Elven Races

Elves are all pretty people with pretty hair and pretty eyes and pretty bodies and pretty fortune telling telepathic powers and pretty neat magic and pretty cool action scenes, right? Wrong! Contrary to popular belief in the fan fiction/RPG world, Tolkien’s Elves aren’t just prettier, more magical, cooler versions of humans. Tolkien made Elven races with specific physical and mental traits allotted to each. Thus, an Elf’s appearance, power, and personality are determined by which race(s) of Elves he or she descends from.

Of course, Elves have several given powers.

  • Their bodies mature until they are the maturity of a 25-years-old human (50-100 years old for the Elves) and then their bodies stop changing. They live until they die of grief or are slain (210 MR). (Here’s a useful tool for converting ages from human to Elven. Multiply the human age by a number between two and four [depending on how fast you want your elf to grown up – four grows up slower, two grows up faster]. This, of course, works in the opposite way as well, by dividing a number between four and two instead of multiplying. This system stops working at the human age of 25.)
  • They can’t get sick, freeze to death, or starve to death, though they need to eat to be strong and have energy.
  • Elven children are never born with deformities.
  • Their senses are more acute than the other races. Their eyes are especially powerful, as seen when a lowly Elf named Legolas could see beyond the horizon.
  • There was telepathy among Elves. This ability grew with thousands of years of age. It was hardly something unheard of in Middle-earth. Men had the Palantíri, which amplified telepathy to an extreme. Telepathy was found amongst the purer-blooded the Númenorians as well. However, it wasn’t used very often, and it probably takes a lot less energy just to say whatever you want to say.
  • Fortunetelling exists among Elves, but only on a small scale. Truly, whenever the Valar want to tell an Elf something, they will give the Elf a dream about it. In fact, this wasn’t restricted to Elves, but humans often received such messages as well. Elven women seem to be more likely to have these dreams, and they had the dreams most often about their children, and would name their children from these dreams.
  • Music + Knowledge + Wisdom + Divinity = Magic. All of Middle-earth is built upon the music of Ilúvatar, and therefore, magic is used through song, and normally several hours of song. Therefore, magic is very impractical to use in a fight for an Elf. Still, Elves can’t make fire leap out of their hands, change the weather, or make nature obey their commands. That is reserved for the Maiar. (Who are wise, full of knowledge, and lesser gods.) Elves can only change themselves and what others see of them. Felagund hid his troops by having them wear Orc clothing, and singing as they marched; he made his troops and himself look like a band of Orcs to fool the enemy. Even then, it didn’t work, and the moment he stopped singing, the spell was lifted and they looked like Elves in Orcs’ clothing.
  • There are no lightning bolts coming from any parts of their bodies. You won’t find any Harry Potter magic among Elves.

There are several given physical traits of Elves as well.

  • Elven women aren’t very feminine to our eyes. Sorry teenage boys, no lovely curves or big breasts. Tolkien describes them as being as tall and broad-shouldered as the men. Their chests were probably fairly flat while they were not having children as well.
  • The men have no beards.

The Mystery of Fading

Despite common belief, Elven fading is not dying from grief. It’s a stage of an Elf’s life that is reached when they are really really, really, really old. Their spirits begin to devour their bodies, slowly making them transparent. When an Elf is completely faded, it is invisible to mortal eyes. There is no way to reverse the process. Dying of grief is a completely different thing, and normally entails falling asleep in a peaceful spot and not waking up. Their bodies don’t rot when they die of grief – they just lie there in case their spirits may want to return.

The three primary races of Elves are the Vanyar, the Noldor, and the Teleri. I will cover the Elves of mixed descent, Avari, Calaquendi, and the Moriquendi and mistakes often made about them as well.

The Vanyar

Vanya means ‘fair’ in Quenya. The plural is ‘Vanyar’, and the adjective is
‘Vanyarin’.

Vanyarin Elves are tallest of the Elves at about 7′. They have golden
blond(e) hair and grey eyes.

Special powers/traits: They are noted for being wise and not impetuous. Their “magic” is only a little better than the other Elves, but it is still so non-existent that it doesn’t really count as being magic to us. The Vanyar have a knack for getting in the favor of the Valar; they have caused the least number of problems and happily do what ever the Valar ask them to do.

The Valar that favored them: Varda and Manwë

Where they are found in the Third Age: In Valinor.

Which language they speak: Vanyarin, a dialect of Quenya

Famous Vanyarin Elves: Ingwë, Indis

Other divisions/names of the Vanyar: Faeries, The Fair

The Noldor

Noldo means “wise/knowledgeable” in Quenya. The plural is “Noldor”, and the
adjective is “Noldorin”.

The Noldor are shorter than Vanyarin Elves, but still pretty tall at 6’5". They have black hair or (very rarely) red-brown hair and grey eyes. Red hair is so rare among them that giving an Elven character red hair isn’t a good idea.

Special powers/traits: They have a great love of knowledge and craft. This love tends to get them in trouble from time to time. Silmarilli, anyone?

The Vala that favored them: Aulë

Where they are found in the Third Age: Most are in Valinor and a few are in Middle-earth.

Which language they speak: Quenya, until the First Age of Middle-earth. King Thingol banned Quenya, so they started using Doriathrin, changing it a little to make the dialect of Sindarin spoken in the Second and Third Ages.

Famous Noldorin Elves: Fëanáro, Finwë, Nerdanel

Other divisions/names of the Noldor:Deep Elves, Gnomes, Golodhrim

The Teleri

Teler means ‘Hindmost’ in Quenya. The plural is ‘Teleri’, and the adjective is ‘Telerin’.

Telerin Elves are roughly the height of the Noldor, if not a little shorter. Their hair is silver blond(e) or black, and their eyes are grey.

Special powers/traits: They love water, simplicity, and the color green. They are the least likely to seek or desire power. They are named as the greatest of the three hosts of the Elves. They were the last to leave Cuiviénen.

The Vala that favored them: Ulmo

Where they are found in the Third Age: Most are in Middle-earth, making up the majority of the Elven population in Middle-earth.

Which language they speak: Telerin, which broke into Nandorin, Doriathrin, and Ilkorin. Doriathrin was the most dominant, and its descendant, Sindarin, became the only Elven language spoken in Middle-earth by the third age.

Famous Telerin Elves: Thranduil, Legolas, Celeborn, Círdan, Thingol

Other divisions/names of the Teleri: Danas, Falamari, Foamriders, Green Elves, Grey Elves, Hindmost, Laiquendi, Last-comers, Lindar, Nandor, Nymphs, Sea-elves, Silvan Elves, Sindar, Singers, Third Clan, Wood Elves

Elves of Mixed Descent

Elves of mixed descent are not born with hair or eye colors not already found in their parents. So, if a Vanya and a black haired Noldo marry, their children could have golden blond(e) or black hair, not a shade of color between. If an Elf has Vanyarin, black-haired Noldorin, and Telerin blood in him or her, this Elf could have golden blond(e), silver blond(e), or black hair and grey eyes. There is no such thing as an Elf with brown or dirty blond(e) hair or green eyes.

Famous Elves of mixed descent: Galadriel, Elrond, Finarfin, Fingolfin, Celebrían

The Avari

Avar means ‘refuser’ in Quenya. The plural is ‘Avari’ and the adjective is
‘Avarin’.

The Avari are the Elves that never left Cuiviénen. For all we know, they are still there. They would be made up of mostly Telerin Elves. Writing about Avarin Elves in Middle-earth is wrong because there never was any Avari in Middle-earth. They never left Cuiviénen; remember?

The Vala that favored them: Melkor got his dirty fingers on a few of them; it is rumored that some of their descendants became Orcs.

Other divisions/names of the Avari: The Refusers, The Unwilling

The Moriquendi and the Calaquendi

Moriquendi means ‘Dark Elves’ in Quenya. Calaquendi means ‘Light Elves’ in Quenya.

The Dark Elves do not have dark skin and white hair. They are not enemies of the Calaquendi. Dark Elves are simply Elves who haven’t seen the light of Yavanna’s trees. The Calaquendi saw the trees before Melkor destroyed them. That’s it. They are found in all of the races of Elves and appear no different from other Elves. The Moriquendi are not ‘Drow’, and there is no such thing as a ‘Drow’ in Middle-earth. After reading this, if you write about ‘Dark Elves that are the enemies of all of the light peoples in Arda’ without the RPG or fan fiction being a crossover between Tolkien’s work and the Forgotten Realms, my imaginary self will appear and beat you with a copy of The Silmarillion until it starts to sink in.

Famous Moriquendi: Legolas, Arwen, Elrond, Celebrían

Famous Calaquendi: Galadriel, Fëanáro, Ingwë

Sources

  • (MR) Morgoth’s Ring By Tolkien, Laws and Customs of the Eldar
  • (SME) The Shaping of Middle-earth By Tolkien, The Quenta, Appendix 1: AElfwine’s Translation of the Quenta into Old English; Old English equivalents of Elvish names
  • (S) The Silmarillion By Tolkien, Of the Coming of the Elves, The Sundering of the Elves, Of Fëanor and the Unchaining of Melkor, Of Beren and Lúthien
  • (UT) Unfinished Tales By Tolkien, Appendix E- The Names of Celeborn and Galadriel, The History of Galadriel and Celeborn

We love hearing about how people use our translations!