Distant Relations: How Men and Elves Related to Each Other in Middle-Earth
In the universe of Middle-earth the relationship between men and elves is very fascinating, more specifically during the Silmarillion when the races first met. I’ve read the book countless times and how it constantly remarks about how the two are very similar to each other and yet different and how they fought a centuries long conflict together against the renegade, divine being, Morgoth. In times of war or fate, these differences are put aside and yet they are always present underneath. There are hints of underlying tensions between them that are never fully explored.
However, I just read the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andrethand and it made me all the more curious about the inner workings of their relationship and how they perceived each other and their life circumstances.
Both races are created by the one deity, Eru, but the Elves are born first. They divide into those who go west to stay with the divine powers and those who stay in Middle-earth. They experience countless ages to develop their cultures and learn about Middle-earth or teachings from the Valar, the ruling emissaries of Eru whose job it was to maintain order. One of their number, Melkor, rebelled and fled to Middle earth to create an empire of his own to rule. One of the elven clans, the Noldor, pursued him.
Upon returning, they unite with elves who stayed in Middle-earth in the land of Beleriand and fight a war that pushes Melkor, now renamed Morgorth, back to the borders of his territory to the north. Referred to as the Siege, a long peace ensues during which time, men, who had been born hundreds of years earlier when the Noldor arrived, migrate to Beleriand and make alliances with the elves. This is where it got interesting because of the culture clash that resulted.
While humans join the war, the elves soon decide that they are too different to live side by side and give them lands to rule of their own as long as they fight when the call comes. Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth takes place during this time, where both cultures have had centuries to establish themselves.
The Silmarillion mostly tells the perspective of the elves, who even under the friendliest of relations look upon humans like a distant relative that they know is family but at the same time barely recognize. Humans are afraid of the night where as the elves revere it. They are difficult to understand and do not always have the clearest of intentions. Most importantly was their sense of time was drastically different because the biggest divide: that humans die where as elves do not.
Other Side of the Road
Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth addresses the humans’ perspective and clearly foreshadows later Middle-earth history. The story centers around one of the elven kings, Finrod having a philosophical debate with Andreth, a wise-woman already elderly in her later years.
Being not only the philosopher king, but the one who actually established first contact with the race, Finrod was curious to understand their culture. They apparently had a friendship where the two would discuss such matters and Andreth was one of the few people to do so.
Their conversation covers a wide range of topics. They discuss the ancient lore of men and how forgotten much of it is, each races’ experience with death and the afterlife, what hope they have in life, and why there can be no inter-racial relationship between the two except under rare circumstances.
What this story seems to establish is that the relationship between the two races is more than just military alliances. There are layers that even after centuries of fighting together and cultural interactions, have still not been completely addressed. Though many people are inspired by the elves, eager to serve and it maybe implied even to enter into romantic relationships with them, humans don’t reveal much about their history to their allies. Indeed it is already established that much of that history was deliberately lost or forgotten, with the Silmarillion only quoting Beor, ancestor of Andreth whom Finrod was also friends with, saying that a darkness pursued them but they would not remember it.
So already the race has a mystique that surrounds them, but a dark mystique. It really is too bad because the Noldor elves have a similar darkness that follows them as well that they likewise do not discuss with outsiders. However some of the lore of Mens’ origins survive, or at least versions of it and was passed down to a few.
It is also implied that there is some resentment among the younger race towards the elves. According to Andreth, that the elves see humans as ‘children’ is demeaning, as if the elves were themselves adults. Indeed she later says that men call the elves, ‘grown-up children’ in response to this. Men also are ambivalent towards the Valar and Eru.
This can be seen when Andreth reveals to Finrod that those who are aware of the lore believe that they are cursed by Eru. Others simply believe that supernatural forces of the West and beyond are inconsequential with no investment in what happens in Middle-earth. They were created and migrated under harsh circumstances with no help from the divine powers. The only divine power they had dealings with was the one who pursued their ancestors and was currently trying to enslave or destroy them. So not a whole lot of room for trust there. And many simply don’t believe in them at all.
Humans are much more pragmatic than elves it seems.
Finrod is baffled by this near-blasphemy because the Noldor actually spent time among the higher powers and were tutored by them. They know the other side of their workings that humans don’t and understand more about their care for Middle-earth, even if it seems more drawn out over time. Because of this counter-experience, it was easier for him, and presumably Noldor elves, to have faith in the Valar and Eru (elves whom never went into the West held the same view of the Valar and Eru as humans did).
"That memory would haunt him, overshadowing any joy and knowing Andreth would also be aware of that despite her intent would have a much deeper regret for her as well while she lived."
Another point the story makes is how differently the two races relate to time. Finrod finally deduces that Andreth’s grief and bitterness comes from an unrequited love for his brother, Aegnor. She expresses that she would have given up everything for him and not bothered him in her old age, knowing she was going to die eventually. Understanding the briefness of their lives compared to elves made Andreth more willing to sacrifice in the time given to make the most of it. Based on other stories of the First age, I can see this being a common mind frame among the race overall: more brash, more reckless, with little to no thought of long-term consequences because they they don’t have long to begin with and can’t afford the time.
This contrasts with the elven relationship with time, seeing it as part to the existence of creation and they in turn are therefore bound to it, even after death and when they return to the West. In a way, their experience is more drawn out and conditioned for it. So while men may look at existence being temporary, for elves the consequences are much longer lasting and even the memory of it impacts them greatly.
Finrod explains this to Andreth concerning his brother not acting on his love for her. Andreth thought Aegnor was acting stuck up despite his love, when in fact it was out of love for her he did not get involved with her. She could not see that because of his longer life span, Aegnor would still be grieved by her aging and death. That memory would haunt him, overshadowing any joy and knowing Andreth would also be aware of that despite her intent would have a much deeper regret for her as well while she lived.
So it seemed to me that there were people who resent the elves as being pretentious nobles. And whether out of secrecy or not knowing how to deal with Men’s limitations, the elves don’t appear to try and correct this. Not that it matters or comes into play during the First Age however. That happens later in the Second Age with human empire of Numenor. So maybe it would've been helpful to have some accounts written down for them to read when Sauron uses Andreth’s very arguments to seduce them into his service. And their destruction.
Relationship with Eru and Death
There also appear to be three differing views men have regarding the afterlife during this time. Either they’re atheists and believe death is their end, or that when hearing the lore of the Noldor, believe that there maybe an afterlife but no one knows what that entails, which is apparently is even more unsettling to them. Then lastly, according to their secret lore, Men were once supposed to be as immortal as the elves but because of a mistake by their ancestors were cursed with death. Either one of these leads them to have a distrust of divine powers.
Except for those who actually spent time learning elven lore, humans don’t place much faith in the West or Eru’s intentions because of their lack of intervention. Generations may go by before anyone of them encounters a Valar or sees their hand in anything. However in a way, its not strictly atheism since they have clear evidence of their existence in their war with Morgoth. But in that case, they then have little love or loyalty to them. I would say rather their loyalty was to their elven allies and they simply kept their deeper mistrust among themselves.
The elves have their own issues with the afterlife as it turns out, which was surprising to me. Immortality apparently feels more like a chain rather than a hope. There are even indications that the jealousy is mutual, but from another perspective. While they can be reborn back in the West and return there after they die, they are still bound to creation. And their deeper relation to time makes them more acutely aware of this as time passes. I guess for them, passing into an unknown is more of a relief or a mercy.
While Tolkien-fan knows that elves saw death as a natural part of human existence rather than a change forced upon them, the unknown nature of what lies beyond the circles of the world and that only men would know that was the greatest mystery to them. They simply could not fathom that anymore than a fish could living outside of water.
They defined themselves by the relation between body and soul, or fea and hoar. In their view, their own internal/existential relationship was in balance because of their relation to time and Middle-earth. Humans’ however was not and according to Finrod, the elves could sense that in them, which made them even harder to comprehend.
This mixture of mystique, jealousy, and superiority played into how they saw the order of things and the ending of time. They remained immortal as long as creation existed. Once that came to its end, so would they and if Finrod’s view is to be taken as shared among his race, then the elves seem to be very fatalistic. They even refused to marry or have children during war time because they are preparing to die. Just as some humans believed that death was the end and nothing after it, so did the elves feel about the existence of the world they were bound to.
However, the ancient, human lore held a hope that many of them forgot. That despite being either born into darkness or cursed, they also had a hope that the world would be remade and all wrongs erased. And despite few humans believe this anymore, for Finrod it inspired him beyond the limitations of his own beliefs and experiences. That maybe time did not have an end but would just be recycled where in peace, elves would teach men to love the new world as they had loved the old and be able to exist together in unity.
However the ultimate expression of these differences was how the races related to each other romantically. By and large, many of Tolkien’s stories say that conciseness among both races is that any relationship between the two was not possible. Yet Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth seems to imply it was attempted a few times or at least conceived of before. Just because you shouldn’t do something doesn't mean you’ll actually won’t do it afterall. Still, Finrod says that only a relationship blessed by fate has any chance of success, and even then grief would still come eventually because of their differences. Only three marriages are known to have occurred AND worked out in the entire timeline, but none of them had happened yet. So if Finrod is implying that others have tried, that intrigues me. It is known that other occurrences existed later, such as Finduilas’s love for Turin.
Sticking with the story though,Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth says that any attempt usually ends in bitterness. This is apparent when it is discovered that Andreth’s ambivalence to the elves stems from her own feelings not being returned when she loved Aegnor when she was younger. Even if the other issues could be overcome, each person’s sense of time effects them differently that the other simply cannot understand. It’s a gulf that was only crossed twice and even then that was because one of the partners chose to become mortal or immortal, thus gaining and sharing the experience of the other.
That is why I was really fascinated by this story. It goes in depth into how BOTH races viewed each other beyond comrades in war and gives a deeper understanding to future stories. I enjoy the books and especially the movies, but their depictions were too vague about why the two races saw each other the way that they did and how they reacted to it. Clearly not everyone followed the conventional wisdom.
I should say too that this isn’t an attempt to politicize Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth or any of Tolkien’s other works. I feel that they are natural questions and issues that are fomented when the ingredients are laid out. And I find that fascinating how two races that have known each other for so long, have these issues about how they saw one another’ cultures when there was no war.
© 2018 Jamal Smith