The Long History of the Half-Elven

Camera: Kodak Brownie No. 2, Model D (1914) ||Film: Fujichrome Provia 100 x-pro as C-41 (expired in 10/1997)

Camera: Kodak Brownie No. 2, Model D (1914) ||Film: Fujichrome Provia 100 x-pro as C-41 (expired in 10/1997)

They’re still going strong, our hobbits and Strider, triptrapping along through the cheerless lands east of Weathertop.

Thoughts on the Passage – Book I, Chapter 12 (p199, 50th Anniv. Ed.)
For the past two days we’ve looked along the Aragorn and Arwen story and how it related to the Beren and Luthien story.

The Lord of the Rings was not written in a vacuum. Anyone’s who’s read it knows that there’s a much larger mythology that’s taken (and taking) place around it. We are lucky that we now have the “completed” story as well as the published Silmarillion, the latter of which contains that larger mythology.

Most people think that Tolkien wrote the Silmarillion first, then The Hobbit, then Lord of the Rings, and then just fucked off and died. But it’s not nearly that simple.

Two things should always be remembered. First, that when the Lord of the Rings was originally released (1954-55), the published Silmarillion, as we know it now, didn’t exist (and wouldn’t for another two decades). Second, we need to understand that the Silmarillion as we know it now, was no where near completion. In fact, Tolkien worked out many of the things we know as canon during the writing of Lord of the Rings. For example, Galadriel as a character did not exist prior to her appearance in Fellowship of the Ring. She was later reincorporated into the Silmarillion material.

Which parts of the Silmarillion that existed and didn’t exist prior to the writing of Lord of the Rings is covered in the twelve volume History of Middle-earth series by Christopher Tolkien. It’s exhaustive and exhausting and there’s no way to even paraphrase that in a blog post.

So as an exemplar, let’s look at the evolution of the Beren and Luthien story and how it effected the mythology over all, including Aragorn and Arwen, as well as the whole halfelf, moral/immortal deal.

Tolkien began writing the tale of Beren and Luthien 1917. It’s certainly not the oldest of the Book of Lost Tales, which was what the young Tolkien was calling the material that would later become the Silmarillion, but it predated the writing of the Turin Turambar story by a couple of years.

In the original draft, Beren was an Elf (technically a “Gnome” – the word he used and then dropped for the Noldor), as was Luthien. While Beren noticed Luthien’s woodland dancing, they were not in love and never married. They had adventures that mostly echoed all through the proceeding versions of the story, but their relationship wasn’t steamy in the least.

The oldest existing draft is actually the second draft. The first was erased so that the second one could be composed over top of it. Tolkien did this (and similar things like it) regularly. Waste not, want not, I suppose.

After “finishing” as much of the Book of Lost Tales that he was going to finish, Tolkien began to transcribe and rewrite two of the longer tales into “lays,” long poems. The first, started in 1920, was the Lay of the Children of Hurin (including the story of Turin Turambar). Working on it for five years, he abandoned it for the Lay of Leithian, which he also called The Gest of Beren and Luthien (gest, pronounced “jest,” means long narrative poem).

Within the earlier Lay of the Children of Hurin, Tolkien referenced the tale of Beren and Luthien. In this retelling, Beren was still an Elf, but those two crazy kids were now in love! With this new found bit of information, it’s no wonder why Tolkien scrapped the amazingly depressing Turin Turambar story and focused instead on the love story of Beren and Luthien.

He started writing the epic in August of 1925, working on it for just over six years. Like the previous poem, he never finished it. Perhaps the line said by Aragorn to the hobbits on Weathertop, that the story of Beren and Luthien “is a long tale of which the end is not known,” was a dig at himself for never finishing the damn thing.

In 1931, the poems were abandoned and Tolkien moved onto two very different pieces of literature. First, he returned to the Silmarillion prose, which he had been dabbling with for the past year (1930). Here, some major changes occurred. Central to our story, is the idea that certain individuals, the offspring of Men and Elves, can choose to be either mortal or immortal.

But this didn’t come right away. I explained yesterday how the whole Halfelf mortal/immortal thing works – basically it was deemed so by Manwe when Earendil illegally sailed west to Valinor. In the earliest versions, contained in the Book of Lost Tales (from 1917ish), Earendil automatically had the same fate as Men because “so much of the mortal is in him.” When first written, Earendil was the only Halfelf in the legendarium – Tolkien was still writing Beren as a full Elf. He would, of course, soon change this.

Tolkien first broached the subject of a choice (though not this choice) around 1930ish, when trying to figure out what to do with the Elrond character. At this point, Elrond was the only child of Earendel and Elwing. When the Elves returned to the West, Elrond decided to stay “on earth” and be “bound by his mortal half.” In a note added to this manuscript, Tolkien first jotted that Elrond had a brother, Elros.

He then put this aside around 1932 as he took out a scrap of paper and scribbled “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” The next few years would be taken up by the writing of The Hobbit, which was published in 1937. Shortly after he was finished with it, he began to write the first draft of the Lord of the Rings, but he also returned once more to the Silmarillion material.

It was in 1938 (the year in which he finished the so-called Third Phase of writing Lord of the Rings) when he came back to the Halfelf question of Elrond and Elros. For the first time, Elrond chose to be an Elf, and Elros chose to be a mortal. Tolkien addressed this by dipping back into the tale of their father, Earendil, and his illegal journey to Valinor in the West.

“Now all those who have the blood of mortal Men, in whatever part, great or small, are mortal, unless other doom be granted to them; but in this matter the power of doom is given to me. This is my decree: to Earendel and to Elwing and to their sons shall be given leave each to choose freely under which kindred they shall be judged.” – Manwe

This was probably ironed out within the same year as he was writing about Elrond in the Lord of the Rings. This decree would be fine-tuned here and there, but it’s basically the same as alluded to in the Appendix A of Lord of the Rings. It’s nearly identical to that given in the published Silmarillion.

For about a decade, Tolkien worked on Lord of the Rings, finishing the main story in 1948. When it came time to write the Appendices, which he had fiddled with throughout the later stages of writing the main text, he penned a longer version of the Tale of Aragorn and Arwen, much of which made the final cut in the published Appendices of Return of the King in 1955.

After the Lord of the Rings was published, Tolkien would return to the Silmarillion material, working on it until his death in 1973.

A Few Notes:

  • Tolkien switched between the spellings of “Half-elf” and “Halfelf”. I chose the latter because I did. Same goes for Earenel/Earendil.
  • I probably should have footnoted this beast of a post, so if you have a question about sources, just ask. The books used, apart from the obvious, were History of Middle-earth, Volumes I, II, III, IV, V, VI, and IX; as well as the History of the Hobbit by John D. Rateliff.
  • Jeff and SJ both wanted longer blog posts. How’s this for size?

About the Photo
The ground in this photo somewhat reminds me of the ground over which our heroes are tramping, but mostly I selected it because it was taken with a camera that is a contemporary of Tolkien’s earliest writings. The camera, a Kodak Brownie No. 2, Model D hails from 1914, making it 100 years old. It still works like new.

  • Day 57
  • Miles today: 5
  • Miles thus far: 276
  • 184 miles to Rivendell
  • 1,503 miles to Mt. Doom

Today’s stopping place: Still south of the East Road, southeast of Weathertop (map)


15 thoughts on “The Long History of the Half-Elven

  1. Oh, was this longer? I hadn’t noticed (twss).

    No, but srsly. I love reading about all of the changes he went through. It makes me smile that he was CONSTANTLY revising his work.

    • About twice as long, I think. These will happen from time to time. Short posts are still my bread and butter.

      It makes me smile to know that he was always reworking, but sometimes it can really be maddening.

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