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.

Notes:

(1) There still remains a passage where Frodo is said to let go of a bridle, but Tolkien scholars attribute it to oversight. 

Works consulted:

  1. H. Carpenter – The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien; with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012 (Kindle edition).
  2. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
  3. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
  4. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.

 

Featured image – Creative Common Licence found at Pixabay.

4 thoughts on “In friendship they trust.

  1. Before I learned the importance of sticking meticulously to the text, I always figured that Glorfindel had a lance. No matter how good with horses an Elf may be, if he hits a Black Rider with his lance at full gallop, he’ll need a saddle to keep from flying over the horse’s tail. (That would ruin the heroic gravity of the scene, though it might get a million views on YouTube.)

    Curufin “was a strong and cunning horseman,” but Beren thought his horse would be glad to be rid of him. What do you think was different about Curufin?

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    1. I guess they definitely used saddles during battles, which, as you have mentioned, is only necessary. Or maybe used them when expecting a battle or a similar encounter.
      As far as Curufin goes, I think there are several reasons. First, I think that as Curufin wasn’t a particularly amiable character his horse might have not been especially fond of him. And second, and this I believe to be the main reason, it’s the scene when Curufin and Celegorm attack Beren and Lúthien. It’s definitely not a very worthy deed and makes me think of Huan’s turning against Celegorm in the same episode. So, I think the reason that Curufin’s horse can only be glad to rid of such a rider is that its master didn’t treat it in a good and noble way and some of his deeds which he performed on horseback weren’t good at all. The horse just didn’t want to be part of that.

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  2. Enlightening as always! I’ve recently reread both the meeting between Gildor and Frodo’s party in Woody End, and the first meeting between Finrod and Bëor’s folk in Beleriand. In both cases, Elvish words take shape as something comprehensible in the mind of the listener, even though they don’t understand the words. Do you suppose the same thing makes their speech with horses possible? Elves are gifted linguists, after all, and I wonder if they have an innate ability to communicate with any of Arda’s creatures by a mix of simple speech and latent telepathy.

    Either way, I think it’s evidence of your point, that this gift indicates respect and companionship with Arda’s creatures instead of a desire to dominate them: communicating with all creatures in terms they can understand, instead of forcing them to submit to commands through conditioned responses.

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    1. Thank you so much!
      I definitely think that Elves can communicate with animals in some sort of a telepathic way. The kind of understanding and bond they have hints at some deeper level of communication which, I believe, can be performed at a mental level. In a way I think that words Elves say to their animals somehow transfer in beasts’ heads into something comprehensible for them, just like in the cases you mentioned with Hobbits and Men. I have a very modern comparison, but I think that when Elves speak to others in their own tongue, some inner translator turns on in the mind of their interlocutor (animals, Hobbits or Men) and allows them to understand the speech, even though it’s in another tongue.

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