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.


  1. The Elves always puzzled me. Before the Silmarillion came out (yes, I’m so old that I read LotR before it was published…:-)) they really lacked any depth. Even in that work, it was hard for me to identify with their motivations and behavior, partly because the Silmarillion’s prose is so turgid, but also because the perspective of immortality is so strange.

    Their society is not very well fleshed out – as far as I can recall, we have never met an Elf farmer, or an Elf engaged in any other common, useful trade other than creating magical trinkets of one kind or another. Once their struggle with Morgoth (which is portrayed as a huge mistake in that it deviated from the plan of letting the Valar provide everything they needed) was over, the Elves apparently had no needs, and no challenges. One might think that 6-7000 years they might have invented something like the steam engine, moveable-type printing, calculus, or the internet (:-)) or discovered the laws of gravity and electricity, explored and settled the rest of Middle Earth, cured cancer, etc. But in real life, necessity *is* the mother of invention and exploration. With no material needs unmet, there is no reason to innovate, and no notion of progress.

    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. They seem to accept unquestioningly that this is something desirable. Maybe, but it is a lot easier to idealize such an existence than to understand what it would mean in practice. So many of the things we value in life are somehow flavored by the fact that we have to struggle for them – the fact that they are exceptional, and special. An cloying existence where you never lack for anything, with no conflicts or challenges, where you have only to wish for something in order to have it, *seems* attractive for a month, or a year, or even a lifetime. But for an eternity? Not so much.

    Talking Heads captured this idea in their song “Heaven”:

    Everyone is trying
    To get into the bar
    The name of the bar
    The bar is called Heaven.
    The band in Heaven
    They play my favorite song
    Play it once again
    Play it all night long

    Heaven is a place
    A place where nothing
    Nothing ever happens
    Heaven is a place
    A place where nothing
    Nothing ever happens

    Sound like a pretty good description of Valinor too.

    I never wanted to be an elf.

    Comment by LagunaDave — May 20, 2007 @ 12:59 pm

  2. I always thought the proverb quoted by Frodo had much to do with the Elves’ awareness of themselves being bound to Fate, and not having many options. The other free peoples of Middle Earth were not bound to Fate so much, so there were more choices for them. Or rather, the Men & Hobbits would need to make their own choices, rather than Elves make one for them. I have always liked that part of the Elves as given by Tolkien. Despite being long-lived, and knowledgeable in many things, they do not presume that their own wisdom is sufficient for them to act as oracles for the rest of Middle Earth.

    Although Frodo sincerely asks for advice, Gildor sincerely doubts he can offer true guidance based on his limited knowledge of the situation. Also, whatever Gildor says, Frodo will be responsible for his own actions anyway, and the matter of the One Ring and the Black Riders is one with too many consequences to just give advice off the top of his head. Telling Frodo to find Gandalf ASAP & confer with him about seems like the best thing.

    Comment by fallohide — May 21, 2007 @ 10:13 am

  3. […] 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. […]

    Pingback by Anwyn’s Notes in the Margin » Weekly Tolkien: Go Not to the Elves, Follow-Up — May 30, 2007 @ 1:34 pm

  4. “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?”

    I’m not certain the elves (or even the Valar) could regard the Blessed Realm as ‘Unspoiled bliss.’ Valinor suffered the loss of the Trees at the hands of Morgoth and Ungoliant. Later, the Valar had to essentially give Aman back to Eru because even they could not stop the onslaught of the Numenoreans under Ar-Pharazon.

    Elrond would not have remembered the attack on the Trees except as lore, but he certainly had relatively immediate dealings with the exiled Faithful of Numenor and would have learned about the invasion. He also had to have learned about the sundering of the seas. One could presume these factors led him to conclude that left unchecked in Middle Earth, Sauron (a fallen Maia) would eventually be able to find a way to invade Valinor again, even though the world had been broken and remade.

    I’m sure the elves knew they had to help.

    Comment by Chris — June 29, 2007 @ 3:19 am

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