Tolkien wrote in one of his letters that the real theme of The Lord of the Rings is “Death and Immortality: the mystery of the love of the world in the hearts of a race ‘doomed’ to leave and seemingly lose it; the anguish in the hearts of a race ‘doomed’ not to leave it” (Letters 246). Of all the races on Middle-Earth, I had always liked Elves the most. They were, to me, beautiful, enchanting, and powerful, and seemed vastly superior to Men precisely because they were “doomed not to leave” the world. My understanding was more or less black and white—Elves were simply, in layman’s terms, cooler than Men. However, now that this course has got me thinking about the metaphysical aspects of Elves and Men, I am beginning to reexamine my previous, overly reductionist hierarchy of Tolkienian races.
In The Silmarillion, there is a strong sense that the Elves are categorized according to a hierarchy of light. The Eldar who passed into the uttermost West were called the Calaquendi, or Light-Elves, because they had beheld the Light of the Two Trees of Valinor, while the Elves who remained in Middle-Earth were called Moriquendi, or Dark-Elves (The Silmarillion 51). It is implied that the three kindreds of the Calaquendi were more learned and skilled than the Moriquendi who never saw the Light—the Vanyar were the fairest, the Noldor were the most knowledgeable and skilled at arts and crafts, and the Teleri were the greatest ship-builders. Men are technically even lower on the hierarchy of light than the Moriquendi and hence seem, on the whole, to be inferior to the Elves. The Elves, as a race, are closer to the original Light—the Light that shown in Valinor in the divine lands, or as Tolkien himself calls it, the “Blessed Realm.” Indeed, Valinor is like a paradise—one which the Elves have come into contact with yet Men can never aspire to.
Yet however wonderful the Elves are, they do fall, and this initial fall has cataclysmic consequences for the entire history of Middle-Earth and its inhabitants. In fact, the whole of The Quenta Silmarillion can be read as an account of the Fall of Fëanor and the Noldor—as Tolkien notes at the end, it tells of a passage “from the high and the beautiful to darkness and ruin,” (The Silmarillion 306). Therefore, the story surrounding the creation and eventual recovery of the Silmarils forces us to reconsider the aforementioned hierarchy of light. After all, it is the action of the Elves that sets into motion almost all of the disastrous events that befall Middle-Earth in the First Age—that is, the original covetousness of Fëanor, the oath that he and his sons swore in Tirion, the Kinslaying of the Teleri, etc. Throughout The Silmarillion, as the literal spatial and temporal distance from the original Light of the Trees grows, the metaphorical and spiritual light that the Elves once possessed is ever further diminished and darkened; or as Flieger puts it: “[t]he farther from Valinor—the once literal but now metaphoric source of the light—the weaker becomes the light itself, and the perception of it” (Flieger 135). Meanwhile, some of the Men are becoming more and more elevated and, to borrow the light metaphor again, illuminated.
The story of Thingol and Beren typify this dual process of darkening in the Elves and enlightening in the Men. Thingol had been one of the three Elves to first behold the Light of the Trees. Adding the fact that he married Melian, who is a Maia, Thingol should be ranked pretty high on the hierarchy of light. However, his decisions and actions concerning his daughter Lúthien and the Silmarils—both remnants and embodiments of the Light of the Trees—speak otherwise. According to Flieger, Thingol is exchanging light for light—he is willing to give Lúthien to Beren in marriage only if Beren can recover a Silmaril from Morgoth’s crown—but as a result of misplaced motives, he is ironically removed farther away from the light. On the other hand, Beren represents “the right way to seek and find the light—through human love leading at its highest to love of the divine” (Flieger 140). In other words, it is Beren’s love for Lúthien, who is light incarnate, that ultimately brings him spiritual enlightenment. Thus, instead of Thingol, whose possessiveness and covetousness bring about his self-darkening, Beren, though a Man who cannot match the superior nature of one of the kings of the Eldar, is the one who is actually illuminated. In this episode of The Silmarillion then, it is the Elf whose initial brightness is dimmed and the Man who finds the noblest form of light.
In the end, it is neither Elf nor Man who redeems the Fall of the Noldor, but a half-Elven—it is Eärendil who sails into the West to seek aid from the Valar. Like everything in Tolkien’s writings, this is not at all coincidental. Indeed, the half-Elven personify the relationship between Elves and Men, which is, as Flieger puts it, the idea that “Elves need Men just as much as Men need Elves” (Flieger 145). In turn, a marriage between an Elf and a Man, such as that between Beren and Lúthien, literally embodies this mutual need. In a way, the hybrid half-Elven is even nobler than both the races of Elves and Men since it combines the best of the two, and, as Tolkien wrote in another letter, “[t]he entering into men of the Elven-strain is indeed represented as part of a Divine Plan for the ennoblement of the Human Race” (Letters 194). Hence why the story of Beren and Lúthien is so central to The Silmarillion (indeed, it is their union that ultimately saves Middle-Earth later) and why Aragorn and Arwen’s story occupies an equally prominent place in The Lord of the Rings.