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Old 01-03-2004, 04:54 PM   #1
Lost One
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Sting Suicide in Middle-earth

I was reading about medieval suicide over Christmas (I like to get into the festive mood), and, of course, saw ROTK, which started me thinking about suicide in Tolkien. The first port of call is, naturally 'The Pyre of Denethor', with Gandalf's great rebuke: 'Authority is not given to you, Steward of Gondor, to order the hour of your death...'. A little earlier Gandalf had addressed another troubled member of the house of Stewards, warning Faramir against the 'warrior's suicide': 'Do not throw your life away rashly or in bitterness...'.

This seems straightforward enough: the approach of a traditional Christian perhaps, unthinkingly applying the received opinion. Yet, is it so clear? Gandalf is trying to save them, not condemn them, and appeals insightfully to Denethor's office and love for Faramir, though this time with a rare defeat. In the Silmarillion and other writings the view is rather different, less hostile even, with an acceptance of suicide more pagan in form (whether Nordic or classically Stoic). Turin's tale ends with a holocaust of suicides: Nienor, Turin, maybe Morwen (waiting to die beside the graves), and Hurin also, apparently walking into the sea. They do not seem to be condemned, and in some versions Turin will return at the Last Battle to be Morgoth's nemesis.

Elven suicide is also present - the definitive case being Miriel, and in the 'Athrabeth' discussions Tolkien gives one interpretation of elven suicide 'Elves could die...by their will, as for example of great grief or bereavement...This wilful death was not regarded as wicked, but it was a fault implying some defect or taint in the fea, and those who came to Mandos by this means might be refused further incarnate life.'

There is a fundamental dissonance within this sentence: suicide is not wicked but is a 'fault' that may earn a fate identical to that of the wickedest elf (since i am not aware of anything worse than an eternity in Mandos). Furthermore, the massive problem with this is, of course, the fact that the second most prominent elven suicide was his greatest heroine, Luthien herself, who died of grief exactly as he describes. No long wait in Mandos for her! (Unless the Doom of Men is her punishment - this isn't a serious suggestion!)

Is there a coherent view on suicide in Tolkien? In Christian dogma, suicide is routinely classed as the worst of sins, but also categorised as the sin of despair. That dspair is to be resisted is certainly one of Tolkien's great messages, but he would not condemn those who succumbed, on the evidence we have.
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Old 01-03-2004, 05:08 PM   #2
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Sting

you cant forget Meadhros throwing himself in the lava pit.
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Old 01-03-2004, 09:49 PM   #3
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Some (very preliminary) thoughts:

Quote:
This wilful death was not regarded as wicked, but it was a fault implying some defect or taint in the fea, and those who came to Mandos by this means might be refused further incarnate life.
Not having read this in it's original context, this seems to say that 'wilful death' is a symptom of some kind of spiritual disease.

Quote:
suicide is not wicked but is a 'fault' that may earn a fate identical to that of the wickedest elf (since i am not aware of anything worse than an eternity in Mandos)
Hmmm... I wonder if there's another way of looking at this... Perhaps an analogy could be made as follows: If you have a horrible flesh-eating disease, your hands may fall off. If you take a sharp knife and do a bit of home amputation, you may find yourself missing a hand. (sorry this is such a gruesome analogy, I'll edit it to something more pleasant if I think of anything) Chopping your hand off could be described as 'wicked', a flesh-eating disease would be a sign of some 'fault' in your body, but the end result would be the same, regardless of morality.

Quote:
In Christian dogma, suicide is routinely classed as the worst of sins
(Say not 'routinely'. The Bible says all sins are equal.) I don't know what Tolkien's particular beliefs were - I imagine that, as you suggest, he might have been influenced by Norse and Stoic ideas to nearly the same extent as official Roman Catholic belief. Anyone got any biographical/letters quotes?

After all that, I don't think I've gone past your orignal tension between 'Authority is not given to you, Steward of Gondor, to order the hour of your death...' and 'This wilful death was not regarded as wicked'.
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Old 01-03-2004, 10:16 PM   #4
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Sting

I don't believe any of Tolkien's Letters included his beliefs on suicide. Of course, if someone finds a reference, then they are absolutely welcome to enlighten the rest of us.

What Tolkien believed was a very common belief, both among Roman Catholics and among ancient people (Norsemen, Celts, etc.). Vikings were "famous" for their fiery, emotional funerals, but those were performed for people who were past the prime of their life, and who died after their life's work had come to an end. If a warrior died in battle, he was doing what he had to do, and knew the risks of his undertaking. There was no cowardice in that. Committing suicide, on the other hand, is the most cowardly action one could take. True, any dead person leaves behind bereaved loved ones, but a victim of suicide leaves behind bereaved loved ones who are haunted by the questions, "Was it me? Did I do something wrong? Was it my fault?" To commit suicide is to tell the world, "I have problems, but I don't have the resolve to find a solution. I don't have the strength to fight to live." I'm not condemning those who have tried to commit suicide, because I am one of them. Now, looking back on my deluded attempts, I realize that if I had committed suicide, I would have always been remembered for cowardice, not bravery, not self-sacrifice, but cowardice. Would you want your family to always remember you for doing something cowardly? I think not.

Denethor's suicide attempt showed how far gone he truly was in his madness. This was a man who had been brought up to bring honor to his family and city at all costs. The old Denethor would have rather died than done anything to disgrace his city. Therein lies his true madness.
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