Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Elf-friends and Subsets

Friend is an interesting word choice.  I am certain that Tolkien chose it with exactitude and precision, yet the more that I unpack and try and understand the concept of Elf-friend the less the juxtaposition of these two words seems to make sense to me.  Yes, they are friends of Elves and it is the Elves who name them Elf-friend, but who are they a friend to most of all?  Would it be best to call them something else?  It was argued at the close of class that Elves don’t ever need men, and although I am not in agreement with that statement (could the Elves have achieved victory in battle over Sauron without Isildur or destroyed the ring without the Hobbits?), it prompted me to think that they are friends to many groups, and also friends to each other over the span of time.

What do Elf-friends do?  They are often simultaneously actors in this great drama and stewards of the great drama.  Why specifically do I call this a great drama? In Sam’s words “Don’t the great stories never end?” This is made possible because of the Elf-Friends; Frodo’s response makes this clear.  “No they never end as tales but the people in them come and go when their part is ended.” Each Elf-friend moves the tale forward until it is time to pass the tale along to the next Elf-friend in what must therefore be an unending lineage.  While there are many aspects of the Elf-friend role this seems to be the most essential.  They are both King in the moment, and Steward for all time. 

Given this integral role, Elf-friends “move” in several dimensions.  Elf-friends serve as frame and transmitters of the story to the reader, but they also serve as frame and transmitters to the characters in the story.  Tolkien argues for the importance and the effect of mythology and stories on men, and the men in the story must therefore be affected by the Elf-friends presence.  This may be obvious in certain situations, like when they take a direct role in the action like Frodo does, but they also influence it more subtly. 

I believe that there is a Faery or Faeries inside (every) Faery.  Consider the Rider of Rohan’s shocked phrase “Do legends spring from the grass?” It was Tolkien’s strong belief that stories, specifically Faery stories, had purpose.  Why then can we not see the Elf-friends’ telling of a story in the tale as a window into Faery from Faery.  Returning to the scene between Frodo and Sam mentioned earlier, they both draw courage from the fact that this tale is part of something so much greater than them.

As we discussed in class, Faery becomes connected with or even part of primary reality.    Here I believe is one of the key roles of the Elf-friends, they herald the snippets of continuity that Tolkien has laced into his stories to connect us into the real world through Faery. We then arrive somehow back in our primary world in our own prehistory.   Instead of traveling through the real world to Faery we go “There and Back Again” into the real world.  It is as if we enter onto our own version of the Straight Path, pass through Faery and find ourselves ending up somewhere familiar in our own primary world once again.

If we pass through this place many times, does it not become real?  And we do pass through it, almost continually. As we pass through into all of these different Faeries which are all intertwined and stewarded by Elf-friends does not each seem as least as real as the last? The journey itself between the Faeries is almost like another Faery, a Super Faery of which all the other Faeries are just a subset.  This Super Faery must also contain the links to primary reality and perhaps even primary reality in order to be complete.
Yet a question arises.  If the story never ends than the lineage of Elf-friends can never end.  The story has now been written down; does it become static?  Not in the slightest.    So many of us wrote in our blog posts that our parents passed down these books to us, as treasured stories. In many ways don’t they too become Elf-friends?  In this way its not only that Elf-friends help us to connect Faery to our own world, they connect it right into our very own families.  What was Faery becomes familiar, or maybe all the world just seems a bit more Faery. The distinct lines become blurred by the tenuous connections of lineage and reality between the primary world and Faery.

Finally, this implies a responsibility on us.  If a wild lineage stretches behind us, from Aelfwine to Frodo to our parents, and it is our turn to pick up the mantle of responsibility where do we turn?  I return to my first question, who are Elf-friends friend to?  They are still certainly friends of the Elves, their deep understanding of their culture and their personal experience make this explicit.  Yet, they also must be a friend to the reader.  They must make the stories connect to the reader.  In this way, they are more Reader-friend than Elf-friend.  Of course, is the reader any different from any other character in this tale Elendil?



  1. Readers and Elf-friends--very nicely interwoven! I particularly like the way you talk about following the Straight Path and ending up back where we started: a paradox or the proper working of Faery? Faery itself needs Elf-friends just as readers do. Well put!


  2. I agree about Elves needing Men. After all, much is made of how the Elves are going away and won't be able to do much, so the Men must take over leadership of Middle-earth.

    --Luke Bretscher

  3. I liked your thinking on the exact nature of this ‘friend-ness;’ Tolkien always choose his words with such care and such attention to the original, literal meaning, I think it very appropriate (and wise!) to consider his words with equal care. But let me then ask you, why do you think Tolkien chose this term? You come to a good conclusion, that Elf-friends are, as much as anything else, Reader-friends, because such an important part of their function is to frame and transmit the story to the reader (or listener). But why ‘friend?’ Why not ‘helper,’ or ‘companion,’ or ‘partner?’

    You make a good point about Frodo’s comment that actors in stories come and go as their parts do, but the stories themselves continue, and that, likewise, Elf-friends come and go as their roles demand, but their roles have another dimension, as framers of the story itself. Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam are the best examples of this, but have you considered other examples mentioned in the article “The Footsteps of Aelfwine” (and discussed in class), like Beren, Hador, Hurin, and Turin, Eriol/Aelfwine, Elendil, etc. This question isn’t entirely fair because we haven’t read much about most of these characters yet, by they do make the definition of Elf-friend problematic. Not all of these characters functioned in the same way in the stories, not all of them framed the story, in addition to participating in it, and yet they are named Elf-friends. Does this mean the definition of ‘Elf-friend’ is more complex than we think? Or is there something else about these characters that make them Elf-friends?

    As for viewing the Elf-friends’ tales as windows from Faerie into Faerie, I think we do. In her article, Flieger points out that the transmission of a story is an intrinsic part of it, and so the Elf-friends’ telling of a story links the reader to it in such a way that the linking itself becomes part of the story. On this note, I loved your point about our parents being Elf-friends by passing these stories down to us! In that way, the stories become part of our own pasts, in the same way that the great stories Sam mentions were part of the Hobbits’ pasts!

    Courtney Jacobson