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Characteristics of the Elves of Arda: How They Related to Each Other

Jamal is a graduate of Northeastern Seminary and writes on a broad range of topics. His writings are based on other points of view.

By Rennavedh.

By Rennavedh.

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 imply much weightier possibilities. At least, that is how I perceive them.

Universal Template

All Elves are considered to be one race, regardless of where they chose to live. They are naturally very strong while also possessing a supernatural grace, are immune to sickness and disease, superior sight, and have an inborn power from their spirit that other races refer to as "magic." 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. Another feature that was present with all the race except the later-named Noldor was a bias towards contentment and resistance to change, despite having tougher bodies to endure them.

A great migration starts to move west to Valinor after the divine Valar subdue one of their own, Morgoth, in the far north of ancient Middle-earth. During the march, some the Elves separated from the main hosts and set up the first Middle-earth populations that continue on long into the early Fourth Age. There are further separations once they reach the western coast, where some are abandoned while searching for their leader, Ellu.

"“It is said by the Eldar that in water there lives yet the echo of the Music of the Ainur more than in any substance that is in this Earth; and many of the Children of Ilúvatar hearken still unsated to the voices of the Sea, and yet know not for what they listen.”

— -The Silmarillion

The Road Not Taken

The Elven population that remained in Middle-earth came to be known as the Moriquendi but were also subdivided into several groups: the Avari, Sindar or Grey Elves, Green Elves of Ossiriand, Falathrim, and the Silvan tribes. Except for the Avari and Green Elves, these tribes were all part of the Teleri clan as it made its way to the western coasts of Beleriand. All of them would presumably be less in height, physical stature, and strength than the Eldar while still maintained the superior senses common to all their kind. They may not have had all the blessings that their kindred who went westward had, yet this did not make them stupid. They were still immortal and naturally stronger than most other races in Middle-earth, though maybe shorter than their western kin. The Dwarves might be the only ones superior in that regard, and the Orcs only got the edge because of better technology and numbers, rather than their own natural strength.

They all would have been pretty pale and light-sensitive given the perpetual starlit darkness which they lived in for uncounted generations. One Sindarin Elf-lord, Eol, says as much during a dispute with the Noldor Elf-lord, Curufin, while searching for his family. In fact, he hates the newly risen sun so much that he continually hides from it in Beleriand’s deep, dark forests, or in the Dwarf cavern kingdoms of the Blue Mountains when he is trading. This has made him somewhat bent in appearance, despite being a noble and maintaining the other physical traits to Elves in general.

'Elven Cloak' by Rob Alexander

'Elven Cloak' by Rob Alexander

The Feral

The Moriquendi sub-cultures varied even more so than the Eldar. The Avari were the first breakaways from the great migration. These were Elves who truly lived in the wild. What people think of the race today probably doesn't touch on just how primitive, they were to even the rest of the Moriquendi.

However, a clue might be in the Silmarillion where it talks about the first generation of Orcs, who would become the mortal enemy of all Elves. In it, there is speculation that they were Elves who were captured and tortured by Morgoth before he was captured and taken back to Valinor by his fellow Valar. Part of the theory goes that these poor souls were specifically wild Avari. If so, then some of the Orcs’ behavior can possibly be seen as perversions of Avari traits. Take, for example, their sensitivity to sunlight and tendency to shun it whenever possible and their tendency to make their homes and base of operations from caves, even into the Third Age. These behaviors mimic Eol’s in many ways despite him being Sindarin. He may have been closer to Avari than Sindarin.

Of all the Elves, they arguably had the closest bond to nature due to their lack of enlightenment from the Valar and the peace they enjoyed. Avari were ever enthralled by the wonders of Middle-earth and they guarded that sentiment jealousy. They did have their own tribes, but based on the behavior of the Green Elves, still seem to prefer to keep to themselves.

Even so, it was the Avari who first taught Humans the tools to form civilizations among themselves. Though paling in comparison to the rest of their kin, their tutelage nonetheless helped the new race as they struggled with the darkness that followed them in their own journey westward, as well as forming a base language for which they could communicate with the Noldor Elf-lord, Finrod Felagund, when he discovered their descendants in Beleriand. So the Avari were not total isolationists, though that may have been on rare occasions.

Given that Humans first learned of the Valar from the wild Elves, what they gathered was that they were little more than distant legends, if even that could be recalled. The implication being that the Avari of the generation that met and knew of the Valar deep in their past, left that knowledge behind them, barely passing it on to their children so that they became distant myths. Until eventually, the Lords of the West, the Eldar (with the possible exception of the Noldor), and Valinor became irrelevant to their culture, even into the late Third Age. This generational animosity was passed down to their Human students, who already had a bone to pick because of their own sense of abandonment by the divine lords of the West.

By Weta Workshop.  Early designs for the Mirkwood Elves of the Hobbit movie I think best represent how the Green Elves of Ossiriand would have looked and operated.

By Weta Workshop. Early designs for the Mirkwood Elves of the Hobbit movie I think best represent how the Green Elves of Ossiriand would have looked and operated.

Woodland Archers of Beleriand

Some of the Avari, however, did make their to Beleriand eventually and settled in a southern, wooded region there known as Ossriand. There they came into contact with their Moriquendi kin for the first time in long Ages and became known to them as the Green Elves. Despite acknowledging the Sindarin High-King Thingol as their overall lord, they maintained their own independence and king and so were somewhat more civilized than other Avari. Still, the alliance was helpful as the tribe began to have violent encounters with Morgoth’s twisted creatures and during the initial battles of the first war of Beleriand.

Their first recorded major event was taking part in the first war of Beleriand as part of Thingol’s alliance when new Orcs invaded. The conflicts revealed just how far the short-comings of the Green Elves were as they were defeated and pushed back, with the loss of their entire noble family. They held out in the forests of Ossiriand until their enemies were eventually driven out with the aid of the newly-arrived Noldor, their long-lost High-Elven kindred who had crossed to Valinor long ago.

The war traumatized the tribe as they were more attuned with nature rather than high civilization and the conflict it brought. And it may be as well that they were not happy with the newly-arisen sun that had heralded the Noldors’ arrival. So they shunned nearly all contact with the other tribes after that, leaving the front line fighting to the High Elves, only supporting them when they lose their lands, and becoming even more introverted and hostile to Non-Elven outsiders. The three exceptions they made was with the couple, Beren and Luthien, who after a tremendous ordeal of their own, had just been resurrected. They now sought to separate themselves from the wars and were accepted into Green Elf society. Little else is heard after that until after the death of Thingol at the hands of Dwarves and their subsequent sacking and plunder of his capital of Menegroth. Beren leads them into one more battle against the raiders that ends in victory. While small compared to the larger battles, it's nonetheless noteworthy given what happened last time they actively fought, and also that Beren was certainly no king that he would command them. I wonder if he perhaps taught them better guerrilla tactics that he used in his youth while fighting in Dorthonion.

Later, they also supported the Noldor princes for a time after the Dagor Bragollach and Nirnaeth Arnoediad wars, while helping to defend southern Ossiriand via the tall trees. The war had now come to their doorstep. But they did not participate in their later attack on Menegroth and I doubt that they would have anyway given their loyalty to Doriath. There is no record of the Green Elves participating the War of Wrath that wrecked and later destroyed everything east of the Blue Mountains, but presumably, they would have migrated back east before the disaster to mingle with their Silvan Kin. Being Moriquendi, they would have no interest in going to Valinor.

From New Line Cinema.  Along with Thranduil from Mirkwood, Celeborn was not one of the Silvan Elves but was Sindarin in origin, having come from Beleriand after the First Age.

From New Line Cinema. Along with Thranduil from Mirkwood, Celeborn was not one of the Silvan Elves but was Sindarin in origin, having come from Beleriand after the First Age.

Civilization East of the Sea

The third Moroquendi tribe is the Sindar. Also known as the Grey Elves, they inhabited Beleriand. Originally they were to cross over with the rest of their Teleri host to Valinor, but their leader, Elu Thingol vanished and many of them refused to depart without him.

This resulted in the clan being split in two across the sea and the Teleri who remained made their homes in Beleriand becoming known as Sindar. The Sindar were the main group who occupied the internal areas of Beleriand and were led by a newly-returned Thingol, now with a woman named Melian, who was not an Elf but a Maiar, a divine spirit of Valinor who had chosen to take on a flesh body and marry Thingol. They established the Sindar realm of Doriath.

As their leaders, Thingol and Melian taught the Sindar many things since Thingol was one of the original ambassadors to Valinor and had seen the divine light of the trees, Telperion and Laurelin. Melian was wise even in compared to the ruling lords back west. This education gave the Sindar a leg up over their Moriquendi kin back east and the allied Green Elves, elevating their culture from a rustic, wild society, to something appearing more ordered and civil. Their closest, ally to rival them was the Falathrim, whom themselves were taught for a time by the Maiar, Osse, and the Dwarves, with whom they also had an alliance. Thus the Sindar were the most advanced race east of Valinor. Their capital of Menegroth said to come close to rivaling even the cities of Valinor.

Their opinion of the Valar was not as hostile as their Avari kin since they were ruled by one of their kind. They even thought the Noldors’ arrival to beat back the Orcs at their doorstep was the rest of Melian’s kind finally sending help. That seems to dim significantly when they learn of the High Elves’ true reason for being there: killing of their own clan at Alqualonde. After this, they refuse to speak their language, forcing the Noldor to publicly speak the Sindarin tongue. There are few occasions where Sindar and Noldor actively fought together and more often there was always a gap of understanding between them. Though the Eldar were haughty because of their status, it didn’t go unnoticed by the Sindar the amount of effort and time they put their internal estrangement.

Also, not all the Sindar are welcoming of the Noldor as they came at the cost of their precious starlight, which the Moriquendi revered. They would have had trouble adjusting to the light like everyone else, but they did not reject the sun light. So maybe later generations were not as pale-skinned. Some of this prejudice was returned from some of the Noldor, particularly those who followed the sons of Feanor. They looked down upon the local Elves as weak and uneducated savages. Even High King Thingol, who himself had been to Valinor and was regarded by all as Eldar and not Moriquendi, they did not respect.

Still, the Sindar still shared many of the Moriquendi traits. Thingol is regarded as being tall, which implies that the Sindar must have been smaller in stature. But since they were not living in caves or the wild like the Avari, they may have been taller than them and maybe stronger as they were able to defeat their invaders during the First Battle of Beleriand. However, there doesn't seem to be many of them compared to either the Orcs or the Noldor allies, as their own numbers by themselves could not hope to overthrow Morgoth or hem him in the north.

As the Beleriand wars continued and the Elves’ fortunes become more dire, many of the Grey Elves became refugees, looking for safe havens among their Falathrim kin, the protected region of Doriath, or even mingling into the Noldor culture itself before the Nirnaeth Arnoediad conflict. As such, they were caught in their defeat and downfall, with many being killed and taken for slaves until the final salvation of the War of Wrath. When that last war ended, many of the Sindar took up the renewed offer to go to Valinor along with surviving Noldor, as centuries of death and devastation had now tainted their precious lands, soon to be destroyed.

Those that stayed, went back east and merged with the Silvan Elves who had never crossed into Beleriand. Being more advanced because of their tutelage and experience with the Maiar and the Noldor, some of them became rulers, like Amdir, Oropher, and Celeborn. However, many of those Sindar also carried a deep mistrust of the remaining Noldor that also crossed over, despite them no longer being as ambitious as before.

This mistrust, though justified, would result in a semi-self-imposed isolation from the High Elves, dealing with them only as much as necessary. Eventually, during the War of the Last Alliance, this same attitude would result in two of their kings, Amdir and Oropher being killed. The SIndar/Silvan tribes would continue to exist in Middle-earth, becoming the face of Elven kind, as the Noldor eventually left to go back to Valinor.

By Ted Nasmith

By Ted Nasmith

Mariners of the East

The final tribe of Moriquendi is the Falathrim. These Elves lived by the coasts of Beleriand and though abandoned by their fellows who continued for Valinor, were still educated by the Valar, Ulmo and Osse. Similar to what happened with the Sindar, this education elevated their culture so that they were able to become builders of ships and cities by the coasts. They were led by their own king as well, Cirdan. Because they are sailors, their physiques are probably similar to their kin in Alqualonde: lean and strong. However, like their Sindar neighbors, there weren't very many of them compared to the other societies.

However, they were the most helpful and reliable in supporting the war effort with the Noldor. So much so that High King Fingon sent his son, Gil-Galad to them for safe keeping when the wars started going bad. Falathrim even had sent out ships to seek out Valinor for aid. Falathrim strike me as the optimists of the Elves of Middle-earth because of their bond with the Noldor despite knowing their past. They saved one of their later High Kings, Fingon, protected his family, and later answered his call for the final, Noldor offensive of the Nirnaeth Arnoediad. For this, their own cities were eventually destroyed and probably of all the Moriquendi tribes, may have suffered the most as most of their people were either killed or captured. After the First Age, many survivors finally went west, having their fill of pain and suffering. But a few remained under Cirdan, and continued into the Fourth Age.

From New Line Cinema.  Though ruled by a Noldor and a Sindarin, the Elves of Lothlorien were actually one of the Silvan tribes that stayed east of the Blue Mountains.

From New Line Cinema. Though ruled by a Noldor and a Sindarin, the Elves of Lothlorien were actually one of the Silvan tribes that stayed east of the Blue Mountains.

East of the Mountains

The Silvan Elves are those who remained east of the Blue Mountains in Middle-earth and never crossed into Beleriand. The events that went on there are only stories heard about until the First Age ends and they suddenly find the lands changed and a massive influx of refugees fleeing the global cataclysm that destroys that land.

They are largely similar to the Green Elves, their nearest kin. Rustic in nature and life, not having a strong physical presence. It’s not only the Valar who are distant myths to these people, but the Eldar as well, having never seen them until the Second Age. What little is known, their high civilization, technology, and education strikes them as strange for Elves. And by that point, there are few of them left in Middle-earth. Silvan seem to have less issue with the Sindar, who were probably more advanced due to their experiences in Beleriand, but were also fellow Moriquendi. So there would be less of a cultural divide. Some Silvan tribes took them as leaders, like Oropher’s line. The only Silvan tribe that accepted Noldor rule was Lothlorien, under Celeborn and Galadriel. They did however largely avoid living near the sea, and it's said that if any of them ever did hear it, the ancient call of the Valar for all Elves to migrate west to Valinor would swoon and overtake them.

Silvan are not as wild as Avari as they were capable of building structures, such as Amon Loc and King Thranduil’s cavern halls in Mirkwood forest. They were also capable of fashioning weapons for themselves that seem to be more effective than the Green Elves of Ossiriand during the first Beleriand war. It may have been a skill they picked up from Sindarin refugees and their experiences west.

Still, it didn’t mean that they didn’t have a wild side to them, and to other races, Silvan Elves were seen as being not as wise or smart as the High Elves and unpredictable. Silvan tribes were also more fiercely independent and very protective of it, even among each other. No doubt a vestige of their ancestors’ will to resist the original call to move to Valinor. Even after all the wars that plagued the Second and Third Ages, the Silvan Elves still did not leave Middle-earth and this made sense given that few of them even knew about Valinor. So their attitude may have been one of, “Go where?”

While respected by the other tribes, it could also lead to disaster when the need for alliances arose, such as when King Oropher, Thranduil’s father, was killed during the Last Alliance war in the Second Age because he rushed into battle without support. The Battle of the Five Armies was also a forced situation that forced the Silvan Elves of Mirkwood to cooperate with other races, though the results were better. And during the War of the Ring, they fought on their own instead of joining again with the armies of the Lonely Mountain and Dale (though it's also said that they were cut off from them as well).

Beyond that and other than occasional trade, many of Silvan Elves are content with keeping to themselves, having none of the grand ambitions of empire or developing high society that their Beleriand cousins indulged in. Their presence in Middle-earth being much less pronounced. Unlike the Elven experience in Beleriand, the Silvan Elves, mixed with the Sindar, largely stayed out of the events playing out in the Third Age that did not directly affect them. Neither the many wars between the Human descendants of Numenor and their own kin under the influence of Sauron, or the arrival of the wizards from Valinor to aid all people against Sauron, or even the genocidal War between the Dwarves and Orcs, whose final battle occurred right on the doorstep of Lothlorien, could convince them to take up a more proactive role.

The only exceptions being the final stages of the northern war between the Dunedain kingdom of Arnor and the Witch-King of Angmar, the centuries-later battle at the Lonely Mountain, and the final stages of the War of the Ring. All these occurrences being events that were too large to leave them ignored.

"Now King Thingol welcomed not the coming of so many princes in might out of the west, eager for new realms...""

— -The Silmarillion

If You Only Knew

Outsiders wouldn’t know it, but the relations between High and Dark Elves was always shifting. There is an implication that all the Eldar didn’t look kindly on the decisions of the Moriquendi. Both in the Vanyar and Teleri’s decision to not remain in Middle-earth after the War of Wrath, and the Noldor’s attitude towards them when they first returned. The sons of the fallen High King and master craftsmen, Feanor, made no secret of the contempt they held for Thingol and his people. Even despite the fact that he was with their grandfather when the first of the Elves saw the trees of Valinor.

Likewise, the Moridquendi were also estranged from the High Elves, being either resentful of them, or barely aware of their existence for those Dark Elves living east of the Blue Mountains. The Beleriand wars had made it clear that the High Elves were much better suited to warfare against Morgoth: the Noldor in particular. Most of the Sindar had retired from the front lines after the Dagor Bragollach war.

Things seem to right themselves for a time when Fingolfin became the new High King and his son, Fingon, after him, actively sought to better relations with the locals. However, these efforts were sabotaged by Morgoth when he let loose the information about the Battle of Alqualonde where the Noldor attacked and killed Teleri kin. Though on paper, the alliance between the Elves survived, tension remained and the Noldor language was forbidden to be spoken anywhere in Beleriand by Thingol.

Besides the bickering of Elf-lords, many of the Sindar Elves were deeply disturbed and upset by the coming of the Noldor because it came with them first rising of the new formed sun. The time of endless night was over and not a few held the Noldor responsible. The Sindar also found them to be much more war-like and hot-tempered. No one could tell if an overheated Noldor Elf was going to kill someone or not. For the most part, many Sindar and all the Wood Elves were content to keep the High Elves at a distance and leave the bulk of the fighting to them. The sole exception being the Falathrim, who consistently supported the war effort.

By the Second Age, these disputes seem muted. After the War of Wrath, all the Vanyar and many of the Noldor and Sindar left for Valinor. The remainder established realms, east of the Blue Mountains, but with smaller numbers and considerably humbled, with none of the haughtiness that their people flaunted centuries ago. This new generation of High Elves had learned to co-exist as equals with the other established communities like the Dwarves and the Silvan Wood Elves. Though the Moriquendi still saw them as distant, under High King Gil-Galad, Celebrimbor, and Galadriel, the Noldor seemed to be trying to redeem their reputation by aiding Middle-earth rather than ruling.

The Silvan and Avari Elves now faced incoming refugees that forced them into the larger affairs of Middle-earth. While the Sindar they could at least understand, The Noldor were a complete mystery to them: Elves who built whole cities and industry. As some tribes took SIndar as their leaders, they also inherited their First Age baggage and a large part of the Second Age was the working out of these new variables.

Moreover, humanity has now taken upon itself the mantle of being the new superpower in Middle-earth in the form of the Valar-blessed, island nation of Numenor. This new race of mortals quickly became the most powerful force, even forcing the mighty Maiar and Morgoth’s former general, Sauron, to submit without a fight. Mainland people of often relied upon the Numenoreans for help during the new round of conflicts: ironic given the reversal of power from the First Age. Regardless, by the end of the era, there were now almost no High Elves any longer in Middle-earth and became a little known myth to the few that knew of them in the Third Age. Meanwhile, the local Elves kept more to themselves as the world changed with the growing Human presence and their own conflicts increased, while at the same time becoming the new face of Elven kind in most peoples’ minds.

To my mind, while the Moriquendi did not have as high a sensitivity to the larger, spiritual realities of Arda, they did have a better understanding of the people living in it, when compared to the Eldar and even the Valar. They could adapt quicker to them, especially the Silvan Elves, where as the High Elves had greater difficulty because their more developed senses threw them into a state of confusion that took time to work out. Dark Elves to the contrary were not burdened with that and were more practical.

In other words, the Eldar thought too much about it. Plus, the majority of them had no interest in Middle-earth to begin with.

The relationship between High and Dark Elves isn’t a story of a country boy and the city-slicker cousins. It’s an Ages-long, complicated relationship, both within and without those groups. The differences that laid between them were vast and they viewed each other as very distant relatives whom they didn’t comprehend. Yet, they were all still Elves. The first born of Illuvatar whose perception of time, Middle-earth, and reality were so unique that to outsiders, all of them seemed graceful, aloof, separate, and alien, unaware of the turmoil that roiled beneath their fairness.

© 2019 Jamal Smith


AL on December 16, 2019:

I've read the book 10 years ago. Everytime I see an article about the book am still perplexed how much I don't know. J. R. R. Tolkien created a vivid world with his writings.. Great article..