Reflections on the biology of Homo calaquendi


For a while now I’ve been really haunted by a question about the verisimilitude of J. R. R. Tolkien’s world-building: what are the long-term social and biological consequences of the fact that the Eldar, the elves, are immortal?

Consider the fact that the elves are long-lived, and not particularly fecund. Even when they are, inter-general patterns are spotty. Fëanor had seven sons, but only one grandson! Today we have “helicopter parents”, always worried about the safety of their offspring. How would an elvish society ever flourish if parents are terrified about the risk of their few offspring dying prematurely?

The fact that elves even go to war is indicative of a very strange and alien psychology. If you had the opportunity for everlasting life, would you risk it in battle? Are elves courageous? Or do they just have high time-preference?

But for me, the bigger question is the psychology of Galadriel. At 7,000 years old she is one of the oldest creatures in Middle Earth, along with Gandalf, Sauron, Cirdan, and Glorfindel. Assuming 100 years that’s 70 human lifetimes. J. R. R. Tolkien is quite clear about her physical appearance. She is quite tall, with silver-gold hair. But her head is not particularly large. So the question presents itself: how does her long-term memory allocation work? We know she has a human cranial capacity.

If salient and emotionally resonant memories connected to excitement in the hippocampus are the ones banked, does that mean that Galadriel’s mind is brimming with incredibly vivid recollections? Shouldn’t she be depressed in the present, because the present is going to be so dull compared to her glittering memories of Aman, and the beauty and elegance of the First Age civilization of the Eldar?

Additionally, it seems clear that the Eldar don’t suffer from cognitive decline in the same way as humans. Does that mean perhaps that Galadriel’s intuitive abilities would be suprahuman? Both humans and elves are children of Eru Ilúvatar. There is no evidence from the legendarium that elves are orders of magnitude more gifted than humans in “system 2” thinking, that is, rational reflection. But in their grace and acuity in matters of perception are curious. Could be it be a function of acquired “system 1” faculties, as opposed to what they were born with?

Perhaps the fey grace of the Eldar is not a matter of their natural abilities, but a function of developmental psychology? If the 10,000-hour rule is a thing, how about the 100-generation rule?

Finally, the elvish recourse to writing strikes me as peculiar in light of their immortality. They seem to be primary producers and foragers who don’t engage in much trade, so accounting is not highly valued in all likelihood. And writing does not confer the gains of the advantage of immortality to an already immortal species.

Note: For those readers who suggest that this post may mean that I never have sex, I already have three children. That’s more than most elves!

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31 thoughts on “Reflections on the biology of Homo calaquendi

  1. Death for elves doesn’t really mean the same thing as it does for Men. Not that they want to die and don’t try to avoid it, but the worst consequence of them dying is that they might have to spend a few years (or longer) in some shadowy halls before being reincarnated into the Earthly Paradise of Aman.

    I think the calaquendi elves are kind of melancholy, probably for that reason. In general they seem to mourn the passing of time and change to places that they’ve long lived in, and their “magic” usually seems to be the kind that acts to preserve (Lothlorien is a fairy-land type of place where time flows different).

    As for writing, I think it’s more or less a hobby for them. Feanor invented a new written script for them, and they were like “Oh, this is neat! Let’s use this now!”

    They seem to be primary producers and foragers who don’t engage in much trade, so accounting is not highly valued in all likelihood.

    This reminds me of how there’s only like one mention of Elvish agriculture in anything Tolkien ever wrote, and it was so unusual that his son straight-up said, “This is the only time he ever mentioned Elves farm.”

    A lot of Elves seem to be pretty primitive. IIRC the Green-Elves of Ossiriand in the Silmarillion only use stone tools and basically live off the forests.

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  2. to be fair, the noldor are artisans of great renown. but yeah, it seems that they’re most foragers. the great elvish cities probably survived in part by extracting rents from ‘elf-friends’?

    one thing re: aman: remember that when middle earth ends, the elves end. their fate, like the valar and maiar, is tied to middle earth. humans are different and not so tied…

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  3. Triangle trade! If Men did wood-cutting, animal husbandry, and agriculture to trade the products therein to Dwarves who hate doing that stuff and prefer mining and forging, then they could do that for elves too.

    You’re right about Aman. That makes Elvish existence a bit sad again – even if Aman is awesome and they never get bored with it, there’s always the “shadow ahead” of them possibly ending when it does.

    Whereas Men go . . . somewhere. That was one of my favorite parts of Morgoth’s Ring, Tolkien talking about how even if Aman did give humans bodily immortality, it would either drive them mad with weariness or they’re turn into zombies when their spirits finally break free of their bodies. Shades of the One Ring’s immortality making Bilbo feel stretched.

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  4. What about somatic mutations in Galadriel who was over 7000 years old? She and other elves should have quite a lot of them. The brain is a large mutational target for somatic mutations. Elves should be dying of cancers and suffer from a multitude of neurological diseases.

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  5. Hum… Tolkien ran with a pretty clever crowd. Are there any records of similar conversations with his friends and acquaintances? Like Sinclair asking, “How does temptation and sex work with your elves, John?”

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  6. Ooh, the Nonmen are good. Although since there are examples of fertile hybrids, you’d think they’d spend more time trying to cross-breed with regular humans to see if they could get fertile women. Maybe they’re just too crazy to do it by the time of the events in the books.

    I love how they constantly feel familiar, but always a bit alien as well.

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  7. Like Sinclair asking, “How does temptation and sex work with your elves, John?”

    they are interfertile with humans. so you know they got the parts to do the dirty.

    I love how they constantly feel familiar, but always a bit alien as well.

    agree about the nonmen.

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  8. For all that Tolkien has been praised as a world-builder, I’ve never thought he did a particularly thorough job of filling in the details. One particular issue that occurred to me years ago was what happened to elves who were maimed but not killed in their endless wars against the forces of darkness? One could imagine that elves had great regenerative powers, and could eventually recover fully from any non-fatal injury. But this doesn’t seem to be the case: I can think of two separate instances in Tolkien’s writings where an elf loses a hand and afterwards has to make do with one (in one case fairing well, in the other not). Given the number of battles the elves were involved in, I would expect many such instances, and many much worse. The image of permanently maimed elves does not fit well with the whole ethereal beauty thing, but as far as I am aware Tolkien never even noticed that there was an issue.

    (A different solution was suggested in one of the Hobbit movies, where Thranduil is talking darkly about his experience with dragon fire, and for a moment terrible scarring appears on his face, and then disappears. This could be taken to imply that such wounds are indeed permanent, but can be remedied — perhaps superficially, or perhaps more organically — with magic).

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  9. @Brett
    One version of the Cil-Aujas story told in the Judging Eye involved the Nonman King’s favourite slave human concubine who was considered special just because she managed two (failed) pregnancies. Presumably they tried, but maybe the chance of success is something like one in a billion. One could speculate a human father would provide greater chances of success but that obviously isn’t an option.

    @jb
    Tolkien’s Elves for their part would biologically fit well into the genus Homo and possibly even Homo Sapiens.
    “Elves and Men are evidently in biological terms one race, or they could not breed and produce fertile offspring – even as a rare event”

    -The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien Letter 153

    There is in fact a magical component allowing a regeneration of sorts, Elven spirits that go to Mandos can be reclothed in new bodies.

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  10. @jb

    I think Tolkien said in one of the materials Chris Tolkien collated that while Elves don’t get sick and can recover from injuries that would kill Men, serious injuries will still kill them – and they won’t regrow limbs or anything like that.

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  11. In as much as elves are magical creatures, the physical limitations that curse humans do not apply. Moreover, mere interbreeding does not, for elves, imply that elves and humans are the same species or genus. Biology does not apply to magical creatures. Nor does any science.

    Sauron and his minnions are beyond science, too.

    Because of magic, Tolkien could cheat at world-building.

    PS. In genus/species typography, both genus and species are italicized, but only the genus is capitalized.

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  12. Well, this seems to be the right crowd to get some answers about Arwen and Aragorn.
    My son thinks it is incest that Arwen would marry Aragorn because she is like his great aunt or something. I couldn’t exactly follow all the genealogy from Eru Ilúvatar down to Aragorn in human branch, but after three generations of separation, it shouldn’t matter, right?
    What is the opinion of this crowd?

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  13. Elrond is something like Aragorn’s 38 times great-uncle. And that’s actually surprisingly low, because the Dunedain had and have long lives – Numenor only had 25 kings over 3300 years, an average reign of 132 years.

    Tolkien never answers it, but the impression I got is that the Numenorean life-span is actually the “original” life-span of Men, with the burden of Morgoth’s corruption lifted while they were still righteous on Numenor. The Valar can’t really change their mortality, and dwarves are also mortal and live 250 years.

    I guess while I’m at it, it bothers me that we never get a description of the Teleri Elves. We’re explicitly told that the Noldor and Vanyar are fair-skinned and dark-haired/blonde respectively, but nothing about the Teleri.

    @ Bob Sykes

    Tolkien seemed bothered by some of the inconsistencies of his fictional mythology with science, though. It was fascinating to read his attempt to wholly reshape the Silmarillion so that it worked with a bigger universe and a “round Earth orbiting the Sun” origin instead of what we got. He just couldn’t get it to work with “Elves wake up with the stars” and “Men rise with the sun”.

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  14. teleri have to be brown haired mostly just cuz it’s not commented on. the vanyar blondeness (along with that of the house of hador) is commented on, just as many of the noldor had very dark hair. similarly, the house of haleth is notable cuz they are stated as having dark eyes often, unlike the two other edain houses.

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  15. @Twinkie: “You all are huge nerds.”

    I’m staying out of it. I have enough trouble trying to perceive and understand reality.

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  16. Should have written that ***Steven Tyler***, since his ancestry is an open secret. ***Taylor Swift*** too. Has anyone ever seen either of them with even a paper cut?

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  17. I’ve read things indicating that the elves are not in fact immortal. Their spirits will eventually wear out their bodies. I find it interesting that of the five beings you mention as the oldest in Middle-earth, four are ring-wearers. And the fifth, Glorfindel was dead and reembodied. Perhaps all the rings extended the wearers lifespan?

    Speaking of Glorfindel, the whole death and re-embodying thing indicates that memories were not an entirely biological thing, at least for elves. Their spirits may have acted as a sort of external hard disk with extra storage capacity.

    The fact that their biological existence are auxillary to their life may also explain things about both their reproduction and fighting wars. They would not be risking their existence in wars, just their physical bodies. And in terms of reproduction, I am uncertain just how far inside their design specifications reproduction were.
    Of course over time those most inclined to have children would outbreed the less fertile ones. And pass the trait on. Those would probably be the ones that lived more in their bodies, psychologically. The less interested in ethereal issues and powers.

    And so the elves in Middle Earth would dwindle and grow less powerful and more physical as the generations passed.

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  18. Ancient humans go on all the time about farming because they needed to eat food as much as we do, but they were so much worse at making it that they had to put a large part of their population on the job. We have far fewer farmers as a proportion of the population because we’re far better at it. Maybe the elves are just so awesome at farming that you rarely see an elf farmer.

    You should be able to see an elf farm, admittedly: what is the supply line of Caras Galadhon, that they can hold out in a siege against the forces of Sauron? Maybe the characters are looking at one at some point but fail to recognise it?

    Tolkien’s hobbits were all about the farming and milling, matching his memory of the countryside of the English Midlands. He lamented its depopulation, and the rising population of urban people and their houses, but I don’t think he made the connection between that and improving farming practices.

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  19. Glorfindel is surely not as old as Galadriel, his namesake died in the fall of Gondolin so he must be a son or other relative – it isn’t made clear.I don’t believe he is the same person reincarnated.

    In fact the oldest creatures we know of in LOTR are Cirdan (it isn’t specifically stated that he is an “original elf” but it is implied), Tom Bombadil (presumably) and Fangorn and his two other ancient surviving Ents Fladrif and Finglas). Oh, and of course Sauron, Gandalf, Saruman, Radaghast, and the two “blue wizards” who are apparently Maia and hence semi-angelic creatures formed from Eru before the world itself. I guess that would include the Balrog(s) as similar semi-divine creatures. The Ringwraiths are considerably younger but a sort of undead (I guess that’s a fair description) from the first age. So the oldest “human/elf is Cirdan, Gandalf and Tom Bombadil not being strictly “human”.

    Galadriel is a little younger being the daughter of the original high king of the Noldor and his second wife. Elrond is younger again. Galadrie’s husband Celeborn is also very old but not probably an original – he has several origins in the backstory, being a grandson of Olwe or the grandson of Thingol’s brother Elmo. He is possibly the last elf on middle earth to “remember” the elder days until he too leaves, though it is also said that Cirdan will take the last ship.

    There may well be some Noldor with Cirdan or Elrond or Telerian or other elves who date back to their original creation before the Sun, but we don’t specifically know if this is so – Gildor for example may be one such of the Noldor. Thranduil, Legolas’s father is “the son of Oropher” so not an original.

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  20. Update to the above, it appears that as a late emendment, Tolkien decided that Glorfindel was indeed the same character as at Gondolin, reincarnated in Aman and sent back to middle earth some time around 1600 SA – about when Baradur was completed and the one ring forged.

    So in a sense he is both old and a bit younger, but not an “original” as he is Noldorian and apparently (but not definitively identified by Tolkien as such) as the offspring of a Noldor/Vanya intermarriage to produce the hair colouring. That would be the same source of the hair colour as Galadriel and her siblings.

    And Cirdan is indeed identified as an elf who travelled Westwards with the main group but he stayed to search for his kinsman Elwe (Thingol) and as a result missed both the first and the second migrations to the blessed lands. So he would be in my view, the oldest identifiable human or elf in LOTR.

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