Corey Olsen and the notion of death as an “escape” in Tolkien

Following on from my previous post, I wanted to address an argument made by Corey Olsen and one of his students in this podcast. Olsen argues that the Turin story can be understood as an ultimately triumphant story of human escape. In committing suicide and/or dying of exhaustion, Olsen argues that Morwen, Nienor, Turin and Hurin all manage to defy Morgoth’s taunt that he should pursue them by dying and therefore returning to Illuvatar (god). Furthermore, Olsen argues that, given ‘death’ is understood to be a ‘gift’ from god, the death of these characters should somehow be understood as a victory.

In support of this position, Olsen cites the death of Aragorn, which Olsen argues demonstrates the “correct” way for human beings to interact with the idea of death in Tolkien’s story. To begin with, this example highlights a major problem I have with Olsen’s commentary: his tendency to reduce incidence in Tolkien’s stories to either one or another moral dimension and to ignore narrative ambiguity. For example, in the Aragorn example, Aragorn does indeed plead with Arwen, his wife, to await their reunification some time after death. Yet Olsen completely ignores the tragic element of tale which asserts itself at the end of the story. Arwen is not comforted by Aragorn’s words. Instead she despairs and eventually dies, forgotten. Contra Olsen, the story of Aragorn and Arwen is infused with an ambiguous attitude toward death. I would argue that like the tale of the Children of Hurin, the story of Aragorn and Arwen ultimately complicates the neat ‘schema’ Tolkien sets up whereby death can be seen as a gift, an idea which reeks of philosophical special pleading in any case.

As with the Aragorn and Arwen material, Olsen’s treatment of the Turin material overlooks the affects of the narrative and programmatically applies some external idea, thereby “rescuing” the story from ambiguity (and maintaining a sense of Christian hope, which Olsen apparently finds essential, even to the point of twisting Tolkien’s story and thoroughly ignoring its ambiguity). The notion that death is a “gift” does nothing to allay the tragedy of the story. No matter to what extent Olsen may wish to philosophize about Tolkien’s own beliefs, the affect of the narrative is to instantiate pathos and catharsis, not a sense of Christian hope.

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