In the first episodes of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, the show presents a clash of culture between the men of the Southlands and the elves who watch over them. The conflict is one of different time scales: To the elves, the humans of this region only just stopped working for Morgoth. To the humans, that war is hundreds of years past.
It’s a fascinating contrast, one that speaks to the true alienness of daily human cohabitation with elves in a way that Tolkien never really shone a light on. But fast-forward a couple of episodes to the land of Númenor, and we’re watching a crowd get whipped into a fury against elves for absolutely the most pedestrian reason.
[Ed. note: This piece contains spoilers for The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power episode 4.]
Early in the “The Great Wave,” Rings of Power visits a bustling Númenórean square where a guild craftsman — one of the guys who got beat up in the previous episode — dabbles in the time-honored tradition of inciting a crowd.
“Elf workers, taking your trades!” he prognosticates, based on the presence of one elf and one (already jailed) human ally. “Workers who don’t sleep, don’t tire, don’t age!” Galadriel and Halbrand’s presence on Númenor is apparently a slippery slope to a complete takeover of the Númenórean... economy? By... thousand-year-old low-wage workers?
His words whip up his audience into a derogatory chant of “Elf-lover!” against their own queen, until they are quieted by an equally brief speech for the opposite position and the sudden appearance of a round of drinks. So much for the people so righteous that the gods gave them a whole blessed island.
It should go without saying that this is a terrible line of thinking. Racism should have no safe harbor in human society. I don’t endorse hating elves, or anyone.
But if you were gonna hate elves, there are much more obvious, present, and logical reasons than “they’re gonna take your job.”
Elves are pretty hateable, actually
The fantastical details of Tolkien’s elves have been a topic of much discussion lately. And as Polygon’s Tolkien expert, I keep waiting for someone to ask me about the elephant in the room: Why have elves got it so much dang better than men in Tolkien’s legendarium?
If you’re a man (or a female man, commonly known as — checks notes — a woman) in Middle-earth, here are some facts:
- Elves are more physically adept than you in basically every way
- The gods made a special paradise for elves that you are not allowed to visit
- Elves are immortal and you have to die. Like, soon!
It’s important to remember that elves are not simply prettier, more graceful humans.
Elves are Vulcans
You can draw a direct line of “unnerving, elevated outsider” from Tolkien’s elves, through a bunch of nerd minds and Age of Aquarius thinking, to Star Trek’s own emotionally detached, pointy-eared racial metaphor with mysterious psychic powers.
There’s plenty of Vulcan/human prejudice in early Star Trek. Spock’s human heritage makes him the focus of childhood bullying by Vulcan classmates who believe it will make him unsuitable to Vulcan standards. In Starfleet, he again becomes the inflection point of bigotry, but from humans — and not because they think Vulcans are going to take their jobs.
Vulcan/human prejudice is expressed in characters who find Vulcan mannerisms so unfamiliar as to interpret them as offense or disdain. From those roots come humans who say they could never work alongside a Vulcan. Who think humanity and Vulcans can never find common cause. And Vulcans who feel the same about humans.
This is exactly the rift that should exist between men and elves: a clash of culture leading to a dearth of trust.
Why do humans have it so bad in Middle-earth?
Tolkien never presented human mortality as a negative in his work. It was part of the ineffable intention of the creator of the universe that those of the race of men should die, and that what happened to their souls after that be known only to him and the god of the afterlife. And for a deeply Catholic man, it’s a big step to present human fallibility as the blessing of a creator, rather than punishment for sin.
And sure, elves get a lot of benefits. But the trade-off with being an elf is that you low-key don’t have free will, especially when compared to humans. Elves — all elves — are afflicted with a divinely inspired longing for Valinor that eventually eclipses all other desires in their lives. And what they have in physical stamina is balanced by emotional durability. There are many stories in Tolkien’s work of elves who cannot put traumatic experiences behind them and yet cannot die, their physical forms withering away until they are nothing but weary ghosts. If you look at it that way, a god-crafted paradise where nothing bad ever happens is less a bonus and more of a necessity.
Modern fantasy readers may be accustomed to settings like Dungeons & Dragons, the works of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, or even Marvel and DC Comics, where gods either require mortal worship as the source of their power, or seek out mortal worship as a matter of ego. But the gods of Middle-earth are something else entirely. Nobody in The Lord of the Rings ever goes to church; we never meet a priest; the concept of prayer is simply not discussed.
The gods of Middle-earth neither seek out nor require worship, because they simply are, even if they don’t come around very often. Humans must have faith — not that the gods exist, but that their work is a blessing, and that there is something for them beyond the living struggle of Middle-earth, even if the gods haven’t said what it is.
But elves don’t need faith in the gods. They can feel their divine work within them at all times. And for a story written by a deeply rooted Catholic man, that might be the most alien thing about them.
A man who despises elves for having clear and concrete blessings where he only has faith is a man who despises the gods. Which is, as we know from The Silmarillion, exactly where the show’s Númenor plot line is going. Sauron will manipulate the most blessed nation of men into spurning their gods and rallying a fleet to invade heaven and take their own immortality by force.
It’s not a story about “economic anxiety,” but about anger at the creator who made elves and humans so different. And that’s really where “elves will take your job” fails to suspend disbelief. Because why would an elf want to flip burgers when he can simply sail a little farther west and go to heaven?