15 May 2016

An early intimation of elvish immortality in the South English Legendary?

Arthur Rackham, from A Midsummer Night's Dream
It's common knowledge that as he grew older Tolkien came to despise the silly, diminutive elves and pixies so popular among the Victorians of his youth, and that he had an equal dislike for the fairies of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (Hammond and Scull, 2006, v. 2.280, 340). And while I am inclined to believe Tolkien's famous 'cordial dislike' for Shakespeare to be far more a distaste for Shakespeare studied on the page rather than watched on the stage (Letters, nos. 76, 163), there is no denying that he felt Shakespeare played a cardinal role in diminishing the inhabitants of Faërie who haunt the forests and moors of medieval literature (Letters, no. 151).  So lately I've gone back and begun reading many of those older texts, to see exactly what Tolkien had in mind when he sought to revive those elves for the mythology he could dedicate to England (Letters, no. 131). 

Now one of the most distinctive characteristics of Tolkien's Elves is that they are immortal, or, more properly, that they will exist in one form or another within Arda for as long as Arda itself lasts (Silm. 42).  If killed, they will either reincarnate or remain as spirits in the Halls of Mandos in Valinor. But in time their existence will grow wearisome (Silm. 88). Given this, the following words from the section of the South English Legendary on St Michael the Archangel, which I found quoted in Alaric Hall's excellent Elves in Anglo-Saxon England (141-42), fairly leapt off the page:
And ofte in fourme of wommane : In many derne weye
grete compaygnie men i-seoth of heom : boþe hoppie and pleiȝe,
þat Eluene beoth i-cleopede : and ofte heo comiez to toune,                       255
And bi daye muche in wodes heo beoth : and bi niȝte ope heiȝe dounes.
þat beoth þe wrechche gostes : þat out of heuene weren i-nome,
And manie of heom a-domesday : ȝeot schullen to reste come.
And oft in form of woman in many a secret way
Great company men see of them both at dance and play,
the people that they call the Elves, and oft they come to town;                 255
By day much in the woods they be, and by night upon the downs.
They are the unhappy spirits that out of heaven were cast
And many of them on domesday shall come to rest at last.*
(ed. Horstmann p. 307)
While it is interesting to note here the tension between 'dance and play' on the one hand, and the Elves' 'unhappiness' and lack of 'rest' on the other, a tension we also see in Tolkien's Elves, the idea that they will not know 'rest' -- which can mean the rest of death as well as peace and respite from troubles -- until the ending of the world also seems familiar.  Even the euphemistic ambiguity of 'rest' here is in keeping with the uncertainty of what will become of the Elves after the end of Arda (Silm. 42; Morgoth 312). 

Arthur Rackham, from A Midsummer Night's Dream
Then, too, these elves are in a position not entirely unlike Tolkien's Elves. For they are fallen angels, who tried to take no side in the struggle between Lucifer and God, and for this were cast down, not to Hell but to Earth (Horstmann, p. 305, line 187ff.). Tolkien's Elves were of course no angels, but their position between two warring sides and their rejection of both led not only to their departure (albeit willing) from Valinor, but also to the Doom of Mandos, which forbade their return and foretold the pains they would suffer until the end. 

I cannot claim that this passage is Tolkien's source for these aspects of his Elves, nor can I say whether I am the first to notice it in this connection, or indeed whether there are other, earlier passages elsewhere that make the same claims about the place of elves within a Christian view of creation. Not yet. I am still reading. At the very least, however, the South English Legendary offers intriguing parallels that could well have set Tolkien thinking and contributed to his portrayal of the Elves of Arda. 



*The translation is mine, and I've taken a few small liberties to try to preserve a sense of the meter. I would also dearly love to know what it means when the the elves come to town.


  1. Irrelevant: the German Wikipedia page for "elf" quotes one of the Eddas saying, "die Schwarzalben [sind] schwärzer als Pech". I translated it as "the Dark Elves are blacker than bad luck." Which is so brilliant that I was terribly let down when I found out that "Pech" also means "pitch".

  2. I like your translation better.

  3. just looking at shippey's 'road' and discovered that he quotes and discusses just this passage. you both go in the same direction, although your exploration is more interesting (the silmarillion discussion in 'road' is the least good part of an excellent book). the discussion is on pp. 178-9; if you don't have a copy to hand let me know and i will summarize or copy and paste.

  4. Well, I am not surprised that I am not the first to have noticed this passage, nor that Shippey, with all his vast store of knowledge, made the connection. But I am embarrassed that I didn't remember it from his book, which I read some years back, and evidently should again. In the revised edition the pages are 239-40.