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Are there any indications in any of Tolkien's works (stories, letters, notes, or anything) that suggest there can be elves of dark skin?

And the opposite: Is there any indication that there cannot be dark-skinned elves?

I'm interested in the race called Elves, the first born created by Illuvatar. But if there's another race that could be similar to elves, but dark skinned, that's a nice comment.

I am aware of the Moriquendi (Elves of Darkness), but as far as I know they received that name because they never gazed upon the light of the Trees, and the name is not at all related to their skin color.

For reference, I'm not familiar with British English from the first half of the previous century, so if some terms had a specific meaning back there and then I might have missed that meaning.

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    Generally dark-skinned humans (Haradrim) are remarked on as "swarthy" or "black", which would imply that light-skinned is the default (as it would be in a mythologised version of England from the POV of someone in 1930s England). Amazon might be right to change what they did, but I wouldn't pretend it's what Tolkien meant!
    – AKA
    Sep 7 at 19:43
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    @AKA but is it really a change, or just a different but valid interpretation? And if it is a change, does it matter? IIRC Roland Deschain from Stephen King's Dark Tower series is portrayed in official illustrations as white-skinned, yet when the (terrible) movie was made where he's portrayed by Idris Elba, Stephen King himself said that it didn't matter. I'm not aware of similar comments about MCU's Nick Fury by the creator(s), but at least the general public didn't mind.
    – Blueriver
    Sep 7 at 20:17
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    @Blueriver - I can't imagine any author or creator being stupid enough to kick up a stink about someone with the "wrong" skin colour being cast in an adaptation, whatever their personal feelings about it.
    – Valorum
    Sep 7 at 20:21
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    Note that in one of Tolkien's letters, he suggested that some of the Numenoreans (his less-fallen, "superior race", basically) had darker skin. Elves are also meant to represent unfallen humans from Tolkien's very traditionalist, conservative Catholic perspective, so I imagine that he thought about the possibility of elves displaying more diversity in their appearance than just Northwestern European.
    – Adamant
    Sep 7 at 21:57
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    @Blueriver There were a lot of problems with The Dark Tower, but Idris Elba wasn't one of them. Like Heimdall, he does a good enough job at portraying the role that his non-canonical appearance fades into insignificance. The problem arises when the filmmakers engage in human shielding: cynically putting minorities into a terrible work to deflect criticism by accusing (completely valid) criticism of actually just being bigoted attacks against the minorities in the cast. We're seeing that in Rings of Power, but I don't recall any human shielding happening in the response to The Dark Tower. Sep 8 at 13:57

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I'm not 100% sure about this, but I think the answer is that Tolkien's published writings give no clear indication either way. It's important to note that the books focus almost exclusively on the north-west of Middle-earth, and there are large regions east of the Sea of Rhun and to the south and east of Umbar about which we know very little. There is no way to determine if any elves live there, or exactly what they look like. For a more definitive answer, we would need:

(1) A description of an elf as having dark skin.

or

(2) A statement from Tolkien (writing as an 'all-knowing narrator') that such elves do or do not exist.

Now we face the problem of looking for statements that may or may not exist (and that could be worded in many different ways) in a large body of work.

It seems to me that the best places to look for (1) are sections of the text in which Elvish characters appear for the first time, for example descriptions in the early parts of the Silmarillion (especially in Of Eldamar and the Princes of the Eldalie), Elrond and the Wood Elves in the Hobbit, Gildor, Glorfindel, Arwen, assorted elves at the Council of Elrond, Haldir, Galadriel and Celeborn in LotR. In most of these cases, elves are either described as fair, or there is no mention of skin tone at all. Of course Tolkien often uses 'fair' to mean beautiful. For example, it's not clear exactly what is meant when Gildor's group is described as 'fair' in Three is Company, since their speech is also described as 'fair'. On the other hand, Ar-Feiniel is described as 'pale' in Of Eldamar and the Princes of the Eldalie, so she must have been paler than (most) other Noldor elves, meaning there is at least some variation in skin tone. Similarly, Arwen is described as having white arms, which would be an odd statement if all elves had the same. However, I found no description of an elf as having dark skin.

Looking for a general statement about the exsitence of dark-skinned elves is also difficult, but we can make some progress. First of all, a statement that all elves are fair-skinned must refer to the elvish race as a whole, so the most likely places are Of the Coming of the Elves and the Captivity of Melkor (since there the elves are all together), or in some general description in a location such as one of the letters. I cannot find any such general statement about skin tone (but someone else did; see below). Another approach is to note that Tolkien sometimes describes darker skinned men as 'Swarthy' (e.g. Of the Ruin of Beleriand and the Fall of Fingolfin; and Hirgon's remark in The Muster of Rohan). The indices to LotR, the Silmarillion and the Unfinished Tales have no entries for Swarthy Elves, and there is no entry in the complete Guide to Middle-earth (CGtM, which is generally quite comprehensive). Likewise, I can find no mention of Swarthy Elves in the History of Middle-earth, or the letters (though there is a mention of a Swart elf; again, see below). There is also an isolated (and somewhat derogatory) description of a darker race of men in The Battle of the Pelennor Fields. However, neither the indices nor the CGtM mention black elves. So, after a considerable (though not exhaustive) search, I found no statement that proves or disproves the existence of dark-skinned elves.

Quotes and further information from comments

Some quotes I missed have been pointed out by other users. @Tristan noted that Maeglin is described as 'swart' in book II of the Lost Tales (The Fall of Gondolin):

Less fair was he than most of this goodly folk, swart and of none too kindly mood, so that he won small love, and whispers there were that he had Orc's blood in his veins, but I know not how this could be true

A similar description appears in The Shaping of Middle-earth (The Quenta):

He was swart but comely, wise and eloquent, and cunning to win men's hearts and minds.

However, the Silmarillion (Of Maeglin) clearly states that his skin was white. I can't find any discussion of this change, but I think CJRT's edits to the Silmarillion were made mostly to keep names, family trees, etc. consistent and it seems unlikely that it's due to anyone other than JRRT himself.

@Eugene, pointed out the following, in LotR appendix F part II:

They [elves] were a race high and beautiful, the older children of the world, and among them the Eldar were as kings, who are now gone; the People of the Great Journey, the People of the Stars. They were tall, fair of skin and grey-eyed, though their locks were dark, save in the golden house of Finarfin.

Since the Eldar and the Avari come from the same three tribes, this appears to apply to all elves, and looks (at first glance) to be definitive. However, it can't apply to all elves, for two reasons. First, Thranduil (of the Teleri) is described as having golden hair in The Hobbit (Flies and Spiders, pointed out by @Amarth). Second, the very meaning of the word Vanyar (given in the index to the Silmarillion) is 'golden-haired'. Christopher Tolkien discusses this text in his comments toward the end of the first chapter of Lost Tales I. He writes

... these words describing characters of face and hair were actually written of the Noldor only, and not of all the Eldar ... I am unable to determine how this extraordinary perversion of meaning arose.

Later, in the Peoples of Middle-earth (The Appendix on Languages), CJRT revised his opinion, writing

... my father carefully remodelled the passage in order to apply it to the Eldar as a whole, and it does indeed seem 'extraordinary' that he should have failed to observe this point [the golden hair of the Vanyar]. It seems possible that when he re-used the passage in this way the conception of the golden hair of the Vanyar had not yet arisen.

However, in the subsequent note (numbered 4), CJRT points out that a description of Idril Celebrindal (in Of Maeglin) from 1951 mentions her having golden hair due to Vanyar heritage and predates LoTR, which seems to contradict his earlier suggestion.

How to read this riddle? One of Tolkien's own literary devices is that he obtained a copy of the Red Book of Westmarch and acted as translator. LotR appendix F II is written from the translator's perspective, so it makes no sense for it to contain information about any aspect of Middle-earth unless that information comes from the Red Book itself. In other words, we need additional quotes and (in my opinion) should not rely the translator's assertion alone, especially as it is wrong about hair colour. Why should we assume it is correct about skin tone?

I'm inclined to stick with my original conclusion: we don't know. If dark-skinned elves exist, they are probably located in regions of Middle-earth that don't feature much (if at all) in the books. If someone can find a more definitive statement from JRRT then I will stand corrected (or perhaps argue about its canon status!).

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    In the book of lost tales pt 2 Maeglin is described as "Less fair was he than most of this goodly folk, swart and of none too kindly mood, so that he won small love, and whispers there were that he had Orc’s blood in his veins, but I know not how this could be true" (emphasis mine). In the Silmarilion it's also stated that "he resembled in face and form rather his kindred of the Noldor", together this could be taken as evidence that the Noldor typically had darker skin than other elves
    – Tristan
    Sep 8 at 10:56
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    "fair" doesn't just mean light-skinned. Apart from blonde-haired, it can also mean "beautiful". Sep 8 at 16:08
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    There is, however, canonical support for dark-skinned Hobbits. In particular, the Harfoots were described as being dark of skin, and they are the particular variety of Hobbit depicted in Rings of Power (though I think that's for legal reasons because they were not allowed use of the word "Hobbit" in the series?), so that sort of adds up, although only some of them are dark-skinned, not all of them as originally implied. We also don't see any bearded female dwarves, so that's another discrepancy. Sep 8 at 17:58
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    @Valorum: yes, exactly. Even people described as “swarthy” are not necessarily therefore Black: here’s Benjamin Franklin: “ And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted,”. People are wanting to project 21st century racial theories back onto Tolkien’s early 20th worldview and it just doesn’t work. White/Black as identities weren’t something he would have thought about.
    – Shamshiel
    Sep 9 at 1:04
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    I was in an internet discussion once where some American guy started by confusing Martin Luther King and Martin Luther (and everyone making comments about Martin Luther that would be totally inappropriate for Martin Luther King). Then I figured out: In a film, Martin Luther King would have to be played by a black actor, because otherwise the whole story doesn't make any sense. But Martin Luther... back in 1500, a black priest in Germany would have been about as likely as a blue or green priest in the USA today. But then his skin colour was completely irrelevant, except that nobody took any...
    – gnasher729
    Sep 9 at 13:45
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Elves has been used to translate both Quendi, ‘the speakers', the High-elven name of all their kind, and Eldar, the name of the Three Kindreds that sought for the Undying Realm ... They were tall, fair of skin and grey-eyed, though their locks were dark, save in the golden house of Finarfin. --LotR Appendices

Some argue the highlighted (bold) sentence only applies to the Eldar (as apposed to Avari), or only Noldor. The subject of this paragraph has been "Elves", "Quendi", "all their kind", and only narrowed down to "Eldar", but the golden haired Vanyar are obviously ignored. It's possible Tolkien made a mistake here. Either there's a sudden hidden change of subject, or Tolkien forgot about the Vanyar in this context. I'm inclined to think Tolkien at least meant all Eldar were fair of skin.

The Avari were from the same three tribes of Elves. They only refused to migrate to Valinor, and I don't think their decision was based on their skin color. They were mostly from older generations of the same groups of Elves who became less adventurous because of aging.

The younger generations therefore progressed rapidly in strength, nobility, and intellectuality of character, and made natural leaders. The first few generations (expending much vigour in begetting) were least adventurous and were nearly all Avari in the event. -- Nature of Middle-earth.

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    In Lost Tales I (near the end of the first chapter), CJRT argues that the statement about hair and skin should apply to the Noldor only (as it did in an earlier draft) He writes that applying it to the whole of the Eldar is 'an extraordinary perversion of meaning'. Sep 8 at 10:26
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    I think the quotes from LT and PM would make good additions to your answer, since there is clearly something wrong in the text of appendix F. Sep 8 at 10:45
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    Did "fair of skin" conclusively mean "white" in England back then? I'm not being pedantic, it's just that I'm a lot younger than these stories and English is not my first language.
    – Blueriver
    Sep 8 at 15:28
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    @Blueriver "Fair" is derived from Old English fæger, "pleasing to the sight; beautiful, handsome, attractive" (when applied to a person), hence its use to describe the Elves. In English literature the word has traditionally been applied to beautiful women and in England, a land of pale-skinned people, the lighter a woman's skin the more "fair" she was considered (see also historic racial stereotypes about dark-skinned people being considered barbaric). Therefore, while we cannot conclusively say that Tolkien intended for "fair" to mean "white", that is almost certainly the implicit meaning.
    – Ian Kemp
    Sep 8 at 17:45
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    Well, then perhaps I gave Tolkien too much credit in assuming that he would not have imagined a Creator who would have made all of "unfallen humanity"—for Tolkien was always quite clear that the differences between elves and humans were more spiritual than anything else—in the image of a small set of people in Western Europe. If the creators of the Amazon series have a broader vision, that speaks more positively of them.
    – Adamant
    Sep 8 at 18:23
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Are there any indications in any of Tolkien's works (stories, letters, notes, anything) that suggest there can be elves of dark skin?

Not that I recall. The closest would be the Morquendi and Eöl references, but it is as you say that they were called dark elves because they had never seen the the Trees in Valinor.

Eöl was called the Dark Elf, but he is Morquendi, he lives in the darkest part of the forest and is generally dark in his ways rather than his complexion.

And the opposite: Is there any indication that there CANNOT be dark-skinned elves?

Well, as someone quoted from the LotR appendices, elves were said to have "fair skin" and from there on people can have some etymology debate about what "fair" means. The quote that elves were of fair skin and with dark hair save for those of house Finarfin (like Galadriel) is evidently wrong though, because Thranduil is described as blond in The Hobbit and he is Sindar. So Tolkien contracts himself.

Another contradiction is the very reason why Finarfin was blond and that was because his mother was Indis of Vanyar. So it would rather seem that Vanyar are mostly blond, Noldor as most definitely dark-haired and the other elves... of diverse hair color? Not a lot is said about skin color.

But if there's another race that could be similar to elves but dark skinned, that's a nice comment.

Err well yes, there are the orcs. Not particularly elf-like in LotR, but they were originally elves corrupted by Morgoth. To quote Tolkien gateway:

Tolkien describes them as "swart" or "sallow", although one in Mordor is "black-skinned" and others are described generally as "black" (possibly not a reference to skin colour).

Anyway, the whole out-of-universe explanation of the various races' appearance is likely that Middle Earth was loosely inspired by Europe and so the inhabitants come to look like native Europeans. Also, most fiction written in Europe before 1970 or so is, sadly, implicitly or explicitly racist. It was unthinkable that the heroes of any book written in UK would not be white and with a native British appearance.

Generally, the enemies of the "good" nations are described as "swarthy", for example the orcs and the Haradrim. There is no denying that this is at least implicitly racist. Although there's also the 'based on Europe' argument meaning that the further south you go, the darker the skin of the natives. Tolkien said at some point that Mordor was geographically located at a similar location as real world Turkey, so naturally people further south would be inspired by Arabian and African ethnicities, simply by making a vague parallel to the real world.

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    The men of Lossarnach who fought for Gondor on the Pelennor Fields are also described as swarthy (in Minas Tirith). Also, some of the first age Easterlings fought and died on the elves' side at the Battle of Unnumbered Tears (Of the Ruin of Beleriand and the Fall of Fingolfin). Sep 8 at 21:19
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    iirc there is evidence Tolkien reworked the origin of the orcs several times and in his later notes and letters seems to have considered them (at least primarily) descended from corrupted humans, rather than the corrupted elves that they are presented as in his earlier works and notes
    – Tristan
    Sep 9 at 9:46
  • @Tristan It says elves in Silmarillion though, iirc.
    – Amarth
    Sep 9 at 15:20
  • yeah, I'm pretty sure the Silmarillion does. From what I remember this is likely a result of Christopher Tolkien harmonising with older notes, as the mention of them being largely descended from humans is only in his latest notes/letters
    – Tristan
    Sep 9 at 15:28
  • @Tristan: Since you're curious, the reason Tolkien never finished the Silmarillion is he couldn't solve the always evil Orc problem. His son had to make do.
    – Joshua
    Sep 9 at 16:20
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So I have been asked to post an answer. Either Tolkien said they were white skinned, or he didn't. We have only the following quote:

They were tall, fair of skin and grey-eyed, though their locks were dark, save in the golden house of Finarfin. --LotR Appendices

Now fair of skin has two meanings; and only one means white-skinned and some would debate the other meaning is intended here. No matter; we can read of the world as we can. I am going to be using knowledge here that Tolkien probably didn't have, though I can't really prove it.

We know Tolkien intended the whole thing to be a legend and an alternate history of northern Europe. This would seem to rule out dark-skinned elves from merely the peoples Tolkien was working with. We can go farther than that. With this tech level (and Tolkien appeared to like Dark Ages tech level; early steel working, etc. but anything before the age of the explorers would work) we simply don't get mixing of races or mixing of skin colors. The environmental drive constrains the answer; near the equator you get dark skinned people and near the poles light skinned people. The intermediate shade occurring in people of Arabic descent follows the pattern.

Also note Elves having grey eyes. This is uniquely fit to extreme north and being active when the sun is down for months at a time. This has long been known to be a property of grey eyes. The old teaching of grey eyes genetics being a hybrid cross is challenged in modern writing so I can't talk about the genetics of grey eyes.

In addition to starting far north, the history of the high elves runs through two genetic bottlenecks. Anything that wasn't uniform to begin with would have a tendency to end up uniform after that. We should be very surprised at finding high elves in middle earth having more than one skin color.

An interesting thing happens when we run geology backwards and produce a map immediately after the retreat of the ice age, before the oceans had a chance to rise, and then we add the place names. There's only one good fit for Europe. We get a map like this one:

http://i.stack.imgur.com/hYHHZ.jpg (I've had this bookmarked as an image for some time. If somebody could find attribution I'd appreciate it.)

This map is in some ways too convenient; and explains well the unfilled voids in the map in the book; however it preserves attributes that Tolkien would have wanted. The shire is indeed modeled after the countryside of England, and look where the map puts it. How nice.

Notice just how far north this puts the elf-dominated regions of Eregion, Dunland, Lorien, and Mirkwood. We have an answer for the skin color. They are very white indeed, or dead. Without the sun in the long winters they would never reach adulthood. We solve this problem now with vitamin D fortification; which is at far too high a tech level.

[Next section is on politics. Skip if you prefer.]

Recall the runup to the 2018 Wrinkle in time movie where the news was bragging about diversity casting? I do. It was well-received by the critics before release, and on release it bombed and dropped out of the news. The movie development favored politics over world construction and paid the price. Look again at Amazon's LoTR offering. We're getting a bunch of news articles talking about race, diversity, etc. and almost nothing about storyline, background, worldbuilding, etc. We may predict a similar disaster. As I said, Tolkien probably didn't know about skin color and vitamin D. You could get away with casting dark skinned actors as elves; it wouldn't bother me much. However if that's the runup in the news I believe the writing is bad.

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  • You have me convinced, for human standards. Can we assume that elves follow the same patterns? I mean mostly because of their long lifespan and very infrequent offsprings (I don't know if this is ever stated, but it can be deduced from the fact that the world isn't overrun by elves).
    – Blueriver
    Sep 9 at 18:08
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    @Blueriver: Expecting different biochemistry and the ability to interbreed requires some significant evidence. You'd find your answer to the lifespan question in places in the Silmarillion which I don't presently have a copy of. The much cross-quoted thing is true that humans and elves have the same body but different spirit within.
    – Joshua
    Sep 9 at 18:20
  • I was more thinking along the lines of "identical" biology but 0.1x change speed because their generations are 10x longer. I mean, any biological change that spans generations (e.g. mixing races so much that all people look similar, or genetical adaptations to climates) would require elves 10 times the years it would take humans, simply because each generation of elves lasts 10 times the years a human generation lasts. Basically, in 3000 years elves change as much as humans would change in 300 years. Is that enough time for adaptations like light skin for the sun?
    – Blueriver
    Sep 9 at 20:46
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    Actually, following my own line of thought, elves should have started with white skin to be able to survive in a sun-less world. The sun is only 4000 years old at the beginning of the third age, so it is possible humans adapted, but elves would have had changes comparable to those in humans during 400 years, so there's no way they adapted to the sun in time, especially given the little or no environmental factors (as shown in your answer)
    – Blueriver
    Sep 9 at 20:50
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    Sorry, I am downvoting this answer because there is a lot wrong with its reasoning. To begin with: Elves did not evolve, but were created by Eru Iluvatar mere thousands of years prior to the events of the story. If you know how long elf generations tend to be (and the fact that they are immortal unless killed), you can see that they almost certainly could not have evolved any phenotype. This means that either Eru created all the elves to look like people of European descent (as Tolkien probably intended, sadly) or more sensibly, that Eru created them with varied appearances.
    – Adamant
    Sep 11 at 8:32
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My impression from reading the Silmarillion is there is at least a general correlation between light and dark, and moral nature. The lighter a thing is the younger and more moral it is. The darker a thing the older and more immoral it is.

However, I don't think this precludes black elves and white orcs. The important thing is that skin color indicates the moral character, the moral character is not a product of the being's race. The moral choices come first, and then the race descends into darker shades. This is in contrast to racism which posits a being's moral character is a function of the race. That's why Tolkien's correlation between light/dark and moral nature is technically not racism. It is taking place outside the evolutionary context of racism, and is instead based on a sort of moral determination of racial characteristics.

This is why it is acceptable to cast black elves and white orcs, just like it's fine to cast Peter Pan as a female. If a black actor captures the more fundamental moral qualities of Elrond better than a white actor, it's perfectly acceptable to cast Elrond with a black actor.

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