Weekly Tolkien: Go Not to the Elves, Follow-Up

Filed under:Tolkien — posted by Anwyn on May 30, 2007 @ 1:34 pm

Last week got away from me before I knew it. Not an auspicious beginning to a three-week-old feature, but on we go.

Just a quickie this time, a follow-up to last time’s observations on Elves. LagunaDave said:

In some ways, the Elves remind me of religious people who devoutly believe they will spend eternity in a heaven where everything is perfect after they die.

Dave’s point was ultimately that Valinor (or heaven) is boring and not worth it, but I’ll take it in a different direction: The Elves don’t believe, they know that Valinor is open to them at any time. This marks a huge difference between Tolkien’s Elves and the faith of real, human Christians. Behaving in a certain way on the basis of a nebulous promise of something assumed to be good (heaven) is quite different from having to behave in no particular way to attain what is the only reward (or punishment) available (Valinor). My question is: did Tolkien anticipate this? Did he understand that the Elves would be a dead end precisely because their existence was bound to the seen, known, and earthly? Or was he trying to idealize or knock down heaven to a more, um, equitable state? It’s real, it’s here, it’s free to all unless you screw up royally, just be normal and you’ll be fine. If the latter, he must have been surprised when there was nothing left to do with Elves, simply because the predictability of their fate led inevitably to the predictability of their whole existence–an ironic dead end for beings who live forever. I tend to think that with his emphasis on the Gift of Men, he realized from the get-go that the Elves weren’t going to cut it and was using them as an illustration of what happens when some people get what they wish for–i.e. proof of God and heaven. Hard to say for sure without doing a lot more reading than I have time for at the moment, though.

Sad but true: faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. When you can see it, and travel to it, and live forever idyllically in it, all surety and no faith makes Jack Elf a dull boy. Did Tolkien know this, or did he start with a well-meaning plot to bring heaven to the agnostic and wind up with a whole race of dull boys?

one comment so far »

  1. I haven’t read the voluminous background material available in The History of Middle Earth, so I can only speculate.

    I wonder if Tolkien was consciously or unconsciously contrasting different mythologies. The Elves’ fate seems more reminiscent of Norse/Germanic mythology (Valinor = Valhalla), which Tolkien was very in tune with, while men’s place in the cosmos seems more Judeo-Christian.

    It may have been one of your old columns on TORN that pointed out how closely the elves are linked to the earth. One can view them as being sort of permanent features of the landscape/scenery, like the mountains and oceans.

    Another thing I’ve always found bizarre about the elves – they must be unbelievably chaste. An immortal race – especially one which presumably doesn’t lose fertility through aging – should have overrun the planet completely in 10,000 years. Even if every elf couple only had one child, the population would grow exponentially. Given that birth control is never mentioned by Tolkien, we may have stumbled onto a more mundane explanation for why the firstborn are so dour… :-)

    Comment by LagunaDave — June 11, 2007 @ 10:07 pm

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