Das Silmaril: Tolkienian Economics Part II – Tolkien Elves Are Not Vegetarians
It has been some time since I started a look at the Economics of Middle-earth. It’s still something I intend to get around to pursuing, but it’s very much a matter of finding the right time…
Today, I thought I would tangentially revisit the issue by looking at a certain aspect of Elvish dietary habits (with the subsidiary economic issue of where, exactly, the food in question comes from. We may scratch our heads about the food supplies of Angband, but the Elves at least are accounted for when it comes to protein intake). More specifically, I thought I would put to bed the all-too common notion that Tolkien’s Elves are vegetarian.
No, the Elves eat meat. Which they obtain via hunting. There is no evidence of an Elvish meat industry as such – nor do they appear to import (salted) meat products – but they most certainly do hunt, with the game ending up on the dinner table. This holds true for both High Elves and Wood Elves, with one notable cultural exception.
Peter Jackson has, alas, created quite the wrong impression about the Quendi…
You see, Jackson’s Elves – tending to be blond – are highly ethereal creatures. Nature-loving, refined, and, based off An Unexpected Journey, vegetarian. Or maybe even vegan. The dinner they serve up to the Dwarves at Rivendell is noticeably devoid of meat. And as fun as it is to imagine the Elves of Rivendell mischievously hiding meat dishes from the Dwarves, the implication of the scene is pretty clear. Dwarves are slobby, uncultured meat-eaters, whereas Elves are snobby, cultured, vegetarians. Jackson’s Elves are Spiritually Closer To Nature.
Nothing wrong with this as an adaptation choice, of course. It’s just that, combined with modern fantasy stereotypes about Elves in general, you end up with people thinking that Tolkien’s original Elves are also vegetarian. The evidence suggests otherwise.
The Hobbit, of which I have just finished my first re-read since the Jackson adaptation came out (yes, it has been some time), is Ground Zero for omnivorous Elves:
The smell of the roast meats was so enchanting…
Bilbo and the hungry Dwarves have been lured off the path by Thranduil’s Woodland feasting. Aforementioned feast explicitly features meat.
There in the king’s dungeon poor Thorin lay; and after he had got over his thankfulness for bread and meat and water, he began to wonder what had become of his unfortunate friends.
The Woodland Elves of Mirkwood provide meat for a prisoner. This is unlikely to have been simply sitting in storage, waiting for guests. Again, the implication is pretty clear.
(I do think it interesting that Thorin is not provided with apples. He’s a prisoner, so he’s not getting wine, but an apple would make sense… until you realise that apples are imported products in the Woodland Realm. Maybe domestically-hunted meat leftovers are simply more convenient prison-food than imported barrel-apples?)
In fact, based off The Hobbit, it appears that hunting is a major cultural (and economic) activity for the Elves of Mirkwood:
They dwelt most often by the edges of the woods, from which they could escape at times to hunt
In fact the subjects of the king mostly lived and hunted in the open woods
Companies of the Wood-elves, sometimes with the king at their head, would from time to time ride out to hunt
These Elves don’t do agriculture, so far as we know. They literally live off the produce of the forest – of which meat is a staple – and trade for items they do not produce locally (apples, wine, and butter). It is never made clear how Thranduil’s folk actually pay for these imports, though with The Hobbit referencing tolls, maybe the Elves collect taxes from human merchants trading up and down the River Running? Combine that with possible exports of animal skins, furs, timber, and salted venison, and one potentially sees how the Elves pay their way. If I were feeling snarky, I’d also suggest that a fair amount of outright thievery takes place too.
(Seriously. Re-reading The Hobbit makes it very clear that Thorin’s point is actually pretty reasonable. Bard has a decent case for arguing that Lake Town needs humanitarian aid, but his request is not helped by sending an army to Erebor. The Elvenking has no claim to the treasure at all, and Thorin is totally justified in telling him to bugger off. Bilbo’s Love Affair with the Elves (Quendiphilia?) turns him into an unreliable narrator. But I digress).
So much for the Elves of The Hobbit. We get nothing explicit about Elvish meat-eating (or hunting) in The Lord of the Rings, but we do get this from Lothlórien:
‘You had no need of your burdens,’ said Haldir. ‘It is cold in the tree-tops in winter, though the wind tonight is in the South; but we have food and drink to give you that will drive away the night-chill, and we have skins and cloaks to spare.’
The hobbits accepted this second (and far better) supper very gladly. Then they wrapped themselves warmly, not only in the fur-cloaks of the Elves
Galadriel’s people have supplies of fur cloaks. While it is possible that these are imported (from Thranduil?), the logical inference is that the Elves of Lothlórien hunt. Since they have the skins and furs, the notion that they eat the meat is pretty reasonable.
Moreover, we also get this, from Flotsam and Jetsam:
“And you need not turn up your nose at the provender, Master Gimli,” said Merry. “This is not orc-stuff, but man-food, as Treebeard calls it. Will you have wine or beer? There’s a barrel inside there – very passable. And this is first-rate salted pork. Or I can cut you some rashers of bacon and broil them, if you like. I am sorry there is no green stuff: the deliveries have been rather interrupted in the last few days! I cannot offer you anything to follow but butter and honey for your bread. Are you content?’
‘Indeed yes,’ said Gimli. ‘The score is much reduced.’
The three were soon busy with their meal; and the two hobbits, unabashed, set to a second time. ‘We must keep our guests company,’ they said.
No green stuff, yet Legolas – one of the aforementioned three – is happy enough to eat these supplies. It is possible that he sticks to bread and honey, rather than the pork and bacon, but in the absence of evidence, I would say he seems as happy with eating meat as Aragorn or Gimli. Saruman, of course, is a one-man trade network (maybe he developed Economics in-between the Engineering?), but since today’s post is Elvish orientated, that must wait for another day.
Turning to First Age material, we find an explicit reference to Thingol serving up meats at a feast:
On a time was Turin at the table of Thingol
there was laughter long and the loud clamour
of a countless company that quaffed the mead,
amid the wine of Dor-Winion that went ungrudged
in their golden goblets; and goodly meats
there burdened the boards, neath the blazing torches
(This is found in The History of Middle-earth Volume III: The Lays of Beleriand. Alas, there is no such reference in the 1977 published Silmarillion. Note that since Doriath is, via the Girdle of Melian, generally inhospitable to trade, one would suggest that its economic model is that of autarky. This meat was sourced locally. Which means hunting, and not just from Beleg the Strongbow).
In the published Silmarillion, explicit hunting is very much associated with the Sons of Fëanor. In fact, six out of the seven are noted as engaging in hunting – the only exception being Caranthir. Cue new head-canon: Caranthir is the family vegetarian.
and the youngest Amrod and Amras, who were twin
brothers, alike in mood and face. In later days they were
great hunters in the woods of Middle-earth; and a hunter
also was Celegorm, who in Valinor was a friend of Oromë,
and often followed the Vala’s horn.
It chanced that Celegorm and Curufin went on a hunt
through the Guarded Plain; and this they did because
Sauron, being filled with suspicion, sent forth many wolves
into the Elf-lands. Therefore they took their hounds and
rode forth; and they thought that ere they returned they
might also hear tidings concerning King Felagund.
When three hundred years and more were gone since
the Noldor came to Beleriand, in the days of the Long
Peace, Finrod Felagund lord of Nargothrond journeyed
east of Sirion and went hunting with Maglor and Maedhros,
sons of Feanor.
This snippets also reveal additional information. First off, Celegorm learns hunting from Oromë himself. Now, Oromë is noted to be a hunter of monsters, rather than a hunter of food, and I think it unlikely he actually ate these evil critters… but Celegorm picks up knowledge of birds and beasts from him, and Celegorm is hardly Yavanna in how he views the natural world. He also hunts with hounds.
Apart from the Sons of Fëanor and Finrod Felagund (and Beleg), we also have a further First Age lover of hunting: Aredhel.
[Aredhel] was tall and strong, and loved much to ride and hunt in
the forests. There she was often in the company of the sons
of Fëanor, her kin; but to none was her heart’s love given.
I think it interesting that so strongly is hunting associated with the Sons of Fëanor, that they become something of an attraction. No-one ever goes hunting with Fingolfin or Fingon.
Now, we have absolutely no idea about Elvish agriculture in Beleriand, and there is certainly an element of recreation here (of course. These characters are aristocrats. Hunting as sport is what they do), but there is also some evidence that the lower order Elves hunt too:
Now as has been told the power of Elwe and Melian
increased in Middle-earth, and all the Elves of Beleriand,
from the mariners of Cirdan to the wandering hunters of the
Blue Mountains beyond the River Gelion, owned Elwe as
Thus the sons of Feanor under Maedhros were the
lords of East Beleriand, but their people were in that time
mostly in the north of the land, and southward they rode only
to hunt in the greenwoods.
‘Wandering hunters of the Blue Mountains’ makes it sound like an Elvish version of Deliverance, but from the context, these are isolated figures who sustain themselves via hunting. In contrast to the elite Elves of the royal houses, this is likely more about livelihood than recreation. One could easily imagine them trading furs and meat with Dwarves and Men.
I mentioned one exception to the evidence that Tolkien’s Elves are omnivorous. I refer to the Green-elves of Ossiriand:
Now the Green-elves of Ossiriand were troubled by the
coming of Men, and when they heard that a lord of the Eldar
from over the Sea was among them they sent messengers
to Felagund. ‘Lord,’ they said, ‘if you have power over these
newcomers, bid them return by the ways that they came, or
else to go forward. For we desire no strangers in this land
to break the peace in which we live. And these folk are
hewers of trees and hunters of beasts; therefore we are
their unfriends, and if they will not depart we shall afflict
them in all ways that we can.’
These vegetarian Elves object to pesky Men cutting down trees and hunting beasts. Which would actually correspond to the Jacksonian idea of Elves living in Harmony With Nature. There is just one small problem – Finrod Felagund, the figure they are appealing to, is explicitly a hunter of beasts himself. Cue hypocrisy.
(Also, since the Green-Elves do not cut wood or hunt, this raises serious questions about their economic model. Since mining, stone-work, or agriculture are likely out, do they literally sustain themselves via living in caves and eating fungi and berries? Does fishing count as hunting? The other prominent vegetarian Tolkien character, Beorn, has much more clarity about how he sustains himself. The Green-Elves could conceivably have bee-hives, and export honey, but they seem too secretive for that…).
So yeah. A strangely specific blog post today, but I hope I have conclusively demonstrated that Tolkien’s Elves are not generally vegetarians. Indeed, The Hobbit – far and away the most interesting source for Tolkienian Economics – makes it quite clear that meat (and the obtaining thereof) is an integral part of the Mirkwood economy. When the Wood-Elves aren’t kidnapping helpless Dwarves and mooching for treasure, they are a hunting and trading society. The First Age Elves of Beleriand have a much more aristocratic and recreational air to their activities, but they too very likely obtain their protein from game animals. Eru only knows how those Green-Elf Hippies manage though…
(Thinking more about Beorn… he has his beehives, and eats copious amounts of bread. Well and good. He’s also an extreme loner, and moonlights as a grizzly bear. So why on earth does he have a stockpile of bows and arrows on hand to gift to the Dwarves? He doesn’t hunt himself!).