or The Debate of Finrod and Andreth
by J. R. R. Tolkien
from The History of Middle-Earth: Vol. X Morgoth’s Ring
So, I finally got around to reading this. I had heard about it – a human woman and male elf discuss the differences between human and elven nature. It was definitely a very heavy read, since most of the text is concerned with esoteric questions of what distinguishes a human soul from an elven one, and more specifically, how do the traditions of humans differ from elves.
Even more specially, it is strongly concerned with death and how each race interacts with death. Elves accept death as a shadow in their future, that will cause them to end when Eä ends. Their body and soul (or hröar and fëa, the specific in-world terms) cannot exist without the physical world existing, which will not be forever.
In contrast, Andreth alludes to the assertion that humans were meant to be eternal – both hröar and fëa – even beyond the existence of the physical world. But they did something wrong and were cursed with death, changing it into that which stalks them. They live in constant fear of it. As she tells Finrod even if they are good and fair and righteous, they will still die. Even if they are cautious and healthy, they will still die. Death is the one inescapable quality of human existence.
What fascinated me about that, as I’m almost done in a re-reading of The Silmarillion (as of this posting, I am done), is that Elvish understanding perceived human death as part of their gift. They’re ability to die was their gift from Eru. Andreth, a human, contradicts this.
That surprised me, since I was so used to thinking of it as a positive. Instead, death is a consequence, a bit like in Genesis, of human disobedience. (There’s a short piece following the conversation that says what happened to cause humans to die; rather than listen to the voice of Eru, they followed Melkor and built him a palace and worshiped him.) So, it’s not an exact Eden parallel (‘cause this is Tolkien), but I was interesting to see that human action and fear and desire for faster knowledge led to the distortion of their nature. And I agree with Finrod that that’s a very unnerving thing to have happened.
Also, the bit about Eru having to come into the world, and thus having to take on a physical form in Eä was so a Jesus parallel. The reasons for why Eru would do it would be completely distinct to the world of Middle Earth, but the act alluded to felt very Christian to me.
To backtrack to my agreement with Finrod, through most of the story, his point of view and arguments made more sense to me than Andreth’s. I couldn’t quite grasp her reticent behavior or her view of humanity’s true nature, which had been changed.
But then at the end when its revealed why Andreth is upset – she loved Finrod’s brother, who left her when she was young to preserve the memory of her in her youth – I felt a lot more sympathy for her. It’s striking, since it occurs before any of the other Man/Elf pairings, that the one time it doesn’t work is between a human woman and male elf. The text makes a specific point to address how Andreth has aged, a concept that, while true for the other couples (apart from Luthien and Beren, since they’re specifically reborn as humans, and possibly Idril and Tuor, since it’s unclear if he arrived on Valinor as a living man as his son Eärendil was the first to set foot there), it is not addressed in the same manner.
Also, I can’t help thinking Aegnor was kind of a jerk for thinking it was better to retain the memory of her, rather than thinking of how she would interpret it. On the other hand, I do get the idea of retaining a memory, but that’s more in the opposite context: after something or someone has passed, it would be remembered. He’d remember Andreth after her death.
Additionally, the idea of a creature that lives a long time and remembers (i.e. does not reboot its self every century or so to deal with a nearly immortal existence) is emotionally resonant to me. Especially if that long-lived creature remembers who they loved, long after that person has died. I’m talking of course about The Last Unicorn: “As for you and your heart and the things you said and didn’t say, she will remember them all when men are fairy tales in books written by rabbits” (205).
Beagle, Peter S. The Last Unicorn. 1968. First Roc Printing, 1999.