the inspiration which… we all got and get from one another. To this I now pin my hopes, and pray God that the people chosen to carry on [our group] may be no fewer than we three. (Letters #5).

Tolkien is speaking of a hope in God; he prays to God; he hopes to be “a great instrument in God’s hands.” All of this speaks to the man’s deep faith; the hope that Tolkien refers to in regards to his friend’s death is profoundly Christian. It does not indicate a “way other than Christian consolation,” but rather a sharp adherence to that consolation, with an unshakeable hope that survives even in the midst of his “chief impression… that something has gone crack.” Tolkien evidently was deeply affected by his experiences in war, and this should not be ignored. Nevertheless, his struggle was always shadowed by his staunch faith, as are his writings, even if only implicitly.

Shippey actually expands on his above suggestion, suggesting that Tolkien’s death-related fictional writings did not “distract him, and his readers,” but “focus[ed] their attention” (326). He then argues that “in all Tolkien’s fiction… the point made again and again is that langoth has no power” (326). Langoth is the feeling of heartache for another land beyond this one, for an eternal land. It is an aspect of the overarching feeling of loss, of losing something that you do not yet have. Shippey’s chief point here is that Tolkien reflects on death not to escape it, but to learn more about it and to explore it in a deeper way than one might be able to do in a nonfictional setting. Tolkien emphasizes hope amidst langoth, of a powerless langoth, of an aspect of loss to be overcome. He dwells on this issue in his writings as he dwelt on it in his life.

Gondolin and Loss

Loss and its significance for Tolkien provides one of the answers to Tuor’s immortality. “The Fall of Gondolin,” which relates the destruction of the city wherein Tuor and Idril live and are wedded, was the first story of his mythology that Tolkien composed; it was written in the midst of WWI. Gondolin, “the chief Elvish stronghold” (Letters #131) of the Elder Days, is maliciously betrayed and then utterly destroyed. Only Tuor, his family, and a few others survive; this is reminiscent of Tolkien’s own life, during which the vast majority of his friends died in the Great War. In his mythology, Gondolin is singular in its seven gates, its hiddenness, its strict secrecy policy, and its opulent beauty. It is the ideal Elven city within Tolkien’s world.

This city was the first Tolkien created, but in his stories the last of the great Elven cities to fall. Perhaps Tolkien never wanted his story to end. He left behind many unfinished manuscripts, many versions of the same story done and redone. Tolkien was at his heart a perfectionist, and I think that his own mythology was wrapped up in this theme of loss at a very personal level. He even referred to himself as “a notorious beginner of enterprises and non-finisher, partly through lack of time, partly through lack of single-minded concentration” (Letters 199). The loss of time was particularly poignant for Tolkien, and of beauty in the world around him (such as industrialization and the switch to the vernacular during Mass). I believe that the loss of such a foundational and beautiful city of Gondolin was especially personal for Tolkien.

Gondolin being so unique, and Tuor so bound up with its fate, and Tolkien so invested in them both, I think it is reasonable to argue that Tuor was an exception because Gondolin was. In other words, Tuor is spared the loss of life because he is ultimately the head and heart of the lost city of Gondolin. Tuor and his family are the remnant of Gondolin, the last hope of Elves and Men in the Elder days. Ulmo himself tells Tuor that “all the works of the Noldor shall perish, and every hope which they build shall crumble. The last hope alone is left, the hope that they have not looked for and have not prepared. And that hope lieth in thee; for so I have chosen” (Unfinished 29).

Ëarendil and Divine Providence

The hope that Ulmo promises ultimately and literally comes through Tuor’s mixed-lineage son, Ëarendil, who becomes the savior of Elves and Men. Ëarendil’s “function, as a representative of both… Elves and Men, is to find a sea-passage back to the Land of the Gods, and as ambassador persuade them… to pity them, and rescue them from the Enemy… [He and his wife] at last…  accomplish their errand… The gods then move again… and the … Enemy is… thrust out of the World into the Void. (Letters #131)

Both Ëarendil and his wife are of mixed ancestry, his parents being Tuor and Idril and her grandparents being Beren and Lúthien: “so the problem of the Half-elven becomes united in one line. The view is that the Half-elven have a power of (irrevocable) choice, which may be delayed but not permanently, which kin’s fate they will share. (Letters #153).

Tolkien elevates this occurrence when he writes that “the entering into Men of the Elven-strain is indeed represented as part of a Divine Plan for the ennoblement of the Human Race, from the beginning destined to replace the Elves. (Letters #153). Tuor’s intermarriage is not only beneficial for Mankind, but is part of this “Divine Plan.” Likewise, Flieger notes that “Elves and Men… [illustrate], both in their interactions with one another and across the gap that divides them, just how living in an imperfect world might serve a larger plan” (174, emphasis added). In other words, these two races have combined as part of “the plan unknowable to all wisdom but One” (Letters #131).

That “One” is Ilúvatar, the god over all, the god who created both Elves and Men, each with their separate characteristics. There is a certain element of mystery to Divine Providence–there always is–but at the same time, in Tuor’s story we see a concrete good coming out of this confusion, this “swapping,” this confusion of norms and god-sanctioned breaking of rules. Though Tuor does not experience Death, the “Gift of Ilúvatar” (Letters #212), through him Ilúvatar’s designs come to fruition; Elves and Men alike are saved from evil. Tuor is saved from death for the salvation of the world.


Now it is undeniable that Death was an essential theme for Tolkien, and that Tuor’s story was an essential part of that theme. In exploring Death within his Legendarium, Tolkien was not trying to escape Death, but rather aimed to better understand it. We saw that the natures of Elves and Men contributed to particular characteristics of the two species, and that intermarriage requires an equality in (im)mortality between spouses. Hope also plays a large part in Tolkien’s view of Death; this is due in large part to his deep faith. Neither being similar to Elves nor being a Vala’s messenger were enough to fully explain Tuor’s immortality; however, the singularity of Gondolin within the context of Tolkien himself and of the singularity of Ëarendil’s salvific mission both allow and explain the singularity of Tuor’s fate. A man’s city and his son, the themes of loss and divine providence, ultimately provide the answer to the Tuor’s Immortality.

Works Cited

Flieger, Verlyn. “The Music and the Task: Fate and Free Will in Middle-earth.”  Tolkien Studies, vol. 6, 2009, pp. 151-181. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/tks.0.0051

Fornet-Ponse, Thomas. “”Strange and free”—On Some Aspects of the Nature of Elves and Men.” Tolkien Studies, vol. 7, 2010, pp. 67-89. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/tks.0.0071

Greenwood, Linda. “Love: ‘The Gift of Death.’” Tolkien Studies, vol. 2, 2005, pp. 171-195. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/tks.2005.0019

Rogers, Hope. “No Triumph Without Loss: Problems of Intercultural Marriage in Tolkien’s Works.” Tolkien Studies, vol. 10, 2013, pp. 69-87. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/tks.2013.0014

Shippey, Tom. The Road to Middle-earth. New York, Houghton Mifflin, 2003.

Tolkien, J.R.R., Humphrey Carpenter, and Christopher Tolkien.  The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1981.

Tolkien, J.R.R., and Christopher Tolkien. The Children of Húrin. New York, Houghton Mifflin, 2007.

—. Unfinished Tales. New York, Houghton Mifflin, 1980.

[1] “The Elves… are bound to Arda [the physical world], they belong there and thus, they have a different view of Arda” (Fornet-Ponse, 184). This place is West of all other lands, and requires a journey across the sea, in or near the land where the holy Valar dwell. These “Undying Lands” are a place of beauty and healing.  

[2] Except for a few specially-chosen heroes of the Third Age, whose gift does not include immortality itself (see Letters #154).

[3] The Noldor, a specific group of Elves that lived in the holy land of Valinor with the holy angel-like Valar, higher creatures of equal power to the dark lord Morgoth. Húrin bases his hope on the wisdom of the Noldor, who are skilled in wisdom and lore (in large part due to “the Light” to which Húrin refers).

[4] For more on Elves and Men and weakness, see The Children of Húrin page 44: “In their light we are dimmed, or we burn with too quick a flame, and the weight of our doom lies the heavier on us… but… we have learned nearly all that we know from them, and have been made a nobler people… but the up-climbing is painful, and from high places it is easy to fall low.”

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