In a letter addressed to Dr. Rhona Beare, on October 14th, 1958, J.R.R. Tolkien states that The Lord of the Rings, “is mainly concerned with Death, and Immortality.” He also notes in a letter to Robert Burchfield on December 2nd, 1953 that, “The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.” These are shocking themes for such a popular book—a book that is listed as the second most popular fantasy of all time, selling over 150 million copies worldwide since it was first published. We live in a culture that avoids death so much that many die alone in hospitals or hospices, and once they have died, their bodies are prepared for viewing by hired professionals who strive to make the corpse look as if it were a living body that is simply sleeping. Furthermore, we live in an age where the beliefs of Catholics are not only criticized, but their churches are vandalized because people so strongly oppose the Catholic belief system. But perhaps the popularity of The Lord of the Rings is due to Tolkien’s ability to present death as having a meaning and purpose beyond the grave while palatably introducing the reader to his Catholic culture and beliefs in a subtle, gentle way. Through the characters of Boromir, Théoden, the Nazgul, Denethor, and Saruman,, we are presented with the attractive idea that one chooses where one goes when one dies and that death is not just a pathway to true immortality but is also a place of mercy and justice. Those who chose to live good lives go on to exist in immortal glory, while those who chose to serve evil, vanish into eternal nothingness. The juxtaposition of receiving immortality in death, along with a combination of mercy and justice, leaves the reader not just satisfied, but cautiously hopeful that this can be their reality too.
We first see death as a pathway to merciful and justified immortality in the death of Boromir. Before his death, Boromir fights bravely with the Fellowship against the evil powers of the ring, helping Frodo in his journey to destroy it at Mount Doom. But shortly before his death, Boromir temporarily surrenders his hope. He succumbs to the power of evil telling Frodo, “I do not say destroy it. That might be well, if reason could show any hope of doing so. It does not.” Instead of destroying the ring, Boromir suggests to Frodo that they use the ring against the enemy, but he knows this is impossible. He was warned against using the ring at the Council of Elrond, “We cannot use the Ruling Ring. That we now know too well. It belongs to Sauron and was made by him alone and is altogether evil. It’s strength, Boromir, is too great for anyone to wield at will.” Although his yielding to the power of the ring is temporary, Boromir’s actions are not without consequence. Frodo flees in fear and the Fellowship is broken.
After witnessing the destruction of The Fellowship, Boromir, in a sudden moment of clarity, expresses his shame, “What have I said…What have I done… A madness took me, but it has passed.” After voicing his remorse, Boromir repents of his folly. We see his repentance in the way he fights the abrupt oncoming orcs, who hunt the ring on behalf of Sauron, giving his life in hope for the sake of the Fellowship’s mission. We also see his contrition in the way he reconciles with Aragorn in his last breath saying, “I tried to take the ring from Frodo… I am sorry. I have paid.” Aragorn absolves Boromir saying, “You have conquered. Few have gained such a victory. Be at peace!”
The acts of remorse, repentance, and reconciliation, of Boromir along with the absolution given to Boromir by Aragorn are akin to the Catholic practice of confession where a sinner after feeling remorse for one’s sins, reconciles with God by admitting his or her sins to a priest and stating their contrition. After the priest absolves the sinner of his or her wrongdoing, with words of pardon and peace, which are similar to the words Aragon gives to Boromir, the person will then, much like Boromir did before his death, perform an action that expresses his or her sincere repentance. Furthermore, like Aragorn, many priests refer to the sacrament of confession as “a place of victory.” In this way, Tolkien invites us not only to consider how our life’s choices affect our death, but he also subtly welcomes us into his Catholic world, beckoning his reader to think about the Catholic view of reconciliation, death and immortality.
In the moment of Boromir’s passing, we do not know much about what has happened to him. We do know that his last action was to smile, but for the present that is all. It is not until much further in the second part of The Lord of the Rings, “The Two Towers,” that we learn more about Boromir’s life after death, through his brother Faramir. In the “The Two Towers, Faramir shares with Frodo that he had a vision of Boromir in his death, “he died well, achieving some good thing. His face was more beautiful even than in life.” From this we can conclude that Boromir is not condemned for how far he fell from goodness or by the consequences of his mistakes. Instead, it seems that Boromir is welcomed into Middle Earth’s version of Heaven because of how sincerely he repented from his errors. This is not to say that he earned Middle Earth’s version of Heaven, but that he, through his actions, expressed a desire to go there, and he was graciously and mercifully welcomed into it. Once again, Tolkien seems to be inviting us to consider his Catholic view of death and immortality as this seems a metaphorical depiction of the forgiveness and mercy of Tolkien’s Christian God. John 1:9 states, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” In Faramir’s vision, it seems that Boromir has indeed been purified and forgiven after his confession, for “His face was more beautiful even than in life.”
Through the death of King Théoden, we find that the idea of death being a pathway to a merciful and justified immortality is confirmed, with a stronger emphasis on the theme of immortality. Like Boromir, Théoden also temporarily surrenders his will to the enemy, and he also repents. While listening to the evil whisperings of Sauron’s spy and servant Wormtongue, Théoden nearly leaves his kingdom of Rohan in ruin—ready to be plundered by orcs. When he has a change of heart, however, he courageously faces his enemy Saruman, a servant of Sauron and the ring, at Orthanc and leads his men into battle on the Pelennor Fields against the wicked powers of Sauron. It is during this battle that Théoden is slain, but his death is not without hope or purpose. When he realizes he is dying, Théoden speaks about his own death with hope and joy, “I shall go to my fathers. And even in their mighty company I shall not now be ashamed. I felled the black serpent. A grim morn, and a glad day, and a golden sunset!” Théoden has such hope that even he does not grieve his own death but looks forward to it. Théoden’s joyful death and poetic words certainly seem to echo the Catholic saints who did not fear death but ran toward their fate of martyrdom singing with joy.
At Théoden’s funeral, his minstrel Gleowine sings about his King’s newfound immortality:
As with Boromir, Théoden is not condemned for the time he nearly led his kingdom into ruin, by surrendering himself to evil. Instead, he is rewarded and celebrated by how well he conquered evil when he decided to faithfully fight it. In this way we see both mercy and justice in his immortal afterlife. We see mercy in that he is not judged by his wrong doings and justice in that he is rewarded for striving towards goodness. We also learn from Théoden that death should not feared, and we are invited to consider the lives of those Catholic saints, who like Théoden, accepted death with joy. It is important to note that Théoden did not earn salvation, but he chose it when the acted upon the good and was freely welcomed into it.
When we compare the lives and deaths of Boromir and Théoden, who chose eternal life by striving to fight for goodness, with the deaths of men who despaired and abandoned themselves to the enslavement of evil, we see another type of justice and mercy displayed in the afterlife of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The men who reject goodness and chose to follow Sauron, became Nazgul, wraithlike creatures who are immortal. Although they are immortal, they do not enjoy the same kind of immortality as those good men who fought evil and died. Bilbo, who was briefly under the influence of the ring, experiences a taste of what the Nazgul creatures experience in their immortality, “Well-preserved indeed!… Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched… like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.” Instead of enjoying the fullness of life as experienced by those good men who pass the bridge of death, the Nazgul experience their immortality as endless serial living that leads to an ever-increasing hellish weariness.
Despite this immortality, the Nazgul can die in battle. But even in death, their immortality is not anything like the immortality that Boromir and Théoden’s experience. After Eowyn, Théoden’s adopted daughter, and the hobbit Merry slay the Nazgul King at The Battle of The Pelennor Fields, the Nazgul King is described as fading with “a shrill wailing, passing with the wind, a voice bodiless and thin that died, and was swallowed up, and was never heard again in that age of this world.” When the ring is destroyed at Mount Doom, the dying Nazgul are said to have “came, shooting like flaming bolts, as caught in the fiery ruin of hill and sky they crackled, withered, and went out.” Unlike the good men who die and go on to living with perfect immortality, the evil men who turned into the Nazgul are doomed to spend their eternity in nothingness. In fact, they may simply cease to exist.
But the Nazgul are not the only evil ones who seem to vanish from existence after death. The Steward King Denethor capitulates his will to evil in an act of despair. Denethor is much like Théoden in the way that he had a strong kingdom before being deceived by Sauron, but instead of admitting his wrongs, Denethor, in his pride, gives into despair—becoming both homicidal and suicidal. His son, Faramir, has been seriously wounded in the war, and Denethor means to kill himself and his son, “Better to burn sooner than late, for burn we must… We will burn like heathen kings…The West has failed.” Denethor, by choosing the death of “heathen kings” and by announcing the failure of the West, renounces his belief and hope in the one true god of Middle Earth and thus rejects the opportunity for happiness in eternal life. The wizard Gandalf warns Denethor that to act as if Sauron’s fortune telling were certain, “will make the Enemy’s victory certain indeed,” He also warns Denethor of the grave sin of murder and suicide, “Authority is not given to you, Steward of Gondor, to order the hour of your death… and only the heathen kings, under the domination of the Dark Power, did thus, slaying themselves in pride and despair, murdering their kin to ease their own death.” But Denethor’s pride overwhelms him, and with full knowledge of his sins, he condemns himself to “the domination of the Dark,” attempting and failing, to take his wounded son Faramir with him.
As with Nazgul men who seem to have vanished into eternal nothingness after their death, Denethor’s death is described to have a similar fate. At the moment of his death, Denethor is never again seen by mortal men. Unlike Théoden whose death reunites him with his fathers, or even like Boromir who is revealed to his brother Faramir in a vision, Denethor’s existence ceases—he is not even united with the heathen kings whose death he emulated.
Saruman, though a wizard and not a man, has a similar fate to the Nazgul and Denethor. He was considered one of the wisest, greatest wizards of Middle Earth. Before his treachery, Gandalf, the wizard who aided Frodo in his journey to destroy the ring even called him, “the greatest” wizard of his order. But after watching and studying the enemy for too long, Saruman surrenders himself to the enemy, lusting for the so-called glory the ring would bring him. In a meeting with Gandalf, Saruman reveals his lust by tempting Gandalf to join him in pursuit of the ring, “If we could command that, the Power would pass to us. That is in truth why I brought you here. For I have many eyes in my service, and I believe you know where this precious thing now lies.” He even admits to knowing the evils that would be done should the ring go on existing, “…we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle friends.” It is notable that Gandalf does not argue or try to convince Saruman to choose goodness as he did with Denethor. Perhaps Gandalf thought it a useless battle. Saruman, being the “the greatest ” of his order, would know full well the long term fate he was choosing by following the enemy and allowing his thirst for the ring’s power to take sovereignty in his heart.
In his last battle while parading his authority over his servant, Wormtongue, Saruman kicks “Wormtongue in the face as he grovelled, and turned and made off.” Wormtongue, filled with rage from being mistreated, stabs Saruman in the back and kills him. Like the ringwraiths who devoted their lives to evil, Saruman’s body withers in death. “To the dismay of those that stood by, a gray mist gathered, and rising slowly to a great height like smoke from a fire, as a pale shrouded figure it loomed over the Hill. For a moment it wavered, looking to the West; but out of the West came a cold wind, and it bent away, and with a sigh dissolved into nothing.” It would seem that in his final moments, before justly and mercifully fading into nothingness, the dust of Saruman tries to enter, and is rejected, by the immortal afterlife he knowingly sacrificed and first rejected during his life on Middle Earth.
While Middle Earth’s version of Hell differs greatly from the Catholic belief of Hell, there is one major similarity: Hell is a choice. The Catholic Catechism teaches, “We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him.” The Bible teaches this also in John 3:14-15, “He who does not love remains in death… no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” In this way, Tolkien teaches us that if we freely choose love and goodness during our lives on earth, death should not be feared. Rather, death can be a pathway to joy.
While death, immorality, and Catholicism may be subjects our current culture commonly deems as taboo, it seems that the huge success of The Lord of the Rings, is due to Tolkien’s ability to illustrate the Catholic Christian belief that when a life is well lived, death is not as an end, or even as a dire beginning. It is a pathway to more. Through the characters of Boromir and King Théoden, Tolkien brilliantly illustrates death as a pathway to receiving both mercy and justice in addition to perfect, joyous immortality. Furthermore, through the Nazgul, Steward King Denethor, and Saruman, Tolkien gently warns his reader of the bleak, unhappy darkness that awaits those who willingly choose to surrender the goodness of their lives to selfishness, pride, and despair. By giving death meaning and presenting it as a pathway to justice and mercy, Tolkien inspires his reader to hope for and choose eternal everlasting life.