Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Elves: Cowards by Fate or Choice?

When I first read Lord of the Rings I reacted negatively to the Elves as well. However I didn’t question their supreme nature, I didn’t fight against their right to be immortal the way Andreth does in Athrabeth Findrod ah Andreth (HME 10) but rather I was enraged that they abandoned Middle Earth right at the escalation of the conflict. I found myself thinking of the rather hackneyed Spiderman movie quote, “With great power comes great responsibility”. My sense of duty was insulted by the Elves seemingly abandonment of Middle Earth. The Elves fading and leaving Middle Earth to the ‘lesser’ race, men, illustrates the shortcomings of immortality (and conversely the advantages of being mortal). What are Elves? What makes them different from men and what does this mean for not only Tolkien’s legendarium but also the narrative of the Lord of the Rings? Ultimately what does the elves relationship to the earth and to men mean?

If you read just the Lord of the Rings and didn’t read the Silmarillion or any of the other works by Tolkien you would not get a complete picture of the elves. The elves in the Lord of the Rings are stale, they are old and weary. Born to an earth doomed to destruction and corrupted by men and rings of power. The true nature of elves are exposed in the Silmarillion and the other Tolkien works. This tells of the true nature of Elves, that they are a strong and proud race that values science, beauty, and the natural world.

The story of Luthien, Galadriel proud strong women elves who shape the fate of Middle Earth through their courageous actions, Eärendil who is now a star. These are the true elves. By the time we’ve moved on to The Lord of the Rings the only elf who appears to contain any of this courage and prowess that the elves of old possess is Arwen (and you frankly have to read the appendix to the Lord of the Rings to get that full story... or watch the movie) Galadriel leaves, Elrond leaves, and the rest of the elven race has gone West to Valinor.

The Elves fight through the first two ages to protect their world from the threat of Morgoth, they fought valiantly. Elrond fought with Isildur against Sauron once before. They struggled and they toiled against evil, against change as well.

The Elves are a heightened version of man. They are more scientific, they are more aesthetically oriented. They are infinitely bound to the Middle Earth, they are immortal in that sense. They are fated in that sense. How predestined they are, is not explicitly stated by Tolkien. The Elves by the Third Age are resisting change to their world. They are preserving pockets of Middle Earth as they were ages ago with the three rings of power. Instead of fighting for their world they cower in these pockets. Whining almost that men are the ‘fallen’ race, that they are easily corrupted. Or as Aragorn says about his lineage with Isildur “The same blood flows in my veins. The same weakness”.

But rather than the Elves, the stronger, the mightier, the perfect race fighting for Middle Earth’s freedom in the final war of the ring, the men are doing most of the fighting. There are no elves at Helm’s Deep (as the movie would like us to believe), there are no elves on the Fields of Pelennor, other than Legolas since he’s a member of the Fellowship. The Elves are fleeing to the Grey Havens. Is this because they are cowards, is this because they are taking the easy way out? Escaping to the Grey Havens instead of fighting for the earth they are supposedly bound to? If Elves do love the earth so fondly, if the Elves do in fact resist change so strongly, what are they doing abandoning it? If they are immortal wouldn’t they want to preserve this land? When I first read Lord of the Rings this was something I couldn’t figure out for the life of me. Looking for answers I turned to the Silmarillion, and then all of the History of Middle Earth books. And here I am, seven years later re-reading all the same material and coming across the same questions and the same answers.

The Elves are bound to the music that the Illuvatar make at the direction of Eru in the formation of Arda. This means that they have a designated fate to follow. They begin passing into the West via ships at the Grey Havens at the end of the Third Age because they believe that the Fourth Age will be the age of men. Then the question becomes: Do the elves know that it’s going to be the age of men in the Fourth Age? or is it rather that it becomes the age of men because the elves leave? And another adjacent question, do the elves choose to leave because they want to? or are they fated to leave?

Galadriel speaks to this when the fellowship visits her earlier in the fellowship’s saga as to what will happen with the coming of the Fourth Age. “Lothlrien will fade, and the tides of Time will sweep it away. We must depart into the West, or dwindle to a rustic folk of dell and cave, slowly to forget and to be forgotten.” Galadriel’s words to Frodo indicate that there is a choice involved in the Elves’ departure to the West.

Ultimately the Elves seemingly abandoning Middle Earth to the lesser species of men allows the men to assert themselves as the dominant race. The Elves will live in the West and they will be ultimately taken care of by Eru. The Men have come into their rightful place to become the superior race of Middle Earth and Tolkien believes that the Elves still continue to grace the earth silently and dimly.



  1. You bring up an interesting point that I hadn’t really thought of: why elves didn’t really fight in the later ages. For me, The Silmarillion and some of Tolkien’s other works focused on the earlier ages are the ones that focus greatly on the elves and their defense against the forces of evil. As the ages pass, I think the Elves are aware of that their role is Middle Earth is diminishing. And I think that had they been more involved in the wars of the Third Age, men would not have been able to realize their destiny in relation to Arda and risen to their full potential. The age was coming when men had to play their roles in the destiny of Middle Earth (while, in my opinion, elves had already played their roles). In “Athrabeth Findrod ah Andreth”, Finrod states that he has finally come to realize the true role of men in Arda: “this… was the errand of Men… to heal the Marring of Arda, already foreshadowed before their devising” (318). The reason why it had to be men that fought was because they were the ones destined to rid middle earth of the evil forces; to mend and aid in repairing a broken world.
    -Selene M.

  2. It is not actually strictly true that the Elves don't fight against Sauron in the War of the Ring, it is just that none of their fighting is "on stage," as it were. According to Appendix B, there were assaults both on Mirkwood and on Lorien in March 3019, as Frodo and Sam were making their way to Mount Doom. One could as easily blame the Rohirrim for not going to Lorien as the Elves for not coming to Helm's Deep; both were under siege. Does this change your view of the Elves at all?


  3. Is it fate or choice? I don’t know. The condition might be framed a little differently by using the terms acceptance and resistance. These terms come a bit closer to the characters for whom abstract theological terms have proven so difficult. It’s a coming to terms with reality. The entire narrative of LOTR is trying to account for the passage of time, and to mark a major rupture in time. The world of the elves has to be fit into this scheme as well. ‘Lord of the Rings’ is a history, and history must at some point reach that elfless era of which we are witnesses. Galadriel may be speaking more in a prophetic capacity too, as one who sees the bigger picture. But her message is one of acceptance. This is part of what gives LOTR the melancholy that I have mentioned in other comments. It's a kind of self-knowledge too. The compass of the elf world in Middle Earth had indeed been shrinking. As we discussed in class, men are not necessarily lesser species than elves. Both have limitations; both make mistakes. Elves are that intensified aspect of human creative and scientific endeavor, but they aren’t infallible. More generally, I wonder after reading your post to what extent we can say that subcreations will look different when elven creations are no more, or no longer have contact with the creations of men. Such was the condition of Tolkien’s own subcreation. Indeed, maybe Tolkien is trying to account for why stories are, in general, no longer told in the way that he has chosen to tell them.

  4. Yeah, the Silmarillion really puts the whole of Middle-Earth into perspective, especially regarding the Elves. I also didn't read any of the legendarium outside of the LOTR until this class, and I found the stories in the Silmarillion especially fascinating because of its filling in large gaps of the "ages." It hadn't really sunk in for me that this occurred at the end of the Third Age, and what that meant in terms of its inhabitants. It's still not the most satisfying thing in the world, that they know that the eventual stewards and vanguards of Arda are going to be Men so they are comfortable with slinking away into the West, but it's a lot more palatable and believable with the knowledge of their history and their three ages of existence.


  5. You ask if the elves are fated to leave. They really shouldn't have been in Middle Earth in the first place. They were called to Aman. Some refused the call. Others, such as Feanor, returned to Middle Earth after staying in Aman for a while. So it seems that they were indeed fated to leave, to eventually obey the summonings. Legolas hears the gulls and his heart is drawn out over the ocean. The elves fight to maintain Middle Earth, but they never really had the option of staying there forever.


  6. I think that the concepts of fate and choice are not necessarily mutually exclusive here. The Elves are entirely fated to leave Middle Earth at some point in time; perhaps it is another one of Illuvatar's gifts that they can choose when that time is most appropriate. The end of the Third Age, following the fall of the Ring and therefore the other Rings (including Galadriel's), seems to be a fitting time for a substantial portion of the Elves' story to end-- their chapter of the story was full of the fight against Sauron, and the road towards his final defeat perhaps seemed to signal a time for transition, time for them to move on and allow Men their own time in Arda.

    I doubt sincerely that any Elves that left before the destruction of the Ring thought they were taking the "easy way out," though. The Elves would probably see going West as requiring a different kind of courage rather than being an inherently cowardly act, for it takes courage to leave everything behind for a new world beyond the waters. Instead of choosing to stay (something that could be perceived as more cowardly, clinging to that which they understand rather than living out their part of Illuvatar's music), they chose to accept their fate. That is anything but cowardly.