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Elvish time

From Tolkien Gateway

Elvish time is a partially-unpublished and unfinished essay by J.R.R. Tolkien. The text is tucked in among manuscripts of the period of The Lost Road (1930s).[1] The written part is mainly focused on explaining the human concepts related to time, and does not go on to explain the Elven perspective.[2]

Excerpts from the essay were first published in A Question of Time: J.R.R. Tolkien's Road to Faërie, by Verlyn Flieger (1997). They were reprinted, along with several other related texts, in The Nature of Middle-earth, edited by Carl F. Hostetter (2021).


Our language is confused using after or before both (in certain circumstances) of the future. We sometimes think and speak of the future as what lies before us, we look ahead, are provident, forward-looking, yet our ancestors preceded us and are fore-fathers; and any event in time is before one that is later. We speak as if events and a succession of human lives were an endless column moving forward into the unknown, and those born later are behind us, will follow us; yet also as if though facing the future we were walking backwards, and our children and heirs (posterity!) were ahead of us and will in each generation go further forwards into the future than we. [penciled in: "A widow is a relict, one left behind by a husband who goes on."] As far as a single experiencing mind goes, it seems a most natural transference of spatial to linear language to say that the past is behind it or in front of earlier ones. At the point where the individual ceases the survivors go on further go ahead of him. All living creatures are in one mass or column marching on, and falling out individually while others go on. Those who do so are left behind. Our ancestors who fell out earlier are further behind, behind us forever.


In Elvish sentiment the future was not one of hope or desire, but a decay and retrogression from former bliss and power. Though inevitably it lay ahead, as of one on a journey, "looking forward" did not imply anticipation of delight. "I look forward to seeing you again" did not mean or imply "I wish to see you again, and since that is arranged/and or very likely, I am pleased." It meant simply "I expect to see you again with the certainty of foresight (in some circumstances) or regard that as very probable—it might be with fear or dislike, 'foreboding'." Their position, as of latter day sentiment, was one of exiles driven forward (against their will) who were in mind or actual posture ever looking backward.

But in actual language time and place had distinct expressions.