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Old 10-03-2018, 03:54 AM   #1
Ghost Prince of Cardolan
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Ring On Elvish Weddings

So far as I can tell, the Downs doesn't seem to have a thread devoted to this topic (though this one over in Movies touches on it), and I've just uncovered not one, but two 'new' pieces of information to inform our picture of how the Eldar married. So here we go...

It's customary in this discussion to begin by quoting Laws and Customs among the Eldar, as found in HoME X: Morgoth's Ring, and I am not one to break with tradition:

Originally Posted by LaCE
Then at a feast, again shared by the two houses, the marriage was celebrated. At the end of the feast the betrothed stood forth, and the mother of the bride and the father of the bridegroom joined the hands of the pair and blessed them. For this blessing there was a solemn form, but no mortal has heard it; though the Eldar say that Varda was named in witness by the mother and Manwe by the father; and moreover that the name of Eru was spoken (as was seldom done at any other time). The betrothed then received back one from the other their silver rings (and treasured them); but they gave in exchange slender rings of gold, which were worn upon the index of the right hand.

Among the Noldor also it was a custom that the bride's mother should give to the bridegroom a jewel upon a chain or collar; and the bridegroom's father should give a like gift to the bride. These gifts were sometimes given before the feast...


It was the act of bodily union that achieved marriage, and after which the indissoluble bond was complete. was at all times lawful for any of the Elves, both being unwed, to marry thus of free consent one to another without ceremony or witness (save blessings exchanged and the naming of the Name); and the union so joined was alike indissoluble.
This is the standard text on Elvish marriage: after a year's engagement, they have a feast, in which the couple exchange rings, their parents give gifts (sometimes this is done before the feast), and there are blessings invoking the Valar. Tolkien then highlights that it was the 'act of bodily union' which actually constituted the marriage, and points out that it was lawful (though rather rude) for a couple to skip the ceremony and just do that part. This is where the common paraphrase that 'sex = marriage' comes from.

Except... does it? Look again at Tolkien's wording:

"It was the act of bodily union that achieved marriage, and after which the indissoluble bond was complete."

"...without ceremony or witness (save blessings exchanged and the naming of the Name); and the union so joined was alike indissoluble."

Tolkien is actually very, very clear here: a marriage is formed by two things. The 'act of bodily union' is one of them - but the other, which appears to come first, is a formal blessing by the Name of the One. This can be given by relatives, or by the bride and groom to each other - but it's a definite part of making the 'indissoluble bond'.

What, then, would be the Elvish view of pre-marital sex? Like most people, I've always assumed it was an impossibility - that the 'act of bodily union' is automatically a wedding. But on closer reading, Tolkien actually doesn't say that.

Are there other parts of LaCE which touch on this? We read that "their spirits being masters of their bodies, [elves] are seldom swayed by the desires of the body only, but are by nature continent and steadfast", but this doesn't say that they didn't have and express 'desires of the body', just that they weren't driven by them (in this case, into inappropriate marriages).

Probably the biggest indicator is the discussion of the bearing of children, which tells us this:

Originally Posted by LaCE
... with regard to generation [ie, childbearing] the power and the will are not among the Eldar distinguishable... with the exercise of the power the desire soon ceases, and the mind turns to other things. The union of love is indeed to them great delight and joy, and the 'days of the children', as they call them, remain in their memory as the most merry in life; but they have many other powers of body and of mind which their nature urges them to fulfil.
This can be read as indicating that the only reason Elves have sex is to have children. But on further consideration, 'the union of love is to them great delight and joy' is not couched in conditionals; given that 'the power and the will are not... distinguishable', it's perfectly sound to read this quote as something like:

Originally Posted by LaCE in the Vernacular
Elves had full control over their reproductive systems. They were not prone to desiring many children, seeing it as essentially an art which, once perfected, they could leave behind in favour of other pursuits. But they remembered their children's early years fondly, and continued to enjoy 'the union of love' at times.
There is a further hint to this notion, which occurs during the discussion of the Doom of Finwe and Miriel:

Originally Posted by LaCE
Marriage is chiefly of the body, for it is achieved by bodily union, and its first operation is the begetting of the bodies of children, even though it endures beyond this and has other operations. And the union of bodies in marriage is unique, and no other union resembles it.
This definitely hints that marriage being "of the body" and of bodily union continues beyond childbearing. But it does also argue against pre-marital sex; the final sentence can most naturally be read as 'no sex outside marriage'. It can also mean 'sex within marriage is special, and different to sex outside it', but that's not nearly as obvious a reading.

In summary, then:
  • "Bodily union" does not make a marriage by itself; it also needs the naming of the Name.
  • There are hints that Elves did not stop having sex once they had children.
  • It is arguably possible that pre-marital sex was allowable under Elvish law.

So far, so old hat; I'd be surprised if people hadn't argued this before. But I also found something else - not in LaCE, but in the new Fall of Gondolin:

Originally Posted by The Fall of Gondolin (1917)
Yet great was the mirth of those days when Idril and Tuor were wed before the folk in Gar Ainion, the Place of the Gods, nigh to the king's halls. A day of merriment was that wedding to the city of Gondolin.


[In Gar Ainion] comes Tuor at their head to the Place of Wedding, and lo! there stands Idril before him with her hair unbraided as on that day of their marriage before.
These passages (widely separated in the narrative) tell us two things:

-There is a dedicated 'Place of Wedding' in the holiest part of the city of Gondolin. The first passage implies that Tuor and Idril being married in Gar Ainion is special, but the second makes it clear: this is where many weddings take place. Confirmation, if it was needed, that marriage is deeply holy among the Eldar.

-Idril wore her hair unbraided at her wedding. Further, this is implied to be unusual for her.

Now, yes, it's dangerous to extrapolate from one example, but to my knowledge this is the only description of a wedding in all the Legendarium (Aragorn and Arwen just get a day named, for example). So what can we deduce from this brief passage?

In a word: simplicity.

An Elvish wedding isn't a showy affair. There is no expensive dress, no mass of decorations - indeed, the whole 'groom doesn't see the bride beforehand' concept is impossible; they're both at a feast prior to the marriage! They wear simple clothes, which in Valinor - wealthy, blessed Valinor - is going to dramatically mark them out. When everyone around you has their hair elaborately done, simple unbraided locks are as much a marker as a white dress is to us.

It's also worth noting this context, from HoME XII: The People of Middle-earth:

Originally Posted by The Shibboleth of Feanor
All the Eldar had beautiful hair (and were especially attracted by hair of exceptional loveliness).
For the bride (and presumably the groom!) to wear their hair unadorned was to show only their natural beauty, without any artificial enhancements. Is it too much to say it harks back to the earliest days, by the waters of Cuivienen? Rather than splashing out, an Elvish wedding was about taking the betrothed back to the natural state of all Eldar: just hroa, fea, and the Name of the One spoken together.

As I say, it's a huge house of cards to build on one comment. But it's all I've found, and I don't think it's something anyone has spotted before.

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