An elf is a creature from folklore. Elves come in many forms, from the tiny people who mend shoes in 'The Elves and the Shoemaker' to the sinister soul-stealer in Goethe's poem 'The Erlking'. The portrayal of elves in folklore is intertwined with that of other magical beings such as fairies, pixies, dwarves and gnomes and with the Irish legends of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the People of the Goddess Danu.
JRR Tolkien featured Elves1 in the invented folktales which became his world of Middle-earth, described in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion as well as some other unfinished works. Tolkien's Elves have become the archetypal elves of all fantasy novels. Their main features are as follows:
- tall and good-looking
- live in tune with nature
- have little interest in the lives of humans
Unlike Dwarves, Elves don't have beards. They appear to have long straight hair, and Tolkien mentions hair colours of golden (blonde), dark and silver. He never mentioned a red-haired elf, but there's no reason to think there couldn't be one; Peter Jackson introduced such a character, Tauriel, in his movie series of The Hobbit.
The elves of European folklore are normally depicted with pointed ears. Tolkien never described the shape of his Elves' ears, but Peter Jackson decided in his movies that pointed ears would be a good way to distinguish between Elves and humans, given that the Elves looked like tall, good-looking humans.
Folklore and Linguistics Intertwined
Tolkien's early stories, which were published after his death in The Silmarillion, were mainly about the Elves - the idea of a never-ending war between two different immortal species provided lots of opportunities for heroism and tragedy. Men rarely came into the early stories except when they interacted with Elves. In the later stories which became The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, the time of Elves had passed and there were only a few left in the world.
Tolkien was first and foremost a linguist, having a number of different jobs to do with the English language, including working for the Oxford English Dictionary and teaching Old English (then known as Anglo-Saxon) in Oxford University. He knew of the way that European languages were created by the movement of peoples and subsequent isolation of similar-speaking groups from each other. He envisaged a similar process for the Elves so that he could have not just one language for the Elves but many. In the end he settled on two main Elvish languages, Quenya and Sindarin, although he referred to other dialects in his notes. To explain the great difference between these two languages, he came up with the story of the Great Journey, which is described in detail in The Silmarillion.
First Awakening of the Elves
In Tolkien's version of the creation myth, the world was conceived by the all-powerful god Ilúvatar and built by his servants, the spirit creatures known as the Valar (greater spirits) and Maiar (lesser spirits). One of the Valar, Melkor, rebelled, wanting to introduce his own ideas into the world and to dominate the others - he fought many wars against the others, marring their work in constructing the world.
Elves and Men (Tolkien's name for humans) were both creations of Ilúvatar - the Valar had no part in their creation, but had been given the task of preparing the world for their arrival. The Elves arrived first in the world, waking up fully formed in a place they called Cuiviénen in the east of Middle-earth. Note that in Tolkien's terminology, Middle-earth is not the whole world but the main landmass2.
At that time, most of the world, including all of Middle-earth, was in darkness, lit only by the stars. The sun and moon had not yet been created. The Elves had very acute eyesight which allowed them to see by starlight. They invented language to talk to each other, and called themselves the Quendi, the Speakers, as they were the only ones they encountered who could speak.
The Valar lived in a land in the far west called Aman or Valinor. This was lit by two giant glowing trees, one silver and the other gold. Valinor was a beautiful place. Middle-earth on the other hand was dark and deceptive - Melkor had a fortress in the north of it, and many evil creatures roamed in the darkness. The Elves discovered that those who wandered off on their own often didn't return, and it is said that Melkor's servants captured them and brought them to his fortress where they were gradually corrupted and changed: they became the original orcs.
The Great Journey
Once the Valar became aware of the Elves, they decided on a two-fold plan. Firstly, they waged war on Melkor again and imprisoned him. Secondly, they invited the Elves to travel west and come to live in Valinor where there was light and life and they could be looked after by the Valar.
Most of the Elves agreed to go on this Great Journey; it was a slow one taking many years, as the Elves were in no great hurry. Various groups of Elves abandoned the journey along the way. Eventually three groups reached Valinor and lived there with the Valar. These were:
The Vanyar - fair and golden-haired, they immediately settled in to life in Valinor and never left.
The Noldor - mainly dark-haired, they were the most interested in how the world works and became great inventors and lore-masters. The Noldor were the only Elves who ever came back to Middle-earth from Valinor.
The Teleri - they took their time getting to Valinor and were last to arrive: their name means 'late-comers'. They settled by the sea and became great sailors.
These Elves became wiser, more sophisticated, better educated and generally more capable than those who stayed behind in Middle-earth. They became known as High Elves. Their language, Quenya, developed into a vehicle for discussion of very complex and abstruse ideas, as Greek did in the early history of Europe and the Middle East.
The Elves who stayed behind in Middle-earth were simpler - without direct contact with the Valar, they didn't know as much about the workings of the world although they were instinctively very tuned in to Nature. They are often known as 'Wood Elves' or 'Silvan Elves'. The greatest of these groups was the Sindar, who lived in the part of Middle-earth closest to the western ocean, in a land called Beleriand. This country lay to the west of the Blue Mountains, but sank beneath the sea in the destruction at the end of the First Age. The language of the Sindar changed to match the natural environment they lived in and became different from the original Quenya spoken by all the Elves - Sindarin became the language of virtually all the Elves who had stayed behind in Middle-earth.
The Return of the High Elves
Melkor was eventually released from prison as the Valar thought he had been cured of evil. He proved them wrong, wreaking havoc in Valinor. He first stirred up trouble by spreading rumours, causing the Noldor to be unhappy with the Valar; then he attacked the two light-giving trees and destroyed them, killed Finwë the King of the Noldor, stole some of their most valued possessions - the glowing jewels known as the Silmarils - and returned to Middle-earth where he set himself up as Dark Lord in his fortress of Angband to the north of Beleriand.
The Noldor, against the advice of the Valar, decided to pursue Melkor, giving him the name they called him for ever afterwards, Morgoth, the Great Enemy of the World. In their haste to cross the ocean to Middle-earth, they attempted to borrow ships from the Teleri, who refused to part with them. There was a battle and many of the Teleri were killed by the Noldor, who took the ships.
The Valar passed a judgement - the Noldor were free to leave Valinor, but if they did so, they would be banned from ever returning. Thus the High Elves arrived back in Middle-earth, full of the knowledge and skills they had learned from the Valar, but in a state of disgrace and forbidden from ever returning.
The Valar didn't completely abandon Middle-earth - they created the Sun and the Moon to light the world. But they said they wouldn't come and fight against Melkor unless a representative of both Elves and Men came and asked them to. So for the whole of the First Age the Noldor fought a losing battle against the Dark Lord. Finally when all hope appeared to have been lost, the mariner Eärendil, father of Elrond and a descendant of both Elves and Men, sailed across the ocean and delivered the plea for help to the Valar. They gave in and went to war against Melkor one final time, eventually trapping him and thrusting him out of the world into the void of Night from where he could never return.
The Magic of the Elves
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
- Clarke's Third Law
The Elves have abilities that seem magical to other races, but they themselves don't understand what is meant by the word. Galadriel says:
For this is what your folk would call magic, I believe: though I do not understand clearly what they mean; and they seem to use the same word of the deceits of the Enemy
Some of the things that the Elves can do are well beyond the abilities of the people of the time. Most of them are also beyond modern-day human abilities:
- Rope which stays tightly tied until you want it to untie.
- Food which when eaten in tiny quantities provides complete sustenance.
- A 'mirror' made from water in a bowl which can show you visions of what is happening in the world or may happen in the future.
- A crystal ball which allows you to talk telepathically to someone looking into another, linked ball.
- A method of putting out a large number of fires simultaneously and instantly when an intruder is detected.
- A river flood triggered by something evil entering the river.
- Easing of the pain of a wound by touching with fingers.
- Capturing starlight in a bottle of water so that it will shine out when the holder needs it to.
- Camouflage cloaks.
- A ring which offers some unspecified protection to the wearer and the people they want to protect.
- Singing songs which turned the singer and his companion into the likeness of orcs (so that they could venture in disguise into orc territory).
- Trapping light in a crystal.
We've excluded from this list the feats of Luthien who was half Maia and would possibly have some Maia powers.
You can see that magic of the Elves is a mixture of sophisticated production methods and stuff we have no idea how it worked, with possibly a bit of hypnotism thrown in.
Glorfindel and the Fate of the Elves
Tolkien liked to distinguish between the spiritual paths of Elves and Men. As a Christian, he believed that when we die our spirit survives and travels on to some other place. The Men in his stories share the same fate.
But Elves were different. Firstly, they did not die of old age, or even visibly age at all. They stayed in the fullness of their health for ever. Most of the Elves that we meet in the stories are thousands of years old. Even Arwen, the youngest of them, is 2,777 when Frodo meets her. Secondly, although it is possible to kill an Elf, their spirit does not leave the world. Instead, it travels to the Halls of Mandos in the westernmost part of Valinor.
Tolkien stated a number of times that it is possible for an Elf's spirit to return from the Halls of Mandos and for him or her to be reborn as the same Elf again. He was never specific about how this would happen, though. Would the spirit inhabit a new Elf-baby who had just been conceived or born, so that the new baby would be the same Elf as the old Elf who had died? Would the old Elf's memories be present in the new Elf? And how would others know that this was a re-incarnation of a previous dead Elf? Or would the Elf just wake up in a new body, as the first Elves had woken in Cuiviénen?
Tolkien appears to have never worked out what he meant by Elves returning, and never gave any examples of any such Elves who had returned from the dead. Or did he? The Silmarillion tells of an Elf called Glorfindel who fought at the Fall of Gondolin and was killed saving his friends. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo met an Elf called Glorfindel who lent him his horse to escape the Black Riders3. Were these two Elves the same Glorfindel? Did Glorfindel die and return again with the same name? Or was it just a case of the later Elf being named after the earlier one?
There's no definitive answer to this, as Tolkien never made up his mind. In his unpublished works he explored both possibilities, but never decided which worked best. So the fate of the Elves is something that even Tolkien didn't know.
Notable Elves in and before the First Age
In the First Age, the Elves were still young and full of energy, determined to change the world and to fight against evil. Most of the notable Elves of this age were involved in the war against Morgoth in some way or another.
Elwë4 was acknowledged as the King of all the Elves who remained in Middle-earth. He was extremely tall, the tallest elf ever, and had silver hair. He fell in love with Melian, a Maia (lesser spirit) whose job had been to teach the birds of Middle-earth to sing. They married and had one daughter, Luthien. In later years, when the threat of Morgoth's forces become more insistent, Melian built a magic fence of enchantment around one part of Beleriand, and this became the kingdom of Doriath. As long as Elwë and Melian ruled, no evil creature could get through into Doriath. Their capital was Menegroth, the City of a Thousand Caves, which was built on the banks of a river in such a way that the only entrance was a bridge across the river. Elwë was known as Singollo, Grey-Mantle. As the language changed, his name mutated into Elu Thingol in Sindarin, and he is often known as Thingol in the stories.
Luthien - the daughter of Elwë Singollo and Melian, she was supposedly the most beautiful Elf who ever lived. She fell in love with a mortal Man, Beren. This so annoyed her father that he sent Beren on a quest he thought to be impossible: to retrieve a Silmaril from the crown of Morgoth. The plan backfired when Luthien chose to follow Beren on his quest - through many hardships and against all expectations, they eventually succeeded in penetrating Angband and stealing the jewel from Morgoth's crown. Luthien gave up her immortality to marry Beren. Their descendants were known as the half-elven and included Elrond.
Fëanor5 - considered the greatest Elf of all time, Fëanor was clever in the extreme as well as being brave, good-looking and wilful. He revised the Elvish system of writing to one that continued to be used for thousands of years. He invented techniques for making gemstones and made the greatest of these, the Silmarils, which had the light of the Two Trees trapped in them. He also made the seven palantiri, crystal spheres which could communicate with each other. Fëanor led the revolt against the Valar when Melkor killed his father, destroyed the two trees and stole the Silmarils. He persuaded the Noldor to leave Valinor and return to Middle-earth to wage war against Melkor. It was Fëanor who coined the name Morgoth, Great Enemy, by which Melkor was known ever afterward. He led the onslaught on Morgoth's forces and as a result was one of the first to be killed.
Fingolfin - the half-brother of Fëanor, he was acknowledged as High King of the Noldor who returned to Middle-earth. He marched to the gates of Angband and challenged Morgoth to single combat. Morgoth accepted. Although Fingolfin succeeded in wounding Morgoth, he was totally outclassed by him, and Morgoth crushed Fingolfin under his giant shield.
Finrod Felagund - he built the underground city of Nargothrond in the caves on the bank of the River Narog. A promise he made to a great friend eventually dragged him into the events surrounding Luthien and Beren, and he died in the dungeons of Sauron on the Island of Werewolves6.
Turgon - the most cautious of the lords of the Noldor, he decided that the only way to avoid destruction by Morgoth's forces was to hide. He built the city of Gondolin in a hidden valley in the mountains, moved all his people to there and sealed it off from the outside world. For hundreds of years, nobody knew where Turgon and his people had gone or even of the existence of Gondolin.
Notable Elves in the Second Age
Tolkien worked out some of the events of the Second Age, but never got as far as writing books about them. Most of them are given in appendices and unpublished snippets.
Celebrimbor - a grandson of Fëanor, he was the most skilled of the craftsmen in the Elf-kingdom of Eregion just to the west of the Misty Mountains. He welcomed the Maia who called himself Annatar, Lord of Gifts, and together they perfected the technique of making magic rings. Celebrimbor made the three Elven-rings, but Annatar revealed himself to be Sauron, a lieutenant of Morgoth who was now stepping into his master's shoes and becoming the new Dark Lord. Sauron made the One Ring and attempted to take control of the wearers of all the other rings. Celebrimbor was killed in the ensuing war.
Gil-galad - most of the leaders of the Noldor who fought against Morgoth died in the process. Gil-galad eventually inherited the position of High King of the Noldor and ruled the Elf-kingdom of Lindon around the Blue Mountains throughout the Second Age. At the end of that Age, he united his forces with the Men of Arnor and Gondor to fight against Sauron. Sauron was defeated but Gil-galad was killed along with Elendil, the leader of the Men.
Notable Elves in the Third Age
By the Third Age, most of the Elves were thousands of years old and immortality was beginning to get to them. They were becoming weary of the world. They still loved the beauty of Middle-earth and had no problem with the yearly cycle of birth and death that they saw in Nature, but they noticed a steady decline in the world brought about by the actions of the forces of evil. The kingdoms of the past were no more and the world was becoming wilder and more dangerous. Many Elves left Middle-earth, sailing west to the land of the Valar, which was kept unchanging as much as possible for the sake of the Elves.
Elrond - a direct descendant of the Kings of Doriath and Gondolin, Elrond was heir to two kingdoms that had been destroyed during the wars. As half-elves, he and his brother Elros were given the choice whether to be considered an Elf or a Man. Elros chose to be a Man. He became the first King of Numenor, and lived to the grand old age of 500. Elrond chose to be an Elf. Initially he lived in Lindon with Gil-galad, but after the destruction of Eregion, he led the survivors north and founded the refuge of Rivendell, where he lived as the ruler although he never took the title of king. Elrond became a lore master and his main contribution to the fight against evil was in offering advice.
Galadriel - a niece of Fëanor, she joined in his revolt against the Valar and left Valinor at about the same time. As one of the leaders of the revolt, she was personally banned from ever returning. Throughout most of the Second and all of the Third Ages, she and her husband Celeborn ruled a small kingdom of Nandorin Elves who lived on the banks of the Great River. Under her influence, this became the Golden Wood of Lorien. She provided some valuable help and advice to Frodo in his quest to destroy the One Ring. Frodo offered her the ring, but she refused to take it. For this, her ban from Valinor was finally lifted, allowing her to return to where she had been born.
Thranduil - a minor king of a small group of Wood Elves in the north of the forest of Mirkwood, Thranduil is a major character in The Hobbit, but is known in that book only as the King of the Elves. We learn his name in passing in The Lord of the Rings. Thranduil seems to have modelled himself on Elu Thingol - he was tall and had silver hair. His fortress in the forest was designed as a smaller version of Thingol's Menegroth, and he had the same policy of looking after his own kingdom but letting the rest of the world go to ruin.
Legolas - the son of Thranduil, he arrived in Rivendell as a messenger, but decided to join Frodo's party as a representative of Elves in general. He accompanied Frodo as far as the Falls of Rauros, then went with Aragorn on his journey to save Gondor. The Elves in The Lord of the Rings generally give advice but don't get involved in the fighting - Legolas is the exception. It is through him we learn of the Elves' great skill in everything they do. He has incredibly acute eyesight; he's an expert bowman; he can tread lightly on snow without sinking into it or even leaving footprints; and he doesn't sleep, choosing instead to relive his past memories while others around him are sleeping.
Arwen - the daughter of Elrond, she is engaged to Aragorn and marries him at the end of The Lord of the Rings. In the book, Arwen does nothing other than speak a few sentences to Frodo and turn up for her own wedding. In Peter Jackson's movies, Arwen is given a more prominent role, heading out from Rivendell to rescue Frodo from the Black Riders, and turning up in a few odd flashbacks as well.