Before going into the details of Elven physiology, it is perhaps worthwhile to comment on the sociology of this powerful race and how they are sometimes erroneously perceived.
Though the mists of time may eventually blur understanding of the nature of the Firstborn, it remains clear during this period that they were not simply a collection of ethereal beings who lived in utopian societies where there were no laws, no social structures or other such mundane organizational boundaries. Indeed, it seems that only the Silvan Elves (and to a lesser extent, a number of the Moriquendi Teleri) even desired this sort of existence, who in fact generally lived in realms ruled by Sindar or Eldar kings, as was typical of Elven hierarchies. The Sindar lived in kingdoms as well, but it was the Noldor more than any other kindred who sought order and design in all facets of their lives. They had governments (usually monarchies) and frequently elaborate guilds and brotherhoods. Families tended to rule not only realms but the guilds within them in a dynastic fashion.
Familial and Geographic Divisions
There were two different hierarchies among the Elven peoples: that of geographical location, and that of family or kindred. The accompanying chart should help to clarify the distinctions of the divisions.
The Calaquendi (“Light Elves”) traveled to the Undying Lands and saw the Light of Aman, the light of the Two Trees. This classification includes all descendants, for the Light permeated the very being of the Firstborn and left with them an internal light which they carried with them forever. Sometimes, a visible aura shone about a Light Elf.
The Moriquendi (“Dark Elves”) never made the journey to Aman, or stopped along the way, failing to achieve their destination. There is also a third division, the Sindar (“Grey Ones”), who traveled as far as the western shores of Middle-earth and stopped there. However, they lived in Doriath under King Thingol (Elwë) and the Maia Melian. Thus, they achieved greater wisdom and understanding than the Moriquendi, yet did not personally witness the Light as did the Calaquendi. They were in between; the Elves of twilight.
Paralleling this geographic distinction is that of race. All of the Vanyar, Noldor and Teleri were considered the Eldar (“People of the Stars”) even though some Teleri groups did not complete the journey (specifically the Sindar and Nandor). Those Elves who were not Eldar were, by definition, Silvan.
When the First-born awoke on the shores of Cuiviénen, with them awoke language in Middle-earth. It is the Elves — or, appropriately, the Quendi (“Speakers”) as they called themselves — who taught all other races and creatures’ language, each after its fashion. When the Eldar went West, however, they encountered the Valinorian Tongue of Aman, and adopted it for their own. Indeed, this may have occurred as early as the return of Ingwë, Elwë and Finwë from Aman with Oromë the Vala. This became the pure tongue Quenya. The many Silvan tribes still in Middle-earth, though influenced by Quenya initially, diverged and changed with the flows of the world, and the original Elven speech became fractured and rusticated by myriad dialects. By the Second and Third Ages, The Silvan and Eldarin tongues had become so divergent that the two had no common ground. When Silvan Elves lived with Sindar or Noldor, they invariably learned Sindarin and used it except when exclusively among their own kind. The Silvan Elves of Lórien, for example, spoke Sindarin, but with an accent, harkening to their Greenwood Silvan origins.
The Sindar knew Quenya, but adapted it for their own use, creating a language less formal and more practical for everyday writing and conversation, a language that became known as Sindarin. Thingol, their king, banned the use of Quenya among his people after the Kinslaying, and with the passing of the years, even the Noldor came to use Sindarin as their common tongue, reserving Quenya as a formal, ritualistic language.
The Tengwar were the first written letters ever devised, invented by the Noldorin poet Rumil of Tirion. The pure version of the Tengwar was known and used only in the Undying Lands. Fëanor later adapted and revised this alphabet, and the Fëanorean Tengwar attained much more widespread use, both in the Undying Lands and in Middle-earth. Both of these written alphabets were cursive, meaning that they were designed to be joined, written in flowing strokes as with a pen. They were somewhat impractical for engraving, but the Great Smiths in Eregion — and Sauron himself — were up to the task. Sauron’s inscription inside the One Ring was engraved in cursive Tengwar.
Much later the Sindarin Bard Daeron invented the runes called the Certhas Daeron (“Cirth” or “Letters” of Daeron). These were much more angular and suited to stonework. The Dwarves of Moria particularly loved this writing style and adopted it as their own.
Religion in any organized sense was unknown to the Elves, especially the Eldar, who knew the Valar more as esteemed and revered teachers than actual deities. Virtually all Elves worshiped Eru Ilúvatar (“The One”) as the creator of all things: the earth, the Valar, Elves and Men. (Dwarves, created by Aulë, are thought of differently.) In this way, they saw themselves on equal, though perhaps different, standing with all other beings. Worship of Eru was very informal, however, involving no specific temple or other structure more elaborate than an open garden. The Elves worshiped Eru for the beauty of his creation. They celebrated the light of the stars or the sound of falling water, the sweetness of fruit or the luminescence of gems from deep within the earth. With song they rejoiced in the magnificence of Eä, for music was the Essence of Arda.
This is not to say that the Elven societies were devoid of ritual. In a world where oaths were not empty promises but calls to the Valar themselves, ritual played an important role. With song and chant the Elves wielded the Essence, weaving spells of great power and subtlety. Within the guilds and other groups, there was a great deal of ceremony, and among the Noldor social formalities were often observed with an impassioned zeal.
Elven communities, like any community, required economic support; again, they were not idyllic communities where there was no need for work. Elves gardened, mined, built, cooked, and generally labored even as did mortals in their society. It is true, though, that the Elves had different mental capabilities, and even the most odious labor did not weigh on them at all. Perhaps it was because of their ability to “walk as if in a waking dream” which gave them a reputation of being free of care and responsibility.
Although basically similar in appearance to mortal men in many ways, Elves had several important, if subtle, differences.
As a race, they were taller than most humans (save the high Edain) though in general tended to be less heavy of build. The males generally ranged in height from 6’ to 6’10”, and in weight from 160 to 250 pounds, respectively. The women of the Elves were usually between 5’6” and 6’2”, and were also slim. Although to some this race might have appeared fragile, Elves were generally just as strong as any human warrior. The Eldarin Lords, in fact, were muscular of build and unquestionably the most physically powerful individuals in Middle-earth.
Elves had less body hair than humans, and Elven men had no facial hair, as a rule. Highly resistant to extremes of natural heat and cold, their clothing was worn for decoration, camouflage, or, perhaps, modesty. With their fine features and unmarred, perfect skin, Elves were invariably more handsome in appearance than their mortal brethren.
Their senses were extremely keen, especially sight and hearing. Elves were able to see on a clear starlit night as well as if it were full daylight. In what a man would have called “pitch blackness,” an Elf could still see a few feet. Some of the Elves, the Eldar, could hear into each other’s minds, without the necessity of speech, and all Elves could hear sounds that humans could not.
Elves did not need sleep to rest their bodies as did Men and Dwarves; instead, for a few hours each night, they entered a sort of trance, a waking dream during which they meditated upon the beauty of Eä or in which they recalled happy times earlier in their long lives. Gimli the Dwarf made this observation as the Fellowship left Lórien.
“…Elves may see things otherwise. Indeed, I have heard that for them memory is more like to the waking world than to a dream. Not so for Dwarves.” (LotRI 490).
Perhaps most remarkable was the fact that Elves did not age or grow old, and their bodies were immune to all disease and infection. They were virtually immortal unless slain in battle. Should an Elf be killed, his soul was transported to the Halls of Mandos in Valinor where, after a period of waiting his body was reincarnated and he was free to live in the Undying Lands — though forbidden to return to Middle-earth until the end of the world.
Elves healed quickly and they showed no scars, although they could not regenerate severely damaged organs or body parts. Their bodies matured through a slightly longer adolescence than mortals, and at full maturity the aging process stopped. Only in the depths of their eyes could one perhaps feel a glimmering of the true age of the greater Elves, and only those Elves upon whom the weight of Middle-earth lay heavy. The lesser kindred, even after thousands of years, looked like beautiful, carefree youths.
The most subtle of all the characteristics of the Elves was the aura that bathed each of the Calaquendi. Those who had seen the light of the Two Trees in Aman carried with them a reflection of that splendor, like an afterglow of that first illumination, now forever darkened through the evil of Morgoth. This aura was not necessarily obvious, but the lesser beings of Middle-earth could sense it, a shimmer dancing on the edge of their vision.
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