Monday, May 23, 2011

Elves, Men, and Light

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.


  1. I thought your point about the half-elven was very interesting--I had never thought of it that way before. However, I think there is something to be said for Elven "nobility", or whatever you might call it. While Tolkien implies that Elves were not superior to Men (both being children of Illuvatar, Elros decides to be a man when given the choice, etc.) there does seem to be a lot of stories suggesting otherwise. Men never create anything as captivating or beautiful as the Elves or even the Dwarves, and even when Men do learn to do extraordinary things it's because Elves often teach them first. What I find hardest to reconcile is that Valinor is removed from the reach of Men entirely. While this occurs because of evil acts on the part of the Numenoreans, Men were forbidden to go there before. While this isn't the message I believe Tolkien wanted to convey, it seems that Elves are a favored race. Can anybody see a way to reconcile this perceived superiority with the idea that Men and Elves are equal?

  2. I myself have found it almost impossible to reconcile the apparent superiority of the Elves with the notion the Men and Elves are equal. The only real support for the idea that both races are of equal worth comes from the story-internal and story-external frames that Tolkien provides. In his own mind, as we have read, Tolkien imagined the two as equal, and the Silmarillion tells us that Eru has a great fate in store for Men - presumably a reflection of Tolkien's religious beliefs. As one not of the same theological bent as Tolkien, I find that I am unable to place too much stock in Eru's pronouncement, so the only reason I have to believe that they are equal is that Tolkien said they are. I am loath to find fault with the creator of a very convincing sub-reality, but there is precious little evidence in the text that Men can in any way equal Elves, who seem biologically, mentally, physically, and spiritually superior and surpass Men in works of hand, heart, and mind. The Men of Numenor, and especially the Half-Elven, are more equal with the Elves than are the Men of Twilight, but this equality is the result of contact with the Elves and not of any innate ability.

    To be honest, I've always harbored a measure of resentment because of this bias, not so much towards the Elves as towards Tolkien. What about, say, the Men of Dale? They are perfectly capable, worthy, and well-intentioned, and yet they must always occupy a secondary or even tertiary position in the hierarchy of the Free Peoples. It's not their fault they were born Men, or that they never had the chance to go to Valinor. The only advantage they can rely on as Men is a mysterious but apparently important fate. I suppose this whole arrangement is linked to the biblical idea that "the last shall be first," which we discussed in regards to Sam.

    -G. Lederer

  3. Yes, I think that you have captured the relationship between Elves, Men and the Light beautifully here, making very good use of Flieger's suggestions! Exactly: it is not that the Elves are permanently more "enlightened"; rather, they have the light and then lose it voluntarily by following Feanor into exile. It is the Men whom they meet who are traveling West that ultimately move back towards the Light, and the Half-Elven who redeem both. Why do you think Tolkien chose to tell the story of the fall and redemption in this way, rather than focusing solely on Elves or Men?


  4. Your points about the transmission of light are very interesting, especially about Luthien and the silmaril as equally lights, one of which goes unperceived by Thingol. One might even borrow the term used in the Middle Ages to describe the movement of relics, and call this the ‘translation of lights.’ And the elf-man Earendil is of course consonant with the Christian idea that redemption would come through a God-man, as the Anglo-Saxon poem that gave origin to his name reminds us. One of Tolkien’s problems in handling Luthien is that she must be allowed to meet Beren on equal terms. The sacrifice of immortality is the mechanism that accomplishes this. I tend to see these races as isolating particular aspects of human experience, which Tolkien basically says about elves in one of his letters. Indeed, as we suggested in another class, can it be otherwise, given our ineluctable tendency to anthropomorphize? Beneath the dull veneer of the hobbit (and I agree with Frodo: hobbits are in general fairly dull), we see a great reservoir of noble intention. With elves and men, it’s kind of a meeting of culture and civilization, where civilizations pass, but the achievements of a culture are, in a way, eternal. But hierarchies can’t always fit visible categories. Are angels higher than saints? Medieval thinkers imply different answers, but I’m not sure they ever felt it was a problem. Maybe the problem with appreciating the elf-man equality in Tolkien’s world is not with how we see the elves, but with how we see the men. After all, we share with them the same name. We see men in his secondary reality as in some way representative of the men outside it too. Is this the case, though? We’ve drawn on numerous examples of creative production by actual human beings, e.g. medieval reliquaries and bejeweled things, and suggested that these illuminate the significance of craft (and nature) in Tolkien’s vision. These and other things are, arguably, the upper level of human creation in the primary reality. But the analogues within the secondary reality belong preeminently, but by no means exclusively, to elves. Or more simply put, elves are simply anthropomorphic in a very specific way, for Tolkien ascribed the profoundest dignity to humanity’s creations.

  5. Although it seems to us that it is better to be an elf, my recent realignment with Hobbit-kind has perhaps made me more realistic about whether elves are all they seem to be after we all initially read The Lord of the Rings. Initially, elves do seem to have a superabundance of things that we as humans wish we had more of such as physical prowess, art, science, and immortality. However, Tolkien is clear that elves are not better than men, but they are different.

    Why all the elves are not the master race of Middle-Earth? Well, first off, if they were, it would smack of racism. The elves would seem more like the Teutonic legends that the Germans embraced during the growth of their nationalism. However, it might be more instructive to look at exactly what the elves are lacking. Men have the mysterious gift of death. If we take the leap to bring in Catholicism, this may mean that the Men have the gift of being united to the Ilúvatar after death, and there is a promise that there is a grand, unrevealed purpose in the scheme of Arda for men. This may very well be better than going to the hall of Mandos or waiting in Valinor as the elves do. In addition, we must remember that there should be no elves in Middle-Earth. Elves act against their nature even though they should know better. The Noldor should not have returned to Middle-Earth. The dark elves should have left to see the trees, because that was their nature. These elves failed to act in accordance with their nature, and I would argue that the temptation in each case was less than that of the Numenoreans, who sought immortality.

    The elves the remain in Valinor don’t seem interesting, but the elves who stay in Middle-Earth to enjoy their prestige compared to other races, yet these are the elves who are not acting in accordance with their nature, and these elves are doomed to dwindle (possibly as a result) while men are not. I can definitely sympathize with being a man or a hobbit and not with being an elf in Middle-Earth.

    -Andrew Wong

  6. You made a really good point about the half-elven--I haven't thought of it as a personification of the relationship between Elves and Men before. In thinking about Elves, I think it's really easy to get caught up in the ways they seem vastly superior to men (for us and men of Middle Earth alike), and it's really important to keep in mind the fact that Elves need us just as much as we need them, as you quoted Flieger in your post. Being raised Protestant, I'm not sure the issue of faith is treated in in the same way in Catholic theology, but it would seem like by making Elves and Men equals despite the Elves' apparent superiority in creativity, knowledge, and a lot of other things besides, Tolkien is making an argument in favor of faith over good works. While how the two races' faith were tested are outwardly different, the heart of the exercise for both comes down to faith in the face of the unknown. In the Elves' case, it's the journey towards the unknown location they are naturally called to--Valinor, and whether they will choose the familiar Middle Earth or keep faith and ultimately arrive in Valinor (without any scrimmages on the way, and remain there once arrived, considering what happened on the way and after). In the case of men, a similar exercise comes in the form death--the ultimate unknown for mortals. By making Men and Elves equals, the message, I think, is that in the grand scheme of things, the fact that Elves are more learned, more artistic, more creative than men really doesn't matter, and the value of an Elf or a Man hinges on faith and proper worship. In the end, Men and Elves are really just two sides of the same coin. Because of this, I find the centrality of the Half-Elven line, which culminates in Aragorn and Arwen's marriage and Eldarion's birth extremely thought-provoking. From The Silmarillion to The Lord of the Rings, there is the theme of the fall, and diminish of influence on the part of the Elves in Middle Earth, which is accompanied by the rise of Men. But, because of the line of the Half-Elven extending through the story from Beren and Luthien all the way to Eldarion becoming the King of Gondor, the central theme of the relationship between Men and Elves culminates in the idea of a union--between two sides of Creation, or dare I say, of humanity.

  7. Something that I find very interesting, and that seemed to be touched upon in this post, though never explicitly stated (so I thought I might expound on it a little more), is the tie between the fall of the Elves and their immortal nature. One of the primary occupations of the Elves is in preserving the beauty of mortal things that are doomed to wither and fade. This leads to the making of the Silmarils and Elvish covetousness of beauty. Elves are immortal beings, meaning that they never age or fade as the other things of middle earth do. This would appear to be the cause of their quest to preserve beauty. They must stand by and watch the world fade while never fading themselves, so it seems only natural that they would attempt to keep the things that they love from perishing so that they might accompany them through eternity. This, of course, led to them trying to take possession of beauty, which was an infraction against the creation of Iluvatar. But honestly, I can see where the Elves are coming from.

    C Carmody