Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.
One of the amazing elements I find with J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings is how the subtle details and small mentions here and there can have much more weightier implications. At least as how I perceive them. For this two-part blog, the possibilities I want to explore is the differences between the High Elves that went to Valinor in the West, and the Dark Elves that never ventured there and chose to remain in Middle-earth which will be covered in part two.
The Universal Template
All Elves are considered one race, regardless of where they chose to live. They are naturally very strong while also having a supernatural grace, are immune to sickness and disease, have superior sight, and have a natural, inborn power that other races refer to as ‘magic’. Their spirits had a heightened sensitivity to Arda’s existence and the bodies could endure more punishment than mortals, with the exception of the Dwarves. Except for the later-named Noldor, another feature that was present, was being content with whatever status quo they prospered in. It is implied that these abilities were at their peak with the very first generation that were awakened deep in the past of the First Age.
A great migration starts to move west to Valinor after the divine Valar subdue one of their own, Morgoth, in the far north of the ancient world. During the march, many Elves separate from the main hosts and set up the first Elven populations in Middle-earth that continue long into the early Fourth Age. There are further separations before they reach the western coast of the land in a region known as Beleriand, where they were abandoned and named the Moriquendi or Dark Elves. Eventually though, three clans arrive in Valinor, becoming known collectively as the Eldar or the High Elves. And here my speculations on the differing attitudes begins and this blog will cover the High Elves of Valinor.
What Makes a High Elf
Like with any creature, geology plays a major part in how they evolve. And the Elves, for all their other-worldliness, are no different. At this time, all of Middle-earth lays in perpetual night, with the only illumination coming from the stars, with no moon or sun as of yet. In sharp contrast, Valinor maintained a daylight cycle and was enlightened in all ways imaginable by the divine two trees, Telperion and Laurelin. This supernatural light permeated Valinor in all ways: spiritually and magically by the presence of the Valar themselves. And mentally by the immense knowledge they possessed, being entities that themselves were created uncounted ages before Arda and the Elves existed. Thus, they came to be known as the High Elves: those who had seen the holy Trees of Valinor and/or were raised therein.
The Silmarillion describes most of these Elves physically as being very tall. The shortest among them being the Teleri, though I imagine they were still taller than their Middle-earth relatives. Though all the first generation are considered naturally greater and stronger than their descendants, the High Elves were the most developed of their kind overall. I imagine those that spent their first ages under starlight being pale-skinned since there was no light strong enough to tan their coloration. I also picture them being somewhat wide-eyed: literally. Most nocturnal animals need larger eyes to collect more light to see with, since it's not as strong and Elves were known for their superior sight, even in darkness. I wouldn't see it grotesquely so since the Eldar were also considered to be beautiful and supernaturally graceful, but there would have to be some physical evidence of this adaption.
Being in Valinor for the first time, exposed to so much light, and the supernatural essence of the place must have been a massive shock mentally and physically. Since they’re immortal though and there was no danger, they would have plenty of time to adapt, which all Elves seem to do slowly anyway. Personally, I think their skin color would have darkened slightly more with more light exposure, especially later generations afterward. Valinor is described as having an essence unto itself, so I imagine everything there being better for the populations’ lifestyle.
The healthier intake would lead to healthier bodies and all High Elves were reputed for their strength. Their spirits would have also become even more sensitive and in tune with the flow of time down to a spiritual level throughout Arda. A deeper connection and sense to the grand tapestry that Illuvatar was trying to create. This is why to other races, that so many High Elves often seemed weighed down as if by an invisible, omnipotent hand. And also why many of those who went to Middle-earth, later returned to the Holy West where that weight was much less, though still there. High Elves would feel a natural sense of distance that other races would consider strange and aloof, affecting how they interacted with them. It’s one of the reasons why intimate relationships with Humans was considered near-impossible, as the sheer depth of perception and understanding was an invisible, great chasm, to vast for the High Elves to ignore.
The deeper connection would also presumably create quickened minds, able to supernaturally perceive things happening around them, both seen and unseen, at a phenomenal rate. High Elves could feel the changes in the very essence of Middle-earth itself. Their education under the Valar would only accentuate this further, like power armor only adding strength to an already-enhanced soldier. Better health, better training, better conditioning, better education: they’re not called the High Elves for nothing, and it's no wonder why humanity both revered and were disturbed by them, and why it's implied many Dark Elves both begrudgingly respected and disliked their western kin.
The three clans, the Vanyar, Noldor, and the Teleri, while all High elves became very distinct from each other. I couldn’t find much on the Vanyar, save that they were considered the greatest of the three. However, it wasn't for their strength, but rather their wisdom...or arguably their more submissiveness to the Valar. They are tall and all Blond-haired. Empathetic to their kindred, but not quick to rash and impulsive behavior. Vanyar were extremely loyal to each other and to the Valar. So much so that sometime after they settled in Valinor, they again moved deeper within the land to the mountain where the Valar held council, just so they could be closer. After that, few of them were rarely encountered by the other High Elves in Valinor.
If the Noldor princes, Fingolfin and Finarfin, are any indication given that their mother was a Vanyar, the clan seems to have a deep aversion to violence, hostility, and pride. They also seem to look down on those who displayed those characteristics. Feanor was the most gifted of all the Eldar, but also had a massive chip on his shoulder towards his Vanyar extended family. So the Vanyar had him marked as dangerous and untrustworthy, while still feeling for the loss of his Father, Finwe.
Though gaining great patience and knowledge, Vanyar Elves are not accounted for their physicality. Now one could argue against this point with the War of Wrath that ended the First Age, where they returned to Middle-earth in force and finally vanquished Morgoth. Yet, remember that even the least of the High Elves was superior to any other Elf, Human, Orc, or dwarf in Middle-earth. Plus, they also had the numbers and were led by Maia, who were lesser-ranked Valar.
After the war, they all promptly left. This implies to me that they no longer cared for Middle-earth, outside of the Valar’s duty to protect it from divine threats. This wasn’t a malicious attitude, but one still quite prominent. For this reason, they are the most mysterious of the three clans. Of all Elves in Arda, the Vanyar were the most aloof.
The Warrior Master Craftsmen
The Noldor is the clan that most Tolkien fans are familiar with and for good reason. As it says in The Silmarillion, most of the legends and stories that were passed down from the First Age were about these people, because they played a major role.
The dark and ginger-haired clan are regarded as being the physically strongest of the Eldar, and it makes sense given that they loved to build and mine. Some of them may still have a lighter complexion since they’re presumably mining in the mountains and caves of Valinor. They were more physically active, extroverted, and aggressive: the jocks of Valinor you could say. Their physicality that made them both great builders and feared warriors. It’s said that Morgoth’s Orcs feared them more than any other opponent during the Beleriand wars.
Their imposing and fit physiques added to a bolder and more extroverted disposition mentally. The Noldor loved knowledge, but unlike the Vanyar, were more independent in their pursuit of it. From the First to the Third Age, they were notorious for never questioning the sources of the information and this more often than not, led them into disaster. Yet, This also made them the most gifted of the Eldar, quickest to learn and adapt, though they were not the wisest.
Noldor were notoriously quick-tempered and were susceptible to ego issues. As the saying from another franchise goes, “superior ability breeds superior ambition”. The speed of their mental capacities and accomplishments often made them susceptible to manipulation. This then fed into rivalries with those whom they perceive as competitors. This failing directly leads to their slow downfall because it made them the easiest to deceive.
Such failings were not immediately apparent as their work actually made Valinor more beautiful, and later in Beleriand, contained Morgoth in the North of Middle-earth during their exile, keeping him from expanding his power upon the weaker locals. They even built their Teleri kindred’s capital city, Alqualonde while in Valinor. and made their beaches glitter with the gems they found and shaped. And of course, it goes without saying that their greatest work was the three Silmaril gems created by Feanor, that somehow captured and preserved both the light and power of the Trees.
All these characteristics make the Noldor a paradox, having the most gifts of almost every race, and yet because of how they treated those gifts, suffered the most and fell the hardest until the downfall of Numenor in the Second Age.
The Sailors of the West
The Teleri were silver-haired and next to the Noldor, the most physically active. If the Noldor had a more muscular build, then the Teleri were more lean. Much of this comes from being natural sailors, given their love of the sea. It is that love that led their population to be separated between the two parts of Arda. Bring up that subject, there definitely would be a difference between the Teleri of the east and west. The western kin would still be superior to their Moriquendi kin since they were raised near the light of the trees and educated in Valinor. The sole expectation being the High King of Beleriand, Thingol, having being one of the original ambassadors to Valinor.
It would make sense to me that their complexions would be somewhere in between the other two clans’. Their strength was in the building of ships and in creating songs. They were mariners of the seas and builders of such magnificent ships, that they were considered as masterful works of art as the Noldor Silmarils.
Like the Vanyar, the Teleri focused their education on their areas of interest. They had no interest in learning anything else outside of the sea. Their loyalty to the Valar was a respectful, but distant one. As seen when they almost didn’t allow the army of Valinor to use their ships, despite the commission coming from the ruling spirits themselves. That independence made them closer to the Noldor, but also free of their influence as well, as Feanor found out when he tried to leave Valinor.
Something I feel that doesn't get as much respect as it should is how the Teleri were able to hold off the better- armed and stronger Noldor for a time during the Battle of Alqualonde. Their revenge-minded kin tried to steal their ships to chase Morgoth across the sea back east, but were repelled several times before being overwhelmed by Noldor back-up. For a comparison, the Noldor easily overran the Orcs they encountered when they first landed in Middle-earth, at the height of their strength: Orcs mind you that themselves had overrun the majority of the Beleriand armies during the First Battle of Beleriand before the exiles arrived.
So not bad for a bunch of skinny, singing, sailors.
Unlike the other clans, Teleri chose to never forget where they came from. Yet, they were also slow to anger as the Noldor discovered when trying to turn them into joining their cause. Though not as enamored with the divine spirits as the Vanyar, they respected the Valar enough to know that cool heads needed to prevail during those times of chaos. And they also had somewhat of an aversion to violence, though they obviously took to it faster than the Vanyar.
That said, they also held deep grudges once angered. I already mentioned their stubborn resistance at Alqualonde, but it didn’t end there. The Teleri for a very long time remembered what the Noldor did to them. They were so unforgiving that they were almost not convinced to help the army of Valinor sail back to Middle-earth to liberate it during the War of Wrath, as it meant saving the surviving Noldor as well. Even though they eventually agreed to bring the armies east, they refused to set foot on Middle-earth itself, a land that their Moriquendi kin had already bled for.
Though appearing weak and self-centered, the Teleri were Elves that can hold a grudge for many lifetimes and still not forgive you.
"That is true,but the Elves of this land were of a race strange to us of the silvan folk, and the trees and the grass do not now remember them. Only I hear the stones lament them: deep they delved us, fair they wrought us, high they builded us; but they are gone. They are gone. They sought the Havens long ago."
— Legolas on the Noldor that lived in Eregion, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
An Ancient and Unknown Quantity
While all Elves seemed separate and ethereal to the other races, the High Elves were the most distinct in this manner. All the Eldar had some sense of distance from others in Middle-earth in one form or another, even their own kind. Throughout the First Age, the Eldar don’t have much interest in Middle-earth, beyond the Noldor that returned in Exile. Still, the exiles shared the same sentiment while living among the Moriquendi, even when without malice. The Vanyar only returned at the order of the Valar and departed Middle-earth as soon as the war was won. The Teleri who brought them over never even stepped foot on land, only supporting the war effort as transport. All indications are that with the exception of the Noldor, the Eldar were quite content remaining a myth to Middle-earth.
After the First Age, few outsiders even know of them and what is known, both by mortals and the local Silvan and surviving Sindar Elves, is something of a mystery. By the end of the Second Age, the only hint of their past glory was in the presence of the Elf-Lord, Galadriel: the sole remaining leader of the Noldor clan that long ago came back across the sea to Middle-earth. She was known for both her unusual height and power, traits mostly attributed to the High Elves of Valinor, and was the daughter of Finarfin: the High King of the Noldor who did not go into exile and remained in Valinor.
Of the three clans of High Elves, only the Noldor were truly remembered because of their part in making the legends of ancient Middle-earth. It’s mainly because of them that any knowledge of the Eldar, the Valar, or Valinor even still exists. Those Teleri that did stay either lived in the Grey Havens on the newly- made western coast, or mingled with the Silvan Elves towards the later Ages. This remained true until the end of the Third Age when the last of the Noldor that had remained, finally returned west, never to be seen again in mortal lands.
The irony of the High Elves is that despite being the most advanced of the Elven race in general during the First Age, by the Third Age the few who knew of them equated them with being mystical legends from primeval times. Few people knowing who they really were and what they achieved at the height of their power. Yet, though bound with tragedy, if not for the Elves of the West, the latter ages of Middle-earth would have been far darker and most likely, still under the dominion of Morgoth and an expanded empire. Their sacrifices are now only remembered by the nobles of the Reunited, Human Kingdom of Gondor and Arnor, and King Thranduil of the Silvan Elf Kingdom of Mirkwood.
Part Two of this blog will explore the Moriquendi and how the two groups related to each other.
© 2019 Jamal Smith
MiaPappa on December 08, 2019:
I enjoyed this look at the Elves.