What Makes High Elves High?

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 Düül 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”.

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22 thoughts on “What Makes High Elves High?

  1. Technically, not all of the Moriquendi (dark elves) were Avari (unwilling). The Sindar in particular set out on the journey, but never actually made it to Valinor – so technically they were Eldar rather than Avari, but nevertheless Moriquendi rather than Calaquendi.

    It’s complications like that which really make me appreciate Tolkien… There’s a really good graphic showing the relationship between the various classification on the wiki page for the Sundering of the Elves.

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  2. High-elven just as there is High German, and as a convenient shorthand he called its speakers High Elves

    So we should imagine High Elves as wearing Lederhosn, eating Brezn and playing the Alphorn?

    I think it’s possible that “High Elves” wasn’t originally intended to indicate some sort of superiority, but that it developed that connotation nearly inevitably – it fits in too well with the strong ideas of corruption and falls from grace that is part of our Judeo-Christian heritage.

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  3. This also illustrates the strange moral Lamarckian inheritence in Tolkien’s works. If your ancestors went to Valinor, you’re going to be physiologically, mentally and (usually) morally privileged. If your people betrayed the good guys in the First Age, your people will be forever tainted by it, even physically – you will be shorter and swarthier and less noble in spirit. Rightful Kingship – also inherited, of course – manifests physically as well as in magical powers (Aragorn can’t cure scrofula, but he’s uniquely able to use Athelas).

    It’s fairly obvious to see the High Elves as corresponding to the Chosen People of Israel, brought by their god(s) to the promised holy land, expelled for their sins (in the case of the Noldor), and then returning later after being chastised.

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  4. Is it time for my favourite Tolkien-related terrible pun?
    “What do dieting Balrogs eat? Light Elves.”

    (Sorry.)

    Seriously, I suspect it’s a case of the winners writing the history books: the High Elves that come back to Arda are not generally very nice people, and do (at least in my reading of the Silmarilion) see themselves as culturally superior to the “native” elves.

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  5. Further reply to my previous comment: I suspect the terms used by the Sindar for the Noldor in Beleriand were mostly unprintable, and heavily bowdlerised in the surviving texts.

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  6. Good points all! It’s pretty amazing the way Aragorn’s inherited kingliness works after all those generations of being basically leaders of a small hunter-gatherer band.

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  7. By the way, how fast did Arnor disintegrate? Even with support from Rivendell, a small band would not have prevailed in a hostile country for millennia.

    Hm. Elves…Legolas..Gimli. I feel an excavation haiku coming on.

    Spade hits metal
    Gimli exclaims “I want gold!
    Bugger science!”

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  8. I have to agree with scidog, sometimes LotR seems like a travelogue, from a person who has first hand knowledge.

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  9. Great question and interesting insights. In Hamlet’s Mill (1969) by de Santillana and von Dechend (who were also scholars of mythology and linguistics like Tolkien), their conclusion uses the term “High Civilizations” as if its meaning is understood (they never define it but seem to use it to mean “ancient and advanced civilizations”). The specific sentence in their conclusion is “Nevertheless, the careful, inductive application of critical standards of form along the belt of High Civilizations has been enough to show the remnants of a preliterate ‘code language’ of unmistakable coherence” (344). Interestingly enough, I just wrote a blog post about a very interesting connection to Tolkien’s use of the word Earendil which is discussed in Appendix 2 of Hamlet’s Mill. I wrote that post before I discovered your interesting blog here, which I just found for the first time by checking AllTop’s archaeology section where your blog is listed.

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  10. From what I understand Tolkien believed in the divine rights of kings in real life. His brand of conservatism was so conservative that it predated modern capitalist society and pretty much left him in an ideological universe of his own. If that is true then certainly its no stretch to understand his mythology following the same path.

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  11. scidog & Balstrome

    I get the same impression from Harry Turtledove’s novels. He was a historian, and took bits and pieces of real history and assembled them into fictional stories that have an overpowering air of realism.

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  12. fishskicanoe: Tolkien’s political views were… odd. I think the term ‘anarcho-monarchist’ would fit best. His political ideal was probably closer to the Shire (with its lack of any real political structure) than to Gondor.

    Birger: The Kingdom of Arnor devolved into three smaller kingdoms, which then were slowly chewed up by Angmar. The Dúnedeain existed as Rangers for about a thousand years. A long lifespan, their inherent racial superiority, the divine kingship and a First Age prophecy all helped out, plus the fact that the North wasn’t hostile in any particularly organized fashion (Angmar having been defeated at the Battle of Fornost just as Arthedain fell).

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  13. I wonder what “chewed up by Angmar” and “Arthedain fell” meant for the population density and settlement types in the area during that millennium. Was former Arnor laid waste? Was it still full of farms? Were there still towns like Bree?

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  14. Long-lasting population consequences of war are rife in communities who rely on fragile irrigation systems for agriculture, but I do not see the boreal region of Arnor coming close to fitting that bill -in LOTR and The Hobbit the landscape is typical English countryside (a bit heavy on forest and light on farms, though).

    Maybe Angmar sprayed the fields from the air with long-lasting Anthrax spores… no. Radionucleids… no.
    A slowly dissipating curse on the land?? But if Angmar possessed such powers The Nine would have rivalled and surpassed Sauron in power.

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  15. Superfluous (to the story) people are invisible thruout LOTR.

    Somebody, L. Sprague de Camp IIRC, once reported a conversation with Tolkien, in which they agreed that the Middle Earth countryside was modeled on the English terrain he grew up with. And particularly, that accounted for the absence of large fauna in the M. E. wildernesses.

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  16. Naah, the hunters of the First Age carelessly exterminated all the moose, the mammoths and the wooly rhinos. Since elves reproduce slowly (otherwise they woud have crowded the world, being eternally young -dwarwes seem eternally middle aged and grumpy) some idiot sold them potency elixirs based on powdered horns.

    And commoners are practically invisible to the posh classes, without any assistance from magic rings.

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  17. The depiction of the Noth is one of the coolest things of the MMO “Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar”.

    Since the game – at least in the original release – focused a lot on old Arnor, we get to see the old ruins (most spectacularly, the ruins of Annúminas, but also the ruins of Fornost, and a host of smaller ones), and when you go North from Bree, you run inte increasingly small and exposed settlements (which, unsurprisingly, need your help with lots of stuff…), until you find a place called “The Last Farm” (one of the questlines is trying to convince the (unsurprisngly stubborn) farmers there to evacuate in the face of an orc invasion). The Rangers try to maintain what I like to call “The Thin Brown Line” with very limited resources from small, hidden bases.

    Further north still, we run into tribes of Hillmen, not all of them corrupted by Sauron and Angmar (it’s possible to work with the more independent-minded tribes), and further north still, the reascendant kingdom of Angmar (the endgame of the original release was to deascend it).

    The game also makes a superb job of depicting the mess of tribal infighting and backstabbing that is orc society.

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