Tolkien Encyclopedia > Elves index > Elves


by Eonwe-(Valar)
January 6, 2011

Information from the Silmarillion and Lord of the Rings
    Relationship with the Valar
    Relationship with Melkor and his minions
    Relationship with Men
    Relationship with Dwarves
    Divisions of the Elves
Information beyond the Silmarillion and Lord of the Rings
    Birth and Growth
    Elves and Men
    Death, Reincarnation, Fading
    Elf Population Proportions
    Gesture Systems

    The purpose of this article is to chronicle knowledge of Elves in general. For this reason, events or facts which focus on a specific group of Elves will not be in great focus, and some may not be mentioned.

Information from the Silmarillion and Lord of the Rings

    Elves are the firstborn of the Children of Eru. They call themselves Quendi, meaning “those who speak with voices.” The Vala Oromë named them Eldar in their own tongue, which means “People of the Stars,” though this name later only applied to those who accepted the summons to Aman.

    Elves are immortal, in that their bodies are designed to last until the end of Arda.1 They do not die physically unless they are slain, or their grief is great enough that they wish to die. Sickness and pestilence can’t kill them. Their bodies in the beginning were similar to that of mortals and were more easily destroyed. Men and Elves were originally of similar stature and body strength, but Elves had greater wisdom, skill, and beauty. The Calaquendi surpassed the Moriquendi in these as the Moriquendi did Men, though the Sindar came closest to the Calaquendi.2

    Of the Noldor and Sindar, the Noldor had the greater power of mind and body, were greater warriors and sages, built with stone, and loved hill slopes and open lands. The Sindar had fairer voices, were more skilled in music, loved woods and riversides, and some still wandered without a settled abode. The Nandor were also known to wander (S 94), as were the Avari.3 These differences would set them apart from other Elves as well.

    Upon physical death, Elves go to the Halls of Mandos, to reflect on their life and await a time when they may be restored to a body, if they wish. Once restored to a body, they are free to live in Aman.

    Elves are similar in nature to the Ainur, though less in might and stature. Their presence affects the land where they live.  For example, the land of Eregion at the end of the Third Age still remembers the Noldor who had lived there in the Second.4 Enhanced forms of this can be seen in Rivendell and Lothlorien, where the lands are preserved by Elven rings.

    Hair color among Elves is generally divided by their house. The Vanyar had blonde hair, while the Noldor had dark hair. Some Teleri had silver hair (Celeborn and Elwë are mentioned to have silver hair). Some Silvan Elves, who were Teleri, appear to have had blonde hair as well.5 Union between the Elf groups would naturally allow for deviations from the norm (Finarfin’s house being such, as the son of a Noldo and a Vanya).

    Elves have some level of perception that allows them to understand the minds of others. When Finrod first came across Men, he found “he could read in (their) minds such thoughts as they wished to reveal in speech.”6 Gandalf, Elrond, and Galadriel also spent nights communicating without word.7


    The Elves awoke beside the shores of Cuiviénen “as Varda ended her labours (of creating new stars and constellations),... when first Menelmacar strode up the sky and the blue fire of Helluin flickered in the mists above the borders of the world.”8 The first sound they heard was water flowing and falling over stone. They dwelt by those waters for a long time, naming everything they perceived, before Oromë came upon them.

Relationship with the Valar

    Since the stars were the first thing they saw, all Elves share a reverence for Varda above any other Vala or Valie.

    Oromë was the first of the Valar to come upon the Elves, though it’s believed that Melkor was first aware of them.

    Upon Oromë’s return to Aman, the Valar were convinced to make war upon Melkor so that Arda could be safe for the Children of Eru. The Valar then summoned the Elves to live with them in Aman. The Elves, having only seen the Valar in their wrath, were concerned. Therefore, three emissaries were chosen from among them to go to Aman, and then return to tell about it to the others. These three were Ingwë, Elwë, and Finwë.

Relationship with Melkor and his minions

    Melkor sought to estrange Elves and the Valar, and when he was aware of them sent spies among them, sending some as dark riders to cause the Elves to fear Oromë’s riding. Thus, when Oromë did come among them, many hid, and many ran in fear and were lost. Melkor hated the Eldar, and saw them as the reason for his downfall. Of the Calaquendi, the Vanyar were suspicious of him, and he didn’t bother with the Teleri. Only the Noldor listened to him.

    The wise among the Elves of Eressea believe that Orcs have their origin in those Elves who ran into the wild at Oromë’s coming, that Melkor imprisoned them, corrupting them and enslaving them.9 The Sindar took them to be Avari who had become evil and savage in the wild.10

    During the Wars of Beleriand, Morgoth captured and enslaved many Elves, including Noldor, whom he put to work in his mines. Some of these he feigned to free, though they were still enthralled to him, and thus sowed distrust among the Eldar for those who did escape in truth.

Relationship with Men

    The first dealings of Elves and Men were with the Moriquendi in the east. They taught Men many things, among them their speech. This proved helpful when the first Edain came over the Ered Luin and were found by Finrod, as Finrod was able to recognize parts of their speech.11

    In Beleriand, many Noldor welcomed what they saw as a new ally in the war against Morgoth, and Men were greeted by both Noldor and Sindar, but Thingol would not allow them in Doriath. The Green-Elves of Ossiriand were not as friendly toward Men, declaring them unfriends for hewing wood and killing animals.

    Other men came out of the east later, under the leadership of Bor and Ulfang. Those who followed the former proved faithful, while those following the latter were in Morgoth’s service, or came to be in his service.

    The three houses of Edain continued to have a friendly a relationship with the Elves, except for the King’s Men of Numenor in the Second Age, as that people fell into fear of death and jealousy of Valar and Elves, and the Black Numenoreans of the Third Age who continued to serve Sauron after Numenor was sunk.

Relationship with Dwarves
    How long the Dwarves had been trafficking east of the Ered Luin is unknown, but they had already come into contact with the Nandor by the third age of Melkor’s captivity, and trade with them is likely.

    The Sindar were the first Elves in Beleriand to deal with Dwarves. They first came across the Petty-dwarves, and not know what they were, hunted and killed them. When the Dwarves of the Blue Mountains came into Beleriand during the second age of Morgoth’s captivity, the Sindar realized they were a speaking people like themselves, and both parties benefited from trade. Tension arose between the Sindar and the Dwarves when Thingol had a Silmaril set into the Nauglamír, and the Dwarves who did the work coveted the Silmaril. They slew Thingol and then returned to their halls, rallying their armies to invade Doriath.

    The greatest friendship between Elf and Dwarf was between the Dwarves of Khazad-dûm and the Noldor of Eregion in the Second Age of the Sun.12

Divisions of the Elves

    The first sundering of the Elves came about with the summons to Aman. All those who accepted the summons were called by the name Oromë had given all Elves: Eldar. Those who refused were called Avari: The Unwilling.

    The Eldar included all of Ingwë’s people, and most of Finwë’s and Elwë’s peoples. Ingwë’s group became known as the Vanyar, the Fair Elves. The Noldor (Deep Elves) Finwë’s group. The largest group was the Teleri, who due to their size were led by Elwë and his brother Olwë. They tarried often because they were not wholly of a mind to leave Middle-earth. The Teleri delighted in the Sea, and those who reached Aman were also known as the Falmari (Sea-Elves).

    Those of the Eldar who reached Aman were called Calaquendi (Light-Elves) and Tareldar (High-Elves).13 The Eldar who did not come to Aman were called Úmanyar by the Calaquendi. The Úmanyar and the Avari were classified together as Moriquendi (Dark-Elves).

    A large group of Teleri led by Lenwë left the march when the host of the Eldar reached the Anduin River. He led them southward, and his people became known as the Nandor (“Those who turn back”).

    Later during the ages of Melkor’s imprisonment, upon hearing of the might of Elwë (aka  Elu Thingol) and his realm, a group of Nandor were led into Beleriand by Lenwë’s son Denethor. With the loss of Denethor in the first battle of the Wars of Beleriand, those of this group who did not merge themselves with the Sindar turned to secrecy and became known as the Laiquendi (Green-Elves) for the color of their clothing.

    Silvan Elves (also called the Woodland Elves), based on their geographical location, appear to be the Nandor of the First Age who did not follow Denethor into Beleriand, and thus should be Eldar. However, Appendix F of Return of the King doesn’t recognize them as Eldar.14

    The Maia Ossë convinced a group of Teleri to remain on the shores of Middle-earth. These became the Falathrim, and Cirdan was their lord. They were the first mariners and shipmakers in Middle-earth.

    Of those Eldar who remained in Middle-earth, those who took Elwë as their king (which was the majority of the Eldar of Beleriand) became known as the Sindar (Grey-elves), and were the fairest, wisest, and most skilful of the Elves of Middle-earth.

    In Aman, the first weapons were made by the Noldor at the instigation of Melkor. Swords, axes, and spears are specifically named, and others are hinted at. Shields are also mentioned.

    When Menegroth began storing weapons to defend itself from Melkor’s minions, Thingol had the aid of the Dwarves. Axes, spears, and swords were the weapons of choice in this case as well.

    The majority of Teleri outside of Thingol’s forces, both in Middle-earth and Aman, were lightly armed. The Teleri of Aman were mostly armed with slender bows during their battle with the Noldor 15. The Nandor had no steel weapons 16

    Once the dominion of Man began, Elves were fated to dwindle and fade from Middle-earth. The end of the Third Age of the Sun marked the end of the Elves’ time in Middle-earth. The only option for avoiding this fate was sailing West to Aman.

Information beyond the Silmarillion and Lord of the Rings

    The terms “Eldar” and “Quendi” (or Qendi) changed meanings a few times throughout the writing, sometimes either one referring to all Elves, and others to specific groups. Unless otherwise noted, information in this section is included only if there is certainty it would apply to all Elves.

    Book of Lost Tales 1 gives some commentary on the Elves’ knowledge prior to their awakening. Nolemë (-> Finwë) says, “For meseems I awoke but now from a sleep eternally profound, whose vast dreams already are forgotten.” Tinwë (-> Elwë) comments that “his heart told him that he was new-come from illimitable regions, yet he might not recollect by what dark and strange paths he had been brought.” Inwë (-> Ingwë) knew nothing of from where (outside of Arda) they came or how they got to Arda.17

    The physical “beauty “of Elves can best be described by a quote from Book of Lost Tales part 2, in which Tolkien “wrathfully” comments on a “’pretty’ or ‘ladylike’” depiction of Legolas:
    “He was tall as a young tree, lithe, immensely strong, able swiftly to draw a great war-bow and shoot down a Nazgul, endowed with the tremendous vitality of Elvish bodies, so hard and resistant to hurt that he went only in light shoes over rock or through snow, the most tireless of all the Fellowship.”18

    This should be evidence that the physical beauty of Elves is gender appropriate: male Elves have attractive masculine qualities, and females attractive feminine qualities.

    Hair color among Elves was generally related to clan. Nearly all Minyar (Vanyar) had yellow or deep golden hair.19 Noldor were mostly dark-haired (brown or black), though there were those among the Noldor with red hair.20 The Teleri also had dark hair primarily, but silver hair was a trait that appeared occasionally, particularly among those sharing near or remote kinship with Elwë.21

Birth and Growth
    “Laws and Customs Among the Eldar” in Morgoth’s Ring contains much information on this subject, and is the source of the information in this section.22

    Elves are born one year after conception. Their bodies grow slower than Man’s but their mind grows more swiftly. They learned to speak, walk, and dance within this year, as “their wills came soon to the mastery of their bodies.” Elves reach adulthood at fifty years, though some would continue to grow until their hundredth year. Children were few, but dear to the parents, seldom having more than four.

    The bodies and spirits of Elves are coherent, and as time passes and the thoughts and desires of an Elf changes, so do the impulses and moods of their bodies. Children are usually born in a space of time shortly after marriage (short as the Eldar measure time).

    Elves believe that in begetting and bearing children, a greater share of their strength and being goes into it than for mortals. Elves are not easily deceived by other Elves, and are seldom swayed by desires of the body only, “but are by nature continent and steadfast.”

    Outside of biological differences and natural inclinations of gender, men and women among Elves are equal. “There are no matters which among the Eldar only a ner (man) can think or do, or others with which only a nis (woman) is concerned.” For example, the arts of healing were typically practiced by the nissi, while the neri bore arms when necessary. The ability of the nissi in healing, however, was considered due to their abstaining from hunting and war, not from being a woman. Likewise, “in dire straights or desperate defense, the nissi fought valiantly, and there was less difference in strength and speed between elven-men and elven-women that had not borne child than is seen among mortals.”

Elves and Men
    “The Cottage of Lost Play” says Elves and Men in Tolkien’s early notes were “of a size” in former days, and that the “smallness, filminess, and transparency” were an aspect of their fading. It’s likely Tolkien was coming to reject a diminutive statue being tied to fading by the time he was rewriting “The History of Eriol or Aelfwine.”23

    In a section titled “Miscellaneous Matters” of the chapter “Turambar and the Foalokë”, there is a mention that Elves were “conceived to be of slighter build and stature than Men.”24

    “The History of Eriol or Aelfwine” mentions a prophecy that one day Elves will fight a war against Melko(r)’s forces. If Men join them, the Two Trees will be rekindled and their light will spread over Arda. If Men oppose them, it will be the end of the Elves.25 It is also mentioned that Elves couldn’t breathe the same air as Men of equal or greater number.

    “The Fall of Numenor” in The Lost Road says that Elves hastened their fading by warring with Thu (Sauron) at the end of the Second Age, and that this was the last service of the Firstborn to Men.26

Death, Reincarnation, Fading
    Elvish reincarnation into their children is first mentioned in “The Music of the Ainur” as the fate of those Elves who are slain or die of grief.27 By this means, the Elf population stayed constant.

    Chapter 2 of The Shaping of Middle-earth says Elves would have to wait in Mandos for a thousand years, or the pleasure of the Gods (Valar), before they could be “recalled to free life.”28

    The “Quenta Silmarillion” version in The Lost Road says that once they are able to leave Mandos, they are either leave as spirits, “taking form according to their own thought, as the lesser folk of the divine race,” or reborn into their children.

    “Laws and Customs Among the Eldar” tells of the greater dominance of the Elven spirit over its body than Man’s over his. This dominance increased as time passed, consuming the body, the end result being what is called “Elven fading.” At the last, the body is merely a memory held by the spirit, and thus they became deathless.29 This group of Lingerers in Middle-earth is not to be confused with the Houseless.

    Upon death, Elven spirits are summoned to Mandos, that they are free to refuse. Doing so, however, leaves them weaker to the counter-summons from Morgoth. Refusal most commonly came from Avari. In the time after Morgoth’s removal from Arda, many Elves who died in Middle-earth refused the summons, choosing to wander Arda “Houseless.” These bodiless Elves desire to deal with the living, though it is forbidden by the Valar. Some of them desire bodies, though they aren’t willing to attain them lawfully, and thus are dangerous to commune with.30

    The Appendix of Part IV of Morgoth’s Ring mentions a manuscript titled “Reincarnation of Elves” where Tolkien discusses at length the issue. In this paper, he decides that rebirth as a child is impossible for Elves. Since the fëa (spirit) and hroa (body) are fitted to each other, and the body has a physical descent, making it different from the spirit’s original body, it would have to be a condition of pain for the spirit thus reborn.31

    A note in The Peoples of Middle-earth says that Elvish bodies quickly disintegrate and vanish after their spirits leave them.32

    The Elves were armed during the Great Journey, but only with spears and bows and arrows, “weapons of the chase.”33

Elf Population Proportions
    The information in this section can be found in The War of the Jewels, Part IV “Quendi and Eldar.”34

    According to legend preserved (almost identically) by the Amanyar and the Sindar, there were originally three Elf Clans derived from the three Elf-fathers (and their followers): Imin, Tata, and Enel, meaning One, Two, and Three. The clan names thus became Minyar (“Firsts”), Tatyar (“Seconds”), and Nelyar (“Thirds”). Of the original 144 Elves that awoke, they were divided among the three clans: 14, 56, and 74, respectively. The proportions based on these numbers were maintained (more or less) until the Separation (the Sundering of the Eldar and the Avari).

    Of the Minyar it is said that none were Avari (thus all were Vanyar). The Tatyar were evenly divided (the half that chose to go to Aman becoming Noldor). The Nelyar were the most reluctant, but had a greater sense of unity with their clan, and so many who had originally chosen to be Avari became Eldar when it was clear Elwë and Olwë, their chieftains, were leaving (and thus, were the Teleri).

    Part C offers this chart displaying Proportions of Eldar and Avari among the Elf clans. Remember these are relative proportions based on the original 144 Elves.

Minyar14:Avari 0Eldar 14
Tatyar56:Avari 28Eldar 28
Nenyar74:Avari 28Eldar 46 < Amanyar Teleri 20; Sindar and Nandor 26

Gesture Systems

In addition to their spoken languages, Elves had gesture systems for when speech was unwise. Unlike Dwarven Iglishmek, however, which was designed to be used close at hand to discuss matters amongst themselves without being understood by outsiders, Elven gesture-systems were primarily used to communicate at a distance.35


The Silmarillion
1 “Of the Beginning of Days”
8,9 “Of the Coming of the Elves and the Captivity of Melkor”
“Of Eldamar and the Princes of the Eldalië”
“Of the Silmarils and the Unrest of the Noldor”
15 “Of the Flight of the Noldor”
10,16 “Of the Sindar”
2 “Of Men”
6,11 “Of the Coming of Men into the West”
“Of the Ruin of Beleriand”
3,12 “Of the Rings of Power and the Third Age”
13 Index of Names, Entry: Eldar

  The Fellowship of the Ring
4 “The Rings Goes South”
5 “Lothlorien”

The Return of the King

7 “Many Partings”
14 Appendix F, Section I, Subsection: “Of the Elves”

The History of Middle-earth Series:

Book of Lost Tales Part 1

17 Chapter V: “The Coming of the Elves and the Making of Kor”
27 Chapter II: “The Music of the Ainur”

Book of Lost Tales Part 2
18, 23, 25 Chapter 6: “The History of Eriol or Aelfwine and the End of the Tales”
24 Chapter II: “Turambar and the Foalokë”

The Shaping of Middle-earth
28 Chapter II: “The Earliest ‘Silmarillion’”, Section 7 (SoME 21)

The Lost Road and Other Writings
26 Part 1: “The Fall of Numenor and the Lost Road”, Section II: “The Fall of Numenor”, Chapter IV: “The Further Development of the Fall of Numenor” (26 LR 29)

Morgoth’s Ring
33 Part 2: “The Annals of Aman”, Section 4
Part 3: “The Later Quenta Silmarillion”, Section II: “The Second Phase”, “Laws and
Customs Among the Eldar”
    22, 29 Subsection: “Laws and Customs Among the Eldar etc.”
    30 Subsection: “Of Death and Severance of the Fëa and Hrondo [>Hroa]”
31 Part 4: “Anthrabeth Finrod Ah Andreth”, Appendix

The War of the Jewels
Part 4: “Quendi and Eldar”
    19, 21, 34 Part C: “The Clan-names, with notes on other names for divisions of the Eldar”
    35 Appendix D: “*Kwen, Quenya, and the Elvish (especially Noldorin) words for ‘Language’”

The Peoples of Middle-earth
Part 2: “Late Writings”
    20 Chapter XI: “Shibboleth of Fëanor”
    32 Chapter XIII: “Last Writings”, Note 24