To Be in Arda Or Not To Be in Arda: Surveying Suicide in Tolkien
I have suggested previously that sometimes Tolkien’s writer-instincts get the better of him. Sometimes he departs from his own cherished metaphysics, in favour of the demands of story – and I dare say, that is a good thing. Laws and Customs of the Eldar might be an interesting insight into Tolkien’s idealised vision of his invented people, but I think it a poor predictor of how Elven characters actually act in practice. By contrast, re-writing stories to comply with metaphysics is a recipe for disaster, as Tolkien’s efforts in the later part of his life amply demonstrate. Regardless of self-imposed worldbuilding diktats, Tolkien’s work is at its best when he is embracing the raw mythic nature of his creation. Some things aren’t supposed to be neat and tidy and reducible to an underlying set of principles.
With that out the way, let’s talk about character suicide. A cheerful topic if ever there was.
There are, so far as I can recall, five clear-cut examples of character suicide in Tolkien’s work, along with a collection of less-clear cases. In only one of those five does the literary treatment of the suicide seem to actually comply with standard Tolkienian ethics. The other four are on decidedly murkier ground, and as such profoundly interesting for that fact alone. Two deal with straight-forward literary allusion to source material (specifically, the Finnish Kalevala), one is a fascinating potential allusion to an historical event, and the remaining case is what appears to be an editorial insertion on the part of Christopher Tolkien.
Together with the less-clear cases, let us now survey these various examples in greater detail…
(i) Denethor II, Steward of Gondor
The best-known of the suicides, this is the only case where the ethics of the subject are debated. Denethor, whose mind has snapped amid the stress of Sauron’s assault on Minas Tirith, seeks to engage in a tragic murder-suicide with his son, Faramir, whom he believes is dying of a wound. Beregond and Pippin foil the killing of the unconscious Faramir, but Denethor – in the sort of fey mood one associates with Fëanor at Losgar – has time for a discussion with Gandalf prior to burning himself alive on a pyre.
Denethor’s arguments boil down to the sentiment that Sauron’s victory is imminent. “The West has failed,” Gondor is doomed, and its people face enslavement. Suicide is thus an escape, a sort of conscientious objection to a situation that has become intolerable. It is the argument of an insane man, but surprisingly a not-necessarily insane point. Indeed, at face value Denethor’s argument actually finds its roots in ancient Stoic philosophy:
“Has someone made smoke in the house? If it is moderate, I’ll stay. If too much, I exit. For you must always remember and hold fast to this, that the door is open.” (Epictetus: Discourses I.25.18)
“The eternal law did nothing better than giving us one entrance into life, but many exits. Should I await the cruelty of disease or man, when I am able to exit through the middle of tortures and shake off my adversities?” (Seneca: Letter 70).
The operative phrase, however, is “at face value”, because the Stoics did not treat this sentiment as a hard and fast rule. That’s the thing about Virtue Ethics – the virtuous course of action can vary according to context, and cannot be treated as merely applying neat and tidy deontological imperatives. Indeed another of Seneca’s Letters (104) emphasises:
“… the good man should not live as long as it pleases him, but as long as he ought. He who does not value his wife, or his friend, highly enough to linger longer in life – he who obstinately persists in dying is a voluptuary.”
In short, suicide might sometimes be a virtuous act from a Stoic perspective, but I am not sure these ancient philosophers would necessarily agree with Denethor that this is one of those occasions. He is, after all, in command of a city – to abandon those in his care for the sake of his own personal vanity is not a matter of simply walking through Epictetus’ Open Door. Of course, Denethor is in a genuinely unhinged mental state, so comparing him with the musings of Roman sages would be inherently unfair anyway.
Not that Gandalf has any truck with any of this. His response to Denethor is to assert that one does not have the authority to order the hour of one’s own death. Why, exactly? Gandalf does not specify in explicit terms, but his words are laden with implicit meaning – suicide in these circumstances is a rejection of the real Authority, Eru Ilúvatar. It is no accident that Gandalf follows up his reference to authority with a reference to the actions of the “heathen kings”, those who took Melkor for their Lord, and who slew themselves and their kin in pride and despair… we are getting into some heavy theological implications here, so far as Denethor’s rejection of the natural order of things. Pride is quite the neon light, in a negative sense.
One might also say that an ancient argument against suicide in Plato’s Phaedo – the sentiment that it is an abandonment of one’s designated post – is uniquely applicable to Denethor. The man is a Steward, tasked by definition with governing something on someone else’s behalf. To kill himself in these circumstances is not merely to abandon his post as a mortal man, but also his post as a military and political leader, one who is tasked with running Gondor’s defences to the bitter end. Gandalf says as much too, when he talks of Denethor’s part “to go out to the battle of your City, where maybe death awaits you. This you know in your heart.” For Denethor to kill himself – never mind Faramir – is to violate what it means to be a Steward.
But Denethor rejects his part, just as he rejects Higher Authority, or indeed any faith in Providence. Because as I noted in an essay on him some years ago, Denethor’s major in-story flaw is his rational approach to decision-making, and his lack of any belief in anything outside the cold logic of politics and war. In Westeros, Denethor would have flourished, but not, alas, here. All Tolkien’s character suicides are tragedies – how could they not be – and all play their role in service to story. The work is, after all, literature, and not a philosophical treatise. Denethor’s example just happens to be one where the literature is associated primarily with consideration of standard Tolkienian ethics, to the point where we get an honest-to-Eru Dialogue on the subject.
(ii) Túrin Turambar
Túrin Turambar is the other well-known Tolkien character suicide, and the best known from the First Age stories. Our protagonist slays Glaurung the Dragon, only to then realise that the mysterious woman he encountered in the forest (and later married) is his long-lost sister, Nienor. After a lifetime of disaster and misfortune, attributable to life-choices or ill-fate depending on reader interpretation, Túrin asks his sword, Gurthang, to slay him. Gurthang proves obliging.
There is no fancy faux-Socratic Dialogue associated with Túrin’s suicide. At no point are we really supposed to ask ourselves whether the protagonist is doing the right thing by wheeling out Gurthang, or whether he is abandoning his post, or something. The real Dialogue associated with Túrin does not even directly involve him, but is rather the one between his father and Morgoth about the Dark Lord’s ability to control fate. The suicide itself is merely the culmination of a wider tragedy, analogous to Oedipus gouging his eyes out – and is purely about the art. This is what I meant earlier about Tolkien’s writer-instincts getting the better of him. Having Mablung turn up in time and try to argue the protagonist out of it just wouldn’t have the same dramatic effect.
In fact, because this is The Children of Húrin, a story where conventional Tolkienian metaphysics is invariably a bit Out to Lunch (Providence? What’s that?), I would go a step further and point out that the suicide scene is not merely about dramatic effect, though it achieves that in spades. It is also a very conscious tribute to Tolkien’s source material, the Finnish Kalevala, because in addition to magical song-battles, eagle-rescues, and the Väinämöinen-Gandalf analogy, this nineteenth-century compendium of ancient poems gifted us something else. Kalevala’s Kullervo is one-half of the basis for Túrin Turambar.
(The other half being Sigurd, the Norse dragon-slayer).
The relevant section is from Runo XXXVI, where the protagonist is dealing with the accumulated guilt of his actions, including unknowing incest with his sister:
Kullervo, Kalervo's offspring, Grasped the sharpened sword he carried, Looked upon the sword and turned it, And he questioned it and asked it, And he asked the sword's opinion, If it was disposed to slay him, To devour his guilty body, And his evil blood to swallow. Understood the sword his meaning, Understood the hero's question, And it answered him as follows: "Wherefore at thy heart's desire Should I not thy flesh devour, And drink up thy blood so evil? I who guiltless flesh have eaten, Drank the blood of those who sinned not?" Kullervo, Kalervo's offspring, With the very bluest stockings, On the ground the haft set firmly, On the heath the hilt pressed tightly, Turned the point against his bosom, And upon the point he threw him, Thus he found the death he sought for, Cast himself into destruction. Even so the young man perished, Thus died Kullervo the hero, Thus the hero's life was ended, Perished thus the hapless hero.
The notion of a protagonist talking to a sword – and having the sword answer back – is less strange in Kalevala than it is in Tolkien. There is copious animism to be found in the Finnish material, but while such things go straight-out unexplained via conventional Tolkienian metaphysics, he is more than happy to have talking-Gurthang as a sort of literary Rule of Cool. Hooray for mythic resonance, and if all else fails, put it down to a flourish from Dirhaval, the in-universe author of the Turambar story.
(There are, however, three significant points where Tolkien does actually diverge from Kalevala. The first two shall be be discussed shortly, when we consider Nienor. The third is that there is a much greater degree of immediacy between Tolkien’s protagonist committing incest and the suicide. Kullervo does not kill himself immediately on learning of his actions, whereas Túrin’s self-denial is followed pretty quickly by realisation and death. The speed of self-inflicted retribution after acknowledgement does better evoke Sophocles’ Oedipus… but, again, we are talking alterations driven by purely literary concerns. Sometimes Tolkien was all about the art).
The “other” suicide in the Turambar story, this one is, of course, the hapless sister. Nienor has her mind wiped by the malice of Glaurung the Dragon, then runs across and marries Túrin under the influence of the amnesia. She becomes pregnant with his child, only to subsequently rediscover who she is, and who she has married. She drowns herself in response.
Whereas Túrin follows Kullervo into impaling himself on a sword, Nienor follows the fate of Kullervo’s unnamed sister into a death via drowning. And unlike Kullervo, the sister does not delay after learning the identity of her partner. As per Runo XXXV:
Soon as she had finished speaking, And her speech had scarce completed, Quickly from the sledge she darted, And she rushed into the river, In the furious foaming cataract, And amid the raging whirlpool, There she found the death she sought for, There at length did death o'ertake her, Found in Tuonela a refuge, In the waves she found compassion. Thus again, Tolkien serves up suicide as a literary reference. Well and good. But I have mentioned a couple of divergences from the source material, pertaining to Nienor... what am I talking about? Simple. Kullervo merely seduces his sister for a quick fling, and the pair find out about their kinship during some post-sex chatting. The incestuous relationship is tragic, but not emotionally complex prior to the realisation. By contrast, Tolkien's characters have been together some time, to the extent that they are married and Nienor is pregnant. Why, yes. The decision to ratchet up the tragedy of the story via having Nienor carry her brother's child was not about following myth to the letter. It was an artistic - arguably adaptational - choice, introduced by our devoutly Catholic author, who then does not presume to comment on the morality of Nienor's actions in terms of killing both herself and her unborn child. Sometimes one ought to be extremely careful at judging the art by the artist, or vice versa. Tolkien achieves this additional dramatic irony via the other divergence - the notion that Nienor loses and regains her memory. Without it, matters would have resolved themselves much sooner, and since Turambar (unlike Kullervo) does not sexually seduce random women before he learns their name, less chance of the tragic incest. But Tolkien gets the amnesia thing via his dragon, which is Norse not Finnish, and is the other half of his artistic achievement here. The point is that Tolkien was using every tool at his disposal to turn the raw material of Kullervo's story into the grandest tragedy he could concoct. (iv) Maedhros
In the aftermath of the War of Wrath and the defeat of Morgoth, two sons of Fëanor remain. Finding their claims to the last two Silmarils rebuffed, Maedhros and Maglor recapture the gems by force. Finding that the Silmarils burn their hands on account of all the evil they have committed, the twain despair. Maedhros throws himself and his Silmaril into a fiery chasm, while Maglor throws his into the Sea.
The image I use to represent the only true Elvish suicide in Tolkien is not actually a depiction of Maedhros. It’s not even Tolkien art, and indeed long predates Tolkien’s own birth. It is actually a seventeenth century piece called The Death of Empedocles.
Why use such a piece? Simple. Tying Maedhros’ death to a representation of the death of a real-life Greek Philosopher gets across my (admittedly speculative) point. Namely that Maedhros’ death via throwing himself into a fiery chasm might well be a literary reference to an ancient historical event. Specifically, the death of Empedocles over 2500 years ago.
Empedocles was the fellow who threw himself into the fires of Mount Etna, thinking it would make him a god. And while Maedhros throwing himself into a fiery chasm in Beleriand was not motivated by similar delusions, the fact is that suicide by lava is a decidedly unusual choice. Moreover, recall that the artistic purpose of Maedhros’ death – apart from putting the poor man out of his Oath-driven misery – was to forever separate the Silmarils. One would be in the high airs, one in the underground fires, and one in the depths of the Sea. The elemental symbolism is clear, and ties in so well with Tolkien at his most mythic.
Well, it may interest you to know that quite apart from his method of suicide, Empedocles’ work has the earliest written reference to the foundational Four Elements idea (Earth, Air, Fire, Water). As such, our Greek Philosopher is arguably responsible for inventing the very symbolism that Tolkien is using… which to my mind gives a certain extra elegance to the Maedhros analogy. My suggestion is, of course, a matter of speculation, but I think it thoroughly interesting speculation.
Unfortunately for the purposes of further analysis, Maedhros’ suicide-scene is, alas, told remotely. The later chapters of The Silmarillion fundamentally suffer in terms of focus, on account of Tolkien neglecting to re-write them, or else just providing outlines of events. The result is that in contrast to the Turambar story, never mind Denethor, we have less juicy material to work with – indeed, the version of Maglor wandering the shores in pain and regret might actually have been superseded by the (weaker) notion that Maglor drowned himself with the Silmaril too. Suffice to say, I much prefer the version in the 1977 published Silmarillion.
But one thing we can grasp from the death of the eldest Son of Fëanor is that, remotely-told or not, the fact that this is the only conventional Elvish suicide illustrates the fundamental despair of the character. Maedhros and Maglor have, on paper, achieved their Oath to regain the Silmarils, only to realise to their horror that the Silmarils themselves have rejected them. Three Kinslayings and all-sorted horrors… for nothing. It also ensures that like Denethor, Túrin, and Nienor, the despair at the perceived impossibility of better fortune is married to a profound guilt over one’s own deeds. A common thread linking all these characters (so far) is that they not only feel there is nothing left to live for, but they also want to escape the pain of their own guilt. And this would be more true of poor Maedhros than anyone else.
(In fairness, as with Turambar, we also get a semi-related Dialogue associated with Maedhros’ End. Not about the ethics of suicide, but rather the debate between Maedhros and Maglor about the ethics of abandoning or keeping the terrible Oath. Thinking about it now, there does seem to be philosophical discussions associated with suicidal characters in Tolkien, even if indirectly, as with the case of Túrin, and even if the dialogues are not necessarily about suicide. A curious thought).
(v) Húrin Thalion
Here, as per the 1977 published Silmarillion, Húrin has his Morgothian misconceptions cleared up by Melian in Menegroth. He then wanders away to die, supposedly by casting himself into the Sea.
After much frustration, I think I am on reasonable ground in asserting that Húrin’s suicide is editorial insertion from Christopher Tolkien. The very early versions of Húrin’s fate imagine him winding up as a shade, mourning his children with Morwen, and the post-war re-write never took his story past the unfinished Wanderings of Húrin. So insertion into the published Silmarillion it is.
In one sense, I can understand Christopher’s decision here. Húrin’s wife and children are now all dead, as is his brother. Only his unknown nephew survives. His Wanderings have inflicted accidental pain and suffering on multiple realms, he’s lost his home, and he’s now an old man. Húrin’s part in the story is over… best to tidy him up. Having him throw himself into the Sea is an appropriate end for a life of tragedy, an end that arguably falls into the same category as Maedhros or (variant version) Maglor.
And yet it isn’t. The distinguishing feature of Húrin from the four ‘canonical’ suicides is that Húrin has no particular reason to feel guilt. Despair, yes. The man fought in the Nirnaeth Arnoediad, resisted torture from Morgoth for nearly three decades, watched his children destroy themselves, and found himself shunned when finally released. Húrin has indeed lost everything external. But in the true tradition of the Stoic, he has not lost virtue. He has done nothing (knowingly) wrong… there is no need for him to escape the self-inflicted pain that burdens Denethor, Túrin, Nienor, and Maedhros. And would Húrin Thalion, the man who defied Morgoth to his face, and who never once asked the Dark Lord for mercy, be the sort to throw himself into the Sea in anticipation of life never improving? Somehow, I do not think so.
At most, I could countenance this being a case of the ever-Stoic Húrin taking Epictetus’ Open Door, which would apply far better to a lonely wanderer than to the Steward of Gondor. Though it might have been better to simply imagine him wandering off into the mists, and passing out of the story generally, without speculation on his eventual death. My thoughts anyway.
So much for the clear-cut cases of suicide in Tolkien, a curious and not-necessarily consistent collection of tragedies, unified less by a generic ethical theory on the subject, and more by artistic possibilities presented by each individual’s predicament.
But as noted earlier, there are various stranger examples that do not even necessarily fit within the conventional notion of character suicide, or else where the author has left the matter sufficiently vague that we cannot comfortably classify it as such. Let us now consider these examples as part of our general survey…
Ungoliant’s death in the 1977 published Silmarillion is left deliberately vague, though the presented possibility is that she literally devoured herself in the extremes of hunger. A thoroughly gruesome image, of course, one that again is not an issue for metaphysics, much less ethics, but merely myth. My own hesitancy about putting this one down as a clear-cut case of suicide revolves around the unconventional nature of Ungoliant as an entity. She is not a mere incarnate forcibly separating body and spirit, but something much stranger, to the point of being vaguely Lovecraftian. Suicide strikes me as a misleading or at least limiting term for such a creature.
(Moreover, there is the alternative version where rather than autocannibalism, she meets her end via Eärendil. Personally I prefer the version in the published Silmarillion).
The estranged wife of Tar-Aldarion of Númenor is noted as travelling to Rómenna to see his return from a voyage… only for Tolkien to leave us with a cryptic note about Erendis “perishing in the water.” This is often taken by readers as an implied suicide.
Erendis’ relationship with Aldarion is famously dysfunctional, of course. She likes trees and the land of Númenor. He likes ships and the Sea, and spends many years away from her in arguable violation of his duties as husband, father, and King. Erendis accordingly grows to hate the Sea, so if she did indeed drown herself, it is an interesting thematic comment on her peculiar rivalry with it. We do not know what the Númenoreans themselves would have made of this action at the ethical level, even though it would be the only recorded suicide in the entire Second Age. One imagines a tension between Gandalf’s warning about Higher Authority (taken very seriously in the Númenor of this era), and the sense that this now-elderly woman is embracing the Gift of Men. But really considering Erendis’ story, this would not be a subject for ethics, only literary themes.
(iii) Míriel Þerindë
The mother of Fëanor was famously so spiritually drained by giving birth to him that she died, and her fëa passed to Mandos. This in itself would not be so remarkable, were it not for the fact that she then refused to leave Mandos and return to a body – essentially, against Elvish nature, she was trying to achieve permanent death. If not a strict suicide, one can at least see this as a curious variant.
Hitherto, I have placed great emphasis on the notion that Tolkien approached character-suicide in his stories as an artist, rather than as a philosopher. Only in the case of Denethor does the subject-matter involve itself with the Rules of the World. But insofar as Míriel Þerindë counts as a suicide, she too is another example where Tolkien strays into something rather more wide-ranging than that of mere character or artistic theme. Specifically, it leads to the Statute of Finwë and Míriel, which governs Elven marriages (and re-marriages) in such a situation, together with some musings on whether Finwë made a mistake with re-marrying, and the role that such decisions have in the greater glory of Arda.
(But one philosophical constant of Míriel’s story: this sort of event was not supposed to happen, and was unanticipated by the Valar. Cue questions about Arda Marred and other Big Issues).
Amid the destruction wrought by the Dagor Bragollach on the armies of the Noldor, High King Fingolfin rides up to the gates of Angband, and challenges Morgoth himself to single combat. He wounds the Dark Lord seven times before dying, in one of the most epic moments of the entire First Age.
Some people will be no doubt scratching their heads over the inclusion of Fingolfin in this list. After all, he was slain by Morgoth, not by his own hand. Fair enough. Fingolfin is hardly a conventional suicide. But I think a case can be argued that Fingolfin’s despair and wrath constitutes a sort of Suicide by Dark Lord, a decision to die fighting gloriously against the Great Enemy, after the manner of Eowyn at Pelennor Fields. Certainly, it was not a decision rooted in any sort of reason or hope or faith – as Maedhros (of all people!) showed, the Noldor were not yet finished militarily – and robbing the Noldor of their King in exchange for giving the Dark Lord a limp was not a worthwhile deal.
But the episode does constitute yet another Tolkienian examination of the Northern Theory of Courage. That, and Tolkien the writer was trying to ratchet up the drama of his story, together with the heroic tragedy of the Exiled Noldor. In that respect, he succeeded admirably.
Beren returns the promised Silmaril to Thingol, only to die from his wounds. His beloved Lúthien dies of grief soon after, but through moving Mandos himself to pity, she earns both herself and Beren a second (mortal) stint at life.
There are a couple of deaths-by-grief in Tolkien’s work, and while they can be seen as analogous to Epictetus’ Open Door, I feel that at the thematic level, referring to these willed-deaths as suicide is a stretch. Lúthien’s first death is narratively necessary for her reunion with Beren and her Song Before Mandos – the ethical question of emotionally hurting Thingol and Melian is side-lined (and of course it’s permissible. Love Conquers All!). Though in a very strange sense, the Elves might well see Lúthien’s choice of a mortal fate to be a sort of suicide.
Tuor’s mother dies of grief in the aftermath of the Nirnaeth Arnoediad. Another death from grief, with this one arguably being closer to Epictetus’ Open Door than Lúthien (there is no return from death this time). Narratively, Rían also serves as a foil to Morwen’s character – Huor’s wife might be inclined to do this, but Húrin’s wife is made of stronger stuff.
Rían does at least ensure that baby Tuor will have a foster-family first, in the form of Annael and his Elves.
(vii) The Númenoreans
Death by grief might be a common trope in general literature, but in one of those peculiarly Tolkienian things, non-corrupted Númenoreans have a tradition of voluntarily surrendering their life when the time is considered appropriate. The in-universe philosophical justification is that Death is the Gift of Men. It is to be accepted at the due time, and not feared. Indeed, the narrative suggests that it is a sign of moral decay when the Númenorean Kings stop this tradition, and start “clinging to life.” The ever-admirable Aragorn makes a point of reviving it, of course.
Now, surface-level considerations might raise questions about how this fits with Gandalf’s words to Denethor, but I think it is quite clear that Tolkien draws a clear divide between Denethor’s forcible despair-driven renunciation of life, and Aragorn’s peaceful acceptance of what it means to be human. One fights the natural order of Tolkien’s universe, the other complies with it, so while I include the Númenorean example in the list for completeness purposes, I do feel it is thematically quite distinct.
That concludes our extended survey of character-suicide in Tolkien. As one can see, these broadly-defined cases are quite a divergent bunch, and while several examples do actually feed into wider questions of worldbuilding and internal frameworks of ideas, I still think their primary role is in showcasing Tolkien’s instincts as a writer. We have seen, for instance, how he was willing to adapt mythic material for his own literary purposes, even when those literary purposes do not necessarily align with other considerations. I would also suggest that while clear-cut cases of Tolkienian character-suicide are very much a subset of the broadly-defined whole, they are linked by a common thread of not merely character despair, but also character guilt – which is why I feel Christopher’s treatment of Húrin sticks out a bit. But overall, I think one ought to be careful about trying to fit these things into neat little boxes. There is plenty of room for nuance in reading Tolkien.