I found this Existential Comic interesting for its insight on what things might be like for J.R.R. Tolkien’s version of elves.
The author, on Twitter, shared a short video on Tolkien’s thoughts on death.
If you’re familiar with the mythology behind The Lord of the Rings, as revealed in The Silmarillion and other works, the elves are the elder children of Eru Ilúvatar (God). As immortal beings, the eldest of them inhabited the world for vast primeval ages before Men (mortal humans) came along. LOTR shows the elves in their waning days.
In the mythology, Men die and their souls leave the world. In comparison, elves are immortal. If their body is killed, their spirit goes to a place in the world run by one of the angelic powers that rule over the world (analogues of pagan high gods), and they may be reborn in another body. So the elves are bound to the world in a way that Men are not.
In that mythology, the mortality of Men is described as a gift of Ilúvatar, but one that Men no longer see as a gift due to the influence of Morgoth, the first dark lord of Middle Earth (and Satan analogue). The idea is that mortal humans are the lucky ones.
When I was younger, I thought this was a pretty neat idea. Of course, as I’ve gotten older and more skeptical, questions arise. Apparently most other things in Middle Earth also die. Do they receive the gift also? In particular, what about other intelligent species? Tolkien was intentionally vague about this for the dwarves, but I don’t recall it being addressed at all for hobbits. And this is a world where lots of other creatures show intelligence; what about them?
More generally though, this is part of an old genre, rationalizing why death is good. It’s tempting to see all religions in this genre, but many ancient religions didn’t have particularly comforting ideas about death. The modern versions often talks a lot about how the deadline of death sets us free, or inspires greatness in us. (Ed Gibney recently shared an article he wrote reviewing a book along these lines.)
Most of this strikes me as rationalizing a virtue out of necessity, why something inevitable is actually a good thing. As I’ve noted before, my own view leans Epicurean. Death is nothing to be romanticized, but it’s also nothing to fear. While I don’t think there is any kind of automatic afterlife awaiting us, I also don’t think it will be us languishing in some dark nothingness wishing we were still alive. Subjectively, it will never exist for us, because we won’t exist once we’re dead.
It is worth contemplating what immortality might be like. If it was in this world, we’d eventually be faced with some serious problems, notably the waning availability of energy as the relentless march of entropy eventually results in the heat death of the universe. But even if we imagine that being overcome, it seems like any conceivable eternal existence would eventually degrade into a hellish boredom. The most important gift might be knowing we can end it once we’ve decided we’ve had enough.
Still, I imagine most of us would prefer to have the elflord’s problem rather than the mayfly’s.