Monday, May 16, 2011

An Argument Against Elves

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[1]. 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.”

~Sarah Gregory

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).  

[1] 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.


  1. I definitely agree with you about one's first impressions concerning Elves. It always did seem odd to me that they are always considered in essence supreme, and that everything they did was remarkably better than anything else any other race could have done. I felt sometimes I had to take their presence in the story with a grain of salt because as exciting as intriguing as they are, their presence in the same world as men just seems to go against the basic balance of the world. Considering our discussion today about marriage being an equation to end in children, I certainly find Elves to be problematic. If Elves always continue to have children while living forever, there is a notable imbalance to the manner in which that population rises compared to men. (I'm sure I'm missing something about the way Elves actually go about having children because it's never stated that their populations are in excess but my point is still the marked imbalance between creation and death).

    I guess it almost seems as though Elves should exist in a sort of fantasy capacity within the novel--in that men would only know of them in stories and think them as almost ethereal, rather than the real corporal beings that they are. To me its as if I want Elves to fit into a sort of Vampiric capacity, existing in fantasy and perhaps are real, but they hide their existence because they simply do not operate under the same laws of nature which men do. Can you imagine if there was a modern justice system imposed on all of Middle Earth? How would you ever be able to sort out what rights could be awarded to each type of race?


  2. I actually had to exact opposite reaction when I first read "Lord of the Rings". I loved the Elves, and I still do. I’d agree with you that the Elves do seem to be beyond Men in all respects, especially in the "Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth", but I think a great deal of that has to do with the time. The Silmarillion is about the Ages of the Elves, and Men are still (incredibly) young during Andreth’s time. As the Elves fade and Men grow to prominence, as in "Lord of the Rings", it’s always seemed to me that the Elves are the saddest creatures in the book. While Galadriel and Elrond are wise, and old, and perhaps perilous to Men, they are dwindling to nothing more than stories and caricatures of Elves. The rumors and fears about the Lady of the Golden Wood show that.

    Pairing this with the glory of the Elves in the Silmarillion, envy and dislike never come to my mind. Rather, sorrow, for the Elves, who are beautiful and powerful in a way Men do not seem to be, must fade and become almost impotent within the world they so love, and pass away, and let it be handed over to Men.


  3. While elves are certainly fulfill the “popular kid” stereotype in Tolkien's mythos, I think that he also intended them for another purpose: to be a mirror for men.
    As you said, the imbalance between elves and men is obvious, and most men resent the elves for their artistic skill, creativity, and beauty. Elves are the masters of all forms of art; they, by their ephemeral nature, are able to create surpassing beauty primarily because of the skill they have gained in long life and their particular worldviews.
    For Tolkien, though, I think that he intended elves to be seen as a reflection and magnification for the natures of mankind, both good and bad. Just as wetalked about gems reflecting light into something greater than it was, so is the relationship of elves to men. Sam's quote of Lothlorien, that you bring your own evil in with you, seems to agree with that; Lothlorien serves to reveal your own flaws to yourself. It holds up a mirror of yourself (Galadriel's mirror?).
    Elrond, similarly, acts as a mirror during the Council, reflecting thoughts and ideas, filtering them through his wisdom, and returning them to all who sit present. Elves are mediators for the individuals of the Fellowship and others present to discover their own strengths and flaws. Much like the wizards, Tolkien perhaps intended them to guide humans into the Fourth Age by both example and reflection.
    -Prashant Parmar

  4. I had never even thought to be put off by the elves before all this arose, but then again, in this class I have been looking at so much of Lord of the Rings through new eyes that I shouldn’t be surprised. But honestly, I don’t think the elves should be resented (unless of course it is for the lightness with which they walk atop fallen snow). It is easy to feel a bit outclassed by these creatures who seem to have avoided the humiliation and shame of The Fall (it is so hard not to inject Christianity into LotR). How could one not feel inadequate when facing what might have been? But for the elves to have to watch and feel the world they know change so drastically over their extensive lives is no light charge. The elves have to bear wisdom beyond man’s years, all the while knowing that their fellow inhabitants of Middle Earth do are not able to comprehend their experience while they are live out the others’ experiences time and time again. Furthermore, they would have to live with the knowledge that they could elect to give up their immortality if they chose. In this sense, the elves’ situation is much more uncertain than that of men. At least humans know their lot and that they must do what they can with it.


  5. Let us not forget another benefit the elves enjoy, which is the ability to sail west to Valinor and escape the trouble, trials, and suffering in Middle Earth. As near as I can tell, Tolkien does not make much effort to describe the rules or limitations governing this escape route. We are left to imagine that the elves can catch a ship to the West whenever they get bored of Middle Earth and live forever with the gods (Valar) in paradise. How nice is that? But wait, that’s not all! When elves are killed, yes it hurts, but no worries—after a short stay in Mandos they are likely to be reincarnated before too long and live a new life restored in body and spirit. What is the price for these blessing? Elves only get to live as long as Arda, the whole created world, exists which will be for a very very long time.

    The interesting question is why didn’t the elves jump ship en masse a long time ago and leave humans and dwarves to their own devices against Sauron? Valinor is more-or-less a still a part of Arda (if not Middle Earth proper) even after the second age, just not accessible to anyone but the elves. So, their connection to the fate of Arda as such is not much of an excuse to stay. They could rationalize that the land west of the Anduin is a lost cause and that it is better to ensure the protection of Valinor than waste lives and resources elsewhere. Certainly by the third age, the curse on the Noldor would not have applied to very many elves (at least Galadriel appears to have escaped it). So is uncommon valor another quality we should envy the elves for? It seems that they stayed and faced the possibility of violent death (though not necessarily permanent death) when they really did not need to.

    You are right to point out that the envy does seem to be a one way street. I can’t think of any example of an elf envying the mortality of men. Immortality, even if it comes with a degree of staleness (and I’m not so sure of that), was not so bad that an elf longed for deliverance from interminable living. I would imagine that the certainty of their fate would be a relief for the elves.

    -Jason A Banks

  6. I agree that it is hard not to envy the Elves: when I was thirteen, I drew a picture of myself as Galadriel. Oh, how I wanted to be as beautiful as an Elf! But after reading the Silmarillion (which came out, in fact, the year that I was 12), I rather changed my mind: the Elves were dull, nothing they did worked, their story was one long defeat after another. Now that I am older, I still rather think that this is what Tolkien wanted us to realize: even immortality is not all it is cracked up to be, nor are Elves actually perfect. They're just not us.