Once there are ships that can take them to the Undying Lands, what is the motivation for the Elves to stay in a war-torn, darkened land full of Men and Orcs and other undesirable creatures? We know that Elves could become wraiths if they stayed in Middle-earth, so something would have to be of value to them enough to outweigh that risk. Their purpose as the Firstborn was to show Men the way and prepare Middle-earth for them, but many of them are not doing that. So what then are they doing?

What's keeping them there?

Sailing into the West seems like an all around better deal for them and I can't find any discussion of a motive to stay.

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    They never read "Think like a Freak" and don't know the value of quitting. Commented Dec 26, 2014 at 23:08
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    Imagine you've lived in your house a couple thousand years. Would you really want to leave everything you know and love? That's basically it. Elves really loved Middle Earth because they'd lived there for so long. It was basically the same motivation as the Numenoreans who clung to life past the point of losing their sanity.
    – Shamshiel
    Commented Dec 26, 2014 at 23:21

2 Answers 2


This is addressed in Tolkien's Letter 131:

There was nothing wrong essentially in their lingering against counsel, still sadly with the mortal lands of their old heroic deeds. But they wanted to have their cake without eating it. They wanted the peace and bliss and perfect memory of 'The West', and yet to remain on the ordinary earth where their prestige as the highest people, above wild Elves, dwarves, and Men, was greater than at the bottom of the hierarchy of Valinor.

In other words, in Middle-earth the Elves are the highest, the most revered, the most powerful. In Valinor: they're not.

Note that there are exceptions. The Avari, who never left Middle-earth in the first place, obviously have little motivation to go West. On the other hand the likes of Galadriel, who - at the time of The Lord of the Rings - was the sole survivor of the rebellion of the Noldor, were under a ban from returning and therefore had no choice in the matter. Letter 297 elaborates:

The Exiles were allowed to return — save for a few chief actors in the rebellion of whom at the time of the L. R. only Galadriel remained.

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    Better to rule in hell then serve in heaven...
    – user16696
    Commented Dec 28, 2014 at 7:18
  • Basicly, arrogance and feeding their egos
    – Petersaber
    Commented Aug 4, 2015 at 8:17

In The Silmarillion, at the end of the "Of the Voyage of Eärendil and the War of Wrath" it is said:

"Yet not all the Eldalië were willing to forsake the Hither Lands, where they had long suffered and long dwelt; and some lingered many an age in Middle-earth. Among those were Círdan the shipwright and Celeborn of Doriath, with Galadriel his wife, who alone remained of those who led the Noldor to exile in Beleriand."

That said, someone else may correct me, but I have never seen anywhere that the purpose of the elves is "...to show Men the way and prepare Middle-earth for them, but many of them are not doing that so what then are they doing, what's keeping them there?"

The Valar didn't even all agree on bringing them to Valinor in the first place, as is said in The Silmarillion ("Of the Coming of the Elves and the Captivity of Melkor"):

For some, and of those Ulmo was the chief, held that the Quendi should be left free to walk as they would in Middle-earth and with their gift of skill to order all the lands and heal their hurts.

Their purpose in Arda is to be elves and live and enjoy Arda, the same as men and Ainur, each race with its own way. Also, note that most men in Middle-earth have never been in contact with elves, men from the east and from Harad. And from those lands, those who have been in contact with elves, have been mostly through war.

  • The citation about the elves leading the way for men is also found in Letter 131. The quotation can be found in the top answer for this question, first one under "Doom of the Elves." Commented Dec 27, 2014 at 2:38
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    Yes, they have to make way for man, but still, their purpose is not to show men the way. Elves simply don't know what Illuvatar intends for men, neither do the Valar. And if their only purpose had been to show men the way, then they wouldn't linger forever after in Valinor. They would disappear entirely from Arda. But no, they live on. Their real purpose is in letter 131: "The doom of the Elves is to be immortal, to love the beauty of the world, to bring it to full flower with their gifts of delicacy and perfection, to last while it lasts, never leaving it even when 'slain', but returning".
    – Joel
    Commented Dec 27, 2014 at 3:06
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    Moreover, neither the Vanyar, nor a great part of the Noldor, nor a great part of the Teleri who have almost ever been in Aman ever saw men... that would leave them quite purposeless... ;-)
    – Joel
    Commented Dec 27, 2014 at 13:33
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    The Vanyar and non-Exile Noldor probably did get a short glimpse of men to be fair, when they came back as part of the Host of Valinor. Still not long enough to guide them in any way of course. Commented Dec 28, 2014 at 5:56
  • yes, you're right. That still leaves completely out the Teleri of Alqualonde, since the few who came remained on their ships.
    – Joel
    Commented Dec 28, 2014 at 15:53

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