The first time I read Lord of the Rings, I hated the Elves.
What makes Galadriel so special, my younger self wanted to know, that she has the right to test the Fellowship after they’ve just watched their leader and friend die fighting a Balrog? What gives the Elves of Rivendell license to turn up their noses at Bilbo’s poetry? Why does Frodo put up with such haughtiness when he meets Gilrod on the road? Tolkien’s Elves speak like oracles and look like fashion models and are effortlessly, naturally the best at all they do—and none within Middle-earth seems to question it.
As thirteen-year-old reading Lord of the Rings, I resented the Elves in the same way I resented the kids at my middle school who wore designer jeans and were "popular".
The question, however, is why. Why did the Elves evoke such a visceral rejection? The ones we encounter in the Lord of the Rings are largely forces for good, powerful individuals who are admired and respected within the sphere of the story. Legolas is an invaluable friend and warrior, Elrond hosts the council to decide the fate of the Ring, and Galadriel is the great lady of Lorien, offering insight and respite just before the fracturing of the Fellowship. Even when Elves fall short of their promise—for example, Thingol’s actions in the tale of Beren and Luthien—they do so with magnificence, not tripping up but falling with style. In triumph, Elves are demigods; in failure, they are tragedies. Always, they make for fascinating reading.
So again—why begrudge the Elves their glory?
I am not alone in regarding Tolkien’s Eldar with a sneaking sense of resentment. In Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, Andreth expresses the same sort of frustration: “We may be ‘Children of Eru’, as ye say in your lore; but we are children to you also: to be loved a little maybe, and yet creatures of less worth, upon whom ye may look down from the height of your power and your knowledge, with a smile, or with pity, or with a shaking of heads” (Morgoth’s Ring 308). Andreth lashes out against the magnificence of the Elves, which seems to patronize by sheer existence. Finrod even confirms that some of his people regard humans as clumsy, ignorant children compared to the excellence of the Elves. There is certainly awareness on both sides of the inequality of power and skill between the Children of Iluvatar. Men resent the envy this inequality kindles in them; Elves accept the inequality, and come to see themselves as enviable.
But why shouldn’t mere humans envy the Elves, when Tolkien himself confirmed the Eldar to be “the artistic, aesthetic, and purely scientific aspects of the Humane nature raised to a higher level than is actually seen in Men” (Letters 236). Elves embody of all the best of humanity—the wisdom, the creativity, the joy and beauty—untainted by humanity’s uglier sins. What’s more, they exist on a scale that dwarfs most men; only epic heroes such as Aragorn and Beren can hope to match.
But Andreth’s resentment and sense of injury does not merely spawn from jealousy of the greater power and wisdom of the Eldar. Rather, her cause for complaint is that “we are brittle and brief, and ye are strong and lasting” (Morgoth’s Ring 308). The great difference between Elves and Men is not their relative skill or power, but the length of their lives. Elves are immortal—they will last as long as Arda does—but Men have only a handful of years before they pass into the unknown. And it is unknown; not even the Eldar know what happens to the fëa of humans when they die. This uncertainty breeds a fear of death which “is with us always, and we flee from it for ever as the hart from the hunter” (Morgoth’s Ring 309). Humans, consumed with this fear, look on the immortality of the Elves and question why they, as equal children of Iluvatar, are denied such a gift. Perhaps it is even the work of Melkor…
The Elves’ answer—that death is a gift of Eru, given to Men for purposes beyond their divining—is hardly a bulwark against uncertainty.
But here is the root of the Andreth’s sense of animosity against the Elves. The Elves are what Men desire to be—the “elevated Humane,” immortal and magnificent and decided. The Elves know their place in the world and inhabit it; they do not have to face the uncertainty of human death. Even in describing the Lady Galadriel, Sam declares she is “so strong in herself. You could dash yourself to pieces on her, like a ship on a rock,” (The Two Towers 366). The peril of Galadriel is also her power, and her power is in her firmness; she stands and will not bow, no matter how many ages pass her. For humanity, unable to slow its inexorable march to the grave, this constancy is enviable. Since Men cannot imitate such timelessness, they are reduced to resenting it in the Elves.
(Of course, the Elves’ great weakness is their longing for the past, their “staleness,” which is a result of immortality. However, when longing for greener pastures, one rarely stops to consider what else might be on the other side of the fence.)
“Glamorous” is the word used to describe fairies and elves, a word which has its roots in the Scottish “glamour”—a spell or enchantment of some kind. It is a word which suggest both magic and peril, implying “allure and danger are mixed” (Shippey 59). While Tolkien’s Elves are unlikely to wield a wand, they are still deeply glamorous, holding the ultimate danger. Elves tempt us with a vision of we most want: a stay of execution, a chance to evade that great hunter who comes for all. Elves, with their power and beauty and immortality, tempt us with what it would be disastrous for us to have. To be human is to be mortal, and fear of death’s unknown defines the race of Men. It is easy to resent the Elves, for even with their creeping “staleness” they already have what humanity wants most.
I don’t know whether this argument would have convinced that resentful thirteen-year-old who couldn’t believe the hobbits allowed themselves to be spoken to that way. I rather suspect, were I to visit Rivendell or Lothlorien myself, I would still find those glamorous Elves insufferable. But then, to quote the great Terry Pratchett, “No one ever said elves are nice.”
Shippey, T.A. The Road to Middle Earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology, rev. ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003).
Tolkien, J.R.R. Morgoth’s Ring, HME 10, ed. Christopher Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993).
Tolkien, J.R.R. Letters, ed. Humphrey Carpenter with Christopher Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000; first published 1981).
Tolkien, J.R.R. The Two Towers. (New York: Ballantine, 1977).
 Obviously, length of life is deeply tied to the different natures of Elves and Men. However, the relationship of the fëa and hröa and how that bond shapes the natures of the Children of Illuvatar is an entirely different essay.