"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?