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What is Elf?

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Nov. 14th, 2006 | 2:10

(In Which I examine some Uses that I have made of the Tolkien Method, a Subject of so little Interest to all other Human Souls that

I draw the graceful Veil even earlier than in my previous Post.)

J.R.R. Tolkien was fond of saying that he invented the whole apparatus and history of Middle-earth in order to have a place in which Elen síla lumenn’ omentielvo would be a common greeting. By the time he finished The Lord of the Rings, if not long before, he had pre-eminently achieved that goal. What checked him at that point, and indeed largely stymied his creative talents for the remainder of his life, was a close inquiry into what sort of creatures these were who greeted one another in this way. He could never find a satisfactory answer to the question: What is an Elf? Even his agonized abandonment of the ‘Flat Earth’ cosmology of The Silmarillion was conditioned by this question. He had come to believe that the Elves were too wise to invent, and too truthful to tell, stories about their past that obviously contradicted the astronomical facts.

So what is an Elf? The existing folklore concerning elves is most unhelpful. One source describes them as beings of unearthly grace and beauty; another, as soulless and heartless tricksters who will blithely destroy any human being who stumbles in their way; still another, as the spawn of Cain. The word elf goes back with little change to primitive Germanic, but the old Germanic tales that have come down to us are singularly unenlightening. The Anglo-Saxons had evidently a lively belief, or at least interest, in elves, but seemed to find it unprofitable or unpropitious to tell stories about them. Not even the Norsemen had much to say about them. Most of the interest in elves, in a purely literary sense, is much later, and belongs largely to the German tradition of Märchen. Here is Tolkien, in a letter to Rayner Unwin dated 1961:

There are no songs or stories preserved about Elves or Dwarfs in ancient English, and little enough in any other Germanic language. Words, a few names, that is about all. I do not recall any Dwarf or Elf that plays an actual part in any story save Andvari in the Norse versions of the Nibelung matter. There is no story attached to the name Eikinskjaldi, save the one that I invented for Thorin Oakenshield. As far as old English goes ‘dwarf’ (dweorg) is a mere gloss for nanus, or the name of convulsions and recurrent fevers; and ‘elf’ we should suppose to be associated only with rheumatism, toothache and nightmares, if it were not for the occurrence of ælfsciene ‘elven-fair’ applied to Sarah and Judith!, and a few glosses such as dryades, wuduelfen. In all Old English poetry ‘elves’ (ylfe) occurs once only, in Beowulf, associated with trolls, giants, and the Undead, as the accursed offspring of Cain. The gap between that and, say, Elrond or Galadriel is not bridged by learning. (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, no. 236)

That gap is a pretty puzzle. Tolkien seems to have begun conventionally enough, with twee phantasies of twinkle-toed Wee Folk supping on dewdrops and sleeping in buttercups. His early poem ‘Goblin Feet’ is a vile enough example of the degraded ‘elfy-welfy’ tradition he soon came to despise:

    The air is full of wings
    Of the blundering beetle-things
That go droning by a-whirring and a-humming.
    O! I hear the tiny horns
    Of enchanted leprechauns
And the padded feet of many gnomes a-coming.

O! the lights! O! the gleams: O! the little tinkling sounds:
    O! the rustle of their noiseless little robes:
O! the echo of their feet, of their little happy feet;
    O! their swinging lamps in little star-lit globes.

I could quote more, but this is the point at which, in Dorothy Parker’s immortal phrase, ‘Tonstant Weader fwowed up.’

Fortunately, Tolkien’s friends severely criticized this and others of his early poems, and probably contributed much to the skill and gravitas he was to show in The Book of Lost Tales. (In the end the gravitas became almost too grave to bear, but a movement in that direction was certainly called for.) G.B. Smith, who was killed in the Somme not long after, seems to have been particularly instrumental in persuading Tolkien to this change of style. If so, Smith deserves to be recognized as one of the most influential literary critics of the last century. Christopher Wiseman and R.Q. Gilson, of course, shared in this salutary process.

In the Lost Tales, Tolkien seems to have adopted the idea that elves nowadays were the tiny fairies of Victorian fancy, reduced by long ‘fading’, whereas Men had grown larger; but in the Elder Days they had been much alike in stature. In the end he entirely rejected the layer of accretion on the ‘Matter’ of the elves that made them diminutive and vapid. But it was a long road. Even in The Hobbit, he could still make his Elves sing this kind of rubbish:

O! What are you doing,
And where are you going?
Your ponies need shoeing!
The river is flowing!
    O! tra-la-la-lally
        here down in the valley!

By 1954 he had abandoned all that, and wrote to Naomi Mitchison:

‘Elves’ is a translation, not perhaps now very suitable, but originally good enough, of Quendi. . . . I should say that they represent really Men with greatly enhanced creative and aesthetic faculties, greater beauty and longer life, and nobility. (Letters, no. 144)

In this late conception, which few other fantasy authors have had the philosophical or theological background to appreciate or copy, Tolkien’s Elves were a representation of Unfallen Man, or of a race closely kindred to Men who had escaped the taint of original sin. Much of the difference between the two kindreds was held to arise from what in Judaeo-Christian legend is termed the fall of Adam.

In his late work, Tolkien sometimes went to ridiculous lengths to emphasize the ‘unfallenness’ of the Elves. Galadriel, in some of his last essays, is almost a surrogate for the Virgin Mary. The Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, as published in Morgoth’s Ring, was not so far gone; it represented perhaps the fullest exposition of the philosophical implications of telling stories about Elves, without going overboard and losing the narrative element. After that Tolkien wrote many essays but very little fiction as such.

There is another element in the elves of folklore that Tolkien seized upon avidly and expanded into a major theme of his work. The elves are said to be infinitely artistic and creative, lovers of beauty, singers of songs with magical power. A man may stray into the revels of the elves for a night, only to find a hundred years gone when he returns to his people in the morning. (The peculiar dilation of time in Lothlórien was an expression of this motif.) Hearing the horns of Elfland may inspire mortals to the purest love or the greatest courage, or it may drive them mad with Sehnsucht. The art of the elves, particularly Tolkien’s Elves, is so powerful, and so directly experienced, that it can unseat the reason of mortals. We are not strong enough for it. Tolkien did not make full use of this theme in his fiction, but he enlarged upon it in his essay ‘On Fairy-Stories’:

Now ‘Faërian Drama’ — those plays which according to abundant records the elves have often presented to men — can produce Fantasy with a realism and immediacy beyond the compass of any human mechanism. As a result their usual effect (upon a man) is to go beyond Secondary Belief. If you are present at a Faërian drama you yourself are, or think you are, bodily inside its Secondary World. The experience may be very similar to Dreaming and has (it would seem) sometimes (by men) been confounded with it. But in Faërian drama you are in a dream that some other mind is weaving, and the knowledge of that alarming fact may slip from your grasp. To experience directly a Secondary World: the potion is too strong, and you give to it Primary Belief, however marvellous the events. You are deluded — whether that is the intention of the elves (always or at any time) is another question. They at any rate are not themselves deluded. This is for them a form of Art, and distinct from Wizardry or Magic, properly so called.

In this essay, Tolkien has a disturbing tendency to discuss the elves as if they were real; though he gently pricks the bubble of his own Secondary World, created in the space of a few paragraphs for rhetorical effect, on the following page:

To the elvish craft, Enchantment, Fantasy aspires. . . . Of this desire the elves, in their better (but still perilous) part, are made; and it is from them that we may learn what is the central desire and aspiration of human Fantasy — even if the elves are, all the more in so far as they are, only a product of Fantasy itself.

This art of Enchantment, or Faërian Drama, crops up in all kinds of contexts that have apparently nothing to do with elves: it is a deep-seated, perhaps a fundamental, human desire. The interest in telepathy — not in ‘mind-reading’, but in the ability to send one’s thoughts directly to another without the clumsy and distorting medium of language — is perhaps a manifestation of that desire. And illusions of the sort that Tolkien would call ‘enchanted’ occur in other kinds of fiction than pure fantasy. They are quite common in science fiction. Virtual Reality is the usual modern term. But even in the ‘Golden Age’ and before, the wish was there. Stanley G. Weinbaum made a Faërian drama, or a counterfeit of one, the central conceit in one of his tongue-in-cheek Van Manderpootz stories; and the Visi-Sonor, that strange musical instrument which has so important a function in the plot of Asimov’s Foundation and Empire, has virtually the same effect. Oddly enough, Tolkien does not make much use of this particular device in his own fiction. He does so twice, I believe, in The Lord of the Rings, but in neither case is the ‘dramatist’ an Elf. Frodo has strange visions out of the past in response to the tales told by Tom Bombadil, and later on, in Rivendell, he experiences a similar phantasmagoria while Bilbo is reciting ‘Eärendil was a mariner’. It is an elvish art in origin, apparently, but other ‘speaking peoples’ are not incapable of learning it.

Since Tolkien’s death, a new conception of elves has arisen in popular culture, partly derived from him, partly from his imitators, but above all from Dungeons & Dragons. The Perilous Realm became Fantasyland, and Elves became part of the furniture. As is rather appropriate in a game built almost entirely on the adolescent-wish-fulfilment elements of fantasy, D&D-style elves are usually portrayed as eternal adolescents, physically beautiful and alluring, ex officio Good People who nevertheless seem not to have much conscience or to feel the need of any. They take their name from Tolkien, but their character from Peter Pan. Diana Wynne Jones has a shot at these in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland:
Elves appear to have deteriorated generally since the coming of humans. If you meet Elves, expect to have to listen for hours while they tell you about this — many Elves are great bores on the subject — and about what glories there were in ancient days. They will intersperse their account with nostalgic ditties (songs of aching beauty) and conclude by telling you how great numbers of Elves have become so wearied with the thinning of the old golden wonders that they have all departed, departed into the West. This is correct, provided you take it with the understanding that Elves do not say anything quite straight. Many Elves have indeed gone West, to Minnesota and thence to California, where they have great fun wearing punk clothes and riding motorbikes.

The fundamental flippancy and immaturity of the latter-day treatment of elves has, I think, never been skewered more aptly.

Nowadays there seem to be three schools of thought in dealing with elves. The one school, the D&D school, the up-to-date teenage elfy-welfy school, has really nothing to say about its subject matter; but then, it has precious little to say about anything. This stuff is pure escapist fiction, in the worst sense of the word: it escapes from humdrum modern life without escaping to anywhere but the grotesque Utopia of the MMORPGs. The escape is as much from genuine fantasy as it is from reality. The second school, to which Moorcock and Miéville and their friends are greatly devoted, considers elves a horrible manifestation of childishness and artistic ineptitude, and goes to great lengths to make its not-quite-human races as unlike elves as possible. Sometimes they stoop to parody. Moorcock’s Melnibonéans could be described as a kind of anti-elves, for instance, retaining much of the physical appearance of post-Tolkienian elves while turning them into agents of the most unenlightened evil. The third school simply shirks the question by writing about something else entirely. (A fourth school, as nancylebov has pointed out, carries on the tradition of the 19th-century German elves more or less without any Tolkienian influence at all. Poul Anderson was perhaps the most influential member of that school; his most important work on elves was done before The Lord of the Rings was published. But I leave that school on one side, since I am principally concerned with the influence of Tolkien’s particular nexus of ideas.)

It seems to me, however, that Tolkien’s Elves represented something valuable, something it behooves us to examine more closely. The nature of the Quendi is closely bound up with Tolkien’s deeply Catholic understanding of good and evil, and the influence of this can be seen in his imitators and detractors. D&D elves are automatically pigeonholed on the side of Good — ‘Chaotic Good’ to be precise, an oxymoron that would probably have made Tolkien (or Chesterton) physically sick. The vacuity of the ‘alignment’ system in D&D is faithfully reflected in, or itself reflects, the moral disengagement of much modern fantasy.

Roughly speaking, if a fantasy story is about the Forces of Good vs. the Forces of Evil, without going into any serious examination of why they are good or evil — I refer not to motivations, but to how you distinguish one side from the other — it is reasonably likely to have a lot of cutesy adolescent elves thrown in with the Good. If a fantasy rejects such childishly reductive concepts as good and evil — which is as much as to say, if it embraces evil wholeheartedly and without even the residual morality of shame — it will not have elves or anything much like them, but will be populated by various kinds of grotesques and monsters, some of them in human form. The third class is more varied, if only because the variety of things which are not elves is far greater than the variety of elves.

But let us return to the original synthesis. The strands of Elvendom converged into the bright tapestry of Tolkien, and have diverged in rags and tatters since. To me, at least, as a latecomer to the Catholic faith that Tolkien embraced all his intellectual life, the idea of Elves as unfallen Men had an irresistible fascination. It seemed to me that one could make all kinds of inquiries into the nature of Good and Evil by postulating a race of otherwise human people who could always distinguish the good and followed it as by instinct. It also seemed to me that Tolkien had done very little of this. Lewis did something like it in Out of the Silent Planet, with its brilliant climax in which the pompous rhetoric of self-justification by Fallen Man is translated into the bald condemnation of the angelic language:

Weston accepted the arrangement at once. He believed that the hour of his death was come and he was determined to utter the thing — almost the only thing outside his own science — which he had to say. He cleared his throat, almost he struck a gesture, and began:

‘To you I may seem a vulgar robber, but I bear on my shoulders the destiny of the human race. Your tribal life with its stone-age weapons and beehive huts, its primitive coracles and elementary social structure, has nothing to compare with our civilization — with our science, medicine and law, our armies, our architecture, our commerce, and our transport system which is rapidly annihilating space and time. Our right to supersede you is the right of the higher over the lower. Life—’

‘Half a moment,’ said Ransom in English. ‘That’s about as much as I can manage at one go.’ Then, turning to Oyarsa, he began translating as well as he could. The process was difficult and the result — which he felt to be rather unsatisfactory — was something like this:

‘Among us, Oyarsa, there is a kind of hnau who will take other hnaus’ food and — and things, when they are not looking. He says he is not an ordinary one of that kind. He says what he does now will make very different things happen to those of our people who are not yet born. He says that, among you, hnau of one kindred live all together and the hrossa have spears like those we used a very long time ago and your huts are small and round and your boats small and light like our old ones, and you have one ruler. He says it is different with us. He says we know much. There is a thing happens in our world when the body of a living creature feels pains and becomes weak, and he says we sometimes know how to stop it. He says we have many bent people and we kill them or shut them in huts and that we have people for settling quarrels between the bent hnau about their huts and mates and things. He says we have many ways for the hnau of one land to kill those of another and some are trained to do it. He says we build very big and strong huts of stones and other things — like the pfifltriggi. And he says we exchange many things among ourselves and can carry heavy weights very quickly a long way. Because of all this, he says it would not be the act of a bent hnau if our people killed all your people.’

Granting, if only for argument’s sake, that the Fall really occurred, how much of human pride, human social structure, even human technology, is the product of that Fall and not of our essential nature? Our three great legacies from the ancient world, forming the plinth on which almost the whole of Western civilization has been built, are Greek philosophy, Jewish religion, and Roman law. Greek philosophy strove to find Man’s place in the universe, to recover a more accurate sense of right and wrong, and to purify the reasoning faculty of errors and corrupt influences. Judaism sought to restore the relationship of Man to his Creator, and to instruct Man in his moral and prudential duties. Roman law was designed to punish those who harmed society by transgressing the moral code, to arbitrate disputes between people who could not be counted upon to recognize each other’s rights or even to tell the truth, and above all, to rule an empire wisely even when the rulers themselves were maniacal fools.

All three are admirable and audacious efforts to deal with the consequences of the Fall, but it was the Fall that made them necessary, and the Fall still renders them insufficient. Our own distinctive addition to the sum of human knowledge, Western science, has in some respects made matters worse: it increases our capacity both to do evil and to survive it, which encourages us to tolerate it. No ancient society could have survived the sufferings and massacres that rulers like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao inflicted on their own (and other) peoples; but then, no ancient society could have inflicted such things. As Huxley said (and Tolkien quoted), ours is an age of improved means to deteriorated ends.

It is easy to see that a society of perfect people would not have philosophy, religion, or law in anything like the forms we know. What else would change? Supposing the elves to be immortal, which is correct according to folklore, their political systems would be drastically different as well. Mark Twain once wrote that the best form of government would be rule by a perfectly just and capable autocrat; but since a perfect autocrat must die, and be replaced by an imperfect successor, autocracy is not the best but the very worst form of government. Succession would scarcely be a problem in a society of immortals. States and nations might tend to form around dominating personalities, and disappear if the ruler was slain or incapacitated: much as political factions in republican Rome were not permanent political parties, but temporary alliances of individuals. Of course, so many of the functions of a human state would be unnecessary that we should hardly think of an elvish autocracy as a government at all.

Now, pace Tolkien, the elves of folklore are much more ambiguous morally than his ideal of Unfallen Man. The Tolkien Method, if we apply it sincerely, requires us to try and reconcile such paradoxes before we start throwing away individual elements. There are at least two ways that elvish ethics would differ from ours, and both would tend to make the actions of the elves seem heartless and even monstrous to short-lived humans.

First, anyone with the kind of easy moral clarity that Tolkien attributed to his Elves, and that Christian theology suggests will be universal among redeemed and glorified humans, would naturally appear judgemental and arbitrary to those less enlightened. The idea of righteousness has gone clean out of favour in our own society, and anyone with clear notions of right and wrong is labelled self-righteous instead. This naturally follows if you accept the axiom that all morals are relative, and that each person is free to invent his own standards of good and evil. In that case, righteousness is a thing that can only be applied by and to the self. But if there is some objective standard — which we must grant, by the terms of the argument: if there was a Fall, we fell from somewhere, from a state that was by definition better than any of us enjoy now — then to be simply righteous, without self-aggrandizement or self-regard, is possible at least in principle.

Nothing makes us fallen humans angry quicker than the spectacle of someone not only professing but following a stricter moral standard than we ourselves care to adopt. It shakes our complacency and damages our self-conceit, and if long endured, makes us ashamed that we expect so little of ourselves (and deliver even less). In America before the Civil War, slaveholders hated and cursed the Abolitionists, not because the abolition of slavery was wrong, but because at bottom they knew that it was right. They wanted to feel that they were good and moral people, but they also wanted to keep their slaves; and Abolitionism forced them to choose. They wanted to be good, but not that good. Plato once speculated at length on what would happen if a genuinely good man came among ordinary humans. He concluded that, unable to ignore his superior standards and unwilling to live up to them, they would turn on him in outrage, curse him, torture him, and murder him. Four hundred years later, the people of Judaea proved him right.

But there is another respect in which an ‘unfallen’ morality would be inferior to our own. It would be intolerant of mistakes: not in the sense of disapproving them, but of not having any method of dealing with them at all. It is clumsy people who learn how to fall without hurting themselves, because they fall so often; the naturally graceful have a harder time of it. In ethics there are any number of what are sometimes called secondary virtues, which can only operate in response to evils. You cannot show courage, for instance, until you face danger and fear. Even perfect humans would have need of courage, because no matter how much you improve man himself, his environment is still a dangerous place. But other virtues, formed in reaction to specifically moral evils, would scarcely exist. In a society of perfect people there would be no forgiveness, because no one would give offence. There would be no tolerance, because there would be no disagreeable actions to tolerate. There would be no sympathy, because there would be no undeserved suffering. And there would probably not be even a word for mercy, because nobody would have need of it. Mercy can almost be defined as treating people more kindly than they deserve; it would have no meaning if everyone deserved the best of treatment all the time. In such a society, if someone did choose to do an evil deed, his neighbours would probably react with horror and shock, and leave him to suffer the consequences of his own actions. They would not have enough practice of evil-doing to have learnt any other response. And the attitude of these perfect people towards us ordinary fallen humans would probably be rather like the attitude of the King of Brobdingnag when Gulliver told him about gunpowder.

Imagine, if you can, what it would be like to have a neighbour whose judgement in both ethical and prudential matters was honed by a thousand years of experience; who never neglected a duty or transgressed another’s rights; who could not understand how anyone might be ignorant enough to do evil by accident, or wilful enough to do it on purpose; and whose own choices took into account, not only the needs of the moment, but the consequences she and her loved ones might face centuries in the future. I think most of us would find such a neighbour priggish, arbitrary, stiff-necked, and given to the most bizarre snap judgements; and many of us would not tolerate her for long. And the lower our own ethical standards, the less we would be able to understand hers. Perhaps our ancestors used to accuse the elves of being soulless, not because the elves lacked conscience, but because they had more than mere mortals could easily comprehend.

All this is idle speculation, of course, as touches reality — though it may behove us now and then to contemplate the idea of higher standards than we now possess. But it is at any rate a sufficiently exotic idea to use in a work of fantasy. I think it more interesting than any of the other answers yet proposed to the question, ‘What is an elf?’ I believe it has enormous satiric potential, just as Swift’s Brobdingnagians and Lewis’s Malacandrians had, and much as Jesus, with his consistently radical use of the a fortiori, held up a ruthless mirror to the conventional morality of his own day.

Now, I did not construct my own work with all these things in mind; they came to me gradually over many years, and I found that by intuition or happenstance I had built a structure that could accommodate such a philosophy. Not so many years ago, I had a fairly sudden insight (spurred in part by my first fragmentary reading of Morgoth’s Ring) that the sort of fantasy I write, especially my major work-in-progress, could be thought of as a sort of science fiction where the sciences involved are theology and ethics. Both of these fields were indeed considered sciences in a more contemplative age; indeed, theology was once called the Queen of the Sciences before she was dethroned and replaced by mathematics.

The extraordinary success of technological instruments in expanding our knowledge of the physical sciences has given most of us, scientists not excepted, a vague idea that science is concerned only with what our instruments can measure. But psychology, which has unquestionably attained the status of a science, depends not only on standardized tests and EEGs, but on human beings’ subjective and unquantifiable reports of their own states of mind. Biology depends not only on DNA analysis and the dissection of specimens, but on observing living things in their own habitat. If we set out to observe a living God in his own habitat, as it were, and observe him (the only way we can) through the lens of our own subjective experience, we must not expect the kind of precise and quantitative results obtained by physicists; but we can still approach the subject in a scientific frame of mind, and do our best with the evidence available to us. The modern denigration of theology is based not so much on a refusal to speculate as on a refusal even to observe.

It is true that there is more divergence of opinion about theology than about physics; this is at least partly because the study of theology, having been long neglected, is less advanced than the study of physics, and also because most people are ignorant even of the theological knowledge that we do have. At one time, natural philosophers fought battles of nearly religious intensity over the questions whether the planets followed circular orbits or elliptical ones, and whether light was made up of waves or particles. In the first case, they decided definitely which alternative was correct; in the second, they found that both were useful but deficient, like the blind men’s impressions of the elephant. The instrumental proofs came later; sometimes, indeed, until the true explanations were accepted ex hypothesi, the instruments themselves could not be invented. The theoretical basis for their existence was assumed in building them, and the fact that they worked was the evidence that it was correct.

But one useful device is equally available to physicists and theologians, and that is the thought-experiment. It was the thought-experiments of Einstein that chiefly led him to both his theories of relativity, and not all the laboratories and instruments in the world could have helped him do it. It is at least possible that theological thought-experiments might produce enlightening results; and it is certain that ethical thought-experiments can do so, for half the world’s fiction consists of ethical thought-experiments of greater or lesser degrees of subtlety. The story of Spider-Man is in part an inquiry into good; the story of Humbert Humbert is an inquiry into evil. (I am among the heretics who find more value in the former.) Tennyson’s King Arthur was invented to examine the fate of a good man undone by the evil men around him; Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant was the reverse, an evil man, or at least a deeply flawed one, redeemed by the good people he discovered in the Land. And to return to Tolkien, Frodo is a good person tested to destruction by hardship and temptation. We must always be leery of accepting these experiments at face value, for it is all too easy for an author to measure the results with his thumb on the scales; but they can still be of use to us. I think most people have learnt important lessons from fiction, in one medium or another. Some of the lessons were even true.

So what of my own poor experiments? I have always been fascinated by the claim in Genesis that it was the very first humans who sinned, even before they had time to breed, so that all their offspring carried the resulting taint. Supposing that one wanted to postulate the existence of sinless humans alongside the kind we know and are, what easier way than to defer Original Sin to the second generation? It was from this that I developed the myth of Dân, the Adam-figure of my invented world, and the differing fates of his three sons. The protagonist of the Magnificent Octopus, a young fellow of iconoclastic bent, recounts the tale in potted form:

‘Yes, I’ve heard the story. Dân was made by the Maker in his own image, whatever that means, and Eia, the first woman, in the first days of Färinor. They had three sons, Färon, Morak, and Vardan. The Destroyer spoke to each of them out of the void. Färon sent him marching with a flea in his ear, but Morak listened to him and rebelled against the Maker; Vardan stayed out of the quarrel. Morak killed his father, raped his mother, and sired the Morakh on her. I forget the rest, but it was all very sordid and mythological.’

The idea is that Färon, who remained unfallen, became the ancestor of the Färinoth, whom it is very indelicate, not to say unlucky, to call elves: the usual thing among mortals is to call them the Fair Folk, a propitiatory euphemism, like calling the Furies Eumenides. (And as with the Furies, it is precisely the justice of the Fair Folk that men fear.)

Morak’s descendants owe something to the ‘goblin tradition’ from which Tolkien derived the Orcs, something to trolls and ogres, and something to the psychological theories about Neandertal man founded on his apparent incapacity to make representational art. We feel, perhaps rightly, that the creation of art is the most uniquely and characteristically human activity, and the one in which we most nearly resemble God (or gods); and Tolkien made the creativity of the Elves their most strikingly superhuman feature.

Vardan, whose descendants were mortal men like ourselves, did not sell his soul outright; his sin, like Adam’s, was to think that he could be his own master and do without God. In the event, the Maker generally, if sorrowfully, respected the wish of Vardan’s people to be independent and find their own way, but the Destroyer interfered with them shamelessly. This is the peril of all would-be neutrals, as the Belgians found out in both World Wars. So said Screwtape:

The humans are always putting up claims to ownership which sound equally funny in Heaven and in Hell. . . . They will find out in the end, never fear, to whom their time, their souls, and their bodies really belong — certainly not to them, whatever happens. At present the Enemy says ‘Mine’ of everything on the pedantic, legalistic ground that He made it; Our Father hopes in the end to say ‘Mine’ of all things on the more realistic and dynamic ground of conquest.

And so you have my own answer to a question that lies at the heart of modern fantasy. My answer is the Fair Folk whose good seems to us more terrible than our evil, whose love seems more heartless than our hatred, whose art seems more real than our reality; whose knowledge seems like folly to us in our ignorance; who grieve at the wickedness of mortals, but leave us to the fate we chose for ourselves; and who have no word for mercy, for they have no need of it.

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Comments {30}

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from: nancylebov
date: Nov. 14th, 2006 9:34 (UTC)

The elves of the Silmarillion don't seem especially unfallen, though perhaps they aren't subject to original sin.

Where are Poul Anderson's elves in your accounting? They're beautiful, artistic, and evil, and started a tradition of fantasy elves (see Pratchett's _Lords and Ladies_ and Gaiman's _Coraline_ and probably more that isn't coming to mind) which aren't in any of your categories.

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Tom Simon

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from: superversive
date: Nov. 14th, 2006 9:47 (UTC)

Tolkien went on at some length about the nature and effects of Elvish sin. The gist is roughly that they were indeed not subject to Original Sin, but that they might suffer partial and reversible ‘falls’ through their own passions and bad choices. These ‘falls’ were not necessarily transmitted to their descendants. Fëanor’s fall from grace was permanent, only because he was killed in battle before he had time to repent. Galadriel was at first held to have atoned for her fall by six thousand years in the Purgatory of Middle-earth, struggling against the evil of Sauron, and proved her atonement by rejecting the One Ring. But in the end Tolkien was writing about her as if she had never sinned at all, but was an innocent victim of Fëanorian politics.

I left Anderson’s elves out of reckoning, because they are neither derived from Tolkien’s Elves nor a reaction against them. They draw much more directly, and in a very different manner, on the elves of specifically German folklore. He has certainly influenced subsequent writers; but in the case of Pratchett particularly, I wonder sometimes if his version of the tradition arises from anything more than his ingrained habits of guying every trope of fantasy and cleaving to Frye’s ironic mode.

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(Deleted comment)

Re: Methought I was... methought I had...

from: nancylebov
date: Nov. 14th, 2006 13:46 (UTC)

It would certainly match with what I understand of the faerie sense of humor.

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Marie's dad

Between The Unfallen Angels and Fallen Men

from: thomas_a_kempis
date: Nov. 14th, 2006 15:01 (UTC)

I think you have bracketed the target; they are unfallen men, and therefore, as the Unfallen Angels of real life. Pull open your Bible and read carefully for every encounter with an Angel. The Book of Hebrews (none knows the Author) is replete with references to Angels but is not what I mean; Daniel is nearer, as he prays for three weeks and the warfare in Heaven prevents the Messenger of God's sooner arrival. Job Chapter 1 has always seemed to caputre the Unfallen Ones milieu, before God they stand and report their holy doings. Satan (Fallen Angel) also comes to the gathering, etc.


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Tom Simon

Re: Between The Unfallen Angels and Fallen Men

from: superversive
date: Nov. 14th, 2006 18:56 (UTC)

Daniel and Job, especially the latter, definitely helped me to come along to my present understanding of the question. There are also, I think, hints in Genesis, and in the mysterious appearances and powers of the resurrected Christ: some of which are of course peculiar to Christ as God, but some of which may be proper to the resurrected and glorified Man.

There is a fascinating passage in Morgoth’s Ring where Tolkien suggests that the hröa or body of an Elf, after many ages of life, dwindles away until nothing remains but a memory in the fëa or spirit: at which point the Elf might choose to appear or disappear, to be seen by one corporeal person and not by another, to move freely and instantaneously from place to place, and various other things that the resurrected Christ is recorded to have done. Of course this is not to say that He was an Elf, or that the Elves are even remotely equivalent to Him: only that Tolkien speculated that some such powers might accrue to such a state in Unfallen Man.

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Wendy S. Delmater

spot-on, as always

from: safewrite
date: Nov. 14th, 2006 15:08 (UTC)

What a wonderful post. I shall be re-reading and pondering this, and cross-posting to my lj so that it gets a wider audience.

What I would love to see, Tom, is a similar discourse on the pantheon of the Valar and their relationship to Catholic saints. I was discussing the fact that where I see Lewis writing Aslan as an example of how Christ would appear to sentient animals, Tolkien drew partial Christ-figures (a returning king with healing in his hands, a suffering servant, a person who gives his life to redeem the world, etc.).

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Tom Simon

Re: spot-on, as always

from: superversive
date: Nov. 14th, 2006 18:45 (UTC)

A very good point indeed. Another essential point in my speculation (triggered by my reading of Perelandra long ago) is that the process of Redemption might have been very different if there had been unfallen humans in the world to assist in the work. The Son of God would no doubt have had to make some atoning sacrifice for the sins of the fallen, but not perhaps the sacrifice He actually did make; and He would not have had to be born as the one sinless man merely so that there should be one, for sinless people would have existed already.

Alas, hagiology is not my strong point, so I may not be qualified to write the discourse you want on the Valar. But perhaps I shall be able at some point to tackle some of the questions you raise.

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Eglantine Brandybuck


from: carbonelle
date: Nov. 16th, 2006 6:39 (UTC)

I do hope you'll finish your story, and that I can read it.

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(no subject)

from: cgyrask
date: Nov. 20th, 2006 18:23 (UTC)

This comic looks like it fully supports your theory about Elves being unfallen men. The elves even act the way you figured they would. :)

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Fabio Paolo Barbieri

The elves in Teutonic mythology

from: fpb
date: Jan. 12th, 2007 19:42 (UTC)

A few random points.

Tolkien did not actually mobilize all the resources of scholarship to explain the Teutonic Elves. He should have noticed that they are etimologically connected to the Vedic Indian deities, the Rbhu (the R at the start is vocalic, rather like an English R). These three brothers are the workers of the gods, in character more like Teutonic dwarves than elves: they make the chariot of the king of the gods, Indra, multiply one sacrificial cup by four, and make their own parents immortal. They also, like the Dwarves in the Catalogue of Dwarves in the Voeluspa and Snorri's Edda, support the four corners of the sky. But the most interesting thing about the Rbhus is that they were mortals who became gods through their good works. This tradition seems to be constant in Indian religion: in the earliest stratum, their "good works" were the works they did for the gods, later it was conventional piety, but at any rate the Rbhus are heroes who crossed over into godhood. This has no clear correspondence in Teutonic mythology as we have it, but it has some echoes in some strange figures of Greek mythology - the Telchinies, the Dactyls of Samothrace and other figures of multiple worker spirits on the edge of godhood, often involved in mystery cults. As Goethe has them sing in memorable verse, "Wir haben der Dreizack Neptunen geschmiedet/ Womit er die regesten Wellen beguetet" - "We hammered the mighty Trident of Poseidon/ With which the king calms the most furious waves".

In general, this seems to suggest some sort of semi-divine status involving making weapons for the gods, and also connected with mysterious, initiatic wisdom. This certainly finds an echo in the fact that it was clearly a good thing for a man to be advised by the Elves; in fact, it was especially associated with kings. At two ends of the Teutonic world, two great and famous kings bore "Elf" names: Alfred the Great - "Aelf-red", instructed by the elves - and Alboinus the Longobard, conqueror of Italy, whose name gives OE Aelfwine - Elf-friend. Throughout the Teutonic world, kings were the objects of special initiatic ceremonies and were believed to have special powers that set them apart from the mass of mere aristocrats; if these initiatic demi-gods had any correspondence in the Teutonic world, secret initiatic ceremonies were more apt to concern kings than any other class of people.

By the same token, the mysterious and vague nature of all allusions to them, in spite of the certainty that they were very clear, very present and very important to generations of our ancestors. The secrets of initiatic ceremonies are only discussed with other initiates, and die with them. Think of how, in spite of the fact that literally millions of Greeks had gone through the Eleusine Mysteries over literally millennia, we still do not exactly know what happened in the Mysteries and what it meant: the most talkative race in known history kept that secret to themselves, and it died with their culture.

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Fabio Paolo Barbieri

How I see elves

from: fpb
date: Jan. 12th, 2007 20:02 (UTC)

Having said that, I have to admit that my view of the elves is quite separate from what research has to say about them. I regard them as the image not so much of unfallen men, as of beings unbound by care and want, cheerful and impossible to catch. They are unconcerned by human evil in every sense of the word, and indeed hardly seen. Tom Bombadil is the closest that Tolkien came to my idea of an elvish being, and even so Tom is hindered by Tolkien's inevitably materializing imagination. The Elves may have no conscience; the fact that they do not depend on anyone for anything means that they do not have to consider the results of any prank that may seem funny to them. They may also be carelessly benevolent, if their character inclines that way; and they are as different from each other as mortals have. When they have an itch for a human, they behave like the lover of Sir Launfal in the medieval lay - come and pick him up, treat him to a vision of splendour past human potential, "and then", says C.S.Lewis, "to bed." Sir Launfal's fairy lover, if I remember correctly, attended to his welcome dinner while stripped to the waist; astonishing behaviour in any woman, let alone a lady of enormous majesty such as this one, and which shows that she was absolutely sure of her own power. As why should she not be, since the whole gorgeous apparition of pavilions and festival depended on her? He was also able to report truthfully that she was more beautiful than Queen Guinevere herself - although the Queen, who had herself something of the fay, was in turn described as being the spirit of beauty.

The modern author who has come closest to my view of the elvish is T.S.Yeats, and my view is that, while one may write poems about them, it is impossible to write stories in which they feature as protagonists. Agatha Christie came gorgeously close to it in her character Harley Quin - one of the finest things she ever wrote - but she did so at the expense of having a deliberately dull and elderly sidekick who actually had the adventures, while the elven Harley Quin appeared and disappeared as he pleased. If you have an elf trapped in the closed structure of a story, he or she no longer has that here-and-gone, haunting quality that distinguishes them, and that arises from their being unbound by care. When Elves appear in stories, the stories either stop or are suspended till the human protagonist reappears among men. The story of Tam Lin does not tell us what Tam Lin did in the centuries he spent as the Fairy Queen's lover.

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Fabio Paolo Barbieri

Science, history and art

from: fpb
date: Jan. 12th, 2007 20:22 (UTC)

I think you are badly wrong about calling psychology a science, for a very simple reason. You can have properly declarative statements, statements such as science uses, only if you have a subject reflecting on an object separate from itself. If once the subject starts to reflect on itself, the kind of statements that can be made are entirely different in quality, and also in the kind of convinction they can carry. I would divide the field of knowledge in three parts: Science, History (or Human Studies) and Art. Science concerns the subject treating objects separate from itself. Even such things as most branches of scientific medicine are scientific in so far as they treat the body as an object to be regarded by the self impersonally, as a functioning mechanism which the self can use, or which can betray the self, but which at any rate is not, in that light, essentially connected with the self. When we start having the self reflecing on itself, either in isolation or - as it inevitably must happen - in relation with other selves, then we have crossed over into human studies/history. And if the definition seems strained to you, you ought to reflect on the fact that psychology is closely connected with biography, and that biography as a psychological study has been a major part of historical studies since the days of Plutarch.

There are, then, three fields of human knowledge: science (mathematics, biology, physics, and all their related fields of study); human studies (psychology, biography, history, economics, sociology, social anthropology) and the arts (Architecture, sculpture, painting, music, poetry, prose, cinema, theatre, comics, gardening, etc.). The sciences mean the self gaining positive knowledge, through increasingly accurate hypotheses, of the external world; human studies stand for the self reflecting on itself; and the arts, apart from their practical application, represent the imaginative recasting of the self's experience and understanding.

Two important points must still be made. One, there are overlaps. By that I do not means dubious points where a discipline can be interpreted as part of one field or of another - is neurology, for instance, a part of scientific medicine or of psychology? No, I mean people whose activity may legitimately be described, learned, studied and analyzed in the lights of more than one discipline and more than one field. For instance, those scientists who also have a gift for polished and imaginative self-expression - Galileo, Fabre, Audubon, Stephen Jay Gould - can be assessed and enjoyed as artists as well as scientists. Indeed, Stephen Jay Gould managed a triple play - the never-enough-lamented biologist was not only a first-rate essayist, but also an amateur culture historian of no small accomplishment.

Second and more important, all these disciplines abut on one central and, in my view, supreme field of study, which is philosophy/theology. I do not admit that the two fields are separate; theology is just a name for Christian philosophy, or rather for the refusal of prejudiced practictitioners of philosophy to study it. All studies lead to philosophy: science through cosmology and the assumption of cosmic order, human studies through the ontological study of man and society, the arts through reflection on their own message and being. And, in turn, philosophical/theological assumptions rule and lead the work of every person who works in every field of knowledge.

I have to stop here, because it would be madness to do anything except a very quick sketch of my views in this area. But I feel certain that psychology can never, by its own nature, be called a science.

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Fabio Paolo Barbieri

Having said all that..

from: fpb
date: Jan. 12th, 2007 20:34 (UTC)

Having said all that, your essay is still exceptionally good. There was one gross mistake: Belgium in World War One did not in the least try to remain neutral. It refused passage to the German troops from Day One, and it was its heroic Thermopylae-like stand against immensely overwhelming odds that brought Britain, Japan and later Italy into the war. I will have something to say about that in my LJ. But other than that, it was magnificent. The imagination of unfallen mankind was beautifull apt and, from our point of veiw, genuinely scary. There is only one thing I wonder: would not an unfallen man be also correspondingly wiser than the darkened mind of fallen man, and therefore able to understand from imagination if not from experience the lot of people bound by sin? This is what seems to me to be Jesus' position, and why Jesus, who was in many ways very much like you suggest - scarily "judgmental", deprived of instinctive empathy with temptation, implicitly demanding - also promised forgiveness without ifs and buts, forgiveness equal for all sins.

Other than that, well done.

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(no subject)

from: sparrow_wings
date: Jan. 31st, 2007 4:20 (UTC)

Got here via matociquala. This is really fascinating, despite my lack of interest in Tolkien and lack of knowledge about theology. Thanks!

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Legal system

from: melophore
date: Sep. 17th, 2010 18:10 (UTC)

This was an intersting read, thank you. I was wondering how you would describe an elven "legal system". There is no mercy in case of a "crime" against the moral code, but since they are not used to violence the only punishment would be exile ? However in Tokiens case, elves do participate in battles, so could easily be apt to execute a devient elf. No ?

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(no subject)

from: niluvar
date: Oct. 30th, 2010 12:56 (UTC)

I must disagree totally with your statements about the vision of elves in MMORPG's and in roleplaying games in general. Even if the simplified image of elves as ''Cute humans with pointy ears'' exist and appears eventually, there are amazing games with a much more mature, complex approach to the subject, relating them to ancient mythology and human psyche, like in Changeling, the Dreaming (where they are called Sidhe, using the ancient Irish ethymology). Dungeons and Dragons is quite a rather old game, and since then, the approach and vision of the fantasy playing community has changed and evolved greatly.

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