In the first episodes of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, the show features a clash of cultures between the men of the Southlands and the elves who watch over them. The conflict is on different time scales: For the elves, the humans of this region only just quit working for Morgoth. For humans, this war goes back hundreds of years.
It’s a fascinating contrast, one that speaks to the true extraterrestriality of everyday human cohabitation with elves in a way that Tolkien never really brought to light. But fast forward a few episodes to the land of Númenor, and we watch a mob go into a rage against the elves for the most mundane reason.
[Ed. note: This piece contains spoilers for The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power episode 4.]
At the beginning of the “Great Wave”, rings of power visits a bustling square in Númenórean where a guild craftsman – one of the guys who got beaten up in the previous episode – meddles in the age-old tradition of inciting a mob.
“Elven workers, take your trades!” he prognosticates, based on the presence of an elf and a human ally (already imprisoned). “Workers who don’t sleep, don’t get tired, don’t age! Galadriel and Halbrand’s presence on Númenor is apparently a slippery slope towards a complete takeover of the Númenórian economy…? By… millennial low-wage workers?
His lyrics sweep his audience into a derogatory chant of “Elf-lover!” against their own queen, until they are appeased by an equally brief speech for the opposing position and the sudden appearance of a round of drinks. Too bad for people so righteous that the gods gave them a whole blessed island.
Needless to say, this is a terrible line of thinking. Racism should have no refuge in human society. I don’t condone hating elves, or anyone.
But if you were to hate elves, there are far more obvious, present, and logical reasons than “they’ll take your job.”
Elves are pretty detestable, actually.
The fantastical details of Tolkien’s Elves have been the subject of much discussion lately. And as Polygon’s Tolkien expert, I’m waiting for someone to ask me about the elephant in the room: why did the elves understand it so much better than the men in Tolkien’s legendarium?
If you are a man (or a woman, commonly referred to as – check the notes – a woman) in Middle-earth, here are some facts:
- Elves are physically more fit than you in virtually every way
- The gods have created a special paradise for elves that you are not allowed to visit
- Elves are immortal and you must die. Like, soon!
It’s important to remember that elves aren’t just more beautiful and graceful humans.
Elves are Vulcans
You can draw a direct line from Tolkien’s elves’ ‘unnerving and elevated stranger’, through a bunch of nerd minds and Age of Aquarius thinking, to star trekthe own emotionally detached, pointy-eared racial metaphor with mysterious psychic powers.
There’s a lot of Vulcan/human bias in the beginning star trek. Spock’s human heritage makes him the center of childhood bullying by Vulcan classmates who believe it will make him unfit for Vulcan standards. In Starfleet, he’s once again becoming the inflection point of bigotry, but of humans — and not because they think Vulcans are going to take their jobs.
Vulcan/human biases are expressed in characters who find Vulcan ways so unfamiliar that they are interpreted as offense or disdain. From these roots come humans who say they could never work alongside a Vulcan. Who think humanity and Vulcans can never find common cause. And Vulcans who feel the same way about humans.
This is exactly the gap that should exist between men and elves: a clash of cultures leading to a lack of trust.
Why do Do humans hurt so badly in Middle-earth?
Tolkien never presented human mortality as a negative element in his work. It was part of the ineffable intent of the creator of the universe that those of the race of men should die and what happened to their souls after that would be known only to him and the god of the afterlife. And for a deeply Catholic man, it’s a big step to present human fallibility as a creator’s blessing, rather than a punishment for sin.
And of course, elves enjoy many benefits. But the tradeoff of being an elf is that you don’t have free will, especially compared to humans. Elves – all elves – are afflicted with a divinely inspired desire for Valinor that eventually overshadows all other desires in their lives. And what they have in physical toughness is balanced by their emotional toughness. There are many stories in Tolkien’s work of elves who cannot put traumatic experiences behind them and yet cannot die, their physical forms withering away until they are no more than weary ghosts. . If you see it that way, a heaven designed by God where nothing bad ever happens is less of a bonus than a necessity.
Modern fantasy readers may be accustomed to settings such as Dungeons & Dragons, the works of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, or even Marvel and DC Comics, where the gods either demand mortal worship as the source of their power or seek the cult of mortals. of ego. But the gods of Middle-earth are something else altogether. Nobody in The Lord of the Rings never goes to church, we never meet a priest, the concept of prayer is just not discussed.
The gods of Middle-earth neither seek nor demand worship, for they are, even if they don’t come very often. Humans must have faith, not that gods exist, but that their work is a blessing, and that there is something for them beyond the living struggle of Middle-earth, even if the gods do not haven’t said what it is.
But elves don’t need faith in gods. They can feel their divine work within them at all times. And for a story written by a deeply rooted Catholic man, that’s perhaps the most alien thing about them.
A man who despises the elves for having clear and concrete blessings where he has only faith is a man who despises the gods. That is, as we know from The Silmarillion, exactly where the Númenor plot of the show goes. Sauron will manipulate the nation most blessed of men into rejecting their gods and rallying a fleet to invade the skies and take their own immortality by force.
This isn’t a story about “economic anxiety”, but about anger at the creator that made elves and humans so different. And that’s really where “the elves will take your job” fails to suspend belief. Because why would an elf want to flip burgers when he can just sail a little further west and go to heaven?