that darn elf: a random musing
Those mortals in love with Elven prin-cesses
silv'ry of skin and lengthy of tresses
Tuor and Idril and Luthien fair
with brave Beren storming into Morgoth's lair
Aragorn mucking about in the woods
til he kicked Dark Lord butt and won his True Love
JR was a Man writing in a Man's time
but Real Women want to have equal rhyme
PJ came along and gave us our prizes
with chisel-dy cheekbones and great big brown eyeses
lithe as a greyhound steadfast as a goose
with possibly some parts resembling a moose
Not Just Another Pretty Face
a random and totally non-scholarly musing on the character of the Elf in the Fellowship and on the Elven archetype in general
Legolas Greenleaf, long under tree,
in joy thou hast lived, beware of the screams
of zillions of ardent teenagery girls
but take not that grey ship, depart not this world
Peter Jackson and Company put Lord of the Rings on film, (and New Zealand on the map) and zillions of people who couldn't tell a Hobbit from an Elf came to see it. And loved it. 26 years after my fist reading of The Book, I could, at last!, walk into Wal-Mart and buy Elven action figures. Go online and aquire a six-foot Legolas standee, or parts of his costume or weaponry. Legolas appeared on the cover of TV Guide.
It was amazing. Wonderful.
All across the country, nay, across the Knowne Worlde, young women swooned, palpitated and bought endless copies of teen magazines that generally featured pix, fax and other misspellings, giant foldout drool posters, and the Hearthrob of the Month on the cover.
This time, the Hearthrob was an Elf. And, since he's no doubt running on Elvish Time, he has lasted a bit longer than a month.
For some of us...a lot longer.
we'll descend on the-aters like Sauron's Dark Hordes
and eat all the popcorn and drool on the floors
we'll storm all the malls buy up all the toys
(what's this? oh, hah hah for my nephew, in Boise)
we'll write awful poetry, stories, and fix
up all our walls with posters and pix
(excerpts from the epic lay, Viagraquenta, by yours truly)
The great thing about movies is, you cast a few hot actors as characters formerly only familiar to readers of Great Literature, and suddenly those characters are seen everywhere from the cover of Newsweek to your buddy's refrigerator. Every fourteen year old can tell Merry and Pippin apart, and can speak at least one word of Elvish.
The bad thing about movies is...see above. And unless they've read The Book, all those fourteen year olds will be missing a big part of these characters: their character.
Rudolph, D&D and Galadriel's Yard Sale.
Scene; a boring art school classroom in the mid-ninteen-seventies, where we were learning to line up bits of type in straight lines or something. A geeky kid in the back of the class says to a late teen-something slightly geeky woman: "You look like an Elf in that shirt." Indeed, the late hippie era green flowy thing I was wearing did look like a refuge from Galadriel's yard sale. If I'd had any clue who Galadriel was...
"Huh? You mean like Herbie in Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer?"
Scene; 1978, a smokey kitchen crowded with mostly youngish guys, a table cluttered with dice and maps and piles of books and paper. One twenty-three year old woman raises a sheaf of paper and waves it at a bespectacled middle-aged male; the Dungeonmaster.
"What do I make of this?" I said.
He peers at it, makes noises rather like Treebeard; hoooom, hom, hmmm.
"Play an Elf." he says.
"Huh? You mean like Herbie in Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer?"
It was actually Hermey, short, blond and round-eared, and he had nothing at all to do with our Dungeons and Dragons game. Tolkien, and his world of Middle-earth had a lot more to do with it; Lord of the Rings and a few other fantasies of the time were the basis for the now famous fantasy role-playing game where I met my first Elves. And Tolkien was what my DM told me to read. I dove into The Book, appendices first, looking for any info on these mysterious creatures I thought I already knew.
Quoth the Appendix.
'Elves has been used to translate both Quendi, 'the speakers'. the High-elven name of all their kind, and Eldar, the name of the three kindreds that sought for the Undying Realm and came there at the beginning of Days (save the Sindar only). This old word was indeed the only one available, and was once fitted to apply to such memories of this people as Men preserved, or to the making of Men's minds not wholly dissimilar. But it has been diminished, and to many it may now suggest fancies either pretty or silly, as unlike to the Quendi of old as are butterflies to the swift falcon--not that any of the Quendi ever possessed wings of the body, as unnatural to them as to Men. They were a race high and beautiful, the older Children of the world, and among them the Eldar were as kings, who are now gone: the People of the Great Journey, the People of the Stars. They were tall, fair of skin and grey-eyed, though their locks were dark, save in the golden house of Finarfin, and their voices had more melodies than any mortal voice that now is heard. They were valiant, but the history of those that returned to Middle-earth in exile was grevious; and though it was in far off days crossed by the fate of the Fathers, their fate is not that of Men. Their dominion passed long ago, and they dwell now beyond their circles of the world, and do not return.'
That excerpt from the Appendix didn't really tell me much, except for this line: 'But it ("elves") has been diminished, and to many it may now suggest fancies either pretty or silly, as unlike to the Quendi of old as are butterflies to the swift falcon.' I never had liked those cutesey wootsey bouncy wouncy little fairy things very much, they just didn't ring true. But 'Eldar, Sindar, Quendi'...those names had power, and there was something familiar about them.
So I began to read the immensity of verbiage that was The Book.
I had begun Fellowship when the abominable Bakshi movie came out (ok, I admit to seeing it...a few times, and I still have the rather lovely Royal Doulton porcelain Legolas from it). Fortunately the real imagery for Middle-earth and its inhabitants did not come from that aborted attempt at filmmaking, but from a stray poster in a magazine I had picked up for the Star Wars stuff.
The poster was a large foldout; a montage of various scenes from Middle-earth, by an artist named Judy King Reniets. In the center was the Fellowship. I had not quite started The Book yet, so I waved the poster under the DM's nose and said, "Whotheheck's this blond guy with the bow?"
Something about that character in the illustration was like the call of gulls in the dark. Like the whisper of wind through green leaves. Like a half forgotten face from a dream. It pulled at me in a way those silly butterfly fancies of childhood elves could not.
Still, it was just a cute guy in an illo. And like that really hot guy in Home-room, the character might turn out to be a jerk.
I plowed into The Book, and the guy with the longbow began to feel familiar. Something about him, and the other Elves we met briefly along the way, resonated with something deep inside me.
In the Firstborn, I had recognized an Archetype.
Archetype: 'an original standard pattern or model. (Greek arche-first...).'
Stereotype: 'a printing plate cast in metal from a matrix molded from a raised surface...anything made this way...a conventional hackneyed expression, custom, or mode of thought.' The original stereotype made printing many identical copies of one paper or book possible. But to simply copy your characters from ancient archetypes (without giving them character) turns them into stereotypes.
All of the characters in LOTR are archetypal, as well as being distinct individuals. But it was the Elves I recognized.
On the Elf archetype, The New Tolkien Companion (J.E.A.Tyler, Avon Books, 1979) says: "...today only dim memories of the Elder Race survive..." Tyler speaks of Northern European faerie tale creatures as murky, diminished, "debased folk memories", made small and safe for the nursery tale. Tyler also mentions the "shaft of light striking through the murk"; tales like the early mythological cycle of Ireland, the tales of the Tuatha DeDanaan, who were mighty warriors and wielders of magic. An Irish artist named Jim Fitzpatrick has illustrated several of these myths: The Book of Conquests and The Silver Arm. This may be an example of (as Galadriel says at the beginning of the 2001 film) history become legend, legend become myth. There are places in the British Isles with standing stones, raised by real stone or bronze age cultures, long forgotten, places which are said to be where the DeDanaan fought their foes. And in thousands of years of time, where history is passed down in oral stories, and magic is thoroughly, and literally, believed in, it would be easy to see how a real culture could become mythologized as something superhuman.
But that's not where I remembered them from, I never read any of those myths until after I read LOTR.
In The Lord of the Rings Tarot, Terry Donaldson says of the Elf archetype: "The Elves can be thought of as the artists and musicians....those involved in cultural pursuits or intellectual pursuits of any nature...reknowned for their sophistication and craftsmanship...advance and maintain knowledge and achievement, pushing back the boundaries of knowledge with their discoveries...(Dwarves are the diligent laborers)...the Elvish qualities of inspiration, intelligence, ingenuity and sheer style can...find new solutions to old problems...charming the fiercest opponent into approachability...finding new ways to communicate with others...But we must not become too Elvish either:turning our backs on the world in our search for beauty, or substituting talk for action." What is represented, Donaldson says, by the myriad races of LOTR: "something of the soul of humanity is within them, waiting for us to find it."
Ok, so they represent some aspect of human nature, of real people, of us. Wizards are wise, the knowledge of age and experience with the passion and strength of youth. Hobbits are us, or maybe the guy next door, or the garden club lady down the street, or the farmer in Kansas. Dwarves are hardy, hard-working, pragmatic, deeply connected to the dark earth, the underground, mining and making...they're probably a lot like the guy fixing your car, or driving that eighteen wheeler. Elves are light and air and tree and running water, art and music and intuition and empathy (I'm not sure where they'd be hiding out, national park service maybe, and by the looks of the LOTR films there are still a few left in New Zealand). Actually, my cousin worked for a local ski slope one winter... and noticed that all the ski instructors were tall and lithe and graceful... while all the maintenance guys were short and stout and hairy.
Devout Catholic Tolkien saw them as a kind of unfallen race; one more closely in tune with the elemental forces of the universe. Of Nature. Every culture has its Elves; beings who are neither gods nor ordinary men. In myth and fantasy it's Elves. In science fiction (the mythology of the future) it's aliens (Classic Trek's Spock) or droids (Next Gen's Data, or Jude Law in A.I.). All of these non-human humans help us understand what it is to be human; to see the forest you have to get out from under the trees. Look at the familiar world through another set of eyes, and you see it more clearly.
But at that point I wasn't psychoanalyzing my fantasy, I was just reading it, and recognizing something familiar.
Aha! The archetype had popped up before, in literature, TV, and film, if under different names. There are hints of the same archetype in the Wandering Kung-fu Monk who had the light deadly grace of a hunting cat, and a mystical way with animals and other lifeforms. In the Faithful Indian Sidekick who had talents Daniel Boone and the Lone Ranger didn't, and seemed to have a mysterious understanding of woods-lore and animals, and never missed with that bow. Both of these, because of their cultures, were other, looking at the familiar world through another set of eyes, and seeing it in a different way than the mundane Western European viewpoint.
American Indians especially resonate with the Elven archetype for me; rooted in the natural world, a strong sense of "magic", or maybe it's just the cheekbones, the bows and the fact that I associate solitary rangers with both.
I have a sudden awful vision of Strider, in a mask, yelling "Hi-yo Shadowfax!"
Native American cultures, the first ones on this continent, are real cultures, real people, still living among us, with a history written, recorded, photographed, painted, documented, and even remembered by a few of the Elders of those peoples. We, the "mainstream culture", still have only the vaguest idea who they are; our ideas of them are more faerie tale than fact. In the space of a few lifetimes, history has already vanished into legend, and legend into myth.
In Middle Earth, the Elves are in the same position: the Elder race, the Firstborn, the oldest culture, still there, but already vanishing into myth and legend, understood, loved, and respected by a few "Elf-friends" who carry their knowledge and lore into the next age. But feared or even heartily disliked by many others.
I seem to remember reading (in a biography) that Tolkien was fond of "Indian stories" when he was small. Whether Native American images were at the back of Tolkien's mind when he "subcreated" Middle Earth, who knows...but I wouldn't have been surprised to find his Green Elves (Laiquendi) wearing leather tunics, soft-soled boots and hawk feathers. I think it was the Laiquendi who were described as not having steel arms or tools...a "stone age" technology akin to Native America's.
Even Tarzan, and Mowgli of The Jungle Books had a bit of the Elf in them; they were Nature-spirit types who could talk to animals and 'run light over leaf or grass or snow', but with a bit more 19th century male macho than Tolkien's Quendi. There was a wonderful kid's book (Scholastic Book Services, mid-60's) called "The Forgotten Door" by Alexander Key, in which a boy coming out to watch the stars at night steps back into a forgotten door which spans space and time in an instant. He winds up on Earth, in a harrowing adventure, ending with a return to his homeworld, taking his new friends with him. He's clad in grey, hears thoughts, talks to animals, and can lighten his feet to jump higher and run faster than any human. And then there were all those pointy-eared Vulcans in Star Trek.
Perhaps some of the Elves who sailed west invented warp drive and space-time gateways.
And then there's the comics. And I'm not talking about Elfquest.
We pause to briefly contemplate Nightcrawler of the X-Men, he of the pointy ears and glowing eyes, nicknamed by the short hairy guy (Wolverine) "fuzzy elf" or just "hey elf". On a forum on www.nightscrawlers.com I pointed out that Nightcrawler and Wolverine look and sound an awful lot like Legolas and Gimli. Dave Cockrum (a big LOTR fan who has drawn Nightcrawler as, of all things, a Hobbit) went something like "hmmmm, never thought of that."
Nightcrawler was originally designed to look demonic (his original character was supposed to be dark too, but changed dramatically before publication), under the pencil of Dave Cockrum, and the pen of Chris Claremont, his character has emerged as angelic. He is odd (tail, blue fur, wierd feet and hands) but beautifully so (velvet skin, nice heavenly blue color, chiseled cheekbones, lithe, agile, immensely strong, able to draw a great warbow...no wait, that's somebody else. Well, he can wield three cutlasses at once...).
You are saying; and the point is?
Not the pointy ears. That's stereotypically rooted in our imaginations as something belonging to faerie. That likely has its origins in ancient godlings of field and wood: Pan, Cernunos and the like, who had some animal characteristics; because they were guardians of herds, either wild or domestic. Even in comics, or modern fantasy, if you want to make someone odd, other; make their extremities animalistic. Add a tail, antlers, hooves or bunny ears or something.
The point is; glowing eyes, glowing with that inner light; the light of the Two Trees, starlight, the elf-bright eyes Tolkien describes so often. And that Nightcrawler is another example of the Elf archetype, in a different genre.
And that he was originally a demon.
Middle-earth's demons, the orcs, were once Elves, taken and corrupted by the dark powers. Demon and Elf are two sides of the same coin, yin and yang. In European myth, (think especially of the Irish myths of the Tuatha deDanann) when a new religion moved in with a new culture, the old culture's gods were demonized. Elves became orcs. Or eventually were turned into small cute things safe for the nursery.
Only Tolkien seems to have remembered they were closer to angels.
That Darn Elf.
Back to The Book. I continued to plow through it, and the blond guy with the bow got better with each page of the adventure. When Legolas is handed Arod, warhorse of Rohan, and he takes off the saddle and bridle "for I need them not"...well, that was it. I'd wrestled plenty of thousand pound herbivores, rooted in fear at a mere mud puddle, or freaking from a bit of blowing paper. Legolas had 'the Elvish way with all good beasts,' I was awestruck. Throw away all that stuff about archetypes, for I need them not...I was in love.
That was in 1978. Since then, I've done a lot of fantasy art, written stories, created my own characters, played more D&D, filled numerous sketchbooks, had a few adventures of my own. Swashed and buckled as a swordbroad in the Society for Creative Anachronisms, rowed a Viking longship with the Longship Company, rode my horses in chainmail, learned to hit the broad side of a stack of haybales with an arrow. Learned to do it from a horse. Trained a horse who'd run wild for the first eight years of her life, explored sunken ships, learned to kayak, trained my own sled-dog team, wrangled otters, emus and barfing vultures for local wildlife rehabbers. Backpacked, rode and paddled the marshes of Assateague Island. Wowed third graders with a demonstration of projectile pooping (aided by Thermal the Wonder Hawk). Planted some beach grass. Learned to tell a sparrow from a finch (with the aid of some birdfeeders and a Peterson's Field Guide to Eastern Birds).
What's all that got to do with the Elf?
Some of it, like the three bows I own, or the half-Arabian gelding who I eventually rode without a bridle, are directly inspired by the Elf. Some, like the chainmail byrnie and the numerous swords, grew out of a love of the pseudo-medieval fantasy worlds of Middle-earth and D&D. Some of it, mustangs and otters and vomiting vultures, was just who I am, though the Elf would probably approve.
I had not read LOTR for many years when my buddy Dave (who looks a lot like Gimli, only balder) told me about the upcoming films. I researched them on the net, and decided it was time to re-read The Book. I fully expected it to be different. To have different parts resonate with me. To fall in love with a different character.
Nope. Still in love with the bloody Elf.
That long ago reading of LOTR was like floating over the surface of the ocean. Now I can dive, go below that surface, see far more in the story. Discuss it with others, and see parts of it from their perspective. But the same parts of the tale still evoke strong emotions in me, still resonate like the thunder of distant hooves.
And I'm still in love with that darn Elf.
Why? Who is he anyway? What is he?
In Middle-earth, the Elves mostly remain somewhat distant, not concerned directly with the affairs of Men or Hobbits. Though Tolkien's whole saga started with the Elvish languages, and he himself seems to admire the Elves greatly, we don't get a close look at them in the Hobbit or in LOTR (The Silmarillion, Unfinished Tales, Lost Tales, and the rest of th HoME series are another matter: there we get the whole Elvish history, and a varied set of characters).
In LOTR they remain as hard to find and define as a snow leopard at the top of the Himalayas. Except for one, the one we ride with through the entire War of the Ring; Legolas. He becomes the representative of his people for the rest of Middle-earth; the Hobbits, one Dwarf, the Rohirrim, the Men of Gondor...and for us.
continued in part two...