On Writing Tolkien's Elves by Oshun

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Author's Chapter Notes:

I offer my most sincere thanks to the readers at the Lizard Council for nitpicks and corrections (Drummerwench, Urloth, Elf of Cave, Mariamaria, Pandemonium, and Randy O., in particular.)  New questions, suggestions, and even (heaven forbid!) implied disagreements were also raised there, some of which are beyond of the scope of the project or my capacity, or both. Thank you very much for reading it.

The Problem of Writing Tolkien’s Elves

The crux of the problem for me in writing Tolkien’s Elves is not, as many people claim their own is, a problem of parsing the phraseology of the often lofty tone of The Silmarillion. Neither is it the obvious contradictions between elements contained within the much misquoted Laws and Customs among the Eldar and the actual plots and actions of the Elves existing within the developed narratives. I never found the Elves especially inaccessible or distant, despite the reaction of other non-Elven characters to them in the texts.

I noticed early on in reading fanfiction that many writers look at Elves only through the narrow window provided in The Lord of the Rings. When I write Elves in a LotR-centered story, I allow The Silmarillion to inform that interpretation and tend to expect that of others. If I do not find it, I have difficulty in engaging with the characters. Tolkien himself never quite recovered from not being able to present the events of LotR within the context of his grand history of Middle-earth. On the verge of the publication of LotR, he is still complaining about that lack.

But as much further history (backwards) as anyone could desire actually exists in the Silmarillion and related stories and poems, composing the History of the Eldar (Elves). I believe that in the event (which seems much to hope) of sufficient people being interested in the Lord of the Rings to pay for the cost of its publication, the gallant publishers may consider printing some of that. It was actually written first, and I wished to have the matter issued in historical order, which would have saved a lot of allusion and explanation in the present book. But I could not get it accepted. (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien, 144 To Naomi Mitchison)

Who Are the Elves?

Do Tolkien’s Elves represent Men refined and semi-angelic, or Men with all of our flaws and emotions, but who simply live a lot longer? If one considers the Maiar who assume human bodies for extended periods of time tricky to write (like Melian, Sauron, or the Istari), the Elves might be considered even more difficult. As Tolkien says,

The ‘Elves’ are ‘immortal’, at least as far as this world goes: and hence are concerned rather with the griefs and burdens of deathlessness in time and change, than with death. (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien, 131 To Milton Waldman)

The biggest problem for me personally in developing character and plot involving Tolkien’s Elves is that of writing in a fantasy world which includes such vastly extended life spans.

Personally, I think if one remembers that the Elves are still human, despite their restricted immortality, it is really not so difficult to develop their characters and predict their reactions. Obviously, it is a matter of taste to some degree. I tend to err in the direction of representing Elves as very close to ourselves. Like most writers of Elf-centric Tolkien fanfiction today, I was first attracted to Elves through reading LotR. Although I could never get enough of them, neither could I understand them until I finally read The Silmarillion carefully, with an eye to writing fanfiction. Doing that was like turning on a light for me. Once I really knew their history comprised of their struggles, victories and defeats, I felt like I understood them. Moving from that history as my base, I choose to write my Elves in a realistic or naturalistic manner.

At first coming around fanfiction featuring Elves, I had a conscious reaction to the fact that a number of authors in those early days wrote them veering in the other extremes. They were either presented as stiff and unnatural, speaking in only in the ponderous tones of epic poetry, or as airy-fairy creatures who floated above the ground remote from any human concerns. In some cases, some of the most recalcitrant old sinners of the Elder days were represented as the uncanonized saints of Tolkien’s legendarium, pious and Valar-loving in the extreme (mainly in LotR-based fanfiction, or by LotR writers making a cautious venture into a rare Silmarillion-based story). While, on the other side of the spectrum, some of the most earnest and tragic among the Eldar, whose lives were devoted to defending their honor and that of their family and people, Maedhros comes to mind, were represented as the personification of evil. In my considered opinion, to live under a curse because of a judgment quickly made, under extreme pressure, makes a tragedy not a monster.

It apparently has been easier for some writers to dismiss the Finweans as criminals, without seriously considering Tolkien’s texts or his antecedents in Northern European, Celtic, or Classical mythology. It does not seem to matter to those writers that some of Tolkien’s most appealing language is written in loving description of them. I have a treasure trove of those citations, but I will pick a quick few as examples:

The fire of their hearts was young, and led by Fingolfin and his sons, and by Finrod and Galadriel, they dared to pass into the bitterest North; and finding no other way they endured at last the terror of the Helcaraxë and the cruel hills of ice. Few of the deeds of the Noldor thereafter surpassed that desperate crossing in hardihood or woe. (The Silmarillion, “Of the Flight of the Noldor”)

The first battle of the Noldor in exile, in this case the Feanorians, against the minions of Morgoth is stunning in its representation of the beauty and grandeur of those benighted rebels:

Dagor-nuin-Giliath it is named, the Battle-under-Stars, for the Moon had not yet risen; and it is renowned in song. The Noldor, outnumbered and taken at unawares, were yet swiftly victorious; for the light of Aman was not yet dimmed in their eyes, and they were strong and swift, and deadly in anger, and their swords were long and terrible. The Orcs fled before them, and they were driven forth from Mithrim with great slaughter, and hunted over the Mountains of Shadow into the great plain of Ard-galen, that lay northward of Dorthonion. (The Silmarillion, “Of the Return of the Noldor”)

Or, how about Fëanor himself:

All his love he gave thereafter to his son; and Fëanor grew swiftly, as if a secret fire were kindled within him. He was tall, and fair of face, and masterful, his eyes piercingly bright and his hair raven-dark; in the pursuit of all his purposes eager and steadfast. Few ever changed his courses by counsel, none by force. He became of all the Noldor, then or after, the most subtle in mind and the most skilled in hand. (The Silmarillion, “Of Fëanor and The Unchaining of Melkor”)

And when Tolkien writes of the Silmarilli, he refers to the return of Fëanor at the end of Arda when he will be given the opportunity to fight in the final battle against evil and for good.

As three great jewels they were in form. But not until the End, when Fëanor shall return who perished ere the Sun was made, and sits now in the Halls of Awaiting and comes no more among his kin; not until the Sun passes and the Moon falls, shall it be known of what substance they were made. (The Silmarillion, “Of The Silmarils and The Unrest of The Noldor”)

Angels or Monsters?

The Elves of Aman, especially the Noldor, are strong and valiant in a larger-than-life sense, like heroes in one of the ancient epics that Tolkien knew so well. None of them, not even Finrod, or certainly not Maglor, commonly misrepresented in fanon as the sweet, gentle Fëanorian, approaches the goodness of saints in a Christian hagiographical sense. If I were to choose a kinder, gentler Fëanorian it would probably be Maedhros; he is the only one of Fëanor’s sons who protested against the burning of the ships at Losgar, he gives up his claim to the title of High King of the Noldor in favor of Fingolfin in an effort to make amends to the followers of Fingolfin and to reunite their people; it is Maedhros as well who seeks in vain to rescue the sons of Dior abandoned in the forest by vengeful servants of Celegorm.

In my opinion, among the greatest misunderstandings in writing fiction in a modern novelistic sense in which the Elves figure is to assume that they are somehow even more alien and foreign than they truly are, presenting them as greater than they are in some ways and less decent, sincere, and principled in others. Why is it that a certain number of Tolkien fanfiction writers can view Oedipus as tragic and Fëanor as simply inexcusably wicked?

On the other hand, Finwë is written by fans as a good king in general and with a reasonable amount of respect, yet it is clearly written that his actions set the scene, along with the Valar’s rulings, which he gladly followed, for the tragic role of his gifted son in the downfall of his people.

In those unhappy things which later came to pass, and in which Fëanor was the leader, many saw the effect of this breach within the house of Finwë, judging that if Finwë had endured his loss and been content with the fathering of his mighty son, the courses of Fëanor would have been otherwise, and great evil might have been prevented; for the sorrow and the strife in the house of Finwë is graven in the memory of the Noldorin Elves. (The Silmarillion, “Of Fëanor and the Unchaining of Melkor”)

If there is an angelic element in Tolkien’s legendarium it would be the Valar and their lesser brethren the Maiar. But, who released Melkor and then left him to pursue unhindered his lying, scheming, murderous ways? It was not Finwë or any of the Elves. These talented, but all too human Firstborn Children of Eru Ilúvatar, were left without any defense except their own stubbornness against the dark Vala Melkor, who is arguably more powerful than any of his brethren save Manwë. (Both Fëanor and Finwë do have the courage to stand up to Melkor and defy him, even without any backup from the Valar.) The Elves play a role much closer to the role of Men in our world. While the Valar are rather negligent, preoccupied guardian angels, slow to govern their own and quick to cast restrictions upon the Elves. The Valar are more akin to the capricious gods of the Greek or Roman pantheon than they are to Christ or any of his saints.

In my earliest exposure to Tolkien fanfiction, I encountered people who argued Elves were not human at all. And others set up the Valar as gods. I never believed that. The deeds of the Valar seems to contradict the idea of gods as does Tolkien himself explicitly.

There are no ‘Gods’, properly so-called, in the mythological background in my stories. Their place is taken by the persons referred to as the Valar (or Powers): angelic created beings appointed to the government of the world. The Elves naturally believed in them as they lived with them. (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien, 286, From a letter to A. E. Couchman)

Despite his vocabulary above, Tolkien’s Valar are far more fallible and subject to lapses in judgment than any angels in Christian theology after the defeat of Lucifer and his followers in that initial Fall. One is hard-pressed to present an iron-clad argument that the Valar are right more often than they are slightly off, if not dead wrong to terrible consequence. Perhaps one could argue they are at least well-intentioned. So, from that perspective, the Fall from grace of the Noldor is far less clear than the Fall of the Angels and/or the Fall of Man as they are presented in the Judeo-Christian mythos.

One of the seminal resources for me (outside of Tolkien’s work, of course) was Darth Fingon’s description of Tolkien’s First-Age Elves as developed in The Silmarillion. He wrote a brief Author’s Note as an addendum to his story Never Speak Nor Sing, as follows:

The setting is bleak, and the characters are grumpy, quarrelsome, spiteful, cruel, arrogant, and a variety of other unpleasant adjectives besides. OOC? Perhaps, and I know some readers will think so. But the Elves of the Silmarillion did lie, steal, fight, discriminate, kidnap, covet, attempt rape, betray, murder, and so on. And in Tolkien’s early drafts, they were far worse. At this point in their history, they were not the wise and kind beings represented in LotR. They were young, angry, and irrational. (Darth Fingon, Never Speak Nor Sing, “Story Notes,” available at the Henneth Annun story archive.)

Tolkien Does Says That Elves Are Human

For me I find that re-imagining these characters for the sake of my own story-telling purposes requires assuming that one’s physical reality, one’s form of corporeality, does determine consciousness to a great extent. The Elves share what we as human experience physiologically and the effects of that upon mental functioning, judgment, memory, and decision making, mores and morals. As recorded history, art, and literature extend our personal experiences, so does the memory function work for Tolkien’s quasi-immortal beings in his fantasy universe. Tolkien is always the first to assert in relation to his world that rules of existence matter.

But I think, like us, the Elves never completely rise above and beyond the influences of the immediacy of physical and emotional responses. The human characteristics based upon a series of wants, perceived needs, and desires that are produced by a combination of rationality and ideas as influenced by emotion, both of a higher and lower quality, are never entirely eliminated. To live in this unique form, which is the human body, is to remain human.

The desire to express that shared humanity as it relates to Elves is what made me want to continue writing Tolkien fanfiction. I had read too much of Tolkien’s Elves that shaded too far in the direction of semi-disembodied, ethereal beings who I really could not be forced to care very much about. But the choices, tragedies, and triumphs of the Elves of Tolkien’s Silmarillion did engage my empathy and elicit a strong emotional response on my part.

For example, when the Hobbits and Strider finally draw near to Rivendell we meet two important Elves, Glorfindel and Elrond the Half-elven.

The face of Elrond was ageless, neither old nor young, though in it was written the memory of many things both glad and sorrowful. His hair was dark as the shadows of twilight, and upon it was set a circlet of silver; his eyes were grey as a clear evening, and in them was a light like the light of stars. Venerable he seemed as a king crowned with many winters, and yet hale as a tried warrior in the fullness of his strength. He was the Lord of Rivendell and mighty among both Elves and Men. (The Fellowship of the Ring, “Many Meetings.”)

This is an impressive figure but recognizably human one. Earlier in the same part of the book, we are first treated to the sight of Glorfindel who is described as a considerably more marvelous being, and yet again, he is as real and warm as any man. I noted in my character biography, Glorfindel of Gondolin and Rivendell, Part II, written for the Silmarillion Writers Guild website, how both Elrond and Glorfindel are described as warm and genuine; there is nothing unapproachable or distant in their demeanor. The “description of Glorfindel as ‘fair and young and fearless and full of joy,’ along with Elrond being described as ‘kind as summer,’ would seem to give lie to the interpretations which portray Tolkien’s Third Age Elves as grim, ethereal sourpusses.” One might argue that Sam or Frodo are a little star-struck by these wondrously attractive beings of legend, but never fearful of them.

Galadriel might be another matter entirely when it comes to the question of approachability. But remember that she is one of those fierce exiled Noldor, arrogant and determined, not warm and fuzzy at her core. And I for one can never forget that she is a strong woman who desires to be an actor in a man’s world. I am always reminded of the words attributed to Elizabeth I, “I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king.” That is Galadriel in a nutshell. She was never a King, but, oh, how she wanted that.

By the time we meet Galadriel in LotR, she has mellowed from her sufferings and is also wiser and more measured in her judgments than she was in her relative youth. The description of her in The Silmarillion places her squarely in the middle of her rebellious compatriots.

Galadriel, the only woman of the Noldor to stand that day tall and valiant among the contending princes, was eager to be gone . . . the words of Fëanor concerning Middle-earth had kindled in her heart, for she yearned to see the wide unguarded lands and to rule there a realm at her own will. Of like mind with Galadriel was Fingon Fingolfin’s son, being moved also by Fëanor’s words, though he loved him little . . . . (The Silmarillion, “Of the Flight of the Noldor”)

Ambitious, curious, seeking sights unseen, and, beyond all else, her own land to rule, in her own name—no plaster saint is Galadriel nor is her cousin Fingon. Tolkien himself notes that Galadriel is a rebel, which places her in the same camp as her cousins. The difference between her and her cousins who did not take Fëanor’s oath is that she lived to re-think her position.

. . . . actually Galadriel was a penitent: in her youth a leader in the rebellion against the Valar (the angelic guardians). At the end of the First Age she proudly refused forgiveness or permission to return. She was pardoned because of her resistance to the final and overwhelming temptation to take the Ring for herself. (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien, 320 From a letter to Mrs Ruth Austin)

She was pardoned for resisting further temptation and denying the power the Ring could have given her. There still is no record in the narrative of her deeds of her ever saying ‘sorry’ to the Valar for her initial rebellion.

For that matter, even Finrod who has been beatified in fanon as the “good Noldo,” leaves Valinor for Middle-earth with less than altruistic motives. Again, I refer to one of my character biographies where I discuss Finrod’s motives.

Finrod was like his father in his fair face and golden hair, and also in noble and generous heart, though he had the high courage of the Noldor and in his youth their eagerness and unrest; and he had also from his Telerin mother a love of the sea and dreams of far lands that he had never seen. (Unfinished Tales, The History of Galadriel and Celeborn and of Amroth King of Lórien)

The Connection between Elves and Men

Despite the frailty of the Edain within Tolkien’s world, to the degree that they contain elements of greatness within them it harks back to their connections to those very human and fallible Elves. They first encounter the Elves in those dark days of the struggle of the Noldor to defend Middle-earth, for long years before the Valar decide to assist them, against the forces of Melkor during the First Age of Arda. Much of what is superior within Tolkien’s Men is due to their links to the Elves and their survival certainly is due to the defensive organization of the Noldor holding back the forces of Morgoth during the period when it appeared that the Valar had forgotten Middle-earth.

The contact of Men and Elves already foreshadows the history of the later Ages, and a recurrent theme is the idea that in Men (as they now are) there is a strand of ‘blood’ and inheritance, derived from the Elves, and that the art and poetry of Men is largely dependent on it, or modified by it. (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien, 131 To Milton Waldman)

Tolkien’s Elves are created by Eru the One God who sits alone above all others, including his demi-gods the Valar, outside of his created world. The Valar are created beings as well and know little about the ultimate nature of the Elves and understand them less and have far less in common with them than do Men. Within this legendarium the Elves are human, but humans with an extended longevity which is their principal distinction from Men as we know them in our real world. Elves suffer and can be killed (but cannot pass out of the world, being tied to it for as long as Arda shall exist—two different versions of possible re-birth/reincarnation are explained within Tolkien’s unfinished works. What happens to the Elves after the breaking apart of Arda is unknown, by either the Elves or the Valar). The primary difference between Elves and Men is their fate. Men cannot live indefinitely within Arda and Elves cannot leave it.

Many love to consult The Laws and Customs among the Eldar as a description of the behavior of the Elves. I largely reject it for that purpose because it does not match what is written in the actual narratives. Even setting aside questions of authorship and interpretation (the question of the unreliable narrator), it is no more likely to reflect majority behavior or even beliefs than the Ten Commandments is to describe how Men live their lives in our world. But I do selectively consider this passage from Law and Customs to be useful in describing how similar Elves appeared to Men:

Nonetheless there was less difference between the two Kindreds, Elves and Men, in early youth; and a man who watched elf-children at play might well have believed that they were the children of Men, of some fair and happy people. (Morgoth’s Ring, Laws and Customs among the Eldar)

I wrote a few years back in my author’s notes on a story of mine called, Will Overruled by Fate (which may be found on the Silmarillion Writers Guild story archive) that:

One LotR-centered reader/writer questioned my use of the expression “human nature.” I left it anyway. For all practical intents and purposes Elves are human (true they are enhanced, refined, semi-immortal); yet, they look like extremely attractive Men, they bleed when they are cut, and are able to produce fertile offspring when they interbreed with Man. Tolkien himself affirms this in his Letter #153, where he states: “Elves and Men are evidently in biological terms one race.”

The quotation from Letter 153 in its entirety reads as follows:

I suppose that actually the chief difficulties I have involved myself in are scientific and biological — which worry me just as much as the theological and metaphysical (though you do not seem to mind them so much). Elves and Men are evidently in biological terms one race, or they could not breed and produce fertile offspring – even as a rare event : there are 2 cases only in my legends of such unions, and they are merged in the descendants of Eärendil.[1] But since some have held that the rate of longevity is a biological characteristic, within limits of variation, you could not have Elves in a sense ‘immortal’ – not eternal, but not dying by ‘old age’ — and Men mortal, more or less as they now seem to be in the Primary World – and yet sufficiently akin. I might answer that this ‘biology’ is only a theory, that modern ‘gerontology’, or whatever they call it, finds ‘ageing’ rather more mysterious, and less clearly inevitable in bodies of human structure. But I should actually answer: I do not care. This is a biological dictum in my imaginary world. It is only (as yet) an incompletely imagined world, a rudimentary ‘secondary’; but if it pleased the Creator to give it (in a corrected form) Reality on any plane, then you would just have to enter it and begin studying its different biology, that is all. (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien, 153 To Peter Hastings (draft).)

In my fanfiction, my Elves are human through and through. The longevity question is a serious one and I do consider it, perhaps not always as well and as thoroughly as I should. One is forced to consider that in their likenesses to Men, in how they function, the mistakes they make, the evils they cause, and the good they try to do, Elves far more resemble Men than they differ from them. A good friend of mine wrote on a discussion thread an ever so slightly differing opinion which I find useful:

I also really like through this, how you show the Elves as different to Men. Elves are human, as Tolkien says, but they are not Mortal, and to my mind are far more alien than most fanfic authors write them. Of course some write solely Elf-centric fics, and among one another Elves do not seem so alien to the reader, as there is nothing else to compare them to; they’re simply acting naturally within their own kindred. When you juxtapose Men and Elves, I like to see authors show the differences. Not unknowable or unreachable (or we wouldn’t be interested in them) but definitely not Mortal either. (Spiced Wine, story review for “Sons of Thunder,” http://www.lotrfanfiction.com/reviews.php?type=ST&item=13244&chapid=27218)

While I have not yet read the story she is reviewing, I do agree with her second point in general, which is that I do write Elves differently if I write a story of First Age Elves who have little to no interaction with Men or if I write a LotR-based story in which one of the points of interest/conflict is the reaction of Elves to Men or Men to Elves.

If Elves appear ethereal and remote to a young Hobbit visiting Rivendell, I can understand that entirely. They are described as tall and stunningly handsome in appearance; their otherness is enhanced for those who have never encountered one of them by an air of wisdom, a reflection of seemingly countless years of experiences good and bad. Further, we do read of an overbearing attitude of the likes of Lindir in Rivendell, who manifests the isolationism of an Elf who has spent a great deal of time navel-gazing and pondering on his own concerns, while the world passes by him.

’It is not easy for us to tell the difference between two mortals,’ said the Elf [Lindir].

‘If you can’t distinguish between a Man and a Hobbit, your judgement is poorer than I imagined. They’re as different as peas and apples.’

‘Maybe. To sheep other sheep no doubt appear different,’ laughed Lindir. ‘Or to shepherds. But Mortals have not been our study. We have other business.’ (The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, “Many Meetings”)

I have always had the feeling that Lindir in this passage is being intentionally arrogant and dismissive of the Others present in Rivendell in the Hall of Fire that night. Perhaps the truth is that he suffers from the world weariness of the Third Age Elf, living the world of Middle-earth that is on the cusp of passing from the Ages of the Elves into the Age of Men. That world weariness with the passage of time is perhaps the major distinguishing factor between human mortals and quasi-immortals in Tolkien’s legendarium.

In summary, I like my Elves to laugh and cry, to show some of their blood and guts, to manifest their human emotions. I support strongly reading The Silmarillion if one wishes to write Elves. I would assert that they are complex, human, emotional, and filled with passion. Tolkien, even in the cases where he uses an epic style, or that of a historical chronicler, and does not use our modern close and personal point of view, permits their characterization to be layered and complicated by their actions, circumstances and subsequent choices. His Elves can never be divided into black or white, cardboard villains or saints.

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