The Elves of Middle Earth, also known as the Eldar, the Quendi and the Firstborn, stand at the absolute heart of Tolkien’s legendarium. Even though the word ‘Elf’ existed long before anyone heard of The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, today the Elf is a very different creature because of Tolkien’s writings. The oldest and wisest people of Middle Earth, the Elves possess great nobility and power. They do not age, nor do they die, unless wounds, grief or some artifice of the Enemy takes hold of them and ends their existence. To other peoples they seem at once aged and ageless, possessing the lore and wisdom of experience, together with the joyful nature of youth. But above all, they are the only race never to have willingly served the Shadow. For they revel in the wonders of nature, the beauty of songs and tales, the glimmer of the stars, and the voice of the waters. But in their hearts, they also possess great sadness, knowing that all things pass, and that they cannot preserve them. It is this melancholic aspect of the Elves which makes them so central to Tolkien’s mythology, for they seem to encapsulate one of the major themes of his writing – the passing of ‘The Elder Days’, of a more enlightened and spiritual age, and the loss of its ideals in the face of the relentless rise of man and modernity. But this characteristic also links them with the Elves of folklore who, as depicted in fairy tales like The Elves and the Shoemaker, at first appear very different from Tolkien’s firstborn – smaller and more frivolous in every way. However, it is possible, however unlikely, to link the two conceptions of Elves, if one takes into account Tolkien’s explanation for their literal and metaphorical ‘dwindling’ – an explanation which involves them fighting the inevitable extinction of their species, better known as the ‘Long Defeat’. For this, however, we must go back to the very beginning, and Tolkien’s earliest inspirations for the children of Varda.
Tolkien’s Elves are derived in some part from an entirely novel solution to an old mythological problem. There was no doubt that a belief in Elves was widespread in European antiquity, however the words used about them seemed curiously contradictory. The Icelander Snorri Sturluson seemed aware of both ‘Light Elves’ (liosalfar) and ‘Dark Elves’ (dokkalfar), but he also recognised ‘Swart Elves’ (svartalfar), though the place they lived, Svartalfheim, was also the home of the Dwarves. Meanwhile Old English uses words like ‘Wood Elf’ (wuduaelf) and ‘Water Elf’ (woeteraelf). How are all these fragments to be reconciled? Are ‘Swart Elves’ the same as ‘Dark Elves’, and both perhaps the same as Dwarves? Tolkien, however, distinguishes the two species from each other perfectly clearly: the Dwarves are associated with mining, smith craft and a world underground, the Elves with beauty, allure, dancing and the woodland. The various types of Elf, meanwhile, are not separated merely by colour but by history. The ‘Light Elves’ are those who have seen the light of the Two Trees which preceded the sun and the moon, in Aman, or Valinor, the Undying Land in the West. The ‘Dark Elves’ are those who refused the journey and remained in Middle Earth, to which many of the Light Elves eventually returned, as exiles or as outcasts. The Dark Elves who remained in the woods of Beleriand are also, of course, naturally described as Wood Elves. Whilst it would only be natural, as time went by and memory became blurred, for men to be unsure whether such a character was once an Elf or a Dwarf, a main aim in Tolkien’s creations was always to ‘save the evidence’ i.e. to rescue his ancient sources from hasty modern accusations of vagueness or folly. Saving the evidence, moreover, generated story, which was a rather handy side effect!
The first of Tolkien’s published works in which the Elves are glimpsed is The Hobbit, although he had, as we now know, been creating an Elvish mythology for more than 20 years before then (in the string of tales which were to become The Silmarillion). In his 1937 novel, though, Tolkien used Elves sparingly, mentioning them only with reference to Elrond in chapter 3 (‘one of those people whose fathers came into the strange stories before the beginning of History’) and then in the long paragraph discussing the Wood Elves, High Elves, Light Elves, Deep Elves and Sea Elves in chapter 8. It is the Wood Elves who play the most prominent part in The Hobbit, of course, and Tolkien drew his immediate inspiration for them from a single passage in the Middle English romance Sir Orfeo. This contains a famous section in which Orfeo, wandering alone and crazy in the wilderness after his wife has been abducted by the King of Faerie, sees the fairies riding by to hunt, their horns blowing and their hounds barking. Similarly, the first sign Thorin and company have of the Elves in chapter 8 of The Hobbit is when they become aware of the dim blowing of horns in the wood and the sound of dogs baying far off. The basic idea is the same in both places: that of a mighty king pursuing his kingly activities in a world forever out of reach of strangers and trespassers in his domain. This is a common device in Tolkien’s fiction – he often took fragments of ancient literature, expanded on their intensely suggestive hints of further meaning, and made them into a coherent and consistent narrative (usually enhancing them with ideas both from his own mythology and from traditional fairy tale).
We encounter Wood Elves of a quite different sort in the Lothlorien chapter of Lord of the Rings. As with the realm of the Mirkwood Elves, the ‘magic’ of Lorien has many roots, but there is one thing about it which is highly traditional, while also in a way a strong re-interpretation and rationalization of tradition. There are many references to Elves in Old English and Old Norse, as well as modern English (belief in them seems to have lasted longer than is the case with any of the other non-human races of early native mythology), but one story which remains strongly consistent is that of the mortal going into Elfland – best known, perhaps, from the ballads of Thomas the Rhymer. The mortal enters, spends what seems to be a night, or three nights, in music and dancing. But when he comes out and returns home he is a stranger, everyone he once knew is dead and there is only a dim memory of the man lost underhill. Elvish time, it seems, flows far slower than human time. Similarly, the Fellowship ‘remained some days in Lothlorien, as far as they could tell or remember’. But when they come out Sam looks up at the moon and concludes that it is: ‘as if we had never stayed no time in the Elvish country’. Frodo agrees with him, and suggests that in Lothlorien they had entered a world beyond time. Legolas the Elf, however, offers a deeper explanation. For the Elves, he says: ‘the world moves, and it moves both very swift and very slow… The passing seasons are but ripples ever repeated in the long long stream’.
The interlude in Lothlorien brings to light another trait of Tolkien’s Elves – many if not most of them envisage defeat as a long-term prospect. Galadriel says ‘Through ages of the world we have fought the long defeat’. Elrond agrees, saying ‘I have seen three ages in the West of the world, and many defeats and many fruitless victories’. Although he later questions his own adjective ‘fruitless’, he still repeats that the victory long ago in which Sauron was overthrown but not destroyed ‘did not achieve its end’. In this he is perhaps justified, for if the entire, long history of Middle Earth shows us anything it is that good is attained only at vast expense, while evil recuperates almost at will. It is made abundantly clear that even the destruction of the One Ring and the final overthrow of Sauron will conform to the general pattern of ‘fruitlessness’. The Ring’s destruction, says Galadriel, will mean that her ring (and Gandalf’s and Elrond’s) will all lose their power, so that Lothlorien ‘fades’ and the Elves ‘dwindle’, to be replaced by modernity and the dominion of men. By ‘dwindle’ Galadriel may mean that the Elves will physically shrink in size (perhaps to become the tiny creatures of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and popular imagination). Or they may ‘dwindle’ in number – or something else altogether may happen to them.
Tolkien would have been well aware of the Rollright Stones, the stone circle not too far from his study on the border of Oxfordshire and Warwickshire, and of the legend attached to them (he mentions them allusively in Farmer Giles of Ham). Once upon a time there was an old king, who was challenged by a witch to take seven strides over the hill and look down into the valley beyond. He did, but found his view blocked by a barrow and the witch’s curse was then activated, turning him and his men into stones. Perhaps the same sort of thing happens to the Elves. The last we see of Galadriel and her company (other than the final scene en route to the Grey Havens) is her, Celeborn, Elrond and Gandalf talking after the hobbits are asleep. But then again, do we actually seem them and are they talking?: ‘If any wanderer had chanced to pass, little would he have seen and heard, and it would have seemed to him only that he saw grey figures, carved in stone, memorials of forgotten things now lost in unpeopled lands’. The next day the folk of Lorien leave, ‘Quickly fading into the stones and the shadows’. Fading, or turning? A possible conclusion for the Elves is that they do not all leave Middle Earth. Instead, like the old king of Rollright, they are absorbed into the landscape, becoming the ‘grey figures, carved in stone’, which dot the English and Scottish folk-tradition (the Old Man of Coniston, the Grey Man of the Merric etc). It would not be an unsuitable, or an entirely sad ending. But it is the marker of an ultimate loss and defeat.
Of course, there is one sense in which the Elves are not gone at all, and that is their continued afterlife in the fantasy genre. Almost every author who has written epic or high fantasy since Tolkien’s day has made use of the ‘Elf’ archetype as conceived by him. They are not always called Elves but, whether it is Guy Gavriel Kay’s Lios Alfar, Tad Williams’ Sithi, Raymond E Feist’s Eledhel, Michael Moorcock’s Melniboneans or Katherine Kerr’s Elycion Lacar, their origins in Tolkien’s fiction are unmistakable and undeniable. They have even made it into outer space courtesy of Games Workshop’s Eldar in the Warhammer 40K role-playing universe! Although Tolkien did expressly intend to ‘leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama’ to continue bringing his world and his creations to life, I can’t help feeling that he would not have entirely approved of all of the ‘Elvish’ types that appeared in the many fantasy novels that came after the Rings. They were for him a noble but ultimately doomed race, recalling the fate of Elves in poetry, literature, myth and heroic romance. Thus in Middle Earth the Elves only dwindled as men grew more powerful and numerous, and these People of the Stars ultimately passed away forever to that place beyond the reach of mortals, save in ancient tale and perhaps in dream.