Tolkien's Elves and Traditional Faerie

by Primula

An interesting comment came from TrebleMaker as he was half-snoozing in a beanbag near my computer recently: "Where did Tolkien get his idea for his kind of Elves? They seem to just come out of nowhere...all the other stories and things I can think of from before him they are like little fairies, or leprachauns. Things with wings. His are completely different."  I ended up launching into a speeech probably more than a half hour long about the variances in the history of elves, the multi-cultural ancient concept of a spirit realm termed "Faerie" and the dangerous and fey qualities of many of the denizens of that realm according to various legends, myths, superstitions and tales, and the difference between the "sprite" variety that he was thinking of such as brownies, leprachauns, etc. and the more deadly ones that lured the unwary traveler from the path so they were never seen again, or were rendered insane, or worse.

There are are so many legends and tales, especially in the European cultures of Faerie. There were the little ones, the mischief-makers who would cause a person public embarrassment, or make the cow go dry.  And there were the more dangerous ones who took frightening forms in the night, or deep in the forest, the ones who made wayward children disappear forever, who murdered strolling nighttime lovers and sent those who were drawn to their beauty off of rocky cliffs, or drew them into the water and drowned them.

It is interesting to see how Tolkien did seem to create something fairly unique in his Elves. They are no sprites, but patterned off of the more "deadly" ones. They are filled with otherworldly beauty and live apart from men. But unlike the Faerie of old, they are not so self-centered and aloof from the other people of the world that they are completely without conscience in how what they do may affect others. They are detached, such as Gildor, who allowed Frodo to stay with them a night and sent a message, but did not turn aside from his own goal one whit, but they are still as Merry would say, "a part of this world."  They hunger, they thirst, they bleed and die.  And in extreme and unusual cases, they make alliances with other races and work toward a common goal.  

Like the Faerie, they have great wisdom and knowledge. In this case it is gained by the experience of having lived so long and having seen so much, as well as having good, sharp physical senses that work properly (no Elves with glasses) and a sensitivity to the spirit realm.  They may or may not share that wisdom ("Do not go to the Elves for advice...") and they are not always user-friendly, as is shown by the Rohirrim having a fear of nets in the Golden Wood.  They are perilously fair, but not so dark and deadly;  under the mask of Faerie's beauty is a viper. That is not the case here.  To my thoughts, it seems as if Tolkien produced a variety of Elf that is a sort of crossover between the traditional Faerie and the concept of angelic beings.  Angels are traditionally messengers from the spirit realm who are only temporarily making themselves visible for the purpose of sending their message. They are beautiful, graceful and have the ability to aid and protect those under their care. Like the concept of Faerie, Time does not affect them the same as if does the rest of us. Angels, of course, come in both the fallen and unfallen variety - even as Tolkien introduced the notions of fallen and unfallen Maiar, obedient and disobedient Elves. A main difference between angels and tradtitional elves would be the way the angels care for and protect, while the faerie-elves seem to delight in causing death, misery and woe for their own entertainment when they are not ignoring people entirely or using them as tools to be discarded when finished with.

We see echoes of the Faerie in Tolkien's earlier tale of The Hobbit, when they draw the travelers off the path with their lovely nighttime parties only to disappear and abandon them when they approach to beg for food, but by the time he had developed LotR, we see a more refined culture has taken shape under the lines of his pen.

Tolkien's Elves therefore are more caring. They have an empathy, and feeling, a heart that is lacking in "elves" of other tales and legends. They are part and parcel with the world in spite of their timelessness.  They are aloof, but not callous.  Perilous, dangerous,
ethereal and inclined to take the view of the Big Picture when confronted with political squabbles, they nonetheless still draw us all from our path with their beauty and their memory of when the world was a brighter place. Whispers of Eden are in Rivendell and Lothlorien and like grown men who linger at the remains of the tree that once held their favorite hiding place in childhood, we linger over the author's creation of this angelic-elvish place.  They've seen dark times before and they can tell us that better times will come again.

Faerie of old are nothing I would ever want to meet in a dark alley, or even a bright alley at any time of day. But like Sam, I wouldn't mind getting to meet one of Tolkien's Elves.