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
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.