Sam Gamgee famously said that there are “Elves and Elves”. Indeed, he was right. While the Elves are considered among the noblest in Middle-earth, there are Elves of various kinds. They differ from each other in personal qualities, just like all individuals do, as well as in a collective attitude to life inherent to some clans. The Silvan Elves occupy a seemingly lower place in the Elvish hierarchy, but they are just different: their lifestyle and philosophy set them apart from most of the other Elves.

The Silvan Elves (also called the Wood-elves and Tawarwaith) were from the Nandor — a small group of the Teleri that began the Great Journey, but never crossed the Sea to Aman and remained in Middle-earth in the Vale of Anduin. In those early days the Silvan Elves broke further away from the Nandor and dwelt in the forest beyond the Misty Mountains, becoming a rather scattered people. By the Third Age the two realms where the Silvan Elves still lived were Lórien and the north-eastern part of Mirkwood. 

When Bilbo Baggins and the Dwarves encountered the Elves of Mirkwood on their disastrous journey through the forest, the Elves did not come across as particularly welcoming. “They differed from the High Elves of the West, and were more dangerous and less wise” (Hobbit, p. 194). By lesser wisdom we should understand the Wood-elves’ lack of instruction and enlightenment from the Valar that those Elves that had sojourned in Valinor had. Due to their life in the Blessed Realm they were more knowledgeable, more advanced intellectually and spiritually than those Firstborn who chose to stay in Middle-earth, hence the title of the High Elves. 

However, the Silvan Elves were far from lowly simpletons at the bottom of the Elvish hierarchy. They were indeed of the Eldar, being in origin from the Teleri. While the Wood-elves might not have had the skills of the High Elves in crafts or their wisdom, they, quoting Sam again, were “all Elvish enough”. In the first place, Tolkien made it very clear that even despite their hostility, “still elves they were and remain, and that is Good People.” (Hobbit, p. 194). The spots in the forest where the Wood-elves held their feasts were touched by some goodness, so that the gigantic spiders of Mirkwood chose not to step into those circles. Disturbed several times, the Elves did imprison the Dwarves, but they treated their prisoners well and gave them rather good food. They did not seem to have any intentions of torturing the Dwarves or starving them to death.

The ways of the Silvan Elves also seem to have been typical of all the Elves before some of them went to Valinor. When Oropher and his following of the Sindar came among the Elves of the then Greenwood the Great, they wanted to stay away from the affairs of Middle-earth and deliberately adopted a lot of the aspects of the Silvan culture, no doubt bringing something of their own, too, as “they wished indeed to become Silvan folk and to return, as they said, to the simple life natural to the Elves before the invitation of the Valar had disturbed it.” (Unfinished Tales, p. 336). Thus the Wood-elves seem to represent the Elves in their original and purest form, unchanged by the teaching of the Valar and following their own path in life.

As part of this more simple life, the Silvan Elves were very close to nature. It is said of the Nandor: “Greater knowledge they had of living things, tree and herb, bird and beast, than all other Elves.” (Silmarillion, p. 52), and, being closely related to that Elvish group, the Wood-elves must have shared this knowledge, too. Their closeness to nature was also seen in their clothes. The Elves of Mirkwood were dressed in green and brown, adorned their hair and clothes with flowers, green and white gems. The crown of the Woodland King was made of leaves and berries to match the season. The Elves of Lórien went even further in their blending with nature and wore cloaks that rendered them almost invisible against natural landscapes. 

The Silvan Elves seem almost as one with their surroundings, merging into them harmoniously. That, however, could have another implication apart from closeness to nature: their clothes also easily served as camouflage so as not to be seen or readily noticed. The Silvan Elves were notoriously distrustful of strangers and wished to have as little as possible to do with the world around them: 

In the Wide World the Wood-elves lingered in the twilight of our Sun and Moon, but loved best the stars; and they wandered in the great forests that grew tall in lands that are now lost. They dwelt most often by the edges of the woods, from which they could escape at times to hunt, or to ride and run over the open lands by moonlight or starlight; and after the coming of Men they took ever more and more to the gloaming and the dusk.

(Hobbit, p. 194)

The desire of the Silvan Elves to be left alone was prominent in them from the very beginning, otherwise they would not have gone to live in the woods breaking apart from everyone else. This wish for peace and quiet seemed to have been intensifying with the ever-growing power of the other Elves and Men. The Wood-elves were becoming more and more secretive, taking more and more to their realms and trying not to meddle in the affairs of Middle-earth, unless they absolutely had to when, for instance, the safety of their own realms was at stake. 

A look at the dwellings of the Wood-elves only proves what we already know about them: they want peace and quiet within their own small, closed communities. Both realms in Mirkwood and Lórien were well hidden and even better guarded. Whether it was closely watched approaches to Lórien or lack of bridges in the golden wood, magically sealed doors or the underground halls of Mirkwood, approaching or, for that matter, even finding the Wood-elves was nigh to impossible. They preferred isolation from the outer world and achieved it very successfully.

Their distancing from the outer world also reflected in the language the Silvan Elves spoke. Though they did have their own tongue, it was not widely spoken and in the Third Age its traces remained only in some names, such as Lórien, Caras Galadhon, Amroth, Nimrodel [1]. When under the Sindarin (and, in case of the Elves of Lórien also a Noldorin) rulers they became a more ordered and wiser folk, they adopted Sindarin for their daily speech. In Mirkwood in the time of Thranduil’s rule Sindarin was spoken, but not by all his people, so presumably Silvan Elvish was still used by a few there. In Lórien, where the Silvan Elves lived side by side with the Noldor and the Sindar, Sindarin was in universal use. The language there, however, was spoken with what we might call an accent and probably had some words from Silvan Elvish: it was different from Sindarin it its purer form [2]. Some of the Silvan Elves of Lórien did not know Common Speech because they simply had no need of it: only those who ventured out to gather news had the knowledge of the tongue. 

The Silvan Elves represent a very interesting branch of the Firstborn with their own traditions, culture and character. What made them different from the High Elves of the West was their desire for peace and quiet, isolation from the outer world and a simple, natural way of life. However, even despite their distrust of outsiders and seeming hostility to them, they were Elves and that equals with Good People. 


[1] Return of the King, p. 507.

[2] Unfinished Tales, p. 332-333. There is also an interesting statement on p. 336 which says that when Oropher and his Sindar came to live among the Silvan Elves, they adopted their language. However, it is stated elsewhere (Unfinished Tales, p. 333) that by the end of the Third Age Silvan Elvish was no longer spoken in the realm of Thranduil. 

Works consulted:

  1. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Silmarillion (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1999.
  2. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Hobbit; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012.
  3. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
  4. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
  5. J. R. R. Tolkien – Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-earth (edited by Christopher Tolkien); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 1998.

Featured image: Pixabay

6 thoughts on “Deep into the woods.

  1. The Silvan Elves seem a little closer to us than their High Elven kin somehow. I could imagine catching a glimpse of something in the woods at eventide and wondering, could it be? But sadly glimpses and traces seem all that is left to us. I know that if I ever really met one of the faerie folk it would be both the greatest delight of my life and one fraught with danger. But like Sam Gamgee I confess that I long to see Elves!

    1. I also see them this way. Closer, but at the same time even further away as they wished nothing to do with the mortals and hid from them as well as they could.
      Ah, don’t we all? 🙂 No wonder many are so attracted by the forests. These places have such an air of hidden mystery that we almost feel we can find someone or something when we enter a forest.

  2. The wood elves seem to me the type of elf that morphed into the Victorian pixie. Elves used to be more of the High-Elven type in very early mythology, then they dwindled to the Silvan type, and further to the Victorian type (non-existent in Tolkien). Perhaps they seem “nearer” to us because they are closer to us on the mythological timeline.

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