Elven life cycle
- "Yéni ve lintë yuldar avánier [...] lisse Miruvóreva
(The long years have passed like swift draughts of the sweet mead)"
- ― Namárië
Owing to their longevity, the Elves had a very different Life cycle than Men. Most of the following information strictly refers only to the Eldar—but much could probably be applied to the Avari as well.
Elves are born about one year after their begetting.:212 The day of their begetting is remembered, not the actual birthday itself, because bringing forth children is an act of will, and it required a "greater share and strength of their being, in mind and in body" than takes place "in the making of mortal children.":212 By their first year, Elf children can speak, walk, and dance, and their quicker onset of mental maturity makes young Elves seem older than they actually are.:209-10 Elves' bodies developed slower than those of Men, but their minds developed more swiftly.:209-10 In their twenties, they might still appear physically seven years old, though the Elf-child would have mature language and skill,:228 whereas Men at the same age are already physically mature.:210
Physical puberty is generally complete by their fiftieth year (by age fifty they reach their adult height), but they are not considered full-grown until a hundred years have passed.:210
Sexuality, marriage, and parenthood
Elves marry for love, or at least with free will from both parties, typically early in life. Monogamy is practised and adultery is unthinkable.:229 By their very nature, they are "seldom swayed by the desires of the body" or influenced by lust.:211 They marry only once for it was ruled by Manwë that, "'since the Elves are by nature permanent in life within Arda, so also is their unmarred marriage.'":225 Finwë, the King of the Noldor, was an exception. After his first wife died, from passing the majority of her life into Fëanor,:237 and refused to be re-embodied, Finwë was permitted to marry again. This was pronounced by Námo as the 'Statute of Finwë and Míriel'.:226
Spouses may choose each other, in their youth, and be betrothed long before they are married. The betrothal is subject to parental approval from both houses unless the parties are of age and intend to marry soon. At which point, the betrothal is announced at a meeting of the two houses, during which the couple exchange silver rings. The betrothal lasts at least a year. A betrothal is revocable by a public return of the rings, which will then be molten, but revocation was rarely needed because "the Eldar do not err lightly" in the choice of their partner.:211 After their formal betrothal, the couple appoints a time for the wedding when at least a year has passed.
Marriage is celebrated at a feast of the two houses. The spouses return their betrothal rings, which they keep, and receive "slender rings of gold" which are worn upon "the index of the right hand.":211 In Noldor tradition, the bride’s mother gives the groom a jewel to be worn and the bridegroom's father gives a similar gift to the bride. These ceremonies and traditions were only a way for the parents to show their love and to mark a respectful recognition of the two houses which would be joined. While it was considered "ungracious and contemptuous of kin", in days of peace, "to forgo the ceremonies," it was completely lawful for a couple to be married without them.:212 The indissoluble union was completed solely by the "act of bodily union" which achieved marriage.:212 Technically, without ceremony or witnesses, only blessings exchanged between the bride and groom, including speaking of the name of Eru, and consummation are required for marriage.
The Elves view the sexual act as extremely special for "the union of love is indeed to them great delight and joy.":213 Extra-marital sex would be against their nature because they can "read at once in the eyes and voice of another whether they be wed or unwed"; they would release their own spirit to Mandos before succumbing to rape, and premarital sex would create marriage which makes the term itself a misnomer.:Note 5 "There is no record of any among the Elves that [actually] took another's spouse by force" though Maeglin made the wrongful attempt to steal Idril.:Note 5:169
Spouses can sometimes live separately for extended periods of time. Though united in body and spirit, they remain individuals with different gifts of mind and body to pursue.:213 However, a sundering during pregnancy or during the early years of parenthood, such as by war, would be so grievous to the couple, and hurtful to the child, that they prefer to have children in peaceful times.:221
Elves typically have four children or fewer. Fëanor and Nerdanel, who had seven sons, were a notable exception.:Note 4 Whenever the Eldar married, whether in youth or in later life, their children were produced within a relatively short time after their wedding. However, in mortal count, a century or two may pass before the begetting of the first child and even longer between child and child.:212 After their time of children, the desire to procreate soon ceases. They turn their powers of body and mind to other tasks and arts. Nonetheless, they cherish the days of bearing and raising children as the happiest times of their lives.:213
There are examples that appear to contradict this ideal. An example of extreme marital strife among the Eldar is the case of Eöl and Aredhel, where Eöl tried to restrain his wife from living the life of her choice. As a result, Aredhel left Eöl without his knowing, and took their son, Maeglin, with her back to Gondolin. The end result was that Eöl sought revenge upon his own family, and while seeking to slay his rebellious son, slew his wife accidentally. Another example of great discontent developed between Fëanor and Nerdanel after the theft of the Silmarils. Nerdanel did not wish to be parted from all her children nor did she wish to follow her husband against the Valar's wishes. Fëanor's harsh response was that, if she would not follow him, she was an untrue wife for deserting both her husband and her children.:354
Celegorm's pursuit of Lúthien and Maeglin's attraction to Idril are cases of elves who sought disinterested partners. The desire for these unwilling wives was mixed with a desire for power. While unrequited love was known to happen, few of the Eldar responded so negatively to it.:211 Indis loved Finwë with secret admiration but remained contently unwed because he was married.:238 Turgon, Idril's father, denied Maeglin's suit for Idril's hand because he believed that Maeglin sought power more than the love of his daughter.:165 In Celegorm's case, he was motivated to claim Lúthien as his bride to force her father, Thingol, to ally with the Fëanorians during the Siege of Angband. However, Huan and Beren defended Lúthien, against the attempted bride-stealing by Celegorm and the later attack by Curufin.
Elves preoccupy themselves with various arts, such as: smithwork, sculpture, weaving, music, lore, and healing. Males and females have equal skill in all things, not concerned with the bringing forth of children; however, the females often specialize in the arts of healing while the men go to war.:213 This is because the Elves believe that taking life interferes with the ability to preserve life. Women who hunted would not specialize in healing, and men who healed would refrain from hunting and only fight when absolutely necessary, for "the virtue . . . in this matter [of healing] was due . . . to their abstaining from hunting or war.":213-4
Eventually, if they did not die in battle or from some other cause, Elves, such as Noldor and Teleri, of Middle-earth grew weary and desired to go to Valinor, where the Valar sheltered their kind. This was known as the sea-longing. Those who wished to leave for the Undying Lands went by ships provided at the Grey Havens, where Círdan the Shipwright dwelt with his folk. Those, of any Elven people, who did not perish through bodily death or depart from Middle-earth across the sea would eventually fade. Fading occurred when their fëar consumed their bodies and the body became merely a memory of the fëa. In this state, "they were open to the direct instruction and command of the Valar" and as soon as they were disembodied in this way they would be summoned to the 'Halls of Waiting' in Aman.:219
"Cycles of life" and ageing
Elves had no beards, at least until their "third cycle of life", like Círdan. Mahtan was an exception, and had a beard in his early "second cycle".:9 The Elvish beardlessness could also be observed in Mannish lines with an Elvish strain (as in the princely house of Dol Amroth), which lacked beards.
While the three cycles are not specifically defined, the first cycle is likely childhood and adolescence, which ended at the 100th year, the second is adulthood which could continue for Ages, and the third is for extremely old Elves; Círdan was the most ancient known Elf in Middle-earth. However, Elves who were not ancient could enter the third stage sooner due to tragic life events. When Lúthien wilfully released her spirit to follow Beren, her father saw her die, and "a winter, as it were the hoar age of mortal Men, fell upon Thingol."
Apparently, beards, though rare, were the only sign of further natural physical ageing beyond maturity.
Elves did not physically age after they reached maturity, but they did age in a different sense than Men. They became ever more weary of the world and burdened by its sorrows. Círdan seemed to be aged himself since he is described as looking old, save for the stars in his eyes; this may be due to all the sorrows he had seen and lived through since the First Age. He had been one of the Teleri on the Great Journey who tarried on the shores of Middle-earth for Thingol's sake, and at the Valar's behest, though he had greatly wished to go to Aman.:385-6 Another aged elf was Gwindor, the people of Nargothrond had trouble recognizing him after he escaped from being a prisoner of Morgoth in the pits of Angband for fourteen years.
Death and reincarnation
Nonetheless, Elves can be physically slain or die of grief and weariness. Death was unnatural for Elves; Ilúvatar intended for an Elf's spirit (fëa) and body (hröa) to remain united throughout the entire life of Arda, but this design was disrupted by evils of Melkor.:330-331 Should an Elf die, its spirit would be summoned to the Halls of Mandos in Aman. Elves could refuse the summons, but this would suggest that they were tainted. Elves who went to the Halls were, after a period of time, typically given the opportunity to be reincarnated into a body identical to the one that died.:339 If the Elf accepted the opportunity, the Valar would then create the new body for the Elf's spirit; Elven spirits had no power to build such bodies for themselves.:390-391 But the Valar could, if an Elf committed evil acts and refused to repent or continued to feel ill-will towards others, delay the time of the reincarnation, impose conditions of an Elf's return, or refuse to re-embody an Elf altogether (as was done with Fëanor).:339:380, 389 An Elven spirit could also choose to remain disembodied; the Valar had no authority to force Elves to reincarnate.:339:334
Initially, Elves who died in Middle-earth and were re-embodied in Aman could return to Middle-earth if they wished,:378, 381-382 but few Elves did so, as the journey was dangerous and they risked dying again. However, while the Noldor were exiled in the First Age, the Valar physically barred travel between Aman and Middle-earth; the only Elf who died and was allowed to return to Middle-earth during this period was Lúthien, and through the grace of Ilúvatar, she returned as a mortal.:339-340 After the Valar pardoned the exiled Noldor at the end of the First Age, travel from Aman to Middle-earth resumed. Glorfindel, who died in the Fall of Gondolin, was reincarnated and returned to Middle-earth, most likely in the Second Age by way of Númenor.:377-382 After the Downfall of Númenor and the removal of Aman and Tol Eressëa from the Circles of the World near the end of the Second Age, Ilúvatar decreed that Elves were no longer permitted to travel to Middle-earth.:380-382
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), Morgoth's Ring, "Part Three. The Later Quenta Silmarillion: (II) The Second Phase: Laws and Customs among the Eldar"
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- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), Morgoth's Ring, "Part Three. The Later Quenta Silmarillion: (II) The Second Phase: Laws and Customs among the Eldar, Of the Severance of Marriage"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), Morgoth's Ring, "Part Three. The Later Quenta Silmarillion: (II) The Second Phase: Laws and Customs among the Eldar, [Text A]"
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- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), Morgoth's Ring, "Part Three. The Later Quenta Silmarillion: (II) The Second Phase: Laws and Customs among the Eldar, Of Re-birth and Other Dooms of Those that go to Mandos"
- J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), The Silmarillion, "Quenta Silmarillion: Of Maeglin"
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- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, "The Last Debate"
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