Great Tolkien Passages: The Real Firstborn

April 28, 2011

General, Tolkien's Lore

Now that we have tackled one of the most contentious issues in Tolkiendom (Balrog Wings), everything else should be easy by comparison. So I decided to address another simmering topic. Which race is the eldest? Elves love nothing more than to glory in the title of the Elder Race, Firstborn, etc. They lord it over the other races like a spoiled Kindergartener, and their self declarations hold as much authority.

Although the Dwarves have long since ignored the whole argument, Elves being better record keepers and slippery opponents in any debate, they have long held themselves to be the older race. Let us now examine the record. We shall even deign to use the Elvish record of events from the Silmarillion to prove their own argument in error.

Without further adieu, I give you the most sacred of excerpts from the Silmarillion (note that Aulë, pronounced Ow- lay, is the Elvish name given to Mahal, the greatest of the Valar):

clip_image002It is told that in their beginning the Dwarves were made by Aulë in the darkness of Middle-earth; for so greatly did Aulë desire the coming of the Children, to have learners to whom he could teach his lore and his crafts, that he was unwilling to await the fulfillment of the designs of Ilúvatar. And Aulë made the Dwarves even as they still are, because the forms of the Children who were to come were unclear to his mind, and because the power of Melkor was yet over the Earth; and he wished therefore that they should be strong and unyielding. But fearing that the other Valar might blame his work, he wrought in secret: and he made first the Seven Fathers of the Dwarves in a hall under the mountains in Middle-earth.

Now Ilúvatar knew what was done, and in the very hour that Aulë’s work was complete, and he was pleased, and began to instruct the Dwarves in the speech that he had devised for them, Ilúvatar spoke to him; and Aulë heard his voice and was silent. And the voice of Ilúvatar said to him: ‘Why hast thou done this? Why dost thou attempt a thing which thou knowest is beyond thy power and thy authority? For thou hast from me as a gift thy own bring only, and no more; and therefore the creatures of thy hand and mind can live only by that being, moving when thou thinkest to move them, and if thy thought be elsewhere, standing idle. Is that thy desire?’

Then Aulë answered: ‘I did not desire such lordship. I desired things other than I am, to love and to teach them, so that they too might perceive the beauty of Eä, which thou hast caused to be. For it seemed to me that there is great room in Arda for many things that might rejoice in it, yet it is for the most part empty still, and dumb. And in my impatience I have fallen into folly. Yet the making of thing is in my heart from my own making by thee; and the child of little understanding that makes a play of the deeds of his father may do so without thought of mockery, but because he is the son of his father. But what shall I do now, so that thou be not angry with me for ever? As a child to his father, I offer to thee these things, the work of the hands which thou hast made. Do with them what thou wilt. But should I not rather destroy the work of my presumption?’

Aulë_Prepares_To_Destroy_The_DwarvesThen Aulë took up a great hammer to smite the Dwarves; and he wept. But Ilúvatar had compassion upon Aulë and his desire, because of his humility; and the Dwarves shrank from the hammer and wore afraid, and they bowed down their heads and begged for mercy. And the voice of Ilúvatar said to Aulë: ‘Thy offer I accepted even as it was made. Dost thou not see that these things have now a life of their own, and speak with their own voices? Else they would not have flinched from thy blow, nor from any command of thy will.’ Then Aulë cast down his hammer and was glad, and he gave thanks to Ilúvatar, saying: ‘May Eru bless my work and amend it!’

But Ilúvatar spoke again and said: ‘Even as I gave being to the thoughts of the Ainur at the beginning of the World, so now I have taken up thy desire and given to it a place therein; but in no other way will I amend thy handiwork, and as thou hast made it, so shall it be. But I will not suffer this: that these should come before the Firstborn of my design, nor that thy impatience should be rewarded. They shall sleep now in the darkness under stone, and shall not come forth until the Firstborn have awakened upon Earth; and until that time thou and they shall wait, though long it seem. But when the time comes I will awaken them, and they shall be to thee as children; and often strife shall arise between thine and mine, the children of my adoption and the children of my choice.’ Then Aulë took the Seven Fathers of the Dwarves, and laid them to rest in far-sundered places; and he returned to Valinor, and waited while the long years lengthened.

-The Silmarillion

Now, in the simplest terms, to come first would mean to be created and sentient first. It is possible that the Elves were created first and were lying dormant somewhere in Middle-Earth even during the time of the interlude described above. However, it is clear that the dwarves were actually awake and sentient at this time, if only for a few minutes. Unfortunately, you, and even Eru can’t undo what was done. The dwarves were awake first. So, it becomes apparent that the Dwarves were, in fact, the firstborn race.

But, the Elves are indeed a noble race, blessed with unending life, and grace and charm above all others. Do not be disheartened just because you are not the oldest race on Arda. The constant caterwauling that you are the Firstborn is unbecoming so fair a people. Take pride in what gifts you have been granted, my feminine friends.

(Illustrations by Ted Nasmith)


What? I’m impartial.

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Avatar of Haakon Stormbrow

14 Responses to “Great Tolkien Passages: The Real Firstborn”

  1. Elenluin Says:

    Hehe you did deal it with quite impartially. It is quite clear that dwarves were awake first. But considering we are deciding upon the firstborn race, shouldn’t there be a larger number and of each gender? There were only the seven fathers and no female dwarves among them. I think race should be able to reproduce and increase their numbers.


  2. Elvishmouse Says:

    Elen has a point.
    But of course, I’m biased, I play an Elf… I do not go around caterwauling about my Firstborn-ness, hehe, though I may slip in the word ‘follower’ in reference to a Man.

    I would like to bring to the attention of any roleplayers this phrase: “often strife shall arise between thine and mine, the children of my adoption and the children of my choice”. The conflicts between Elves and Dwarves go right back to the beginning. ;) I’m not saying any Elf or Dwarf should go around loudly proclaiming the other race to be faulty, I’m just saying that a little discomfort between the races is OK and possibly even more lore-correct.


  3. Krenn Says:

    And the Elves actually aren’t even the second race – the Eagles were before them:
    “…before the Children awake there shall go forth with wings like the wind the Eagles of the Lord of the West.” (Yavanna to Manwë)


    • Aethalwulf of Landroval Says:

      Eagles certainly existed, along with many other beasts of the world, before the Elves awoke, however, the Great Eagles only came into being when Eru sent spirits into the world to inhabit the beasts therein -after- the awakening of the Elves. The Ents appeared around this time as well, although trees certainly predated them.


  4. Celondur Says:

    Sentient? Yes, I suppose a smelly Dwarf *would* confuse standing motionless like squat, meaty puppets whenever Aulë turned his attention elsewhere with actual sentience. Even with Eru’s help, they haven’t progress much beyond that!


  5. Aethalwulf of Landroval Says:

    Being but a Dwarf you of course fail to understand that the title of Eldest applies among the true children of Iluvatar and is opposed to the Hildorien, or Men, who came after. Dwarves are not true children of Iluvatar, but adopted and are therefore not accounted.

    Mae Govannen
    Aethalarian of Landroval


  6. Lilly Says:

    I always read it as anything in the song was born the moment the song was sung, much as all parts of a musical score are there even if some instruments have yet to join the performance. Since the dwarves were not part of the song, they cannot be first.

    But it’s great that this comes up, my husband I I were just talking about the origin of the dwarves the other day over dinner.


    • Aethalwulf of Landroval Says:

      You are correct in that Elves and Men and all the world was created during the Song of the Ainur. So, if creation is your criteria, then all are equal in the Eye of Eru.

      Aethalarian of Landroval
      Mae Gocannen


  7. Bulegar Says:

    I seem to remember that Gandalf calls Fangorn (Treebeard) something like the oldest living thing in Middle Earth. Does that mean that the Ents existed before the elves came to Middle Earth?


    • Aethalwulf of Landroval Says:

      No. The Ents came to life when Eru sent spirits to inhabit some of the creatures of Arda after the Elves awoke. Treebeard may simply be from that first awakening, and, since he’s still in Middle Earth, may be the eldest being alive (since the status of those who go West is kind of vague).


      • Brenston of Riddermark Says:

        Not exactly. according to the Valaquenta, the Ents were created when Yavanna requested Manwë that he give her forests some way to defend themselves, as she feared that the dwarves might destroy her forests; the passage in question says that her plea was “…the kelvar can flee or defend themselves, whereas the olvar that grow cannot. And among these I hold trees dear… Would that the trees might speak on behalf of all things that have roots, and punish those that wrong them!” Manwë agreed to this request: “Behold! When the Children awake, then the thought of Yavanna will awake also, and it will summon spirits from afar, and they will go among the kelvar and the olvar, and some will dwell therein, and be held in reverence, and their just anger shall be feared.”

        I think “the Children” in question might be the Elves, as the term is most often applied to them in the Silmarillion. Assuming that Treebeard was present during the Awakening of the Elves, he would almost certainly be the oldest living thing in Middle Earth. (Unless one considers Tom Bombadil to be a living thing, but that is another story.)


  8. Jon Says:

    Maybe you like him the best but I’d argue that, objectively, the greatest of the Valar was not Aulë. From the Silmarillion:

    “The mightiest of those Ainur who came into the World was in his beginning Melkor; but Manwë is dearest to Ilúvatar and understands most clearly his purposes. He was appointed to be, in the fullness of time, the first of all Kings: lord of the realm of Arda and ruler of all that dwell therein.”


    “Yet was the greatest and chief of those four great ones Manwë Súlimo”


  9. Avatar of The Dwarrow Scholar
    The Dwarrow Scholar Says:

    it’s good to read these again, a great article…
    Off course the dwarves were first born, no question there… but let the elves have their title I say, us dwarves know better. ;)


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