Monday, June 17, 2013

Three Strongholds

The two foundational aspects of Elven, especially High Elven, life that make them seem magical are (1) artisanship at the limit and (2) immortal preservation. Almost everything about Tolkien's Elves that makes them different from Men comes down to one of these two, or both. We learn late in LOTR, and I think this is the only place it is actually mentioned, that Elves don't sleep and they don't dream. When Aragorn and Gimli settle down for the night, Legolas simply lays back and spends the night remembering ages past. Elven memory is such that they can remember events as if they were really there; that is the closest Elves generally get to dreams, although perhaps it would be better to say that dreams are the closest we get to Elven memory. Elven immortality is not merely a happenstance, but something that follows from their inner principle; everything they are involves the preservation of what was past. This is why the Elves who went to the Blessed Realm are so powerful: they preserve something of the Blessed Realm even into the changeable environment of Middle Earth.

We are told in The Lord of the Rings and elsewhere that at the end of the Third Age there were three major strongholds associated with the High Elves (although there were Elves elsewhere, most notably in Mirkwood): the Grey Havens, Imladris (also called Rivendell), and Lothlorien. Each of these represents a distinct kind of preservation. (In a letter somewhere, Tolkien explicitly points this out with regard to Rivendell and Lorien, so this is at least partly there even at the level of authorial intent.) Círdan, Elrond, and Galadriel have the positions they do in Elven society because they are the master-overseers of the Elven arts that involve these preservations.

The form of preservation that is represented by the Grey Havens and Círdan is escape from what destroys. A long time ago, I used to be puzzled about Círdan. Unlike Galadriel, he never went to the Blessed Realm and never saw the Trees. This is also true of Elrond, who is too young, but Elrond's place is not puzzling because he was the herald of Gil-galad the High King, who was the son of Fingon the High King, who had been to the Blessed Realm; and Elrond is himself the son of Eärendil, who had (and who had essentially saved the world). But not only did Círdan never go to the Blessed Realm, he has no family who had. But there is a reason for that. If you really pay attention to what is said of him in LOTR and The Silmarillion, it becomes clear that he is very, very old, so old, in fact, that it is strongly suggested that he goes back to the Awakening, or perhaps the second generation. And that this is indeed what Tolkien himself thought likely is clear from some of the works Christopher Tolkien has published since. Círdan may be so old he has no father, or at least no grandfather; he's one of the first Elves, perhaps the oldest Elf still alive in all of Middle Earth. He has spent much of that time interacting with Ulmo and Ossë. And over the years he has come to be the one maintaining the connection with the Blessed Realm, a spark of hope and a last way out.

Rivendell and Elrond, however, represent a different kind of preservation: that of memory and lore. In Rivendell Elrond is a master of lore, and his hall is a hall for telling and singing stories. This kind of preservation we know quite well, although here as elsewhere the arts of it are taken to a form greater than Men could possibly achieve.

Lorien and Galadriel represent another kind of preservation. To step into Lorien is like stepping into another world entirely. And that's the point. Lorien is not entirely this world. The Elves may have the ability to remember events as if they were really there, but Galadriel has outdone them all: she has remembered things so vividly that the world around her takes on something of their form. Lorien is Galdriel's memory of the Blessed Realm to the extent that changeable Middle Earth can bear it. She tells us this herself:

I sang of leaves, of leaves of gold, and leaves of gold there grew:
Of wind I sang, a wind there came, and in the branches blew.

While in Imladris life is preserved as memory, in Lorien memory is preserved as life. Memory flows through Imladris like water; in Lorien it is like the air you breathe.

These, then, are the three kinds of preservation, escape, memory, and life, and in the last strongholds of the Elves we find them each taken to their ultimate extent.

But, of course, in Middle Earth preservation does not suffice, and it does not save. It merely holds things off for a time.


  1. MrsDarwin7:02 PM

    Another point of similarity is that each master of Third Age strongholds was a possessor of one of the Elven rings, and each realm is preserved partly through the powers of the rings. (Elrond was given his ring by Gil-galad, and Cirdan gave his ring to Gandalf.) The strongholds have been protected and enhanced by the rings, to the extent that the loss of their power dooms the strongholds to fade and dwindle, and the Fourth Age begins once the Three have passed out of Middle Earth.

    If I recall correctly, the elven smiths learned ringcraft from Sauron himself, before he was truly revealed, though Sauron never touched any of the Three. Galadriel tells Frodo that the tides of Time will sweep Lorien away when the ring is destroyed, and that the regret of the Elves at the loss of their land will be undying and never wholly assuaged. (Since memory is such a potent force for Elves, they have to sail to the Blessed Realm in order to be free of the memory of evil -- think of Elrond's wife Celebrian, who was abducted and tormented by Orcs. She was eventually rescued by her sons and healed of her wounds, but the memory causes her to "lose all delight in Middle Earth", such that she must sail in the gray ships the next year.) The memory of Middle Earth will apparently persist in the West as the memory of the Blessed Realm has persisted in Middle Earth in the Third Age, though with the breaking of the power of the rings the Elves who remain in the West are doomed "to dwindle to a rustic folk of dell and cave, slowly to forget and be forgotten." Preservation is not enough, not when it has been enabled, however remotely, by evil.

  2. branemrys7:49 PM

    (Since memory is such a potent force for Elves, they have to sail to the
    Blessed Realm in order to be free of the memory of evil -- think of
    Elrond's wife Celebrian, who was abducted and tormented by Orcs. She was eventually rescued by her sons and healed of her wounds, but the memory causes her to "lose all delight in Middle Earth", such that she must
    sail in the gray ships the next year.)

    That is a truly excellent point. I wish I had thought of it, because it is certainly right, and related to the rest -- it's why the Havens have to exist, for instance, and why escape is in the end the inevitable result of Elven preservation in Middle Earth.

    One thing that has occurred to me is that the Nine and the Seven in some sense give the bearers Elven powers: to mortal Men the Nine give immortal preservation and the power to 'live in both worlds' as the Elves do, but because Sauron had a hand in the Nine, it does so in a twisted way: the immortal preservation and power is that of a wraith and a thrall. The Seven, although given to the Dwarves, who are independent and hard to dominate, nonetheless also in a sense bring to Elven vividness the desire for gold and gain.

  3. skholiast9:32 PM

    The bit about "losing delight in Middle-Earth" also applies to Frodo, of course.
    Really striking point re. Cirdan, who has always seemed an enigma. Thanks.

  4. MrsDarwin9:53 PM

    Gandalf says, "A mortal, Frodo, who keeps one of the Great Rings, does not die, but he does not grow or obtain more life, he merely continues, until at last every minute is a weariness." This sounds like a description of Celebrian's malady. As you say, the rings give a twisted power to mortals: Elven preservation, yes, but the joyless eternal existence of one who has no escape. The old rhyme speaks of mortal men doomed to die, but death is a boon to mortals, their only way of escaping the sorrows of Middle Earth. The mystery of mortality stands in contrast to the certainty of Elven immortality -- a certainty that can be either beautiful or a source of indescribable heaviness.

    You've mentioned above how the rings could give strange and corrupted Elven traits to Men and to Dwarves -- but no rings were ever made for hobbits, and Sauron himself knew nothing of them. I think that is part of the reason why hobbits are more resistant to the enslaving power of the Ring. Unlike Men, hobbits don't crave Elven scope of power. Sam, captivated by the Ring, dreams of gardens; Gollum, of petty revenge and lots of fish.

    (It just happens that I re-read the books last week, which is why all this is fresh in my mind.)

  5. branemrys8:46 AM

    Currently in the middle of a re-read, myself.

    I'm reminded somewhat of the argument between Elrond and Gandalf over whether the other hobbits should go with Frodo (and Sam, since even Elrond recognizes that you couldn't pry Sam away), and Elrond's argument is that they do not understand what they are getting into, and that if they did, they would not go. And Gandalf that that's absolutely true; but if they did understand and didn't go, they would do so with the feeling of shame. The hobbits all in some sense carry the Shire with them, even to the end: They have difficulty conceiving of things outside their own sphere, and this remains true for all of them, even Gollum, to some extent -- they reconcile it by bringing them in small ways into their sphere. And you're right that this is in many ways the antithesis of Sauron: they can't think of power in terms of domination over the wide world, only in terms of order and prosperity within the bounds they know.

  6. branemrys8:52 AM

    It occurs to me, too, that this relates to an aspect of hobbit life that modern critics often attack, namely, the whole landed gentry aspect that we see clearly in the Frodo-Sam relationship. But it's very hobbit-ish: everything in its place. And it's precisely this that makes Sam resist the temptation of the Ring -- an Elf might not easily see the absurdity of making the world her vision of beauty, a Man might not easily see the absurdity of extending rule everywhere, but even in the midst of temptation, Sam can't help but see that a garden everywhere is a garden run hopelessly amok.

  7. MrsDarwin11:13 AM

    Something else that was nibbling at my mind about hobbits is their fecundity, compared to the other races. Middle Earth is an empty place, at least in the more northern reaches we see in LOTR (the Southern coasts are said to be more populous). Both Dwarves and Elves pour themselves into their creations -- rings of great power, vast dwellings that are not only homes but somehow embued with their builders' spirits. One of the downfalls of the Numenoreans was the reluctance of the kings to marry or have children. Mordor and Isengard are teeming, but the horrible ways in which Sauron and Saruman raise their armies of Orcs guarantees that their realms will never be peaceful or happy. (This was glossed over so blatantly in the movies, with Saruman watching his Orcs grow in the orc-pit, whereas the book is pretty clear that he's been cross-breeding humans and Orcs. Don't think about that too hard, or you'll have bad dreams.) Only the Shire is truly fertile, in land and in people, and its basic aliveness -- not the life of Elven memory, but the cycle of growth and death and peace and little joys and sorrows, so far removed from Sauron's massive empire of his will -- is what sustains the hobbits on their journey.

  8. branemrys9:35 PM

    That does seem to be right. Tolkien mentions that not only were there few Dwarf women, most male Dwarfs were more interested in craft than anything else, and this isn't all that implausible about the Elves themselves.

    I think the homeliness of the hobbits, compared with the stateliness of the other (natural) races, contributes a great deal to this. Certainly, while particular family relations are important among the rest, it is the hobbits who seem to have the strongest sense of family as a fundamental part of society.


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