The road goes ever on…especially when you dig into the origin of Tolkien’s Elves! At this point, I’ve pretty much concluded that there is no single model for the Elves of Middle-earth, but rather that Tolkien incorporated bits and pieces from a variety of influences. And some elements, of course, were original inventions. In Part 1, I went over a few possible inspirations from pre-Tolkien fantasy literature and cultural connections based on his languages. This time I’d like to get more into the true mythological sources. So let’s dive in and see what pieces Tolkien used to craft his Elves!
Let’s start with that word “elf.” It traces back to the Old Norse “álfr (plural álfar)” or the Germanic “alp.”1 “Alp” specifically means a “ghostly being,” and it can refer to a vampiric creature that brings nightmares.2 That doesn’t sounds much like Tolkien’s Elves, so let’s take a look at álfar. Based largely on the Prose Edda by Snorri Sturluson, the álfar are divided into three types: Ljósálfar/ Light-Elves, Dökkálfar/Dark-Elves, and Svartálfar/Black-Elves.3 Light-Elves are relatively benevolent, “fairer than the sun,” and live in Alfheim. Dark-Elves and Black-Elves are more puzzling. Some interpret Black-Elves as actually meaning dwarfs while others treat both as dwarfs since Dark-Elves are “blacker than pitch” and, like dwarfs, are underground-dwelling and generally antagonistic. Dark-Elves have also been explained as “spirits of the dead,”4 or as some sort of “twilight” being.5 It’s a complicated debate.
Tolkien provides his own answer to the debate through Middle-earth. His Elves are roughly divided into Quenya-speaking “Calaquendi, Elves of the Light” and Sindarin- or Avarin-speaking “Moriquendi, Elves of Darkness,”6 with additional groups within. Elf politics eventually led to dropping the Dark Elf label from all but Avari Elves because it was considered offensive.7 Dwarves are a completely separate species (Tolkien popularized the plural dwarves, but the dictionary-correct form is actually dwarfs, which I use for all dwarfs not created by Tolkien).8 The original Light and Dark terms had nothing to do with goodness or appearance. Instead, they divide Elves into those who crossed the sea to live in Valinor under the primordial light of the trees Telperion and Laurelin and those who lived in the perpetual night of early Middle-earth until the sun and the moon were created from the last dying light of the trees.
Elves from Lord of the Rings are mostly Sindarin or Grey Elves. Galadriel is probably the lone full-blood Light Elf, specifically a Noldor. Like many others of her kind, she joined her half-uncle’s rebellion against the Valar over some jewels and a conspiracy theory (yes, really), and re-crossed the sea. By the time Rings takes place, she is the last of the original Noldor exiles/rebels still in Middle-earth. Elrond is part Sindarin, part human, and part Maiar (minor deity), while Arwen has some Noldor blood from her grandmother Galadriel. I have to admit I find it interesting that the “Grey” Elves rather than Light or Dark become the dominant culture in Middle-earth.
Three Tolkien Elves. Left: Arwen, a mixed Light and Grey Elf. Middle: Galadriel, a Light Elf. Right: Legolas, a Grey Elf.
Credits: Arwen artwork by Anna Kulisz, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons. “2016_09_100050 Galadriel” by Gwydion M. Williams is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Legolas artwork by Benjamin Drake (American Ginseng) – www.facebook.com/americanginseng.art – www.instagram.com/americanginseng – americanginseng.deviantart.com, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
While the Light and Dark element is a clear Norse borrowing, in other respects the álfar are quite unlike Tolkien’s Elves. “Álfar” sometimes seems to denote a distinct race, but often it blends with other terms for supernatural beings, such as dwarfs or the Vanir gods.9 Humans could even become álfar after death. Names with “álfr” attached are given to a variety of beings, including a dwarf named Gandálfr, leading to the theory that “álfr” may have been more of a title rather than a species.10 However, it’s important not to get too focused on the word “elf” since Tolkien claims “‘Elves’ is a translation, not perhaps now very suitable, but originally good enough, of Quendi,”11 “Quendi” is the Elves’ name for themselves. We should not look for elves specifically, then, but for beings who match the traits Tolkien describes.
The (Somewhat Denied) Celtic Connection
Celtic mythology seems like an obvious source for the kind of fantasy world Tolkien creates, but his responses to the possibility are mixed or even hostile. When elements of The Silmarillion were compared somewhat sneeringly to Celtic art, Tolkien snapped back that it was not Celtic as he had “a certain distaste” for the “fundamental unreason” of “Celtic things.”12 He disliked the “bright colors” in Celtic myth, and he criticized the Welsh Mabinogion for its lack of “coherence.”13 Ironically, this “flaw” of the Mabinogion is closely mirrored in The Silmarillion since both are collections of tales rather than a single narrative. This is why enthusiastic readers of Lord of the Rings may find Silmarillion a slog. I’m one of those people who actually likes The Silmarillion, but I can also easily empathize with readers whose experience is best summed up by the filk song “I Fell Asleep (Reading The Silmarillion).”
Tolkien’s denials of the Celtic element in Middle-earth may have come from his nationalistic pride. He had a “strong sense of English identity,”14 and he mourned that there was “nothing English” that matched the mythological worlds of “Greek, and Celtic…Germanic, Scandinavian, and Finnish.”15 So he set out to create one through Middle-earth. At the time, English nationalism tended to define itself as Anglo-Saxon against the Celtic cultures of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.16 Tolkien probably wanted, therefore, to separate his attempted English mythos from any claims of Celtic-ness. Eventually he acknowledged it was “[v]ery likely quite right” that his Elves had “the kind of Celtic beauty that maddened Anglo-Saxons in a large dose.”17 The issue of Celtic versus English was a difficult one for him, though, and it took years to soften his view.
Middle-earth has strong hints of Welsh mythology, and not just in Welsh-inspired Sindarin. Several Elvish realms—Rivendell, Lothlórien, Gondolin, and Doriath—have parallels with Annwn, the Welsh Otherworld where timeless “Fair Folk” lived.18 Except when invited by the king, identified either as Gwyn ap Nudd or Arawn, mortals had to take difficult and hidden paths to Annwn. This is especially reminiscent of Doriath where none could enter against the “will” of King Thingol.19 Then there are the unbreakable “oaths” that Elves swear. Fëanor and his sons take an oath to reclaim the Silmaril jewels, which compels them to violence even when they seem to repent taking the oath. This mirrors the Welsh concept of “tynghet/tinged,” words that create a fate or “destiny.” 20 The Irish counterpart “geis/geas” is a curse or oath that binds its subject to do or avoid something lest they lose honor and life.21 Even Valinor hound Huan somewhat resembles Gwyn ap Nudd’s “best of hounds” Dormach.22 These are just some of the Welsh elements that weave through the fabric of Tolkien’s tales.
Some elements reflect Irish mythology too, particularly the similarities between the Noldor Elves and Tuatha Dé Danaan. Alternately considered deities, fairies, mythic heroes, or something in-between, these immortals were “craftsmen, warriors, poets and magicians.”23 The Noldor are known for their “love of words” and skill in crafting metals and gems,24 and they kick serious Orc and Balrog butt when they return to Middle-earth.25 Descended from the previously occupying Fomorians,26 the Tuatha leave Ireland and later return to it much as the Noldor return to Middle-earth. They burn their ships on arriving to signal they intend to conquer or die.27 Fëanor likewise orders his stolen ships burned, to cut off the past and to spite his stranded half-brother.28 Tolkien adds that in the Age of Men, all Elves either sailed West to Valinor or “faded” to ghostly creatures.29 The Tuatha also give way before the Milesians or Sons of Mil, their human successors, moving underground to become the Sídhe,30 sometimes called fairies.
Left: the Tuatha King Nuada “Silverhand” lost his original hand and was given a silver one. Middle: Celebrimbor “Hand of Silver” forged the Three Rings of the Elves. Right: The Irish Triple Spiral symbol, which somewhat resembles three rings.
Credits: Gauntlet image from Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons. “Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor / Celebrimbor” by Stefans02 is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Triple Spiral image from AnonMoos, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The Dark Side of English Elves
Elves actually do exist in specifically English/Anglo-Saxon lore, but they are more malevolent than Tolkien’s creations. Tolkien notes that Beowulf contains the only use of “‘elves’ (ylfe)” in “Old English poetry,” where they are listed among demonic beings like “trolls, giants, and the Undead.”31 Later, they blended with Celtic-inspired fairies so that “elf” was often just another word for “fairy.” Tolkien actually called his Elves “fairies” in early drafts.32 When traditional English elves were recognized as separate from fairies, however, they were often “more malignant.”33 The Norse álfar could cause human illness as well as heal it,34 and English elves were blamed for numerous conditions, including madness and mysterious internal pain.35 Tolkien’s Elves again resemble the Tuatha here by being skilled healers rather than sources of disease.
English elves also picked up a habit of kidnapping humans. Elf men especially were cast as “murderers, rapists, and abductors” of human women,36 such as the Elf-Knight from the “Lady Isabel” ballads who lures women with a magic horn before drowning them. Tolkien’s Elves behave very differently. King Thingol refuses to let Beren marry Lúthien unless Beren completes the impossible task of retrieving a Silmaril from Morgoth (fallen Valar and Sauron’s boss). The “impossible task” theme appears in other ballads with elves, including “The Elfin Knight” from Scotland, thought to be the basis for “Scarborough Fair.” 37 “The Elfin Knight” is relatively mild and the elf even sets the maiden an impossible task because he thinks she’s too young. Still, it’s a contrast to Middle-earth where Elf maidens are more apt to be swept off their feet by human men than the other way around.
It’s in appearance rather than behavior that Tolkien’s Elves borrow from English lore. Remember the bearded King of Elfland I mentioned in Part 1? It turns out Tolkien’s Elves can grow beards, but it rarely happens “until their ‘third cycle of life,’”38 a very ancient age. Though early English elves were often seen as exclusively male or as the male version of a fairy, they also had an element of “gender reversal” because their traits were “improper to men.” 39 Lack of beards may have been one of those features, considering how in an English translation of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, several men call part-Sídhe warrior Cú Chulain a “beardless elf-man.”40 Tolkien seems to have continued the tradition of making his Elf men more feminine in appearance than his human men. His sketches and descriptions of Elves never show burly types, and in illustrations and film they are often more slender and, well, cleaner.
A typical Tolkien-style elf. Note the smooth face, slender build, and pointed ears. Artwork by Carmen Haberichter (user:Haberichter in Elfwood), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Then there’s the matter of the ears. Today pointy ears are a basic part of the elf equation, but this is relatively new. The Norse álfar, the Tuatha Dé Danaan, and even the English elves in traditional ballads are often indistinguishable from humans on sight. It’s only during the Victorian era (1837- 1901) that tiny elves and fairies with pointed ears became standard.41 The shape of their ears may have developed from associations with demons or goat-like fauns. It’s actually not certain that Tolkien pictured his Elves with pointy ears either. He never explicitly describes their ears, and his few drawings of Elves either don’t show them or they are too tiny to be sure. Arguments that he meant his Elves to be pointy-eared rest on a single, partly illegible note that “Quendian ears were more pointed and leaf-shaped than Hu…n.”42 Tolkien did seem to envision his Elves becoming like the tiny, pointy-eared beings of Victorian lore through their fading,43 though, so it’s entirely possible his ancient Elves had similarly shaped ears.
Finally, we must remember that Tolkien was a devout Catholic when considering the influences on his Elves. I’ve seen them described as “Man before the Fall” because they seem so virtuous next to humans.44 However, Tolkien himself points out that the Noldor have their own “Fall” with many of the classic elements from “Christian myth.”45 They leave an Eden-like paradise after being deceived by Morgoth, very much a Satan stand-in, and are doomed to never return until half-Elven Eärendil pleads on their behalf and sacrifices his life in Middle-earth. Eärendil becomes basically a star rather than a full Christ figure, but it’s still striking. And the Silmarils, the jewels that spark the conflict that leads to exile? They contain light that is basically fruit from the Valinor trees Telperion and Laurelin. In some ways, the Elves are mythical versions of humans while the actual humans of Middle-earth are more mundane. After all, those humans never live in Valinor like the Light Elves/Eldar.
Catholic values also shaped parts of the Elven life cycle. Tolkien’s Elves are made in such a way that marriage never ends in divorce and “adultery is unthinkable.”46 With few exceptions, they do not remarry. While the Catholic Church did not forbid remarriage after death, divorce has traditionally been seen as “a grave offense against the natural law” and remarriage after it was discouraged.47 Even the apparent reincarnation of the Elves has Christian undertones. Beren and Lúthien’s rebirth implies they skip babyhood and just reappear in copies of their old bodies, much like some Christian sects speak of being “resurrected in the same bodies possessed during normal lifetime” at the Final Judgement.48 For all their complexities, Tolkien’s Elves are also idealized beings from the perspective of a romantically-minded Catholic scholar.
Images of the Final Judgement. The upper image shows people emerging from coffins resurrected in their original bodies. Maître de l’atelier de Blanche de Castille, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
There’s a lot written about Tolkien and his influences, and I mean a lot. If you know of mythological connections I left out, please share them in comments. This is merely what I was able to uncover and piece together in a reasonable amount of space. What do you think? Were you surprised at any of the inspirations I mentioned? Which do you find most intriguing?
- Edwards, Eric, “The Lore of Elves and Elfen Folk,” Eric Edwards Collected Works, posted June 3, 2014, accessed Feb. 1, 2021, https://ericwedwards.wordpress.com/2014/03/06/the-lore-of-elves-and-elfen-folk/.
- Fay, Richard H., “The Alp and the Schrattl,” Classically Educated, posted Oct. 30, 2017, accessed Feb. 5, 2021, https://classicallyeducated.wordpress.com/2017/10/30/the-alp-and-the-schrattl/.
- Shippey, Tom A., “Light-elves, Dark-elves, and Others: Tolkien’s Elvish Problem,” Tolkien Studies 1 (2004): 1-15. Project Muse (176074), 3-4.
- Daimler, Morgan, “Ljósálfar, Dökkálfar, and Svartálfar; A Brief Overview of Elves in Norse Myth,” Living Liminally, posted Aug. 24, 2017, accessed Jan 29, 2021, https://lairbhan.blogspot.com/2017/08/ljosalfar-dokkalfar-and-svartalfar.html.
- Shippey, 6.
- Tolkien J. R. R, The Silmarillion, 2nd ed, ed. Christopher Tolkien (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004), 43.
- “Moriquendi,” Tolkien Gateway, accessed Mar. 29, 2021, http://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Moriquendi.
- Olga, “What’s in the Spelling?” Middle-earth Reflections, posted Aug. 19, 2019, accessed Feb. 6, 2021, https://middleearthreflections.com/2019/08/19/whats-in-the-spelling/.
- McCoy, Daniel, “Elves,” Norse Mythology for Smart People, last modified Dec. 29, 2020, accessed Jan. 15, 2021, https://norse-mythology.org/gods-and-creatures/elves/.
- Jakobsson, Ármann, “Beware of the Elf! A Note on the Evolving Meaning of ‘Álfar,’” Folklore 126, no. 2 (August 2015): 215-223. JSTOR (24774311), 216.
- 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/.
- Fimi, Dimitra, “‘Mad’ Elves and ‘Elusive Beauty’: Some Celtic Strands of Tolkien’s Mythology,” Folklore 117, no. 2 (Aug., 2006): 156-170. JSTOR (30035484), 156.
- Fimi, 165.
- Fimi, 157.
- 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), xvi.
- Fimi, 160.
- Perlongo, Kassandra Marie, “Mythic Archetypes: Welsh Mythology in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings,” MA thesis, California State University, Sacramento, Fall 2010, http://csus-dspace.calstate.edu/bitstream/handle/10211.9/965/MYTHIC_ARCHETYPES_PERLONGO.pdf?sequence=1, 18.
- Dean, Remy, “This, That and the Other: Folklore of the Three Realms,” #FolkloreThursday, posted Nov. 2, 2017, accessed Feb. 4, 2021, https://folklorethursday.com/myths/this-that-and-the-other-folklore-of-the-three-realms/.
- Tolkien, Silmarillion, 115.
- Lasman, Samuel, “Dragons, Fairies, and Time: Imagining the Past in Medieval Welsh, Persian, and French,” PhD diss., University of Chicago, Illinois, June 2020, https://knowledge.uchicago.edu/record/2264?ln=en, 74.
- Kinniburgh, Annie, “The Noldor and the Tuatha Dé Danaan: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Irish Influences,” Mythlore 28, no. 1/2 (107/108) (Fall/Winter 2009): 27-44. JSTOR (26815461). 35.
- Smithers, Lorna, “Signpost to Annwn: Inhabitants,” From Peneverdant, posted June 7, 2018, accessed Apr. 3, 2021, https://lornasmithers.wordpress.com/2018/06/07/signpost-to-annwn-inhabitants/.
- Fimi, 163.
- Tolkien, Silmarillion, 51.
- Tolkien, Silmarillion, 101.
- Jasper, Jay, “Proud Grandfather Finds Innovative Way to Celebrate Triplets,” The Alchemist’s Studio, posted Feb. 4, 2021, accessed Feb. 12, 2021, https://rakupottery.ca/2021/02/04/proud-grandfather-finds-innovative-way-to-celebrate-triplets/.
- Fimi, 163.
- Tolkien, Silmarillion, 82.
- De Rosario Martínez, Helios , “‘Fairy’ and ‘Elves’ in Tolkien and Traditional Literature,” Mythlore 28, no. 3/4 (109/110) (Spring/Summer 2010): 65-84. JSTOR (26814912). 74.
- Kinniburgh, 37.
- Helen, Daniel, “Earliest Reference to “Elf” Manuscript Digitised,” The Tolkien Society, posted Jan 20, 2016, accessed Feb. 2, 2021, https://www.tolkiensociety.org/2016/01/earliest-reference-to-elf-manuscript-digitised/.
- De Rosario Martínez, 65.
- De Rosario Martínez, 72.
- De Rosario Martínez, 74.
- Bergman, Jenni, “The Significant Other: A Literary History of Elves,” PhD thesis, Cardiff University, Cardiff, 2011, https://orca.cf.ac.uk/55478/1/U516593.pdf, 50.
- Caffey, Nick, “The Elfin Knight (Child #2): Impossible Tasks and Impossible Love,” The Living Tradition, issue 47, Mar. 2002, https://www.folkmusic.net/htmfiles/inart680.htm.
- “Elven Life Cycle,” Tolkien Gateway, accessed Apr. 3, 2021, http://tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Elven_life_cycle.
- De Rosario Martínez, 69.
- Dunn, Joseph, trans., The Ancient Irish Epic Tale Táin Bó Cúailnge (London: Dodo Press, 2007), 45.
- Daimler, Morgan, “Why Do Elves Have Pointed Ears?,” Living Liminally, posted Dec. 21, 2017, accessed Feb. 1, 2021, https://lairbhan.blogspot.com/2017/12/why-do-elves-have-pointed-ears.html.
- Dunkerson, Conrad, “Do the Elves in Tolkien’s Stories Have Pointed Ears?,” The Tolkien Meta-FAQ, last modified May 21, 2020, accessed Mar. 28, 2021, http://tolkien.slimy.com/essays/Ears.html.
- De Rosario Martínez, 74.
- Carpenter, Humphrey, J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography (New York: Houghton Miffin, 2000), 100.
- J. R. R. Tolkien to Milton Waldman, xix-xx.
- “Elven Life Cycle.”
- Catholic Church, “Offenses Against the Dignity of Marriage,” in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, last modified Feb. 24, 2021, accessed Apr. 6, 2021, https://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s2c2a6.htm.
- Strickland, Lloyd, “The Doctrine of ‘the Resurrection of the Same Body’ in Early Modern Thought,” Religious Studies 42, no. 2 (June 2010): 163-183. JSTOR (25676935). 164.