Tolkien’s elves will live as long as the land of Arda exists. Those that die will wait a time in the Halls of Waiting then will be given new, identical bodies. Elves that grow weary will travel to the Undying lands to dwell until the end of time. Only an elf who gives up their immortality will truly die – usually of grief.
It is natural for any discussion of elves to be dominated by the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Most of our modern concepts regarding elves were shaped by Tolkien either as his views on the mythology or in the fantasy worlds he inspired.
Elves are easier to define in Tolkien’s world than in mythology because in the latter the word seems to be a catch all for uncanny folk. This includes the huldra, tomtes, pixies, and so on. In fact, you could consider all the creatures of Faerie to be elves.
In some sources, such as Beowulf, elves are considered malevolent and are listed alongside orcs. For the purposes of this article we’ll consider elves to be neutral – good, bad, free spirited, evil, and so on. We’ll also consider them similar to Tolkien’s elves.
Can elves die?
First, let’s consider whether elves are in fact mortal or immortal, and what those concepts mean. Tolkien considered elves to be an immortal race, but could they die?
Yes, we see it several times in Tolkien’s works. Full Elves can be killed and may die of grief or weariness too. Most elves survive, but of those who die, the majority will be killed in conflict.
The question is what does immortality mean? To most of us it might mean that you cannot be killed be it by age, disease, or weapon. However, to Tolkien, it means free from ageing, but not necessarily free from violence.
The story of Gwindor is a good example. During the Dagor Bragollach, Gwindor’s brother was captured by the forces of Morgoth. Gwindor sought revenge, but when his forces attacked, his brother was taken out from captivity and slain in front of him. In the ensuing battle all the elves were killed save for Gwindor who was captured and enslaved for 14 years.
Gwindor was saved by Beleg Cuthalion who saw him as a shadow of an elf. His powers did not return and he was forever weakened by the experience. This is his immortality in action – when not actively killed he can endure but will weaken. Gwindor was later slain in battle.
When do elves go to the Undying Lands
If not struck by violence or grief, an elf may grow weary. Or, perhaps as with Elrond and the elves of the Third Age, they may feel their time in a certain area has ended. Many elves will feel the pull of the western sea and the undying lands beyond.
This is the pull of Valinor within the Blessed Realm – Aman. As the name, undying, might suggest, this is a land of preservation where the Valor dwell. They are not a place where change comes, but where beings may reside in peace for all time.
Are elves reincarnated?
Iluvatar, when creating the elves, did not intend for their bodies and their spirits to be seperated. It was through the evils of Melkor that this occurred. As such, when an elf’s body is slain, their spirit is offered a place in the Halls of Mandos. Only the corrupt will refuse.
After an unknown amount of time, the Valar will offer an elf a new body. This new body is identical to the one they lost in death. The best example of this is Glorfindel – the elf most battered by the film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings – he got more of a mention in The Martian than that trilogy.
In 510, in the First Age, Glorfindel escaped the Fall of Gondolin, but his group encountered an orc warband led by a balrog. While eagles came to their aid, Glorfindel fought the balrog alone. Both died and fell into the abyss.
There he passed to the Hall of Waiting. Due to his heroism and nobility, Glorfindel only spent a short time there before Manwe allowed him to be re-embodied and brought back to Middle Earth. There he worked secretly to aid the Valar during the Second Age.
How long do elves live?
If elves can be reincarnated in their natural forms, it begs the question – how long do elves live? While mythical elves have no timeline attributed to them, Tolkien’s do, but it might not be what you imagine. As we’ve seen – going west to the Undying Lands is not death, and being killed is not a real death but a stopover before being brought back, so when will they die?
This means theoretically an elf – if not killed, wearied, or grief stricken, can live forever. Well, kind of forever. If you imagine living forever now, you would exist even when the Sun destroys the Earth and there is nothing but space dust. Elves are bound to Arda, and that means when their world dies they too will die.
The elvish life cycle
Elves mature and age differently to moral beings such as humans. They are made in the same way though their age is not calculated from their birth, but from the time of conception. Elves seem to be aware of this exact date.
They spend about one year within their mother before being born and soon grow enough to walk, talk, and dance. Here their physical growth slows down. As children they may seem wiser and more intelligent than their human counterparts, but also smaller.
By the age of 20, an elf will look as if they are just 7. They will not reach their full height until they are around 50, but will not be considered a real adult until they are 100.
Their adult lives will then last for thousands of years. In fact well over 10,000 years. They spent their lives focused on their arts and crafts, on specialist skills. They are not a species prone to lust, abhor adultery, and once their early adulthood is over, are not interested in siring more children.
If, as noted above, an elf is not killed in battle, by accident, or due to some other reason, they eventually grow weary of life. It is like the discussion we have on immortality. Would we eventually grow bored or tired of life? Would it be possible to see everything or live so long you no longer want to see the bad things repeat? Then they go to the undying lands and wait for the end of Arda.
Do half-elves live forever?
If we’re considering the lifespans of elves, we ought to also consider their half-elf offspring, so, how long do half-elves live? It seems that they are not a mixture – at least not in the first generation at least, but can choose either mortality or immortality.
The most famous example would be Arwen. She gives up her immortality by staying in Gondor with Aragorn after her father leaves for the Undying Lands. When Aragorn eventually dies, she dies soon after. Her death was due to grief, but it may have been a voluntary decision.
Now, it is worth noting that Arwen was one-quarter human and by that was able to make a choice between immortality and mortality just as Elrond was. It is interesting to note that while Elrond chose to be immortal, his sons and daughter all chose to stay behind and become mortal.
Aragorn also had elvish blood in him and this let him live for a long time – 210 years. Each generation, as new human blood was added, would dilute the longevity a little more. Clearly at some point this removed choice from the equation and made his line mortal.