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It's been asked before what Elves eat, but my question is specifically: where on (Middle) Earth do they get it? I find this to be a significant mystery & potential "hole" in the mythology. I'll list first my thoughts on why there's an issue, then the potential answers I see. Please tell me, if you can, whether any of these can be confirmed or invalidated by any statements found in canon.

  • Elves revere wild nature and do not interfere with it, and especially do not cut down trees. As a farmer/gardener myself, I am not aware of any way in which this can be compatible with farming, which requires the clearing of land (cutting down trees) and the constant killing of all wild plants (very much including tree seedlings) that would interfere with one's crop. The best-case scenario, if you farm, is a landscape like the Shire; Lothlorien is an impossibility. Therefore I believe Elves do not farm.

  • It's clear that some Elves do sometimes hunt. (Which--again, as a farmer--is actually far more compatible with "preserve the wilderness" environmentalism than farming & vegetarianism.) Gathering wild foods is also compatible with their attitude toward nature. However, they seem to--at least sometimes--exist in numbers too great in one place for this to supply all their food. (You need a lot of land per person for a hunter-gatherer lifestyle; there certainly can't be a hunter-gatherer city. But there were Elven cities in Middle-Earth history IIRC.) I'm not clear on the numbers in every case--is it possible, for instance, that the Elves of Mirkwood or Lothlorien were few enough to live this way? In any case, I do not believe Elves can get all their food by hunting and/or gathering in general.

  • Elves seem to--to put it bluntly--have a great deal of free time. All the more so due to their immortality, but one also doesn't see them doing much work of daily necessity as Hobbits or Men do--they seem to devote the bulk of their time to art, craft, learning, battle against evil, etc. Thus, their acquiring of food is never mentioned (as far as I know) even while in the case of, say, Hobbits, it's mentioned constantly.

Here are the potential answers I see (with potential issues they contain.)

  1. They trade for almost all of their food, selling their incredible works of art and craft for high value. (However, we don't hear about Elven traders, merchants or elven money.)

  2. They create, or multiply, food by some form of elven magic. This could explain the extraordinary properties of Lembas.

  3. They do not, in fact, need to eat; or they need to eat far less often than other races; or they can derive nourishment from things we can't--spring water? Starlight? Music? (However, the use of Lembas as "waybread" suggests they do need to eat food.)

  4. Combining 2 and 3, they only need to eat very little as long as it's food specially prepared with elven magic.

  5. Tolkien didn't think about this or deliberately glossed over it, since the Elves were created as a sort of natural aristocracy and in order to spend their time creating art, fighting righteous wars and becoming wise, needed to be spared the mundane concerns that tie the rest of us to earth.

Can canon confirm or deny any of these notions of mine?

  • You discard gardening, but not all gardening involves killing plants. They could simply harvest fruits and berries and such, leaving the plants alive. – Mooing Duck Apr 18 '14 at 21:22
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    2 cannot be right because food is one of the five exceptions to Gamp's law of elemental transfiguration – user13267 Sep 26 '14 at 10:02

10 Answers 10

29

I think you're very much overstating the aspect of "not interfering with nature". I don't find that to be an aspect of Elves at all, and certainly don't recall it ever being stated in the books. After all, Elves use all sorts of products made from plants: wood for the talan platforms, and for bows like Legolas's; bark for the boats they give to the Fellowship; (presumably) hemp for the ropes; and so on. And they made metal things too; even for an Elf, you have to have some kind of fuel for your forge, and at least some of that was bound to be wood.

Elves do certainly need to eat, and can't create things "magically" out of thin air. The best answer, though, is point 5 (although I'd quibble with the idea of all Elves as an aristocracy; we certainly meet various "normal" Elves, like the ones that bring the Fellowship into Lorien). Tolkien was a philologist, not an economist, and wasn't really interested in that side of things. Middle-Earth makes very little sense from an economic point of view - why is so much of it empty? Who was doing the trading with the Shire if hobbits never left their homes? And so on.

The only reference at all to this is when Sam muses on how Sauron could feed all his huge armies, and there is an authorial aside about the slave-driven farms on the other side of Mordor. But generally, yes, Tolkien glossed over it.

  • Certainly waking up Ents and teaching them language is interfering with nature. – Oldcat Jun 5 '14 at 18:12
  • I think Aüle told Yavanna at one point that it was imposible even to elves no to use trees for fuel and other needs. – Ram Apr 17 '16 at 5:52
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First, the elven communities in Lothlorien and Mirkwood seem to me to be reasonably compatible in size and environment with a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Rivendell with its mountainous location is a bit more difficult, but maybe also smaller.

But most importantly, I think you've overlooking or misunderstanding the extent and form of elven magic: it is an innate property of their being. And while I'm not sure it's explicitly described anywhere, it seems entirely consistent with Tolkien's vision that the elves' magic would allow them to control and shape nature to meet their needs without resorting to the crude, aggressive methods humans have to employ.

So instead of cutting down trees and rooting out weeds, elven farmers would just nicely "ask" them not to grown in certain areas, while encouraging the growth of food plants. This would probably also allow them to get phenomenal yields for which humans need fertilizers and generic engineering - and thus require much less farmland to sustain their population than was necessary in our history.

12

The answer is simply that, while the Elves revere nature, they most certainly do interfere with it and do cut down trees. They also built large cities and mined on a fairly large scale. The Teleri built their famous ships of "white timber".

Indeed, when Yavanna feared that the dwarves would have no love for her trees - "many a tree will feel the bite of their iron without pity", Aule told her that "that shall be also true of the Children of Illuvatar; for they will eat and they will build" - and the Children of Illuvatar refers to both Elves and Men. And so Manwë revealed to Yavanna that the Ents would exist to defend the trees from excesses "while the Firstborn [Elves] are in their power." Trees would not need such a defense if Elves weren't going to cut them down.

In Valinor, although the word "farming" isn't explicitly used, there is a seasonal holiday: "so also they did eat and drink, and gather the fruits of Yavanna from the Earth, which under Eru they had made" - the "fruits of Yavanna" being sufficient to feed at least tens of thousands of Elves at once. During the feasting, Melkor and Ungoliant come "hastening over the fields of Valinor." In Middle-Earth, Elves are frequently feasting, and their fare at least includes bread, meat, and alcohol.

During the First Age, although there were some Elves who wandered around in the wilderness, most of the Noldor dwelled in large cities and fortresses which clearly must have been supplied by farming. Gondolin, particularly, was built on a hill surrounded by plains encircled by mountains, which no one left for hundreds of years. You'll notice that most of the large Elven kingdoms were surrounded by plains and fields.

Some Elves did live as you describe - the Green Elves of Ossirand were the un-friends of hunters of beasts and hewers of trees, and the sons of Feanor "took to a wild and woodland life" and merged with them after the Battle of Unnumbered Tears. But even Elves weren't the best hunter-gatherers; they were ignorant, for example, of the "bread" (potatos?) that the Petty-dwarves forage for. Language-wise, it seems that Elves kept and ate domesticated animals as well as farming. And of course, we know that several characters (such as Galadriel) maintained their own personal gardens.

Why don't we hear about large Elven farms explicitly in the Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit? There are two reasons.

  1. It doesn't matter for the purposes of the story.
  2. Elves in Middle-Earth, by the time of the Lord of the Rings, are almost extinct. The only remaining settlements are Mirkwood, Rivendell, Lothlorien, and the havens, and the inhabitants of those settlements are departing en masse as the story begins due to the rise of Sauron and the general decline of Elves.

As some side notes - there certainly was traffic between Dale and Mirkwood, as evidenced in The Hobbit, so we know that Elves did trade. Elves can go without food longer than Men, but they do require it. And lastly, Elven wars are not always righteous - there were three Kinslayings, and the war against Morgoth was born from rebellion against the gods.

8

There is a way to "farm" that is something in between what we think of as modern farming and just gathering what already grows. Selective harvesting and hunting has been done for ages upon ages and includes cultivation without "farming" as we think of it.

Officially speaking, the Nez Perce were hunter gatherers but they also cultivated the things they grew by replanting (camas bulbs for example) that were too small, or not hunting mothers and offspring. This encourages more growth, the young to grow to reproductive size and begin reproducing and etc. One can also choose to plant the seeds of the plants that produce the most foodstuffs, or to not hunt/kill plants or animals past a certain point of maturity as they are the ones that have obviously been super successful and the ones you want to continue to encourage reproduction from.

There are also plants that grow nicely in pairs or groups and help to support each-other further (The three sisters, squash, corn and beans are an example of this). I don't see why the elves would be unable to do just this type of farming without the need to clear a lot of land - especially with magical help.

As you point out, this type of lifestyle is not conducive to the growth of cities (in our magic depleted world). However, if elves need less sustenance per individual, travel further and faster in a given amount of time, have better aim/are just more efficient, perhaps they could pull it off as a society.

If I recall correctly, the elves were the first of the modern races and lived for a time without men or dwarves. So, trading doesn't seem to be the answer. I'd be willing to bet though that the answer is really just that this wasn't one of the things in the foremost of Tolkien's thinking and concerns for the story - though I don't have any quotes I can offer up to support an "in canon" claim.

5

As a farmer/gardener myself, I am not aware of any way in which [refusing to cut down trees] can be compatible with farming ... Therefore I believe Elves do not farm.

As what I presume is a modern industrial farmer, you clear your land because you want to maximize yield per acre and need a rather substantial horizontal clearance to move your harvester through the field. It's not too much of a stretch to assume that the elves did not use industrial machines in their farming.

The closest analogy to the level of farming may seem to be pre-mechanized human agriculture, in which villages of farmers hand-sowed and hand-reaped their foodstuffs from cleared acres around a central village. Still, though, the required minimum size an be as much as several yards in diameter, for harvesting grasses with a scythe, and the motivation to clear-cut nearby lands persists, to minimize travel time between cropland and storage facility.

However, this ignores that elves have means of making their foodstuffs magically nourishing in comparison to human agriculture, and may have other magical means as well. It's not too much a stretch to believe that the "farming" elves did was a close resemblance of how humans might harvest bananas or coffee beans, or how the gatherer portion of hunter/gatherer sustenance was obtained.

If you can coax a single apple tree to bear as much fruit as a dozen, and create a bag that can carry a dozen bushel's worth without greatly adding to your weight, you don't need to do more than coax apple trees to grow and ensure their safety. If you need to increase your output, you can simply plant more trees and either transplant other trees or just encourage them not to grow as tall. And you won't need to have as large a footprint, either, since each "acre" may be no larger than a single grove of trees.

  • Even the Entwives farmed! – Oldcat Mar 10 '15 at 0:23
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You will have a hard time finding anything in Tolkien about how anyone survives in Middle Earth economically. There is no mention of farmland in Rohan or Gondor, or anywhere else aside from Farmer Maggot in the Shire. I suppose the 'cash crop' of pipeweed from the South Farthing counts, although who it is sold to is open to question.

There's one road from the Shire to Bree to Rivendell. There's no river traffic mentioned aside from the Fellowship. There was amazement that there was any contact between Saruman and the Shire. The only port in the West goes to Elf Heaven and no ship comes back.

  • Gondor has ports. – user20178 Jan 8 '14 at 1:41
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    And the fields of Pelennor are mentioned as being full of farms, only they've been abandoned due to the impending battle. (This mentioned when Gandalf is stopped at the outer wall while he's going to Minas Tirith with Pippin.) But that's Men, not Elves. – Wrathchild Jan 8 '14 at 2:48
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    I had missed the Pelennor fields reference. That's still not much for supplying two cities, Minas Tirith and Osgiliath. Note the border with Rohan is fairly close to the North so there's not a lot in that direction. Also no visible roads for carting in foodstuffs. – Oldcat Jan 8 '14 at 17:45
  • If you read apocryphal "The Last Ring-Bearer" by Yeskov, you'll love his description of Ithilien: "It is rather hard to analyze the reign of the first Princes of Ithilien, Faramir and Éowyn, in political or economical terms – it appears that they had neither politics nor economics over there, but only a never-ending romantic ballad" – DVK-on-Ahch-To Jan 14 '14 at 16:57
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    Farmlands in Rohan and Gondor: Deeping Coomb valley (between Helm's Dike and Deeping Wall of the fortress) and all other rich lands of Westfold, Harrowdale (in parts also densely wooded) and other vales of the mountains, Pelennor fields, rural area of Lossarnach (fertile region), as well as other farming lands in particular provinces, there is also net of well build and maintained roads (think of them like the ancient roman ones) and thriving trade and transport by rivers (ships were travelling up river to ports in Harlond and Osgiliath and others) there's no shortages of food and money. – fantasywind Jun 15 '14 at 17:25
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I suspect the elves had so much free time because over their long lives they became very efficient at a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. So much that they were able to devote time to any craft they put their mind to: textiles, smithing, war, poetry, music, writing.

Plus you can tell they they ate a paleo diet because they are all super skinny and healthy-looking.

1

Elves certainly were farming and gardening, they had orchards and fields and gardens. The very special protected and hidden fields served as ground for farming ,,white corn" of lembas (but they were not among common foods, there never was any great store of it, you could say it's magical), the elves of course hunted and gathered but those who did it were mostly rustic Wood Elves or wandering Avari (but organized by sindarin lords into prosperous kingdoms they definitely had their ways of farming too, as well as trade by which they acquired much food products especially those which they couldn't get in their own lands, like milk, cheese, various vegetables and fruits that were not to be found locally). The elves of course like to eat meat (like mentioned venison get by hunting) they make normal bread and alcoholic beverages.

It is also quite possible that abilities and powers of elves allow them to influence natural processes and thus they can farm much more efficiently in smaller areas than humans could from extensive exploatation of much larger farms (it is mentioned that in food provided by Gildor Inglorion were fruits larger and tastier than from the best tended gardens of men and hobbits they also most likely produced their own specific food stuffs and drinks like golden liquid drank by hobbits again given by Gildor's company). Elves of course also cut down trees since they too need wood for many tasks and craftsman industries but they most likely practiced forestry planting many new trees. Elves though it might not seem so have their own economy, but as it is not in the centre of attention in stories it is seldom mentioned.

Example of the realm of Lothlorien shows that the elves in question (Galadhrim) had stone paved roads and walls, they used wood for building homes and boats, they produced weapons and armours they had metal gates to the city of Caras Galadhon (so metalworking, bowmaking, leatherworking), they crafted other items and produced local foods and drinks (white mead the Fellowship drinks with Galadriel and Celeborn), they were working with special materials like mallorn wood and mysterious hithlain, weaving special kind of cloth (very much light and delicate, soft like silk yet warm as wool and ,,magical" changing color and making a person wearing it blend in environment, becoming almost invisible at few paces), so they must have resources and knowledge on many crafts of civilization as well as artistic skills and esthetic tastes (as all elves are talented artists).

1

They could presumably draw some kind of nourishment from nature. Although elves did eat, it wasn't necessary to sustain their lives. We are told Elves didn't die from starving, only from being slain and "wasting".

While other answers have been offered along different lines of explanations, I feel this point was glossed over in spite of being mentioned in the question itself

They do not, in fact, need to eat; or they need to eat far less often than other races; or they can derive nourishment from things we can't--spring water? Starlight? Music? (However, the use of Lembas as "waybread" suggests they do need to eat food.)

This I believe is part of the factors that gave Elves their seemingly eternal existence on Earth. Elven hröa (physical bodies) are protected from the natural decay of time that affects other races. So then their Fëar or spirits must be capable of drawing some life-force or nourishment from the environment that offsets the natural decay of biological systems.

This is part of Elven nature - the way they were conceived by Iluvatar, they were literally tied up with the world and much more in tune with it. Throughout the books, we read about the sacredness of nature and natural phenomena to Elves. The light of Eärendil was offered in order to provide spiritual nourishment to Frodo in a dark place, so we could imagine that starlight served a similar function for all elven spirits and perhaps even their bodies. In the case of Elves, the two (body and spirit) were much more strongly intertwined.

But we also have in-text references to elven feasting, cooking etc. This could be just cultural since a Silmarillion story has even the Valar feasting and attending parties in Aman. Maybe elves did need to take food to survive, but probably they needed it much less than the mortal races. It's for the same reason that we don't hear of starving as one of the reasons that could lead to physical death for an elf. Tolkien mentions being slain in war and wasting (due to grief), but not starving.

"It is one with this gift of freedom that the children of Men dwell only a short space in the world alive, and are not bound to it, and depart soon whither the Elves know not. Whereas the Elves remain until the end of days.... For the Elves die not till the world dies, unless they are slain or waste in grief.... But the sons of Men die indeed, and leave the world; wherefore they are called the Guests, or the Strangers." - The Silmarillion, Quenta Silmarillion, Ch 1, Of The Beginning of Days

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What they don't produce or harvest themselves they logically buy. Like Woodland Realm's trade with Lake-Town isn't just about wine, I'm sure.

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