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Thursday, October 29, 2009


This was written for a fanzine, some time ago. I can't recall which one, alas! But I think it's worth a re-visit.

I have recently read a glut of fantasy novels and have been re-reading the original classic Lord of the Rings in preparation for the films and it has occurred to me that no one in any of them ever seems to explain how all those elves can be aristocrats. Tolkien, I’m afraid, much as I love him, is the worst offender. All his elves are rulers; we’re never told who they rule.

At a literature conference I attended recently, Tamora Pierce, a great Tolkien fan, remarked - not without affection - that no one ever seems to go to the bathroom in Tolkien, but it’s worse than that. We know Bilbo Baggins can cook, from The Hobbit, which may be why he is so welcome in Rivendell, because no one else appears to do any menial work, yet they seem to have no trouble whipping up a feast. The Elves who meet Frodo and Sam early on their quest apologize for their plain fare, but of course, it tastes superb - bread, fruit, wine - as you would expect of Elvish cuisine.

Everyone in Rivendell is a warrior or a musician or a scholar. No one is ever seen growing food or preparing it, let alone cleaning up after the party. There are elven smiths, true, but they are all too occupied creating magical rings or repairing swords for long-lost kings to be bothered doing horse-shoes or nails or anything so plebeian. I keep picturing some pointy-eared elven smith wiping his sweaty forehead as he says apologetically, “Sorry, sir, we’re a-makin’ of a mass order of armour for Ragnarok next week, no time to look after your ‘oss’s cast shoe. You tried the hobbit smith down the road?”

We know that Galadriel and her maidens in Lothlorien weave fabulous cloth for magical cloaks, but this, like making magic rings, is an acceptable aristocratic occupation. Somebody makes the lembas (journey bread), I suppose, but we’re not told who - or where the ingredients come from. Come to think of it, who looks after the sheep whose wool is used in elven cloaks or grows the cotton or flax?

They do make rope in Lothlorien; when Sam is leaving, he's told that actually, they would have shown him how if they had known he was into rope-making. But it's magical rope, of course!

Possibly they trade with the communities of Men or hobbits, but this wouldn’t be a very practical way to survive in out-of-the-way Rivendell or Lothlorien - what if you were cut off from your suppliers by war or the Dark Lord or something?

In folklore, we are told that the Fair Folk live on illusion. Their palaces only seem to be beautiful, their clothes grand. In fact, they live in holes, their clothes are rags and their food, if you’re silly enough to eat it and be stuck in Faerie, is tasteless. Not only that, but their gold turns into dead leaves overnight. My theory is that the reason for this is because they’re all aristocrats and find it beneath their dignity to cook, clean or make and repair clothes.

To be fair, we do see some plebeian Elves in The Hobbit - but this is in Mirkwood, whose Elves are not of the High variety and never went to the West back in the earlier ages.

Perhaps Rivendell and Lothlorien are Elvish artist colonies? ;-)

If anyone knows of a serious fantasy novel that presents elves, Faerie, whatever, who actually work for a living - or go to the bathroom - I’d be interested to hear of it.


A latte beckons said...

This made me laugh!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Glad you liked it, Kate! Needless to say, I do enjoy your novels, which include some ordinary people and no elves at all!

blackheathkrenon said...

Hi Sue,

I was looking at your post about Edwina Harvey's "The Whale's Tale" which I've just read myself and (among other things) I'm Edwina's webmaster. If, as I think I can presume, your review is favourable, I'm sure Edwina would want a link to it.

However, concerning Tolkien's Elves - that is a source of some irritation to even the more devoted Tolkien fans. Tolkien seems only to have been interested in the elite of the elf races, and one would have to presume that the farmers, cooks and menial workers are simply ignored in his accounts of them. You would also notice, concerning the feast mentioned in the chapter "Many Meetings", that no food item was named, the meal being covered by a phrase something like "it was all that he (Frodo) could wish".

As for "going to the bathroom" - there are surely a lot of books that don't deal with that aspect of life yet don't skip any part of the plot that's necessary. In fact I don't think the Elves had bathrooms. You'll notice that the Hobbits had bathrooms and they liked to take baths, but the Elves were never known to wash themselves. Perhaps they were somehow "self cleaning". :)

Anonymous said...

Hi Sue,

Found this post while browsing through your blog... I actually always saw the elven society very much as our own - I actually think Galadriel does her own dishes, just like we all do, and never thinks much about it! Same with food and cooking - she probably has a small garden of her own (like Michelle Obama in the White House :) and cooks romantic meals for herself and Celeborn :)

Sue Bursztynski said...

Possibly, but I'm betting that any garden Galadriel keeps has such magical herbs as athelas, with, perhaps, little elanor flowers for decoration. ;-) I somehow can't see her growing carrots or cooking fish and chips.

Sue Bursztynski said...

...and in The Hobbit, we see that Thranduil, Legolas's Dad, has a butler and common soldiers and peasants - but then, the Wood-Elves are the lower classes of Elfdom.