Elf Demographics in LOTR

Although nowhere mentioned or implied, directly, in Tolkein’s Middle Earth stories, elvish society should be female-majority by a tremendous margin, owing to basic demographic facts.

The elves don’t age beyond maturity. Violent injury in combat appears to be the leading cause of death among elves, by far. This means a much higher mortality rate for male elves than female elves. Millennia-long lives, compounding this disparity, would result by the late Third Age in a ratio of female to male elves entirely opposite the ratio found among Tolkein’s identifiable characters.

In this essay I will belabor this point at considerable length.

What we know of elvish biology in the world of Middle Earth amounts to, essentially, internal perfection. Internally, elves are proof against the frailties and corruptions which afflict other mortals. They don’t age. They don’t get sick. They can forego sleep without noticeable consequence; they probably have some basic biological needs for food, water, and perhaps eventually rest, but they are very hardy.

Death, for elves, is almost entirely an external threat in Lord of the Rings. Swords or axes can kill an elf about as easily as a man or orc or hobbit. Probably one could lethally choke or drown an elf, or pitch it from a great height, or crush it beneath a large stone. (One can probably poison an elf as well, a point where the novels and feature films diverge; though the movies’ Legolas could drink Gimli under the table without any effect, The Hobbit depicted woodland elves as quite capable of inebriation.)

For the most part, elvish deaths are thus the product of external assaults on them from the corrupted, post-Edenic world around them. This applies both on the individual level, and that of elvish society. Elves, by the Third Age, appear to have an essentially perfected society. Internal conflict, in which elves killed elves, has vanished since the more violent past depicted in The Silmarillion. The deep harmony within elves’ own society suggests only rare deaths from accident (or famine), as does the great efficacy of elvish healing arts.

The elves are, nonetheless, a pre-modern society, magically perfected. In a sense, they are a modern medievalist’s fantasy answer for how to roll back the unwanted elements of modernity—industry, television, democracy, automobiles, plastic—without restoring the unwanted elements of pre-modern life such as famine, plagues, brigandry, etc.

On this basis one may safely assume that elvish warriors are male, an assumption which the stories certainly don’t contradict.

The demographic consequence of this seems plain. Female elves go on living, year after decade after century after millennium. Male elves get into combat with orcs, or men, or trolls; some portion of them get injured; some portion of the injured die. This point seems settled in the stories. Elves are, again, internally perfected but they are not unkillable warriors. Their healing arts have limits.

Elves are a very old presence in Middle Earth, and the cumulative result seemingly must be many many female elves for each surviving male.

The possibility that some other factor is at work deserves examination, if only because a straightforward calculation from elvish agelessness would imply female elves overrunning all Middle Earth, too. This is firmly not the case, therefore one or more factors must limit elvish population growth. In all probability, the elvish birth rate must be incredibly low, given that elves don’t age, don’t get sick, experience famine rarely if at all, and among the female population mostly don’t even die of injury.

The explanation for a low elvish birth rate poses an interesting puzzle because elves’ internal perfection would imply high fertility, as do the facts of Arwen’s conception of a child with Aragorn. Arwen becomes pregnant when very, very old by human standards; thus, elves’ reproductive capacity is presumably as proofed against age as the rest of their biology. Also, the simple fact that multiple elves have conceived children with partners from a human race so distinct, biologically, that it may as well be another species, equally suggests that infertility is as unknown among elves as any other affliction.

A low birth rate demands some explanation, therefore, as there is every reason to suspect that elves have sex and lots of it.

The entire existence of sex is basically absent from Tolkein’s novels, yet Middle Earth’s overall modeling on our own world precludes any reason to doubt that its inhabitants reproduce by the same means as in ours. Elves, probably, not only do it but do it eagerly and often.

Like all the peoples of Middle Earth, the elves are a pagan society in a medieval setting. There is no Abrahamic faith, teaching that sex is sinful. Elves, in Tolkein’s stories at least, are clearly a pleasure-loving people; whether the rustic woodland elves or the “high culture” elves of Rivendell, superior biology and technology has apparently gifted them with substantial opportunity for leisure and they like to party.

The elves’ Christian chronicler would certainly never say it, but it’s very likely they f*** like rabbits. Why, then, don’t they breed like rabbits?

My proposed answer is birth control. They have the technology (or “magic” as it may appear even to them). I’ll return to this point, but some sort of completely foolproof herbal birth control potion probably long ago banished the concept of unplanned pregnancy from female elves’ existence.

Some factor or other still checks the growth of elves’ population, which is clearly in decline by the end of the Third Age. Obviously, emigration to Valinor is a significant factor, and probably responsible for outright population decline among a very fertile race of beings who don’t age. Female elves are probably disproportionately represented among those departing from the Grey Havens, simply because they are a disproportionate share of the overall elvish population in Middle Earth. There is no reason, however, to suppose that so many female elves are emigrating that a Middle Earth population which ought to be overwhelmingly female would actually be shifted toward gender parity.

A few remaining options may be dealt with briefly. It’s just possible that elves can more or less will themselves to die from sheer existential despair. The stories seem to hint at this as something which can happen. But even if deaths of despair take more female elves than male elves (reversing human experience with the phenomenon), it seems to be very rare. The traditional, pre-modern cause of death which could offer a significant check on female elves’ numbers is death in childbirth, but every evidence of elvish biology and medical perfection suggests that death in childbirth is one of those mortal failings which only afflicts lesser races. Massacres, probably, have killed substantial numbers of female elves. This just doesn’t seem adequate to restore gender parity, all the same. By the Third Age, elves have pretty well secured their remaining settlements against intrusion, and in fact female elves are not defenseless pushovers; they just stay in, while male elves go out semiregularly, actively risking combat and death.

The end result, upon review of the canonical history of elves and Middle Earth, is something of a paradox. The elves in Middle Earth should be not only an overwhelmingly female society, but one in which females are free of the oppression of Abrahamic teachings, of unwanted pregnancy, and mostly of the duties of child-rearing. (If a typical female elf lives for several thousand years and gives birth to one child, at most, then less than one percent of her life is spent on child-rearing even if 100% of that responsibility falls on her.) Despite which, elvish society as chronicled shows no evidence of a female bias, and considerable evidence of patriarchal culture.

There is no perfect resolution for this paradox. But, in parting, it’s worth considering the significant potential for resolution by bias of the chroniclers. Bilbo, Frodo, and Tolkein are all male authors from patriarchal cultures. They dedicated most of their writing about elves to the external world in which most elves present would be warriors and, therefore, male. It’s possible that, at least to some extent, they even passed through a female-led elvish society at times and failed to understand that because they simply could not conceive of it. Of the notable elves they encounter, Galadriel is a towering figure; who is to say that she was an anomaly in elvish society just because she is an anomaly in hobbits’ and humans’ reports of elvish society? Other leadership figures mentioned in their chronicles are male, perhaps, because the chroniclers’ preconceptions led them to look for leaders who were male. Perhaps the female elves who run elvish society even, in some cases, chose to deal with backward outsiders through male ambassadors, even as they may choose to let male elves do the work of fighting with orcs and trolls and other things which smell bad.

Realistically, Tolkein just didn’t think this one through, but given how much Middle Earth is fundamentally an exercise in nerdy world-building, it’s entirely fair to explore this glaring blind spot and find a legion of female elves who, if they don’t have modern feminism, do have women leadership and fantastic birth control. Given the overall conservatism of Lord of the Rings, this is a satisfying possibility.

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