Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Our Need for Elf-friends

      Throughout Tolkien’s world, certain individuals are designated as “elf-friends,” but the exact definition of this title is never directly specified.  Elf-friends are important characters who are granted a special status amount the elves while not being elves themselves.  They traverse through Faërie but then return to our realm and tell stories.  All of the characters with the status of elf-friend, such as Frodo, Bilbo, and Sam in The Lord of the Rings, are crucial because they play key roles in the story.  However, I think that elf-friends are actually important because we need them in order to catch a glimpse of faery.  
      Tolkien calls Faërie the Perilous Realm and claims that “it is one of its qualities to be indescribable, though not imperceptible” (The Tolkien Reader, 39).  Therefore it would follow that the only way for us to know about Faërie would be to travel there ourselves.  No one would be able to bring back stories of the elves because the realm’s “very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them” (The Tolkien Reader, 33).  However, the elf-friends are not only able to traverse this realm and remember it, but one of their defining characteristics is telling the stories.  Therefore, I think that the true meaning of the term elf-friend is one who can travel to Faërie and bring back the stories, and we need elf-friends in order to have any glimpse of the elves and the entire realm.  
      Frodo, Bilbo, and Sam are all elf-friends because they are interpreters, translators, and most importantly writers.  Frodo is named an “elf-friend” from the moment that he first speaks in an Elvish language (LotR Houghton Mifflin Edition, 81).  This allows him to truly enter and engage with the realm of Faërie because he has particular skill with the native language.  All three hobbits are granted special access into the world of the elves due to their status, and later they are able to recall their time among the elves although the world is supposed to be indescribable.  Not only are they able to remember and speak about their time in Faërie, but they put these stories into written word in the Red Book of Westmarch.  Without this book, the vast majority of the hobbits (who were not elf-friends) would have no way of learning the stories of the elves, especially after the departure into the West.      
      Another prime example of an elf-friend is Ælfwine, whose name literally translates to elf friend.  His status is clear from his journey on the Straight Road and ability to witness Tol Eressëa, a land to which only elves can travel.  However, Tolkien’s writings on Ælfwine do not focus on his journey as a privileged elf-friend, but rather on his storytelling.  He tells the story of King Sheaf, a mysterious character who came from the West without an explanation and vanished back into the West when his task of increasing the wealth of men was complete.  Sheaf most likely belongs to the Faërie realm, and Ælfwine has access to this “fairy-story” from his travels as an elf-friend.  However, Ælfwine’s true purpose is to transmit this and other fairy-stories to the rest of men and eventually us.  The story of Sheaf has been passed on from an elf-friend through the ages as a myth.  Ælfwine was told the Lost Tales during his journey on the Straight Road, but we need him to tell these stories to those not granted access to this road, and it is his primary job within Tolkien’s story to transmit stories to others.  
      The Smith of Wooton Major provides a different way to pass on knowledge of Faërie to non-elf-friends.  The smith does not tell stories from Faery to others, and in fact he is often unable to remember clearly his own exploits through the Perilous Realm.  I think that this is due to his limited elf-friend status.  When the smith tries to interact directly with Faery by touching the lake, he is rejected and told to leave.  He is not inherently an elf-friend but instead granted temporary access to the realm of faery through the star.  Therefore, he does not have the full rights and responsibilities which are granted to other elf-friends.  The smith passes on elements of his experience to others through his craft, but he does not use language to relay stories to the world outside of Faery.  I think that his partial elf-friend status is shown by this lack of transmission, despite his crafts and songs.  The smith obtains the gift of voice from his status, but he only possesses a part of this elf-friend skill with languages because his songs do not enlighten those around him about the realm to which only he has access.  
      If the determining factor in deeming an individual to be an elf-friend is the ability to tell stories of Faërie to the rest of the world, then two potential elf-friends are John Tolkien and  possibly his son Christopher.  It is clear from his stories that John Tolkien possessed access to Faërie, which fulfills the main qualification for the elf-friend status.  He had the gift with words which every elf-friend must possess, and he used this skill with language to craft the stories of Faërie for those who are unable to traverse through the realm.  Although Christopher’s status is less clear, he certainly has contributed to the transfer of knowledge of the Perilous Realm to the outside world.  Without John and Christopher Tolkien, none of the other elf-friends would have been able to pass the stories on to us, and the stories would not have continued into the modern age.  
      I think that the crucial role of elf-friends is the transmission of the stories of Faërie because they possess the unique ability to describe the realm as well as inhabit it.  They are not only granted access to the world but are also gifted with the ability to use language to illustrate the indescribable world.  We need them in order to obtain this knowledge of the elves and others who dwell within this realm because even if we perceive Faërie, we cannot bring these perceptions directly back into our lives in a concrete way.  We must rely on the elf-friends because, although Tolkien claims that Faërie cannot be described in our language, their tongues are not tied.  

Anna Lasky


  1. Dear Anna,

    Thanks for your careful analysis of the category and idea of ‘elf-friend.’ I like how you move from your basic view (“their defining characteristics is telling the stories. Therefore, I think that the true meaning of the term elf-friend is one who can travel to Faërie and bring back the stories, and we need elf-friends in order to have any glimpse of the elves and the entire realm.”) and then work this out in a handful of instances (Frodo, Bilbo, Ælfwine, and Smith). In this way, you are not merely revolving the same idea, but pushing and pressing on the theme (with your definition) through several texts.

    The fruit of this treatment comes out especially with your treatment of Smith. For you don’t fudge or gloss over the idea that Smith may not actually fit very well in this category of ‘elf-friend’ because Smith notably omitted story-telling. (Which is a good insight.)

    You wrote: “He is not inherently an elf-friend but instead granted temporary access… but he does not use language to relay stories to the world outside of Faery. I think that his partial elf-friend status is shown by this lack of transmission, despite his crafts and songs.” I think you give some good reasons to wonder about whether Smith is properly an elf-friend, whose ‘defining characteristic’ is story-telling and transmitting stories of the hidden Faërie back to us.

    Or can we save Smith as a full-blooded ‘elf-friend’? (Attention to commentors, I would love to hear further thoughts on this!)

    A further question arises, for me. Though Flieger (“Footsteps” 184) gives a lovely analysis of the ‘elf-friend’ idea through several figures and texts, she largely passed over the primary list of Elrond! Elrond to Frodo (very end of “Council of Elrond,” pg 271) “Through all the mightly Elf-friends of old, Hador, and Hurin, and Turin [Turambar], and Beren himself were assembled together, your seat should be among them.” All these show up in the Silmarillion.

    We should ask: What makes Haldor, Hurin, Turin and Beren to be elf-friends? (Is Turin, for instance, really a linking, transmitting, story-telling elf-friend, like Frodo, Bilbo, Ælfwine are?)
    Do they can fit within the idea of the story-telling, linking and transmitting ‘elf-friend’?
    Or does Elrond’s idea of the elf-friend cause a problem or introduce tension for our notion of elf-friend?

    I myself thought I had a good handle on this idea of ‘elf-friend’ before reading your post, Anna, but I congratulate you because you’re making me doubt and re-consider things! I hope further comments can shed light on these questions.

    Robert / Radegundus the Green

  2. Christopher, to me, does not fit completely with the established definition of 'elf-friend', but he should be considered one in spirit. He has not himself traversed into Faerie, coaxed these stories from their homes and into our world as his father did, but he has nonetheless completed the act of transmission when his father was no longer around to do so. If we visualize the role of the ‘elf-friend’ as a physical journey with a tangible parcel being transferred, Tolkien fell down by the side of the road after going back and forth down the road many times before. Christopher picked up what his father was unable to carry and further and completed the transfer, having not gone all the way down the road himself but certainly having played an integral role in the transfer of information from Point A to Point B.
    If we name Frodo ‘elf-friend’ for speaking a few words of Elvish, I would like to think we can call Christopher the same for giving us further insights into the Perilous Realm, regardless of whether or not he fetched them from thence himself. He may not be one in the strictly academic sense of the phrase, but he has labored long and hard and, in my opinion, deserves the respect conferred by the term.

  3. Anna,
    I want to draw closer attention to one of the examples you give of an Elf-friend in LotR—Sam. I don’t think he fits into your proposed definition. Unless I’m mistaken, he does not contribute to the writing of the Red Book, as do Bilbo and Frodo; and, like Smith, he falls short of the mark of interpreting or “using language to relay stories to the world outside of Faery.” Note book I chapter 3: “Sam could never describe in words, nor picture clearly to himself, what he felt or thought that night…’”

    But is it fair to say that Sam contributes nothing as far as helping us “catch a glimpse of Faery?” I certainly don’t think so. I would say that while Frodo and Bilbo help relay Faery to later generations within the sub-creation of Middle Earth (i.e. by writing the Red Book), Sam is the type of Elf-friend who helps the readers (us) of this sub-creation directly. In other words, he does not need to possess skills of language because the writing has been done for him as a character by Tolkien—we need only to read the book to see things through Sam’s eyes. The story is perhaps not related to us by Sam, but the experience is. Flieger suggests this when she writes that the question, What do you think of the Elves now, Sam?, “is addressed as much to the reader as to Sam. And Sam tells us how we should respond.” Frodo even predicts this relationship between Sam and audience when he imagines “I want to hear more about Sam, dad. Why didn’t they put in more of his talk, dad? That’s what I like, it makes me laugh” (book IV chapter 8).

    To Robert/Radegundus—I think Smith can be saved by thinking of him in the same way as Sam. While he may not act as an Elf-friend between the land of Faery and the people of Wootton Major because he does not tell them stories of what he has seen, he is, I think, an Elf-friend between Faery and us, the readers, because we experience Faery through his experiences.

    --David Jaffe

  4. David, I think Sam actually is a storyteller as well, and does contribute to the writing of the Red Book. In the last chapter of Return of the King, when Frodo prepares to leave the Shire to meet up with the rest of the company leaving for the the Grey Havens, Frodo leaves the Red Book with Sam, and said, "the last pages are for you." Sam is the direct heir to Frodo, and he is tasked with carrying out the tasks of being an Elf-friend and the remembrance of the Third Age which is passing. When Sam is upset that Frodo is leaving, Frodo tells him: "You will be the Mayor, of course, as long as you want to be, and the most famous gardener in history; and you will read things out of the Red Book, and keep alive the memory of the age that is gone so that people will remember the Great Danger and so love their beloved land all the more. And that will keep you as busy and as happy as anyone can be, as long as your part of the Story goes on."

    In other words, I think Sam is as legitimate an Elf-friend as Frodo, though his connection to the Elves may be lesser. When Frodo is gone, Sam will be his heir in the story and share it with others so that it can be remembered. The end of Frodo's part in the Story is the beginning of Sam's, and as we can see, Sam still has many important things to do on Middle Earth.


  5. Hey Anna,
    I really like your analysis of the elf-friend archetype in the Lord of the Rings et al. I've never thought about how strong a connection these characters have with writing/passing down their stories of Faerie. This makes me wonder exactly what Tolkien is saying with this characterization.
    The most obvious thing to draw away is that language is VERY important to Tolkien. It's one of the only ways to express our experiences (particularly with the Unknown) in a way the future generations can understand, but it's also very much the lifeblood of history and myth. You could say that Tolkien is an elf-friend not only to his own canon, but also every (other) historical text and language he has translated or analyzed in his role as philologist. By observing the changes in language we can interpret the flow of populations and the stories about them and better understand such foreign, ancient societies.
    At the same time, Tolkien probably considered language to be inherent to our ability to comprehend our experiences. Consider: what would our thoughts be like without language? Would we be as intelligent, as able to understand the world around us? I would guess that Tolkien would say no. Language is a part of his story from the very beginning of the Ainur, and language is the strongest ability that elf-friends have, which allows them to enter Fairie in the first place.

  6. I would also like to push back against the idea of Sam not being an elf friend under the definition provided by Anna. While i think being a writer is a very important part of being an elf friend, i think that the emphasis should be more on the storytelling aspect than necessarily the writing down of stories. It seems to me that in Middle Earth, there is a strong oral storytelling tradition, whether it be through song or otherwise, and while Sam may not have been a main contributor to the Red Book of Westmarch, he certainly would have been passing on his stories to his family and the hobbits he would be interacting with on a daily basis as Mayor. I think that the story itself is more important than the act of writing, because stories can still propagate and live on without being written down by their originator. Tolkien chose writing because it was something he enjoyed and was good at, but I could see a world where Tolkien instead used some other form of storytelling, whether it be song, art, or film to act as an elf friend to humanity.
    -John Francis