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It is settled pretty strongly that life is given by Ilúvatar and the Gift Of Ilúvatar to Men is death. And yet, we see the Nazgûl (and the Dead Men of Dunharrow) refusing the gift and have some sort of existence for an extremely long time. Is there a canonical answer on how could this happen?

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    Not 100% but by the time they are Nazgul they are no longer men, but wraiths - which implies that are the corrupted spirits of the men that once were. I'm sure there are some better versed in the lore to provide more detail
    – HorusKol
    Dec 22, 2016 at 11:36
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    The bit about the Dead Men is answered here: scifi.stackexchange.com/q/55003/31051 Dec 22, 2016 at 15:00
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    I'd somewhat interpret the "gift of Men" to be "passing out of the world and into their further journey" rather than just "physical death" -- after all, Elves can suffer physical death too - they are just "bound within Arda" and are re-embodied after some time.
    – ikrase
    Aug 7, 2019 at 5:23
  • It is a gift. It can be taken away, stolen or mislaid.
    – jo1storm
    May 18 at 7:09

4 Answers 4

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It is clear that the Ainur have the power to delay the Gift of Men. There are numerous examples. After Beren's death, his soul resides long enough in Mandos for Lúthien to make a plea on his behalf, and the pair are restored to life. Their descendants are allowed to choose whether they will take the Gift or remain tied to Arda as Elves.

Sauron, as a much lesser being than Manwë, probably lacks the power to change whether a given being is Man or Elf. (Lúthien, most notably, married into Humanity). However, he does have the power to extend the lifetimes of Men far beyond their normal span. For the Nazgûl, their lives seem to be extended essentially indefinitely, although it is an open question whether they would still have died eventually, had their rings not lost their power. But the Ringwraiths are still Men, and with the destruction of the Ring, they died and eventually passed beyond the circles of the world. In one of his letters, Tolkien suggested that Sauron could have recreated the Lord of the Nazgûl after he was slain, but that was only possible while the power of the Ring lasted.

The Dead Men of Dunharrow were cursed to remain by an even lesser power, a king of the Dúnedain, but Isildur apparently had enough ability to delay the departure of the oathbreakers as well. When their oath was fulfilled with the capture of the corsairs' ships, they too departed from Arda.

There are other possible examples as well—the barrow-wights, for instance. What is clear is that magical power can be used to delay the Gift of Men. This can mean keeping men alive beyond the normal span of their years (as with the Nazgûl, or even the long-lived Númenóreans). It can also mean that the souls of the departed can be prevented from leaving Arda immediately after death, although not forever. (This happened to Beren, the Dead Men, and possibly also the Nazgûl.)

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  • It seems to me that wraiths and ghosts are definitely DEAD; their departure beyond the circles of the world is merely delayed.
    – Stone True
    Dec 22, 2016 at 16:49
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    @StoneTrue Yes, that's why I meant about there being two ways for the Gift of Men being delayed. Men can be kept aiive, or their spirits may be kept from departing Arda. I don't think it's clear how long the latter condition can be maintained. The Dead Men show it can be thousands of years, but could they have remained until the Dagor Dagorath?
    – Buzz
    Dec 22, 2016 at 16:54
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    I don't think the Nazgul are actually unambiguously 'dead' in LOTR; their state is weird enough that it's hard to define. They definitely aren't alive in a biological sense, but they may have simply faded into a 'ghostly' state rather than their undergoing an actual separation-of-body-and-soul death. (This is not terribly different from what Tolkien said the final stages of the 'Fading of the Elves' would be, in writing that didn't make it into the published Silmarillion: see History of Middle Earth volume X, Morgoth's Ring.) Dec 23, 2016 at 1:52
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    @cometaryorbit I would agree that the Nazgul are, technically, alive. They haven't got much life yet, having stretched it out far beyond the normal span of human years. Yet they have not experienced true death, which could free them to leave Arda.
    – Buzz
    Dec 23, 2016 at 13:03
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    One of my favorite aspects of Tolkien was his use of subtlety and ambiguity. Are the Nazgul dead or alive? Tolkien is remarkably, and I believe deliberately, vague in his descriptions, leaving them in a definitely creepy, unnatural, state no matter what in the mind of the reader. Another similar item is "Do Balrogs have wings?" This is one of the primary appeals of Tolkien vs. his imitators, and one of the major failings in Peter Jackson's films was the almost complete abandonment of subtlety.
    – Stone True
    Dec 23, 2016 at 14:12
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The Nazgûl and Men of Dunharrow didn't really refuse Ilúvatar's gift of death; rather they were cursed and didn't have a choice.

The Silmarillion, in Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age, goes into detail about the Nazgûl's predicament:

Men proved easier to ensnare. Those who used the Nine Rings became mighty in their day: kings, sorcerers, and warriors of old. They obtained glory and great wealth, yet it turned to their undoing. They had what seemed to be unending life, yet life became unendurable to them. They could walk, if they would, unseen by all eyes in this world beneath the sun, and they could see things in worlds invisible to mortal men; but too often they beheld only the phantoms and delusions of Sauron. And one by one, they fell under the thralldom of the ring that they bore and under the domination of the One Ring, which was Sauron's.

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    I think ultimately Illuvatar could interfere if he chose to,but he lets fate play out
    – turinsbane
    Dec 22, 2016 at 15:01
  • @turinsbane Eä! The Music is the Music.
    – Spencer
    Dec 22, 2016 at 15:39
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Even without outright supernatural intervention, there seems to be some 'flexibility' built in -- Hobbits are essentially Men, and they live longer: the Old Took made it to 150. So the Gift of Men doesn't seem to demand an absolute upper limit of circa 120 as we see in real life.

And the Valar can't undo the gifts of Ilúvatar, but they could make the Númenóreans live to 200-plus.

The Ringwraiths (and Gollum) are much older than that, though. And the life-prolonging effect of the Rings seems to be somewhat different. Aragorn doesn't seem to have lost anything by his extended lifespan, but the Nazgûl have literally faded away, their bodies seem to have lost most of their 'solidity' - Gandalf says

"[…] the black robes are real robes that they wear to give shape to their nothingness when they have dealings with the living."

Gollum is pretty twisted by the Ring, and even Bilbo (who had the Ring for far less time) describes the effect as:

"[…] sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread."

It seems the Rings 'cheat' by increasing 'quantity' of life without increasing 'quality'.

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I think that there is an ambiguity here that is at the root of an answer to this question. From the Silmarillion:

For it was not permitted to the Valar to withhold Death from him [Beren], which is the gift of Ilúvatar to Men.

and

The Valar indeed may not withdraw the gift of death, which comes to Men from Ilúvatar, but in the matter of the Half-elven Ilúvatar gave to them the judgement; and they judged that to the sons of Eärendil should be given choice of their own destiny.

I don't think that Tolkien is ever more explicit than this and ever says that Men cannot cheat death, only that it is not permitted. It is forbidden by Eru. For the Valar to grant greatly extended life to a Man would be an act of rebellion on their part and a great evil, and for that reason they freely choose not do it without express permission of Eru.

On the other hand, we see beings already in rebellion -- Morgoth and Sauron -- doing just that: Húrin is bound to a chair on the face of Thangorodrim unable to die and Sauron's Rings of Power confer a sort of living death on Men who wear them.

Mortals, too, can condemn themselves to undeath by great evil: I suggest that the Dead of Dunharrow condemned themselves by reneging on their oath. Isildur could have freed them by releasing them from their oath -- any person can release another from an obligation to themselves -- but he didn't. That required no special magical powers, merely his legal and moral right.

Bottom line: Unending, resurrected, or extended life for mortals is either (1) the gift of Eru (usually by granting the Valar permission to act) or (2) the consequence of a great evil on the person's own part or (3) because of rebellion of one of the Ainur against Eru. Extension of a mortal's life is definitely possible, but it always is an act of Eru or involved an act of rebellion against Eru -- which Eru permits because of the freedom he granted his creations.

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  • "it must be assumed that no alteration of their fundamental kind could be effected by the Valar even in one case: the cases of Lúthien (and Túor) and the position of their descendants was a direct act of God" (Letter #153). I think Tolkien was clear that to alter their fate required the power of Eru. What Sauron did was not comparable to altering their fate or kind. He simply enslaved their souls for a prolonged time.
    – Eugene
    May 18 at 4:03
  • Except they could for Tuor.
    – Spencer
    May 18 at 16:51
  • @Spencer They could not. My quote above includes the case of Túor.
    – Eugene
    May 19 at 2:09
  • Only in a comment .
    – Spencer
    May 19 at 11:05

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