In the Third Age there remained only a few Elvish realms around Middle-earth. They were the places of uttermost beauty and peace as well as among the safest places in the land. In The Lord of the Rings we see Frodo and the company stay a while at Rivendell and Lothlórien – the realms that, among many gifts, brought them spiritual and physical rest, peace of mind and comfort if only for a while.

Rivendell and Lothlórien both belong to the remnants of Faërie in the world increasingly dominated by Men. Being in such places is a special experience for mortals who, on entering Faërie, go into lands new for them and very different from their usual places of habitation. What is normal for the dwellers of Faërie – the Elves in our case – is breaking the bonds of the routine and the familiar for mortals.

One of the things that is altogether different for mortals in Elvish realms is time. It flows differently for those who enter such lands, but how exactly? Here is what Tolkien himself has to say of the flow of time in Faërie for mortal creatures:

It is true that the seeming time in Faery being immensely longer than it is felt to be is usually told of mortals that enter into Faery. It is also true that in some actual experiences the time may seem short, and be found to be much longer when contact is made with ordinary affairs again.

(Smith of Wootton Major Essay)

This is one way in which mortals can perceive time in Elf-lands. Interestingly, Tolkien compared this kind of perception with engrossing in what we really like doing (for instance, reading or conversing with good friends) or with dreams, when in both cases a timeframe is not what it seems. Another way of time perception in Faërie is offered by Tom Shippey in The Road to Middle-earth: time seems to stand still for mortals in Elvish lands. Shippey gives an example of the Danish ballad ‘Elverhøj’ (‘Elf-hill’). An Elven maiden sings a song and time stops.

Let’s now look how Tolkien presents the time flow in his descriptions of the mortals’, and the Hobbits’ in particular, experiences in Rivendell and Lothlórien.

When Frodo meets Bilbo in Rivendell, the old Hobbit remarks:

Time doesn’t seem to pass here: it just is. 

(Fellowship of the Ring, p. 303) 

Later Bilbo says to Frodo in the answer to his question on how long the younger Hobbit might be gone on the quest:

I can’t count days in Rivendell.

(Fellowship of the Ring, p. 359) 

Bilbo does not notice the flow of time in Rivendell. If you asked him, I do not think he would be able to tell you how long he has been there at all. The other Hobbits also feel this stillness of time:

The future, good or ill, was not forgotten, but ceased to have any power over the present. Health and hope grew strong in them, and they were content with each good day as it came, taking pleasure in every meal, and in every word and song.

(Fellowship of the Ring, p. 359) 

The main virtue of the not-so-ticking clock in Rivendell seems to be the ability to put its visitors wholly into the present. They enjoy every single moment and, most importantly, live in the now, without being weighed down by the thoughts of the future or the past.

Lothlórien has a different air, though. To Frodo it seemed «that he had stepped over a bridge of time into a corner of the Elder Days, and was now walking in a world that was no more. In Rivendell there was memory of ancient things; in Lórien the ancient things still lived on in the waking world» (Fellowship of the Ring, p. 458).

Having captured the moment of the past contrary to Rivendell, which seems to have captured the present, Lothlórien has a similar effect on the Fellowship. During their stay in this timeless land the company find it hard to count how many days and nights they have spent there and to them it seems that nothing has really been going on. 

Unsurprisingly, after leaving Lórien and back on the road, Sam’s attempt to count the total number of the days spent in this fair land fails: he  cannot total them up to one month. Sam exclaims that «anyone would think that the time didn’t count in there» (Fellowship of the Ring, p. 510). In his turn Frodo recollects the time returning back to the flow as in the lands of the mortals only when they reach Anduin. 

There is a feel that the way time flows both in Rivendell and Lothlórien is a combination of two: to the mortals it seems to be standing still while it turns out to have passed swiftly. This is the perception of time the Elf-lands give. Legolas offers an Elvish perspective for it:

Nay, time does not tarry ever… But change and growth is not in all things and places alike. For the Elves the world moves, and it moves both very swift and very slow. Swift, because they themselves change little, and all else fleets by: it is a grief to them. Slow, because they do not count the running years, not for themselves. The passing seasons are but ripples ever repeated in the long long stream.

(Fellowship of the Ring, p. 510)

Thus, in their stays in Rivendell and Lothlórien the mortals had a taste of how time goes for the Elves. But being different in their span of life and the perception of time, they simply cannot feel it the way the Elves do. Having stepped over the threshold of Faërie, the mortals accept the laws of the fair lands and start living by them, if only for a short while, time included.

Works consulted:

  1. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
  2. J. R. R. Tolkien – Smith of Wootton Major; Extended Edition; edited by Verlyn Flieger; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2005.
  3. Tom Shippey – The Road to Middle-earth. How J. R. R. Tolkien created a new mythology; Revised and expanded edition (E-book Edition); HarperCollinsPublishers; 2012.


Featured image – Creative Common Licence found at Pixabay.


7 thoughts on “The matter of Elvish time.

  1. It was interesting to go back and read this a second time, but translating the Sindarin into English. If I say “dream” everywhere you write “Lórien”, new things become clear. (Some day I hope to pick up on Treebeard’s suggestion and figure out the significance of saying “Lórien” vice “Lothlórien”.)

    1. It is interesting indeed! I’ve read the essay this way too and it highlights Tolkien’s words in the Smith of Wootton Major essay about dream and its perception in time. Just gives extra emphasis to it. Great stuff.

  2. You’ve done a great job in a couple of recent essays tying in “Smith of Wootton Major,” which is my favorite non-legendarium work because of how much it illuminates the legendarium. I love your use of the “Smith” reference here as a jumping off point. Some of the characters’ observations about time (such as Bilbo’s and Frodo’s remarks in Rivendell) are so casually made, it’s easy to mistake them for offhand comments. But you’re absolutely right; they’re a subtle reminder of the faërie forces at work in those realms. Excellent stuff!

    1. Thank you so much, Shawn! I do love that essay too – there are so many great things in it which work so well within the whole context of Arda. I think I will go on exploiting this essay in some of my further writings 🙂
      And I love looking for these subtle Faërie signs. They are everywhere once you have Elves around 🙂

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