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The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, The Histories of Middle Earth, all lore related to this universe is acceptable fodder. Regardless of their power, susceptibility to The One Ring, amount of appearances, or any other constraint, who or what is the oldest?

If Eru is the "easy" answer, then who or what is second? Any canon source, including letters, is acceptable.

I am asking this as more defined version of this recent question which was put on hold.

And if it matters, the criteria would be oldest at the end of LotR or whatever place he left off in his tales. (I am not well-read in the Histories and letters and such. If he continued the tale much past the end of LotR, then that is the cut-off point. Oldest sentient being at the end of Tolkien's lore.)

If you have a question about if some source counts, ask yourself: Did it come from JRR or Christopher working from his father's notes? If the answer is Yes, then it counts. If it does not come from the family, then no. I can trust scholars, but would like the trail to be only one degree of separation. If your case is compelling enough, a pass may be granted.

>EDIT<

If it's not bad form, can I extend the question to the oldest five? Eru is too obvious and as Kevin comments, "Eru was clearly first, he created the ainur second, and it's generally indicated that Tom Bombadil is tied to Middle-Earth and so third." The "generally indicated" thing is not decisive, but, if this is indeed accurate, I'm curious to know just a little bit more. Please either play along with me, or slap my hand for grabbing too many cookies. It's a fascinating and complicated history I know too little about. (I do plan to remedy this someday.)

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See also the related questions scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/11019 Who's older: Treebeard or Tom Bombadil? scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/1586 Who or what was Tom Bombadil? –  b_jonas Feb 20 at 8:45
    
@b_jonas I appreciate the links, especially the second. Tom seems to be something of a sticky widget in these works. Hard to believe he started as a Dutch doll which had been flushed down a lavatory in Tolkien's childhood. –  Meat Trademark Feb 20 at 10:24
    
These are all great answers. I need to stew a bit and also see if someone else chimes in with some more authority. As it stands, I couldn't be happier with the answers. I just want it to simmer for a little bit more. –  Meat Trademark Feb 21 at 0:23
    
Do they have to be alive at the "cut off" point? –  Mooz Apr 17 at 3:21
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@BorhanMooz No, just oldest. Someone can still take the prize should they have a better answer. This is not a static site. –  Meat Trademark Apr 17 at 6:12

5 Answers 5

up vote 30 down vote accepted

Eru created the Ainur and they sang the world into existence, presumably including Tom Bombadil so yes, the Ainur would be the eldest after Eru. Since Bombadil is in essence an Earth elemental and tightly tied to Middle Earth, he could only be as old as the world itself and so younger than the Ainur (and the Maia like Gandalf).

Another contender would be Ungoliant whose origins are unclear. The Silmarillion states (emphasis mine):

The Eldar knew not whence she came, but some have said that in ages long before she descended from the darkness that lies about Arda, when Melkor first looked down in envy upon the Kingdom of Manwë, and that in the beginning she was one of those that he corrupted to his service.

This suggests that she was somehow from outside the world and perhaps even independent of the Ainur's song (or even Eru himself?). I read the Lost Tales years ago and don't remember but according to this:

In The Book of Lost Tales, Ungoliant's history is even more mysterious then what is implied in the published edition of The Silmarillion. Here, even the Valar did not know of her origins, and she was portrayed as a primeval spirit of night, and believed to be a creature bred of the darkness of the Void.

This suggests that she is indeed independent of the Ainur (the Valar) and might be older then they. Finally, I found this page that states:

"Within this structure there are as almost always a great many points of difference between the first story and the later versions." "In the tale her origin is unknown, and though this element may be said to remain in The Silmarillion ('The Eldar knew not whence she came', ibid.), by the device of 'Some have said....'a clear explanation is in fact given: she was a being from 'before the world', perverted by Melkor, who had been her lord, though she denied him. "

and

"Mayhap she was bred of mists and darkness on the confines of the Shadowy Seas, in that utter dark that came between the overthrow of the Lamps and the kindling of the Trees, but more like she has always been; ...."

So, at the very least she seems to be as old as the Ainur but may be older still.

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Wow. Nice work. +1! I'm waiting on more answers but this is intriguing. –  Meat Trademark Feb 19 at 19:13
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But Ungoliant is believed to be dead by the timeframe of The Lord of the Rings (either she devoured herself or was killed by Eärendil), and so she doesn't count for this purpose. –  Mike Scott Feb 19 at 20:07
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Also, the Maia can't be younger than the Ainur, because they are Ainur -- the Ainur include the Valar, the Maia and many more Ainur who never entered the world. –  Mike Scott Feb 19 at 20:09
    
@MikeScott the time frame of LOTR is tiny, less than a hundred years so I don't think that makes much of a difference, but yes, she was dead by then (we guess). As for the Maia being younger, again good point, it's been a while since my last reading of the Silmarillion and I thought that the Maiar were created by the Ainur's song. Answer edited, thanks. –  terdon Feb 19 at 20:16
    
I thought Ungoliant was Maia? –  Mooz Feb 19 at 22:17

Tom Bombadil is called by the elves Iarwain Ben-adar, meaning "Oldest and Fatherless", which implies that he's at the very least the oldest being that the elves know of. Since we know so little about Bombadil ourselves, it's hard to assess the accuracy of this.

Other than the wild card of Bombadil, the Ainur were the first beings created by Eru Iluvatar. Since I don't believe we know anything about the order in which they were created, all the Ainur must be considered as being equally old.

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I agree that Tom, who saw the first acorn, etc, might be it. I'd like to see what other people dig up. +1, but I'd like to field more answers before accepting any. –  Meat Trademark Feb 19 at 14:18
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Eru was clearly first, he created the ainur second, and it's generally indicated that Tom Bombadil is tied to Middle-Earth and so third. –  Kevin Feb 19 at 15:55
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Yep, just providing a full list –  Kevin Feb 19 at 19:00
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Now I'm getting greedy with my edit, but I have to ask: Why was this a comment and not answer, Kevin? –  Meat Trademark Feb 19 at 19:16
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It seems likely that Eru was the first (it is said Eru was there, the one... of course that doesn't exclude there couldn't be someone else in another place, after all "one" makes no sense when there can't be "two"), and it is clearly told that he created the Ainur and sang to them, blah blah. However, when the Ainur descend into the world, it is said that with them came a lot of spirts and beings. No mention whence they came from. Did Eru create them, or did they come from somewhere else? Were they there first? We don't know. Ungoliath seems to have come from "nowhere", for example. –  Damon Feb 20 at 0:22

Cirdan is the oldest named Elf at the end of Lord of the Rings, who takes part in events.

HoME 12 notes that his original name was "Nowe", which is an archaic form with an uncertain original meaning. It also discusses his pre-eminence as a ship-builder, even during the Teleri's stay on the shores of the Sea of Rhun during the Great March. These, taken together with his relationship to Elwe and Olwe, make it almost certain that he dates to Cuivienen, although whether he was one of the First or a later generation is uncertain.

The first three (male) Elves to awake were named Imin, Tata and Enel, who each awoke with their designated spouse (as did all of the First). By contrast, the leaders of the three clans of the Eldar were Ingwe, Finwe and Elwe.

Ingwe is probably not Imin

This is deduced from writings in HoME 10, where Indis of the Vanyar is noted as being Ingwe's sister (therefore they had parents and couldn't have been among the First). These weren't taken up in the published Silmarillion.

Finwe is not Tata

  • Finwe married Miriel
  • Miriel had a mother-name
  • Therefore Miriel had a mother
  • Therefore Miriel wasn't one of the First
  • Therefore Miriel couldn't have been Tata's designated spouse

Elwe is not Enel

  • Elwe had two brothers: Olwe and Elmo
  • Therefore Elwe (and his brothers) had parents
  • Also, Elwe married Melian
  • Therefore Elwe didn't have a designated spouse

Finwe and Elwe are also not among the First (on the designated spouse criteria), but Ingwe may be if we reject Indis as his sister.

If we accept Indis as Ingwe's sister, then Ingwe is not one of the First even if we stretch the definition of "sister", as otherwise Indis would have also had her own designated spouse and therefore would not have been able to marry Finwe.

All of the first clan became Eldar, therefore Imin was either captured by Melkor or he left for Aman. Half of the second clan and about two-thirds of the third clan became Eldar, with the rest remaining as Avari. Tata and Enel may have become Eldar or Avari; it's not stated anywhere. Either way (and unless they were captured by Melkor - which is also possible), they're still around at the time of LotR; they just don't come into the stories.

It can be fairly assumed that Ingwe and Olwe still live at the end of LotR and would therefore also qualify, along with Cirdan, as being among the oldest living sentient beings. Ingwe was one of the three Elves who visited Valinor with Orome and returned to convince the Elves to go; Olwe was one of the two leaders (with his brother Elwe) of the Teleri on the march west (see the Silmarillion, Of the Coming of the Elves and the Captivity of Melkor). As of the end of the Silmarillion, both Ingwe and Olwe were the kings of their respective people in Valinor.

Galadriel is the only one left of the leaders of the Noldor who took part in the rebellion (Letter 297). Glorfindel and Gildor Inglorion are of course also noted as Noldor. There are variant stories about the history of Celeborn, but published writing notes him as a kinsman of Thingol who lived in Doriath. He may or may not date back to the Great March or even Cuivienen. Thranduil also goes back to Doriath, and Legolas may even be of similar vintage (he does immediately recognise the Balrog, and Tolkien notes in Letter 144 that "it is observable that only the Elf knows what the thing is" - thin evidence but evidence nonetheless).

Among the Dwarves the various reincarnations of Durin should be considered, although they don't directly take part in events of LotR. However, if Dwarf myths are true, one could argue that Durin was originally incarnated (by Aule, then by Iluvatar) before the Elves.

Treebeard claims to be one of the first Ents that were awoken by the Elves:

Only three remain of the first Ents that walked in the woods before the Darkness: only myself, Fangorn, and Finglas and Fladrif (Two Towers)

This makes him quite old indeed, comparable in age to Cirdan at least. However, he also notes that there are other trees around that are even older than he is:

But there are hollow dales in this land where the Darkness has never been lifted, and the trees are older than I am. (Two Towers)

Finally, when discussing Treebeard, it's always important to note Tolkien's warning in Letter 153:

Treebeard is a character in my story, not me; and though he has a great memory and some earthy wisdom, he is not one of the Wise, and there is quite a lot he does not know or understand.

Gwaihir and Landroval date to the First Age; the 1937 Silmarillion names them as two of the Eagles that rescued Beren and Luthien from Angband, but Christopher Tolkien suppressed the names in the published Silmarillion based on evidence he has since rejected. This is all discussed in HoME 5.

There's no indication as to whether or not Thorondor is still alive. He may be the Lord of the Eagles in the Hobbit; we know that the Lord is not Gwaihir, because Gwaihir had only carried Gandalf twice before the destruction of the Ring ("Twice you have borne me, Gwaihir my friend" - RotK - from Isengard and Zirak-zigil), yet the Lord had carried Gandalf in the Hobbit.

Ungoliant is old, but probably not as old as another answer indicates. Let's have the Silmarillion quote again, but with different emphasis:

The Eldar knew not whence she came; but some have said that in ages long before she descended from the darkness that lies about Arda...

It should be obvious that this story of her origin is therefore a legend of the Eldar, and not an authorial statement by Tolkien. Her most likely origin is a corrupted nature spirit, as outlined in Of Aule and Yavanna:

When the Children awake, then the thought of Yavanna will awake also, and it will summon spirits from afar, and they will go among the kelvar and the olvar, and some will dwell therein, and be held in reverence, and their just anger shall be feared.

Shelob dates to at least early Second Age: "but still she was there, who was there before Sauron, and before the first stone of Barad-dur" (Two Towers) - with "there" being Mordor, and Barad-dur being begun in SA 1000 (RotK Appendix B).

Not forgetting:

There was Eru, the One, who in Arda is called Ilúvatar; and he made first the Ainur, the Holy Ones, that were the offspring of his thought, and they were with him before aught else was made.

And you can throw Bombadil into that wherever best suits your own favoured theory as to who or what he is.

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Nice answer. I might also note that it can be fairly assumed that Ingwe and Olwe still live at the end of LotR and would therefore also qualify, along with Cirdan, among the oldest living sentient beings. Ingwe was one of the three Elves who visited Valinor with Orome and returned to convince the Elves to go; Olwe was one of the two leaders (with his brother Elwe) of the Teleri on the march west. (See the Silmarillion, Of the Coming of the Elves and the Captivity of Melkor.) As of the end of the Silmarillion, both Ingwe and Olwe were the kings of their respective people in Valinor. –  Rob Feb 20 at 1:29
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@Rob - I've added your paragraph, thanks. –  Jimmy Shelter Feb 20 at 7:38
    
In "The Lhammas" in The Lost Road it says, "Ingwë, high-king of the Eldalië, and the oldest of all Elves, for he first awoke", which suggests that he should be identified with Imin. –  Mike Scott Feb 20 at 7:59
    
@MikeScott - but is the information in the Lhammas still to be considered valid, or is it superseded by later works? The Lhammas predates the shift from Gnomish to Sindarin, Elwe is not Thingol, Quendian languages are derived from Valian, most of the Avari (there called the Lembi) were Teleri (in later stories most Avari were actually second kindred) - I'd be extremely careful before attaching any authority to anything in the Lhammas. –  Jimmy Shelter Feb 20 at 9:26

Outside of the Ainur, who came into existence before the beginning of the world, there are a few contenders still living in Aman or Middle-Earth by the Third Age:

  • Galadriel. Daughter of Finarfin, son of Finwe. She crossed Helcaraxe when the Noldor returned to Middle-Earth, before the creation of the Sun or the Moon.

Older than she may be

  • Cirdan. He is a Teleri who never saw Aman. I'm not aware of his lineage, and he may well be one of the elves who awoke at Cuivienen.

More documented than Cirdan is

  • Ingwe. He is the king of the Vanyar and considered High King of the elves. He almost certainly awoke at Cuivienen, but never returned to Middle-Earth.

As is touched on with the creation myth of the Dwarves, Eru was jealous of any (non-Ainu) beings coming into the world before the Elves. So, it seems a living elf who woke at Cuivienen is the oldest you can get.

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You're forgetting Bombadil, the Ents and Old Man Willow all of whom were almost certainly present in Middle Earth before the Elves crossed the sea. –  terdon Feb 19 at 20:22
    
True enough. Bombadil is a transplant from Tolkien's other works, and he kept Bombadil mysterious intentionally. As such he doesn't fit well into any category. I have no reason to believe Old Man Willow is not a Maia. We don't know when the Ents appeared, but being created by Eru (who expressed a desire that the First Born be first), it seems safe to guess they came shortly after the elves. –  phs Feb 19 at 20:27
    
Old Man Willow a Maia? Why? He is a tree that has awoken, possibly an old Ent, nothing to do with the Maia. I have always taken Tom to be an Earth elemental, so as old as the planet but that's just my take on him. I had thought that Ents were as old as the Earth (the planet anyway) as well but I just checked and I was wrong, you're quite right, they're as old as the Elves. –  terdon Feb 19 at 20:31
    
Flaunting my ignorance here. As a tree awoken, Tom's claim to have seen the first acorn is a little problematic, if Tom is to be trusted. –  Meat Trademark Feb 19 at 20:57
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Tom in general is a problem. If we leave him on the table then all bets are off on many questions (who would win in a fist fight, etc.) For that reason I'm opting to ignore him. –  phs Feb 19 at 20:58

According to the statement made by Elrond while they were discussing what to do with the One Ring, he says that if Sauron gets the ring that Tom Bombadil(whatever Tom was) would fall last as he was first. I interpret that to mean that Tom was the oldest sentient being - at least in Middle Earth. As others have pointed out, if you want to be strict about things, Eru would be the obvious choice according to the Silmarillion - followed, of course, by the Ainur and Maia. The comments about Ungoliant are intriguing but things are murky enough that it's difficult to determine just where she actually fits.

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