Some of the more important divisions of the Elves
The first Elves awoke by Cuiviénen, the Water of Awakening in the far east of Middle-earth, long Ages before the Rising of the Sun or Moon. Unlike Men, the Elves were not subject to illness or death, and at the time of the Lord of the Rings, there were still at least two Elves in Aman who had awoken by Cuiviénen in the first days: Ingwë, Lord of the Vanyar, and Olwë, brother of King Elu Thingol.
Origins and Early History
In the far eastern land of Cuiviénen, on the shores of the Inland Sea of Helcar and beneath the mountains of the Orocarni, the Elves awoke under the starlight of the Years of the Trees. The Valar at first knew nothing of their coming, but they were soon discovered by the spies of Melkor, who sent his creatures to watch them and harrass them.
How long they existed in this perilous and unprotected state is not known, but the legends of those times, of the Hunter and of a dark Rider, were preserved in Valinor by the Eldar that came there. It is known that many of the ancient Elves were captured by Melkor and imprisoned in Utumno - it is generally thought that these hapless beings were the origins of the race of Orcs.
The Valar discovered that the Elves had awoken when Oromë, hunting in the lands of Middle-earth, heard their singing voices. He named them Eldar, the People of the Stars, but the Elves' own name for their kind was Quendi, those who speak with voices. Because of the horrors of Melkor, many of the Elves were at first suspicious of the Vala, but (after briefly returning to Valinor to tell the other Valar of his discovery) he remained with them and protected them for a time.
Concerned for the safety of the Elves in Middle-earth, which was at that time under the control of Melkor, the Valar left Valinor and made war against the Dark Lord: this was the Battle of the Powers, which saw Melkor taken as captive back to Valinor.
After the defeat of Melkor, the Valar debated the fate of the Elves - whether they should be left to dwell in Middle-earth, or brought to Valinor to be kept under the direct protection of the Valar. It was decided to bring them to the land of the Valar, and Oromë was sent back to Cuiviénen to summon them.
When he returned, though, he found that the Elves feared the Valar, and were reluctant to make the journey. Three ambassadors were chosen, Ingwë, Finwë and Elwë, to travel to Aman with Oromë, and help the Elves decide on their course. These three were filled with awe by what they saw there, and by the light of the Two Trees, and counselled their people to follow the summons.
The followers of Ingwë, and most of the peoples of Finwë and Elwë agreed, and they set out on the Great Journey westwards across the wide lands of Middle-earth. These were the peoples later known as the Three Kindreds, the Vanyar, the Noldor and the Teleri. Not all the Elves obeyed the summons; those who refused are known as Avari, the Unwilling1.
Oromë led the peoples of the Three Kindreds out of the east of Middle-earth. The Vanyar were the least numerous, and the most eager to reach Aman, and they came first on the Journey, followed by the Noldor of Finwë.
The Teleri, led by Elwë and his brother Olwë, were the greatest host, and many were uncertain and doubtful. Not a few of these people left the Journey and remained in Middle-earth2. The most notable of those who turned from the Journey were the Nandor, who were led away down the Vales of Anduin by Lenwë.
At last, the Vanyar and the Noldor reached the shores of the Great Sea, in the regions between the Bay of Balar and the Firth of Drengist (regions later known, at least for the most part, as the Falas). Ulmo brought a great island to the shores, and on it transported the first two hosts of the Elves to Aman.
The Teleri were the hindcomers, though, and arrived in Beleriand too late to embark on Ulmo's island. They dwelt for a while on the banks of the Gelion in eastern Beleriand, but later spread to the shores. In this time, two events of historical importance occurred - their lord Elwë was lost for a time in Nan Elmoth, and they encountered Ossë, a Maia of the Sea.
Many of the Teleri wished to remain in Beleriand, some to seek for their lost lord, and others because of desires stirred in their hearts by Ossë. When the time came for Ulmo to return to Beleriand to take the Teleri to Valinor, then, many of them chose to remain behind. These people became known in after years as the Sindar, the Grey-elves, and those who dwelt by the shores under the lordship of Círdan became known as the Falathrim.
Melkor Chained: Three Ages of Bliss
Now came three ages of glory and bliss for the Elves, both east and west of the Great Sea. In Valinor, the Vanyar and the Noldor, and those of the Teleri who completed the Journey, dwelt with the Valar and learned from them. They dwelt in the jewelled city of Tirion in the Pass of Light, and at the Swanhaven of Alqualondë, and beneath the tower of Avallónë on the Lonely Isle of Tol Eressëa. While the Two Trees still gave light to the realm of the Valar, three ages passed, and the Elves of Valinor became the wisest and noblest of all the Children of Ilúvatar.
Meanwhile, in Beleriand, the Sindar dwelt beneath starlight. While most of Middle-earth still slept, awaiting the coming of the Sun and Moon, Melian the Maia brought life to the forests and plains of Beleriand under Thingol's rule, and Oromë would still ride at times across the darkling lands.
The Nature of the Elves
Elves and Men are both the Children of Ilúvatar, and so have much in common, but there are also great differences between the two peoples. Of these, the most significant is that Elves are 'immortal', at least while the World lasts; they do not suffer ageing3 or disease, and if they are slain or wither with grief, they are reincarnated in the Halls of Mandos in Valinor.
Although, unlike Men, the Elves must remain in the world until its ending, they are not bound to Middle-earth. They may if they wish take the straight road, and sail into the Uttermost West, a road that is barred to mortals.
Elves also have far clearer sight and perception than Men; they are naturally aware of many things that are hidden from the Younger Children, but these gifts are not without limit.
The Elves never had any distinct 'religion' in the sense that Men would understand the word; indeed, the High Elves had travelled to Valinor and lived with the Valar (or 'gods') themselves for many ages before Men came into the world.
Of all the Valar, they most revered Varda Elentári, the spouse of Manwë, and Lady of the Stars. In Middle-earth, they called her Elbereth, Star-Queen, and sang to her across the wide ocean Belegaer. Great respect was also given to Ulmo, especially during the First Age when he aided the Elves against Morgoth.
This is the point where the term Eldar acquires its special meaning. Before the beginning of the Great Journey, it was applied to all Elves. After the Three Kindreds set out, it came to be used only for Elves belonging to these three peoples.
These Elves who turned aside from the Journey founded peoples and lands of their own. The Wood-elves of Mirkwood and the Galadhrim of Lórien were descended from them, for example.
More correctly, Elves don't suffer ageing in the same way as Men. In fact they do age, as Tolkien makes clear in his Letters. There, he says, 'The Elves were sufficiently longeval to be called by Man 'immortal'. But they were not unageing or unwearying' (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien No 245, dated 1963).
Adûnakhôr, Aerandir, Afterborn, Aftercomers, Ainur, Aiwendil, Alcarinquë, Aldëa, Aldúya, Alfrida of the Yale, Almaren, Aman, Amanyar, Amarië, Amlach, [See the full list...]
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