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The Myth of the Tolkien Elf

Years ago when the first attempt to launch a licensed massively multiplayer game based on Middle-earth was still in process there was much debate among waiting players about whether they should be permitted to play Noldorin warriors.  Some people wanted the ability to swashbuckle their way across the landscape of Middle-earth and others feared the Player-versus-Player advantages that a “real” Noldo would have against, say, a Silvan Elf or a Dwarf.

The idea that you could play a Noldorin warrior capable of matching the great warriors of the First Age was both a tempting and fearful prospect, and yet now many games have come and gone and people routinely play god-like characters (or even gods in Smite!) without worrying about whether one character is too powerful for the game.  The engineering of the game is supposed to ensure there is balance.

And, of course, as anyone who has studied their Noldorin history should recall, most of those kickbutt warriors of the First Age were slaughtered anyway.  So what does it matter?

But the idea of the vastly superior Noldorin elf has never fully gone away.  When Tauriel healed Kili in Peter Jackson’s second “Hobbit” film some sub-segment of online fandom erupted into apoplexy, not over the presence of Tauriel (that was a different sub-segment of fandom) but over the fact that she glowed with the “light of Valinor” when she took up the Athelas.

Somehow this issue found its way into my email box, perhaps when I was interviewed about the movies, or maybe in just another fan question.  I personally interpreted Tauriel’s aura to be the Jackson team’s way of revealing an elf’s inner strength or spiritual power, not some light resonating all the way from Valinor and the Two Trees.  But the “light of Valinor” only shone in the eyes of the rebellious Noldor for a while; eventually their eyes dimmed and became like the eyes of other elves of Middle-earth.

And yet there are other motifs fans associated with only the Noldor, such as the use of metal armor and weapons (the Sindar used them), the hunting of animals (in fact only the Green-elves of Ossiriand refused to hunt animals), and the creation of “magical” artifacts (the Sindar also created magical things, as did the Silvan Elves).

The Noldor have become elves of fannish mythology in many ways, relegated to a pedestal Tolkien never placed beneath them.  They were strong and wise and learned in great arts but the Sindar were not simple-minded country bumpkins.  The chief distinction of Noldorin culture was their engineering skill.  Thingol relied on the Dwarves to help him build Menegroth, and he even recruited their assistance in preparing Nargothrond for Finrod; but in general the Noldor undertook their own great stonework and engineering projects.

We can quibble about the details but I think there is a perception of near-invincibility about the Noldor that wasn’t quite earned.  Tolkien wrote them as flawed and failing in many ways, though noble and strong too.  They were drawn from Greek tragedy and led to shameless slaughter through their folly.  And so I often wonder how this disconnect between reader and story has emerged again and again, for these readers cannot all be following the inferences of one person, can they?

And yet despite this widespread faith in the capabilities of the Noldor, epitomized by Fëanor and other Noldorin princes, there was apparently also dismay in the ranks of fandom over the power of Galadriel.  She who in the book laid bare the dungeons of Dol Guldur after her Ring had lost its power suddenly seemed too powerful to the legions of fans who were scrutinizing every aspect of the Jackson movies.  And all she did there was fight with a recently re-emerged Sauron and some shadowy Nazgul.

Should Galadriel be able to defeat Sauron in one-on-one combat?  Actually, yes, although perhaps only through sheer dumb luck.  After all Sauron with the Ring had been slain by Elendil; are you suggesting to me that he was more powerful than Galadriel?  Luthien had also defeated Sauron (before he magnified his own strength by creating the One Ring).

Sauron was defeatable in a one-on-one match, whether you used magic or weapons.  He was no more invincible than a mountain that stands before a legion of digging machines.  Sooner or later he will come down.  Sauron’s trick was not to make himself invincible but rather dominating.  The One Ring enhanced his ability to assert his will over weaker beings’ wills.  In time Sauron could achieve his goals by outwitting his enemies, and he spent two thousand years ensuring that his enemies would not be able to overwhelm his forces in battle again.

And so we have the Paradox of the Tolkien Elf: too strong to be played by casual gamers and yet not strong enough to justify the incredible things they do in Peter Jackson’s movies.  The Legolas of the book ran on snow and shot down the flying steed of a Nazgul in near total darkness; the Legolas of the movies dances on pinheads and slays orcs with the greatest of ease.  The book Legolas is oft treated as less important than any of the hobbits (Tolkien himself said the elf accomplished less than anyone else in the Fellowship); and yet movie Legolas almost has co-stars in his feature film franchise.

There is a Perfect Tolkien Elf, a statistical mirage with which we imbue all the powers and limitations of our own perspectives.  This Perfect Elf fits into the Goldilocks zone of fictional races: not too weak, not too strong, not too evil, not too good.  I have in all my journeys in Middle-earth never met such an elf.  But I hear of these creatures from fans across the world.

Why is it so hard for us to come together and understand the Elves of Middle-earth in a common framework?  Is it because Tolkien succeeded in making them sufficiently less human that we cannot understand them or is it because we project too much of our own fantasy upon others’ characters?

I don’t encounter so many discussions about hobbits or dwarves or even about the Dunedain.  Only the elves evoke such passionate analysis.  They should be this but not that, because that is what Tolkien meant.  I’m not really sure of what Tolkien meant.  He often contradicted himself, or changed his mind, or he simply forgot minor details (such as how Gildor Inglorion of the House of Finrod is supposed to fit into all the royal genealogies).

There is a Tolkien elf, an archetype, who stands aside from the human and human-like characters in Middle-earth.  Christopher Tolkien describes this elf as “an immortal living among mortals”, but we can only speculate what that must mean.  In Peter Jackson’s hands that seems to mean a lot of time spent practicing archery, acrobatic moves, and perhaps not so much time perfecting true skills of magic (for what is “magic” to an elf?).

Upon this simple incomplete framework Tolkien built a grand mystique of a lost civilization, a distant past filled with grief and evil, and he layered atop that unspoken regrets that distract the Exiles from small matters such as the fate of the free-willed world.  There are times when I just want to grab Gildor by the scruff of his neck and slap him up side the wall and say, “Damn you, sir, can’t you see that Middle-earth is going to hell in a hand-basket?  And it was you bloody elves that sent it there!”

They both take responsibility for their failings and they avoid having to be responsible.  How many Tolkien fans do you know who talk about the evil that the Elves (the Noldor) committed?  Oh, there are a few of us, but I feel like an outlaw standing outside the village while everyone inside the gobel is dancing and singing like a Tolkien elf.  The Noldor are evil, baby.  Don’t you forget that.

And they’re also the good guys, the victims, and the poor suckers who have to slither back home without the Silmarils they went looking for.  When the Host of Valinor broke Thangorodrim and freed all the slaves Morgoth had taken, how many of them were Noldor?  Were they so strong and powerful they were ready to take on the next Dark Lord?  I think not!

What is it about the Noldor that makes them appear to be so superior, so magical, so infallibly powerful?  Why do they stand tall like Teflon-coated imaginings of a Mary Sue?  Did no one get the memo about their ragged march to Middle-earth?  Did I miss something in the story about how they squandered opportunity after opportunity with dumb ideas and pride?  Why is it always that the Noldor are the ones the Dark Lords manipulate into stirring up trouble?

You don’t see the Vanyar cutting up the Teleri.  Nor did the Sindar make any Rings of Power.  These are bad guy elves.  They are the crew of the Serenity from Firefly.  The Noldor are the villains of the story, and yet everyone is all “la-de-la Galadriel is so sweet and beautiful”.  How did that happen?

There is a mythology of the Tolkien elf.  It is indescribably vague and contradictory and filled with logical fallacies.  And yet it is stronger than the facts of the fiction.  This myth is pernicious and tenacious and words I cannot even think of.  It’s unlike any Tolkien story I have ever read.  It’s like the story leaped off the pages of the books and took on a life of its own, and we can’t even blame bad adaptations for it because this myth predates the movies.

No other culture in Middle-earth is plagued with guilt and regret as much as the Noldor.  The Ents come close because they let the Ent-wives wander off and become lost.  But the Ents were merely negligent; the Noldor plotted to control Middle-earth for all time (or as long as they could get away with it).  It”s just scary how people worship the Noldor without stopping to think, these guys wanted to keep everyone else in their place for thousands upon thousands of years.

And you know what is funny?  Every now and then some Noldo-worshipping fanboy plucks up the nerve to ask on a forum or blog, “Don’t you think it’s weird that Middle-earth’s technologies didn’t advance over thousands of years?”

To me that is like asking, “Don’t you think it’s weird that all these mobsters worked for Al Capone?”

You tell me: how weird is that?

About the Author: Michael Martinez

Michael Martinez is a graduate of Kennesaw State University and author of Parma Endorion: Essays on Middle-earth, Visualizing Middle-earth, Understanding Middle-earth: Essays on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, and Mindfaring through Middle-earth.


  • This was a great joy to read.

    I can’t even remember how many times I was at this end of the conversation, telling a friend or a hardcore Noldo-fan that Noldor aren’t as perfect as they picture in their minds. In fact they even have some motives a dark lord would have.

  • Stentor

    The concern about who could beat Sauron in single combat seems like misplaced video game thinking. He’s the head bad guy, so he must be the biggest (a la the opening of Jackson’s FotR) and have the most hit points. But as you say, his power comes from being a leader/commander/master of others. He’s a Hitler or Gaddafi, not a Ganon or King Koopa.

    • David Bratman

      That error in turn reminds me of the Efrafans in Watership Down being surprised when Bigwig tells them he’s not his own Chief Rabbit. He’s the biggest and strongest, as Woundwort on their own side is, so he must be the leader. And, of course, when they actually met Hazel they’d ignored him, because he wasn’t big or strong: they have no other conceptions of leadership.

  • Mónica Findûriel

    I would like to translate this article into Spanish for the Sociedad Tolkien Española’s website. I liked it a lot! And I also find it very useful these days. It would be credited, of course.
    Thank you for your attention.