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Light-elves, Dark-elves, and Others: Tolkien's Elvish Problem

From: Tolkien Studies
Volume 1, 2004
pp. 1-15 | 10.1353/tks.2004.0015

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Tolkien Studies 1.1 (2004) 1-15

Tolkien's Elvish Problem

Tom Shippey

In chapter 15 of C. S. Lewis's 1938 novel Out of the Silent Planet, Elwin Ransom the philologist for the first time encounters a sorn, one of the tall, intellectual species that inhabits the highlands of Mars. They fall into a discussion of Oyarsa, the spiritual being who rules the planet, and Augray the sorn tells him that Oyarsa is an eldil. The eldila seem insubstantial to humans and Martians, Augray explains, but this is a mistake. The eldila can go through walls and doors not because they themselves are insubstantial but because to them our material world is insubstantial. "These things are not strange," says Augray, "though they are beyond our senses. But it is strange that the eldila never visit Thulcandra"—Thulcandra being "the silent planet" itself, Earth: "'Of that I am not certain,' said Ransom. It had dawned on him that the recurrent human tradition of bright, elusive people appearing on the earth—albs, devas, and the like—might after all have another explanation than the anthropologists had yet given."

What, one may well ask, are "albs" and "devas"? The second word presents no difficulties. If one looks it up in the Oxford English Dictionary, the sense given for "deva," entirely appropriately for the context above, is "'a bright, shining one'. . . a god, a divinity; one of the good spirits of Hindu mythology." All the OED has to offer for "alb," however, is that it is a tunic or ecclesiastical vestment, while "albs" does not occur at all.

Tolkien's connections with this passage are multiple. In the first place it is generally agreed that Elwin Ransom is an affectionate portrait of Tolkien himself. In the second place, the whole novel is now known to have grown out of the famous agreement by Tolkien and Lewis, in 1936, to write separate fictions, Lewis taking the theme of space-travel and Tolkien that of time-travel. Tolkien's contribution was never finished or published in his lifetime, seeing print eventually first as "The Lost Road" and then as "The Notion Club Papers," in volumes V and VIII respectively of "The History of Middle-earth." In both, the name Elwin, or forms of it such as Alwyn or Alboin, are significant. However, the immediate connection with the passage above is that "albs" is surely a word borrowed by Lewis from Tolkien, perhaps in conversation. *albs is in fact the unrecorded and hypothetical, or "reconstructed" Proto-Germanic form of the word which descends into English as "elf," into Old English as ælf, into Old Norse as álfr, into Middle High German as alp, and so on. It then makes an entirely suitable match with "deva," being mythological, widespread, and bearing witness to a human attempt to label some phenomenon outside their normal comprehension. Only Tolkien is likely to have told Lewis such a thing. It would be entirely typical of Lewis, whose recorded remarks show several errors in Old English morphology, though he taught the subject at Magdalen College, to mis-hear it, and to assume the -s was a plural ending, so making "alb-s" (wrongly) parallel with "deva-s."

What the word and the passage show is that Tolkien had considered the whole problem of the variant forms of "elf" in Germanic languages, and presumably talked about it. It must have been a topic of Inkling conversation, one of several we can infer from cross-comparison of Lewis's, Tolkien's, Williams's, and Barfield's works (and possibly others as well). If Tolkien had considered the problem, we may again well ask what conclusions he had come to, and what further problems in the conflicting traditions of North-West Europe he would have encountered. The purpose of this essay is to suggest that it was indeed in these problems—even more than in the traditions—that Tolkien found inspiration for his fiction in the various versions of the Silmarillion, and eventually in sections of The Lord of the Rings.

The problems take a certain amount of explanation. One may begin with the thought, fundamental to the early investigators of comparative...