In this scattershot series, we’ll be delving “too greedily and too deep,” prying gems out of the glorious rough that is the extended legendarium of Tolkien’s world. This includes drawing on The Lord of the Rings itself, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, The Children of Húrin, and the History of Middle-earth (or HoME) books.
Elf-kids these days! They’re so soft. They don’t know how good they’ve got it. Just Sauron, not Morgoth, is their big bad, and they can just hop on a boat at any time to escape the troubles of Middle-earth. That wasn’t an option for their parents. But then, war, love, and family have always been part of the Elven condition in Arda Marred—from the Elder Days to The Lord of the Rings days.
In the book Morgoth’s Ring, in the more-delightful-than-it-sounds section called “Laws and Customs among the Eldar,” the first thing Tolkien talks about is Elf-children. Which should immediately make us say: Wait! Why do we never read about them? Like, any of them. Are there any Eldar tykes in Middle-earth at the time of The Lord of the Rings? Might young Estel, a.k.a. Aragorn, have had one or two immortal playmates in Rivendell? Well, as with many things in his legendarium, Tolkien just doesn’t say. But we can infer some things based on Elven culture and reproductive conventions.
It’s not like Tolkien doesn’t mention other types of kids in Middle-earth. Hobbit children (adorable!) get referenced and even named, and Pippin sees a few Gondorian lads playing in Minas Tirith and even befriends 10-year-old Bergil son of Beregond. Hell, even Orc kids get a mention—if the “small goblin-imp” Gollum recalls eating in The Hobbit is, in fact, a youngster.
But Elves, the Firstborn of the Children of Ilúvatar? Well, they’ve got a whole different sort of lifespan, and their childhoods are brief indeed. During the War of the Ring, there’s a good chance there simply aren’t any Elf children left, at least not among the Eldar. They are a declining race, as previously discussed in this series. Now, it could be that there are some Elf-rugrats way out in the far East, where the Avari (the Unwilling) and other Dark Elves still dwell, far from the world stage. But then their laws and customs might be quite different, anyway.
So really, the only time we see any mention of juvenile Elves is in The Silmarillion, and things didn’t generally go so great for those named therein. Little Maeglin is dealt a terrible hand of cards with his Dark Elf dad. Lúthien’s grandsons, Eluréd and Elurín, are left to starve in the wild. Young Elrond and his brother, Elros, are kidnapped then raised by those kinslaying sons of Fëanor.
And that’s basically it. There are obviously thousands upon thousands of Elf-youths born in the First Age, but The Silmarillion reads like a myth-heavy history book, and those are never known for showcasing the everyday family lives of its people. But they are there in the world.
It seems to me that in the time of The Lord of the Rings, it’s Arwen, daughter of Elrond, who is one of the youngest Elves around. Born in year 241 of the Third Age, she’s a mere 2,711 years old when Aragorn meets her—truly a whippersnapper compared to her old man, Elrond, who was born at the tail end of the First Age, nearly six and a half millennia before. Legolas, too, is pegged as part of the early Third Age generation, though no date is given for his birth. Basically, these two Elf-youths grew up shortly after that upstart Sauron was discorporated the second time, when he was at his weakest, and during a period of relative peace. (Remember this peace thing for later.)
So I’m saying it: Legolas and Arwen are part of the softer generation! Why, back in Arwen’s grandmother’s day, Elves had to walk just to get to Middle-earth from the Blessed Realm, with no boats to cross the Great Sea, through sleet and snow and Grinding Ice, for possibly years and years—and probably uphill the whole way?
They only had each other and whatever Noldorin treasures they could carry with them. And they were lucky to have it. I’m just sayin’. Do you really think Legolas would have quipped about “running light over grass and leaf or over snow” if he‘d marched through the frigid hellscape that was the Helcaraxë?
So yeah, I’m thinking the Elven youth of the Third Age might not appreciate how fortunate they are. Their overshadowing archvillain was not only a second-tier Dark Lord, he’d already gotten his ass kicked once (twice if you count the sinking of Númenor!) before they strolled onto the scene.
One reason it’s unlikely there are true Elf-kids in the late Third Age: Elves have a relatively short childhood, compared to their adulthood (which will last until the end of days). From “Laws and Customs” we’re told that they grow slower in body than mortal kids, though their minds advance faster. By their first year they can talk, walk, and dance. (They grow up so fast!) But outside of being little baby Einsteins, in their early years they’re actually very much like human children.
a man who watched elf-children at play might well have believed that they were the children of Men, of some fair and happy people. For in their early days elf-children delighted still in the world about them, and the fire of their spirit had not consumed them, and the burden of memory was still light upon them.
As a parent, I also take this to mean that it’s quite possible that toddler Legolas was also a rambunctious little squirt who picked his nose in public and boycotted his bedtime and/or most vegetables. Meanwhile, we mortals grow swiftly. By the time a child of Men reaches her full height—on average, today’s humans do so between ages 15 (most girls) and 17 (most boys)—an Elf of the same age will still look like a 7-year-old. It’s not until around the age of 50 that fast-blooming Elves will be as tall as they’re going to get; for others, not until around 100. (They grow up so…slow!)
So if Elves are physically matured by the age of 100, at the latest, yet live for nearly forever after that, we’re not likely to be seeing too many Elf-children, are we? Just lots and lots of adults of varying ages. Here on Regular-earth, kids make up about 27% of the human population, give or take. On Middle-earth, that’s bound to be much smaller when it comes to Elves. There is no disease among them, and Elves will have an especially low mortality rate; the only deaths are those “seeming deaths” from grief or violence that send Elves’ fëar (spirits) back to Valinor, where they’re likely to stay. So that percentage is surely shrinking over time.
I suppose we should drop some glossary terms again.
- Aman — The continent west across the Great Sea from Middle-earth; contains Valinor, the home of the Valar and where a sizable percentage of the Elves have gone.
- Arda — The world (little “w”), which includes the earth, the seas, skies, and even the firmament around them (the planet and its immediate celestial surroundings).
- Children of Ilúvatar — Both Elves and Men. Biologically, these two races are of the same “species” and as such can “produce fertile offspring,” but obviously from that point on they’re quite different.
- Cuiviénen [KOO-ee-vee-EH-nehn] — A lake in Middle-earth, somewhere far in the East, upon whose shores the Elves first awoke.
- Eä — The World (big “w”), the entire universe itself, of which Arda is but a part.
- Eldar — A word generally synonymous with Elves. Technically, it doesn’t apply to those Elves way back in the beginning who opted to stay where they were and not get factored into any of its recorded history. Those are the Avari, the Unwilling, and they’re the one group of Elves excluded when Eldar are mentioned.
- fëa / fëar [FAY-ah / FAY-ahr] — The name given to the “spirits” of incarnate, sentient creatures.
- hröa / hröar [HROH-ah / HROH-ahr] — The physical bodies of the Children of Ilúvatar that are inhabited by fëar, and together they make up the living, breathing, people.
- Ilúvatar — Eru, The One, the singular god of Tolkien’s monotheistic legendarium.
- Middle-earth — The massive continent where most of the stories in the legendarium take place. Contains regions like Eriador and Rhovanion. Beleriand once formed its northwestern corner.
- Morgoth — The Enemy, the original Dark Lord and fomenter of all evil. Formerly, the mightiest of the Ainur, known first as Melkor.
- ner / nerri — Male Elf.
- nis / nissi — Female Elf.
- Valar — The “agents and vice-gerents” of Eru, the upper echelon of spiritual beings, set above the Maiar, and established by Ilúvatar to shape and govern Arda.
“Laws and Customs” tells us that most Elves get married in their youth (like right after becoming an adult), and during peaceful times, they often choose one another when they are still kids and/or adolescents. So, lots of childhood sweethearts among the Eldar, apparently! But while their parents do get to impose judgment on the prospective union, consent on the part of the betrothed is paramount (as free will usually is throughout the legendarium).
Interestingly, while Tolkien goes into plenty of detail around betrothal, and the use of rings as symbols (he likes rings, yeah?), and ceremonies, he also points out that…
It was the act of bodily union that achieved marriage, and after which the indissoluble bond was complete.
You hear that? Indissoluble. Elves mate for life, and it’s a long, long life they’ve got, too. Also, this is actually very Mark 10:8 of Tolkien, which should be no surprise. Now, in times of peace, it’s a serious taboo for lovers to skip the ceremonies (which involve the couple’s respective families) and get right to that act of bodily union (which does not involve families!), but…BUT…in “days of old, in times of trouble, in flight and exile and wandering, such marriages were often made.” Which, frankly, is most of the First Age. From the moment Morgoth quit Aman, fled to Middle-earth, and the Noldor gave chase, everything went pear-shaped for all involved.
Really, when you think of love affairs and hasty weddings in times of war throughout our own real-world history, it’s not so different. Except, of course, for that whole immortality thing. The Elder Days of Middle-earth, then, must have seen some tempestuous times in the area of romance for the Elves.
Since death and the sundering of spirit and body was one of the griefs of Arda Marred, it came inevitably to pass that death at times came between two that were wedded. Then the Eldar were in doubt, since this was an evil unnatural.
This is Arda Marred, not Arda as it would have been without the meddling of Morgoth at its outside. But I can well imagine any of the great battles of Beleriand as the backdrop for tons of Elven love stories—which, of course, all really have Morgoth as their source anyway. He ruins everything! How many husbands and wives might have been violently split from one another for centuries as a result of war? How many Elf-soldiers of Fingoflin’s host, for example, were torn from their mates during the Siege of Angband only to perish on the blades of Orcs or the maces of Balrogs… only to wait in Valinor for nearly four hundred years until Morgoth broke the siege with the Battle of Sudden Flame, at which point many of those mates were slain as well? That conflict did not go so well for Elves or Men, and the longer war that followed after was even worse.
War may not curb romance nor permanently break marriages—for to Elves marriage begins with the body but lasts as long as their spirits (their fëar) do, which is the full duration of Arda. Not even till death do them part. But war and the prospect of death will stall their having kids. First, we’re told that an Elf’s pregnancy is basically a full year, and Elven couples don’t want to risk separation from one another during that time. Their kids are very dear to them and that time is too critical. Because…
it would seem to any of the Eldar a grievous thing if a wedded pair were sundered during the bearing of a child, or while the first years of its childhood lasted. For which reason the Eldar would beget children only in days of happiness and peace if they could.
Let’s compare this to Men. Mortals know they haven’t got the time to be as choosy, on Middle-earth or on Regular-earth! Not only are our lives comparatively short, war and strife surrounds us. Consider poor Tuor, the mortal hero whose father, Huor, was killed in the Battle of Unnumbered Tears just two months after he was conceived. Then, even worse, Tuor’s mother died soon after she gave birth to him and dropped him off to be fostered by the Grey-elves of Hithlum. Were those Elves Huor’s parents, that would be a “grievous” situation indeed, a situation best avoided by simply not having kids during such turbulent times. Elves much prefer to wait for when the resident Dark Lord (whichever one!) isn’t actively waging war on them.
It’s not just death and war that separates spouses from one another, either. In The Peoples of Middle-earth we get the only mention of Anairë, the wife of Fingolfin, who stayed behind in Valinor when most of the Noldor followed Fëanor into exile. But at least this couple had already four full-grown kids (grand-kids, even!) at that point, so the parting was…bearable, if not ideal. In fact, Tolkien wrote that…
although the wedded remain so for ever, they do not necessarily dwell or house together at all times; for without considering the chances and separations of evil days, wife and husband, albeit united, remain persons individual having each gifts of mind and body that differ.
Which means given the patience their longevity affords them, Elves can also manage to go long periods of time apart from one another—and sometimes desire it—but preferably only after their nest is empty of fledglings. We see it with Galadriel and Celeborn after the War of the Ring, but that’s well after they’ve had grandkids. She sails to Valinor, but he “grew weary of his realm and went to Imladris to dwell with the sons of Elrond.” And we don’t know how long he stuck around before finally leaving Middle-earth himself.
Of course, this isn’t the same as being “sundered” by violence when one spouse’s fëa is summoned to Mandos. That truly sucks for them, as it would for anyone who lives so long—and Elrond’s situation actually gets pretty close to that. The real takeaway in that passage above shows is that at no point does the identity or will of one spouse get overshadowed by the other. Elves, seemingly more than Men, seem to embrace equality and individuality between the sexes. And not just in marriage; I’ll come back to this later, too.
Still, that earlier wording reported that Elves would “beget children only in days of happiness and peace if they could.” If they could. I suppose that at least allows for the possibility of Elf-kids in the latter-day Third Age. Yet with most of the Eldar already having left Middle-earth at this point, it’s not really considered the place to raise a family anymore, is it? Galadriel’s words to Frodo, “We must depart into the West, or dwindle to a rustic folk of dell and cave, slowly to forget and to be forgotten,” wouldn’t exactly be a good selling point for prospective Elf-parents looking to raise a family in Middle-earth.
So while I say there can’t be any Elf-kiddies in Middle-earth anymore, there remain references to none; if there were any, you can bet they’d be well-guarded in the few places where Elves have lingered: chiefly the Grey Havens, the Woodland Realm in Mirkwood, Rivendell, and Lothlórien.
As a rule, Elf-kids become scarcer with time. In the Elder Days, before their “fading” was well underway, the power of the Elves was greater on the whole. So they could have more kids if they wanted. The seven sons of the (in)famous Fëanor and his wife, Nerdanel, is the largest house possible, but even that is considered exceptional among them. But with all of that collective power diminishing over the years, Elves are able to bring fewer children into the world. Yet we are told that they tend to marry and start having kids of their own shortly after reaching adulthood themselves.
Given the “serial longevity” of the Elves (as Tolkien termed their immortality in a letter), if you do the math, it certainly seems like there’d have been a lot of Elves born across the ages. And maybe there were—way back when! Tolkien almost never gives solid numbers—but again, it’s only in times of peace and happiness that we might see little Elves skipping along.
Still, as the years go by the Elves had fewer and fewer children, owing to that fading of theirs. I imagine the biggest baby boom among all the Eldar kindreds (Noldor, Vanyar, Teleri) would have taken place during the three ages of Melkor’s imprisonment in Mandos (on the far western edge of Aman), for that would have been the longest period of peace Arda had experienced since the coming of the Elves. We’re talking waaaay back before the Silmarils and the unrest of the Noldor.
Even in Middle-earth, across the Great Sea, those Eldar who chose to stay there prospered well enough. But then Melkor screwed it all up. He got slapped with the name Morgoth (“Dark Enemy of the World”) because he sabotaged the Two Trees of Valinor, killed the High King of the Noldor, stole the Silmarils, then escaped back to Middle-earth to start up trouble anew. Things got real dicey at that point, and I bet the output of Elf-children took a downturn. Then again, a second boom might have come during the so-called Long Peace, that period of time—“wellnigh two hundred years”—when the Noldor felt they’d had Morgoth contained in Angband. Which they more or less had, but it ended with the aforementioned Battle of Sudden Flame.
Still, given the decreased number of Elf-kids produced over time, I think it’s probable that young Legolas, born in the Third Age, is an only child. We know that Arwen has two older brothers, but we also know that Elrond’s family is a bit unique, what with the Eärendil-based cocktail of Half-elven blood running through it.
With one famous exception aside, Elves marry only once and do so “for love or at the least by free will upon either part.” Tolkien goes on to point out that even when Elves fall under corruption—which they certainly can and do, courtesy of Morgoth’s influence—“seldom is any tale told of deeds of lust among them.” Which has to mean infidelity and worse. But since seldom isn’t never, we know that Elven behavior can go askew from time to time…
Such as in the reprehensible acts of Eöl (the Dark Elf), the questionable decisions of Aredhel (the White Lady of the Noldor), or worse, the choices of their son, Maeglin, whose betrayal dooms all of Gondolin. When Elves go bad, they go really bad, and it usually ends up with a lot of dead Elves. Well, “unhoused” Elves, as previously discussed.
So yes, for all the transcendence and perfection we might assume about Elves based on their depiction in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien makes it very clear elsewhere that they’re not infallible. Maybe the average Elf is less inclined towards acts of evil than your average Man, but they “could be guilty of deeds of malice, enmity, greed and jealousy.” The real standout Elf-jerks are showcased in The Silmarillion, but the truth is that a shadow lies upon all of Arda. For it is Arda Marred, a world that’s not quite as intended, one polluted by Melkor, aka Morgoth, aka Sauron’s old boss.
So why am I talking about immorality amidst talk of kids and marriages? Because at one point Tolkien writes this, and I’d like to address it:
But among all these evils there is no record of any among the Elves that took another’s spouse by force; for this was wholly against their nature, and one so forced would have rejected bodily life and passed to Mandos. Guile or trickery in this matter was scarcely possible (even if it could be thought that any Elf would purpose to use it); for the Eldar can read at once in the eyes and voice of another whether they be wed or unwed.
There is much that can be unpacked with that, not the least of which is the ability of Elves to apparently know by sight and sound who is or isn’t available for dating. I guess those kinds of awkward misunderstandings just never happen to the Eldar! But also remember that to Elves, consummation is marriage; there is no separating the two. If an Elf was forced into the act, they would reject bodily life, by their very nature. Their fëa would leave their hröa; they would die. And with that in mind, consider this excerpt from Appendix B of The Lord of the Rings regarding what happened to Galadriel’s daughter, Celebrían.
In 2509 Celebrían wife of Elrond was journeying to Lórien when she was waylaid in the Redhorn Pass, and her escort being scattered by the sudden assault of the Orcs, she was seized and carried off. She was pursued and rescued by Elladan and Elrohir, but not before she had suffered torment and had received a poisonous wound. She was brought back to Imladris, and though healed in body by Elrond, lost all delight in Middle-earth, and the next year went to the Havens and passed over the Sea.
I have read conjecture that Celebrían’s “torment” must have been rape, but it’s certainly not the case. That is various readers’ desire to see Tolkien made grimdark, but Tolkien isn’t George R.R. Martin, especially when it comes to Elves. That said, in more than one place we do read of evil Men “taking to wife” someone quite against their will (e.g. Ar-Pharazôn the Númenórean, Brodda the Easterling), but that’s not Elves. Yet in the tragedy of Celebrían, she did not die. Her fëa did not leave her hröa and flee to the Halls of Mandos, not even after torture (and “poison wound”) at the hands of Orcs.
The default setting for Orcs is one of cruelty, to be sure, but there is nothing in the text to suggest they’d have any interest in that sort of assault. In any case, I’ll talk about Orcs and their nature another day.
Ultimately, Celebrían chooses to leave Middle-earth of her own free will due to lingering physical and/or spiritual trauma, in some ways much like Frodo. But remember that even when things are fine between Elven couples “they do not necessarily dwell or house together at all times.” In the case of Elrond and his wife, they waited about twenty years after getting married to have their twin sons, then another 111 years before their daughter came along, then spent another 2,269 years of marital bliss before Celebrían opted to hop the Straight Road to Valinor. Sad as her departure must have been, that’s a decent amount of time together, even for Elves.
Elrond would only have to wait 511 more years before reuniting with Celebrían when he, too, eventually sails into the West. Though, let’s be honest—a certain amount of sorrow has always been in the cards for poor Elrond. First he “loses” his parents as a boy (if by “lose” we mean “mom lives in a tower by the Sea while dad takes a flying ship into the heavens”), then his brother chooses mortality. Oh God, then his daughter chooses…
But I digress again! Let’s get back to the marr(i)ed with children cycle.
Elves do always get together out of love, “or at the least by free will upon either part,” and both conception and childbirth—almost exactly one year apart—usually take place in the Spring. (Men surely aren’t as choosey about that, either, amiright?)
But what’s more, Elf-parents put more of their own strength of being, “in mind and in body,” into their offspring than Men do. Rather, than Men can. Basically, an Elf-mother pours some measure of her own strength and will into her child, so it’s not just pure genetics at work for the Firstborn. There seems to be an agency to it we can scarcely understand.
Once a bundle of Elf-joy is in the world, do you think the parents are rifling through baby name books to choose that one perfect name? Hah! These are Elves we’re talking about; their kids are gonna get a bunch of names. More specifically, these erudite, name-obsessed people give their children at least three: a father-name, a mother-name, and an after-name. The High Elves—that is, those who saw the light of the Two Trees of Valinor—got as many as five. The Sindar and Wood-elves of Middle-earth didn’t go quite as nuts.
So a father-name is assigned right at birth by Dad. This is a public, pragmatic, and largely unoriginal name (as Elves go). Then, usually years later, a more meaningful mother-name is given by Mom. And since Elf-moms have greater—and at times, even prophetic—insight into the character of their children, these names are usually what everyone ends up actually calling that person. And then at some later point an after-name is given, which is either a nickname or some honorific they’ve earned. The rules are flexible, though, and sometimes they’re combined. Gil-galad (which means “Star of Radiance”), for example, was the mother-name of this, the last High King of the Noldor. But then someone gave him the after-name Ereinion (“Scion of Kings”) and he was sometimes straight-up called Ereinion Gil-galad. A breeze for Elves to say, a mouthful for most of us.
Here’s another example: The Noldorin prince Finarfin gave his only daughter the father-name Artanis, which means “noble woman.” His wife later gave the daughter the mother-name Nerwen, or “man-maiden,” which was meant in a sense that’s way more complimentary than it sounds to us, simply because the girl grew to be as tall and athletic as her male playmates. But then in adulthood she’s given the after-name Alatáriel (“Maiden Crowned with Radiant Garland”), since her hair was objectively awesome. Only way later did she go by the Sindarin form of that same name, which was Galadriel.
A more amusing example of the father- and mother-name dynamic can be found with the well-meaning original High King of the Noldor, Finwë. He gave his firstborn the unimaginative but apt name Curufinwë, which basically means “a skilled version of me, Finwë!” Which, I guess, is the Elf-equivalent of a dude calling his son Junior, but to be fair, Finwë himself was given a name that basically means “hair-guy” in Quenya, so maybe the apple didn’t fall far from that Cuiviénen tree. Anyway, Finwë’s more prophetic wife, Míriel, named her imminently famous son Fëanáro, or “spirit of fire.” And she did this right at his birth, too, and tragically knew she wasn’t going to be around to raise him. So it’s likely this mother-name, Fëanáro, was what the hot-headed Elf used throughout his life. His more legendary name—Fëanor—is actually a version in the Sindarin Elvish language, so that’s how history recorded. If you know his story and his character, you know he would not have been okay with that!
So, is that all we get with “Laws and Customs of the Eldar”? Not by a long shot! There’s scads more, and I encourage all fans to grab Morgoth’s Ring and get reading—and I’m also not even close to setting it aside for this series. Now, most of these essays came well after writing The Lord of the Rings, but you can see where Tolkien already had a lot of these ideas in mind for Elven culture. But the story of Frodo and the Nine Fingers and the Ring of Doom wasn’t the place for it. It’s not their story; if anything, it’s the end of their story.
But here’s a clear example, this one having to do with one of the last remaining Elves of the Noldor in Middle-earth. See, when two Elves are betrothed, a gift is customarily given by the bride’s mom to the groom, while the groom’s dad gives something similar to the bride. And it’s usually “a jewel upon a chain or collar… sometimes given before the feast,” a feast preceding the wedding ceremonies.
(Thus the gift of Galadriel to Aragorn, since she was in place of Arwen’s mother, was in part a bridal gift and earnest of the wedding that was later accomplished.)
This is, of course, referring to the gem-inlaid silver brooch, the Stone of Eärendil, that officially attributes Aragorn with the name Elessar. A special jewel indeed. This is Galadriel’s way of saying, “Not only does this endorse your upcoming kingship (if Frodo succeeds on his quest), it also means—per the laws and customs of the Eldar—that I’m officially okay with you getting hitched to my granddaughter, even though you’re very much not an Elf.”
Speaking of Arwen, have you ever wondered why she never joins her boyfriend or her brothers on their adventures, or ever rides into battle? I sure have. If she was anything like her ancestor—the one she’s the spitting image of—she sure would. Lúthien Tinúviel didn’t shy from the face of evil itself, or any of her problems, really; in fact, she’s the one who had to get her boyfriend out of some of his scrapes! The bigger question here is: can female Elves be warriors? Is there any precedent?
I would first argue that there could well be many in all of the Elves’ wars, from the War of the Ring itself to the Last Alliance and further back. Tolkien doesn’t specifically address a lot of things, but it doesn’t mean those things aren’t there. He doesn’t talk about Elves and agriculture at all in the First Age, yet in the Second Age “[c]orn and wine they brought” to their mortal friends in Númenor, and they “instructed Men in the sowing of seeds and the grinding of grains.” And just because Legolas doesn’t show up in The Hobbit doesn’t mean he wasn’t there all along.
But beyond that, in “Laws and Customs among the Eldar,” Tolkien goes out of his way to emphasize two things: (1) gender traditions exist, but (2) so does absolute equality. While they may be naturally predisposed toward certain vocations and arts, Elves are not bound by hard rules. Tolkien’s the best.
In all such things, not concerned with the bringing forth of children, the neri and nissi (that is, the men and women) of the Eldar are equal – unless it be in this (as they themselves say) that for the nissi the making of things new is for the most part shown in the forming of their children, so that invention and change is otherwise mostly brought about by the neri.
For the most part, and mostly. I’m a big fan of these words, especially in such important places, because they allow for exceptions—statistically it’ll even guarantee them. Then comes the heart of it.
There are, however, no matters which among the Eldar only a ner can think or do, or others with which only a nis is concerned. There are indeed some differences between the natural inclinations of neri and nissi, and other differences that have been established by custom (varying in place and in time, and in the several races of the Eldar).
We get other examples. In most Eldar cultures, the nissi (females) tend to be the healers while the neri (males) are the hunters and “bore arms at need.” Culturally, they believe that “dealing death,” even when necessary, “diminishes the power of healing,” and it’s because most of the nissi refrain from war that they’re so good at the work of healing. It’s even noted that this is why rather “than to any special power that went with their womanhood.”
Indeed, in dire straits or desperate defence, the nissi fought valiantly, and there was less difference in strength and speed between elven-men and elven-women that had not borne child than is seen among mortals. On the other hand many elven-men were great healers and skilled in the lore of living bodies, though such men abstained from hunting, and went not to war until the last need.
Elrond is the perfect example. Despite all those occupational trends among the Elves, we’re told a few times in The Lord of the Rings that Elrond “is a master of healing,” which is atypical for male Elves. Did he ever fight? Yes, he did; he was the herald of Gil-galad in the Last Alliance, and we know from The Unfinished Tales that in the Second Age when Sauron sent his armies after the Elves in Eregion, Elrond was given command of some forces. Faced with annihilation, the Elves will do what needs doing. So he “went not to war until the last need,” which at that point was the case. In every story, Elrond’s hanging out in Rivendell, dispensing healing and advice and lore. That doesn’t mean he couldn’t join the White Council when it was time to clean house in Dol Guldur that first time, though.
And Galadriel is clearly gifted with tons of arts, but we never read of her in battle—and there were many opportunities for that (remember, all four of her brothers died fighting). The closest we get is the second time Dol Guldur is due for a cleansing. We get that tantalizingly brief passage in the Appendix that suggests her prowess goes beyond shooting arrows and swinging swords like a traditional warrior.
They took Dol Guldur, and Galadriel threw down its walls and laid bare its pits, and the forest was cleansed.
Oh, and that’s after the One Ring is destroyed, too, with the Three Rings of the Elves having lost their power. So throwing down walls is some straight-up First Age High Elf mojo Galadriel is wielding (not unlike Lúthien).
Anyway, the chapter goes on to say that most cooking was done by the neri, while the nissi were more skilled with fields and gardens, music, spinning, weaving, everything to do with clothing, as well as histories and kinship and lineage.
Interestingly, breadmaking was the work mostly of the nissi, and even more specifically lembas “by ancient law” was exclusively their work—which absolutely goes back to Melian, the Queen of Doriath, who introduced that exclusive recipe into Middle-earth. Meanwhile, jewelers, smiths, carvers, poets, instrument-makers, linguists, and foresters were mostly neri.
But all these things, and other matters of labour and play, or of deeper knowledge concerning being and the life of the World, may at different times be pursued by any among the Noldor, be they neri or nissi.
In any case, to try and get specific about female Elf-warriors would be stray into fan fiction—but no more than surmising that Legolas may have fought in the Battle of Five Armies or thinking it entirely possible that nissi soldiers fought in all the Wars of Beleriand or even the Last Alliance. How many might have abstained from weaving and healing and instead hunted Orcs in Eriador or captained outposts during the leaguer of Morgoth?
Say what you will about Tauriel in the Jackson films, but the very idea of seeing a nis as a warrior is a legitimate one. And an excellent call.
Since we’re on the subjects of love and war, let’s wrap up on the related subject of heartache. I can’t emphasize enough that while Elves are called out by Ilúvatar himself as having the most bliss of all the incarnate creatures in Arda, they also seem to be saddled with the most prolonged sorrow.
Nonetheless among the Eldar, even in Aman, the desire for marriage was not always fulfilled. Love was not always returned; and more than one might desire one other for spouse. Concerning this, the only cause by which sorrow entered the bliss of Aman, the Valar were in doubt. Some held that it came from the marring of Arda, and from the Shadow under which the Eldar awoke; for thence only (they said) comes grief or disorder.
See? Unrequited love happens to Elves, too. Even in Valinor, that literal heaven on earth! And if that last theory is on the mark, then Morgoth himself is responsible for all broken hearts, since he is “the Shadow under which the Eldar awoke.”
There are even some examples of unreciprocated love in The Silmarillion. The chief loremaster of Doriath, Daeron the Minstrel, pined after his childhood friend (who also happened to be the king’s daughter), Lúthien, but she had eyes only for Beren son of Barahir. Then there’s the Nargothrond Elf, Gwindor, who had it way worse. Among the Noldor, he was betrothed to Finduilas—also a king’s daughter, wouldn’t you know it!—but then got captured in battle and was enslaved in Angband. After years of torment and toil, he escaped but by then had become a “bent and fearful shadow of his former shape and mood.” Worse still, when he returned to Nargothrond, his own people perceived him “as one of the aged among mortal Men,” and then his fiancée turned her affections to Túrin—a Man! Ouch. Not only did poor Gwindor suffer directly at the hands of Morgoth, his relationship was wrecked by Morgoth’s underlying corruption of the world. A sort of one-two punch. Poor Gwindor.
Although, hmmmm. Mortals are the common equation in both of those examples. Maybe we’re the problem.
But actually, Morgoth might not be to blame for everything. That was just one supposition on the narrator’s part. Speaking of unrequited love, Tolkien also wrote:
Some held that it came of love itself, and of the freedom of each fëa, and was a mystery of the nature of the Children of Eru.
Which is Tolkien’s way of saying, yeah, love is a damned mystery. In this department, Elves don’t actually have any greater insight than any of us mortal schlubs. Go figure. But still, they can still tell just by looking in each other’s eyes whether they’ve got a chance. That’s a pretty sweet trick.
So is there more to say about Tolkien’s Elves? Always. But I’ll also give the other Children of Ilúvatar some more attention. Morgoth’s Ring and other HoMe books have plenty more intel on Men. Orcs, too. Arda doesn’t revolve around Elves, you know. I mean…kinda sometimes. Almost. Not really. Sorta?
Top image from “Depth of Winter (Idril and Turgon)” by Mellaril.
Jeff LaSala also noticed that Tolkien also wrote that Elf-children “needed little governing or teaching,” and is therefore quite certain that his son is the child of Men. Jeff wrote the The Silmarillion Primer and a Scribe Award–nominated D&D novel, produced some cyberpunk stories, and now works for Tor Books. He sometimes sputters about on Twitter.