The Elves of The Lord of the Rings: What does their fate signify?

In the below correspondence I have questions about The Lord of the Rings which I keep chewing over until I find some answers. Tolkien fans may perhaps find it of interest.

LA to correspondents:

The single greatest question that bothered me all through my reading of The Lord of the Rings was, whatís this business with the Elves slowly leaving Middle-earth, and the idea that they must leave Middle-earth, and this sadness that always seems to hang over them? This is never explained anywhere in the book or the movie. Itís not explained in the appendix of LOTR. I found no explanation of it in the online Encyclopedia of Arda. I finally had to read The Silmarillion to find the answer. Itís in the chapter on the Fall of the Noldor, p. 88 in my edition. After Melkor/Morgoth steals the Silmarills, the Noldor, the main House of the Elves, become so angry that they rebel against the Valar, the divine beings who helped Illuvatar fashion the world and with whom the Elves live in Valinor, the Undying Lands. The Noldor declare war against Morgoth to win back the Silmarills, declare undying hatred against anyone who stands in their way, leave Valinor for Middle-earth, and become violent even against their own kind. As a result of the Noldorsí rebellion the Valar declare a curse on them. Part of the curse is that though immortal within the world (though they can be killed in battle), they will grow weary of Middle-earth and become shadows of regret as the Younger Race of Men rise up about them.

This answers my question. But I canít believe that Tolkien didnít provide this information in LOTR itself, since it is so fundamental to understanding the strange sadness of the Elves, these superior, immortal beings, and the motif throughout the book of the Elves slowly, one by one, moving toward the Grey Havens to depart from Middle-earth, and indeed from the earth altogether.

Now apparently this curse is somewhat lifted when Earendil the Mariner heroically sails across the sea to Valinor and entreats the Valar for mercy on the Elves to help them against Morgoth. Also, after Morgoth is defeated in the great battle at the end of the First Age the Noldor are invited to return to Valinor and most of them do. But (here Iím guessing) those who choose to remain in Middle-earth, though forgiven in the sense that they can return to Valinor at any time and live a blissful life there, as long as they stay in Middle-earth still suffer the effects of the curse in being doomed to experience increasing weariness with Middle-earth. So that sadness that overhangs even the leading great Elves like Elrond and Galadriel stems from the rebellion of the Noldor way back at the beginning of the First Age. Galadriel herself was part of that rebellion.

The Encyclopedia of Arda explains the exile of the Noldor (meaning that the rebellious Noldor were allowed to leave Valinor, but not to return, a judgment that was later lifted), but it fails to explain the curse on the Noldor that they must steadily grow steadily wearier of Middle-earth, and so their own immortality becomes a burden to them.

Also, even the Silmarillion (at least in the chapter I mentioned) does not explain why all the Elves, not just the Noldor, grow weary of Middle-earth.

Another strange thing about Tolkienís world is that Illuvatar and the Valar create Middle-earth, but then seem to leave it completely under the power of Melkor/Morgoth, and the Valar, though only a sea journey away from Middle-earth, retire to an eternal vacation land in Valinor. Middle-earth is seen as a place NOT to be in. First the Valar invite all the Elves to leave Middle-earth and reside forever in Valinor because Middle-earth is such a nasty place; then the Valar invite the Edainóthe virtuous Men who helped the Elves in their war against Morgothóto leave Middle-earth and dwell in Valinor, because Middle-earth is such a nasty place. So, whatís the point of creating Middle-earth in the first place? The Valar donít do anything to clear it of evil, and they seem basically indifferent to its fate much of the time. This aspect of the myth doesnít make sense.

First Correspondent:

In answer to your question, I can only fall back on the unusually scattered nature of Tolkienís inspiration, in which the pieces that were ultimately collected in the Silmarillion were sketched and resketched from his early twenties (in the trenches) until, I believe, his old age. He was not one to try to answer all questions in his great work, like Dante. And yet much of his writing mimics historical scholarship which does purport to be thorough in its treatment of the chosen subject matter. I think Tolkien was an experimental writer, who meditated on history and human fate in the laboratory of Middle-Earth.

If you have any long car trips in your future, the CDs of actor Rob Inglis reading The Lord of the Rings are quite worthwhile.

LA replies:

I canít see the decades-long genesis of Tolkienís mythology as an excuse for this. Obviously, in LOTR, where the steady departure of the Elves from Middle-earth is a central theme, he already knew why they were weary and sad and why they were leaving, yet he never tells us why. Yet when he wrote LOTR he certainly had already sketched out the rebellion, fall, exile, and (partial) forgiveness of the Noldor in the First Age.

Similarly, the makers of the movie (who donít even have Tolkienís possible excuse) decline to explain it too.

The result was that I saw all the movies at least twice, I read the whole of LOTR, I read the relevant parts of the appendix, I read the relevant parts of the online Encyclopedia of Arda, without ever getting this central feature of the plot explained. Not until I got 100 pages into Silmarillion did I find an explanation.

Second correspondent:

LA wrote: ďIt would be like reading, say, Les Misťrables, and never finding out WHY Jean Valjean is always running from the police.Ē

This sounds a bit extreme as a parallel though. Jean Valjeanís running from the police is fairly pertinent to that story line. Itís not really necessary to know why the Elves are leaving to follow the main plot in LOTR.

When I read LOTR five years ago, I really didnít care why they were leaving. It was enough to know that they were, for whatever reason. And on with the story. Iím still not sure why itís that important to know the reason for the Elven exodus, even though itís interesting finally to hear it.

It sounds like Mr. Auster is being drawn into the Tolkien world more than he realizes. ;-)

I think also that Tolkien was writing a lot of this in serialized form for his sonís benefit, and may not at the time have intended to take it further, and certainly didnít realize how popular his world would become to a wider audience. Seems more like it was more of a hobby.

To put this another way: The plot of LOTR is fairly simpleóIf Sauron gets this ring he will enslave Middle Earth, so the ring has to be destroyed.

The fact that the Elves are leaving is part of the narrative, but the reason is not. It does nothing really to enhance or clarify the plot.

Itís really a separate story unto itself, one that would be needless ballast if brought in.

Itís really only relevant to an understanding of the larger world Tolkien has created, and is only pertinent to a desire for a greater understanding of that larger world. Hence my comment about Mr. Auster being ďdrawn in.Ē

This is just one personís opinion though; Iím not sure thereís a right or wrong position here.

Third correspondent:

Not enough people have commented on the absolutely seminal, central aspect of Tolkienís thought, which is Nordic mythology, with its pervasive sense of sadness, melancholy, doom, death, destruction, finality, ultimate emptiness, and so forth. The idea of fighting against impossible odds, being destined to lose, but fighting anyway as a mark of courage and character. Since he was a Christian, he thankfully was almost forced or driven to provide some kind of redemption, but his motivating genius, what inspired him, was that sense of the twilight of the gods and the world and everything. And no doubt that was helped along by being in the trenches in WWI.

LA replies to Third correspondent:

The final paragraph of the Silmarillion, or rather of the addendum called ďOf the Rings of Power and the Third Age,Ē which is the end of the whole book, describes the final departure of the last Elves from Middle-earth:

In that time the last of the Noldor set sail from the Havens and left Middle-earth for ever. And latest of all the Keepers of the Three Rings rode to the Sea, and Master Elrond took there the ship that Cirdan had made ready. In the twilight of autumn it sailed out of Mithlond, until the seas of the Bent World fell away beneath it, and the winds of the round sky troubled it no more, and borne upon the high airs above the mists of the world it passed into the Ancient West, and an end was come for the Eldar of story and of song.

There is no sense of a joyous Dantean ascent into heaven, it is more a journey into oblivion. Leaving Middle-earth is presented as extinction: ďan end was come for the Eldar.Ē They are passing out of existence as we know it.

So this is the Germanic side of the story. There is no redemption, it is doom and sadness. But the Christian side of the story is seen in the Hobbits, in Samís return to his family, and the happy and virtuous life unfolding to him.

LA continues:

Agreed that the Elven story is not at the absolute center of the plot in the manner of Jean Valjeanís history with the police. Yet itís there throughout the book, there is this tremendous change happening in the world, the Elves, these superior beings, are leaving, and the Age of Men is beginning. Right from the start, we see them drifting through the Shire on the way to the Grey Havens. Why? Why are they leaving? And why are they always so sad, these higher beings? Why? I cannot understand readers not being bothered by the authorís failure to explain this major element of the book. My gosh, he had 1,300 pages to do it in. With literally hundreds of pages given to stuff like, ďThe hobbits walked on, the sky turned to a different color of blue, the clouds were shaped like such and such, the hobbits grew tired, they went through a woods, the valley opened up and led to higher ground, the hobbits walked on,Ē and on and on, he couldnít have given a few more pages to explaining the history of the Elves?

However, it occurs to me that the deeper reason for the departure of the Elves, and the whole Germanic, un-Christian, grimness connected with their fateówhy is their departure for the Undying Lands sad rather than joyous?óis that, being immortal, at least within the world, and being at least somewhat ďastralĒ beings as well as physical, they do not really belong in this world.

Thus the sequence of events in the Ages of Middle Earth can be understood as a gradual differentiation of what Eric Voegelin calls the primary or cosmological experience (menís original and ancient experience of the world as a ďcosmos full of godsĒ) into the transcendent and the immanent, the Christian vision. As an expression of the cosmological, in the beginning of Tolkienís mythical history, the divine beings are residing physically within the world, on a physical island or continent that mortal men can sail to. When men try physically to conquer this island, it is removed from the physical world. This is the beginning of the differentiation of the universe into immanent and transcendent. At the same time, the world is apparently changed from flat to spherical, which would correspond with the change from the cosmos full of gods (consisting of heavens above flat earth) to the de-divinized universe of the modern era (consisting of spherical planets moving in space). But the Elves, as quasi-immortal super-beings, are also quasi-embodiments of the divine within the cosmos and do not really fit in a de-divinized world. This is the basic conflict. Thus the Silmarillion tells that the reason the Elves in the Second Age begin to make the Rings of Power is that they are ill at ease, because on one hand, they chose to remain in Middle-earth after they were forgiven for their rebellion and allowed to return to the Undying Lands, but on the other hand, while remaining in Middle-earth, they desire the bliss that is being enjoyed by those Elves who returned to the Undying Lands. The point is, the Elves are divided creatures. They are too ďhighĒ for this world. And this is the underlying reason why, beyond such specifics as the curse on the rebellious Noldor, or the destruction of the power of the Three Rings, which apparently had made Middle-earth more tolerable to the Elves (see FOTR p. 352), Middle-earth grows weary and grey to the Elves. They are creatures made for immortality, but placed in a world of passing and death. So they donít really belong here. This world is a world for mortal men. So, when the last of the Elves depart from Middle-earth at the end of the Third Age and vanish into the Undying Lands which are now beyond this world, this completes the differentiation of the cosmos into transcendent and immanent, it is now like the world of Judaism and Christianity, our world. Now the divine is beyond this world, and this world is a world under God. The divine no longer resides directly in this world. Now it is a world of men. So when Sam returns to his family at the end of LOTR, that is the Christian vision of man living a virtuous life in this world under God.

There is a further psychological or spiritual meaning we can see in the fate of the Elves. The sadness of the Elves symbolizes the sadness of people who make too much of this world, who love it too much, who want everything in this life to be perfect and immortal. That vision canít work, because this world is inherently imperfect and passing. The inhabitants of this world are creatures of God, not identical with God or equal with God. They do not have Godís quality of eternal existence. Godís creatures reflect and express Godís qualities in all kinds of ways, but in an incomplete way, according to their varying degrees of being.

This is why in LOTR death is called the Gift of Men, a Gift that has been withheld from the Elves. Because men are mortal, they look to a higher destiny beyond this world and so they can accept this world and see it in its proper perspective. But the Elves, being quasi divine yet living in this world and emotionally attached to it in a way that men never are (significantly, the Elves are immortal, but only within the world, which appears to be why the status of their existence after they leave this world is somewhat ambiguous, even ďGermanicĒ), cannot see this world in its proper perspective, and so this world makes them sad rather than their seeing it (as men do) as an incomplete reflection of something higher. Men have a hopefulness, the hopefulness of true eternal life, that seems to be closed to the Elves, even though the Elves, in respect of their qualities and abilities, are far superior to men.

[Note added January 1, 2007: In connection with the issue of the Elvesí sadness, someone recently pointed out to me how there was a great sadness in the late Classical period, as the incompleteness of its vision of the world had begun to weigh on people, and it was only the advent of Christ that showed men a higher destiny and brought hope back into the world. There is a similarity between the Elves, who are superior beings, and the pagan nobility of the Classical world. (Also, according to ďSpenglerĒ as discussed below, the beautiful noble Elves represent the aristocracy of Old Europe being replaced by democratic modern man as represented by Sam.) So the Elves, like the nobility of the ancient world, represent a higher type of being who are nevertheless limited by their vision of the divine as located within this world instead of beyond this world, and so both the Elves and the nobility of the late Classical period are sad, a sadness that in both cases is resolved by the advent of a transcendent/immanent vision of the world and the coming of a less noble and superior, yet more hopeful, type of man. He is more hopeful because his very limitedness, his lack of quasi-divine qualities, places him in a proper relationship with the transcendent God.]

* * *

In connection with my meditations on the Elves, a reader has sent me an article written in 2003 by the writer ďSpengler,Ē whose pretentious style and manner match his pretentious pseudonym, but who nevertheless makes some intriguing points about LOTR, though many of his specific references to the plot are questionable, as I will show below. Unlike my Second correspondent, Spengler places the Elvesí tale at the center of the novel. His idea is that LOTR is a kind of anti-Ring of the Niebelungen:

The details are far less important than the common starting point: the crisis of the immortals. Wagnerís immortal gods must fall as a result of the corrupt bargain they have made with the giants who built Valhalla. Tolkienís immortal Elves must leave Middle-earth because of the fatal assistance they took from Sauron. [LA note: I donít think this is literally true; the Elves would ultimately had had to leave Middle-earth in any case, as I explained above.] The Elvesí power to create a paradise on Middle-earth depends upon the power of the three Elven Rings which they forged with Sauronís help. [But they never use the Ringsófrom the moment they realize the existence of Sauronís One Ring, they hide the Three Rings and never put them on.] Thus the virtue of the Elven Rings is inseparably bound up with the one Ring of Sauron. When it is destroyed, the power of the Elves must fade. More than anything else, The Lord of the Rings is the tragedy of the Elves and the story of their renunciation.

What Tolkien has in mind is nothing more than the familiar observation that the high culture of the West arose and fell with the aristocracy, which had the time and inclination to cultivate it. With the high culture came the abuse of power associated with the aristocracy; when this disappears, the great beauties of Western civilization and much of its best thought disappear with it. That is far too simple, and in some ways misleading, but it makes a grand premise for a roman-a-clef about Western civilization.. [It would be interesting to see him back up this claim.]

What does one do when the immortals depart? One acts with simple English decency and tenacity, says Tolkien, and accepts oneís fate. The Lord of the Rings is an anti-epic (as Norman Cantor puts it), whose protagonist is a weak, vulnerable and reluctant Hobbit, as opposed to the strong, wound-proof and fearless Siegfried….

ďI will remain Galadriel, and I will diminish,Ē decides the Elf-Queen of Lothlorien, rejecting the chance to take possession of the One Ring and preserve her powers. The Elves choose between vanishing and accepting a taint of evil, and choose the former. [Itís not clear to me that the Elves have any choice in the matter. Itís true that Galadriel resists the temptation to take the One Ring, but she knows enough to know that if she takes it she will be destroyed. So itís not really a temptation. The only Elf who really makes a choice is Arwen, who chooses to become a mortal woman and marry Aragorn.]

Modesty, forbearance, and renunciation are the virtues that Tolkien sets against Wagnerís existential act of despair. The high culture of the West is gone. The world that remains after the Elves board their gray ships and sail into the West is devoid of beauty and wonder. The kingdom of Men that emerges from The Lord of the Rings is a humdrum affair, in which the best men can do is to get on with their lives.

Again, Iím not sure Tolkien is saying this. Is the world of men really so humdrum after the departure of the Elves? On the contrary, we are told that the Kingdom of Gondor under Aragorn has a glorious rebirth and that the world of men begins to be repopulated (most of Middle-earth has been a barren wilderness in LOTR).

Remember also that Middle-earth has been, with rare exceptions, a mess almost since its creation. The Valar had made the Elves leave Middle-earth even before the start of the First Age, since Melkor the Evil One had taken it over. Much of Middle-earth was ruined and destroyed during the battles of the First Age, at the end of which most of the formerly rebellious and now forgiven Elves again left Middle-earth for the Undying Lands. At the same time, the High Men, the Dunedain, like the Elves, are taken away from Middle-earth, which is not a pleasant place to live, and brought to the Western island of Numenor where they dwell in bliss for 3,000 years, while Middle-earth is inhabited mainly by evil men under the power of Sauron, and the Elves in Middle-earth are a mere remnant, already merely hanging out and delaying their ultimate departure. It is in these unpromising circumstances, during the Second Age, that some of the Elves create the Rings of Power. At the end of the Second Age, the Dunedain return to Middle-earth and establish two great kingdoms, yet one of these kingdoms soon breaks up and vanishes, and the other becomes decadent. Meanwhile, the Elves are still a remnant in Middle-earth, dwelling in their two hideaways of Rivendell and Lothlorien.

So, all in all, while Spenglerís idea is a nice one and I would like to believe it, I don’t see how one could conclude that the Elves symbolize the doomed Old High Culture of the West falling from a great height, as Spengler supposes, since their presence in Middle-earth has been shadowy and ambiguous for literally thousands of years prior to their final departure. Also, if the tragedy of the Elves were as central as Spengler supposes, wouldnít Tolkien have made this tragedy more explicit, instead of just suggesting it while failing adequately to work out the story in LOTR itself, as I complained earlier? There was a real Fall of the Elves, when in their rage against the loss of the Silmarills they became vengeful and violent and rebelled against the rule of the Valar, but this rebellion took place about 7,000 years before the events of LOTR, and, most importantly, it is not referred to once in The Lord of the Rings. How can we say that the main theme of LOTR is the tragedy of the Elves, when the act of hubris that caused this tragedy is not even mentioned in that book? It seems to me that too much about the Elves is ambiguous, and too much of Spenglerís evidence is wrong, for him to make the kind of assured assertions he makes here.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at December 06, 2005 11:30 PM | Send

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