Misopogon: In Defence of Beards Among Tolkien’s Elves and Men
Fun fact: New Zealand’s release date for The Nature of Middle-earth is 10th November, which means I still do not have my copy. While you lot are busy with Tolkien’s calculations of Elven life-cycles to multiple decimal places,* and laughing (from a safe distance) at Númenorean dancing bears, I must brood darkly upon tidings from the Amazon show. And the Auckland Plague. Alas.
*Yes, Tolkien didn’t have a pocket calculator. But he would have had a slide-rule, which (so far as I know) no commentator has yet pointed out. Slide-rules were very useful things in their day. It wasn’t as if the man was using an abacus.
But I am aware of the material on beards, courtesy of online quotes. And today I thought I would tackle that particular subject matter, at least as insofar as it applies to the facial hair of Tolkien’s Elves, and Elvish descendants.
Now, from The Nature of Middle-earth (as quoted by others)…
A note was sent to Patricia Finney (Dec. 9/72), answering a question about beards, that mentioned some of the male characters which she and a friend did not imagine as having beards. I replied that I myself imagined Aragorn, Denethor, Imrahil, Boromir, Faramir as beardless. This, I said, I supposed not to be due to any custom of shaving, but a racial characteristic. None of the Eldar had any beards, and this was a general racial characteristic of all Elves in my “world”. Any element of an Elvish strain in human ancestry was very dominant and lasting (receding only slowly — as might be seen in Númenóreans of royal descent, in the matter of longevity also). The tribes of Men from whom the Númenóreans were descended were normal, and hence the majority of them would have beards. But the royal house was half-elven, having two strains of Elvish race in their ancestry through Lüthien of Doriath (royal Sindarin) and Idril of Gondolin (royal Noldorin). The effects were long-lasting: e.g. in a tendency to a stature a little above the average, to a greater (though steadily decreasing) longevity, and probably most lastingly in beardlessness. Thus none of the Númenórean chieftains of descent from Elros (whether kings or not) would be bearded. It is stated that Elendil was descended from Silmarién, a royal princess. Hence Aragorn and all his ancestors were beardless.
This is the 1972 note hitherto alluded to in Unfinished Tales, but not actually published until now. My immediate thoughts are as follows:
- I think this very likely means that Viggo Mortensen will be the lasted bearded Aragorn in a Tolkien adaptation. Whether this information has come too late to affect Amazon’s portrayal of Elendil and Isildur, I do not know.
- I’ve always visualised Denethor as bearded, on account of Pippin noting that he looks like a great wizard (Pippin’s list of known wizards being the bearded Gandalf and Saruman). Oh dear.
- Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 Aragorn (voiced by John Hurt) wound up getting it right, along with Aragorn in the 1991 Soviet Khraniteli. The mustachioed 1971 Swedish Aragorn, the full-bearded 1980 Rankin-Bass Aragorn, the stubbled 1993 Finnish Aragorn, and Viggo miss out. On the other hand, both Bakshi and the Soviets have bearded Boromir, so that’s a miss for them. The only beardless Boromir? Samurai Finnish Boromir from 1993. Check out these three winners below…
My biggest impression, however, is there are real problems with achieving consistency between this 1972 note, and the rest of Tolkien’s work. Including, you know, the actual stories… to a degree where I’m actually inclined to shrug, say “that’s interesting,” and discard it into the Death of the Author bin. That way I get to preserve my mental image of bearded Denethor, among other things. I personally would have no problems with a bearded Aragorn in a future adaptation, even if this note likely creates fandom expectations otherwise.
My reasoning for rejecting this ban on bearded Elves and Elvish descendants? Well, that’s the remainder of this article – an extended attempt to defend the notion of bearded Tolkien Elves in the face of The Nature of Middle-earth.
For a start, there are two big canonical roadblocks to this 1972 note. The first is obviously Círdan, who has a long grey beard in The Grey Havens. The second is Théoden, who (1) has a white beard in The King of the Golden Hall, and (2) as per Unfinished Tales, has a mother descended from the line of Dol Amroth… and hence has Elven blood in his veins. If Aragorn’s heritage alone makes him beardless then Théoden (and Éomer) should be beardless too. Sure, we might discard the Dol Amroth connection as inconsistent with this very late idea on beards, but otherwise we are dealing with explicit references from The Lord of the Rings. Which is a complete published work from Tolkien’s own lifetime, and should take canonical precedence.
There is also a third explicit counter-example, albeit it does not feature in material published in Tolkien’s own lifetime. This is Mahtan, Nerdanel’s father. Otherwise known for teaching smith-work to Feanor, and having red-brown hair. The information on Mahtan’s beard comes from an obscure source, a note on the (post-1968) Shibboleth of Feanor material, as cited in the linguistic journal Vinyar Tengwar:
The following etymological note pertains to the name Russandol in the discussion of the name Maitimo in the numbered list of the names of the seven sons of Feanor (XII:352-53). A marginal note against that discussion provides the detail that Nerdanel “herself had brown hair and a ruddy complexion”. A note elsewhere in the papers associated with this essay reads: “Elves did not have beards until they entered their third cycle of life. Nerdanel’s father [cf. XII:365-66 n.61] was exceptional, being only early in his second.” – Vinyar Tengwar 41, July 2000, p.9.
Fans have debated for years about what “cycle of life” means here. Presumably the incredibly ancient Círdan is in his third cycle of life… but who else is? We do not know. But seeing as Círdan’s beard is treated as unremarkable in the text – the focus is on its length, rather than its existence – the narrator of The Lord of the Rings does not find a bearded Elf surprising. In any case, this Vinyar Tengwar note, unlike the 1972 one, doesn’t mess with actual published information. It would also have to be discarded if we were to apply the universal ban on bearded Elves consistently.
So much for explicitly bearded Elves and Elvish descendants. Can we muster any other pieces of evidence? It turns out we can. Nothing as ‘gotcha’ as the Círdan example, but still material that points us in one particular direction (with one irritating exception…).
(i) The Statue of the King at the Cross-roads
In another case of the canonical text conflicting with the 1972 note, we have this description of the ruined statue of a King, as featured in The Lord of the Rings:
The eyes were hollow and the carven beard was broken, but about the high stern forehead there was a coronal of silver and gold. A trailing plant with flowers like small white stars had bound itself across the brows as if in reverence for the fallen king, and in the crevices of his stony hair yellow stonecrop gleamed. – Journey to the Cross-roads.
This is an ancient stone monument, constructed by Gondor. All Gondorian Kings were direct descendants of Elros via Elendil – and as such ought to be as beardless as Aragorn (also a descendant of Elros via Elendil), on account of their Elvish ancestry. But if Gondorian Kings were beardless, why would a Gondorian statue of a King feature a beard?
Sure, one might argue that this was not a monument to an individual ruler, but rather a generic statement of Royal Power. That still does not answer the question of why Gondorians would think of Royal Power as being associated with beards, when their people – for thousands of years – have had only beardless rulers.
So we have three possibilities – either Gondorian Kings were not necessarily beardless (my favoured interpretation), or there was some mistake on the part of the sculptor (maybe he was originally from Harad or something?), or there was some other unknown reason behind the statue. Funny as it may be to imagine a cheeky foreign sculptor messing with his employer, I cannot realistically see that happening, much less the Kings of Gondor letting that stand. So bearded Kings it is, even with Elvish ancestry, no matter what the 1972 note suggests.
Tuor son of Huor lacks (so far as we know) Elvish ancestry. His uncle is notable for his beard, and as per the language of the 1972 note, Tuor himself should fall within the “normal” category of Men, that is those capable of growing beards. Yet there are a couple of instances in Unfinished Tales where his interactions with Elves suggest something curious:
Then Voronwë looked at him long in silence. ‘But who are you?’ he asked again. ‘For many years ago my people left this land, and none have dwelt here since. And now I perceive that despite your raiment you are not of them, as I thought, but are of the kindred of Men.’ – Of Tuor and His Coming to Gondolin, p.42.
Voronwë’s initial thought on meeting Tuor is that he is a fellow Elf. It takes a closer inspection to reveal the truth. Which as per the 1972 note would imply beardlessness. Except that Tuor has spent years in the wilderness, with presumably little ability to shave.
‘But you have brought to knowledge of the Way a mortal Man – for by his eyes I perceive his kin…’
– Of Tuor and His Coming to Gondolin, p.60.
Elemmakil is chewing out Voronwë for bringing Tuor to a secret place. Again, Tuor has been trudging through the wilderness, which largely rules out shaving. And yet, the giveaway is not facial hair, but rather Tuor’s eyes.
These instances suggest either (1) Tuor – a full Man – is just unable to grow any semblance of a beard, notwithstanding his uncle, or (2) Elves in story do not think a beard (or the lack thereof) can distinguish Elves and Men. Most strange, in light of Tolkien’s 1972 note… almost as though there were a story inconsistency at work, which is just asking for us to dismiss the note.
(There is also a third possibility, but we’ll get to that shortly).
Túrin son of Húrin falls into the same category as his cousin, Tuor. He’s a Man with no (so far as we know) Elvish ancestry, and in this case the relative with the beard is his father. Túrin should be able to grow a beard. And yet, he too runs into species confusion in Unfinished Tales:
‘At first I thought you were an Elf, by your speech and your voice; but if you are a Man, that is better.’
– Narn I Hîn Húrin, p.126.
Mîm is a Dwarf, so he has rather more excuse for confusion here, but it is again noticeable that there is no use of facial hair as a litmus test. Túrin – who has spent time among wild outlaws – has little more reason to be clean-shaven than Tuor does.
Túrin gets this treatment again, in Nargothrond:
His speech and bearing were those of the ancient kingdom of Doriath, and even among the Elves he might be taken at first meeting for one from the great houses of the Noldor.
– The Children of Húrin, pp.163-164.
To be fair, in the luxury and comfort of Nargothrond, it would actually be reasonable for Túrin to be clean-shaven. Confusing him for a beardless Noldo would then at least make sense – but it is still yet another piece of circumstantial evidence, hinting that facial hair is not a litmus test between Men and Elves. Which would imply in-story that Elves can indeed have beards.
Now, I have mentioned an additional possibility to explain the Tuor and Túrin examples… one with zero basis in story, but which would keep the notion of universally beardless Elves viable, while also being an amusing head-canon:
The House of Bëor had Elvish ancestry prior to Beren.
The premise would be that one of the Bëorian ancestors had a child with some Dark Elf in distant lands. This would make the Bëorians beardless, and mean Tuor and Túrin inherit the trait from their respective mothers. The bonus is that this would also allow Húrin to be bearded while his son is not.
Alas, there is nothing to justify this in Tolkien… and good thematic reason (Beren’s story) for rejecting it.
(iv) Beleg’s Picture
The above is Tolkien’s own artistic depiction of Beleg finding Gwindor in Taur-na-Fúin. Well and good. The most noticeable aspect of this portrait is Beleg himself. Consider this close-up:
Is that a beard on Beleg’s chin, or is it a strand of long hair? Either can be argued. I myself am undecided on this point, but I have included the picture – an artistic depiction of a potentially bearded Elf, by Tolkien himself – for completeness value.
(v) Gandalf looking like a King?
I have previously alluded to Pippin thinking that Denethor looks like a great wizard – a statement interesting because Pippin has only ever met two wizards, both of them bearded. Here we have another interesting line of simile, this time from Frodo’s perspective:
Gandalf was shorter in stature than the other two; but his long white hair, his sweeping beard, and his broad shoulders, made him look like some wise king of ancient legend. In his aged face under great snowy brows his eyes were set like coals that could suddenly burst into fire. – Many Meetings.
Frodo is suggesting that the bearded Gandalf looks like a “wise king of ancient legend.” Which rather begs the question – if the Kings of Arnor and Arthedain (the figures most likely to shape a hobbit’s idea of kings) were beardless, as per their Elvish ancestry, why would Frodo think a wise king would have a beard?
It is not inconceivable that Frodo is alluding to legends from the hobbits’ wandering days east of the Misty Mountains – where they could conceivably have come across non-Númenorean monarchs (with beards) – but I think there is at least some hint here that the Númenorean-descended kings of the Northern Kingdom could grow beards.
(vi) Pauline Baynes’ Argonath
Pauline Baynes illustrated Tolkien’s annotated 1969 Map of Middle-earth:
Of relevant issue here is her portrayal of the Argonath:
Note that both statues – representing Isildur and Anárion – are bearded, and that this 1969 portrayal was implicitly approved by Tolkien in his own life-time (otherwise he wouldn’t have approved the map). Unlike the Beleg example, this is not Tolkien’s own hand… but approval is still approval, and we are talking a situation where Tolkien was getting highly pedantic with accuracy.
It rather goes without saying that both Isildur and Anárion would fall into the category of beardless, under the 1972 note. Which again indicates the extent to which the 1972 note appears to contradict everything that went before.
(vii) Elvish word for Shaving
Now we really are scraping the bottom of the barrel. It may interest you to know that in the very dawn of Tolkien’s invented Elvish languages, he was not averse to including some unexpected words:
As per Parma Eldalamberon, Volume 11, p.72., there was an Elvish verb ‘to shave’ (thas-). So regardless of Tolkien’s later ideas, in his very early conceptions, Elvish shaving (and thus likely facial hair) was at least a concept. Probably. One could still rationalise it via the Elves describing the activity of the Men they encountered.
(viii) The Hobbit Counter-Example
Curiously, the epicentre of Elven beardlessness prior to 1972 is contained in The Hobbit:
Dwarves don’t get on well with them. Even decent enough dwarves like Thorin and his friends think them foolish (which is a very foolish thing to think), or get annoyed with them. For some elves tease them and laugh at them, and most of all at their beards. – A Short Rest.
‘Don’t dip your beard in the foam, father! they cried to Thorin, who was bent almost on to his hands and knees. ‘It is long enough without watering it.’ – A Short Rest.
Elves mocking dwarven beards… implies these Elves do not have beards.
Now, there is a strong temptation to treat information peculiar to The Hobbit with a grain of salt. Stone-giants, and so on. Myself, I prefer to treat The Hobbit with respect – it’s the source for Thranduil’s hair-colour, amongst other things – while allowing that Bilbo is a far more whimsical narrator than Frodo or Sam. I do actually quite like the silliness of The Hobbit Elves, as something quite different from their portrayals elsewhere (and a pleasant change from Jackson’s monolithically ethereal critters).
But how can I square this apparent beardlessness of Rivendell’s Elves with my argument that Tolkien’s Elves could be bearded?
I am not going to fall back on Bilbo as an unreliable narrator – though it is noticeable in The Lord of the Rings that Legolas never mocks Gimli for his facial hair – so that leaves two possibilities. Either the vast majority of Rivendell’s Elves – perhaps for cultural reasons – choose not to grow beards (shaving? some other means of hair removal?), or alternatively that we are dealing with the Vinyar Tengwar situation, whereby very few of these Elves have yet reached their third cycle of life. Or perhaps there is some other reason for the Rivendell Elves to be unrepresentative of their species… I do not know.
(Maybe the mockery is less about the existence of dwarven beards, but rather their potentially excessive length? Perhaps. That’s probably a stretch).
Phew. Thus ends my look at Elven and Númenorean facial fair. As you will have gathered, I am entirely happy to see bearded Númenoreans (or even bearded Elves) in any future adaptation, notwithstanding that The Nature of Middle-earth will likely oversee a transition to a more beardless era of artistic and cinematic representation. Perhaps. The shadow of Jackson might keep bearded Aragorns an on-going thing.
One thing to remember is that Tolkien never envisaged that something like The Nature of Middle-earth, or any of his other drafts and world-building notes, would actually see the light of day. So rather than dealing with anything canonical, we are simply dealing with the changeable thoughts of one man on any given day. A man who might potentially have forgotten what he wrote about a certain character at The Grey Havens.
That said, however – I would leave you with this thought. If we straight-out ignore the 1972 note (and I really think we should), and dismiss the Rivendell Elves from The Hobbit as a cultural oddity, there is actually as much evidence for bearded Elves in Tolkien as there is for bearded Men. Especially if one sticks to the actual stories. Death of the Author is funny like that.