The Eldar - A Pointed Question

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Valas 10/Dec/2006 at 09:52 AM
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Recently, I ran into an old friend and fellow Tolkien enthusiast with whom I’ve had a long-standing debate regarding Eldar physiology - specifically, whether or not elven ears are pointed. We’ve kicked this subject around for as long as I’ve known him (some fifteen years now) and although our independent searches for a definitive answer have led to nothing conclusive, I’m curious to know where some of you stand on this issue.

To frame an exact question: Do you believe that Tolkien intended for the Eldar to have pointed ears as depicted in art and film, or is this trait a convention brought on by a common idea of what elves look like? From a personal standpoint, does it matter to you one way or the other?

Novgwath 10/Dec/2006 at 10:18 AM
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I believe that there are several reasons by the pointed ears of the elves. Tolkiens real reason may remain a mystery, except maybe to those who have read Letters etc however i can offer my opinion. Personally i believe that it is a combination of several things. I believe it is partially to do with the stereotypical view of elves. To change convention, although very creative, may not have been the wisest of idea’s. It may have alienated certain people, been very hard to change convention, the list is endless. Also i believe Tolkien would wish to distinguish between the Elves and Men in some form. Although there were distinctions between races, such as the flowing mainly blonde locks of Rohan & the shortish, scraggly hair of Gondor, he wished for there to be a greater distinguishing factor between species.

It would not matter to me what they were, however i believe that pointed ears suits them.

Vugar 10/Dec/2006 at 11:20 AM
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They seem to have at least been more pointed than human ears.  There is a particular quote from the fifth book in the HoMe series that addresses the matter.

"Las (1) *lasse ’leaf’: Q lasse, N lhass; Q lasselanta ’leaf-fall, autumn’, N lhasbelin (*lassekwelene), cf. Q Narquelion [ KWEL ]. Lhasgalen ’Greenleaf’ (Gnome name of Laurelin). (Some think this is related to the next and *lasse ’ear’. The Quendian ears were more pointed and leaf-shaped than [human].)

Las (2) ’listen’. N lhaw ’ears’ (of one person), old dual *lasu -- whence singular lhewig. Q lar, lasta- ’listen’; lasta ’listening, hearing’ -- Lastalaika ’sharp-ears’, a name, cf. N Lhathleg. N lhathron ’hearer, listener, eavesdropper’ (< *la(n)sro-ndo ) ; lhathro or lhathrando ’listen in, eavesdrop’." (Etymologies, HoMe V: The Lost Road)

Túrin 10/Dec/2006 at 11:21 AM
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"I picture a fairly human figure, not a kind of ’fairy’ rabbit as some of my British reviewers seem to fancy: fattish in the stomach, shortish in the leg.  A round, jovial face; ears only slightly pointed and ’elvish’; hair short and curling (brown)...."
     - Letter #27

(Some think this is related to the nest and *lasse ’ear’.  THe Quendian ears were more pointed and leaf-shaped than [?human].)
     - HoMe 5: Lost Road and Other Writings, The Etymologies

I think these quotes sufficiantly answer your question, no?

Phil_d_one 10/Dec/2006 at 01:43 PM
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While I don’t disagree with the conclusion that Turin draws, I would comment on the use of Letter 27. That particular letter is a very early one, written in March or April 1938: before even the publication of The Hobbit. Tolkien had thus provided his publishers with little to no material on Elves at this point, and so it would have been pretty useless of him to say that Hobbits had ’elvish’ ears if he hadn’t said anything about Elvish ears. So the Elves he is referring to are not his own, but those of popular art and literature, particularly that of the Victorian era, where Elves did indeed have pointed ears.

So yes, I agree with the conclusion, but I don’t believe that Letter 27 can be used here
Rochir Mumakdacil 10/Dec/2006 at 03:05 PM
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I agree with Phil’s analysis of the worthlessness of Letter #27 in addressing this question.
However, the HoME V Etymology containing the note The Quendian ears were more pointed and leaf-shaped than [?human].) dates from no later than ’the beginning of 1938’ according to the Preface, so there is no guarantee that Tolkien retained the idea of (even slightly) pointed ears.

I know of no reference in canon to an instance of an Elf appearing among Men, or a Man appearing among Elves, where the new arrival is recognised as not belonging to the host race on account of ear-shape. (Contrast what you would first notice if you met a Star Trek ’Vulcan’ such as Mr Spock.)

Look, too, at the very final paragraph of RotK (Appendix F) where the appearance of the Eldar is descriibed: They were tall, fair of skin and grey-eyed, though their locks were dark save in the golden house of Finrod [ammended to Finarfin in recent impressions]; and their voices had more melodies than any mortal voice that is now heard.... Height, skin, eyes, hair, voices - isn’t it strange that ear shape is not mentioned, if this was something that distinguished them from the race of Men? This was published 1955 (if Appendices were all in the First Edition) and so post-dates the obscure note in Etymologies. So, unlike Phil, I don’t agree that Elvish ear-shape was necessarily notably different to that of Men.

Vugar 10/Dec/2006 at 03:30 PM
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Rochir, my only dispute with the reasoning that Tolkien may not have continued to hold that idea is that both entries concerning the element ’las’ given in the HoMe V Etymology retained their meanings in the text of the Lord of the Rings.  This is evident in such names as Legolas "Green-leaf", "lassi" from Galadriel’s lament, and Amon Lhaw "Hill of Hearing."
Galin 11/Dec/2006 at 04:06 AM
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... Amon Lhaw "Hill of Hearing."

Which is in itself a probable example (in my opinion) of revision with respect to the document Etymologies.

The word lhaw was in the Etymologies a derivative of the stem LAS2  ’listen’. But the root for the word lhaw was arguably changed to *SLAS- for the later scenario of The Lord of the Rings : ’L (...) LH represents this sound when voiceless (usually derived from initial sl-). In archaic Quenya this is written hl, but was in the Third Age usually pronounced as l.’ Appendix E

Tolkien made revisions both great and small with respect to Etymologies (which document in general does not represent the linguistic scenario of The Lord of the Rings actually), and even if he retained both leaf and listen-words as hailing from a stem LAS-  we cannot know if he retained the physical detail as mentioned in what is essentially an abandoned and private document (’private’ in that it was never published by Tolkien himself).

Linguists use Etymologies all the time, but it should be handled with care. And it is essentially an ’early-ish’ work that may or may not represent an idea compatible with The Lord of the Rings or later texts.

Galin 11/Dec/2006 at 04:34 AM
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Incidentally there is a book on Pauline Baynes in the works; I wonder if any ’unknown’ (so far) communications between the Artist and Tolkien will shed some light on this.
NineFingered 16/Dec/2006 at 10:25 AM
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I like the idea of saying "leaf-shaped ears" rather than "pointed". Would that have anything to do with the elves’ love of nature?
Rochir Mumakdacil 16/Dec/2006 at 01:35 PM
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Hear the wise words of Galin. Also, what are we to make of ’leaf shaped ears’, even if that remained Tolkien’s view at the time of writing of LotR? Here are the leaves of beech, oak, rowan, elm, holly and ash. Which of these (if any) would you go for?

Battlehamster 16/Dec/2006 at 02:36 PM
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I’m trying (and failing miserably) to picture an elf with ears like the rowan or ash.  After his or her ears had been through a paper shredder, maybe...  Or if we are even more generous in our defination of leaves, there’s a tree I’m looking at through the window right now that has leaves that look almost like lace.  Or what about ferns?
NineFingered 16/Dec/2006 at 06:53 PM
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THe Quendian ears were more pointed and leaf-shaped than [?human].)

Sorry, oh wise Rochir, but Tolkien didn’t specify what kind of leaf he meant, so I would conclude that he meant the classic kind, sort of like the beech or elm you display.

Phil_d_one 17/Dec/2006 at 01:33 AM
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’pointed and leaf-shaped’

I think from that alone it is safe to assume that when Tolkien said leaf-shaped he did indeed have in mind something vaguely pointed -- as are all the leaves you present us with, Rochir, with the exception of oak (since of course we’d have to look at an individual rowan or ash leaf, not the entire branch). Why are we to go further than this, once we accept the validity of ’leaf-shaped’?

geordie 17/Dec/2006 at 02:32 AM
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I think somewhare there’s the mention of beech. Really. I can’t remember where now.

But at this time of year, I think holly is more appropriate!
Mithrandír 17/Dec/2006 at 05:17 AM
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I’m trying (and failing miserably) to picture an elf with ears like the rowan or ash.

haha, me to, Battlehampster. it really does seem strange,Rochir Mumackadil!

Mithrandír 17/Dec/2006 at 05:17 AM
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sorry, :Rochir mumakdacil!
Novgwath 17/Dec/2006 at 03:11 PM
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i’d go for beech or elm, trust you Rochir!
Galin 18/Dec/2006 at 07:08 PM
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Thank you Horse-lord. And I would agree with something like the beech (if indeed Tolkien thought his Elves had more pointed and leaf-shaped ears than humans I mean).

We might note too that Tolkien used ’leaf-shaped’ to refer to the barrow-daggers IIRC, and I can’t imagine some sort of shape is meant that’s too silly for ears or daggers.

Galin 18/Dec/2006 at 07:13 PM
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Incidentally, it would appear that the word ’human’ in the Etymologies text need no longer be bracketed with a question mark, thus for [?human] read ’Human’ according to Vinyar Tengwar.