The Ranger and the Elf-princess

by Varda, with responses

As a sort of penance I have been reading The Lay of Beleriand. The metrical form is very difficult, and Tolkien's liberal use of alliteration grates. As usual, what makes you read on is Tolkien grabs you with the story, and you want to know what happens next....but sadly, as with a lot of his work, Tolkien never finished this, although elements appear in the prose tales. But this poem is never continued.

But there is enough of it to tell a story that seems to have preoccupied Tolkien a great deal; the idea of the love between a mortal man and an Elven lady, preferably one high-born. The man, although noble, is not a shiny prince but a rough, dark, scruffy Ranger type out of the wilds.

Here, the man is Turin and the lady is Finduilas. Moreover as well as being mortal Turin is a dark, sad, spectacularly unlucky individual, having accidentally killed an Elf and been exiled by the Elves, accidentally killed his best friend, and accidentally taken his other best friend's girl.

The next mixed couple is Beren and Luthien, the most star-crossed and probably the most famous and significant in the history of Middle Earth. Once again, she is a high-born Elf and he is a scruffy wanderer and Luthien's dad is none too keen.

The third couple is Arwen and Aragorn, and they too are a high-born Elven lady and a scruffy wanderer of noble lineage none too popular with his prospective father-in-law.

But Aragorn is very different from Turin and Beren. He is less gloomy; he does not see his life in fatalistic and pessimistic light. He has hope. He also has powerful and wise advisors and mentors, Gandalf, Elrond and Galadriel. Moreover, he listens to them and is not rash, or blind. He has patience and is able to bow to the wishes and rights of others. He is willing to serve until he can command. As a result, he wins his Elf-princess and their union is longer and more peaceful and happy than his dark predecessors.

But the persistence of the idea of an Elf and a mortal marrying suggests that Tolkien thought the two races perhaps complemented each other; that each brought something lacking in the other. The Elves had spirituality, music, beauty, grace and a link to an ancient, unspoiled golden age. Men had courage, vigour, adventurousness, rough good looks and that poignant element of tragedy bestowed by their mortality. Perhaps neither was complete without the other.

Just musing!

Response from sarahstitcher:

Well since he had "Beren" and "Luthien" inscribed on the headstone that marks his and Edith's grave, I'd say LHB is close to the mark.
I happen to enjoy alliterative poetry very much, and the meter is just fine... The Lays of Beleriand is one of my favorite books of the History series. (so there! Very Happy )
I only wish he had lived longer or had more time during his life, to write more... the irony, that during his life all this was considered frivolous and not on-task. Yet it's what will be treasured and read by so many people! Not that anything he wrote on linguistics/philology isn't also worthwhile... but it just ain't gonna reach such a wide audience.

Reply from Varda:

I like alliterative poetry too, Sarah, but this;
'A mound of mould and mingled leaves
Light lay the earth on the lonely dead

grief was graven with grim token

bettling branches with black o'erhanging
Did greedy grope with gloomy malice'

It is all written like this, Sarah. There is little music, just clattering alliteration. It becomes like a drum in your ear.. The archaic language is also contrived. I am glad you like it, and there are lovely lines and even passages; the Silver Wherry I particularly liked. But it is the story that carried it on, not the poetry. It received harsh (professional) criticism) which might have been why Tolkien did not finish it (NOT because it was considered frivolous). Had he done so, he would certainly have revised its form and metre.

Response from Rogorn:

Thanks, Varda, this is very interesting!

Tolkien confirms what Varda says about the Elves influencing Men.

'The entering into Men of the Elven-strain is indeed represented as part of a Divine Plan for the ennoblement of the Human Race, from the beginning destined to replace the Elves. Elves and Men are represented as biologically akin in this 'history', because Elves are certain aspects of Men and their talents and desires, incarnated in my little world. They have certain freedoms and powers we should like to have, and the beauty and peril and sorrow of the possession of these things is exhibited in them. The Elves represent, as it were, the artistic, aesthetic, and purely scientific aspects of the Humane nature raised to a higher level than is actually seen in Men. That is: they have a devoted love of the physical world, and a desire to observe and understand it for its own sake and as 'other', not as a material for use or as a power-platform. They also possess a 'subcreational' or artistic faculty of great excellence. The contact of Men and Elves already foreshadows the history of the later Ages, and a recurrent theme is the idea that in Men (as they now are) there is a strand of 'blood' and inheritance, derived from the Elves, and that the art and poetry of Men is largely dependent on it, or modified by it.'

(It seems that alliteration is an Elvish invention then, hehe)

What is not very clear, however, is what did Elves see or learn from Men. It seems to me that the Elves were more mystified about Men than the other way around, and we already know how much in awe Men are about Elves. What would be the Mannish strand in Elrond, for example?

And what about this next bit now? Beren is a precursor of the Hobbits?

'There are thus [in the Silmarillion] two marriages of mortal and elf – both later coalescing in the kindred of Earendil. The chief of the stories of the Silmarillion, and the one most fully treated is the Story of Beren and Lúthien the Elfmaiden. Here we meet, among other things, the first example of the motive (to become dominant in Hobbits) that the great policies of world history, 'the wheels of the world', are often turned not by the Lords and Governors, even gods, but by the seemingly unknown and weak – owing to the secret life in creation, and the part unknowable to all wisdom but One, that resides in the intrusions of the Children of God into the Drama. It is Beren the outlawed mortal who succeeds (with the help of Lúthien, a mere maiden even if an elf of royalty) where all the armies and warriors have failed: he penetrates the stronghold of the Enemy and wrests one of the Silmarilli from the Iron Crown. Thus he wins the hand of Lúthien and the first marriage of mortal and immortal is achieved.'

This, of course, is the main difference with Aragorn: Beren is a small character having a big influence, whereas Aragorn is simply put the highest-born Man of his age biding his time to come good.

One last thing is: why is it always she the Elf and he the Man? It happens each time. How would one of those legends look the other way around? Maybe it looks inappropriate that there is a woman ranger who catches the eye of an Elven king?

On the one hand this looks like another of the peculiarities of female characters in Tolkien, but on the other hand we see that the Elvish strand in the race of Men was introduced... by female characters. Whether this is done on purpose or an unexpected side-effect could be open to debate.

Thanks again, V

Reply by Varda:

Thanks, Rogorn!

I think, and reading the Lay of Beleriand it becomes clear, that Tolkien began to have problems keeping the two races apart. As Tolkien did idealise women, it was fairly easy for him to show a union between an elf maiden and a man, as Tolkien's marriages are very idealised and the woman is always seen as a romantic, beautiful and gracious element (think of Denethor's wife Finduilas, and even Eowyn, the shieldmaiden, is The White Lady).

In comparison with women, all men seem, in Tolkien's world, to be rough-hewn rangers from the wild. It is almost as if Elves are women, and men are, well, men.

Tolkien certainly formulated the Elvish nature very well, as you quote above. But when he comes to actually depict an Elf in his narrative, things start to go wrong; in the Lay of Beleriand, Turin's friend, the Elf Flinding, is timid, tired and afraid of his own shadow. He is scarred by his long captivity with the orcs and is old before his time and grey. Far from seeming to have 'freedoms and powers' unknown to men he is very willing to follow Turin and can't seem to think for himself until he reaches his homeland. His former girlfriend finds he has lost all love of life. He may have a devoted love of the world, but he lacks the 'purely scientific aspects', and cannot achieve that serene detachment that should follow on such scientific abilities. He cannot even distance himself from his own suffering.

In short, he is just like a human. He even gets tired and needs sleep. His former love Finduilas's father the king is even more like humans; brooding over the death of his son he has become vengeful, cruel, suspicious and morose.

Tolkien speaks wonderfully about the nature of Elves. But in his narrative, his Elves behave like people only a bit more refined. Wherein is the beauty and peril and sorrow? Or at least, wherein is it any more than in the history of noble races of men? A certain aloofness, an oracular wisdom ('go not to the Elves for counsel, for they will say yes and no') and lack of engagement with men is often the best Tolkien can offer.

The differing afterlife is also something Tolkien is vague about. In the story of the creation of Arda it at first seems that Elves are immortal. But they are only as long-lived as the Earth. But of men we do not know what happens after death. But then it is suggested that they do have some posthumous existence, which means they might live as long as Elves, or maybe outlive Elves.

In the Lay of Beleriand, Turin tells Flinding in his lament for the dead Beleg that Beleg is now feasting in the halls of Valinor with the Valar, which is to say, he has entered at once into an afterlife, a 'heaven' in fact. The poem is quite clear about this, and Christopher Tolkien in his notes on the poem stresses as much; Beleg went to Valinor when he died.

''Lastly it may be noticed Turin's words of parting to Beleg at his burial; (1408-11) in which he forsees for him an afterlife in Valinor, in the halls of the Gods, and does not speak of a time of 'waiting' ''

If you take Tolkien's descriptions and definitions of the Elves, men, Valinor and Middle Earth as scientific and unchanging, all this will be at the least puzzling, at the most contradictory. But you have to view Tolkien's creations as you view literature, not botany; Tolkien is giving rein to his imagination and his love of language. He is indeed creating a fantasy world, but it is born out of imaginative creativity, and linguistic spontaneity.

It is significant that Tolkien is at his most eloquent when he talks about the *mingling* of the two races, as if he was aware that he had in fact separated qualities that really dwell together in mankind.

You yourself admit as much when you wonder 'what did Elves get from men?', for Tolkien has taken out all the noble qualities of man, so what is left, in his Middle Earth, to characterise mankind? Only qualities that would merit contempt, as in Elrond's words, 'men are weak'. But Gandalf rebukes Elrond, reminding him that in fact there is honour and courage in men; they cannot just be what is left after Tolkien takes out all the finer qualities of 'humane' beings.

In The Lord of The Rings, The Return of the King, Legolas and Gimli discuss this very question; and Tolkien struggles to give them anything good to say about men that will not make them sound like Elves. In the end they say men'seldom fail of their seed' which basically means they are survivors. But so are ants. If that is the best they can say about man, it is a poor comment on the value of human life and civilisation.

But, once again, Tolkien's story disproves his thesis; in The Lord of The Rings, the noblest character is not an elf, but a man, Faramir. Compared to his kindness to and love for Frodo, his learning, his wisdom, his compassion, his courage in the war and his loyalty to his unjust father whose dangerous anger he suffers patiently, Faramir makes the Elves look like beautiful, cold, aloof, scheming aesthetes.

Even Aragorn looks good beside Elrond,who just wants the Ring out of his realm. If as Tolkien says Mankind is deeply flawed, so Aragorn's moral and physical courage and his obedience to duty make him a moral hero, whereas the Elves have nothing to rise above so they lack that element of conflict, that dynamic of man.

I think it was this idea that Men are actually more not less virtuous than Elves because they have to overcome a flawed nature that persuaded Peter Jackson to bring Haldir and the Elves to Helm's Deep. Without that passage of scenes, it would look like they really did not care what happened to men or to the Earth. Even in the book, Tolkien only tells us of the Elves' fighting against Mordor at second hand. And it is notable that Elrond's sons Elrohir and Elladan go to fight not alongside the Elves, but with the men, at the Last Battle.

Tolkien constantly comes back to the idea of the 'little person who can change the course of the future' but as regards Beren being an underdog, hmm. Wasn't he a lord of the first house? A prince of brigands, true, but a prince nontheless. Like Turin, Beren is a nobleman. He is not a peasant, not a Sam. All the mortals that marry Elf-women are in some way noble.

There is another problem; the fathers are unwilling, and Luthien's in particular demands a silmaril in return for permission. Elves might have 'certain freedoms and powers we should like to have, and the beauty and peril and sorrow of the possession of these things is exhibited in them' they might
'represent, as it were, the artistic, aesthetic, and purely scientific aspects'

but they can also be greedy, short-sighted, crafty, violent, jealous, cruel, proud, snobbish and cold. The sons of Feanor, Thingol, Finduilas's father and Thrandúil all exhibit qualities not admirable even in mortals.

As Shakespeare said 'the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves...'