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Now I Get It, Celebrimbor!

Recently, we received this question:

Hello! You guys are great. Why are the Elves of the Second Age so concerned about delaying the passage of time and healing the hurts of the world that they fall prey to Sauron as Lord of Gifts; whereas the Elves of the First Age lived many, many years in Beleriand without seeking such devices (as Rings)? -- Rick
Since Tolkien never adresses this directly, any answer requires speculation on Elvish psychology, drawing inferences (as usual) from whatever Tolkien does say about the Elves.

First, it is important to remember that the Noldor, who alone among the Elves had the craft to create the Three, were in Beleriand in revolt against the Valar, intending to overthrow Morgoth, retrieve the Silmarils, and found new kingdoms in Middle-earth. They might have been more interested in tools of conquest like the One Ring than in tools of preservation and healing like the Three -- an alarming thought. Perhaps only in the fastness of Gondolin was the idea of preservation and healing given much importance; it may be significant that in Tolkien's sketchy history of the Elessar seen in Unfinished Tales, it is in Gondolin that the jewel-smith Enerdhil wrought the original Elessar, a stone with properties of preservation and healing that would prefigure and inspire Celebrimbor's eventual creation of the Three.

But the atmosphere of the Second Age was different. Morgoth had been overthrown, and judging from the account of life in the Shire in the year after Sauron's fall, it is very reasonable to suppose that the first years (and, indeed centuries) of the Second Age, culminating in the foundation of Eregion by the Noldor in SA 750, must have been a true golden age before Sauron's shadow began to appear once again. So it is in this environment (and, perhaps, recognizing that this golden age would fade in time) that, in the tale of the Elessar, Galadriel comes to Eregion and tells Celebrimbor: "I am grieved in Middle-earth, for leaves fall and flowers fade that I have loved, so that the land of my dwelling is filled with regret that no Spring can redeem."

Wielding the power of Nenya, Galadriel made Lórien a place where, as Sam observes, "Nothing seems to be going on, and nobody seems to want it to." Indeed, Sam completely loses count of the days; when he sees the moon after leaving Lórien, he says, "Anyone would think that time does not count in there." In effect, Galadriel's realm exists out of Time, or in a time of its own. And, as Galadriel tells Frodo, if he succeeds and the power of the Three is lost, "Lothlórien will fade, and the tides of Time will sweep it away."

Personally, for many years, I did not feel that the Elvish desire to stop Time was a particularly strong or convincing part of Tolkien's mythos. The rather melancholy and nostalgic Noldor that we see in The Lord of the Rings seemed to me something of a contrivance. Their dissatisfaction with the "changefulness" of Middle-earth seemed particularly unconvincing; after all, would not the worst thing about immortality be the possibility of boredom, living century after century in much the same way? Surely the changes in the world would be a relief for the sameness of immortality.

But recently, I celebrated my fiftieth birthday (thag you very buch) by attending a Renaissance Faire.

Now, I must explain that I was a regular performer at the RenFaire throughout the 1980s, and once had many friends there. Now, attending the Faire for the first time in years, I found that almost all the people I knew back then were gone -- passed away, or moved on to other things -- and others had aged alarmingly. Even though I am myself quite "well-preserved," to coin a phrase, and indeed had a very enjoyable day with the present cast, feeling much as I did at 30, I was disheartened by seeing how much everything else around me had changed. My heart yearned for it to still be 1982, my own "golden year" at Faire. For the first time, in other words, I felt what the Elves must have felt, trying to make their own golden age last beyond its time. And for some reason, knowing that Celebrimbor was as deceived as the mortal men who became enslaved by the Nine, and that trying to stop time is a trap (and, in any case, impossible) was little comfort for me. After all, there weren't really any Elves; how can one learn from the experiences of a fictitious people? I spent much of September in a rather melancholy mood.

But then I remembered: in a way, the Elves are real: they were a product of Tolkien's imagination, and their own nostalgic melancholy was Tolkien's work as well. Did Elvish psychology have some basis in Tolkien's own experience? In the Foreword to The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien tells us that by the end of the first World War, all but one of his close friends were dead; and he tells us more of the shabby destruction of the country in which he lived during childhood, including a thriving corn-mill beside its pool whose destruction is reflected in the Scouring of the Shire. Tolkien was himself conservative in his habits, suspicious of modern technologies, and thought it quite reasonable to seek to escape, at least in literature, from "progressive things like factories, or the machine-guns and bombs that appear to be their most natural and inevitable, dare we say 'inexorable,' products" (On Fairy-stories). Yet Tolkien knew that one could not, and should not, attempt to stop Time. In a letter to Michael Straight (Letters #156, ca. 1956), he wrote,

Mere change as such is not represented as "evil": it is the unfolding of the story and to refuse this is of course against the design of God. But the Elvish weakness is in these terms naturally to regret the past, and to become unwilling to change: as if a man were to hate a very long book still going on, and wished to settle down in a favourite chapter. Hence they fell in a measure to Sauron's deceits: they desired some "power" over things as they are … to arrest change, and keep things always fresh and fair.
Surely Tolkien himself had felt that same longing for the past many times; but he knew with a certainty that the story of our lives should not be stopped, even if they could be. If he had had the power to stop Time and live forever in the golden years before the Great War, he would not have had the experience of his marriage to Edith; of the rearing of his children; of the germination and flowering of his mythology of Middle-earth; of his friendship with the Inklings; of the publication of The Lord of the Rings; and of the vindication of his theories of the fairy-story by the immense popularity that his work enjoyed in his lifetime. The Elves must, indeed, pass and fade; but the story goes on in the work of Men, whose deeds, as Legolas tells Gimli, "will outlast us."

Everyone reading this doubtless has had their own special times that they wish could have gone on forever; for some, the present years of 2002-2003, with the appearance of Jackson's films and the immense growth in the Tolkien community, are the best of times and will be thought of with much fondness in the future. My own happy years of the past may be a fine place to visit, but to live there, I would not be willing to trade away the friends I have made since then, nor the excitement and pleasure I have enjoyed in the recent years of working with the wonderful people at TORN. Like Tolkien, I may dream of a year like the Shire's Great Year of Plenty, with "an air of richness and growth, and a gleam of a beauty beyond that of mortal summers that flicker and pass upon this Middle-earth" (a passage that grows more poignant with each passing year; trust me on this, kids), but the years yet to come will have their own joys -- and sorrows -- that I cannot foresee.

-- Ostadan

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