In J. R. R. Tolkien's legendarium, Elves are one of the races that inhabit a fictional Earth, often called Middle-earth, and set in the remote past. Unlike Men and Dwarves, Elves are immortal. They appear in The Hobbit and in The Lord of the Rings, but their complex history is described more fully in The Silmarillion.
Tolkien derived his Elves from mentions in the ancient poetry and languages of Northern Europe. These suggested to him that elves were large, dangerous, beautiful, lived in wild natural places, and practised archery. He invented languages for the Elves including Sindarin and Quenya.
Elves have become a staple of fantasy literature both in the West and in Japan. They have appeared, too, in film and role-playing game adaptations of Lord of the Rings.
The modern English word elf derives from the Old English word ælf (which has cognates in all other Germanic languages). Numerous types of elves appear in Germanic mythology; the West Germanic concept appears to have come to differ from the Scandinavian notion in the early Middle Ages, and Anglo-Saxon concept diverged even further, possibly under Celtic influence. Tolkien made it clear in a letter that his Elves differ from those "of the better known lore"[T 1] of Scandinavian mythology.
|South English Legendary
"St Michael" 253-258
|And ofte in fourme of wommane : In many derne weye
grete compaygnie mon i-seoth of heom : boþe hoppie and pleiƺe,
Þat Eluene beoth i-cleopede : and ofte heo comiez to toune,
And bi daye muche in wodes heo beoth : and bi niƺte ope heiƺe dounes.
Þat beoth þe wrechche gostes : Þat out of heuene weren i-nome,
And manie of heom a-domesday : Ʒeot schullen to reste come.
|And often shaped like women: On many secret paths|
men see great numbers of them: dancing and sporting.
These are called Elves: and often they come to town
and by day they are much in the woods: by night up on the high downs.
Those are the wretched spirits: that were taken out of Heaven,
And at Doomsday many of them shall come to rest.
Some of Tolkien's Elves are in Valinor, while others are in Middle-earth; Galadriel indeed has been expelled from Valinor, much like the fallen Melkor, though she is clearly good, and much like an angel. Similarly, some of the Legendary's Eluene are on Earth, others in the "Earthly Paradise". So, did they have souls, Shippey asks? Since they could not leave the world, the answer was no; but given that they didn't disappear completely on death, the answer had to have been yes. In Shippey's view, the Silmarillion resolved the Middle English puzzle, letting Elves go not to Heaven but to the halfway house of the Halls of Mandos on Valinor.
By the late 19th century, the term 'fairy' had been taken up as a utopian theme, and was used to critique social and religious values, a tradition which Tolkien and T. H. White continued. One of the last of the Victorian Fairy-paintings, The Piper of Dreams by Estella Canziani, sold 250,000 copies and was well known within the trenches of World War I where Tolkien saw active service. Illustrated posters of Robert Louis Stevenson's poem Land of Nod had been sent out by a philanthropist to brighten servicemen's quarters, and Faery was used in other contexts as an image of "Old England" to inspire patriotism. By 1915, when Tolkien was writing his first elven poems, the words elf, fairy and gnome had many divergent and contradictory associations. Tolkien had been gently warned against the term 'fairy', which John Garth supposes may have been due to its growing association with homosexuality, but Tolkien continued to use it. According to Marjorie Burns, Tolkien eventually but hesitantly chose the term elf over fairy. In his 1939 essay On Fairy-Stories, Tolkien wrote that "English words such as elf have long been influenced by French (from which fay and faërie, fairy are derived); but in later times, through their use in translation, fairy and elf have acquired much of the atmosphere of German, Scandinavian, and Celtic tales, and many characteristics of the huldu-fólk, the daoine-sithe, and the tylwyth-teg."
Shippey notes that Tolkien, a philologist, knew of the many seemingly contradictory traditions about elves. The Old English Beowulf-poet spoke of the strange eotenas ond ylfe ond orcnéas, "ettens [giants] and elves and demon-corpses", a grouping which Shippey calls "a very stern view of all non-human and un-Christian species". The Middle English Sir Gawain meets a green axe-wielding giant, an aluisch mon ("elvish man", translated by Shippey as "uncanny creature"). Christian sources from Iceland knew and disapproved of the tradition of offering sacrifices to the elves, álfa-blót.
Elves were directly dangerous, too: the medical condition "elf-shot", described in the spell Gif hors ofscoten sie, "if a horse is elf-shot", meaning some kind of internal injury, was associated both with neolithic flint arrowheads and the temptations of the devil. Tolkien takes "elf-shot" as a hint to make his elves skilful in archery. Another danger was wæterælfádl, "water-elf disease", perhaps meaning dropsy, while a third condition was ælfsogoða, "elf-pain", glossed by Shippey as "lunacy". All the same, an Icelandic woman could be frið sem álfkona, "fair as an elf-woman", while the Anglo-Saxons might call a very fair woman ælfscýne, "elf-beautiful". Some aspects can readily be reconciled, Shippey writes, since "Beauty is itself dangerous". But there is more: Tolkien brought in the Old English usage of descriptions like wuduælfen "wood-elf, dryad", wæterælfen "water-elf", and sǣælfen "sea-elf, naiad", giving his elves strong links with wild nature. Yet another strand of legend holds that Elfland, as in Elvehøj ("Elf Hill") and other traditional stories, is dangerous to mortals because time there is distorted, as in Tolkien's Lothlórien. Shippey comments that it is a strength of Tolkien's "re-creations", his imagined worlds, that they incorporate all the available evidence to create a many-layered impression of depth, making use of "both good and bad sides of popular story; the sense of inquiry, prejudice, hearsay and conflicting opinion".
Shippey suggests that the "fusion or kindling-point" of Tolkien's thinking about elves came from the Middle English lay Sir Orfeo, which transposes the classical myth of Orpheus and Eurydice into a wild and wooded Elfland, and makes the quest successful. In Tolkien's translation the elves appear and disappear: "the king of Faerie with his rout / came hunting in the woods about / with blowing far and crying dim, and barking hounds that were with him; yet never a beast they took nor slew, and where they went he never knew". Shippey comments that Tolkien took many suggestions from this passage, including the horns and the hunt of the Elves in Mirkwood; the proud but honourable Elf-king; and the placing of his elves in wild nature. Tolkien might only have had broken fragments to work on, but, Shippey writes, the more one explores how Tolkien used the ancient texts, the more one sees "how easy it was for him to feel that a consistency and a sense lay beneath the chaotic ruin of the old poetry of the North".
Tolkien developed his conception of elves over the years, from his earliest writings through to The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, and The Lord of the Rings.
Traditional Victorian dancing fairies and elves appear in much of Tolkien's early poetry,[T 2] and have influence upon his later works in part due to the influence of a production of J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan in Birmingham in 1910 and his familiarity with the work of Catholic mystic poet, Francis Thompson which Tolkien had acquired in 1914.[T 2]
— J.R.R. Tolkien, Goblin Feet
In his The Book of Lost Tales, Tolkien develops a theme that the diminutive fairy-like race of Elves had once been a great and mighty people, and that as Men took over the world, these Elves had "diminished"[T 2][T 3] themselves. This theme was influenced especially by the god-like and human-sized Ljósálfar of Norse mythology, and medieval works such as Sir Orfeo, the Welsh Mabinogion, Arthurian romances and the legends of the Tuatha Dé Danann.[T 4] Some of the stories Tolkien wrote as elven history have been seen to be directly influenced by Celtic mythology. For example, "Flight of The Noldoli" is based on the Tuatha Dé Danann and Lebor Gabála Érenn, and their migratory nature comes from early Irish/Celtic history. John Garth also sees that with the underground enslavement of the Noldoli to Melkor, Tolkien was essentially rewriting Irish myth regarding the Tuatha Dé Danann into a Christian eschatology.
The name Inwe or Ingwë (in the first draft Ing), given by Tolkien to the eldest of the elves and his clan,[T 5] is similar to the name found in Norse mythology as that of the god Ingwi-Freyr (and Ingui-Frea in Anglo-Saxon paganism), a god who is gifted the elf world Álfheimr. Terry Gunnell also claims that the relationship between beautiful ships and the Elves is reminiscent of the god Njörðr and the god Freyr's ship Skíðblaðnir. He also retains the usage of the French derived term "fairy" for the same creatures.
The larger Elves are inspired by Tolkien's personal Catholic theology—as representing the state of Men in Eden who have not yet "fallen", similar to humans but fairer and wiser, with greater spiritual powers, keener senses, and a closer empathy with nature. Tolkien wrote of them: "They are made by man in his own image and likeness; but freed from those limitations which he feels most to press upon him. They are immortal, and their will is directly effective for the achievement of imagination and desire."
In The Book of Lost Tales, Tolkien includes both more serious "medieval" elves such as Fëanor and Turgon alongside frivolous, Jacobean elves such as the Solosimpi and Tinúviel.[T 4] Alongside the idea of the greater Elves, Tolkien toyed with the idea of children visiting Valinor, the island-homeland of the Elves in their sleep. Elves would also visit children at night and comfort them if they had been chided or were upset. This was abandoned in Tolkien's later writing.[T 6]
Douglas Anderson shows that in The Hobbit, Tolkien again includes both the more serious 'medieval' type of elves, such as Elrond and the Wood-elf king, and frivolous elves, such as the elvish guards at Rivendell.[T 4]
In 1937, having had his manuscript for The Silmarillion rejected by a publisher who disparaged all the "eye-splitting Celtic names" that Tolkien had given his Elves, Tolkien denied the names had a Celtic origin:
Needless to say they are not Celtic! Neither are the tales. I do know Celtic things (many in their original languages Irish and Welsh), and feel for them a certain distaste: largely for their fundamental unreason. They have bright colour, but are like a broken stained glass window reassembled without design. They are in fact "mad" as your reader says – but I don't believe I am.[T 7]
Dimitra Fimi proposes that these comments are a product of his Anglophilia rather than a commentary on the texts themselves or their actual influence on his writing, and cites evidence to this effect in her essay "'Mad' Elves and 'elusive beauty': some Celtic strands of Tolkien's mythology".
In The Lord of the Rings Tolkien pretends to be merely the translator of Bilbo and Frodo's memoirs, collectively known as the Red Book of Westmarch. He says that those names and terms that appear in English are meant to be his purported translations from the Common Speech.[T 8]
According to Tom Shippey, the theme of diminishment from semi-divine Elf to diminutive Fairy resurfaces in The Lord of the Rings in the dialogue of Galadriel. "Yet if you succeed, then our power is diminished, and Lothlórien will fade, and the tides of Time will sweep it away. We must depart into the West, or dwindle to a rustic folk of dell and cave, slowly to forget and to be forgotten."[T 9]
Writing in 1954, part way through proofreading The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien claimed that the Elvish language Sindarin had a character very like British-Welsh "because it seems to fit the rather 'Celtic' type of legends and stories told of its speakers".[T 10] In the same letter, Tolkien goes on to say that the elves had very little in common with elves or fairies of Europe, and that they really represent men with greater artistic ability, beauty and a longer life span. In his writings, an Elven bloodline was the only real claim to 'nobility' that the Men of Middle-earth could have.[T 10] Tolkien wrote that the elves are primarily to blame for many of the ills of Middle-earth in The Lord of the Rings, having independently created the Three Rings to stop their domains in mortal-lands from 'fading' and attempting to prevent inevitable change and new growth.
The first Elves were awakened by Eru Ilúvatar near the bay of Cuiviénen during the Years of the Trees in the First Age. They awoke under the starlit sky, as the Sun and Moon had yet to be created. The first Elves to awaken were three pairs: Imin ("First") and his wife Iminyë, Tata ("Second") and Tatië, and Enel ("Third") and Enelyë. They walked through the forests, finding other pairs of Elves, who became their folk. They lived by the rivers, and invented poetry and music in Middle-earth. Journeying further, they came across tall and dark-haired elves, the fathers of most of the Noldor. They invented many new words. Continuing their journey, they found elves singing without language, the ancestors of most of the Teleri.[T 11] The elves were discovered by the Vala Oromë, who brought the news of their awakening to Valinor.
The Valar decided to summon the Elves to Valinor rather than leaving them where they were first awakened, near the Cuiviénen lake in the eastern extremity of Middle-earth. They sent Oromë, who took Ingwë, Finwë and Elwë as ambassadors to Valinor. Returning to Middle-earth, Ingwë, Finwë and Elwë convinced many of the Elves to take the Great Journey (also called the Great March) to Valinor. Those who did not accept the summons became known as the Avari, The Unwilling. The others were called Eldar, the People of the Stars by Oromë, and they took Ingwë, Finwë and Elwë as their leaders, and became respectively the Vanyar, Noldor and Teleri. On their journey, some of the Teleri feared the Misty Mountains and dared not cross them. They turned back and stayed in the vales of the Anduin, and, led by Lenwë, became the Nandor. Oromë led the others over the Misty Mountains and Ered Lindon into Beleriand. There Elwë became lost, and the Teleri stayed behind looking for him. The Vanyar and the Noldor moved onto a floating island that was moved by Ulmo to Valinor. After years, Ulmo returned to Beleriand to seek out the remaining Teleri. Without Elwë, many of the Teleri took his brother Olwë as their leader and were ferried to Valinor. Some Teleri stayed behind though, still looking for Elwë, and others stayed on the shores, being called by Ossë. They took Círdan as their leader and became the Falathrim. The Teleri who stayed in Beleriand later became known as the Sindar.
In Valinor, Fëanor, son of Finwë, and the greatest of the Elves, created the Silmarils in which he stored a part of the light of the Two Trees that were lighting Valinor. After three ages in the Halls of Mandos, Melkor was released, feigning reform. He however spread his evil and started to poison the minds of the Elves against the Valar. Eventually he killed Finwë and stole the Silmarils. Fëanor then named him Morgoth (Sindarin: The Black Enemy). Fëanor and his seven sons then swore to take the Silmarils back, and led a large army of the Noldor to Beleriand.
In Beleriand, Elwë was eventually found, and married Melian the Maia. He became the overlord of Beleriand, naming himself Thingol (Sindarin: Grey-cloak). After the First Battle of Beleriand, during the first rising of the Moon, the Noldor arrived in Beleriand. They laid a siege around Morgoth's fortress of Angband, but were eventually defeated. The Elves never regained the upper hand, finally losing the hidden kingdoms Nargothrond, Doriath, and Gondolin near the culmination of the war. When the Elves had been forced to the furthest southern reaches of Beleriand, Eärendil the Mariner, a half-elf from the House of Finwë, sailed to Valinor to ask the Valar for help. The Valar started the War of Wrath, finally defeating Morgoth.
After the War of Wrath, the Valar tried to summon the Elves back to Valinor. Many complied, but some stayed. During the Second Age they founded the Realms of Lindon, Eregion and Mirkwood. Sauron, Morgoth's former servant, made war upon them, but with the aid of the Númenóreans they defeated him. During the Second and Third Ages, they held some protected realms with the aid of the Rings of Power.
After the destruction of the One Ring, the power of the Three Rings of the Elves ended and the Fourth Age, the Age of Men, began. Most Elves left for Valinor; those that remained in Middle-earth were doomed to a slow decline until, in the words of Galadriel, they faded and became a "rustic folk of dell and cave". The fading played out over thousands of years, until in the modern world, occasional glimpses of rustic Elves would fuel folktales and fantasies. Elladan and Elrohir, the sons of Elrond, did not accompany their father when the White Ship bearing the Ring-bearer and the chief Noldorin leaders sailed from the Grey Havens to Valinor; they remained in Lindon. Celeborn and other elves of the Grey Havens remained for a while before leaving for Valinor. Legolas founded an elf colony in Ithilien during King Elessar's reign; the elves there helped to rebuild Gondor, living mainly in southern Ithilien, along the shores of the Anduin. After Elessar's death, Legolas built a ship and sailed to Valinor and, eventually, all the elves in Ithilien followed him. Sam Gamgee sailed from the Havens decades after Elrond's departure. In "The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen" in Appendix A, most Elves have already left, barring some in Mirkwood and a few in Lindon; the garden of Elrond in Rivendell is empty. Arwen flees to an abandoned Lothlórien, where she dies.
Elves, at least the Eldar, have a pregnancy that lasts about a year. By the age of 1, elves can speak, walk and dance. Puberty and full height are attained at around their fiftieth to one hundredth year, when they stop aging physically.[T 12] Elves marry freely, monogamously, only once, and for love early in life; adultery is unthinkable.[T 12] Betrothal, with the exchange of rings, lasts at least a year, and is revocable by the return of the rings, but is rarely broken.[T 12] Marriage is by words exchanged by the bride and groom (including the speaking of the name of Eru Ilúvatar) and consummation; it is celebrated with a feast. Wedding rings are worn on the index fingers. The bride's mother gives the groom a jewel to wear.[T 12] Elves view the sexual act as special and intimate, for it leads to the birth of children. Elves cannot be forced to have sex; before that they will lose the will to endure and go to Mandos.[T 12] Elves have few children, and there are long intervals between each child. They are soon preoccupied with other pleasures; their libido wanes and they focus their interests elsewhere, like the arts.[T 12]
Elves, particularly the Noldor, spend their time on smithwork, sculpture, music and other arts, and on preparing food. Males and females are equal, but females often specialize in the arts of healing while the males go to war. This is because they believe that taking life interferes with the ability to preserve life. However, females can defend themselves at need as well as males, and many males such as Elrond are skilled healers.[T 12] Elves are skilful horse-riders, riding without saddle or bridle.
Elves are immortal, and remain unwearied with age. They can recover from wounds which would be fatal to a Man, but can be killed in battle. Spirits of dead Elves go to the Halls of Mandos in Valinor. After a certain period of time and rest that serves as "cleansing", their spirits are clothed in bodies identical to their old ones.[T 13] However, they almost never go back to Middle-earth and remain in Valinor instead. An exception was Glorfindel in The Lord of the Rings; as shown in later books, Tolkien decided he was a "reborn" hero from The Silmarillion rather than an individual with the same name. A rare and more unusual example of an Elf coming back from the Halls of Mandos is found in the tale of Beren and Lúthien, as Lúthien was the other Elf to be sent back to Middle-earth, but as a mortal.
If they do not die in battle or accident, Elves grow weary of Middle-earth and desire to go to Valinor, where the Valar originally sheltered their kind; they often sail from the Grey Havens, where Círdan the Shipwright dwells with his folk.
Eventually, their immortal spirits overwhelm and consume their bodies, rendering them "bodiless", whether they opt to go to Valinor or not. At the end of the world, all Elves will have become invisible to mortal eyes, except to those to whom they wish to manifest themselves.[T 12]
Tolkien created many languages for his Elves. His interest was primarily philological, and he said his stories grew out of his languages. Indeed, the languages were the first thing Tolkien ever created for his mythos, starting with what he originally called "Elfin" or "Qenya" [sic]. This was later spelled Quenya (High-elven) and, along with Sindarin (Grey-elven), is one of the two most complete of Tolkien's constructed languages.
The 1977 Rankin Bass animated version of The Hobbit, with character designs by Lester Abrams, features Wood Elves as green-skinned warriors with slightly Austrian accents. High Elves are shown with pointed ears and beards.
In Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings film series (2001–2003), elves are portrayed as fair, graceful, and wise beings with supernatural abilities like enhanced eyesight. They facially resemble humans with much longer and finer hair and an apparent inner glow. They have pointed ears and no facial hair.
In Middle-earth Role Playing (Iron Crown Enterprises, 1986), three tribes of elves are presented as player character race options, the Silvan, Sindar and Noldor – each receiving statistic bonuses (ranging from 5 to 15) to all attributes apart from Strength, with the Noldor receiving the highest accumulative bonuses of any racial type in the game. All three tribes are statistically immune to disease (+100% chance of resistance), and must be given "Presence" as the highest randomly generated statistic. Elven characters receive significant skill bonuses with missile weapons (such as a bow and arrow) and stealth skills (such as hiding).
All three elven tribes (Silvan, Noldor, Sindar) depicted in The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game (Decipher, Inc., 2001) have varying (one or two points) statistic bonuses to Bearing, Perception and Nimbleness, with the Noldor also receiving a bonus to Wits and the Sindar to Vitality, giving both of these the highest accumulative bonuses available to Player Characters. The system of skills, feats and flaws further outlines racial and cultural characteristics, bonuses being given to the Noldor in Lore and "Resisting the Shadow", to the Silvan elves for various wood-craft skills, and the Sindar to musical performance. All elves can enchant objects, and receive bonuses in any test regarding magic.
In The Lord of the Rings Strategy Battle Game (Games Workshop, 2001), Elves have similar statistics to similarly armed Men, except for much higher scores for their Fighting and Courage attributes. On average, Elven wargear (armour and weapons) give twice the advantage of weapons made by Men.