Elves: Nostalgic Progressives or “Bad Conservatives”?

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 27

The previous post suggested that Tolkien flecks his characterization of the Elves with an element of the bad kind of escapism he discusses in his essay “On Fairy-Stories.” It should be said, however, that in the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth (“Debate of Finrod and Andreth,” Morgoth’s Ring), Tolkien allows Finrod to articulate a more balanced, considered Elvish perspective on the matter:

“Other creatures also in Middle-earth we [the Elves] love in their measure and kind: the beasts and birds who are our friends, the trees, and even the fair flowers that pass more swiftly than Men. Their passing we regret; but believe it to be a part of their nature, as much as are their shapes or their hues.” (Morgoth’s Ring 308)

Verlyn Flieger, in an excellent discussion of the necessity of change in Tolkien’s philosophy and fiction, indicates something of the complexity and even self-critical nature of Tolkien’s emphasis on this point. While Tolkien was himself an Elf of sorts, and his “psychological and emotional yearning was nostalgia for aspects of his world that had vanished or were vanishing in his lifetime, still, his philosophical and religious position was that change is necessary” (Splintered Light 170). Flieger also makes my earlier point about “evil” in this regard involving the desire for some good when she writes: “Desire to preserve a present good inevitably becomes desire to keep it from passing, but this leads to stagnation. The process of change is part of the design, and must continue if the design is to be fulfilled” (170). Finally, Peter Kreeft has also written perceptibly (if not slightly hyperbolically) on the problem of Elves and change, describing them as “bad conservatives: they want to embalm the present. Seeing the downward slant of the present, they try to preserve the past. They are not evil like Sauron, who always wants to sing ‘I Did It My Way’, but they are foolish because they sing ‘I Believe in Yesterday’” (The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind the Lord of the Rings, 80).

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