Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The trouble with Elves: Why seek beauty in creation?

"There, sailing proudly down the stream towards them, they saw a swan of great size... its beak shone like burnished gold, and it eyes glinted like jet set in yellow stones... suddenly they perceived that it was a ship, wrought and carved with elven-skill in the likeness of a bird." -- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

Galadriel sails in a boat that mimics natural beauty so elegantly that it can hardly be distinguished from its live counterpart. Upon her head she wears a circlet of golden flowers, and gives gifts of gems with delicate carvings and sword sheaths etched with flowery garlands. Tolkien's Lothlórien overflows with the beauty of Elven craft.

Each time I read through The Fellowship of the Rings, I cannot help but dwell for a moment on the strangeness of what passes in Lothlórien — not only while the Fellowship rests there, but in the greater context of the Third Age. While the hobbits in the Shire and even the Men of Bree are not conscious of the extent of the threat of the Dark Lord, we think of the Elves as an enlightened people. Surely Haldir and the other Elves, watching from their telain, witness the growing threat of the Shadow. However, the haven of Lothlórien remains isolated, and the resources of the Elves seem ever dedicated to craft. Surely Tolkien did not mean to pin to the Elves an ugly habit of materialism — but how else are we to explain their fascination with physical beauty in a time when creating objects of simple utility would seem like the more appropriate choice? Why do the Elves spend time sitting on the hythe polishing jewels when they are among the ones to whom the threat of evil seems most lucid?

But perhaps this is only something I have projected onto the Elves. Perhaps, like the Men of the southern kingdoms, uninitiated in Elven lore, I am too quick to dismiss their craft as indulgent sorcery. There are many arguments in favor of the Elves of Lórien, not the least of which is the inspiring power of beauty in times of darkness. However, this is not the first time that an attachment to beauty troubles an Elf. Fëanor refuses to give up the Silmarils, having come to see them as an extension of himself: "If I must break them, I shall break my heart" (Q. Simarillion 9). Similarly, the Teleri refuse to loan or make a gift of their beautiful ships. Can we blame them, given that the band of Fëanor destroys them once they reach the other side? Uinen of the Maia even causes the sea to destroy many of the commandeered ships of the Noldor as they sail east, which seems to implicate the vessels in the struggle as well as their sailors.

As we discussed in class, there is clear link between the creative process of Aulë and the creative process of Fëanor. Both feel an attachment to their creation that suggests that they perceive their works as an extension of themselves. The Teleri also refer to their ships as "the work of their hearts" (Q. Silmarillion 9). If we focus on this aspect of what is essentially sub-creation, the tendency to consider creation as an extension of one's "heart," the toiling of the elves over their beautiful objects becomes much more compelling. Here, the objects of the Elves must function as metaphor: they say things that the Elves believe cannot be said any other way. The Elves communicate through beauty what they cannot express in any other fashion besides creation.

If we can understand on the most basic level what the Telari, the Noldor, and the Elves of Lothlórien try to achieve in their works of beauty, we can ask this question again, stepping back to the level of the Ainur. It seems that this extension of the heart and self is relevant as well to Aulë, who wishes above all to have "learners" to love and share things with.

Aulë, foolish as he is, realizes the foremost barrier in communication and understanding. Without anyone with whom to converse, he is alone, unable to share the "lore and crafts" that dwell within him, yearning to extend that same "heart" that Fëanor and the Teleri speak of to creatures of his own making (Q. Silmarillion 2). And even more problematic than lacking someone with whom to converse is lacking a medium in which to express it. The Elves must create beauty because they are their beauty; without their beauty, they cannot speak.

I don't think it's necessary or feasible for us to map Tolkien's creators directly onto the hierarchy of the Christian or any faith. However, seeking to understand how creation (even with a lowercase "c") functions within Tolkien's work is essential to understanding the Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion as a continuous whole.  


*Okay, really, how do you pluralize talan?


  1. I think you've expressed very eloquently the compulsion, but also the attachment that Tolkien ascribes to creation and making. I think there’s a lot to be said for the idea of creation as communication. After all, the Valar go out to make and create as a response to the beauty of the Ainulindalë. Can all making and creating be considered communication with the original beauty and power of Creation (uppercase C)? Examples like early cave drawings seem to suggest that the art originally responded to what was external to us. But why bother, if there isn’t some sense of beauty being valuable to commemorate? Art is premeditated on the idea that beauty or impressiveness is worth reproducing and proliferating. Are we responding to and entering into conversation with examples of beauty, or with the more primordial source of our love of beauty?

    Or, as you seem to suggest, are we actually conversing with ourselves? Are Feanor and the Telari attached to their creations because they are a physical aspect of their own journeys of self-discovery? When we paint, write, or make music, there certainly is a sense of self-expression, of investing a personal style or point of view in the creation. However, I think that's different than viewing the creation as a part of one’s self, as the physical manifestation of a self-conversation seems to suggest…

    ~Sarah Gregory

  2. I, too, am intrigued by the idea of creation as an effort at communication, but I am puzzled at what, exactly, it is that the Elves are trying to communicate. Is it beauty as such or is it a response to Ilúvatar (i.e. praise)? And where does language fit in here, given that many of the Elves' most beautiful creations are linguistic?


  3. I suppose the cop-out answer to your initial question – why the elves failed to focus pragmatically on the struggle against Sauron at the end of the Third Age – is that they are departing Middle Earth to a place where the Dark Lord’s power is irrelevant. This, I think, gives them too little credit. While the Elves may have had a way out of Middle Earth proper, they remain bound within Arda with the Vala and Maia similarly bound. In a sense, the First Children of Iluvatar reflect the essence of Arda as a mythic realm more closely than Men, who inhabit Arda only temporarily. By creating beautiful works of art and craft – and in so doing taking inspiration from nature – the Elves commune with God. While Arda as a whole may be marred from the beginning by Melkor’s discord, the habitations and works of the Elves purposefully keep all that is aesthetically corrupt at bay. As you maintain, the Elves are sub-creators, and as such, follow in the footsteps of God. While a religion in which creation is the chief action of its adherents is somewhat foreign to us, the Elves’ subtle propriety in this regard reflects Iluvatar’s passive and distant nature. Their creation takes on aspects of worship as well as of a moral struggle against the enemies of God. By choosing to continue their beautiful creative efforts instead of flocking en masse to the battlefield as in previous Ages, the numerically depleted Elves carry on a metaphysical war against Sauron, heir of Morgoth, while Men wage physical battle. The very existence of Imladris, Lothlorien, the Grey Havens, etc. offsets the ugliness of Mordor, and preserves a sense of aesthetic balance. Thus when Mordor loses its potency at the end of the Third Age, the Elven sanctuaries must likewise fade.

    Philip R.

  4. I think Phillip R. has made an astute point. The creation and preservation of beauty is a kind of spiritual resistance to Evil. Let us not forget Bilbo’s comment that the Elves of Rivendell seem to draw at least as much sustenance from songs and poems as they do from food, or that Legolas, after the manner of his people, rests not by sleeping but by thinking of beautiful things. Elves draw strength from beauty. As long as beauty is, Elves are, and when one fades, so does the other.
    Elvish possessiveness is, I think, an aberration (albeit a not infrequent one), and it seems always to lead to disaster. Feanor’s love of the Silmarilli and Turgon’s pride in the beauty and strength of Gondolin bring about the destruction of almost every kingdom of the Eldar and Edain in Beleriand. But Galadriel, Elrond, and Cirdan are willing to surrender the works of their hearts in order to defeat Sauron. The beauty of and in Rivendell and Lothlorien is both a cause and a means of resistance. Elvish creations nourish the Elves but terrify and pain the servants of Darkness. And once the beauty of Elven lands fades, the Elves depart to Aman, so the existence of beauty in Middle Earth must be to the Elves a reason to stay and to contest the will of Sauron. Moreover, as Phillip R. has said, the creation of beauty is an act of direct opposition to Evil. The Elves in Lothlorien are therefore not being self-indulgent or idle.
    I do find it strange, however, that the Elves are apparently unwilling to share their works with Men. If even staunch anti-Elfists like Gimli can be convinced of the wisdom and majesty of the Elves, so too can most Men be. I think that the Elves are in this regard guilty of the same mistrust and simplicity that afflicts many Men.
    -G. Lederer

  5. I am reminded by this of something in our discussion sometime ago about the music of creation. The idea of creation’s music is reminiscent of the classical and medieval idea of the harmony of the spheres, and so I was reminded of an insight, or a suggestion, made I believe by C.S. Lewis in The Allegory of Love, about the last line of the Divine Comedy. The line refers to the ‘love that moves the sun and the other stars.’ It is easy to think of this as God’s love setting the heavenly spheres into motion. Lewis suggested, to the contrary, that the energy of creation was generated as a spontaneous response of loving praise to the creator. The creator is so beautiful that all creation turns in circuited praise. Not only the elves, but Tolkien as well had an interest in craft (and was influenced by people like William Morris who, also a mythological storyteller, was interested in fine craft production). In this light, is craft the consequence of an unending search for a medium of adequate praise? I think the metaphor that Prof. Fulton Brown gave in class is very apt: creations may be compared to children, and as with children, the umbilical cord must be severed. Creations must be let go of in order to be shared, at which point they really do lead lives of their own. Not only is a creation shared, but it is given, and it is its nature to be given. Gollum tries to assert that the ring was a birthday gift to him, but he actually thinks of it as his possession.

  6. I also noticed the Elvish obsession with beauty, but for me this obsession almost became a corruption of beauty. They were able to perceive the beauty of natural things more than just about any other race, so they set about trying to preserve that beauty so that it could not be marred. Yet this is seen almost as a marring of that beauty in itself. The beauty of Iluvatar's creation is that it is ever changing and evolving and growing. When the elves try to preserve beauty, they take away this element of growth, and so stunt that objects potential for beauty. Even if it was beautiful as they preserved it, and even if that object may still be aesthetically pleasing to the eye, that object has lost that most important aspect of vitality that lends it its true inner beauty; instead of just being an image of beauty, as the works of the elves are, natural beauty is the essence of beauty through growth and change.

    C Carmody

  7. When I wrote this post, I remember feeling that it was really just a very long question. I'm glad to see that so many people responded with such persuasive and well-articulated answers!

    Viewing this through the lens of Christianity (because why not?) provokes a further set of questions. I think a good place to start is Philip R.'s presentation of the "cop-out answer" — that the Elves are only moving on to a better place anyway. If, from a Christian standpoint, we people of the earth are destined to [best case scenario] live eternally with God, and earth is just a way station, what’s the point of fiddling around here? This is a question that is thrown at Christian apologists fairly often. I think that the answer, at least when we’re in the world of the Lord of the Rings, certainly lies in the relationship between creation and praise. Posters above have mentioned both ideas of creation as a form of praise, and praise as a response to creation. If paired together, these two actions create a cycle, or at least a conversation between a higher creator and the sub-creators whom he himself has created. Considering the elves' compulsion to create beauty in this light paints them as far less egocentric. I guess I just wasn't giving them enough credit!


  8. Actually Tolkien did seek to pin the elves with the "ugly habit of materialism"; or at least something very akin to it. They're longing to preserve their golden age, to resist change, and their changing roles - from the Silmarils down to the rings - created much of the horror faced in the Silmarillion and LOTR. People very often read LOTR with the elves in a kind of angelic role; the angelic equivalent in Middle Earth [the Valar] are very much at odds with the elves, and for good reason. Tolkien uses the term 'sin of the embalmer' in his letters. This is the desire to keep things as they are, to preserve one's golden age [at any expense to other, ultimately], rather than yielding to the role one is meant to fulfill [the elves as the preparation and teachers of mankind]. The preservation of Lothlorien is not sorcery for these are the innate gifts of the elves, but the sorrow that lays upon is the inevitable result of sorcery.