Monday, March 07, 2011


Elves have, so far as we can tell, the same sexual organs as everybody else. Their clothes certainly cover up the same areas of the bodies. (This is quite odd, when you come to think about it, because sexual modesty implies a loss of innocence, and elves are free from original sin. But their souls and their bodies -- their fëa and their hröa -- are wired differently from those of mortal men, doomed to die.) According to custom, female elves are more likely to be healers, and male elves are more likely to be warriors, but there is no role that a female elf is prohibited from performing just because she's female. Nevertheless, there is an essential difference between the genders: if a male elf dies he always reincarnates in male form, and if a  female elf dies, she always reincarnates in female form. (This, incidentally, is true of the gods  Valar as well: although they are incorporeal and wear bodies when they have dealings with humans, some always wear male bodies and some always wear female bodies.)

The elves reproduce in the same way as all other mortals,  although it is hard to imagine a hobbit doing it, isn't it? Elf marriages are like English "common law" marriages: the act of sexual intercourse is sufficient to make two elves married. In practice, the elves do perform solemn ceremonies of marriage and betrothal but it isn't the ceremonies which make the marriage. (By tradition, the brides mother gives the bridegroom a necklace to signify betrothal, a point which was presumably not lost on Aragorn.) 

Elves marry for life. Since dead elves are reincarnated, it is pretty bad form for a widow or widower to remarry. Finwe did marry Indis after Miriel died, but that was a source of ill-feeling between Feanor and his half-brothers Fingolfin and Finarfin. 

After they have had a few children, an elvish couple lose interest in sex, and dedicate themselves instead to other elvish pursuits: sitting in idyllic woods idyllic composing harp music about idyllically sitting in woods idyllically composing harp music; idyllically baking lembas; idyllically fighting genocidal wars about the ownership of magic gems. After their children have grown up, which takes millennia, they may actually live apart. There is really no such thing as elvish lust: affection, sexual desire and the bearing children go together, almost, one might say, like a horse and carriage. You really can't have one without the other.

Daily Mail readers believe that this is also how human sexuality works. But it isn't.


  1. Loki occasionally changed gender (Loki is the mother of Sleipner), though that's the only gender-bending god I can name off of the top of my head.

  2. Do Greek gods count? Pallas Athena (f) took the human form of Mentor (m) in her dealings with Telemachus. Of course, that's just a disguise, but still.

    And there's the White Bone Demon (f) from Journey to the West, who shapeshifts into several different beings of both genders. But then a demon is not a god, I guess.

  3. Well, I was really thinking about Tolkien's gods, since I was talking about Tolkien's elves. But, yeah -- different mythoi have different ideas about gender -- and about whether the gods have physical form or only seem to. (If I remember correctly, Milton thinks that angels really do eat and excrete, and that there is some angelic counterpart to sex.)

  4. I don't really think of the Valar as gods or I would have assumed that you were sticking with the Tolkien mythos.

  5. Andrew Stevens, why would you not think of the Valar as (small-g) gods? They seem very close to, for example, the Olympian pantheon.

    (For bonus points: could Tulkas beat Ares in a fight?)

  6. In LOTR, the Valar do come across as gods, at least to the Elvish. They are so obviously angels in the Silmarillion, though, that it's difficult to think of them as gods any more. You're quite right that they have a lot more character than Christian angels do, which makes them more similar to gods.

    Tulkas mops the floor with Ares. Ares might be tough when he's slaughtering humans, but in the Iliad he gets his butt kicked by Athena and goes crying to Zeus. Mars was brave and bold, but Ares was just murderous and a bit craven frankly. Tulkas gets his head handed to him by Thor.

  7. But did Tolkien think that this is also how human sexuality works? I ask because LOTR is so utterly sexless, even passionless (insofar as sexual passion goes); and unlike The Hobbit, it doesn't have the excuse that it's a children's book.

  8. Stephen, I don't think you can conclude from the absence of sex in LotR that Tolkien assumed it wasn't going on. It's just not what the book is about. It would be like assuming that Jane Austen thought no-one ever goes to the toilet because she doesn't show us Darcy and Elizabeth about their business in Pride and Prejudice.

  9. I am not sure that it is sexless and passionless. Sam and Rosie produce and awful lot of little Sams and Rosies. Aragorn's love for Aarwen is a major driving force of the sub-plot; and their love is of course a sort of aftershock from the literally earth-shaking love between Beren and Luthien. (I don't know how anyone could read "The Steward and the King" and conclude that there was no passion in the story.)

    But yes, I do think that the elves probably represent an uber-Catholic view of sex, and that that was probably Tolkien's picture of unfallen sexuality -- pure monomagmous love expressed through sex and children. (Although the elves losing interest in sex is also a necessary bit of plot machinery when you are dealing with immortal characters.)

    John Sutherland points out that there are more references to toilets in classic fiction than you might think: expressions like "I expect the ladies are tired after their long journey" and "I feel faint, I shall rest for a moment" are probably sometimes euphemisms.

  10. "I am not sure that it is sexless and passionless [...] Aragorn's love for Aarwen is a major driving force of the sub-plot."

    Very true, and very important. Not all passion manifests in sex (and especially it doesn't necessarily manifest so on-screen. What Aragorn and Arwen got up to in private it rightly left to the individual reader rather than spelled out by the author.)


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