Suite101: Who is Like the Wise Elf? – Michael Martinez’ J.R.R. Tolkien and Middle-earth

by Jun 13, 2001Other News

“It is curious that Tolkien should distinguish the Wise as “lords of the Eldar”. Are all the Wise members of the nobility? If so, what is it that makes them Wise?”
In his June 10th Suite101 article, Michael examines what Tolkien may have meant in referring to the lords of the Eldar as “the Wise.”

Here is an excerpt:

Gildor Inglorion, Glorfindel, Elrond, Galadriel, Celeborn, Luthien Tinuviel, and Finrod Felagund all share something in common: they are members of that vaguely defined group of Elves whom J.R.R. Tolkien called “the Wise”.

What did Tolkien mean when he used the word, “wise”? As a philologist he would not simply have grabbed the word at random. He would have studied its history and elected to use it for reasons which were very clear to him. In examining “wise”, we can see that it is a very powerful, ancient, and flexible word.

“Wise” comes to us from the Indo-European root word “weid-“, “to see”. The adjective “wise” refers to something perceptive, shrewd, prudent, or to a person who possesses great knowledge, keen judgement, or the ability to perceive what is right and true. As a noun, “wise” may be used to refer to “a way” (as of doing things); or it may refer to people who are deemed to be wise, as in the Bible’s references to “the wise (who did something prudent)”.

Tolkien’s Elven-wise, the Wise, are not simply prudent people, although both Gildor and Glorfindel seem rather prudent. Nor are they merely knowledgeable or perceptive people. Elrond is a master of wisdom and lore, but he also foresees many things, and perceives hidden meaning behind events. Galadriel, too, possesses great wisdom, though hers seems more born of experience than learning (as Elrond’s seems to derive mostly from study), but Galadriel is also very perceptive, seeing deeper into the hearts of others than anyone else.

Celeborn is called “the wise” but many readers feel he doesn’t live up to his reputation. The general view seems to be that Galadriel could outmaneuver Celeborn in a one-way street, or lead him any way she pleases. Galadriel only really outshines Celeborn in one scene, but she does get her own scene with Frodo and Sam, whereas Celeborn sits back and lets Galadriel do most of the work in ferreting out the Fellowship’s motives and intentions.

It is Celeborn, however, who understands and acknowledges the implications of the Fellowship’s actions or indecision.

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