One of the stranger concepts in Tolkien’s writings is that of “High Elves”. Why are these elves high? It has nothing to do with drugs, though in the Tolkien Society we used to joke about them smoking lembas. And it has nothing to do with stature, though nobility and body height go together in Tolkien, nor with elevation above sea level. I’ve got an idea.
According to Robert Foster’s 1978 book Complete Guide to Middle-earth, Tolkien uses the term as a synonym for the Eldar. These were a subset of the original Elven population who accepted a summons to join the gods in their brightly lit country to the west. Those who refused and stayed in the as yet only starlit parts of the ancient world were called Dark Elves. This ethnic division corresponds to the main split in the history of Tolkien’s fictional languages between Quenya and Sindarin. High Elves spoke Quenya, or High-elven.
Tolkien was a linguist and philologist before he was a fantasist. My guess is that he constructed a language that he called High-elven just as there is High German, and as a convenient shorthand he called its speakers High Elves. High German, Hochdeutsch, actually takes its name from elevation above sea level, as opposed to the Low German spoken in the lowlands. (High Germans, however, are rarely seen outside rave parties and Amon DÃ¼Ã¼l II gigs.)
The High Elves have since escaped from Tolkien and become a commonplace of pseudo-Medieval fantasy. According to Wikipedia, “High elves are distinguished from other fantasy elves by their place of living, as they usually dwell in stone cities, instead of woods … Typically high elves consider themselves the most purely good race of all, and haughtily view all other races beneath them”.