Whenever we meet Elves in Tolkien’s tales, their age is often very hard to discern. To mortal eyes they may appear as middle-aged individuals in full vigour, but in reality they can be thousands years old. Having a different life-span to that of Men, Elves grow older much more slowly, but grow older they do. Even though their ageing may not always be visible to mortal eyes, Elves feel it most acutely.
As time goes by, Elvish fëar are gaining more and more control over their hröar. This is especially increased from the Second Age onwards as Men’s dominion in Middle-earth is steadily growing. When we look at Elves, their age might not be readily understandable at first sight. However, a closer observation will reveal some signs of years, especially for those Elves who have been living in Arda for a long time and have seen a lot in the course of their lives.
Even though Elvish ageing and maturity are not visible in the familiar to us wrinkles and grey hair, it can be seen in their facial expressions, bearing, posture. The peculiarity of the correspondence between Elvish age and appearance is very shrewdly pointed out by Sam, following his first meeting with Gildor and his company. He sees Elves as both old and young. This may sound like a paradox, but Sam’s perception is very keen: a very similar thing can be noticed in some of the oldest Elves dwelling in Middle-earth.
When Frodo meets Elrond for the first time, he might be rather confused, for Elrond’s age is impossible to determine:
The face of Elrond was ageless, neither old nor young, though in it was written the memory of many things both glad and sorrowful. His hair was dark as the shadows of twilight, and upon it was set a circlet of silver; his eyes were grey as a clear evening, and in them was a light like the light of stars. Venerable he seemed as a king crowned with many winters, and yet hale as a tried warrior in the fulness of his strength. He was the Lord of Rivendell and mighty among both Elves and Men.
(Fellowship of the Ring, p. 297)
Elrond has been living in Middle-earth since the end of the First Age and his vast life experience, both sorrowful and joyful, is mirrored in his face. The master of Rivendell has indeed seen “many defeats and many fruitless victories” (Fellowship of the Ring, p. 318), including the vanquishing of Sauron and the fall of Gil-galad. The latter astonishes Frodo greatly as he simply cannot make out how somebody as young-looking as Elrond could take part in the battle that happened such a long time ago.
Elrond’s daughter, Arwen, looks very much like her father, and just like him “young she was and yet not so” (Fellowship of the Ring, p. 298). Her memories and wisdom are also written in her face: “thought and knowledge were in her glance, as of one who has known many things that the years bring” (ibid.). Arwen was born in Middle-earth at the beginning of the Third Age and may well belong to the youngest generation of the Elves at the time of the narrative. Even though she has seen much less than Elrond has, her years in Arda have not been particularly cloudless and carefree.
Very similar traits can be found in the description given to Galadriel and Celeborn:
Very tall they were, and the Lady no less tall than the Lord; and they were grave and beautiful. They were clad wholly in white; and the hair of the Lady was of deep gold, and the hair of the Lord Celeborn was of silver long and bright; but no sign of age was upon them, unless it were in the depths of their eyes; for these were keen as lances in the starlight, and yet profound, the wells of deep memory.
(Fellowship of the Ring, p. 465)
In describing Elrond, Arwen, Galadriel and Celeborn Tolkien lays a special emphasis on the memories of the past, and thus the ages these Elves have lived in Arda, written in their faces and their deep, bright eyes. Elrond, Galadriel and Celeborn are among the oldest of the Firstborn still dwelling in Middle-earth, save only Círdan the Shipwright. He is directly described as old, contrary to the aforementioned descriptions. Círdan’s eyes, however, are “keen as stars” and countless years had no diminishing effect on their brightness. Interestingly, stars or starlight feature in all of the descriptions of Elrond’s, Arwen’s, Galadriel’s, Celeborn’s and Círdan’s eyes which reminds us of their close connection with the stars, the importance of these celestial bodies in Elvish culture and definitely deserves special attention in a separate reflection.
The memories that leave an imprint on Elvish faces are also a sign and part of their ageing. As the years lengthen, these memories are increasingly becoming a heavy weight on their minds and hearts, hence the Elvish outlook on life that is turning backwards, into the past. Elves themselves use the term “burden” to describe their accumulated memories. Pengolodh says so to Ælfwine, and so does Finrod to Andreth, also calling Elves’ memory their greatest talent. While this wording is absent in the published texts, the concept is permeating the whole narrative. Getting gradually “obsessed with fading”, Elves become sad, and that has reflection in both their lifestyle and art aimed at preservation.
When we hear Elvish songs, quite a lot of them tell the stories of the events or deeds of the past. Such songs, for example, are sung in the house of Elrond. Moreover, in conversations Elves often refer to the past, to the days long gone by, the countless years they have been dwelling in Arda. This can be found in both Elrond’s and Galadriel’s words at the Council of Elrond and at the first meeting of the Fellowship with the rulers of Lórien respectively. Tolkien had an explanation for that:
Their [Elvish] fëar never reached maturity in the sense of ceasing to be capable of further increase of knowledge and wisdom; but they did reach a stage when memory, both of thought and labour (as well as of the events of history, general and to each one particular), began to be a burden, or began more and more to occupy their thought and emotion.
(Nature of Middle-earth, p. 15)
Being burdened by their own memories, Elves are becoming rather insular. They are growing less and less concerned with the affairs of other peoples, and, as a result, they are taking an increasingly smaller part in the events happening in the world. By the Third Age a lot of Elves had already left Middle-earth for Aman and the ones remaining in Endor live so quietly that their existence is even doubted by some. Gildor explains it to Frodo very clearly: “The Elves have their own labours and their own sorrows, and they are little concerned with the ways of hobbits, or of any other creatures upon earth. Our paths cross theirs seldom, by chance or purpose” (Fellowship of the Ring, p. 112). That, however, was not always the case. In the First and Second Ages Elves communicated with the mortal Men freely to the mutual benefit and friendship. The situation altered with Morgoth’s and Sauron’s activities that bred strife between Elves and Men, as well as with Elves’ growing more and more burdened with their own memories in the ever-changing world where their ultimate fate was fading.
Elves live in Arda as long as it endures. As it is not immortality per se, their lives are finite, albeit very long. While this seemed like a very lucrative prospect to some mortals, such a destiny is, in reality, far from being a blessing. Elves have to pay dearly for their knowledge, wisdom, talents and long lives, and one of the currencies is their growing increasingly burdened with memories, sad and joyful, losses, knowledge and a never-leaving uncertainty about what will become of them when Arda is no more.
1. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
2. J. R. R. Tolkien – The Nature of Middle-earth (edited by Carl F. Hostetter); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2021.
3. J. R. R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien – Morgoth’s Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2015.
4. H. Carpenter – The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien; with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012 (Kindle edition).
Featured image: pixabay.com