The Otherworldliness of Elves

Image courtesy of Mysticsartdesign on Pixabay.

ON HIS BLOG “Every Day Should Be Tuesday”, H.P. has posted a piece titled “Pre-Tolkien Fantasy Challenge: Howard, Moore, and Dunsany“.

In it he notes that “One of the things that struck me rereading The Lord of the Rings this summer . . .  is the otherworldly nature of the elves. The movies of course miss this entirely, as do his imitators. [In The Lord of the Rings] Legolas isn’t a superhuman archer; he doesn’t really come off as human at all. The otherworldliness of the elves in The King of Elfland’s Daughter is much more marked. . .

“. . . It is the otherworldliness, evoking a sense of wonder, that most stands out, as distinctive in Dunsany’s tale, present but more subtle in Tolkien’s, and entirely absent from his imitators.”

I must agree with H.P. and extend the idea to cover not only elves, but also the Faêran, wights and vampires. In modern literature, movies and games, elves and vampires are usually depicted simply as good-looking humans with supernatural abilities. They think like human beings. Their emotions are typically human.

Yet Dunsany, Tolkien and students of the great folklore collector Katharine Briggs know that this is as far from the original conception of these creatures as it is possible to be. These magical, non-human beings have a completely different, unhuman mindset.

H.P. writes, “an elf can never understand a human,”  and I would add that human beings can barely fathom the minds of elves, the Faêran, wights, or indeed vampires as they were originally conceived. Even the look of these beings has changed. Vampires, for example, were first described as  being bloated, with flushed or dark faces – very different from the slender, pallid vampires that became fashionable in the early 19th century.

Take, for example, the Drowner in my novel The Ill-Made Mute. This unseelie wight takes the form of Sianadh’s sister and calls to him with her voice, to lure the man to his death beneath the river. When her attempt is sabotaged and she fails:

‘The drowner, cheated of her prey, did not scream in rage. No recognizable expression crossed her delicate features. She reacted in no human fashion.
“Kavanagh, Kavanagh,” she called, or chanted,
“If not for she,
“I’d have drunk your heart’s blood,
“And feasted on thee.”
Having spoken, she subsided gracefully, leaving a faint turbulence.’

Of course, since elves, the Faêran, wights and vampires are fictitious, it could be argued that there is no right or wrong way to depict them, but to discard their otherworldliness is to strip away their most magnetic and intriguing qualities.

It is too easy to transform them into superhumans. Too easy, and far too boring!

 

Tolkien’s House

ON 24 MARCH Locus Magazine reported that the campaign to buy Professor JRR Tolkien’s house at 20 Northmoor Road, Oxford and turn it into a literary centre dedicated to Tolkien, had failed.

He and his family lived there between 1930 and 1947 while he was professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University, It was there that he wrote The Hobbit and the first two volumes of The Lord of the Rings.

Some years ago I visited that address and viewed it from the street, it being a private residence. My visit was part of an informal tour ‘In the Footsteps of Tolkien’, organised by a couple of friends, with whom I travelled.

What a glorious jaunt it was. We went to every place he was known to have set foot in the UK. These included the Eagle and Child pub where The Inklings used to gather, the cave houses at Alderley Edge that are said to have inspired hobbit homes, the hotel room in which Tolkien and Edith spent their honeymoon, at The Plough and Harrow Hotel in Birmingham, the old mill at Sarehole, Mosley Bog, the Rollright Stones, King Edward’s School, Birmingham, and 264 Wake Green Road, one of Tolkien’s childhood homes. And there were more.

Along the way we dropped in for a cuppa with Tolkien artist Alan Lee in Chagford, Devon.

I was disappointed to read that the scheme to purchase Northmoor Road had failed, until I read this: ‘The Tolkien Society refused to support the project, noting that “the property itself is a listed building in a conservation area – with a blue plaque proudly showing its connection to Tolkien – meaning the property is well protected under the law and not in need of rescue.”’

This is indeed true, and as Locus states, ‘ the organizers [of the campaign] announced that “we have been offered an alternative home for the first literary centre dedicated to Tolkien in a very suitable venue in the heart of Oxford that fits our needs perfectly for in-person courses and a base for tours visiting the locations that inspired Tolkien.”’

It has, for a long time, bemused Tolkien fans that there exists no centre dedicated to him in the UK, as there is for other authors such as the Bronte sisters, Beatrix Potter, Arthur Ransome etc. Let us hope this oversight is soon rectified.