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Since Tolkien elves seem to live primarily in deep, land-locked forests, it seems like they might not know how to swim. Or at least, strong swimming skills would not be common in their culture.

Is there anything in Tolkien lore that mentions elves swimming? Do we know how elves feel toward water, whether they have any aversion to it or much swimming experience at all?

  • Did you ever notice that Legolas is very attracted to the sea? – Mithrandir Dec 23 '15 at 6:49
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    Considering how long they live, and that even in a forest you may have rivers, streams, ponds, and the like, I would think that 1) they probably encounter bodies of water large enough to swim in, and 2) they would probably learn to swim eventually because once they gain that skill once they have it practically forever. – aroth Dec 23 '15 at 6:55
  • I know this is a valid question, but I'm expecting "Can elves know how to ride a bike" soon? – Zikato Dec 23 '15 at 14:31
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    @Zikato - Hah! :) Actually I wanted to know since I'm putting Tolkien elves in my D&D game and I was trying to figure out if elves soldiers should have any swim skill. And everyone knows elves can ride bikes, but Sauron stole their bikes, that's what the War of the "Ring" is really about. (Get it? Cause they have bells on their bikes...) – peacetype Dec 23 '15 at 18:22
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I can only find one reference to an Elf actually swimming, from Unfinished Tales:

When Nimrodel fled from Lórien it is said that seeking for the sea she became lost in the White Mountains, until at last (by what road or pass is not told) she came to a river that reminded her of her own stream in Lórien. Her heart was lightened, and she sat by a mere, seeing the stars reflected in its dim waters, and listening to the waterfalls by which the river went again on its journey down to the sea. There she fell into a deep sleep of weariness and so long she slept that she did not come down into Belfalas until Amroth's ship had been blown out to sea, and he was lost trying to swim back to Belfalas. This legend was well known in the Dor-en-Ernil (the Land of the Prince), and no doubt the name was given in memory of it.

Unfinished Tales Part II: "The Second Age" Chapter IV: "The History of Galadriel and Celeborn"

In general Elves in Middle-earth were very enamoured of the Sea, but not because of any natural affinity to water; for them, the Sea represented the way to Elvenhome, their paradise. Their love was primarily spiritual.

The main exception are the Teleri, the great Elvish mariners, who had a very strong affinity towards the Sea:

But the Teleri remained still in Middle-earth, for they dwelt in East Beleriand far from the sea, and they heard not the summons of Ulmo until too late; and many searched still for Elwë their lord, and without him they were unwilling to depart. But when they learned that Ingwë and Finwë and their peoples were gone, then many of the Teleri pressed on to the shores of Beleriand, and dwelt thereafter near the Mouths of Sirion, in longing for their friends that had departed; and they took Olwë, Elwë’s brother, to be their king. Long they remained by the coasts of the western sea, and Ossë and Uinen came to them and befriended them; and Ossë instructed them, sitting upon a rock near to the margin of the land, and of him they learned all manner of sea-lore and sea-music. Thus it came to be that the Teleri, who were from the beginning lovers of water, and the fairest singers of all the Elves, were after enamoured of the seas, and their songs were filled with the sound of waves upon the shore.

The Silmarillion III Quenta Silmarillion Chapter 5: "Of Eldamar and the Princes of the Eldalië"

I haven't found any reference to them swimming, but it seems likely that they did.

Although questionably canon, n a very early draft (the earliest, in fact) of what would become The Silmarillion, the halfelven Eärendel is taught to swim by the Oarni (mermaids, basically); he takes to it well. His friend Voronwë (a full Elf) is explicitly called out as not being able to swim:

'The Oarni give to Eärendel a wonderful shining silver coat that wets not. They love Eärendel, in Ossë's despite, and teach him the lore of boat-building and of swimming, as he plays with them about the shores of Sirion.'

[...]

Eärendel was smaller than most men but nimble-footed and a swift swimmer (but Voronwë could not swim).

History of Middle-earth II The Book of Lost Tales Part 2 Chapter 5: "The Tale of Eärendel"

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    @peacetype Indeed, the Elves first awoke beside a lake, so them having swum there seems quite plausible, though there's no explicit mention of it. Although if you ask me, that painting looks more like Elves bathing than swimming – Jason Baker Dec 23 '15 at 7:15
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    Maybe they did not know how to swim yet and floaties had not been invented, so they are just wading near the shore :) – peacetype Dec 23 '15 at 7:20
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    In general, landlubbers in early medieval times (which Middle Earth is) didn't exactly swim much, IIRC. May be worth asking on History.SE – DVK-on-Ahch-To Dec 23 '15 at 13:24
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    Yes, the Teleri quote pretty much nails it: it's unlikely that a group that loves the water wouldn't swim in it. Weren't they also ship makers and sailors as well? And when the Fellowship left Lothlorien, the elves provided them with boats. – Wayne Dec 23 '15 at 15:22
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    @DVK sailors didn't swim either, what's the point of stopping yourself drowning when it just means you'll take longer to die of exposure instead. It's not like anyone is going to be rescuing you in the deep ocean. – Separatrix Dec 23 '15 at 15:29
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I mostly read here when bored or when I simply have nothing else to do (like now). But one thing I've noticed is Jason Baker has delightfully thorough answers and he's certainly read more of HoME than I have (I have read some of them but haven't gotten around to all of them) and more of the others too (I've not read all of the Unfinished Tales, for instance).

That's why I'm quite surprised he missed a reference to an elf who swam: in The Return of the Shadow; the origin of who ultimately would become Isildur was an elf. This is not from my books but a digital copy I use whilst at computer (because I keep books in the relevant library and all my fantasy books are in another room of the house). With that in mind:

'It fell from the hand of an elf as he swam across a river; and it betrayed him, for he was flying from pursuit in the old wars, and he became visible to his enemies, and the goblins slew him.' But a fish took the ring and was filled with madness, and swam upstream, leaping over rocks and up waterfalls until it cast itself on a bank and spat out the ring and died.'

To put perspective on when this was envisioned this is when when Gollum was still Dígol (so spelt; later of course Sméagol would murder Déagol for the Ring) which Christopher notes as:

Old English dígol, déagol, etc. 'secret, hidden'

But it came after the time Dígol was considered (it was struck out in the act of writing in fact) some distant goblin-kind. I can't say what version of the draft this is but there you have it: another time it is suggested an elf swam.

  • Yesterday I looked at that chapter ('Of Gollum and the Ring') again and it appears that in fact the story of the elf is indeed the origin of what would ultimately become the story of Isildur (the names of Elendil and Isildur were different and at one point it was Isildor). – Pryftan Jul 11 '17 at 13:14
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Elves love the water. They arose near a body of water

By the starlit mere of Cuiviénen, Waters of Awakening, they rose from the sleep of Ilúvatar; [Of the Coming of the Elves and the Captivity of Melkor; Silmarillion]

and there are settlements near bodies of water such as the Grey Havens or Alqualondë. The Teleri were excellent at building ships.

Long they remained by the coasts of the western sea, and Ossë and Uinen came to them and befriended them; and Ossë instructed them, sitting upon a rock near to the margin of the land, and of him they learned all manner of sea-lore and sea-music. Thus it came to be that the Teleri, who were from the beginning lovers of water, and the fairest singers of all the Elves, were after enarmoured of the seas, and their songs were filled with the sound of waves upon the shore. [Of Eldamar and the Princes of the Eldalië; Silmarillion]

Legolas says to his companions when he spots Gulls:

Then I stood still, forgetting war in Middle-earth; for their wailing voices spoke to me of the Sea. The Sea! Alas! I have not yet beheld it. But deep in the hearts of all my kindred lies the sea-longing, which it is perilous to stir. Alas! for the gulls. No peace shall I have again under beech or under elm. [RotK, The Last Debate]

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