In many ways Elvish immortality in Tolkien’s Legendarium is more like a doom for its bearers, rather than a blessing: being not permanent living per se, it is rather the state of an immensely long life until the end of Arda without any knowledge of what comes afterwards. Thus, alongside moments of joy, Elves carry great burdens of battles lost, dear ones dead and sorrows experienced over the courses of their really long lives, and the burden becomes only heavier with years. As Men are growing stronger and more powerful, Elves are waning and fading gradually. In Tolkien’s own words, they “are concerned rather with the griefs and burdens of deathlessness in time and change, than with death” (Letters, № 131).
The Elves were the First Children of Ilúvatar to awaken in Middle-earth, and they were exceedingly fair, wise and knowledgeable. Being especially gifted in artistic spheres, art was more natural and effortless for Elves than it was for Men, and thus one of their tasks was to adorn the world with the fruit of their creative labour. When Men arrived on the scene, Elves taught them, shared their knowledge with the younger race. However, the awakening of Men with the first rays of the newly kindled Sun meant the start of the Elves’ waning: it was their ultimate doom to make way for the mortals. It is no wonder that among many names that the Firstborn gave to their followers, one was the Usurpers. While it does not sound very flattering to Men, it was the reflection of the Elves’ upcoming reality.
In the First Age the two peoples co-existed rather peacefully alongside each other. Those Men who were willing gained a lot of knowledge from Elves, and there were battles when they fought side by side, helped each other out in tough situations. Later on, though, due to Morgoth’s deeds, Elves and Men became estranged and the relationship between the two peoples was not so cordial any more.
After the War of Wrath at the end of the First Age, a lot of Elves returned to Aman and dwelt in the land where they could avoid fading and dwindling. However, some of the fair folk lingered in Middle-earth. One reason for that was their love of the region, their attachment to it. Another reason was, however, a little vainer. In a letter to Milton Waldman Tolkien called it if not a fall, but definitely an error:
But they wanted to have their cake without eating it. They wanted the peace and bliss and perfect memory of ‘The West’, and yet to remain on the ordinary earth where their prestige as the highest people, above wild Elves, dwarves, and Men, was greater than at the bottom of the hierarchy of Valinor.
(Letters, № 131)
Still, that life in Middle-earth was different to what Elves enjoyed in the First Age. The people who used to have vast lands at their disposal and were the dominant force for hundreds of years found themselves reduced only to a few realms scattered all over Middle-earth. There was Lindon (established at the very beginning of the Second Age) ruled by Gil-galad and, after his fall, by Círdan; Eregion prospered under Celebrimbor’s rule from the year 750 S.A. until its fall in 1697 S.A. Both were the realms established by the Noldorin Elves. After the fall of Eregion, Elrond founded Rivendell, and the remnants of the Noldor from Eregion were among those who gathered in the new realm. There were also Silvan Elves of northern Mirkwood ruled by the Sindar Oropher and after his fall – Thranduil, and Lórien that reached its safety and power under the rule of Galadriel and Celeborn. While a lot of High Elves still lingered in Middle-earth, the Second and Third Ages were marked by the gradual decline of this people: Elves were sailing westward and those who did not for one reason or another, had the prospect of fading in front of them.
It was this fading that became to grow on Elvish minds, fired their nostalgia and craving for the place where they truly belonged. Elves turned to trying to preserve things, rather than move on with times:
They became sad, and their art (shall we say) antiquarian, and their efforts all really a kind of embalming–even though they also retained the old motive of their kind, the adornment of earth, and the healing of its hurts.
(Letters, № 131)
Their gaze turned inwards and into the past. Sauron found this very weak point of the Elves’ nature and managed to deceive the Noldor of Eregion with his fair looks and fair promises. After all, they were the ones who wanted to see Middle-earth as beautiful as Valinor, so his words coincided with their desires, and the Noldor hearkened to Annatar aka Sauron. That led to the creation of the Three Elven Rings of Power which were made by Celebrimbor without Sauron’s participation, but applying the knowledge gained from him. The main power of the Three was to keep things unchanged, preserve them from decay and ruin, make lands beautiful. Two of the three Rings were applied in Rivendell and Lórien for guarding and making both realms the embodiments of the ages past, although in a very different kind of way: “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).
However, Galadriel made it very clear that even though “the love of the Elves for their land and their works is deeper than the deeps of the Sea, and their regret is undying and cannot ever wholly be assuaged” (ibid., p. 479), they would sacrifice it all to defeat Sauron: the destruction of the One Ring would mean the decay of Lórien, but that inevitable thing would be for the greater good.
The undying regret Galadriel mentioned is connected with the Elvish memories that have a profound effect on their lives, too. “The Elves had (as they said themselves) a ‘great talent’ for memory, but this tended to regret rather than to joy” (Morgoth’s Ring, p. 332). Gimli believed that for Elves “memory is more like to the waking world than to a dream” (Fellowship of the Ring, p. 498), and that seems to be not far from the truth. As the years lengthen, their burden becomes heavier and heavier to carry: the world is being more and more dominated by Men, who, according to the Elves’ belief, aggrieve Manwë by being similar to Melkor in their deeds and behaviour. Doomed to dwell in Arda until its end, Elves love the world a lot more than Men do, so they feel its hurts more acutely and care for it deeply. With the growing dominion of Men, Elves are fading into memory.
This is especially noticeable in the Third Age. Not only are the Elvish kingdoms few and hidden, but Elves themselves seem to become more like characters from legends and folklore than beings from real life for those mortals inhabiting Middle-earth. Their paths and those of Men cross little and neither is concerned with the affairs of the other too much. The Second Age saw the last great union of Elves, Men and Dwarves joined in the War of the Last Alliance against the terror of Sauron. By the Third Age, though, Elves and Men had gone their separate ways:
Then the Quendi wandered in the lonely places of the great lands and the isles, and took to the moonlight and the starlight, and to the woods and caves, becoming as shadows and memories, save those who ever and anon set sail into the West and vanished from Middle-earth.
(Silmarillion, p. 117)
Thus it was the fate of the fair folk of Arda: either to sail West and say goodbye to Middle-earth, which they loved greatly, forever, or linger there, turn to mere shadows and then vanish from the face of the earth, remaining in the world only like memories. As the last reminder of the Elven race, a line of Elvish blood in Men was preserved in the world through three intermarriages between Beren and Lúthien, Tuor and Idril, Aragorn and Arwen, thus, as it was claimed, ennobling the Men who had it in their families.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1999.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
- J. R. R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien – Morgoth’s Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2015.
- H. Carpenter – The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien; with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012 (Kindle edition).
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