Re: Elves question
- --- In mythsoc@y..., Steve Law <purpleom@b...> wrote:
> Hi,There are virtually no extant stories about Elves in any of the
> I've read somewhere that Tolkien's conception of elves
> was based on the idea that they were what humans
> should or could have been before the Fall of Man, i.e.
> they are humanity perfected. I also recall reading
> Tolkien himself saying that we know virtually nothing
> of the original anglo-saxon or celtic (or whoever)
> beliefs about elves.
> Does anyone know if this is true? Is any of Tolkiens
> depiction from ancient sources or are there no such
> sources with regard to elves?
Germanic mythologies I have studied. The Alfar are mentioned in a
few places, and they influenced a lot of names. Tom Shippey makes a
very eloquent argument for Tolkien's remorse at the loss of what must
have been a rich and very detailed folklore when the Normans
conquered England, wiping out its literate class.
Margaret Dean has cited the classic "aspects of the Humane" passage
for you. Tolkien was very interested in death and why we fear it.
He once said that THE LORD OF THE RINGS is about death and the search
for deathlessness. His Elves feared death because even though they
knew that their bodies would (or could) be resurrected within the
bounds of Time, they were afraid they would cease to exist after
Time. To the Elves, Men did not cease to exist after the body died,
but to Men the death of the body is equivalent with the loss of
It is all ultimately a study of the fear of Not Being. Tolkien's
Elves are in that sense very modern and really are not intended to
resemble ancient mythological creatures. He used the motif of the
Alfar (and the Sidhe of Irish/Gaelic folklore) to embody an artistic
spirit which is keenly aware of its own limitations. Men are
portrayed as being blind. The Bible teaches us that we are
spiritually dead, reborn through our faith in Christ. I'm not sure
of how it is phrased in Roman Catholic terms (and Tolkien was raised
a devout Roman Catholic), but his Men are, in fact, spiritually dead,
even though he says THE LORD OF THE RINGS takes place before Biblical
history. The "fall" Men experience is an earlier fall, but it is one
which nonetheless removes them from communion with God.
The High Elves (Noldor) are removed from communion with their angelic
mentors. It is not certain that they are removed from communion with
Iluvatar (god), but then, he doesn't seem ever to have taken a direct
interest in their affairs. In "The Tale of Adanel", Iluvatar speaks
to Men one time, in anger. Of course, that speech is reported
as "folklore". It is only what the Wise (among Men) teach succeeding
generations. It may be nothing more than a metaphor for the
rejection Men felt they had earned.
The One Ring is a flagrant substitute for communion. It is a way for
a false lord (the Dark Lord) to interact with all his (usurped)
subjects, the peoples he has enslaved (or intends to enslave). It
also offers the (false) prospect of deathlessness to both Men and
Elves. To Men, the One Ring (and other Great Rings) holds out the
hope of never dying. But the cruel irony of that fate is that you
don't need to die to stop living. The Ringwraiths are proof of that.
To Elves, the Rings of Power held out the prospect of never fading,
which is equivalent to dying. A faded being has no physical body,
and is called a wraith because all that remains is the spirit. For
the Elves, fading could be forestalled or delayed by sailing over Sea
to Valinor, where the Valar would rejuvenate them (although Tolkien
wrote in one remarkable essay that the Valar themselves "faded" after
a fashion). Sauron persuaded the Eregion Elves to try to duplicate
what the Valar offered them in Middle-earth. So the Rings of Power
were created chiefly to prevent decay, or the fading of the Elves and
the things they cherished.
Everyone really wants things to stay just as they are. In short, the
Numenoreans and the Eldar (both of whom rebelled against the natural
order established by Iluvatar) tried to stop Time. And any attempt
to alter the natural order of things is seen as an act of rebellion.
For each race, the motive was the same: they were afraid of what lay
before them, because they could not see anything beyond their own
deaths (death being relative to their natural fates).
You won't find anything like this in ancient literature, although
death was certainly a very popular motif in Greek and Norse
mythology. But the ancients viewed it quite differently from the way
we do. Modern man has rationalized the universe into neat little
pockets, and one sometimes wonders if there is anything left for the
spirit, for the soul. Tolkien was inevitably asking the age-old
questions, "Is that all there is? Is there nothing more?" These
questions lie at the heart of all mythologies, I think, but the
Greeks became enraptured by the idea of beauty and the Scandinavians
became engrossed in the glories of war. Their answers to the
questions became institutionalized. Death succeeds life, and life
succeeds death, and that's all there is. Accept it.
Tolkien wanted a less definitive answer. Hope, I think, lies in not
knowing, and the tragic irony for both Men and Elves in his mythology
is that they didn't understand that. Instead of hope, they both
found despair, and thus departed from the path Iluvatar had set
before them. They lost their innocence and sense of wonder at
exploring something new, and tried to cling selfishly to the familiar
and comfortable things they had come to love.