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Judging by the LotR movies, and even by Legolas' actions in the books of The Lord of the Rings, it seems that Elves use bows and arrows far more often than any other weapons. But in The Silmarillion, we hear much more about them using other weapons - although the Teleri at Alqualondë fight with (apparently somewhat flimsy) hunting bows, and there are mounted archers among the Elven warriors of Hithlum, it appears that the Noldor prefer swords, Gil-galad uses a spear, and the Sindar arm themselves with axes on at least one occasion.

Taken together, this suggests that Elves were very accomplished in the use of all manner of weaponry, and bows played a much smaller role in their warfare than one might expect from the evidence of LotR.

Does anything in Tolkien's writing support the common notion that Elves are, first and foremost, archers by nature and inclination, and employ other weapons only at need?

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    Good question. Begs another one, does the common trope of elf being bow carrying rangers come from Tolkien or does it predate him? – user16696 Jun 20 '15 at 5:08
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    This is the weapon of an Elf. Not as clumsy or random as a trebuchet; an elegant weapon for a more civilized age. – Major Stackings Jun 20 '15 at 5:09
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    @cde: I always thought that the notion of eternally young Elves with bows had some connection to our concepts of Apollo and Artemis. Unlike the sword, the bow seems to have often been seen as a weapon associated with justice and power as it relates to gods, rather than to people. It also had a funny connection to physical strength: you need it to draw, but it isn't directly behind the impact. You send death to your opponent instead of bringing it yourself. It's more mysterious :) – Misha R Jun 20 '15 at 7:00
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    Tried to find some stuff on Tolkien Gateway and LotR wiki but couldn't find anything - good question! – Often Right Jun 20 '15 at 7:51
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    If you live forever without aging but can still be slain, it is much preferrable to use a ranged weapon, which solves the problem of getting slain for the most part. Going into hand-to-hand combat is unlucrative, even more so if your opponent has more muscle mass, but you have the better eyesight. – Damon Jun 20 '15 at 18:33
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Does anything in Tolkien's writing support the common notion that Elves are, first and foremost, archers by nature and inclination, and employ other weapons only at need?

No, this seems to be just the movies' portrayal, perhaps due to the popular image of Elves as primarily bow-users. In the books, the Elves (including Legolas) do use their bows very profficiently, but in the heyday of Elves in the First Age, they were full-on warriors with a great variety of weapons and armour. It wouldn't make sense that in the war of the Last Alliance (which resulted in Sauron being overthrown) Elves only shot their bows. However, after that war, the Elves' communities got largely removed from the dealings with the world, and as such their use of weapons might have been limited to ranging with bows to keep their realms secure from threats such as orcs. LotR takes place in the Third Age, which hails the "fading" of the Elves and them returning to a more rustic way of life.

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    Could it also be that the bows were used more by the Sindar and the Noldor used swords, axes spears etc far more, possibly due to their greater skills in blacksmithing? As most of the elves left on Middle earth at the time of the hobbit and LoTR (and those prominent in the stories ) are Sindar then this would be why bows are seen more.... – Cearon O'Flynn Jun 20 '15 at 12:48
  • The elves in Mirkwood and Lothlorien were actually Wood Elves, who are different from Sindar, although they were ruled by the Sindar and Noldorin rulers (Thingol and Galadriel respectively). But I guess that in any woodland kingdom, bows play a big role in defence of the realm. – Maksim Jun 20 '15 at 23:00
  • Sorry meant silvan. Too many beginning with S – Cearon O'Flynn Jun 20 '15 at 23:06
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Judging by the LotR movies, and even by Legolas' actions in the books of The Lord of the Rings

You pretty much answer your own question here, but then take a wrong turn with:

Does anything in Tolkien's writing support the common notion that Elves are, first and foremost, archers by nature and inclination, and employ other weapons only at need?

In the Silmarillion elves use the same kinds of weapons as the humans: swords, spears, bows, axes. In fact, nothwithstanding the fact that they're the Firstborn and so on and so forth, elven culture & human culture in Beleriand is not highly differentiated. Posters above cite the examples of elven archers, but as noted these are hardly dominant.

However: the LOTR books give a very different picture. Elvish culture in the Third Age is not much like human culture at all, and Tolkien repeatedly emphasizes their skills at archery, the fact that they're fast and un- or lightly armored, and so on. He primarily does this with the character of Legolas who, because he's the only elf Companion, stands in for all elves in many ways, just as Gimli becomes the quintessential dwarf. This depiction of elf-as-archer painted by Legolas is further reinforced by references to the Mirkwood elves, and by our meetings with the Galadhrim.

So in reference to Tolkien's actual work, among the elves of the First & Second Age the bow did not dominate, whereas among the elves of the Third Age it did. The posters making the points about the different types of elves who remained in Middle-earth by the Third Age have, I think, explained why.

In reference to readers' interpretations, however, the stereotype of the elf-as-archer is completely justified since that's overwhelmingly the way Tolkien portrays them in LOTR, and LOTR is where the vast majority of Tolkien readers are introduced to his work.

So the point "Apart from LOTR, does anything justify..." is moot: LOTR is the canonical work, and - when considering Tolkien's work as a whole - must be weighted accordingly.

As an aside: the bow-carrying elf ranger trope certainly doesn't predate Tolkien since he invented both "ranger trope" and "bow-carrying elf trope" as we know them today (along with "orc trope", "axe-carrying dwarf trope", "Evil Empire trope", "tree-man trope", etc).

Second aside: Celtic & Scandinavian folklore called flint arrowheads that were found in fields "elf-shot" and associated them with "the Little People" (ie elves). It's impossible that Professor Tolkien was unaware of this, although I leave it to Tolkien scholars as to whether or not there is any explicit evidence linking Tolkien's elves with this particular dimension of their folkloric namesakes.

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