The Elves of Arda are often envied by mortals because of their immortality. However, having different fate, the Men cannot possibly understand all the possible disadvantages of continual living until the end of time. The Elves have their own sorrows which only intensify as the years go by — the fact which has a considerable influence on the Elvish attitude to life. 

When the Elves went into exile and set their feet on the road to Middle-earth, they also set off on the path to fading. Even after the War of Wrath and the pardon of the Valar, many of them chose to stay in Middle-earth instead of returning to the Undying Lands. As the ages went by, the Men were growing more powerful and numerous, while the Elves were diminishing. This could hardly have been to the Elves’ liking. In his letter to Milton Waldman Tolkien explained how the Firstborn felt: 

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. They thus became obsessed with ‘fading’, the mode in which the changes of time (the law of the world under the sun) was perceived by them. 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)

This attachment to the past was seen in Elvish songs about the Valar, Valinor and the days gone by; it permeated their tales in which the past deeds were preserved and honoured; it was even heard in their language and the way they spoke: The Elves of the Third Age used an old-fashioned, more courteous version of the Common Speech. Their gaze seemed to be turning more and more back into the past as the world around them was changing. 

Such an attitude was very cunningly perceived by Sauron. His talking the Elves of Eregion into collaborating with him and making the Rings of Power was based purely on their weakness — the desire of the Elves to recreate Valinor in Middle-earth, to preserve beauty and what was dear to them. Thus they were deceived by Sauron. The Three Elvish Rings, however, remained unsullied and untouched by the Dark Lord: Celebrimbor made them alone and these Rings were given to the wise, concealed by them and “those who had them in their keeping could ward off the decays of time and postpone the weariness of the world.” (Silmarillion, p. 345). Tolkien calls it “a more or less Elvish motive”, and rightfully so. The Elves did not need the ultimate power Sauron craved for. They simply wished to keep the world exquisite and the way they were used to enjoying it. We can see how it is done in Imladris and Lórien, but these two places have very different ways of preserving the past.

Imladris (or Rivendell) is the place where ancient things are remembered. After Elrond founded Rivendell, it was there that the weary could have a rest for their hearts and souls, receive wise advice, find answers to their questions or simply learn something that was necessary for them. In his refuge Elrond “preserved through many lives of Men the memory of all that had been fair” (Silmarillion, p. 357), thus Imladris was a treasury of knowledge and wisdom. A footnote to Letter № 131 says the following about Elrond and his dwelling:

Elrond symbolises throughout the ancient wisdom, and his House represents Lore – the preservation in reverent memory of all tradition concerning the good, wise, and beautiful.

(Letters, № 131)

At the time of the War of the Ring Elrond is one of the wisest Elves in Middle-earth. Having been born at the end of the First Age, he saw and experienced first-hand a lot of joyful and sorrowful events in the history of the lands. His knowledge was vast and impressive. Besides, a lot of very wise individuals were gathered in Rivendell, and thus its collective expertise in many matters was increased manifold. Imladris was the place where knowledge was dearly loved, preserved and generously shared with those in need for their benefit and enrichment.

Lórien is completely different: 

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)

It is the window into the world of old — into the bliss of Valinor that can be enjoyed in this small corner of Middle-earth, in the world that was getting darker and more perilous. Frodo felt 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” (Fellowship of the Ring, p. 458). His perception was very keen: Lórien was not a mere memory of the past, it was the living past itself. That would not have been possible without Galadriel’s Ring — Nenya. 

Galadriel was born in Valinor in blissful times and she had a very clear memory of that fair, unsullied land. Her life in Middle-earth was rather long, and she was not even sure she would be allowed to return to the Undying Lands when the time for that was due. Galadriel missed Valinor, so with the help of Nenya she kept Lórien flourishing, beautiful, free from decay and also turned it into the likeness of her home — the gesture full of nostalgia, melancholy and sorrow. Lórien was a secluded place with almost no contact with the outer world. It presenting a very drastic contrast with the lands stained or touched by the Shadow. 

However, Galadriel made it very clear that the Elves were willing to sacrifice everything that was dear to them for the destruction of Sauron: 

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.  Yet they will cast all away rather than submit to Sauron: for they know him now. 

(Fellowship of the Ring, p. 479)

The end of the One Ring also meant the end of all the other Rings of Power: their potency would be no more, and thus both Rivendell and Lórien would wither and fall into decay. Galadriel knew it but she accepted that fate humbly, was wiling to make that sacrifice so that the world could be purged of the evil of Sauron. The Elves learnt their lesson and were ready to make amends. 

Further reading:

Who wants to live forever?

Goldwood the Great.

The matter of Elvish time.

Works consulted:

  1. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1999.
  2. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
  3. J. R. R. Tolkien – Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1998.
  4. H. Carpenter – The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien; with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012 (Kindle edition).

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13 thoughts on “Beauty the preserved.

  1. The observation about elves speaking an “old-fashioned, more courteous form of the Common Speech” is really interesting. There are lots of fairy-stories in which this is true. Nobody would be surprised to meet an Elf who spoke in Shakespearean English. But I don’t know of any stories in which the Elves speak a version of the language that’s too old to be understood. Chaucerian English wouldn’t happen.
    There must be some place where fairies learn to keep up with language changes, but the study materials are a few hundred years out of date. I wonder what those classes are like.

  2. You are a treasure. I so enjoy your reflections.

    Immortality would seem to me would be a burden. Saying good bye to loved ones, but lingering on. Perpetual “old man smell” (wry comment). Culture would evolve, I would be left behind to remember and long the past. I think that diving into the present time we are limited to by our own God is special, living in such a manor as seems honorable to us. Immortality would be a burden beyond contemplation to me. Sounds good on the surface, not so much living with it.

    1. Thank you so much! You are very kind!

      Indeed. The concept of immortality only seems good. But when you contemplate it, it loses its allure. Tolkien’s Elves become burdened with memories over the course of their long lives. Tolkien used this wording in some of his earlier drafts, and that seems to me to be a very precise description of this longevity. It is indeed a burden.

  3. I like your point about how the Elves fell for Sauron because he offered them a way to recreate Valinor on earth. I had not thought about it in that particular way before.

    1. Well, it’s not really mine 🙂 I’m just basing it on what Tolkien himself wrote in letter 131 and in The Silmarillion as well. On his behalf, Sauron seemed to wish to benefit, too. The Professor called his actions regarding the Elves as “a veiled attack” on the Valar. I suppose Sauron wished to estrange the Elves from the Valar.

  4. Great post as always, Olga 🙂
    I was very surprised when I read that letter to Milton Waldman. I mean, I was surprised by how Tolkien criticised his Elves’ conservative behaviour towards change. But then, that helped me understand why Elves and Men should always work together. In a way, they complement one another, and it’s only when they bring their immortality (and reverence of the past) and their mortality (and ability to elaborate the present) together that something truly valuable is born.

    1. Thank you so much, my friend! 🙂
      I was also surprised when I first read it, but at the same time pleased in a way that the Elves were not that perfect, after all. It makes them come across as more real, believable and relatable. They have their own faults, too.
      That’s a great idea about collaboration between Elves and Men. They balance each other really well. The same idea is present in Doctor Who, by the way 🙂 the immortal Doctor always has mortal and earthly companions to help him understand the needs of the humans better.

  5. “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.”

    I wonder in contrast what was occurring in Aman at the same time. Often people think of Aman of what we saw of it in First Age, but that was long ago by events of Lord of the Rings even if the lands were undying and much of Noldor had left (although many had returned alive and rehoused eventually). Elves in Aman would not have such motives of “embalming” so even if elves there weren’t as energetic as before Noontide of Valinor had passed I would expect more societal and cultural changes there. The retuning of people form Middle-Earth at least would change some things.

    1. I have always seen Aman as a place of very little change. If I remember correctly, Tolkien mentioned that change happened in Aman, too, but very slowly. It seems that those Elves who returned there didn’t bring about much change, but rather embraced the changelessness of Aman. After all, that was what they wished for and tried to achieve in Middle-earth.

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