By Special Holiday Request: the History of Tolkien’s Elves (part II)
When last we left, the Vala Oromë was inviting the elves to migrate, en masse, to his homeland in the uttermost West.
“It’s not that we don’t want to. I mean, you’re great, with your superpowers and your crazy stories about having defeated Morgoth and rescued our kidnapped siblings and children…”
“Well, not rescued so much as scourged from the world. They were turned into orcs.”
“…but we have this whole nice garden-realm, and all…”
Oromë was pretty insistent, so eventually, to shut him up, three of the elves agree to visit Valinor with him, and then report back to the rest of the elves about it. These three were Ingwë, Finwë, and Elwë, founders or co-founders of the three tribes the elves self-selected into.
So, Valinor. One of the specific questions I was asked is “what’s the West?” and the answer is Valinor. The planet Arda had two continents on it (more, actually, but only two that count): Endor and Aman. Endor was the place we call Middle Earth; Aman was the Undying Lands to the distant west over the sea.
When the three elven patriarchs visited Aman, Valinor was basically all that was there; Valinor was the land of the Valar. It was occupied by the Valar themselves, and also their servants the Maiar. Maia, singular of Maiar, is basically Tolkien for demigod or lesser angel. Gandalf is a Maia, ditto Sauron himself, ditto the balrog that Gandalf fought in Moria at the climax of Fellowship of the Ring. But all those splendors were as nothing next to the light of the Trees.
See, back before the elves woke up there was the thing with lamps, but by the time the patriarchs had arrived, Valinor was lit by two huge magical trees created by the Valar. One was golden and one was silver, and they emitted sunlight and moonlight on a regular day-night cycle. At this time Cuiviénen, like the rest of Middle Earth, was lit only by starlight, so the light of the Trees blew the elves’ minds. Ingwë, Finwë, and Elwë were besides themselves.
“Those Trees are incredible! They’re the greatest thing! When I close my eyes and try to picture my wife’s face, all I see is Tree! Ormoë wasn’t kidding when he said we’d like the Trees!”
“I propose we divide all elves into two categories: elves who have seen the Trees and elves who haven’t. Seconded?”
“Seconded! All in favor?”
“Motion carries! We’ll be the Calaquendi and those poor benighted elves who haven’t seen the light can be the Moriquendi.”
“We’ve got to get back to Cuiviénen and convince all the Moriquendi to come here!”
Long story short, the elven patriarchs returned to Middle Earth and told the other elves about Valinor and the Trees. The elves split up into four main groups that related to (but were not exactly the same as) the three tribes that the elves self-selected into when they first woke.
The first group were the Fair Elves, aka the Vanyar aka the Minyar. These elves were all blondes, unlike all the other elves who were dark-haired. Their founder was the patriarch Ingwë, and they were the first group of elves to travel from Middle Earth to Valinor. They made the trip not with boats, but on a magic island provided by the Valar. Once they arrived in Valinor they basically disappeared from the history of Middle Earth.
The second group were the Deep Elves, aka the Noldor. They were a subset of the second of the three ancient elven tribes, and they were led by Finwë. They also traveled to Valinor via magic island. We’ll be hearing a lot about them in a bit.
The third group were the Teleri, aka the Sindar. These were elves who were a mix of the second and third elven tribes, not Vanyar, who started out from Cuiviénen towards the coast but got distracted along the way and missed both of the magic islands. They ended up building a whole series of nations in ancient Middle Earth.
The fourth group were the Avari. The Avari were the elves who, when the three patriarchs returned to tell them about the light of the Trees, declared that they were perfectly happy in the perpetual twilight of Middle Earth, thank you very much. They didn’t head west with the Teleri, and instead just kind of hung out in and around Cuiviénen until everyone stopped paying attention to them.
The bulk of the rest of the story revolves around the Noldor and the Sindar. The Noldor are Calaquendi, which means they’re better, and the Sindar are Moriquendi, which means they’re not. This is a major, major thing down the line.
You know how, in the second Hobbit movie, the Elfking complains about how Legolas and What’s-her-name the noncanonical elf are a couple? Because What’s-her-name just isn’t good enough for Legolas? It’s because Legolas is part Noldor (part-Vanyar, actually, I think; that’s why he’s blond) and What’s-her-name is full Sindar. Elrond and Galadriel are both Noldor, too, incidentally.
For the moment, though, our focus shifts to Valinor. For a long time, Valinor had been inhabited just by the Valar. Then came Morgoth, their chained prisoner, there to do a million hours of community service, and who couldn’t possibly work any evil ever again. And then came the Noldor.
NEXT TIME: WHY EVERYTHING IS GALADRIEL’S FAULT!
Damn. Somehow you have made me go from not caring in the least about the stupid Tolkein elves into caring a small-to-moderate amount! Need more!
Galadriel really is a firecracker guys. No lie. She has some strong words for some folks coming.
Also perhaps important is that Aman was physically on the same planet as Endor at this point. When elves go into the west in LotR proper they are doing something with boats that is 98% magic at that point. At this time getting there not on a magic island would have been only about 20% magic or so.
This is arguably a more compelling read for me than the actual LotR books were. And obviously it is more compelling and easier to follow than the Simarillion.
So much easier to follow. I thought I had a good understanding but I’ve already learned a few new things.
No need to say who good your work is, you get such feedback from your followers. As I am a “Tolkien scholar” I’d like to focus on some mistakes 🙂
The Teleri are not the same as Sindar, and they are not “a mix of the second and third tribes”. Each team was a tribe on its own, but the Teleri were then divided to other tribes: the Wood-elves (the Elves under the Hobbit’s Elvenking and Lotr’s Galadriel) who stayed behind first, the Grey Elves (Sindar) who also stayed behind, and the Sea-Elves who went to Aman with the Noldor.
Also there is a small “theological” misundestanding about the Elves: The Valar knew that the world was made for the Elves and made everything in preparation for them, anticipating their awakening. They didn’t discover them by chance as unknown meat-creatures. They didn’t know where and when, that’s why we get the impresion that Orome “discovered” them.