In the first episodes of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, the show presents a clash of culture between the men of the Southlands and the elves who watch over them. The conflict is one of several time scales: only for the elves, the people of this region only stopped working for Morgoth. For the people, that war is over for hundreds of years.
It’s a fascinating contrast, one that speaks to the true strangeness of everyday human coexistence with elves in a way that Tolkien never really shone a light on. But fast forward a few episodes to the land of Númenor, and we see a mob become enraged at elves for the absolute most pedestrian-only reason.
[Ed. note: This piece contains spoilers for The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power episode 4.]
Early in the “Great Wave” Rings of Power visits a bustling Númenórean Square where a craftsman from the guild—one of the boys beaten up in the previous episode—engages in the age-old tradition of inciting a mob.
“Elf-workers, take your trade!” he predicts based on the presence of an elf and an (already captured) human ally. “Workers who don’t sleep don’t get tired, don’t age!” The presence of Galadriel and Halbrand on Númenor is apparently a slippery slope to a complete takeover of the Númenórean… economy? By… thousand-year-old low-paid workers?
His words whip his audience into a derogatory chant of “Elf-lover!” against their own queen, until they are silenced by an equally brief speech to the opposite position and the sudden appearance of a round of drinks. So much for the people who were so righteous that the gods gave them a most blessed island.
It goes without saying that this is a terrible way of thinking. Racism should not have a safe harbor in human society. I don’t condone hating elves or anyone.
But if you’re going to hate elves, there are a lot more obvious, current, and logical reasons than “they’re going to take your job”.
Elves are actually pretty hateful
The fantastical details of Tolkien’s elves have been a subject of much debate lately. And as Polygon’s Tolkien expert, I keep waiting for someone to ask me about the elephant in the room: Why are elves so much better off than men in Tolkien’s legendarium?
If you are a man (or a feminine man, commonly known as – checks – a woman) in Middle-earth, here are some facts:
- Elves are more physically adept than you in almost every way
- The gods have created a special paradise for fairies that you are not allowed to enter
- Elves are immortal and you must die. Like, soon!
It’s important to remember that elves aren’t just nicer, more graceful people.
Elves are Vulcans
You can draw a direct line from “nervous, exalted outsider” of Tolkien’s elves, through a bunch of geek ghosts and Age of Aquarius thinking, to Star Trek‘s own emotionally distant, pointed racial metaphor with mysterious psychic powers.
There are early enough Vulcan/human biases Star Trek. Spock’s human heritage makes him the focus of childhood bullying by Vulcan classmates who think it will make him unfit for Vulcan standards. In Starfleet, he once again becomes the inflection point of intolerancebut of people – and not because they think Vulcans are going to take over their jobs.
Vulcan/human bias is expressed in characters who find Vulcan mannerisms so unfamiliar that they can be interpreted as insult or contempt. From those roots come people who say they could never work alongside a Vulcan. They think that humanity and Vulcans can never find a common cause. And Vulcans who feel the same about humans.
This is exactly the rift that should exist between men and elves: a clash of cultures that leads to a lack of trust.
Why to do people have it so bad in Middle-earth?
Tolkien has never presented human mortality as negative in his work. It was part of the unspeakable intention of the creator of the universe that those of the human race should die and that what happened to their souls afterward should be known only to him and the god of the afterlife. And for a deeply Catholic man, presenting human fallibility as a creator’s blessing, rather than a punishment for sin, is a big step.
And sure, elves get a lot of benefits. But the trade-off with being an elf is that you lowkey don’t have free will, especially compared to humans. Elves – all elves – are haunted by a divinely inspired desire for Valinor that eventually overshadows all other desires in their lives. And what they have in physical endurance is outweighed by emotional endurance. There are many stories in Tolkien’s work of elves who cannot leave traumatic experiences behind and yet cannot die, their physical forms languishing until they are nothing but tired ghosts. When you look at it that way, a God-made paradise where nothing bad ever happens is less of a bonus and more of a necessity.
Modern fantasy readers may be accustomed to environments such as Dungeons & Dragons, the work of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, or even Marvel and DC Comics, where gods either require mortal worship as the source of their power, or seek mortal worship as a matter of ego. But the gods of Middle-earth are something quite different. Nobody inside Under the spell of the Ring ever goes to church, we never meet a priest, the concept of prayer is just not discussed.
The gods of Middle-earth neither seek nor desire worship, because they simply to beeven if they don’t come often. People must have faith, not that the gods exist, but that their work is a blessing, and that there is something for them beyond the living battle of Middle-earth, even if the gods have not said what it is.
But elves don’t need faith in the 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 strangest thing about them.
A man who despises elves because they have clear and concrete blessings that he has only faith in is a man who despises the gods. That is, as we know from The Silmarillion, precisely where the show’s Númenor plotline goes. Sauron will manipulate the most blessed nation of humans into rejecting their gods and muster a fleet to invade the heavens and take their own immortality by force.
It’s not a story about “economic fear”, but about anger at the creator who made elves and humans so different. And that’s really where “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?