Wednesday, April 5, 2017

An Elf-friend's Purpose: Sam versus Smith

    In his essay The Footsteps of Aelfwine, Verlyn Flieger tries to define and explain the role of the elf-friend in Tolkien's works. There are so many characters that Tolkien named, literally or figuratively, explicitly or implicitly, elf-friend, that you can analyze this character type quite easily and in-depth, even though it was named and used by only one author. This analysis leads Flieger to an interesting conclusion: the "important position [the elf-friends] all share is that of the link, the connector or mediator between the 'real' or natural world and the world of Faerie - the supernatural world of myth and imagination" (Footsteps, p. 185). This idea makes a lot of sense. The characters Tolkien literally names 'elf-friend' (Aelfwine, Alboin, Elendil, Alwin), or names as elf-friend in his stories (Frodo, Bilbo), or who simply fit the role, often better than the named elf-friends themselves (Sam, The Master Cook, Smith), are so numerous as to make the role almost ubiquitous. And in a way, that is Tolkien's aim.
    The elf-friend has two roles. First, he is almost always an active member of the story in some way. He may not take much physical action, but he is usually an involved character who affects the outcome in some way. But there is also a part two: the role of storyteller. This is the role that Flieger focuses on. Each elf-friend is simultaneously experiencing his own story and learning about the story of the world in a way that they can then transmit a whole to others. Most of the elf-friends leave behind a copy of their experiences and what they learned. Bilbo, Frodo, and Sam with the Red Book of Westmarch, Elendil, Aelfwine, and Lowdham with their 'inherited race memory', each elf-friend is a storyteller, not just of their own story, but of everything they learned about the world they experienced. It is their tale that allows other to learn as well. It is the role of the teacher through the role of the learner. That is what Flieger means by the elf-friend being the link between the natural world and Faerie. A story can simply be transmitted through a statement of events; but that can read as a simple history textbook, especially when the story is not just one series of events, but a many threaded tapestry of the history of a world (Faerie). As such, the readers of The Lord of the Rings or the never-to-be-finished The Lost Road come to hear the history of not just the elf-friends but the elves as well. By having the character in the story hear the histories of their world, the author allows that history to be transmitted as a story, as the elf-friend's experience. As Flieger says, "As Sam [in the Lord of the Rings] experiences the myth, as Sam understands the Elves, so too does the reader"(Footsteps, p. 194).
    This is why so many elf-friends exist in Tolkien's works. Tolkien's stories are set in worlds with complex inner histories, diverse languages and species, and a context that affects every interaction. There are thousands of stories set in the background that the reader knows are there, even if they will never hear them. By utilizing the elf-friends in his stories, Tolkien allows the reader to experience not just the story but the world, to see not just the elf-friend but also what the elf-friend sees. Having a character to learn about the elves/Gods/Faerie allows the reader to hear about this background without having to slog through a supplementary history textbook. It makes the world feel more real. To Tolkien, having this character to tell a story through adds the depth to the book that makes it a mythology.
    More than any other example given above, Sam is a quintessential elf-friend. Never named such, either by the author or another character, Sam nevertheless acts as the reader's most accessible door into the Middle Earth of Lord of the Rings. He is shown as enamored with the elves from the start. He is the character most interested in meeting them and hearing their stories, and thereby learning about his world and his world's history. His love of stories is shown as far back as the Shire as well, as he listens to Hobbit tales of elves and dragons and longs to hear more, despite his elders' scolding. Once he and Frodo begin their journey, he is the one to listen closest to the elves they meet, and the one to think hardest on their tales. It is Sam who analyzes the elves for the reader, and it is through him that we learn about what elves are like and how they fit into the mythology of Sam's world: "'They seem rather above my likes and dislikes, so to speak,' answered Sam slowly. 'It doesn't seem to matter what I think about them. They are quite different from what I expected -- so old and young, and so gay and sad, as it were.'"(Fellowship, p. 96). He hears their stories and is changed, understands more about his world and theirs, and resolves even more to follow Frodo into the dangerous unknown. Sam is the best mediator for the reader, most often giving his experiences and impressions so that the reader can truly enter Middle Earth. He is the doorway.
    However, given this purpose for an elf-friend, to act as a mediator for the reader to hear the myths of the Secondary World, what should we make of Smith of Wootton Major? There are two elf-friends of note in this story: the Master Chef and Smith. The Master Chef does not have time to act as an elf-friend for the reader, for he quickly exits the narrative. He seems to act somewhat as an elf-friend should for the village. He brings back songs and an apprentice for the village to meet from Faerie. While he does not share stories of Faerie that we can see, he does in a way share his experiences and bring something (Alf) for others to learn from. The Master Chef, while not as much an elf-friend as Sam, does in a way make Faerie accessible. However, Smith does not even do this. His contributions as an elf-friend to the village are only through his work in iron, which, while delightful to viewers, does not help them experience the depth and history of Faerie. For the readers as well, he acts as only a window, a way to look at the present, but not explore the world. We as readers do see his adventures, but they have no background and no explanation. Where were the mariners fighting and why? What was under the lake and why did the wind try to blow him away? Why were the maidens dancing? History, too, is ignored, with none of the stories that The Lord of the Rings contains. We are never told the tales of the Queen's and King's past, We are not told of the impetus for whatever war is being fought, or how flames came to be under a lake. As a typical Tolkien elf-friend, Smith fails. However, I do not believe he fails in being the essence of an elf-friend.
    The main question becomes: what is the most basic purpose of an elf-friend? To give a reader answers? Or to make them feel like the Secondary world is a real world to explore and experience? I would argue that it is the second option. In such a long saga as The Lord of the Rings, the elf-friends in the story need to learn about the mythologies of Middle Earth. The story is too involved and complex, and if the histories were neglected as in Wootton Major, the book would fall flat. The reader would not feel that it was real, would not be able to experience Middle Earth. In Wootton Major, however, the feeling that Faerie is real comes from Smith's experiences. The fact that he is in the world is enough. I would argue that in fact that Smith is more of an elf-friend, at least in-story, than any other in Tolkien's works, simply because Frodo, Sam, and the rest left only an account, a book. Whether that book is the Red Book of Westmarch (in-story) or The Lord of the Rings (for us readers), it is only a book. Although it is enough for a reader to feel they are experiencing Middle Earth, it is not a true experience. Smith, however, does give both his world and ours the experience. By showing us his travels without added explanation, we see as he does. We truly live in the world with him. Smith does not get an explanation for the Wind or the war or the flames. However, he experiences them, and we do so as well. And in the end, Smith does the most elf-friend-like thing he can: he gives up the star and allows another person to take his place. He gives, not only a knowledge of the experience but the experience himself. He leaves hope for both young Tim and the reader that we can mediate for ourselves, find the story ourselves and see ourselves in it. He leaves hope that we can become the next elf-friend. And that is the elf-friend's true purpose: to give us a link to a world we can explore. Be that a story or a star, it is a way to find the door to a Secondary World and give the reader a key.

- Fiona Helgren

Works Cited
Tolkien, J. R. (1978). The Fellowship of the Ring (2nd ed., Vol. 1). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Tolkien, J. R. (n.d.). Smith of Wootton Major. n.p.
Tolkien, J. R. (n.d.). Tolkien's Legendarium (V. Flieger & C. F. Hostetter, Eds.). London: Greenwood Press.


  1. In your post, you state that “Sam is a quintessential elf-friend” while Smith of Wootton Major, despite failing at being a “typical Tolkien elf-friend,” does not fail in being the “essence of an elf-friend.” I felt that during class discussion, Smith was unfairly disparaged for not being a “good” elf-friend, so I would like to both thank you for defending Smith’s elf-friend status and further argue that Smith’s method of entry into Faerie explains why his behavior as an elf-friend does not fit the typical mold.

    The manner in which one becomes an elf-friend affects how one fulfills the purpose of being an elf-friend. The biggest difference between Sam and Smith is whether or not they made the choice to join Faerie. Sam consciously chose to leave the familiarity of Hobbiton to join Frodo on a quest through the foreign lands of Middle Earth to destroy the Ring. In contrast, Smith did not choose to join Faerie and instead was granted entry to Faerie when he unknowingly swallowed a fay-star at the age of 10. Sam’s decision to enter Faerie was deliberate and thus it makes sense that Sam himself would be more deliberate in the way he records details about his meetings with the elves for the reader.

    Smith is critiqued as an elf-friend for not sharing stories of Faerie, but to do so would give him more knowledge than he should have as an accidental elf-friend. Rather than describing Faerie to the reader, Smith lets the reader explore Faerie as he explores it firsthand. The reader may be annoyed that no background or explanation was given of the events that Smith saw, but as you noted in your blog post, “Smith does not get an explanation for the Wind or the war or the flames,” so unless Smith were to trade his role as an elf-friend for the role of omniscient narrator, no explanation is possible. Smith is an accidental elf-friend. He did not consciously choose to enter Faerie and did not have prior knowledge, experience, or expectations of it, and thus cannot be expected to be an elf-friend in the way that others such as Sam and Aelfwine are, but that is his greatest power as an elf-friend. We cannot easily imagine ourselves as Sam or Frodo or Aelfwine, but it is possible to place ourselves in Smith’s position – that of an ordinary person that has somehow been granted access to an extraordinary world. When one considers the sheer quantity and popularity of portal fantasy (Stardust, Chronicles of Narnia, Inkheart, etc), it is easy to see how of all of Tolkien’s elf-friends, Smith is in his own way, the most relatable and real.


  2. Another way of thinking of Smith as Elf-friend: it is true he does not function as a bearer of stories, but perhaps he does something even more significant: show the perils of being an Elf-friend. So the link that he gives is by way of example, as you suggest. Which is potentially even more important! RLFB

  3. I was intrigued by your attempt here to explore various aspects of Tolkien's definition of an Elf-Friend. I wondered whether you had considered this definition in the context of Gimli, who is named an Elf-Friend in the appendices to The Lord of the Rings because of his love for Legolas and reverence for the Lady Galadriel. On the surface, this explanation makes it seem as if Gimli is an Elf-Friend purely because he is, quite literally, a friend of elves. I think it is possible that Gimli fits the more nuanced definition given in your blog post as well. He certainly plays an active role in the story, and he does act as a storyteller of sorts when he relates stories about dwarves to the Fellowship through song or conversation. He also, upon receiving Galadriel’s lock of hair, pledges to keep the gift as an heirloom of his house, presumably telling stories to his kinsmen about his time in the wider world. In this sense I think he fits the definition of an Elf-Friend you give here. However, unlike Bilbo or Frodo, he leaves no document behind; he does not serve as an ambassador to the real world from the world of Fantasy beyond. Is it enough that Gimli bridges the gap between his own culture and that of the wider world? If this is true, why are no other dwarves mentioned as Elf-Friends, as surely others tell stories and impact the world around them? Is some degree of actual friendship with the elven race implicit in the definition of Elf-Friend, as the name suggests? -EI