Kevin Roger Black - Where the Shadows Lie
Dwarves and Elves
"Baruk Khazâd! Khazâd ai-mênu!" (Dwarvish battle cry, II: 177)
"Ai! laurië lantar lassi súrinen!" (Elvish lament, I: 489)
Leaving the Barrow-Downs, the Hobbits come to Bree, and from there they are guided to Rivendell by Aragorn. The Council of Elrond that is held there establishes the quest to destroy the Ring, and five companions are appointed to aid the hobbits: Gandalf (a wizard), Aragorn and Boromir (men), Legolas (an elf), and Gimli (a dwarf). The diversity of races in the Fellowship represents the symbolic unity of all the Free Peoples against Sauron. But despite this gesture, it is men who are involved in the fighting and resistance, and receive the principal attention of the latter two volumes of the trilogy. The other important raceselves, dwarves, and orcsare used to set off different qualities in the menfor it is men that will dominate the Fourth Age and the future of Middle-earth. But there is much to be learned from the other races, and before the hobbits pass into the realms of men they have two important encounters with the ancestral homelands of the dwarves and the elves.
No dwarves actually appear in The Lord of the Rings except the Hobbits' companion Gimli and his father, Glóin, a character from The Hobbit who makes a brief appearance in Rivendell. Gimli is extremely important, however, both as a character and a representative of his race. The friendship he develops with Legolas ultimately reconciles centuries of disharmony between the elves and dwarves, a serious threat to the unity of the alliance against Sauron. The virtues of one race are the deficiencies of the other, and the incompleteness of each has caused them to dwindle relative to the ascendancy of Man, who is the average between them. The Dwarves are great artisans, and miners; they manipulate materials with cunning skill. Hoarding and shaping metals and jewels is their passion, and they have a keen sense of the value of the products of the earth. Dwarves also create songs and stories, examples of which are found in both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but they fail to appreciate life and nature. As a consequence, they often appear to be suspicious and sullen. The Hobbit has this to say about them:
There it is: dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not, but are decent enough people... if you don't expect too much. (Hobbit: 204)
The Lord of the Rings is more judicious than its predecessor in giving the Dwarves the credit they are due for the skills they have. While the work usually frowns at materialism, and the making of any tools or machines more complex than swords, the virtue in the dwarves' craftsmanship is revealed by Gimli in his reaction to the Glittering Caves of Algarond, a natural wonder that he stumbles into during the battle of Helm's Deep. Gimli, moved by the natural beauty of the caves, declares:
"No dwarf could be unmoved by such loveliness. None... would mine those caves for stones or ore, not if diamonds and gold could be got there.... We would tend these glades of flowering stone, not quarry them. With cautious skill, tap by tapa small chip of rock and no more, perhaps, in a whole anxious dayso we could work, and as the years went by, we should open up new ways, display far chambers that are still dark, glimpsed only as a void beyond fissures in the rock. And lights, Legolas! We should make lights... and when we wished we would drive away the night... and when we desired rest, we would let the night return." (II: 194-5)
Gimli approaches the caves with both reverence and artistry, and it is clear that the dwarves, following his example, would actually improve and refine their beauty. Tolkien lamented that equal caution and aesthetics were seldom observed by men, whose use of the earth is usually undertaken in haste and with destructive and appalling greed. The danger of this is the lesson that underlies the journey of the company into the ruined dwarf city of Moria.
Moria lies under a mountain, and in its upper levels it was once a fair and prosperous city, wide open to commerce and cultural exchange. Deep below the city were mines, where the Dwarves delved for a great treasure, the foundation of their wealth: mithril-silver. Explains Gandalf:
...here alone in the world was found Moria-silver, or true-silver as some have called it: mithril is the Elvish name. The Dwarves have a name which they do not tell.... even as mithril was the foundation of their wealth, so also it was their destruction: they delved too greedily and too deep, and disturbed that from which they fled, Durin's Bane. (I: 413)
The nature of the unseen terror that killed the Dwarven king Durin and drove his people from the mountain is not known by Gandalf or Gimli, but as they are passing through the mountain they discover the remains of a recent expedition by the dwarves to reclaim their ancestral cityone that cost all of them their lives, including three important dwarves from The Hobbit. The charred journal left behind tells of the re-opening of the mithril mines, and the re-awakening of the Terror, which trapped and destroyed them all. Right on cue, the party begins hearing strange drums, heralding the approach of an enemy with the appropriate sound of doom, doom. As they flee for the exit, they are overtaken by the Terror itself: a Balrog, a flaming devil of great power, which Gandalf fends off only at the price of being pulled from a bridge into a seemingly bottomless pit.
The moral of this encounter hardly needs elucidation, but the formulation of the flaming demon that avenges the dwarves' careless greed is a curious one. It is augmented by Gandalf's account (after he has battled the Balrog in the bowels of the earth, been slain, and miraculously returned from death) of the nameless things that gnaw the earth "far, far below the deepest delvings of the Dwarves" (II: 134). The dwarves are delving into powers that they do not understand, and the atrocity that they found and released reflects the unexpected capacity for horror that ambition can release from the hearts of men, which the world had recently been reminded of by Adolf Hitler. Tolkien was horrified by the power that had been released recently by the atomic bomb, as he wrote in a letter to his son:
The news today about "Atomic bombs" is so horrifying one is stunned. The utter folly of these lunatic physicists to consent to do such work for war-purposes: calmly plotting the destruction of the world! Such explosives in men's hands, while their moral and intellectual status is declining, is about as useful as giving out firearms to all inmates of a gaol and then saying that you hope "this will ensure peace." (LOT: 116)
The Balrog reflects the same degree of destructive power as the bomb on a Middle-earth scale, and like a bomb's explosion, it is cloaked in flame. Since the Moria chapters were evidently written just after the end of the war (see Foreword, I: 8-9) it seems inevitable that he would have this in his mind. Like the "lunatic physicists" who made the bomb, the Dwarves who released the Balrog were blind to the import of their actionshasty lust for wealth and power annihilated Moria, as the bomb destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Leaving Moria, the remaining eight members of the Hobbits' company head straight for the Elven land of Lothlórien, with a speed that seems to emphasize the contrast between the Dwarven and Elven realms. The treatment given to Lothlórien (Lórien for short) shows that Tolkien's conception of the Elves changed greatly between the writing of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. In this work, Lórien is one of three surviving strongholds of the High Elves (though lesser settlements exist): the others are at the Gray Havens, and at Rivendell. Rivendell also appeared in The Hobbit, where it was also called the Last Homely House (i.e., before the wilds of the East), a moniker that is far too cutesy for The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien imagined elves at that time as flighty sprites who tease other mortals and sing nonsense such as:
O! What are you doing,
And where are you going?
Your ponies need shoeing!
The river is flowing!
here down in the valley! (Hobbit: 57-8)
It is evident that Tolkien later regretted that depiction, though in The Lord of the Rings he gamely retains the description of Rivendell given by Bilbo in The Hobbit, refusing to embellish it: "[it] was, as Bilbo had long ago reported, 'a perfect house, whether you liked food or sleep or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all'" (I: 296-7). But Tolkien's description of the elves themselves changes markedly, to reveal an immortal race, who, even in their merry-making, are solemnly aware of the years passing around them. The change is seen dramatically in their poetry:
Ai! laurië lantar lassi súrinen! (Alas! as gold falls the leaves in the wind!
Yéni únótimë ve rámar aldaron! (Years innumerable as the wings of trees!)
Yéni ve lintë yuldar vánier (Years like swift draughts of wine have passed away
Sí man i yulma nin enquantuva? (Who now will fill again the cup for me?)
Rivendell, in The Lord of the Rings, is now revealed to be a stronghold where the lore and memory of the ancient days is preserved in Middle-earth, and the time that the company spends there is filled with songs and stories of the Elder Days. In fact, it bears at least a passing resemblance to another stronghold of old learning and tradition from the real worldOxford itself. Tolkien's place at Oxford is filled in Rivendell by Bilbo, who is now 111 years old, and has settled in Rivendell to write the story of his adventures in The Hobbit, while simultaneously composing an Elvish dictionary and studying and recording Elvish poetry (which is sung). Bilbo's room, like the converted garage where Tolkien did his writing, is cluttered with notes in a terrible state of disorder, and Bilbo shares Tolkien's oft-repeated worry that he will never finish his work. Meanwhile, the main business of Rivendell (feasts and recitals) is usually neglected, as (sadly) was Tolkien's scholarly writing after the success of The Hobbit. Bilbo intimates several times to the younger hobbits that Rivendell is being very indulgent with him, allowing him to occasionally perform his own poetry, for his work really isn't "good enough for Rivendell" (I: 305). This tone is nearly identical to the self-effacing one that Tolkien adopts in his mature essays. Through the model of Oxford, Tolkien was able to adapt the relatively shallow picture of Rivendell from The Hobbit into a much more meaningful setting, which like much of the rest of the trilogy draws its reality from reference to the real world.
In the design of Lothlórien, however, Tolkien was able to give full expression to his new conception of the role of the elves in Middle-earth, without the constraints placed on him by The Hobbit. As a result, he turns Lórien into a paradise:
[Frodo] saw no colour there but those he knew, gold and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had at that moment first perceived them and made for them names new and wonderful. In winter here no heart could mourn for summer or for spring. No blemish or sickness or deformity could be seen in anything that grew upon the earth. On the land of Lórien there was no stain. (I: 454-5)
The elves have never had a Biblical Fall; and they are not subject to death, so here in Lórien they live still in an Eden, where the fauna seems freshly Named and does not know sickness or deformity. Entering Lórien, the companions of the Ring are stunned by what amounts to the visible grace of God. They will often recall the experience of Lórien in the later hardships of the Quest, and Frodo and Sam are literally sustained by the elvish waybread, lembas, which they are given in Lórien, in their final trek through Mordor. Remembrance of the purity of Lórien helps various characters to recognize Sauron's seductive counterfeits for what they are, and resist evil.
But the sojourn in Lórien seems to stress more that Middle-earth is exiled from Grace, rather than to deny it. For the borders of Lórien are fenced from intrusion by deadly elvish archers, who would normally kill any intrudersthe companions are spared only at the request of Elrond, and even so they are initially treated with mistrust, especially Gimli the dwarf. They have problems communicating with the elves, for many of them have been isolated for so long that they have forgotten the Common Speech. And, later, when the companions get the opportunity to survey the majesty of Lórien from a platform at the top of a tall tree, their view includes the blighted forest of Mirkwood, just outside Lórien's borders, where "the trees strive one against another and their branches rot and wither" (I: 456), and no light from Lórien can pierce its darkness.
The borders of Lórien are shrinking with each year, and Galadriel, the Queen of Lothlórien, tells Frodo that she fears that the elves' power to preserves Lórien will pass away with the destruction of the Ring: so that, even in the event of the success of the Quest, the glory preserved by the elves will be doomed, and the elves will leave Middle-earth forever. Hence, the defeat of Sauron will not only banish Evil from the land, but also the last clearly visible sign of Goodleaving mortals to founder, with nothing but their imaginations to distinguish the one from the other. As I hinted in Part One, this is, for Tolkien, the central conundrum faced by Man, and the reason why, for him, fantasy, and other products of the imagination, are very important. Lothlórien emphasizes, for the Hobbits and the readers, the need, not only for faith in goodness and God, but for the vigilant recreation of Good in our minds and imaginations, so that the ideal does not slip away. It seems to the companions, as they leave Lórien by boat, that Lórien is departing from them, not the reverse:
For so it seemed to them: Lórien was slipping backward, like a bright ship masted with enchanted trees, sailing on to forgotten shores, while they sat helpless upon the margin of the grey and leafless world. (I: 488)
It is up to them, and to us, to maintain mental contact with Good in our mortal estrangement from Grace.
An awareness of Grace is what the Dwarves entirely lack; but the Elves miss what the Dwarves understand: mortality, and connection with the earth. The Elves try to escape the earth however they can: in Lórien they build their houses at the tops of great trees, gaze at the skies, and long most of all for the Sea. Being immortal, they do not feel the passing of seasons as a mortal does, or experience growth, or development: their sympathy is not for the earth but the stars. Hence, their existence is not appropriate for Middle-earth, and it is fitting that they should depart. This is demonstrated in a complex moment during the departure of the companions from Lórien, when Gimli, much affected by his experience in the Golden Wood, cries out that he has found peril in an unexpected place: "I would not have come had I known the danger of light and joy. Now I have taken my worst wound in this parting, even if I go this night straight to the Dark Lord" (I: 490). Even the brief experience with Paradise is unbearable to the dwarf, because it cheapens himself and the unchosen mortality of his life and his world, undercutting the will to strive in it against pain and perceived evilto better himself and it, which Tolkien believed was a vital, if seemingly hopeless, human activity.
Neither the Dwarves nor Elves are fit for Middle-earth, for the Dwarves are blind to Grace, and the Elves are blinded by it. The mean between them is Man, who holds a glimmering of the best qualities of each race, but cannot achieve the grandeur of either. The success, and failure, in Man is summed up in this exchange between Legolas and Gimli, who are discussing the dilapidation of the great city, Minas Tirith:
[Gimli:] "It is ever so with the things that Men begin: there is a frost in Spring, or a blight in Summer, and they fail of their promise."
"Yet seldom do they fail in their seed," said Legolas. "And that will lie in the dust and rot to spring up again in times and places unlooked-for. The deeds of Men will outlast us, Gimli."
"And yet come to naught in the end but might-have-beens, I guess," said the Dwarf.
"To that the Elves know not the answer," said Legolas. (III: 182)
Tolkien had ideas, but not answers. The rest of the trilogy leaves Elves and Dwarves behind, and explores the activities of Men and their horrid familiars: the Orcs.