Thursday, May 22, 2014

Tradition and Temptation: Tolkien's Elves in Middle-Earth

C.S. Lewis recounts a few of the old types fairies in “The Longaevi”, which fall into the four main categories that we discussed in class. These regard fairies as either the dead, partially fallen angels, devils/fully fallen angels, or as a Third Species of rational beings that exists somewhere between Man and Angels and act as the Other. Lewis also mentions the three types of fairy demeanors that we regularly encounter in literature. While they are often associated with one of the four categories, they can be combined with all of them. What he calls the ‘swart Faery’ is classified amongst horrors and monsters. In Beowulf they are “along with ettins and giants […] the enemies of God” (C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image, p.124). Fairies of this type are effectually demons and act maliciously towards humans. A second kind is the small, insect-like fairy with wings. They are usually discovered accidentally in places where humans would not normally be found. In contrast to the swart fairy, these are afraid of humans and flee from them. Lastly are the Fairy Damsels or High Fairies, which are human like and seek out interactions with humans and their “intentions are usually (not always) amorous” (Discarded Image, p.130). Tolkien was certainly aware of the existence of these traditional types of fairies when he wrote The Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien’s elves, his main representatives of fairy in Middle-Earth, combine aspects from many of the different kinds of fairies that C.S. Lewis mentions, but simultaneously reject others and this structuring is important for the comparison between Men and Elves. Physically, the elves are very similar to Men and are capable of producing offspring with them. This immediately eliminates the traditional versions of fairy as Third Species or as tiny and insectoid. By removing his elves from these conceptions, Tolkien is showing them to be closely tied to humans. They do not represent the Other and are, instead, an aspect of humanity that exists side-by-side with that embodied by Tolkien’s Men. It is necessary that they be able to communicate with humans so that a comparison can be mad. Only through the interactions between Men and Elves can we fully recognize that they are a part of us, and we a part of them.

Yet the Elves maintain the demeanor of the insectoid fairies even as they discard that physical form. After the fall of Morgoth, their dwellings are largely kept out of sight and their people are not often seen. Their cities are concealed within woods or hidden in valleys and no where do Elves and Men live in the same place. Only briefly after their initial meeting did the live together before the Elves realized that Men needed lands of their own separate from the elves. Thus it remained and, as the elves waned or returned to Aman, men took possession of their lands. Additionally, it is not their custom to travel with the members of other races, as Frodo and the hobbits learn when they meet some on their way out of the Shire. While they may not be representative of the Other, they are still separate from Men and cannot fully integrate with them.

The secrecy and distance of the elves in relation to humans is not solely their fault and some of the blame falls on Men for believing them to be of the ‘swart fairy’ type. This can be seen in the unwillingness of most men to enter the realms of the elves. Though the locations of Rivendell, the Gray Havens, and Lórien are known to Men, they are seldom visited and some avoid them. This sentiment is seen explicitly in Faramir’s choice of the word ‘perilous’ in describing the beauty of Galadriel. By the time of the Fellowship, many men largely distrust the elves or at least see them as potentially dangerous, though this does not mean that they see them as enemies and will still seek their counsel and assistance.

Of the remaining traditions, the Elves of Middle-Earth most closely embody a mixing of the partially fallen, or demoted, angel, the dead, and the High Fairy. Those who chose not to go to Aman either in the distant past or in the aftermath of Morgoth’s defeat have forsaken the blessed land and are, thereby, of somewhat lesser rank than those who chose to returned. They participated in the Fall of the Elves by refusing the call of the Valar, but are not the main actors of that fall. If any of the Elves were to be counted as devils or the fully fallen, it would have been Fëanor and his sons, but they are dead by the time of the war of the Ring. Additionally, there is an element of death in the elves. They are nearly immortal, after all. There is even the potential for their fëa to be born again in the body of an elf child according to “Laws and Customs among the Eldar”. Thus, some of the elves are the literal dead brought back to Middle-Earth. Lastly, though their cities are hidden and they rarely wish to meet other races, they otherwise act like the High Fairies of tradition. They seek out their few meetings with Men or Dwarves and their cities, much like that of the Fairy King in Sir Orfeo, are magnificent to behold. In most circumstances, they do not approach humans with amorous intentions, but these, when they do occur, are highly important events.

Tolkien’s Elves are, thus, infallible and beautiful (as High Fairies), but also flawed (as demoted angels) and representative of death, though they, themselves, remain undying. Their human-like physical nature ties them to humanity as well. They are in some ways a reflection of the darkness of humanity. They appear to be an ideal, and Men strive toward that ideal of beauty and unending life. It is the wish to attain this ideal that leads to the Fall of men, just as the Elves already had. What is more, they are the death that awaits humanity, should whether they fall to temptation or not. They are not solely avenues of death for humanity, however, as they also offer a chance at salvation. Romantic relationships between Men and Elves are the beacon of light that Tolkien provides as a way to save those who remain within the confines of Middle-Earth.

-Jeff Nocton

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jeff,

    Thanks for your post! I was also really interested in this topic and felt our discussion in class was much too brief.

    I think your last sentence touches on what Tolkien was trying to say in Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth. Finrod says

    "I was thinking that by the Second Children we might have been delivered from death. For ever as we spoke of death being a division of the united, I thought in my heart of a death that is not so: but the ending of both. For that is what lies before us, so far as our reason could see: the completion of Arda and its end, and therefore also of us children of Arda... And then suddenly I beheld as a vision Arda Remade" (319).

    It would seem as if Tolkien is trying to say that through the union of the Eldar and Men, the Eldar and their children can finally share the Gift of Iluvatar. The two races can be united, and share the gift together. Finrod believes that Men are on Arda with the errand to "heal the Marring of agents of the magnificence of Eru, to enlarge the Music and surpass the Vision of the World!" (318). We mentioned in class that a key defining factor of Men is that they are creators through sex and reproduction. So reading this into Finrod's claim, it is through sex and reproduction with the Elves that Men may perhaps fulfill a greater purpose and truly heal Arda. Arda is Marred by Melkor, and in turn so were both races that now envy each other. Through marriages of Elves and Men, perhaps those hurts can be healed. In addition, the Eldar who choose to be with men die the death of men, not the death of Elves that is alluded to in The Simarillion where "dying they are gathered to the halls of Mandos in Valinor, whence they may in time return [i.e. reincarnating through their children]" (42). So in this way, these marriages really are, as you say, the key to salvation because then the Elves and their offspring would be able to escape the confines of Middle Earth.