Sometimes, in reading a work of literature, I encounter a snippet of wording which illuminates a previously unnoticed pattern in another work. This was the case with a particular reference in W.B. Yeats’ preface to Lady Gregory’s translation of the Finn Cycle to the degradation of the mortal-immortal relationship over the course of Irish mythology. Yeats demonstrates this by pointing out the differences in the relationship between Finn MacCumhal and the immortal Tuatha de Danaan in the Finn Cycle and the relationship between Cuchulain of Muirthemne and the Tuatha de Danaan in the later Ulster Cycle.1 He says,
Although the gods come to Cuchulain, and although he is the son of one of the greatest of them, their country and his are far apart, and they come to him as god to mortal; but Finn is their equal. He is continually in their houses; he meets with Bodb Dearg, and Angus, and Manannan,2 now as friend with friend, now as with an enemy he overcomes in battle; and when he has need of their help his messenger can say: “There is not a king’s son or a prince, or a leader of the Fianna of Ireland, without having a wife or a mother or a foster-mother or a sweetheart of the Tuatha de Danaan.”3
In early Celtic mythology, the Tuatha de Danaan walk openly with mortal men. Their affairs and those of Men are intertwined. Although it is generally understood that the Tuatha de Danaan are wiser, stronger, and more beautiful than Men, they nevertheless consider Men their social equal. However, in the later mythology of the Ulster Cycle, the Tuatha de Danaan are present but hidden, and the heroes of Men, like Cuchulain, must search for them.
This idea is prevalent in J.R.R. Tolkien’s mythology as well. In The Silmarillion, the case is much the same as in the Finn Cycle. Those of the Three Houses of Elf-Friends walk in companionship with the Elves. Their young men take service in the houses of Fingolfin and his kin. They are taught the ways of the Elves and “their sons increased in wisdom and skill, until they far surpassed all others of mankind.”4
But, as in Irish mythology, time wears on. As Man’s numbers increase, they have wars amongst themselves and problems of their own. The number of Men who remain in contact with the Elves decreases and the Elves do not actively search for the companionship of Men.
By the time The Lord of the Rings occurs, Aragorn is the one Man left who is considered to have any “equality” with the Elves. He comes of a lineage both ancient and high5 and was raised in Rivendell, the house of Elrond. He speaks the tongue of the Elves, possesses some of their skill in healing, much wisdom, and walks with their kindred in brotherhood.6
Other Men of the later Third Age7 are wary of the Elves. Galadriel has already gained a tricksy reputation amongst the peoples of Gondor and Rohan. Even those who associate with Elves are viewed with suspicion. Éomer says to Aragorn, “Few escape [Lady Galadriel’s] nets, they say…But if you have her favour, then you also are net-weavers and sorcerers, maybe.”8 Boromir goes to the Elves of Rivendell, but he goes as a mortal to one of great wisdom, not, as Aragorn, as one friend to another.
The Elves, too, are retreating. As in the later tales of Cuchulain, they withdraw into their kingdoms away from Men and some, like Thranduil, become indifferent to the affairs of the outside world. Others leave Middle-earth entirely. Those few who knew them feel cut off, deserted in a decaying world. These endeavour to pass their wisdom to later generations by preserving their memory in tales. But even the tales themselves melt into the past and those who take care to read them are few. This is one of my motives: to keep a tiny nook of the internet in which to tend the seeds of ancient literature in order that their wisdom may not be forgotten.
1Irish pronunciation can be a nightmare for English speakers as words seem to be spelled one way and pronounced completely differently. For your consolation, here is the pronunciation of the Irish names encountered so far (taken from the pronunciation guide in the back of Lady Gregory’s Complete Irish Mythology, by Lady Gregory): “Finn MacCoo-al,” “Tuaha de Donnan,” “Cuhoolin of Murhevna.”
2Three gods in Celtic mythology. Pronunciation is as follows (see note above for reference): “Bove Darrig,” “Angus,” “Mananaun.”
3W.B. Yeats, Gods and Fighting Men, Preface. This is the copy I own. Naturally I did not pay this price! I purchased this book in a gift shop overseas—it seems to be out of print here in North America. I am not familiar with this publisher, but here is a more affordable copy of Gods and Fighting Men.
4J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, Chapter 17
5In many cases, the Elf-friend nature is hereditary—a sort of rite of passage that runs in the blood of certain members from certain families. Note an example in Smith of Wooton Major, by J.R.R. Tolkien: Rider, an Elf-friend, is the grandfather of Smith, the main character in the story. Smith in turn passes the star denoting passage into Faery to his wife’s sister’s son, Tim.
6Namely Elladan and Elrohir sons of Elrond, and Legolas Greenleaf son of Thranduil.
7The Third Age is the group of years in which The Lord of the Rings takes place.
8J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers, Book 3, Chapter 2