A half-elf, known today mainly through J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth writings but with origins in Norse mythology, is the offspring, possibly very beautiful and with magical powers, of an elf and a human. In Middle-earth, half-elves are the children of Elves and Men, and can choose either Elvish immortality or the mortal life of Men. The elf-maidens Lúthien and Arwen both chose mortality.
Scholars have considered the meaning of the choices made by Lúthien and Arwen, combining love and death, family loyalty, immortality, fate, and faith that through letting go, the light can be reached, whereas holding on, while natural, is actually folly.
Skuld was a Danish princess, as told in Hrólf Kraki's saga. King Helgi, sleeping alone as he had not been invited to King Adils's wedding, let in a ragged person on a midwinter night. As she slept, he saw she was a radiantly beautiful woman dressed in a silk gown. She told him he had freed her from a curse and asked to leave. He asked her to stay and marry him, and she agreed. They slept together. She told him they would have a child, and asked him to visit the child the next winter at the harbour. The King forgot to do so, but three years later the woman, an elf, returned and left a daughter at his door. She told him that the child's name was Skuld, which means "what you should do". She said that the King would gain the reward for breaking the curse, but that the King's people would suffer as the King had not done as she had asked. She never came back, but Skuld was always angry.
In J. R. R. Tolkien's fictional Middle-earth, the Half-elven (Sindarin singular Peredhel, plural Peredhil, Quenya singular Perelda) are the children of the union of Elves and Men. Of these, the most significant were the products of couplings between the Eldar (the Elves who followed the Call to Valinor) and the Edain (the Men of the Three Houses of early Men who allied themselves with the Eldar in their war against Morgoth). Three recorded unions of the Edain and Eldar generated descendants: Idril and Tuor; Lúthien and Beren; and Arwen and Aragorn. The first two couples wed during the final part of the First Age of Middle-earth, while the third married at the end of the Third Age (some six thousand-five hundred years later). The third couple descended not only from the first two couples, but also from the twins Elros and Elrond, who chose mankind and elvenkind respectively—thereby severing their fates and those of their descendants. In Appendix A of The Return of the King, Tolkien notes that by the marriage of Arwen and Aragorn "the long-sundered branches of the Half-elven were reunited and their line was restored". The second union was the only one of the three marriages in which the Elf involved (Idril) did not become mortal; instead Tuor was joined to the Elves. In all these cases, the husband was mortal, while the wife was Elven.
Beren and Lúthien
The first of these was between the mortal Beren, of the House of Bëor, and Lúthien, daughter of the Elf Thingol, king of the Sindar, and Melian, a Maia. Beren died in the quest for the Silmaril, and in despair, Lúthien's spirit departed her body and made its way to the halls of Mandos. Mandos allowed them a unique fate, and they were re-bodied as mortals in Middle-earth, where they dwelt until their second deaths. Their son Dior, heir of the Sindarin kingdom of Doriath and of the Silmaril, was thus one-quarter Elvish by blood and one-quarter Maian (thus half-immortal), and half-human (thus half-mortal). He was killed while still young, when the sons of Fëanor sacked Doriath. Dior's wife was Nimloth, a Sindarin Elf, and with her he had three children, Elwing and two sons (thus, half-elven but not between Edain and Eldar).
Tuor and Idril
The second marriage of Men and Elves in the First Age was between Tuor of the House of Hador, another branch of the Edain, and Idril Celebrindal, an Elf, though half Noldorin and half Vanyarin in ancestry. Their son was Eärendil. After the fall of Gondolin, Eärendil also escaped to the Mouths of Sirion, and married Elwing who was also half-elven. They had twin sons, Elrond and Elros.
Aragorn and Arwen
Uniquely, Eärendil and Elwing, together with their sons Elrond and Elros, were granted their choice of fates: to be counted as Elves (free to dwell in the blessed Undying Lands for as long as Arda endures) or to be counted as Human (entitled to the Gift of Men whereby, through death, their spirits are freed to enter the unknown beyond Arda). Should this Choice have not been granted, they, like all other Half-Elves, would have been automatically mortal.[T 1] Elros chose to be counted among mortals, and became Tar-Minyatur, the first king of Númenor. He finally took his death (for those kings had the freedom and grace to die at will) at the age of five hundred. The descendants of Elros were not given this choice, but their lifespan was enhanced several times that of ordinary Men. In later times the Númenórean kings, descendants of Elros, regretted their forefather's choice, and this helped lead to the Downfall of Númenor. Elrond chose to be counted among the Elves, joining the court of Gil-galad until the end of the Second Age.[T 2] He also founded Rivendell in the Second Age.[T 3] He married the Elf Celebrían, daughter of Celeborn and Galadriel, and sailed into the West at the conclusion of the War of the Ring.[T 4][T 5] The children of Elrond were also given choice of kindred,[T 6] and therefore Arwen could choose to be counted among the Edain even though her father hoped she would accompany him to Elvenhome in the West. But she chose otherwise, marrying Aragorn II Elessar, king of the Reunited Kingdom, at the start of the Fourth Age, and bringing noble elvish blood into his dynasty. He ruled for 120 years, choosing to die at a great age for a man, but while still in full health. She died alone at the age of 2,901 years, grieving the brevity of her mortal happiness.[T 7]
Line of the Half-elven
|Half-elven family tree[T 8][T 9]|
It was a tradition in Dol Amroth that Imrazôr the Númenórean had married an Elf and therefore his descendants, the Princes of Dol Amroth, were of Elven descent. Legolas, an Elf of Mirkwood, believed as much upon meeting Prince Imrahil, but the matter is probed no further in The Lord of the Rings.[T 10]
In The Hobbit reference is made to a rumour among Hobbit folk that a Took ancestor of Bilbo Baggins had long ago taken a "fairy" (i.e. Elf) wife, but the allegation is immediately dismissed as a simplistic explanation for the sometimes atypical behaviour of the Took clan.[T 11] Even if hobbits have some elvish blood, however, they are "endearing rather than frightening", unlike other half-human hybrids such as Dracula.
In The Book of Lost Tales (published in two parts), the young Tolkien originally intended Eärendil, then spelled Earendel, to be the first of the Half-elven. Early versions of The Tale of Beren and Lúthien had Beren as an Elf. The earliest version of the tale of Túrin Turambar had Tamar, the character Tolkien later renamed Brandir, as a Half-elf; Tolkien mentioned this in a way that implied he did not consider Half-elven descent especially remarkable at the time he wrote that story.
The Tolkien scholar Richard C. West notes the resemblance between the half-elves Arwen and Lúthien, and analyses Arwen's understanding of her fateful choice, between love for Aragorn and mortality on the one hand, and her father's wishes and immortality on the other. Others such as Bill Davis analyse Tolkien's exploration of mortality through a half-elf's choosing to die.
West analyses the scene at the camp on Weathertop where Aragorn recounts to the hobbits in poetry and prose the tale of Beren and Lúthien, with West highlighting Aragorn's words and "pensive mood" as he tells them that Lúthien "chose mortality, and to die from the world, so that she might follow [Beren]" and that "together they passed, long ago, beyond the confines of this world" and that she "alone of the Elf-kindred has died indeed and left the world, and they have lost her whom they most loved". West speculates that Aragorn may be thinking here of the consequences of what will happen should Arwen marry him, and later states that he finds "the lonely death of Arwen the most moving tragedy within [The Lord of the Rings]". A similar conclusion regarding Aragorn's feelings at Weathertop is drawn by the scholar of medieval English literature John M. Bowers in his work on the influence of Geoffrey Chaucer on Tolkien. Bowers, looking at both the Weathertop scene and 'The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen', states that like certain pilgrims in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Aragorn's stories of his ancestors "open a window into his private desires and fears".
The scholar of English literature Anna Vaninskaya studies how Tolkien uses fantasy to examine the issues of love and death, time and immortality. Given that Tolkien's Elves are immortal, they face the question of death from a unique vantage-point. Sarah Workman writes that in the Tale of Aragorn and Arwen, Arwen's mourning of Aragorn serves to overcome what Peter Brooks called (she writes) the "meaningless", interminable nature of immortality. Workman quotes Brooks's statement that "all narration is obituary" and states that it is in that conception that Tolkien valued Arwen's fate: it is Arwen's "mourning gaze that allows for the transmission of Aragorn's memory", or in Tolkien's words which she quotes, "And long there he lay, an image of the splendour of the Kings of Men in glory undimmed".
The Polish scholar of religion in literature and film, Christopher Garbowski, notes that while Tolkien contrasts Elves and Men throughout The Lord of the Rings, he introduces the conceit that an Elf may marry a Man on condition of surrendering her immortality, something that happens exactly twice in Middle-earth, with Lúthien and then with Arwen.[T 12]
The scholar of English literature Catherine Madsen notes the reflection of mortality in the "fading" of Middle-earth from the enormous powers like Morgoth and Elbereth that battled in the First Age. She writes that "Aragorn is a hero and a descendant of heroes, but he is brought up in hiding and given the name of Hope [Estel]; Arwen possesses the beauty of Lúthien, but she is born in the twilight of her people and her title is Evenstar; these two restore the original glories only for a little while, before the world is altered and 'fades into the light of common day'".[a] Rateliff, writing on the theme of the evocation of loss in Tolkien's works, describes the 'Gift of Men' as being "to accept loss and decay as essential parts of the world" and draws parallels with other writings by Tolkien: "The Elves cling to the past and so are swept away with it; in a fallen world, acceptance of the inevitability of death is the only way to pass beyond the world's limitations, for Brendan or Niggle or Arwen."
The medievalist Verlyn Flieger wrote that nobody knows where Men go to when they leave Middle-earth, and that the nearest Tolkien came to dealing with the question was in his essay On Fairy-Stories "where, after speculating that since 'fairy-stories are made by men not by fairies', they must deal with what he called the Great Escape, the escape from death. He went on to the singular assertion that 'the Human-stories of the elves are doubtless full of the Escape from Deathlessness'."[T 13] Flieger suggests that two of the "human stories" of Tolkien's Elves really focus on this kind of escape, the Tale of Beren and Lúthien and the Tale of Aragorn and Arwen, where in both cases a half-elf makes her escape from deathlessness. Shippey comments that "the themes of the Escape from Death, and the Escape from Deathlessness, are vital parts of Tolkien's entire mythology." In a 1968 broadcast on BBC2, Tolkien quoted French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir and described the inevitability of death as the "key-spring of The Lord of the Rings".[b] In their annotated and expanded edition of Tolkien's essay (Tolkien On Fairy-stories), Flieger and textual scholar Douglas A. Anderson provide commentary on 'the Escape from Deathlessness' passage, referencing Tolkien's views in a 1956 letter, that:
The real theme [of The Lord of the Rings] for me is .. Death and Immortality: the mystery of the love of the world in the hearts of a race [Men] 'doomed' to leave and seemingly lose it; the anguish in the hearts of a race [Elves] 'doomed' not to leave it, until its whole evil-aroused story is complete. But if you have now read Vol. III and the story of Aragorn [and Arwen], you will have perceived that.[T 14]
Flieger remarks further that by attaching herself to men's lives and deaths, Lúthien is running against the current of elven life, but at the same time, by undergoing death and darkness Beren and she manage to come to the light. What is more, she writes, their union creates a new race, half-elvens, who have the privilege of choosing either fate, and "new hope for both races". She notes that Tolkien described the story as "Release from Bondage", meaning death, release from deathlessness, and explains "Through death, men can let go; in their deathlessness, elves cannot. The half-elven can also be released from bondage, freed from the earth, if they wish. Tolkien makes no promises; what's to come is still unsure." In her view, this is the Catholic Tolkien's key point, that being able to let go means trusting in faith. Holding on to life, or to physical treasures like the Silmaril which gets Thingol killed, is "folly". Thingol was in the light of the Two Trees, but by grasping Middle-earth, Lúthien, and finally the Silmaril, he journeys into and ends in darkness. It is the opposite of Lúthien's journey.
In other contexts
Perhaps the earliest published half-elf in modern literature is the character Orion in Lord Dunsany's 1924 The King of Elfland's Daughter. The concept was however made popular by Tolkien. As a result, half-elves have become common in other fantasy writings and role-playing games. For example, half-elves are featured in Dungeons & Dragons with characters such as Tanis Half-Elven.
- Madsen is here quoting from William Wordsworth's Ode on Intimations of Immortality, line 76.
- As described by Armstrong (1998) and Lee (2018), Tolkien stated: "human stories [are] always about one thing aren't they? Death: the inevitability of death" and then pulled a newspaper cutting from his pocket and read out the following quote from de Beauvoir's A Very Easy Death (1964): "There is no such thing as a natural death. Nothing that happens to man is ever natural, since his presence calls the whole world into question. All men must die, but for every man his death is an accident, and even if he knows it and consents to it, an unjustifiable violation."
- This list identifies each item's location in Tolkien's writings.
- The latest version of Tolkien's text was in The Lost Road, which stated: "Now all those who have the blood of mortal Men, in whatever part, great or small, are mortal, unless other doom be granted to them; but in this matter the power of doom is given to me. This is my decree: to Earendel and to Elwing and to their sons shall be given leave each to choose freely under which kindred they shall be judged." [The words of Manwe on pages 326-327). Christopher Tolkien further observed (pages 334-335) "It is to be observed that according to the judgement of Manwe Dior Thingol's Heir, son of Beren, was mortal irrespective of the choice of his mother."
- The Silmarillion, ch. 24 "Of the Voyage of Eärendil and the War of Wrath"
- The Silmarillion, "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age"
- The Return of the King, Appendix B "The Tale of Years", "The Third Age"
- The Return of the King, book 6, ch. 9 "The Grey Havens"
- The Return of the King, Appendix A, (i) Númenor.
- The Return of the King, Appendix A (v) The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen
- Tolkien, J. R. R. (1977), Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Silmarillion, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, "Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age": Family Trees I and II: "The house of Finwë and the Noldorin descent of Elrond and Elros", and "The descendants of Olwë and Elwë", ISBN 0-395-25730-1
- Tolkien, J. R. R. (1955), The Return of the King, The Lord of the Rings, Boston: Houghton Mifflin (published 1987), Appendix A: Annals of the Kings and Rulers, I The Númenórean Kings, ISBN 0-395-08256-0
- The Return of the King, book 5, ch. 4 "The Siege of Gondor"
- The Hobbit, ch. 1 ""An Unexpected Party"2
- Tolkien, J. R. R. (1993). "Part Four. Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth". In Christopher Tolkien (ed.). Morgoth's Ring. Houghton Mifflin. pp. 303–366. ISBN 0-395-68092-1.
- Tolkien, J. R. R. (1964). On Fairy-Stories. Tree and Leaf. George Allen & Unwin. p. 59.
- Letters #186 to Joanna de Bortadano (drafts), April 1956
- Byock, Jesse L. (trans.) (1998). The Elfin Woman and the Birth of Skuld. The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki. London: Penguin. Chapter 11. ISBN 0-14-043593-X.
- Cumpstey, Ian (trans.) (2017). The Saga of Didrik of Bern. Skadi Press. ISBN 978-0-9576-1203-7.
- Hammond, Wayne G.; Scull, Christina (2005). The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion. HarperCollins. pp. 683–684. ISBN 978-0-00-720907-1.
- Bridgstock, Martin (1989). "The Twilit Fringe-Anthropology and Modern Horror Fiction". The Journal of Popular Culture. 23 (3): 115–123. doi:10.1111/j.0022-3840.1989.00115.x. ISSN 0022-3840.
- West, Richard C. (2006). Hammond, Wayne G.; Scull, Christina (eds.). 'Her Choice Was Made and Her Doom Appointed': Tragedy and Divine Comedy in the Tale of Aragorn and Arwen. The Lord of the Rings, 1954-2004 : Scholarship in Honor of Richard E. Blackwelder. Marquette University Press. pp. 317–329. ISBN 0-87462-018-X. OCLC 298788493.
- Davis, Bill (2013). Bassham, Gregory; Bronson, Eric (eds.). Choosing to Die: The Gift of Mortality in Middle-earth. The Lord of the Rings and Philosophy: One Book to Rule Them All. Open Court. pp. 123–136. ISBN 978-0-8126-9806-0.
- Gray, William (2009). J. R. R. Tolkien and the Love of Faery. Fantasy, Myth and the Measure of Truth : Tales of Pullman, Lewis, Tolkien, MacDonald and Hoffmann. Palgrave Macmillan. p. 102. ISBN 978-0-230-00505-1. OCLC 228503211.
- Bowers, John M. (2019). Tolkien's Lost Chaucer. Oxford University Press. pp. 244–245. ISBN 9780198842675.
- Vaninskaya, Anna (2020). J. R. R. Tolkien: More Than Memory. Fantasies of time and death: Dunsany, Eddison, Tolkien. Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 153–228. ISBN 978-1-137-51837-8. OCLC 1134852757.
- Workman, Sarah (2014). Female Valour Without Renown: Memory, Mourning and Loss at the Center of Middle-earth. A Quest of Her Own: Essays on the Female Hero in Modern Fantasy. McFarland. pp. 87–88. ISBN 978-1-4766-1763-3.
- Garbowski, Christopher (2006). "Death". In Drout, Michael D. C. (ed.). J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment. Routledge. pp. 119–120. ISBN 1-135-88034-4.
- Madsen, Catherine (2004). Chance, Jane (ed.). 'Light from an Invisible Lamp' | Natural Religion in The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien and the invention of myth : a reader. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. p. 42. ISBN 0-8131-2301-1. OCLC 54938267.
- Rateliff, John D. (2006). Hammond, Wayne G.; Scull, Christina (eds.). 'And All the Days of Her Life Are Forgotten' | 'The Lord of the Rings' as Mythic Prehistory. The Lord of the Rings, 1954-2004 : Scholarship in Honor of Richard E. Blackwelder. Marquette University Press. pp. 67–100. ISBN 0-87462-018-X. OCLC 298788493.
- Flieger, Verlyn (2005). Interrupted Music: The Making of Tolkien's Mythology. Kent State University Press. p. 46. ISBN 978-0-87338-824-5.
- Shippey, Tom (2005). Isaacs, Neil D.; Zimbardo, Rose A. (eds.). Another road to Middle-earth : Jackson's movie trilogy. Understanding the Lord of the Rings: The Best of Tolkien Criticism. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 242. ISBN 0-618-42253-6.
- Lee, Stuart D. (2018). ""Tolkien in Oxford" (BBC, 1968): A Reconstruction". Tolkien Studies. 15: 115–176. doi:10.1353/tks.2018.0008. ISSN 1547-3155. S2CID 171785254.
- Armstrong, Helen (1998). "There Are Two People in This Marriage". Mallorn. The Tolkien Society. 36: 5–12.
- Tolkien, J. R. R. (2008). Flieger, Verlyn; Anderson, Douglas A. (eds.). Tolkien On Fairy-stories. HarperCollins. p. 119. ISBN 978-0-00-724466-9.
- Flieger, Verlyn (1983). Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien's World. Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing. pp. 129–130. ISBN 978-0-8028-1955-0.
- Langford, David (2002). Complete Critical Assembly: The Collected White Dwarf (And Gm, and Gmi) Sf Review Columns. Wildside Press. p. 154. ISBN 978-1-58715-330-3.
- Rae, Kevin Victor (12 November 2019). "A Guide to Roleplaying Half-Elves". Tribality. Retrieved 27 March 2020.