Astute readers of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Arda mythology will have noticed a complex cosmology emerging through Tolkien’s writing: an all-powerful, uncreated and transcendent God known in Arda as Eru Illuvatar delegating creative ability and power to the Ainur, the first of Eru’s creation and “the offspring of his thought” who helped to give rise to the races of the world. These ‘Powers of the World’ would become known as Valar upon their entry into the physical world, though not all Ainur would enter the world to become Valar. Gifted to all of the Powers is both free agency and destiny, but destiny is not the same for all.
Tolkien envisioned a world in which each type of creation has a different relationship to Eru, the Powers, and the greater world beyond Middle-earth. Within the context of this relationship, each race was gifted something different in accordance with the will of Eru and the Powers. Some, like Luthien and Arwen, could choose between destinies. For most others, their race-inheritance determined their destiny unless they should reject it of their own free will. Here, we will examine what we know about the ultimate destiny of the various races of Arda.
It should be stressed here that Tolkien categorically rejected allegory and any attempt to find allegorical reference to our world in his work; we may find themes, such as how the industrialization of early 20th century Britain may inform his vision of Isengard and the rebellion of the Ents, but it is unfair to attempt to draw any conclusion about Tolkien’s thoughts concerning peoples in our world from his cosmology of the afterlife within his literary mythology. Within the context of Tolkien’s mythology, race is principally defined by the relationship of created beings to the Powers that gave them form and substance within the world.
The Ainur were the ‘offspring of Illuvatar’s thought’, direct emanations of His own mind. To each Ainur it was given to understand the portion of Illuvatar from whence they sprung and thus each Ainur was endowed with different qualities and characteristics. It should be stressed that while they emanate from Illuvatar, they as a whole group do not compose Illuvatar; they are free agents, granted true life and agency with the Flame Imperishable, who’s right to gift belongs to Illuvatar alone.
Illuvatar as the transcendent uncreated creator is beyond the sum total of His offspring. It would however be correct to consider the Ainur as divine in and of themselves, with the ability to accept devotion from other beings and to exert a portion of divine power.
Taking part in the spiritual creation of the world before it was given physical form by Eru Illuvatar, the Ainur possess extensive knowledge of the world but do not know all things. Many Ainur who took part in the great Music of creation entered the world as Valar. The destiny of the Valar is known to be wholly tied to the greater fate of the world, for in entering the world they become not only it’s shapers but a part of it. Presumably, an Ainur who does not enter the world could dwell with Eru without end. For the Valar and Maiar, their ultimate destiny is only hinted at and never explicitly spelled out, not even to themselves.
A few glimpses at their destiny is given in Tolkien’s writings. Melkor, as a consequence of his rebellion against the will of Eru and his introduction of evil and corruption into the world, is known to be chained in the Void. The Void is beyond the world, for it existed before the creation of the world.
Not much is known of the conditions of existence there, but it can be presumed that it is a place without form in the sense that the world exists in form. Previously, Melkor freely entered and left the Void in his search for the Flame Imperishable; after his rebellion, his existence there is a prison, to be released only at the end of the world in accordance with the will of Eru. During that time, called the Dagor Dagorath, it will be given to the Ainur to assemble and destroy Melkor once and for all. The world
shall be remade by Eru and the Ainur in a Second Music of creation, along with Elves and Men; of this remade, new world, the Ainur know nothing except that it shall be more glorious than the first. The only beings known to traverse the Void in Tolkien’s writing are the Maiar Sauron, who like Melkor is banished there after his final defeat in the War of the Ring but unlike Melkor is not given to be ever released; and the Maiar Gandalf, who passed through the Void between his death and resurrection.
The fate of the Valar is irrevocably tied to that of the world, for they inhabit it and are part of it. They number fourteen; their twin purpose is to help shape the world in accordance with the vision of the Music of the Ainur and Eru’s vision, and to fight Melkor’s corrupting influence, whom had also entered the world. Though Morgoth as Melkor would later become known was also an Ainur who had entered the world, he was not counted among the Valar. The abilities of the Valar were not always explicitly spelled out by Tolkien, though it is known that they could command, in a limited sense, the physical creation through the exertion of their will, as evidenced by Manwë’s command of the winds, Ulmo’s command of the waters, and the collective power of the Valar raising Numenor from the seas. They also demonstrated limited creative ability, as in the creation of the Two Trees by Yavanna and Nienna.
The Valar as elders and guides of the world are understood to dwell immortally in it until the Second Music is sung after the apocalyptic Dagor Dagorath, in which they will take part along with the rest of the Ainur as well as Elves and Men. By the latest known date in Tolkien’s timeline of the Fourth Age, they still dwell in Valinor, the city they constructed upon the continent of Aman after their migration from their original kingdom of Almaren after the destruction of the Two Lamps.
The Maiar and Istari
The Maiar are semi-divine beings that were created by Eru Illuvatar as servants and helpers of the Valar. As such, they originally dwelt in Valinor with the Valar. Many were created, though only a few are named. It is known that each Maia was associated with a specific Vala and their abilities reflected the Vala with which they were associated. At least six Maia are known to have taken physical form in the world: Sauron, who would become Morgoth’s lieutenant during the War of Wrath and later a dark lord in his own right, and the five beings who would become known as the Istari, or wizards.
Other Maiar did not take incarnate forms but dwelled in the world in a different way, such as Arien and Tilion who’s spirits guided the Sun and the Moon that gave light to the world after the destruction of the Two Trees.
Unlike the Ainur and Valar of whom only Melkor was corrupted – and therefore the original source of evil in the world – many Maiar became corrupted by Melkor’s evil influence. The extent of Maiar corruption is not entirely known; what is certain is many of the Maiar who sided with Morgoth became the Balrogs. A late writing of Tolkien’s indicates that there are at least three but not more than seven Balrogs. Originally in humanoid form, these fallen ‘Umaiar’ cast off that form to take a great and terrible demonic form of fire and flame. The Maia Istari Saruman also became corrupted during the War of the Ring, though that was through the influence of fellow Maia Sauron. Less certain is Ungoliant, the first giant spider in the world, who was speculated to be a fallen Maia, but her true origin is unknown even to the Valar.
Of the Istari, Gandalf the White would return to Aman along with the Ringbearer Frodo Baggins. Radagast the Brown also returned after some time remaining in Middle-earth during the Fourth Age. Saruman, having been banished from the White Council, had his physical form destroyed after the War of the Ring; the price of his betrayal of his purpose and of the Valar was his spirit being permantely, irrevocably barred from ever returning to Aman. It can be presumed that his spirit will
linger in the world, unable to either take form or exert influence, until the Second Music. The two blue wizards Alatar and Pallando of which little is known in general can be assumed to have made their way back to Aman as well, though this is only a circumstantial assumption based on what we know of Gandalf and Radagast.
It is unknown what the ultimate fate of the corrupted Balrogs was. While Gandalf was able to slay the Balrog known as Durin’s Bane, he killed only it’s physical form. Like all Maiar, it’s spirit endured, for it is given only to Eru Illuvatar to destroy a spirit. Gothmog, slain by Ecthelion during the First Age, too had his physical form destroyed but not his spirit. Perhaps, like fellow Maiar Saruman, their spirits would formlessly dwell in the world until the Second Music.
Children of Illuvatar
Two races of the world were created directly by Eru Illuvatar, thus becoming known as his Children: Elves and Men. When Eru set them in the world, they manifested in places that even the Valar did not know. Coming first were the Elves, for Eru did not set Men in the world until after the First Age.
Blessed with an immortal lifespan, the Elves through their history in the world became differentiated into many different cultural groups; though, as Elves, they all shared a common destiny. During the First Age, the Elves traveled freely between Middle-earth and Aman. When these Undying Lands were removed from accessibility in the world, the destiny of the Elves became a choice: retain their immortality and leave Middle-earth for Aman, a one way trip, or remain in the world to die with it. The majority of Elves chose the immortal bliss of Aman, and by the start of the Fourth Age Middle- earth was devoid of Elves save for Arwen Undomiel, wife of King Aragorn II Elessar, and perhaps a few who still dwelt in the Woodland Realm. As an Elf that chose the latter path of mortality, her long life came to an end when she died of heartbreak after Aragorn’s death. The other, unnamed Elves who remained in Middle-earth slowly faded in mortality, their bodies consumed.
All Elves, upon death, spiritually return to the Halls of Mandos, named for the Ainur who presided over it. As beings who’s gift is immortality, the Elves could be reincarnated in the world in a body physically identical to their previous one after a time of learning and reflection in the Halls. Some Elves who committed true evil while in the world were deprived of this possibility and were made to dwell in the Halls permanently.
Apart from the Elves were Men, the second-born of Eru Illuvatar, who gave ‘curious gifts’ to them. All races within the world apart from the Valar were subject to the Music of the Ainur save for Men. While the other races were, in one way or another, predestined to fulfill the Music, to Men it was given to shape their own destiny. Also given to Men was natural mortality and death. Their destiny and ultimate fate is not tied to Arda because of this. Together, these Gifts of Men set them apart. Upon death, the spirits of Men leave the world permanently never to return, for it was in the world that they sought for rest and did not find it. Death is, for Men, not feared but embraced as true rest. Where beyond the world the spirits of Men go is unknown to either the Elves or Valar, but is a secret belonging to Eru Illuvatar alone.