Interview with the Oldest Member

This passed on by Sherwood Smith in one of her Bittercon posts:

Elves are glamorous. They’re tall, cooler than people, dress well, have great taste in music, and are all-round athletes, as well as being immortals with magical powers. And they’re in tune with nature, too. But are they really? Most elvish societies are intensely hierarchical with a few uberelfen at the top and many more peons at the bottom. And there’s no way for a peon to work his way up, since the master race is genetic. Tolkien’s Elves were fairly benign, but the elves in many of the derivative fantasies that followed on don’t look all that different from what we could imagine finding in a world a thousand years after a Nazi victory: the horrors at the start are long forgotten, but now there is a master race. Unfair?

Certainly unfair, if the elves are not permitted to respond on their own behalf. To remedy the obvious injustice of allowing mortals to sit in judgement upon the Fair Folk by gossiping among themselves — and consulting, moreover, those who have never known or even seen an elf — it seemed natural to me to find an elf, an old and notorious one, and if possible one of the ‘Uberelfen’, and put him on the witness stand.

Since it is Tolkien’s elves who are the principal corpora vilia in this debate, that gave me a clearer idea where I had to look. After some difficult negotiation, I was able to procure an interview with a particularly senior and ‘uber’ one of his Eldar, the results of which I now humbly offer in aid of justice.

Q. Some of our readers may not know you by reputation, and none of them will have the opportunity to recognize you by sight. Would you please introduce yourself?

A. I am called Maglor, son of Fëanor. I was accounted mighty among the Noldor of the Elder Days, and did deeds of worth in their hopeless war to recover the Silmarils from Morgoth who stole them — and deeds of black evil also: I do not deny it. But for that evil I have made amends as I could, and I have done penance now for many ages of the world; and I do not answer for it to the Afterborn.

Thank you, that will do to go on with. Let us take the points of the accusation one by one — understanding that you are not on trial; we only want to get at the facts of the matter. First, and most pleasantly, it is said that Elves are glamorous. You are, in fact, uncommonly tall by mortal standards; not much short of seven feet in our measure, if my guess means anything. I would say you are dressed becomingly, though not, of course, according to the latest human fashions. Your own personal taste in music has never been questioned and is indeed justly famous. I don’t know whether you are an all-round athlete, but you certainly have proved in the past to be capable of great endurance, and a dangerous hand-to-hand fighter as well. As for being an immortal, here you are among us, ten thousand years after the War of the Jewels—

Nearer twenty than ten.

I stand corrected. The matter of your magical powers I would like to leave on one side for now, if I may, because it involves difficulties of language that may preclude any straightforward answer. Perhaps we can go into it later. As to the other points, do you regard that as a fair description of your good qualities?

They are not the qualities I would choose if I sought to make the best account of myself or my people. Strange are the thoughts of mortals! At one time, when your race had been long sundered from the Eldar, you believed or feigned to believe that we were diminutive and dainty. In recent ages I have heard many a tale of Elves who slept in buttercups and dined upon dewdrops. Glamorous is a new word even by the standards of Men, and a thing of yesterday compared with the speech of the Eldar; it was not known to those who made the tales of the diminished Elves. But if I conceive its meaning truly, it could be said as easily of the buttercup-dwellers as of the Eldar of story and song. It seems to me that the children of Men regard it as a cause for wonder that any speaking people should be either greater or smaller in the body than themselves, or in any wise different. If this is glamour, so much the worse for Men. You should seek a wider acquaintance with the world, and it is in my heart that some of you yet hunger for it.

But you are rather tall, you know.

Taller than most of my kindred, yet even I am not a giant. The Onodrim, now, they were the tallest, but I do not hear such words used of them.

Again, it is said that we dress well: why should we not? The body of the Children of Ilúvatar is a thing of beauty, unless wasted by sickness or the swift age of Men; should it not be clad in comely raiment? Rather is it a wonder to us that Men should clothe themselves in hideous garb, like the Orcs, and preen themselves upon the novelty thereof. One of your own kindred has said that fashion is a kind of ugliness so intolerable that it must be changed every year to be borne.

Now again it is said that we are accomplished singers; and that I do gladly own. I myself was accounted the greatest of all the musicians of the Eldar, both singers and those who play upon instruments of music, save Daeron only. If my kindred yet dwelt upon Middle-earth, they might account it differently. If I was greater than others in that art, it was most because I was taught by the Valar, and only less because I gave myself to the study of music for many ages, by the fleeting measure of Men; and least of all because Eru who made me gave me greater gifts of music than my kin. To each fëa its love is appointed within the Kingdom of Arda, and the desire of its heart; and seldom is that desire the spirit of another. It may be that Lúthien was destined for Beren, or Idril for Tuor; but Fëanor my father was destined for handicraft, and to make the palantíri and the Silmarils; and Eöl of Nan Elmoth for smith-work and the making of swords; and I for the making of songs. It is so even among Men; and if the briefness of their lives prevents them from such mastery as the Eldar can achieve, neither they nor we may be blamed for it.

Again it is said that we are strong and hardy of the body; for I do not take our accuser’s words to mean that we excel at the amusements of mortal youth. None of the Eldar ever played at the game of football, save perhaps to divert our idleness, when we were in want of bodily exercise and our accustomed exertions had grown stale to us by use. That any should make show of his skill at games for silver and gold, or get his bread thereby, was never in the thoughts of the Eldar. Indeed we differ less among ourselves than Men, for all the Eldar do strenuously guard the health of the body, without which long life were no better than length of misery. But this is only to say that we are not fools.

There remains one word of our accuser’s which is so strange that I can make no answer, yea or nay. Is it the belief of your people that we have less bodily warmth than the Atani?

What?

It was said that we are ‘cooler’ than you.

Oh. That is— well, I mean— I can’t say what that means in your language, and I’m not sure I can say it in mine. I think it means that you are not only glamorous, you act as if you weren’t aware of it. When one of us does that, it’s generally to show off his own superiority; as if to say, ‘Not only am I better than you, I can do it without breaking a sweat.’

I begin to understand. You mean that the children of Men envy the Eldar, and believe that the Eldar make a display of their greatness in mockery of others.

That’s not exactly— Well, I suppose it is, but it’s a hell of a way to put it.

It was you who spoke of ‘showing off’. We do not consider ourselves great; we know too well our weakness. I myself have been measured against the good of the Silmarils and the evil of Morgoth, and been found wanting both times; and few of the Eldar would have stood where I fell. If you mean that we act as if we did not know that we are envied by Men, then you speak the truth. Men have not been our concern. Shall we then hide our powers of hand and mind, lest others measure themselves against us? Shall the Ent cut off his legs, that the Dwarf may not feel his lack of stature? Shall the harper break his fingers, that the one who cannot play may not feel his want of skill? It would be a strange forbearance.

Besides, none of your kindred for many ages have beheld the Eldar in the flesh — or if they did, we took care that they should not know it. Few of us remain, and we are a secret people. If some Men tell tales of the Eldar that are gone, and other Men hear the tales and feel diminished, is that then the fault of the Eldar?

Moving right along, then, to the magical powers. I know by the report of others that ‘magic’ is a difficult word to explain to your people; Galadriel had endless trouble about it. She said—

I have heard what she said; the tale of her departure from Middle-earth is well known to me. I held her in high esteem, and would sometimes have taken her part against Fëanor my father, only my brothers constrained me, for I would not have them call me disloyal to my kin. By magic you mean both the arts of the Eldar and the deceits of the Enemy, by which the will works upon the matter of Arda, or else feigns to do so by working on the mind with illusion. That latter art has been called glamoury, and I suppose it is what you mean when you call the Eldar glamorous; but I should say rather that you have worked the glamour upon yourselves, being discontent, and hearing from afar the rumour of better things. But no matter. In this I can answer you.

Every fëa has in some measure the power of command over its hröa: in small things, as when you think to move your hand, and your hand moves; or in greater things, as when I think of a song and my fingers draw music from the harp; more rarely still in the greatest things, as when the Kings of Men used to lay down their lives at will, and yield them into the keeping of Ilúvatar. A like power has remained with the Eldar, though it is Mandos who receives us and not Ilúvatar, for unlike you we are bound to the circles of the world. But also, being bound to the world, we are closer in harmony with the world; the stuff of Arda answers our will as it does not answer the will of Men, whose destiny lies elsewhere.

Now in this and other things we are, as our accuser says, in harmony with nature. But then the harmony is denied, and I cannot follow the turnings of a mind which says yea in its submission and nay in its wrath. It may be that you can guide me.

I’m not sure I can, but I will try. It is true, isn’t it, that Elvish societies are hierarchical? Though perhaps the term ‘uberelf’ is a bit much.

I have seen enough of the kingdoms of Men to know what is meant by this word hierarchical. It means that there are few masters and many servants, and that the greater servants command the lesser, and there is one king set above all. Is that not so?

That’s a fair description, yes; though the ruler need not be called a king.

But if you know aught of the history of my people, you will know that such things have never been seen among us. It is true that Finwë was High King of the Noldor, and Fingolfin after him, and Fingon, and Gil-galad the last. But kingship among us is not a matter for what you call hierarchy.

The Noldor in the beginning were those made by Ilúvatar most like to Finwë in mind and mood; and they followed him of free will, and became one people among the peoples of the Quendi. And Oromë came out of the West, summoning the Quendi to the light of Valinor; and some chose not to follow, and they departed from the Noldor, and remained in the East; and Finwë did not constrain them. And Morgoth threw up the Hithaeglir, the Mountains of Mist, to bar the road of our march; and some quailed and turned back, and went away to dwell in the South under their own chieftains; and the Noldor did not stay them. And again, when we had come to Valinor, some wished to retrace the Great Journey, and dwell once more under the stars, and have wide realms to set in order as they willed, subject neither to Finwë nor to the Valar. Galadriel was accounted great among these, and would indeed have departed, but the slaughter of the Trees and the evil of the Kinslaying prevented her. For her fealty to Finwë the King was freely given, and freely she might withdraw it: and none might deprive her of that right.

But Finwë was slain, and some of the Noldor followed one of his sons, and some another (for all three were accounted among the greatest of the Noldor in deeds and wisdom), and some waited rather upon the will of the Valar; each of us did as it seemed good to him. I for my part remained with Fëanor my father, for my heart was hot within me, and I longed to see vengeance done upon the Morgoth who had spoiled Valinor of light and Formenos of my father’s jewels. But not all were of like mind with me. Nor could Fëanor say unto this one, Come, and unto that one, Go, for the Noldor are a free people; but by the power of his words, and still more by the grief that all suffered in that terrible hour, he persuaded them to go forth into exile. Then Mandos would have gainsaid us, but in the anguish of our hearts we shared in the evil of the Kinslaying, and the kindred of Fingolfin also. Only then did Fëanor gain the power to constrain us if we would not go forth at his will, fearing that the pardon of the Valar would be withheld. It seemed to us that any who deserted Fëanor in that hour would be twice a rebel and twice accursed, and both Valinor and the Noldor would cast him out. Yet even so a remnant of the Noldor would go no further, but sued the Valar for mercy, and dwelt in Valinor under the kingship of Finarfin.

And when Fëanor himself was slain, the kingship did not descend to Maedhros my brother nor to any of his sons, but to Fingolfin, the only prince of the House of Finwë whom all would consent to follow. Then Fingolfin was slain in the Dagor Bragollach, and Fingon his son succeeded to the kingship; but it was Maedhros rather who became the war leader of the Noldor, by whose counsel the field of Unnumbered Tears was fought; and we would have had the victory that day, but for the madness of Gwindor and the treachery of Men. Thereafter the Noldor were divided, and some followed Ereinion Gil-galad, or Orodreth of Nargothrond, or Turgon of Gondolin; and some remained with my brothers, and some forsaking the war against Morgoth followed Galadriel into the East. But never has any of the Noldor sought to keep his kin in thraldom, or to restrain them from departing whither they would, when they no longer desired to be of his following.

Yet all the kings and princes you named were of royal blood, and mere commoners could not rise to the top.

Oropher of the Greenwood was not so; he was but one of the Sindar who fled from the ruin of Beleriand, and the Silvan Elves chose him as their chieftain because he brought great lore and wisdom out of the West. Nor was Círdan the Shipwright, who was chosen to rule in Lindon when Gil-galad was gone; nor Amdír of Lórien. Even Celeborn of Doriath, though a kinsman of King Thingol, was held of little account until he took Galadriel to wife and they became leaders of those who forsook the policy of Maedhros. Whereas Maedhros himself, son of one High King and grandson of another, was never accounted among the kings of the Eldar, and claimed no title and conned no state; but even he was greater than I, his brother, for he was the war leader of Beleriand in the time of Fingon. I was known only for the greatness of my kinsmen and the skill of my singing, and if I had any following it was by the honour done to Maedhros for his part in the wars.

I’m still not convinced. There are far too many princes of the blood on that list.

Such princes are not far to seek among the Eldar, for we are fewer than the children of Men. The host of Fingolfin was numbered in tens of thousands, but not in millions. Think not of the great states and empires of your own day, but of the petty kingdoms of ancient Ireland, or Greece, or the tribes of Israel under their judges (for I have wandered among many peoples since the Noldor went into the West). It is said that every Irishman living bears the blood of kings in his veins, so numerous were their kings of old and so few their people. And one of your storytellers has made a jest concerning Palestine in the time of Joshua, saying that a man must pull up his feet if he would sleep in one kingdom, lest by stretching them out he trespass the borders. Never has a king of the Eldar ruled over a people so numerous that he did not know them all by name, and never has a kingdom been inherited from father to son beyond the fifth generation. It would be meet to take account of these things before you sit in judgement.

Still there’s something to that last figure of speech, about what we might find a thousand years after a Nazi victory. ‘The horrors at the start are long forgotten, but now there is a master race.’ How do you answer that?

You forget that you speak to one who has fought the Morgoth, and looked undaunted upon the terrible face of Ancalagon the Black. I have seen horrors, and I have seen masters of thralls, and fought against them both. I have endured evil as well as done it, and opposed as well as endured it; when I speak of evil, I speak no idle words. And this I say truly: never have the Eldar sought to rule over those of other race. Even the Three Houses of the Edain we did not receive into our service until our need for allies grew desperate, and then we left them under their own chieftains and their own laws, and gave them lands apart to dwell in. And among ourselves, as I have said, we followed such kings as we chose, and when we desired to follow them no longer we were free to choose other allegiance.

As for these Nazis of whom you speak, they could never have won such a victory. They were not a master race, save in their own minds; they were not of one kindred, nor were they ever masters save by a brief and bloody usurpation. It was said in jest that they desired all men to be as blond as Hitler, as tall as Goebbels, and as athletic as Goering; and there was more truth in the jest than in the vanities on which the jest was founded. They built a crooked house upon the sands, and called it a Thousand-Year Reich; yet not even a child of Men grew from birth to manhood before that house was destroyed. They would have scorned the friendship of the Eldar as they denied the name of Ilúvatar; their doom was written on their brow, and swiftly it overtook them.

As for the horrors at the start, I do not speak for Men, whose memories may be briefer than their lives. But among the Eldar the horror of Alqualondë has never been forgotten, nor the blood on the hands of Fëanor and his sons — yea, on my own hands. The smell of it has not vanished from my nostrils in twenty thousand years; nor has my hand forgotten the pain of that burning when the Silmaril spurned me for the slaying of my kin. Each day that I wander the shores of Middle-earth, singing of my loss to the unhearing waters, the evil I have done is made fresh in my suffering. But even the unhappy Afterborn are more steadfast in the memory of evil deeds. How many names do most Men recall of those who lived a mere two thousand years ago? Few indeed; but if you know such names at all, you remember Brutus the kinslayer, and Judas the betrayer, and Pilate who sent the innocent to his death.

Is that the worst charge that your kindred can devise against the Eldar: that we are masters of thralls, and worshippers of ancestral blood, and have founded our kingdoms upon crimes which we have caused to be forgotten? Not one of these things has any colour of truth, and I reject them with contempt. If you will not speak sense to me, leave me to my memories and my grief.

Comments

  1. Bob McMaster says:

    Forgive me for digging so far back into the archives to comment, but I found this site via John C. Wright and ended up reading every post here. Moreover, it is a somewhat idle question I wish to ask. Were you making a deliberate Wodehouse reference with the title?

    • No apologies are necessary. I like it when people have things to say about my older stuff.

      And yes, I was making a Wodehouse reference; or rather, I was using Wodehouse to make a reference to a bit of English folkways, now (I believe) largely lost: the habit of paying especial deference to the Oldest Inhabitant of a district, the doyen of a college or institution, or (which is where Wodehouse comes in) the most senior member of a club. I am a Wodehouse fan, though not widely read outside the Jeeves canon, and so an oblique allusion of that kind came natural to me.

  2. Jamie K. Wilson says:

    Okay, you sold me. I’m buying your books. Read your TbaI self-pub post of last week, read this one, and I have just got to read everything else (in my copious spare time of course.)

  3. Mary Catelli says:

    I note there is a meaning of “cool” that applies to humans and presumably other like creatures and has done so since the days of Beowulf.

    But nowadays, you have to specify “cool as a cucumber” to convey it, and it’s not a term that can be applied to the elves of the Silmarillion, or even the Lord of the Rings

  4. Mary Catelli says:

    I was thinking of it as the ‘by-and-large’ application.

  5. Mika Hohko says:

    This is just so great! Love the detail of Maglor saying “the” Morgoth, as he is actually speaking English rather than being translated from Elvish/Westron but inserting a Sindarin word into the sentence.

    • I actually got that from the source material. Somewhere in one of the later History of Middle-earth volumes, the phrase ‘the Morgoth’ occurs in a snippet of dialogue. I think it may be in the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, but don’t quote me.

      Since the name ‘Morgoth’ was originally an insulting sobriquet fastened on the chief of the Ainur by Fëanor, it actually does make sense to speak of ‘Melkor the Morgoth’, as one does of ‘Michael the Stammerer’ or ‘Ethelred the Unready’. So I chose to go with that for a bit of extra flavour.

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