Friday, May 23, 2014

Elf-Human love

                In class the other day we observed that all three marriages which occur between men and elves and all between a man and female elves.  These marriages are laden with potent symbolism about Tolkien’s views on love as well as life and death.  The elves give up their immortality in order to be with a human male.  I find this similar to the fall in the garden of Eden between Adam and Eve, where Eve eats from the apple of knowledge causing the fall.  In a similar way the female elf must give up perfection and undergo ‘the fall’ by indulging in a type of forbidden knowledge, the knowledge of what love is between an elf and man. 
                I realize this may seem like a stretch, but I really do feel as though this is an important point for Tolkien.  This is because to be flawed is to be perfectible.  In letter 43 Tolkien says that “the essence of a fallen world is that the best cannot be attained by free enjoyment, or by what is called ‘self-realization’; but by denial, by suffering” (page 51).  What is perfect can never be the best; so in order for the love between a man and elf to serve as an archetype of love, it is important that neither parties are perfect.  Even more importantly is the fact that the pair must suffer and struggle to achieve their love. The fact that the female elf must give up her perfection is reflective of the fall from grace which she must undergo in order to be with a human man, and is further symbolic of the struggle and suffering which is inherent to the relationship.  This is because the love between man and elf is in and of itself inherently tragic because of what must be sacrificed in order to achieve it.  This love between a man and a female elf is one of the most perfect loves because it is so flawed and tragic, and is why these man-elf relationships are what serve as his archetype of perfect love.  It is the forbidden fruit which results in the downfall of the one who tastes of it.  Nonetheless it is this very downfall, the loss of immortality, which creates the opportunity for the love to reach such perfection.  Luthien and Beren are the perfect example of this perfect archetypal love.  It is filed with struggle and suffering, a love that is so great it passes through death in order to be achieved.  In fact I think it is this passage together through death which has a lot of interesting implications, but which I don’t wish to start trying to unpack here.
                However back to my original question of why are there no male elf-female human relationships.  I think this is for a variety of reasons.  The first of which is that I think because I think it is important to Tolkien that these relationships be roughly modeled after Adam and Eve because of their archetypal function.  However secondly I think it has the most to do with the traditions surrounding marriage and status.  Class, rank, and status are three things which are historically of great cultural significance to the British peoples.  As part of this tradition the woman is either elevated or ‘demoted’ to the class, rank, status of her husband.  This then makes sense why the female elves need to give up their immortality in order to marry men.  The immortality of the elves is the hallmark of their (perceived) superiority and comparable perfection as compared to men.  However a female human marrying a male elf poses interesting problems for both the nature of the love story and legendarium.  In the tradition of rank the human female should by all rights be elevated to the status of the male elf and thus be granted immortality.  However I don’t think Tolkien wants people ‘gaining’ immortality because of the essential role death plays in the perfectibility of mankind.  To create an escape from death is to make it seem more sinister, as something which is desirable to escape.  This I think would directly contradict Tolkien’s views and feelings about death.
                If Tolkien were to disregard the traditions of status and rank and have the male elf give up his immortality, it would still be problematic I feel.  The perfection of the elf-human love story is that: man falls in love with elf (tantalizing forbidden love), he must struggle to prove his love, his struggle is recognized through the sacrifice of immortality by the elf.  However if it were a male elf everything would be on him, both the struggle and the sacrifice of immortality.  The human female wouldn’t need to in any significant way contribute to the story making it far less interesting or dynamic.  What is so compelling about the female elf-male human dynamic is the fact that both parties are intimately involved in the narrative, and both parties are required to make sacrifices and through these sacrifices the love achieves archetypal perfection.  Not to say that a role reversal isn’t possible, but would not have been practically possible (nor practically conceivable) in Tolkien’s time.   

                In summary I think that the love narrative between an elf and a human really only works narratively between a male human and a female elf.  This is because of the traditions surrounding rank and marriage, but also because it is the only way to make these relationships work within the legendarium and the archetypal love which Tolkien has created.  

B. Alex


  1. This is a really complete explanation of male-female loves in the Tolkien mythos, I think. In particular, the comparisons with Adam and Eve and the social/cultural relationships in his time and place seem to make a great deal of sense. I wonder, though - why is it that the male elf would necessarily have to struggle and give up immortality? It would be entirely possible for a female to do the struggling *for* a male, though that would be somewhat outside of the gender roles established in the Legendarium...Luthien definitely does some pushing, as does Haleth, and Eowyn, but only Luthien's is for love. This comes back to your original point and, I think, is the reason why it is so strong - for a female to do the struggle for love would be for her to break out of the established gender roles in the Legendarium; it's possible, but it wouldn't actually happen.

    The other question I have is where do we place Andreth/Aegnor and Idril/Tuor in this story? Andreth and Aegnor never married, but that is a male elf/female woman relationship where arguably they were equals, and both had the moment of shock at seeing the other person (their "Tinuviel moment" if you would). Similarly, Idril never gives up her immortality: Tuor has to come *with her* not the other way around. Are these just exceptions or is Tolkien making a point here? (in particular, Andreth is very wise, and he says some stuff about wise women in that letter...I don't know.)

    - Vidur Sood

  2. Hm. I buy into it, to some extent, but you seem to be glossing over what I would call the most obvious explanation. Tolkien's ideas about gender are made pretty clear in the "sex letter" that he sends Michael, and while they're complex and well considered they are also, in some senses, traditional (unsurprisingly, given that he was born in the frickin' 19th century). This being the case, isn't it clear that elves--a people whose distinguishing characteristics include unmatched beauty and inhuman grace--would be better suited, in Tolkien's imaginary, to taking on the female role in courtship? The more vulgar works in the canon of modern fantasy often frame the willowy, smooth-faced elves as implicitly effeminate, just as the bearded and broad dwarves are superhumanly masculine; in the world of cinema, Orlando Bloom was cast as Paris in Troy on the strength of his long-haired Legolas.

    I don't, of course, mean to suggest that Tolkien saw elves as straightforwardly effeminate in this way--Feanor and his sons, for example, exhibit an elvish breed of what might be called cold masculinity. Still, the love between elf and human is a wedding of grace and mundanity; when Beren comes to Luthien he comes as a wild thing, bearded and filthy, to a paragon of exquisite grace, and (sadly, perhaps) it's hard to imagine even the modern reader being as accepting of an explicitly dirty or base woman wedding a perfumed, dancing man; unshaved armpits are, alas, more shocking than an unshaved face.

    --Charlie Bullock