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.