119

It seems that there is an underlying assumption (I don't know of an explicit quote to confirm) that Elves in Middle-earth are exceptional archers, compared to other races.

  1. Am I correct in that assumption? (e.g. is it confirmed by Tolkien quotes?)

  2. If so, are there specific reasons/explanations offered for that fact? (e.g. special bow/arrow materials/technology, extra training, living in the woods, history, great eyesight etc.)

Please note that I'm only interested in the information sourced from the books, not Peter Jacksonian "Elves at Helms' Deep"/"Legolas in Hobbit" inventions.

  • 47
    It's directly relevant to being immortal. Elves switch to archery at a certain age similar to how we start playing golf. – Sedat Kapanoglu Feb 5 '12 at 22:41
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    @user1905 - Are Tolkien elves really smaller? – DVK-on-Ahch-To Feb 6 '12 at 1:18
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    @DVK - I got the same sense. That while they might be slighter in build, they were generally a bit taller than humans actually, not smaller. – eidylon Feb 6 '12 at 18:10
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    Here is an interesting follow up: Is LotR the first instance of Elves being good with Bows? It seems pretty common in fantasy. – tzenes Feb 6 '12 at 22:45
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    @Oldcat - that would make a good separate question; for now I'll just say that Tolkien Elves are actually both stronger and more durable than Men. (That Elves are weaker is yet another D&Dism that's been falsely back-ported to Tolkien.) – user8719 Dec 18 '14 at 8:13

11 Answers 11

106

Out-of-universe, I agree with Schroedingers Cat's answer: the bow is a graceful weapon.

In-universe, I think Elves can probably master whatever weapon they choose, it's just that Legolas is the Elf we are most familiar with, and he uses a bow.

Elves are extremely long-lived, and have great agility and senses. So of course an Elf could become a great archer, but also a master swordsman or spearman. There is evidence there were Elves who were good with other weapons, such as the mighty Gil-Galad, last High King of the Noldor:

"Gil-galad was an Elven-king.
Of him the harpers sadly sing:
The last whose realm was fair and free
Between the mountains and the sea.

His sword was long, his lance was keen.
His shining helm afar was seen.
The countless stars of heaven's field
Were mirrored in his silver shield."

(emphasis mine)

  • 4
    I agree that they would be very good at anything they tried. Sickeningly so. Bows seem to fit as a good weapon for their type of lifestyle, so this might be a preference at the stage we see them in LotR. – Schroedingers Cat Feb 6 '12 at 11:32
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    Further: in universe, Legolas is a wood elf of the sort that eschews open warfare and protects their borders through stealth. The elves which are focused most upon in the Silmarillion for example are the Noldor who are very warlike and very much heavy arms and armor types. The Noldor had a close affinity with Aule the Smith. – horatio Feb 15 '12 at 21:53
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    And of course, it takes a long time, a lot of work and patience to even start using a warbow - becoming proficient and masterful is even more. Of course, Tolkien's elves have all of that in spades - and a lot of time to do so. – Luaan Jun 24 '15 at 11:53
116

I seem to recall a particular line in Fellowship of the Ring (and, after some Googling, perhaps in some of the other movies) which may give us a good reason:

ARAGORN: Legolas! What do your elf-eyes see?

This recurs in several other places, such as in the first half of The Two Towers, where Legolas and Gimli are in Fangorn forest:

'Yet here we are-and nicely caught in the net,' said Legolas. 'Look!'

'Look at what?' said Gimli.

'There in the trees.'

'Where? I have not elf-eyes.'

And a bit later (emphasis mine)

It seemed to Legolas, as he strained his farseeing eyes, that he caught a glint of white

This gives a strong implication that Elves have super-human visual acuity, which would naturally make them better at using any sort of ranged weapon - bows included.

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    It should be noted however that the movie would not be considered a first class source for quotes in respect to the OP. – Toby Allen Feb 10 '12 at 19:40
  • @TobyAllen If you can find a book citation to use that follows this logic, please edit it into the answer. I'm not very familiar with the tomes myself. – Iszi Feb 12 '12 at 19:23
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    It is true also in the books that Legolas has excellent vision. After the sundering of the Fellowship, when Legolas, Aragorn, and Gimli are tracking the orcs across Rohan, reference is made a few times to Legolas's clear sight. I don't recall the specific phrase What do your elf-eyes see from the books, but it might be there. – TRiG Oct 22 '12 at 14:57
  • While I agree enough to +1 this, I object that bows are only ranged weapons. In the movies (both LOTR and The Hobbit) I really enjoy seeing the bow used as a short ranged weapon. – Keba Apr 4 '15 at 12:46
69

Out-of-universe, archery is very fitting for the elegance of the elves, it is an elegant skill. It also matches with their desire to stay largely hidden - it is a distance weapon. And, unlike many other weapons, it is not so much an impulse weapon, which fits with their image.

More in-universe, the stealthy nature of the weapon fits with their stealthy nature, and the fact that many groups live in the woods, it is one of the best weapons for hunting in the woods. They are made from the wood of the trees, and the arrows can be easily improvised, so while they are in the woods, they can probably make a new bow and arrows from the material around them.

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    An elegant weapon...from a more civilized Age. – Jeff Feb 5 '12 at 19:07
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    It's not just the stealthiness - surely an immortal race is going to prefer combat from long range, to avoid being in the middle of the danger. – Cascabel Feb 6 '12 at 4:22
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    +1 for the comment on ease of materials gathering. I'll also add that a bow is made of natural materials, and the Elves are always closely associated with Nature. – Joshua Drake Feb 6 '12 at 19:22
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    Stealthiness was acquired trait. Noldor comming from Valinor were not stealthy at all. If you read the Silmarillion, the bows as a first weapon of choice are used only by Green Elves and by elves of Nargothrond, before Turin came. Also note that in Hobbit, the swords (Orcrist and Glamdring) found in the troll hideout, were from Gondolin, which was elven city. – mpiktas Feb 7 '12 at 8:09
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    And surely the complete debacle that resulted from the Noldori's bezerker charge on Morgoth in the Silmarillion would be a good lesson that a little stealth might pay off next time. – Oldcat Oct 30 '14 at 21:47
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They're immortal, so they're not going to want to be in the middle of a battle. Ranged combat like archery lets them minimize risk, and also minimize cost of failure of the skill - if they miss, hopefully they can fire again. If their skill with a sword failed them, they might already be dead. If you had an infinite length of life yet to live, wouldn't you want to take down your enemy before he could even touch you?

There are some other things mentioned in other answers that help make archery possible for them: they have a long time to learn to do it right, and maybe they have keener senses for it. And it fits with other aspects of their character, notably stealthiness. But this seems the most convincing reason to choose it in the first place.

  • But Elves in the War of the Last Alliance are seen using polearms. There's mention of them using spears. And they certainly aren't cowards. I simply don't think Elves favor ranged weapons. – Andres F. Jan 17 at 23:24
17

Continuously throughout Tolkien's works, it's hinted that elves are good at just about everything they do, be it crafts (Fëanor), war (Gil-Galad) or just about anything. Tolkien never states explicitly why this is (time is likely a factor as Mike Scott stated), but the feeling I get when reading the works is that they are simply better because they are (in most respects) superior beings to Men.

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    "For it is said that after the departure of the Valar there was silence, and for an age Ilъvatar sat alone in thought. Then he spoke and said: 'Behold I love the Earth, which shall be a mansion for the Quendi and the Atani! But the Quendi shall be the fairest of all earthly creatures, and they shall have and shall conceive and bring forth more beauty than all my Children; and they shall have the greater bliss in this world. But to the Atani I will give a new gift.'" - Silmarillion - The Beginning of Days – WOPR Aug 7 '12 at 12:06
14

Consider Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule -- you have to exercise any skill for around 10,000 hours to achieve mastery. For a human archer in his prime, that means he's been practising for ten hours a week for twenty years -- so he's got to be fairly dedicated. An elf may only have practised for ten hours a year, for a thousand years, and so doesn't have to make a big commitment to archery to become an expert (by human standards).

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    But this would go for any weapon. So why specificly bow? – Konerak Feb 5 '12 at 17:35
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    @Konerak: I don't think Tolkien gave Elves a particular preference for bows. As far as I recall, they used swords a lot as well. Legolas, however, was a master archer, and the most prominent elf in LOTR, which might have inspired other fiction that included Tolkien-like elves to have them be archers a lot. – Joren Feb 5 '12 at 18:48
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    @Konerak, if the bow had a higher skill ceiling than other weapons, then the elves' comparative advantage would manifest itself more strongly for them. – Adrian Petrescu Feb 5 '12 at 21:04
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    @AdrianPetrescu. The English longbow certainly has a very high skill ceiling. – TRiG Feb 6 '12 at 0:59
11

I think the main reason lies in their sight. Gandalf mentioned to one the hobbits how an elf could tell small birds apart over a very long distance (a mile?). Im sorry, I cant remember which of the books that was, nor the exact wording.

This and their general physics (light and precise movements, mandatory for aiming over long ranges) would qualify them as superior archers

6

In the books (not in the film) between Shire and Bree, Frodo and hobbit fellows met (before or after Tom Bombadil I can't remember) a group of Elves. Their leader told them he could try to offer protection from Nazgul, if he would have a battalion of elven archers like ancient times.

According to Silmarillion, Elves lived in open fields, in strong castle cities as well as forests. Tolkien does not classify them specifically as "wood elves", neither tells that Elves always lived in the forests. But at the time LoTR takes place, Elves are weak in numbers and civilization, and therefore they prefer hidden in the woods.

But there are enough number of references in the books to make us sense that bow is a preferred STANDARD weapon for Elves, no matter where they used to live.

Immortality is related to that preference not only for personal choice. As an immortal race, Elves also are rare, and most of times been, outnumbered, and strategically more limited in "casualty rates" therefore it is more costly for them to lose their members. A successfull use of ranged weapons in correct combination, is the safest way to minimize casualties, given that you have much better archers in mass scale.

Any member of any race, who can masterize bow skill, would go after it. (Humans and Orcs have also specilaized ranged untis) However, Elves as a society, have more reason, more ecological pressure, and have more resources (time,material,skill etc) to make bows standard combat weapon, no matter how good they are at other weapons.

I don't share the opininon that Elves "small size" is a point. Longbows require pulling strength, and archers in real history, are certainly big, tall, strong men, who were also very strong opponenets in close combat, often deadly with a crude melee weapon, a dagger, an axe or hammer. Close combat specilization does not require "more body and muscle mass" than archery, but simply different tactis, equipments and skills.

In real history, bows are really most skill dependent weapons. Actually, the reason why bows dissapeared from battlefield, even before modern rifles became so accurate and deadly, is the problem of training time. You may train a bunch of peasants for a few months to have a standart unit of musketeers. An archer who can use a long bow (composite or non composite) effectively and safely in battle, requires a training of 10-12 years at least, and a "sea archer" or a "mounted archher" cannot become even good enough with the weapon before 20-25 years. Lost musketeers can easily be replaced, whereas, lost archers cannot. (Ottoman archers were expected to "pull the string and set the bow" to develop strength and understanding of the limits of the bow, string, and their arms. They were not allowed even to shoot an arrow before they advance a few years in their initial training.)

4

Not all elves were master archers. Legolas for example was of the Sindar Elves, but counted himself one of the Silvan people (specifically those that settled east of Anduin in Mirkwood). Being woodland elves, mastering archery could be considered a necessity in itself. Also, they are closely related to the Lothlórien elves, who made the finest bows in Middle Earth (Legolas receives such a bow from Galadriel when the fellowship sets out from Lórien).

2

Longbow training takes a very long time to master. An answer on the History SE site has a good answer pertaining to longbow training.

https://history.stackexchange.com/a/15336

Since the elves were immortal, they had the time to develop their bow skills. The size and draw strength of the bow also have a big influence on the range, accuracy, and penetrating power.

Most other races simply did not possess the strength, or height to wield a longbow.

1

Elves are basically one notch below Angels in the world of Tolkien, certainly "superior" to Men. Given that and their life expectancy, I'd think any Elf who wanted to could master anything.

  • But would they want to master the art of wielding a sword? They are not a war-like people. – Dale Feb 6 '12 at 1:20
  • @user1905, read "The Silmarillion", there is an explanation there. When Morgoth was released from his bond, he influenced Elves and put a thought of making weapons. Note that there were several kindred of Elves. Vanyar and Teleri were not war-like, but Noldor were. – mpiktas Feb 7 '12 at 8:04

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