Thursday, May 18, 2017

Elves: Human Ideal or Doomed Race?

We have seen that Tolkien considered his elves to be representative of particular aspects of human nature: “the artistic, aesthetic, and purely scientific aspects of the Humane nature raised to a higher level” (Letter 181). In some sense they are an ideal that humans would like to emulate. Tolkien describes them as having “certain freedoms and powers we should like to have” (Letter 153). Many of the best men and hobbits in Tolkien’s stories are closely associated with elves: Aragorn was raised in the house of Elrond, marries an elf, and is himself very distantly descended from them. Sam is drawn to elves and Frodo learns their language and lore from Bilbo. The Men of Númenor are at their best when closely associated with elves, and their estrangement from the elves marks the beginning of their downfall.

There is also a sense, however, in which elves as a species are hopeless, and cast as tragic characters in comparison to mortal Men. Their regret and profound nostalgic longing are emphasized again and again in The Lord of the Rings, during which the power of the elves is fading and they are drawn west to the relative changelessness of the Undying Lands. Galadriel puts it most succinctly: “‘The love of the Elves for their land and their works is deeper than the deeps of the Sea, and their regret is undying and cannot ever wholly be assuaged’” (365). It is worth noting that what the elves want more than anything- to preserve things as they were and keep the world forever safe and unchanging- is impossible. For one thing, change is inevitable in any world. Men come to exist alongside the elves, new elves are born, the seasons change, elves grow older, and mortals die. For another, the existence of evil means that conflict and decay are inevitable as well. All the elves’ beautiful creations will break and their ages of peace will end. Finally, Arda itself is bounded and will eventually cease to exist, taking the nominally immortal elves with it. Galadriel and Celeborn “through ages of the world… have fought the long defeat” (357). But this defeat is inevitable. The elves’ entire telos as a species, the goal of preservation towards which they are bent, is ultimately fruitless.

Men, who as Finrod points out always seem to search and strive for some other world, have hope in that they must ultimately leave the world that cannot fully satisfy them. The idea of mortality as the Gift of Men is not simply that it is better to die and have one’s story finished than to linger on in regret and grief; death is a gift because it is achievable. The elves have no hope- no amdir, anyway- because their desires will remain unfulfilled until the end of time and the remaking of the world. Furthermore, insofar as the elves have any hope, it will be because of Men, as Finrod joyfully concludes: “‘This, then, I propound was the errand of Men, not the followers, but the heirs and fulfillers of all: to heal the Marring of Arda… and to do more, as agents of the Magnificence of Eru: to enlarge the Music and surpass the Vision of the World!’” (Morgoth’s Ring, 318). Here mortal men, far from being doomed, are cast as saviors. Furthermore, in enlarging and enhancing Creation, Men are able to deliver to the elves what they long for, and what we have established is impossible in Arda Marred. Finrod continues: “suddenly I beheld as a vision Arda Remade; and there the Eldar completed but not ended could abide in the present for ever, and there walk, maybe, with the Children of Men, their deliverers, and sing to them such songs as, even in the Bliss beyond bliss, should make the green valleys ring and the everlasting mountain-tops to throb like harps” (319). What is this vision but the realization of all the fruitless desires of elvenkind? The vision intimately includes Men, and is only possible because of them. Thus, only through Men can the telos of the elves be finally achieved. What is required of the elves as much as of mortals is estel- trust first and foremost in Eru, but grounded in the trust of Men as his instruments, Men not as victims of “death ineluctable”, but as deliverers from death.

This point serves to underscore how important the relationship between elves and Men is in Tolkien’s work. Some of the greatest and most memorable stories from the Silmarillion, those we see referenced the most in The Lord of the Rings- Beren and Luthien, the voyage of Eärendil and the subsequent War of Wrath, even the Akallabêth- all concern this relationship. The reverence of successful elf-human marriages and their role in establishing the great line of kings reveals that a cooperative relationship between the two kinds leads to great things. A less obvious point is that their fates are not only historically but also deeply theologically entwined, and that the fate of Men is to eventually redeem the firstborn. Crucially, this is true even in the First Age, at the height of the elves’ power, when Men are first entering the world and only beginning to play great roles. Men are recognized- by some, at least- to have a great destiny, surpassing at the end that of the elves, long before the Third Age ends and the Age of Men in earnest begins with the final western exodus of the elves. It is significant that, through her great deeds and because of her love of Beren, Lúthien earns the right to join him in mortality- while Beren’s gift cannot be taken away. The two lovers, and by extension all elves and Men (for “in [Lúthien’s] choice the Two Kindreds have been joined”) can only be truly united by both accepting the gift that is the fate of Men (Silmarillion, 187).

To answer the original question, then, elves are indeed to be admired by Men as keepers of tradition who guide Men with their wisdom, and Men equally to be admired as first recipients and later givers of a great gift, to escape the flawed world and remake it in perfect harmony. And it is fitting, of course, that in Tolkien’s Christianized fairy-story the “fairies” must be saved in (what is presumed to be) the great Christian eucatastrophe.

H. Bell

J.R.R. Tolkien, Letters, ed. Humphrey Carpenter with Christopher Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000; first published 1981)
_____, The Lord of the Rings (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2004)
_____, Morgoth’s Ring, ed. Christopher Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993)
_____, The Silmarillion, ed. Christopher Tolkien (New York: Mariner, 2001).

1 comment:

  1. Very nicely delineated, the way in which Elves are both idealized and (in effect) pitied by Tolkien and his characters. You do a nice job of showing the tension for Tolkien between desiring the abilities of the Elves and the hope of release given to the Men. What I always wonder was whether Tolkien convinced himself that Death was a gift. He seems to in "Leaf by Niggle," but his (and Sam's) longing for Elves makes me less than sure. RLFB