Elves and Men are brothers and sisters. They are explicitly referred to as the elder and younger children of Iluvatar, and it is this sibling relationship which gives reason to their respective life spans. While Iluvatar’s final design is impossible to know, we can know parts of his plan, that he designed the Elves to teach the Men, and the Men to eventually take their place as masters of Arda. As the Elves faded, having fulfilled their purpose as mentor, they move on to another purpose which Iluvatar has ordained for them. Like an older sibling, they follow their parent’s wishes more faithfully, and Men, who strive to prove themselves, strike out find new paths which their parent has not chosen for them. Because of this relationship, it is essential that the Elves are immortal while Men are not. Elves’ immortality lets them more effectively teach Men without interfering with Men’s path. We can see the evidence for this necessary structure in the Silmarillion and how the Elves and Men awake and interact.
First we will examine how the Elves awoke, and what they were like in their beginnings. Before the Sun was made, Mandos foretold that, “It is doom that the Firstborn shall come in the darkness, and shall look first upon the stars. Great light shall be for their waning.” It is important to note that the Elves come in darkness lit only by the stars. This darkness at their birth is important because it signifies the lack of wisdom in their part of the world up to that point. As the Elves grow in wisdom and craft, so too does the light in the world. Evidence for this claim lies in Tolkien’s own writing, as he describes the Elves, “In the beginning the Elder Children of Iluvatar were stronger and greater that they have since become; but not more fair…” We know that light, and beauty, and wisdom are deeply intertwined in Tolkien’s mythology as we saw last week in the issue of jewels. As the Elves grew in wisdom and beauty, they diminished in vital force. The Sun rose, giving rise to Men in a world already filled with vast wisdom and experience.
“At the first rising of the Sun the Younger Children of Iluvatar awoke… but the first Sun arose in the West, and the opening eyes of Men were turned towards it…” Men wake up in a world which has already long been populated by peoples far wiser and greater than they are, but as time passes, the children of the Sun eclipse their elder siblings. This rise of Men is because they live relatively short lives. Because they are imperfect, frail, and mortal, they strive for more. Additionally they do not possess the long memories of Elves, a factor which is greatly in Men’s benefit as the Elves are perpetually crippled by the sorrow they feel brought on by long ages of the World. The Elves’ memories are necessary to Men’s development however, and the ages in which Men and Elves mingled are just as important as the first and last ages of the World in which each race walked the earth alone.
When Elves and Men interact, Men gain much from their elders’ experiences, learning from mistakes previously made, although not completely avoiding them. When Felagund came among the men of the House of Beor as they slept, he sang a song of such wisdom which, “was in the words of the Elven-King, and the hearts grew wiser that hearkened to him…” It is critical that Felagund is immortal and therefore separate from the men he influences because this allows him to have great personal wisdom to impart to their culture. The Elves’ purpose is to gather personal experience, and in communication with Men, impart that wisdom onto entire cultures, thereby maximizing the experience gained by Men. Once this wisdom has been imparted, however, the Elves begin to fade because their immortality is of a different character than that of the Valar or of Iluvatar.
While Elves are indeed ‘immortal’ in the sense that they can live for an indefinite amount of time, and even when they are slain, their spirits persist within Arda, they are still of a more mortal substance than the Valar, and are therefore frail in a similar way to Men, although lesser in degree. “[The elves’] bodies indeed were of the stuff of Earth, and could be destroyed; and in those days they were more like to the bodies of Men, since they had not so long been inhabited by the fire of their spirit, which consumes them from within in the courses of time.” Men and Elves are most similar in the time when they mixed in the middle times of the world. The Elves awoke in darkness of unwisdom and were taught directly by the Valar. When the Elves arrive in Middle-Earth, their coming is accompanied by wisdom and light, which awakens Men, who are born into a world already wizened while they are still vital and strong. Men benefit from their older sibling’s accomplishments and failures as the Eldar pave the way for Men’s dominion in Arda. Elves are the vessels of Iluvatar’s wisdom, and Men are the receivers of this wisdom.N. Reuter