Known as great lovers of nature and living in close connection with it, Elves stand out among other Middle-earth dwellers. Due to their immortality, Elves are bound to the world and are doomed to live as long as it does, thus forming a harmonious, eternal part of Arda, not a temporary, passing element of it.
Such essence of theirs makes Elves especially receptive to the natural world around them. The Firstborn Children of Ilúvatar can read signs of nature, understand its dwellers and appreciate nature like very few others do. Their special relationship with the living world around is clearly seen in how Elves treat horses. They are known as skilful riders and not many can match Elves in this art. Their riding prowess has to do not only with intrinsically Elvish grace and strength, but also great respect for animals at the heart of it.
One of the most fascinating things about Elvish riding skills is their custom to ride without a saddle, a bit and a bridle when possible. This matter is highlighted in Tolkien’s letter to a reader who noticed a contradiction: Glorfindel’s horse Asfaloth had a bit and a bridle in its description while Elves did without these things. Professor Tolkien clarified:
…actually bridle was casually and carelessly used for what I suppose should have been called a headstall . Or rather, since bit was added ( I. 221) long ago (Chapter I. 12 was written very early) I had not considered the natural ways of elves with animals. Glorfindel’s horse would have an ornamental headstall, carrying a plume, and with the straps studded with jewels and small bells; but Glor. would certainly not use a bit. I will change bridle and bit to headstall.
(Letters, № 211)
This change was carried out in later editions of The Lord of the Rings (1) and on meeting Asfaloth we see that «in the dusk its headstall flickered and flashed, as if it were studded with gems like living stars» (Fellowship of the Ring, p. 275).
Still, Asfaloth is saddled as Glorfindel shortens the stirrups for Frodo to sit comfortably. Apart from the fact that Elves did use saddles when it was necessary, some Tolkien scholars explain the saddle in this episode by the potential necessity for Asfaloth to carry other riders, namely the Hobbits, as Glorfindel set out from Rivendell to look for the company.
Legolas also demonstrates a peculiar, extraordinary elf-fashion in riding. When the Rohirrim give him a horse – Arod – the Elf asks to remove the saddle and the rein:
«I need them not,» he said, and leaped lightly up, and to their wonder Arod was tame and willing beneath him, moving here and there with but a spoken word: such was the elvish way with all good beasts.
(Two Towers, p. 39)
This piece brings us to another aspect of relationship between Elves and their horses: fair folk’s natural ways of communicating with a horse imply using a spoken word rather than a number of limited commands learnt by a mount. When ridden by Elves, horses seem able to perceive casual speech. Arod listens and reacts to Legolas’s words and Glorfindel explains to Frodo that Asfaloth «will not let any rider fall that I command him to bear» (Fellowship of the Ring, p. 277). When Legolas follows Aragorn on the Paths of the Dead, Arod is not eager to go, unable to stand the dread of the place. The Elf finds a way – a gentle spoken word:
Then Legolas laid his hands on his eyes and sang some words that went soft in the gloom, until he suffered himself to be led, and Legolas passed in.
(Return of the King, p. 57-58)
There exists close companionship between an Elvish rider and a horse. A saddle, a bit, a bridle and a number of learned commands imply submission on behalf of a horse and mastery of a rider, and Elves want none of it in. They show respect for their horses, treat them as absolute equals, not just as beasts of burden: horses are friends for Elves – someone they can trust and rely on. And that is exactly what Legolas proves by calling Arod «my friend» (Two Towers, p. 125) on meeting the horse again after a short parting.
(1) There still remains a passage where Frodo is said to let go of a bridle, but Tolkien scholars attribute it to oversight.
- H. Carpenter – The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien; with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012 (Kindle edition).
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
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