Weekly Tolkien: Go Not to the Elves, Seriously

Filed under:Tolkien — posted by Anwyn on May 19, 2007 @ 9:14 pm

‘You are leaving the Shire … is not that so?’

‘It is,’ said Frodo; ‘but I thought my going was a secret known only to Gandalf and my faithful Sam.’ …

‘The secret will not reach the Enemy from us … I do not know for what reason the Enemy is pursuing you,’ answered Gildor, ‘but I perceive that he is–strange indeed though that seems to me. And I warn you that peril is now both before you and behind you, and upon either side.’

‘You mean the Riders? … What are the Black Riders?’

‘Has Gandalf told you nothing? … Then I think it is not for me to say more … The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out. … I do not think the Road will prove too hard for your courage. But if you desire clearer counsel, you should ask Gandalf.The choice is yours, to go or to wait.’

‘And it is also said,’ answered Frodo: ‘Go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say both no and yes.

Tolkien’s Elves are a problem. When I was a child reading Tolkien, of course I couldn’t analyze them, but I instinctively wanted to be one, vaguely feeling how high and set apart they were. Why shouldn’t they be? They have no incentive whatsoever to live in the world and share its burdens. Would you care, if you could leave the world any time you wished to live forever in a realm of unspoiled bliss?

Yet it wasn’t always so. The Elves of The Silmarillion strove for power in the world and dominion over one another–Galadriel’s temptation to accept the Ring from Frodo represents the last flicker of that grasping spirit. The Elves, it seems, have had to learn the hard way that lunging for power will get them nowhere, and their only alternative is to accept what they’ve been given and to stay out of the remaining power struggles to the world. They say it outright: their day is past, mankind’s rise is at hand. I guess Frodo and company should have felt fortunate that Elrond and Galadriel should help and comfort them at all.

Tolkien tries to weave them into the story more integrally. At the Council Elrond claims a place in the battle for the Elves:

‘But it seems to me now clear which is the road that we must take. The westward road seems easiest. Therefore it must be shunned. It will be watched. Too often the Elves have fled that way. Now at this last we must take a hard road, a road unforeseen. There lies our hope, if hope it be. To walk into peril–to Mordor. We must send the Ring to the Fire.’

That at least is clear and not ambivalent like Gildor’s advice to Frodo. But it seems pretty easy to pronounce from on high that the Ring must be taken to the Fire, knowing full well that somebody else will have to do the actual taking. What makes the Elves so aloof?

The story was written for the Hobbits. The Elves serve as their surrogate parents in their maturation, but it is the Hobbits who must carry out the deeds, aided by their fellow Mortals, the Men of the West. Thus, like the best of parents, they know when to let their children take decisions and actions upon themselves, but it can be hard to watch from the outside. It’s easy to scorn the Elves as deus ex machina in matters such as the flight to the fords of Bruinen and finger them for sending Frodo into dreadful danger on the road to Rivendell without properly warning him of his peril. But their looming shadow behind the stalwart fastness of the Hobbits and men like Aragorn is what strikes the fear, such as there is, into Sauron and the Orcs and evil men who serve him. They represent the goodness and freedom of the West, and since their own coming of age they have guarded the heritage of man- and hobbit-kind until they should be ready to come into their own. The Lord of the Rings is about the transition of that power from Elves to Mortals, and if the Hobbits and Men don’t perform the task on their own, then they show they’re not ready for the Elves to retire, so to speak. As I’ve gotten older, I no longer want to be an Elf. Their advice is tempered, their power dwindling. But I still respect them as those who have been through the fires and come out grey and somewhat weary on the other side. They will have their reward in their own land, but never know the true release and freedom from care that will come with the Gift of Men–death and freed spirits. Go not to the Elves, but respect their counsel when it comes, nevertheless.

image: detail of installation by Bronwyn Lace