Every time I come to Middle-Earth, I always end up leaving a bit of my heart behind in Rivendell. While I have so much in common with hobbits, I have one more thing in common with Bilbo: I am in awe of elves.
Bilbo’s split nature is that he is both in awe and a bit frightened by them. And he is bewildered by the very notion that they know all about him. Their song is very telling. At first it seems like they’re barking mad. Arf! There are simple questions and simpler statements, all arranged in a daffy song that makes these beings seem like lunatics. But it would be foolish indeed to assume that elves are foolish. In reading through the poem, we get the head’s up that they know all about the mission and the map. So the question becomes, how do they know?
Anyone coming into this book with any knowledge of Middle-Earth is usually taken off guard by the elves. These are the majestic beings who’ve walked the world since it was new? Yes, and they’re completely consistent with everything else, which took me forever to realize. Essentially, this is how they behave when dwarves are around, specifically to keep dwarves off guard. The dwarves would rightfully be suspicious, a little frightened, and maybe they’ll underestimate the capabilities of their opponents if it came to battle. Just because it’s not a tactic we’d recognize as sound, that doesn’t mean it’s not a good one by their estimation. After all, the dwarves are very serious and solemn about their quest. The Elves know this.
Add to that, they’re constantly laughing and singing. Would this not be the very same kind of magic that created Middle-Earth in the first place? Notice there is no darkness, no evil, in Rivendell. Evil would be repulsed by this mirth and merriment. It is the wisdom of the ages… transmitted through the innocence of youth, the simple wonder that children could relate to.
So… what do elves smell like? Bilbo seems to know, and it makes him thoughtful. It made me thoughtful too, and I was wracking my brain trying to figure out where I’d seen it before. Thankfully, the Tolkien Professor himself, Corey Olsen, came to my assist (in book form).
Per Olsen, in a long poem called The Lay of Leithan, not published until after Tolkien’s death, is told the story of Beren and Luthien, also told in The Silmarillion. The elf-maiden Luthien is described as as being accompanied everywhere by “the odour of immortal flowers in everlasting spring.” Thank you kindly, sir! I don’t have an encyclopedic memory for this stuff like he does. Regardless, if that’s what elves smell like, there’s no wonder Aragorn fell for Arwen, or Gimli for Galadriel. I would too, for a whole host of other reasons besides.
For Bilbo’s part, Rivendell is the destination of choice that can satisfy both sides of himself. The Baggins side can claim rich foods and comfort the likes of which more than outmatch his own home, while the Tookish side can soak in the exotic nature of it all.
Elrond is the master of all he surveys here, and Tolkien goes out of his way to prove he is not foolish in the descriptions of him. After reading the inscriptions on the weapons, he proves to be magnanimous enough to return them, even though they are elven blades. As he does so, the dwarves treat these weapons with reverence and respect, the likes of which they’d never show an elf up to that point.
I’m also rather jealous of the blades they’re now carrying. This would be like finding the swords of famous warriors such as Caesar, Alexander, or Hannibal. And you don’t just luck upon these things like that without knowing they’ll be used.
The map… this is an odd bit of work, isn’t it? Not just directions, it includes what would seem to be a prophecy. To my mind, this is Tolkien once more telling us there are higher powers at work.