Do your fantasy-world Elves sing “tra-la-la-lally” from treetops? J.R.R. Tolkien’s do. And just recently while re-reading The Hobbit, I found I’ve finally grown accustomed to this concept.
Here’s the Elven poem’s finale from chapter 3, our first visit to the Elven realm of Rivendell:
O! Where are you going?
So late in returning?
The water is flowing!
The stars are all burning!
O! Whither so laden,
So sad and so dreary?
Here elf and elf-maiden
Now welcome the weary!
Come back to the Valley,
Tolkien’s Elves aren’t the spritely dwarf-like creatures who either make toys at the North Pole or manufactured cookies inside a computer-animated hollow tree. They’re a race of more-transcendent beings, ancient and wise, noble and courageous and good and serious.
Or are they? Tra-la-la-lally.
Well, they weren’t that silly in The Lord of the Rings film adaptations, the thought may occur. In that case, I have a compound word of rebuttal: shield-surfing.
Tolkien’s Elves are all over the place. They’re not angels, and they’re not devils. They’re not human; they’re not animals. They are immortal yet can die of battle injuries, broken hearts, or even their own tragically stupid choices. Elves were the first created-beings for Middle-earth. They have an “original sin” history, as we know from the epic told in The Silmarillion. Elves have compromised with evil, built secret xenophobic fortresses to keep out evil and all other outsiders. Elves in The Hobbit alone range from silly (the tra-la-la-lally band) to serious (Elrond) to noble yet greedy (the Elves of Mirkwood and their king, Tranduil).
In that sense, perhaps Elves are more human than they, or we, would like to admit. Without falling into the “it’s all allegory” trap, we might nevertheless suggest they are the “special people” of Middle-earth, a la Old-Testament Israel or New-Testament Church. They are meant to help redeem creation and other peoples in turn. How do they do this?
What informs Bilbo’s high view of Elves in The Hobbit, and in the rest of Tolkien’s works?
Chapter 3: A Short Rest
- Read chapter 3, the whole chapter.
- For those familiar with The Lord of the Rings, In this chapter, as well as the last, Tolkien is not nearly as detailed with his descriptions of geography. Why do you think that is?
- Tolkien is, however, detailed with descriptions. Do you as a reader tend to take your time with these, perhaps trying to imagine what the world looks like? Or do you maybe tend to read quickly (or even skip?) to get back to action or dialogue?
- How do you imagine Elves? Little cartoon men in a tree who make packaged cookies? Pointy-eared staffers at the North Pole who assemble Christmas presents? How have you pictured “elves” from other stories, and how are they different from Tolkien’s view of them? After reading the Elves’ ridiculous song, how would you describe them?
- So they laughed and sang in the trees; and pretty fair nonsense I daresay you think it. Not that they would care; they would only laugh all the more if you told them so. (page 47) Thought: Tolkien’s Elves, at least here, seem to demonstrate a quality I would call “holy (H-O-L-Y) ridiculousness.” What do you think about this term? Is it a good one?
- They were elves of course. Soon Bilbo caught glimpses of them as the darkness deepened. He loved elves, though he seldom met them; but he was a little frightened of them too. (page 47) Why feel this way? What else do we know that is joyful yet frightening?
- Dwarves don’t get on well with them. Even decent enough dwarves like Thorin and his friends think them foolish (which is a very foolish thing to think), or get annoyed with them. For some elves tease them and laugh at them, and most of all at their beards. (page 47) Why do dwarves not like Elves? Is there a “bad guy” in that conflict? What are the two peoples’ differences? And why does Tolkien say it’s foolish to think Elves foolish?
- For those familiar with Tolkien’s other works, do the Elves here seem different from the more-serious and ancient Elves of The Lord of the Rings or even The Silmarillion?
- [Elrond’s] house was perfect, whether you liked food, or sleep, or work, or story-telling, or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all. Evil things did not come into that valley. (pages 49-50) Would you like to go to Rivendell? How come?
What do you think of the two swords’ names, their powers, and ancient histories?