Tolkien’s elves

In J. R. R. Tolkien‘s legendarium, Elves or are one of the races that inhabit a fictional Earth, often called Middle-earth, and set in the remote past. They appear in The Hobbit and in The Lord of the Rings, but their complex history is described more fully in The Silmarillion. Tolkien had been writing about Elves long before he published The Hobbit.


The modern English word elf derives from the Old English word ælf (which has cognates in all other Germanic languages). Numerous types of elves appear in Germanic mythology, the West Germanic concept appears to have come to differ from the Scandinavian notion in the early Middle Ages, and Anglo-Saxon concept diverged even further, possibly under Celtic influence.  Tolkien would make it clear in a letter that his Elves differ from those „of the better known lore”, referring to Scandinavian mythology.

By 1915 when Tolkien was writing his first elven poems, the words elf, fairy and gnome had many divergent and contradictory associations. Tolkien had been gently warned against using the term ‘fairy’, which John Garth supposes may have been due to the word becoming increasingly used to indicate homosexuality.

The fairy had been taken up by as a utopian theme by late 19th century writers and used to critique social and religious values, a tradition which Tolkien along with TH White are seen to continue.  One of the last of the Victorian Fairy-paintings, The Pipe of Dreams by Estella Canziani, sold 250,000 copies and was well known within the trenches of World War 1, where Tolkien saw active service. Illustrated posters of Robert Louis Stevenson‘s poem Land of Nod had been sent out by a philanthropist to brighten servicemen’s quarters and Faery was used in other contexts as an image of „Old England” to inspire patriotism.

According to Marjorie Burns, Tolkien eventually chose the term elf over fairy, but still retained some doubts. In his 1939 essay On Fairy-Stories, Tolkien wrote that

English words such as elf have long been influenced by French (from which fay and faërie, fairy are derived); but in later times, through their use in translation, fairy and elf have acquired much of the atmosphere of German, Scandinavian and Celtic tales, and many characteristics of the huldu-fólk, the daoine-sithe, and the tylwyth-teg.

Early writings

Traditional Victorian dancing fairies and elves appear in much of Tolkien’s early poetry, and have influence upon his later works in part due to the influence of a production of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan in Birmingham in 1910 and his familiarity with the work of Catholic mystic poet, Francis Thompson which Tolkien had acquired in 1914.

O! I hear the tiny horns
Of enchanted leprechauns
And the padded feet of many gnomes a-coming!
—JRR Tolkien, Goblin Feet

As a philologist, Tolkien’s interest in languages led him to invent several languages of his own as a pastime. In considering the nature of who might speak these languages, and what stories they might tell, Tolkien again turned to the concept of elves.

The Book of Lost Tales (c. 1917–1927)

In his The Book of Lost Tales, Tolkien develops a theme that the diminutive fairy-like race of Elves had once been a great and mighty people, and that as Men took over the world, these Elves had „diminished” themselves. This theme was influenced especially by the god-like and human-sized Ljósálfar of Norse mythology, and medieval works such as Sir Orfeo, the Welsh Mabinogion, Arthurian romances and the legends of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Some of the stories Tolkien wrote as elven history have been seen to be directly influenced by Celtic Mythology. For example, the „Flight of The Noldoli” is based on the Tuatha Dé Danann and Lebor Gabála Érenn, and their migratory nature comes from early Irish/Celtic history.John Garth also sees that with the underground enslavement of the Noldoli to Melkor, Tolkien was essentially rewriting Irish myth regarding the Tuatha Dé Danann into a Christian eschatology.[15]

The name Inwe (in the first draft Ing), given by Tolkien to the eldest of the elves and his clan is similar to the name found in Norse mythology as that of the god Ingwi-Freyr (and Ingui-Frea in Anglo-Saxon paganism), a god who is gifted the elf world Álfheimr. Terry Gunnell also claims that the relationship between beautiful ships and the Elves is reminiscent of the god Njörðr and the god Freyr’s ship Skíðblaðnir. He also retains the usage of the French derived term „fairy” for the same creatures.

The larger Elves are also inspired by Tolkien’s personal Catholic theology – as representing the state of Men in Eden who have not yet „fallen„, similar to humans but fairer and wiser, with greater spiritual powers, keener senses, and a closer empathy with nature. Tolkien wrote of them:

They are made by man in his own image and likeness; but freed from those limitations which he feels most to press upon him. They are immortal, and their will is directly effective for the achievement of imagination and desire.

In The Book of Lost Tales Tolkien includes both the more serious „medieval” type of elves such as Fëanor and Turgon alongside the frivolous, Jacobean type of elves such as the Solosimpi and Tinúviel.

Alongside the idea of the greater Elves, Tolkien also developed the idea of children visiting Valinor, the island-homeland of the Elves in their sleep. Elves would also visit children at night and comfort them if they had been chided or were upset. This theme, linking elves with children’s dreams and nocturnal travelling was largely abandoned in Tolkien’s later writing.

The Hobbit (c. 1930–1937)

Along with Book of Lost Tales, Douglas Anderson shows that in The Hobbit, Tolkien again includes both the more serious ‘medieval’ type of elves, such as Elrond and the Wood-elf king, and frivolous elves, such as those at Rivendell.

The Quenta Silmarillion (c. 1937)

In 1937, having had his manuscript for The Silmarillion rejected by a publisher who disparaged all the „eye-splitting Celtic names” that Tolkien had given his Elves, Tolkien denied the names had a Celtic origin:

Needless to say they are not Celtic! Neither are the tales. I do know Celtic things (many in their original languages Irish and Welsh), and feel for them a certain distaste: largely for their fundamental unreason. They have bright colour, but are like a broken stained glass window reassembled without design. They are in fact „mad” as your reader says – but I don’t believe I am. (Carpenter 1981, 26).

Dimitra Fimi proposes that these comments are a product of his Anglophilia rather than a commentary on the texts themselves or their actual influence on his writing, and cites evidence to this effect in her essay „Mad” Elves and „elusive beauty”: some Celtic strands of Tolkien’s mythology.

The Lord of the Rings (c. 1937–1949)

Terry Gunner notes that the titles of the Germanic gods Freyr and Freyja (Old Norse ‘lord’ and ‘lady’) are also given to Celeborn and Galadriel in the Lord of The Rings.

According to Tom Shippey the theme, of diminishment from semi-divine Elf to dimunitive Fairy resurfaces in The Lord of the Rings in the dialogue of Galadriel

Yet if you succeed, then our power is diminished, and Lothlórien will fade, and the tides of Time will sweep it away. We must depart into the West, or dwindle to a rustic folk of dell and cave, slowly to forget and to be forgotten.

Writing in 1954, part way through proofing The Lord of the Rings Tolkien claimed the Elvish language Sindarin has a character very like British-Welsh „because it seems to fit the rather ‘Celtic’ type of legends and stories told of its speakers”. In the same letter, Tolkien goes on to say that the elves had very little in common with elves or fairies of Europe, and that they really represent men with greater artistic ability, beauty and a longer life span. Tolkien also notes an Elven bloodline was the only real claim to ‘nobility’ that the Men of Middle-earth can have.  Tolkien also wrote that the elves are primarily to blame for many of the ills of Middle-earth in The Lord of the Rings, having independently created the Three Rings in order to stop their domains in mortal-lands from ‘fading’ and attempting to prevent inevitable change and new growth.

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