64

Is there a particular reason the elves die off so fast? After the first war against Sauron, I recall the elves being decimated, to the point that they're almost useless army-wise in the trilogy. But I'm guessing men suffered equal or greater losses as well.

Anyways, other races just seem much more capable of repopulating, while is seems like there are incredibly few (if any?) elven children. Considering the fact that elves are immortal, wouldn't their population be the fastest to grow? Also the seem to be perpetually 40 years old, so aren't they eternally fertile as well? Why don't they have more kids and build bigger societies?

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  • 16
    Sex is just so... inelegant...
    – Nerrolken
    Jun 3 '15 at 22:44
  • 24
    @Nerrolken I must disagree Jun 3 '15 at 22:44
  • 3
    Possible duplicate? scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/36104/…
    – Rand al'Thor
    Jun 3 '15 at 22:45
  • 6
    They must pay taxes making more then half of their income and can't afford children.
    – maaartinus
    Jun 4 '15 at 18:48
  • 6
    I don't think this is any of our business! I've never heard an Elf ask such a personal question about Humans and I think we should take a leaf out of their book and remember our manners!
    – CJ Dennis
    Jun 5 '15 at 8:19
83

Tolkien himself addresses this in an essay called "Laws and Customs Among the Eldar". There are essentially two problems:

  1. Elvish libido diminishes over time. Contrary to popular belief (and outward appearance, from a human perspective), Elves do age; and as they get older, they get less interested in procreation.
  2. Having children is exhausting. The Elves believe that their child-bearing process draws a heavier physical and spiritual toll on them, compared to what it does to humans. They're understandable reluctant to have a lot of kids, because what's the point in having a dozen kids if doing so might literally kill you?

From "Laws and Customs":

It might be thought that, since the Eldar do not (as Men deem) grow old in body, they may bring forth children at any time in the ages of their lives. But this is not so. For the Eldar do indeed grow older, even if slowly: the limit of their lives is the life of Arda, which though long beyond the reckoning of Men is not endless, and ages also. Moreover their body and spirit are not separated but coherent. As the weight of the years, with all their changes of desire and thought, gathers upon the spirit of the Eldar, so do the impulses and moods of their bodies change. [...]

Also the Eldar say that in the begetting [conceiving], and still more in the bearing of children, greater share and strength of their being, in mind and in body, goes forth than in the making of mortal children. For these reasons it came to pass that the Eldar brought forth few children; and also that their time of generation was in their youth or earlier life, unless strange and hard fates befell them.

History of Middle-earth X Morgoth's Ring Part 3: "The Later Quenta Silmarillion" Chapter 2: "The Second Phase" Laws and Customs Among the Eldar

That last point about the toll on their mind and body is worth expanding on, and fortunately Tolkien does this later in the essay:

[A]ll the Eldar, being aware of it in themselves, spoke of the passing of much strength, both of mind and of body, into their children, in bearing and begetting. Therefore they hold that the fëa [soul], though unbegotten, draws nourishment directly from the fëa of the mother while she bears and nourishes the hrondo [body; later changed to the word hroä], and mediately but equally from the father, whose fëa is bound in union with the mother's and supports it.

History of Middle-earth X Morgoth's Ring Part 3: "The Later Quenta Silmarillion" Chapter 2: "The Second Phase" Laws and Customs Among the Eldar

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  • 54
    Little runts, draining your bank account AND your life force!
    – Nerrolken
    Jun 3 '15 at 23:28
  • 10
    @Nerrolken They do drain your life force, but at the same time you're happier than you ever knew you could be. While you're convinced your kids will be the end of you, at the same time you know you wouldn't hesitate to lay down your life in order to preserve theirs.
    – ShemSeger
    Jun 4 '15 at 3:13
  • 16
    @ShemSeger: Apparently the Elves disagree.
    – Misha R
    Jun 4 '15 at 6:19
  • 3
    Great answer, but note that "conceiving" as a parenthetical explanation of "begetting" makes no sense. Begetting (making someone get) is what men do, conceiving (receiving) is what women do. So "in the begetting, and still more in the bearing of children" covers both sexes. This is also taken up later with the phrase "bearing and begetting", which doesn't mean that one person does both but is again meant to cover both sexes.
    – user46547
    Jun 4 '15 at 12:01
  • 2
    @Jason Baker: Then it appears that Tolkien uses bearing like German gebären in the sense of giving birth, whereas perhaps a more usual meaning in English is being pregnant - a state that lasts 9 months in humans and maybe a year in elves. But my point was that a woman conceives a child at the exact moment when, or at most a day after (depending on the precise definitions used), her partner begets the child. Following the old theory of the man passing over a kind of embryo, it's the same relation as giving and taking, so they are clearly not synonyms.
    – user46547
    Jun 4 '15 at 16:31
14

Elves only have a small number of children in a small amount of time.

Elves only procreate for a certain period of their lives, as Tolkien said (in quotes):

The bad news is that elves tend to lose interest in sex after they've had kids. "With the exercise of the power (of generation), the desire soon ceases, and the mind turns to other things…they have many other urges of body and of mind which their nature urges them to fulfil." They do look back happily on the sexually-active time in their lives, though, a period of one to several hundred years.
What Tolkien Officially Said About Elf Sex; quote inside from "Laws and Customs of the Eldar", one of Tolkien's essays.

When they do have children, there aren't many:

Seven children was the usual upper limit in ancient times, but in future ages, partly due to varying levels of corruption in various elven societies, these norms were often exceeded rarely, even when corrupted do they ever succumb to deeds of Lust.
Elf children

So it's once and done, while Elves are young, and then things slow down. For most of their lives, Elves do not have young (even relatively young) children.

16
  • Can someone translate that second quote into modern English? I can't quite parse it. Apr 20 '18 at 22:18
  • @HarryJohnston In the past it was usual that no more than seven children were had. Later on due to varying degrees of corruption in various elven societies the norms were often exceed but rarely. And therein lies the problem: often and rarely conflict with each other. This makes one question if the rest of it is relevant; I would say not. Not that I think seven children isn't many...
    – Pryftan
    Jun 23 '18 at 1:17
  • @Pryftan, looking at the linked source (via the Wayback Machine) it isn't clear to me whether this is a direct quote from Tolkien or not. If it is, I'm thinking perhaps it got mangled somehow. Jun 23 '18 at 1:47
  • @HarryJohnston After I wrote that I thought I should have added that it doesn’t seem like Tolkien wrote it himself although he certainly had some archaic writings. He even wrote about this in at least one letter. I did also think of another way it could be interpreted, the contradiction, but not really: it’s as you say if his it’s mangled. Which btw I also meant to say I love that you used the word parse for that’s the word I use for that type of thing. Programmer’s thinking. Mangled is also a good word but so is corruption e.g. memory corruption!
    – Pryftan
    Jun 23 '18 at 12:49
  • @HarryJohnston I just posted an answer on the subject of numbers and indeed the quote seems not only incorrect but not even - as we both thought - Tolkien's writing.
    – Pryftan
    Jun 23 '18 at 13:35
5

To supplement Jason Baker's excellent answer I wanted to add something about the number of children also from the same essay in Morgoth's Ring. I would like to point out that there seems to be something in HDE's answer that must have been sourced from a wiki; however commentator Harry Johnston in that answer asked if anyone could translate a quote in that answer. I did so but he and I both thought it didn't look like Tolkien. Since it talks about number of children Elves tend to have I thought I would add something from the same essay that Jason cited:

The Eldar wedded for the most part in their youth and soon after their fiftieth year. They had few children but these were very dear to them. Their families, or houses, were held together by love and a deep feeling for kinship in mind and body; and the children needed little governing or teaching. There were seldom more than four children in any house and the number grew less as the ages past but even in the days of old, while the Eldar were still few and eager to increase their kind Fëanor was renowned as the father of seven sons, and the histories record none that surpassed him(4).

Footnotes:

(4): There were actually two drafts of this essay; Christopher shows the main one and then shows divergences. In this essay at footnote four he has this to say about version A:

'.. while the Eldar were still few, and eager to increase their kind, before the weight of years lay on them, there is no record of any number more than seven', with 'seldom' written later above 'no'.

Summary

In the earlier ages they were more eager to increase their kind, when they had fewer. As the ages went by this desire decreased - as Jason's answer points out; the other answer suggests that seven was the upper limit but usually it was no more than four and as the ages went by the number grew less. Fëanor was one of the ones who actually had seven and none surpassed him in this.

1
  • 4
    I've rolled back the changes; the word is commentator and it is Morgoth's Ring. There was no need to make any changes that I could see and I don't appreciate, actually, changing a word when the word is perfectly valid.
    – Pryftan
    Jun 23 '18 at 22:24
3

Elves only have children once in their life, and it saps a lot of strength so they don't do it during war.

In circa 1959, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a series of texts which he collectively called "Of Time in Arda". These are published in The Nature of Middle-earth.

It may also be noted that in each Elvish life there was normally only one period of begetting or bearing children, whenever begun; and that the length of this period was variable, as were the number of children produced. It might occupy from 12 to about 60 years (occasionally more). The children numbered usually 2, 3, or 4. ...

Thus we may observe that all matters of growth and development, which belong to the separate nature of the hröa, engaged in its own process of achieving its complete and mature form, and which are not under the will or conscious control of the fëa, proceed far slower among the Quendi than among Men. Gestation, therefore, proceeds according to the growth and ageing scale of the Quendi, and occupies ¾ yên, or 108 MY[= Middle-earth years].

During all this time the parents are aware of the growth of the unborn child, and live in much longer and more deeply-felt joy and expectation; for childbirth is not among the Eldar accompanied by pain. It is nonetheless not an easy or light matter, for it is achieved by a much greater expense of the vigour of hröa and fëa (of “youth” as the Eldar say) than is usual among Men; and is followed after the begetting by a time of quiescence and withdrawal. The Elf-women also are usually quiescent and withdrawn before and after birth. For these reasons, the Eldar did not (if they could avoid it) enter into the “Time of the Children” in times of trouble, or wandering. There were thus no marriages or births during the Great March; nor again during the journey of the Ñoldor from Aman to Beleriand, and births were few during all the War against Morgoth. For the same cause, Men who had dealings with the Eldar often saw far less of the Elf-women, and might even be unaware that some Elven-king or lord had a wife. For the withdrawal and quiescence of the wife might occupy the whole time of his sojourn among the Eldar, or indeed much of his whole mortal life-time. For this “withdrawal”, occupying from three to four “months” or twelfths of a “year”, that is one quarter to one third of a yên, would in mortal terms endure for about 36 to 48 years.
The Nature of Middle-earth - "The Quendi compared with Men"

In the case of Elf-women: marriage and child-bearing took place earlier, their first child being born before they were of age 20. Later indeed some postponement was usual so that marriage at 21 was the most usual time; though any age up to 36 (18 + 18) was not uncommon. In days of trouble, or of travel and unsettled life, the begetting of children was naturally avoided or postponed; and since the postponement especially of the first child-bearing or begetting prolonged the “youth” or physical vigour of the Quendi, this might occur up to a female age of about 72 (18 + 54) – but a first child-bearing seldom occurred after this age. ...

At all times, unless circumstances interfered and separation were forced upon spouses by wars or exile, the Quendi desired to dwell in company with husband or wife during the bearing of a child and its early growth. Also as a rule, they preferred to arrange their lives so as to have a consecutive “Time of the Children” in which all of their children were born – but this of course often, especially in the troubled early years, proved impossible. After a birth, even if a consecutive Onnalúmë or ‘Time of Children’ was achieved, a rest was naturally always taken. This was governed by “growth-time”, and so was usually not less than 12 löar (= 1 growth-year); but it might be much more; and usually was increased progressively between each birth for consecutive series: as 12 : 24 : 36 : 48 etc.
The Nature of Middle-earth - "Natural Youth and Growth of the Quendi"

A few points may be noted:

  • Elves like to arrange all of their childbearing so that it happens in a continuous interval
  • Depending on the number of children this interval can be anywhere from 144 to 720 years. (They need progressively larger recovery periods between each child.
  • They like to plan their lives so that this one period happens during a time of peace, when both parents can be home
6
  • Luthien would seem to have been past her child-bearing years by the time she met Beren. Likewise Arwen with Aragorn. Whatever is needed to make the story work, I guess. Plus those were elf-human unions, not elf-elf.
    – FlaStorm32
    Aug 5 at 3:58
  • @FlaStorm32 - The ages Tolkien gives here are in dog, sorry, elf years. One elf year in the third age is equal to 100 human years. Tolkien wasn't very worried about Luthien's timeline because he could always change that if needed, but he does discuss how these rules affect Arwen. "She was born (according to LR) in TA 241. She was married to Aragorn in TA 3019. She was then 2,778 years old, or in human terms nearly 28. This in elvish terms is a very suitable age. Her wedding was in any case inevitably postponed by the War of the Ring and the preceding troubles."
    – ibid
    Aug 5 at 6:35
  • It is probably worth noting that Tolkien changed his mind on elven aging - "Laws and Customs of the Eldar" in Morgoth's Ring says the usual age for elves to marry is under 100 (apparently mortal/Sun) years. Sep 10 at 5:30
  • @cometaryorbit - The text quoted in this answer (and indeed most of the "Time and Aging" stuff from NoMe) was written after Laws and Custom of the Eldar,
    – ibid
    Sep 10 at 5:34
  • I know. I just thought it was worth mentioning because this was not Tolkien's idea at the time LOTR was written (even Laws and Customs is after that) so it may not be perfectly in harmony with details of stories written before. (And in fact Nature of Middle Earth's "Difficulties in Chronology" shows that Tolkien couldn't make Maeglin work on this time scale, since he had to be adult in less than 400 Sun Years -- so Eldar in Beleriand had to grow more quickly... "Maeglin for example, born in Bel. 120, was in only 200 years (=20) an adult: sc. he was in life-age 20 in Bel. 320. But in 495, when Sep 10 at 5:39

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