J. R.R. Tolkien’s tales of Middle-earth have had a profound impact on the fantasy genre, especially his Elves. Rather than the tiny, mischievous sprites found in cookie commercials and some children’s media, his Elves are near human-sized. Immortal and possessing an ethereal beauty, they are generally shown as wiser, more sensitive, and more in-tune with nature than humans. Similar elves have become a common staple in fantasy works. But where did Tolkien get his Elves? Tracing the possibilities turns out to be quite the journey, so I’ll split this into two parts and start with literary and linguistic leads before covering the more mythological ones.
A couple thanks: I have wondered about the origin of Tolkien’s Elves for a while, but I got my first clue from Melissa A. Albertsberg, a writer I follow on Twitter who maintains a great writing blog. She mentioned researching the Alfar (more on them in Part 2) as a basis for her elves. Later, I had a conversation with Tiege McCian of The Burnt Thumb about Tolkien Elves. He pointed me toward The Worm Ouroboros and The King of Elfland’s Daughter as potential inspirations, which have been helpful for putting Tolkien in context. Thank you to both!
Tales Before Tolkien
This would be a pretty short post if I took Tolkien at his word about the origin of his Elves. His vague explanation for the source of Middle-earth is it “began with me,”1 though when “pressed to rationalize” he likens Elves to an idealized version of humanity.2 This is due in part to his frequent sense of “recording” rather than “‘inventing’” Middle-earth.3 I can sympathize, since I’ve also had the experience of a scene or a character appearing so fully formed in my mind that it feels discovered. However, later I can almost always see some influence from another story I have watched, read, heard, or lived. Even if he didn’t purposely base his Elves on a single model, they will likely reflect a few previous ideas.
Other fantasy writers predating Tolkien are a good place to start looking for his inspirations. Tolkien is one of the earliest fantasy writers still widely known, but he was hardly the first. His letters make reference to E. R. (Eric Rücker) Eddison, George MacDonald, Lord Dunsany/Edward Plunkett, and William Morris among others. Morris is noteworthy as one of the few Tolkien never served a backhanded compliment or an outright sneer, and for being possibly the first “’invented-world’ fantasy” author.4 The works Tolkien mentions as definite influences are The House of the Wolfing and its sequel, The Roots of the Mountain.5 Wolfing is set in a forest called Mirkwood, a name borrowed from Norse mythology and later repurposed by Tolkien as a place that Elves such as Legolas call home.
As far as I can tell, however, most of these writers never used elves directly in their stories. Morris’ 1890 novel The Story of the Glittering Plain includes people who live in eternal, blissful youth, but they are ordinary humans made immortal by the magic of the land. Elves are mentioned in The Roots of the Mountain, but they are unseen and even doubted by Face-of-God, who wonders if they “have been frighted away.”6 In The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald, Princess Irene’s great-great-grandmother has an ageless beauty and serene wisdom similar to Galadriel, but she’s almost too otherworldly since most people can’t see or remember her. As for Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros (sometimes Dragon), he imagines the planet Mercury full of beings he labels Demons, Witches, Pixies, Goblins, and more. But though Lord Goldry Bluszco of Demonland carries a “sword forged by the elves,”7 those elves never make an appearance.
I can only find one author on the list of Tolkien influences who used elves as actual characters: Lord Dunsany. While we don’t know for certain that Tolkien read The King of Elfland’s Daughter, its human-sized elves, human-elf romance, and a half-elf king are rather familiar. Interestingly, Elfland Princess Lirazel so desires to worship the stars, despite her human husband’s scolding, that she names her son Orion.8 Tolkien’s Elves first wake when Middle-earth is in perpetual starry night, so they “ever loved the starlight” and worshiped the star Valar/deity Varda with special fondness.9 Elfland can also retreat from the mortal world like a tide, much as the Valars’ realm of Valinor eventually retreats until only Elves can “find the ‘straight way’” to it.10 Elfland moves because the King is avoiding his human son-in-law rather than because of a natural tide, but it’s still striking.
There are also major differences, however. The King of Elfland’s “great beard” startled me since Tolkien-esque Elves are generally shown clean-shaven.11 That plus his power as “the founder” of Elfland to command all to his will calls to mind Prospero from The Tempest more than Elrond of Rivendell. 12 Tolkien says of Elves’ “their ‘magic’ is Art,” which never attempts the “tyrannous re-forming of Creation.”13 The story of Beren and Lúthien does include some pretty serious magic, but mostly the Elves practice a relatively subtle craft. This is very different from Dunsany’s Elfland, where even time is under the King’s control. In fact, for Dunsany nothing elvish is inherently immortal. All beings age in our world and live ageless in Elfland regardless of origin. As a result, Lirazel is innocently ignorant of time at first, while Tolkien’s Elves constantly face “the griefs and burdens of deathlessness in time and change.” Dunsany may have provided Tolkien with some ideas, but his Elfland is hardly Middle-earth.
Prospero and Miranda from The Tempest. Lord Dunsany’s King of Elfland is surprisingly similar to this magician, complete with bushy beard and mistrust of suitors courting his daughter. Joseph Noel Paton, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The Language of Elves
The languages Tolkien’s Elves speak may also point to their inspirations. Tolkien loved tinkering with language. He is the first known author to create not just a constructed language or conlang, but an entire family of related languages.14 Instead of inventing them for Elves, he created the Elves, the other races of Middle-earth, and their histories to give his languages a living context. The two most famous of his Elf languages are Quenya, also called “Elf-latin” in one of his language trees,15 and Sindarin, though he invented many others as well as their common ancestor Quendian. Quenya was based mostly on Finnish with at least some Latin influence while Sindarin has more of a Welsh flavor.16 So are there connections between the Elves and the cultures whose languages helped shape them?
Comparison of the word for “Silver” in three Tolkien Elf languages. Figure by author.
There are some parallels between Finnish culture and Tolkien’s Elvish cultures. The Preface to an English translation of the Finnish epic The Kalevala states “Finnish is the language of a people who live pre-eminently close to nature,”17 which certainly fits the Elves. It also labels Finnish a highly musical language, appropriate considering that the Elvish creation story in The Silmarillion depicts the world as literally sung into being. The note about them being “a cleanly people” even reminds me of the seemingly dirt-repellent versions in the movies. I’m sure these are over-simplifications as far as Finnish people go, but then again Tolkien “never visited Finland,”18 so he probably knew the people mostly from books as well.
I have not, however, found anything that could be a direct model for Middle-earth Elves in Finnish mythology. There is a notable passage where “a white ship” grows from a swan.19 When the ancient Elves are traveling across the sea to Valinor, the Teleri or Sea-Elves request help from the oceanic Valar Ulmo, who gives them white ships pulled by swans.20 Yet this is again more cultural than physical. Some of the Emuu or nature deities are close,21 but they are more like the Valar than Elves. And the Finnish creatures most often translated as elves in English—tonttu and menninkäinen—are both tiny. Tonttu fall under the category of haltija, guardian spirits of places as well as individual human souls as part of the Finnish three souls belief.22 Think the daemons of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series or the Genius/Juno of Roman mythology. Both Elves and humans in Middle-earth have individual “fëa” or souls,23 so Elves are definitely not the guardians of humans.
Swans play a key role in the mythology of Finland as well as the tale of the Teleri Elves in Middle-earth. Photo by Mike on Pexels.com
To Return or Fly Free
Speaking of Elf souls, the Latin influence on Quenya may point to a mythical explanation for the Elves’ ability to reincarnate. Though this is rarely shown in action, Tolkien is quite clear that Elvish immortality means existing as long as the world, “never leaving it even when ‘slain.’”24 Elves killed by injury or grief generally journey to “the halls of Mandos in Valinor, whence they may in time return”25 In the dark underworld ruled by Mandos, “their fëar are rehoused in new hröar[body] after a time of waiting and spiritual cleansing.”26 This is similar to a version of Hades described by both the Roman poet Virgil and the Greek philosopher Plato. Touring Hades with his deceased father, Virgil’s hero Aeneas witness a group of souls washing away their past memories in “Lethe’s lake” before being reborn.27 Elves don’t seem to forget. The dying Finrod Felagund even seems to know the time until his next incarnation, saying “It will be long ere I am seen among the Noldor again.”28 Otherwise, however, the process is fairly similar.
“By the Shore of Lethe Lake,” 1905 print by Walter Shaw Sparrow showing souls drinking the water that will wipe their memories before their next incarnation. Hermína Laukotová, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
In case you’re wondering if reincarnation was just the norm in Middle-earth, no, there were at least two paths. The Silmarillion notes how “the sons of Men die indeed, and leave the world” without stopping in Mandos.28 There is one exception. The mortal Beren travels to Mandos after death, and half-Elf half-Maiar maiden Lúthien then convinces Mandos to allow them both to reincarnate as mortals.29 As with the Elf warrior Glorfindel,30 they return with the same names and appearances. Generally, though, humans die and go somewhere the Elves cannot know, which is seen as the “Doom (or the Gift) of Man…freedom from the cycles of the world.”31 It’s hinted that Dwarves also go to Mandos after death but don’t necessarily reincarnate,32 while Hobbits are “considered Men” so they may share the same fate.33 Ent and Orc afterlives are not specified.
As for the Welsh connection from Sindarin, that does touch on mythology, so I’ll save it for next time.
I’m always in awe of Tolkien’s world-building abilities. The Elves seem to be his favorite given how much lore he created for them, not to mention all those languages. Which reminds me, when people talk about speaking Elvish, I wonder which language they mean? If you happen to know, please tell me! Also, what do you think of the influences I’ve discussed so far? Do you know of other pre-Tolkien fantasy that has elves, or other works and cultural elements that might have influenced his Elves? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
- Tolkien, J. R. R., J. R. R. Tolkien to Milton Waldman, 1951, in The Silmarillion, 2nd ed, ed. Christopher Tolkien (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004), xv.
- Tolkien, J. R. R., J. R. R. Tolkien to Naomi Mitchison, April 25,1954, in Dickieson, Brenton, “The Tolkien Letter that Every Lover of Middle-earth Must Read,” A Pilgrim in Narnia, posted Mar. 28, 2017, accessed Jan. 29, 2021, https://apilgriminnarnia.com/2017/03/28/the-tolkien-letter-must-read/.
- J. R. R. Tolkien to Milton Waldman, xvii.
- Landlow, George P., “Morris and Tolkien,” The Victorian Web, last modified Jan. 19, 2004, accessed Feb. 2, 2021, http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/morris/tolkien1.html.
- “The Literary Link Between William Morris and J. R. R. Tolkien,” Inkling Books, accessed Feb. 2, 2021, http://www.inklingbooks.com/inklingbooks/williammorris/williammorris.html.
- Morris, William, The Roots of the Mountains (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1896), 205. Accessed through Project Gutenburg, http://www.gutenberg.org/files/6050/6050-h/6050-h.htm.
- Eddison, Eric Rücker, The Worm Ouroboros (New York:Dutton, 1952), 14. Accessed through Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/wormouroborosrom00eddi/page/14/mode/2up.
- Lord Dunsany, The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924, reprinted New York: Ballantine Books, June 1969), Chapter VIII. Accessed through Project Gutenburg, https://gutenberg.ca/ebooks/dunsany-kingofelflandsdaughter/dunsany-kingofelflandsdaughter-00-h.html.
- Tolkien J. R. R, The Silmarillion, 2nd ed, ed. Christopher Tolkien (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004), 37.
- J. R. R. Tolkien to Milton Waldman, xxviii.
- Dunsany, Chapter XV.
- Dunsany, Chapter XXXII.
- J. R. R. Tolkien to Milton Waldman, xviii.
- Peterson, David J., The Art of Language Invention: From Horse-Lords to Dark Elves, the Words Behind World-Building (New York: Penguin Books, 2015), 10.
- Image titled “An early ‘family tree’ of the tongues of Middle-earth,” from Hostetter, Carl F., “Inventing Elvish,” in Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth, 3rd ed., edited by Catherine (Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2018), 51.
- Hostetter, 50.
- Lönnrot, Elias, The Kalevala: The Epic Poem of Finland, trans. John Martin Crawford (2004, Project Gutenberg, 2010). Accessed through Project Gutenbrug, http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/5186/pg5186.html.
- Sander, Hannah, “Kullervo: Tolkien’s Fascination with Finland,” BBC News, Aug. 26, 2015, https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-34063157.
- Tolkien, Silmarillion, 52.
- Niina, “List of Finnish Deities and Nature Spirits,” Fairy Chamber, posted June 13, 2008, accessed Jan. 22, 2021, https://www.fairychamber.com/blog/list-of-finnish-deities-and-nature-spirits.
- Niina, “Finnish Mythology: Concept of The Three Souls,” Fairy Chamber, posted July 16, 2018, accessed Feb. 1, 2021, https://www.fairychamber.com/blog/finnish-mythology-concept-of-three-souls-video.
- LaSala, Jeff, “Tolkien’s Elves: How the Eldar Half Lives (and Lives, and Lives, and Lives),” Tor.com, Aug. 19, 2019, https://www.tor.com/2019/08/19/tolkiens-elves-how-the-eldar-half-lives-and-lives-and-lives-and-lives/.
- J. R. R. Tolkien to Milton Waldman, xix.
- Tolkien, Silmarillion, 29.
- Virgil, “Book VI,” The Aeneid, trans. John Dryden, The Internet Classic’s Archive, accessed Feb. 3, 2021, http://classics.mit.edu/Virgil/aeneid.6.vi.html.
- Tolkien, Silmarillion, 171.
- Tolkien, Silmarillion, 29.
- Tolkien, Silmarillion, 186-187.
- “Dwarves,” Tolkien Gateway, accessed Mar. 27, 2021, http://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Dwarves.
- “Hobbits,” Tolkien Gateway, accessed Mar. 27, 2021, http://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Hobbits.