A Tale of Elven Overlords

There are so many things to love about Tolkien’s mythos, but my favourite part has been, for a long time, the  Elves. As I outlined in this post on Lee Pace’s depiction of Thranduil, these are a people who are markedly similar to humans in some ways (physically, culturally), so much so that we tend to forget they are not human. This may be, in some ways, Tolkien’s fault. His Elves are by and large ‘good’ to humans, having little of the chanciness and amorality that form defining features of the  Fair Folk in myths and fairy tales. Even so, despite validating them as amazing beings, there are slips in Tolkien’s narrative, where he makes clear that Elves and Men do not always get along, and that the  dawning of Men means the  end of the  other race, that their time on Middle Earth is done. He does not test whether, given Man’s inevitable industrial development, relations between the  two would remain on good terms, even in the extremely idealized kingdom of Gondor.

Ithose-above-covern some ways, Daniel Polansky’s duology, Those Above and Those Below is a what-if that could be set in Middle Earth. What if, instead of gracefully exiting, stage west, the  Eldar had continued to dwell in the  same lands as the  humans? What if there had been no Dark Lord, or Orcs to fight, and hence no need for the  two races to have united fronts in the  first place? Would Nature have taken its course, with the  more advanced of the  two, the  Elves, holding dominion over the  many? It’s entirely possible, and that is almost precisely the  premise of Polansky’s narrative.

The  Others, the  Eternal, the  Birds—call them what you will, these strange, extremely-long-lived, graceful, almost unbearably beautiful beings have decimated the  human armies that have dared to oppose them. They dwell at the  top of a mountain, in the  Roost, with the  five lower rungs populated by the  humans who serve them. Outside their lands lie the  human realms, empires that rise and fall, always held at bay by terror of the  Eternal. Until now.

I won’t lie, Those Above takes its time to unfold. The  story moves through four different viewpoints: Bas, a  military commander of the  Aelerian army, Eudokia, widow of a prominent political family, and spinner of schemes, Calla, a high ranking servant to one of the  Eternal, and Thistle, a teenaged malcontent who scrounges for respect, and a living, on the  Fifth Rung, the  most poverty-stricken area of the  Roost. With four such seemingly disparate storylines, it takes a while for things to cohere, for some sort of grand picture to form in the  mind of the  reader. The  Aelerian sections specifically, those that belong to Eudokia, seem most disconnected from the  rest, related as they are to the  politicking and manoeuvring of an empire that seems as far from the  Roost and its inhabitants as anything can possibly be. It’s only about three quarters of the  way through that the  narratives seem to come together, and the  threads of Polansky’s plot glimmer into view.

But when they do come together, the  effect is so worth it. If Lord of the  Rings is the  those-belowpremise, the  execution is all Martin, with heavy shades of Westeros overlying the  interactions. Though we’re in these characters’ heads, and hence privy to a lot of their thoughts and emotions, Polansky still manages to pull the  rug out from under your feet, and let them surprise you. This is quite an achievement, given that the  characters themselves seem almost instantly recognizable types: the  bluff, but essentially good, military man, the  scheming widow, the  pretty, devoted servant, and the  angry young man. And yet, the  way they play against each other, and the  events that they are spiraled into, make the  reading worthwhile.

Though finally, it’s the  Eternal who hold it all together, who with their remoteness and unknowability, keep the  reader hooked. Despite having two books that are all about the  struggles against them, and the  various forms those struggles take, the  Eternal remain a mystery to everyone, the  humans in their world, and the  readers too. And yet, they keep drawing you back, and just when you think you’ve gotten a hang of how they think, or why they do what they do, they turn around and show you that hang on, they’re not comprehensible after all. They’re not good, or evil. They are a people, and their motivations and rationale are far, far beyond our comprehension.

Those Above and its sequel are brutal books, reflecting the  world they move through. There is no idyll here, no Gondor with saintly kings, or Loriens with wise Queens. There is beauty, but it cannot blot out misery and corruption. In that way, the  books are depressingly realistic, you might say, but hell, a lot of the  best fantasy these days lies in that territory. Realistic by human standards, that is. What the  Eternal would make of it, nobody knows, probably not even Polansky himself. 

Eowyn, an old friend

When I was in high school, I was crazy about The Lord of the Rings. I read it umpteen times (I was determined, at the age of 13, to beat my uncle’s record of seven), taught myself Elvish from fan websites, and papered my room with pictures of Aragorn and, increasingly as my hormones kicked in, Legolas. I didn’t go so far as to post fanfic, but let’s just say that somewhere in the bowels of an old computer, there probably lies a self-insert romance where Legolas falls in love with a mysterious and beautiful half Elf, a story that’s played out thousands of times on fanfiction.net.

Legolas

Can you blame me?

The character I most closely identified with was Frodo. I felt like him, unspectacular, thinking that I was like my cooler older cousin Bilbo and wanting to go on adventures, but realizing, when presented with the opportunity, that it may not have really been my thing after all. But another person I really grew to love and (in one rather embarrassing high school episode) emulate was Eowyn, one of the most angsty characters in a world full of people harboring tragic pasts and parental issues.

Eowyn is in some respects the stereotypical warrior princess, the emblem of a spirited woman kept down by a patriarchal society. At least, this is the reading it’s easiest to foist onto her. If you think about it, though, Eowyn does not, for the first half of her presentation (in The Two Towers) come eowyn-fightingacross as particularly spirited. She’s sort of cold, reserved, reclusive. She steps in to help her uncle, and lead the people, but she’s always distant and not exactly riled up by the happenings around her. In fact, at times she barely seems interested in them at all.

We’re told that this is the result of Wormtongue’s attentions and whispering (Tolkien’s creepiest allusion to sexual harassment, if not abuse), but even after he has been cast away and Saruman’s hold over the Kingdom of Rohan broken, Eowyn only becomes particularly spirited during her battle with the Nazgul. Her plea to Aragorn, where she semi-confesses her feelings for him, is also a veiled affair, and honestly, till that point I had no idea she even had a thing for him. Miranda Otto made it much more obvious in the film adaptation.

It’s telling that Eowyn is described as ‘thawing’ when she accepts that Faramir’s love for her is real, and may even be reciprocated. Until then, she’s still in danger of succumbing to whatever it was that fell upon her as a result of Saruman’s infiltration of the court. What the was, we’re not sure, but she made attempts to escape it by a) clinging to Aragorn as a form of rescue and b) throwing herself madly into danger. I sincerely doubt Eowyn expected to survive the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. In fact, it’s very strongly implied that she takes to it as a sort of last resort, an escape from the ‘cage’ that is her greatest fear.

eowyn

In so many ways, Eowyn is the most, if not the only, relatable woman in Tolkien’s universe. Given that most of the others are immortal, near perfect Elves, she does not have much competition. As a teenage girl, I loved her because she was NOT perfect. She seemed awkward and stilted, like she couldn’t figure out how exactly she was supposed to behave and therefore preferred to stay away from the action. It was like she was saying, I want to be at the heart of this fight, and do something the way my jock brother can, but since you’re saying that’s not my place, I will stand aside and be awkward. She grows into her role only later, after her watershed moment on the battlefield.

I think it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to compare Eowyn with another much-restrained princess, though the latter was written for a considerably younger age group: Elsa of Disney’s Frozen. Elsa is similarly reserved, and elsadistant, and is ‘melted’ by true love in the form of Anna. However, she needed that moment of breaking away and throwing herself into action in order to come to terms with a part of herself that had been shut away, much as Eowyn needs to just get moving and do something when she starts to feel that those bars are becoming far too much of a reality.

I really liked Eowyn for many reasons, not least of which is her mad skills on the battlefield. But more important than that was how very unsure of herself she was before those moments with Faramir. I liked that she was always searching for something, much like me as a stupid 15 year old; I could identify with her need to latch onto someone older and more sure of himself, thinking that he would be the person to get her out of her state. But also, and this may sound cruel, I really liked that she was forced not to rely on him. Sometimes those ruthless cuttings-off of ties are what are really required to push you into your own, and what an own she comes into.

 

The Awesome Women of Middle Earth

In Middle Earth, people set a lot of store by convention and tradition—for instance, hobbits take a long time to accept the idea of change or straying from a beaten path (that’s why Frodo and Bilbo are considered weirdos in the Shire), and the people of Gondor would rather spend years and years waiting for the return of a king rather than setting up a new line/system of government. The Elves as a people can’t handle change at all, and prefer to forsake a world that’s outpacing them and retreat to a timeless zone where everything stays just the same forever and ever.

aragornIf you’re a ‘good’ man, the chances are that, during any of Ages of Middle Earth, you are engaged in fighting to preserve this order. Your duty dictates that you give your all in the effort to end Morgoth/Sauron/whatever evil comes afterwards, that you learn the art of war and horseback riding and other such manly pursuits and stay far from morally compromising technology. The only men who really go ‘against’ the dictates laid down on them (and by ‘men’ here I’m referring to males both Elven and human) are some of the High Elves, and of course, Feanor and his sons.

But if you’re a woman in Tolkien’s world, your duty is to rebel.

Yes, this might be a strange thing to say. After all, enough and more people have pointed out how the Tolkienverse is a ‘boys’ club’, how no women were made part of the Fellowship, how there are all of three important women in a book as fat as The Lord of the Rings, all of whom are royalty, beautiful and set impossible standards for female readers. The Hobbit has no important female characters at all, but The Silmarillion makes up for both with a bevy of well drawn, smart female Elves and humans who push the story in decisive directions while, more often than not, their men sit around, ‘doing their duty’.

One glance at Tolkien’s women should be enough to convince anyone of the importance of quality over quantity. All his named female characters are fighters, going against convention in ways that the men never dare to do. Let’s just illustrate this with a few examples:

Galadriel—Galadriel turned her back on a comfortable life in Valinor and ventured forth into Middle Earth, and was exiled from the West for her actions. She braved the Crossing of the Ice, lived through Ages of war against Morgaladriel-the-hobbit-an-unexpected-journey-97371goth, and even when the Elves were granted pardon after the War of Wrath, chose to stay on and rule her own kingdom in Middle Earth. Galadriel is a woman of ambition, who left the West primarily because of the pull of adventure and the lure of her own dominion. And there’s no denying the fact that Lothlorien is really run and sustained by her, not Celeborn.

Arwen and Luthien—I know a lot of people think Arwen is nothing more than a beautiful love interest for Aragorn, but you have to stop for a moment and appreciate the magnitude of her choice. She chose to give up her immortality, to sunder herself from her family forever—no one else pushed her into ‘cleaving’ to Aragorn. Tolkien stresses that again and again, even permitting her a very ‘human’ reaction to Aragorn’s death wherein she finally laments and understands what she’s signed up for.

Luthien, well. She’s a superElf. I don’t think any Elf, male of female, accomplishes what she does in the course of her quest. Standing up for her right to love a human, breaking out of house arrest, convincing a hound to aid her quest rather than drag her back to her father, breaking her lover out of Sauron’s prison, coming face to face with Morgoth and luthienbesting him, convincing Mandos, the Keeper of the dead himself to let her lover out—can anyone claim these feats? And she accomplished all this because she refused to stay at home and sing and wait like a good little Elf maiden.

Aredhel—Before warrior woman Eowyn, there was Aredhel, who wandered on her own through forests and lands unmapped by her kindred. Tolkien presents her as an Artemis-like figure, one for whom domesticity is a confinement. Even after she gets married and has a child, Aredhel feels the need to explore and thinks nothing of walking out on her husband.

Eowyn—The only human to actually kill a Nazgul in single combat. Eowyn refuses to stay behind, awaiting news from the battlefield, to do the caregiving and shepherding duties expected of her as a woman. She breaks away from that line of duty with truly astounding consequences.

eowyn3

Morwen and Nienor—Turin’s mother and sister spent years moving from sanctuary to sanctuary, searching for him. Morwen never allowed despair to overcome her, trudging on until she had found the stone that marked the grave of both her children. Sure, neither of them had the greatest of lives, but they also took charge, plunging out into the field to find their loved ones rather than sitting meekly by and allowing Elf lords to dictate their lives.

Given the context, Tauriel is a perfect fit in the Tolkienverse. She’s spirited, brave and has tauriela healthy disrespect for convention, defines her own duty and role as she sees fit. If it’s the male way to prescribe and maintain settled codes and systems in Middle Earth, it’s the female who questions and pushes back. And through these rebellions, Tolkien’s women advance the storyline, throw back the Enemy and, quite literally at times*, function as lights ‘in dark places, when all other lights go out’.

*Seriously. Luthien, Aredhel, Galadriel, Elwing—these women are literal lamps in dark settings at various points of Middle Earth’s history.

Confessions of a Thranduil Fan

Confession 1: When I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time, I did so without reading The Hobbit. As a result, I had no idea of Bilbo’s journeys, no clue who the hell Gollum was, or get any of the allusions the characters made (especially in The Fellowship of the Ring) to the adventures chronicled in that book. Nonetheless, I enjoyed my first brush with Tolkien immensely, and closed the covers quite satisfied with my foray into Middle Earth.

Didn't get half of that, but i liked it!

Didn’t get half of that, but I liked it!

Confession 2: That first journey into Middle Earth was not entirely without some annoyances. The number of songs in the book threw me off a bit. I didn’t understand why these people, who were supposedly going off on a dangerous quest, spent their energy singing ridiculous songs about leaving home or, even worse, sometimes singing in another language. The Elves particularly irritated me in this regard.

Confession 3: Being someone brought up on tales of tiny elves, like those that helped the shoemaker, I was meandering through LOTR picturing tiny people whenever ‘elven’ characters showed up. This may account for my confusion when presented with descriptions of Legolas the Elf ‘standing tall above’ Frodo and shooting down a Nazgul, or even trying to figure out how on Middle Earth Arwen could be seen as a likely candidate for the hand of the human, Aragorn. I confess that this might have made them look more irritating to me.

Seriously, do you ever stop singing?

Seriously, do you ever stop singing?

Confession 4: This sort of fits into the earlier point, but it stands out so clearly in my literary memory that I just had to allow it its own space. Remember that part where they’re all struggling up Caradhras in Fellowship, getting snowed under by a terrible storm, and Legolas is the only one jumping around and making sly digs at their unfortunate inability to walk on snow? And then he runs off to ‘fetch the sun’? I thought he was such a b*tch. If I were in the Fellowship, drowning like the hobbits in all that snow, or toiling under the weight of packs and weaponry like the others, I would have hated him so much right then, rubbing his privilege in my face.

Plus, he was a total know-it-all sometimes.

Plus, he was a total know-it-all sometimes.

The point of all these confessions is to set the stage for this, the ultimate one: When I read The Lord of the Rings I had a very definite image and impression of the Elves. They were weird, not very likeable people, and I thought they tended to lord it over the others with their unfair advantages. Obviously perceptions changed as I read on, and once I had seen the movie adaptations. I became an ardent Elf-fan–possibly spurred on, like most girls my age and older by Orlando Bloom’s undeniable gorgeousness. I learned Sindarin and attempted Tengwar, and The Silmarillion became, and remains, my favourite Tolkien book.

But the impression lingered, only fostered by the The Silmarillion. I thought the movies were not entirely true to text in their presentation of the Elves. All of them were depicted as beautiful, gracious, skilled in some particular way. But none of them reeked of the raw danger and slight unhinged-ness that was my overriding impression of them. Come on, are you really telling me that immortal beings with a crazy past have no sort of otherworldly neuroses that make them seem downright weird to those less in tune with the music of the spheres?

Enter Thranduil

I'm so fancy.

I’m so fancy.

And so I was pleasantly surprised by Lee Pace’s Thranduil. I thought that, unlike all the other Elves, he came loaded with a sense of dark charisma. With a sense of history, of the woes of Middle Earth that the Elves, especially the older Sindarin and High Elves, have been witness to.

The Silmarillion is a history mainly of the Feanorian and High Elves, but it does make brief allusions to the Sindar. Before the Noldor returned to Middle Earth, the Sindar dealt with the ‘darkness’ of Morgoth all on their own, in the days before ‘days’, before the moon and the sun were set in their place in the sky. They have always had to fend for themselves, never had the Valar to shelter behind. As a result, they have a certain defiance and pride that is missing in the Noldorin, or manifested differently. They are known to be more secretive, less trusting of outsiders, especially non-Elven folk, and act first and ask questions later. Certainly, that’s what happens many times in The Silmarillion, with characters like Eol and even Thingol being great examples. Defend your boundaries before you help others—that is their logic.

Thranduil perfectly personifies this brand of Elf in The Hobbit movies. He is twisted by his time in Middle Earth, has learned a lot by living through the early wars of Beleriand, and is probably one of the few remaining Elves who can remember an Age before men. He even mentions having faced ‘the great serpents of the North’, no doubt a reference to the wars around Angband—Morgoth’s northern fortress, where he unleashed his dragons.thranduil snow

Thranduil, more than any of the other Elves, came layered with history and a sense of remotenesss from the present. Galadriel too has lived through a lot, and played a great role in the shaping of Elven history, but somehow, this wasn’t communicated to me over the course of the movie. But a few minutes with Thranduil acting weird and unpredictable and I was convinced that this was someone who had dealt with more sh*t than Thorin could ever imagine. ‘Do not talk to me of dragon fire!’ indeed.

And the weirdness, the flouncy hand gestures and rather ‘androgynous’ behaviour that he displays: perfect. The Elves are not human. They are a completely different species. They don’t subscribe to the codes of behaviour and ‘manliness’ that we do. Just look at the fact that it’s completely normal for them, in the movie-verse at least, to have a female head of the Palace guard. Besides, all these weird gestures and eye-rolling and utter disgust he displays for the lowly, dwarven folk just fits in with the image I had of the Elves as, sometimes, being downright annoying and rubbing their superiority (both physical and ‘cultural’) in others’ faces. Hence the whole ‘A hundred years is a mere blink in the life of an Elf. I can wait.’

hehe gif

Thranduil freaked me out; he came with a sense of raw power and charisma that only Galadriel overtly displays. Thranduil thrilled me because he was undeniably beautiful, but in a way that was remote, unreachable, utterly inhuman. He was deadly, he was devoid, seemingly, of emotion and compassion, reacting to protect his own before extending his arm to shield others, and overall, layered with an aura of loss and history that, I think, Tolkien describes best after all. The following lines were used by him to describe Frodo’s impression of the Lady of Lothlorien, but I think they work as well for Lee Pace’s Thranduil:

‘Already she seemed to him, as by men of later days Elves still at times are seen: present and yet remote, a living vision of that which has already been left far behind by the flowing streams of Time.’

with retinue