[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for a few elf characters in The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power episode 3.]
The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power has the unenviable task of prequel-ing not only one of the most beloved and acclaimed movie trilogies of all time, but also building out a new conflict that we all know will be resolved in a few thousand years (give or take a few hundred years, with the show’s timeline). And while I find myself emotionally at odds with what the show is doing with its characters, trust me when I say no one was more surprised than me when the elf friend died trying to escape the orc prison camp. The elf friend!
Thondir (Fabian McCallum) might not have made the biggest impression on anyone else watching. But for me, I appreciated him as the odd elf with a sense of humor, the one razzing his friend for being in love with a mortal, who managed the tricky balance of feeling human (if not like the rest of Tolkien’s Men) and acknowledging the sticky place elves occupy in the narrative. So when he got his throat slit by an orc as a show of force, it actually felt kind of surprising in the moment. Suddenly he was just gone, and Arondir (Ismael Cruz Córdova) was heartbroken enough to cut down a tree to prevent more bloodshed.
It doesn’t work — more elves die later in the attempted prison escape — but with each new death I was forced to confront something our own Susana Polo, resident Tolkien lore expert, keeps bringing up in meetings: These elves aren’t actually dying. Like, they are, but they’re not gone forever like humans are. They’re just going to Valinor, aka the Undying Lands, aka the place Galadriel opted out of in the opening episode, aka the elf heaven where all these elves are actually from.
It has other names, depending on where or what you’re referring to (the West! Aman! That place you saw in the very beginning of the pilot!), but suffice it to say it’s where all elves end up, whether they get there by boat or their spirit resurrects there after they die in Middle-earth. It is, I’m told, like if every time you died in the real world you respawned somewhere far away like Italy and you weren’t allowed to come back.
It’s still tragic, don’t get me wrong, but it’s also like if you and your friend were hanging out and living your lives between a tree and a hard place, and then, suddenly, they just pop up in a different continent. And so you know you’ll see them again, but also you were supposed to go see a movie with them and now you’ll have to go to the movies alone, over and over and over again until you die (which, if you’re an elf, could be a few thousand years from now).
As Susana tells me, Middle-earth is like a “poorly designed zoo enclosure for them” with Aman being “the fully enrichment-filled, food with all the vitamins they need, existence that only the gods can create.” So while there are other ways to repopulate in Valinor, in general it can also cause a feedback loop of ennui that leads to death in Middle-earth and in real life (for all intents and purposes, basically by withering away from being tired of life).
This is all apparently pulled from “really fucking deep” Tolkien lore that is pieced together from details in his notes and other collections, rather than the text of his books. As we covered in the last elf heaven freakout, Tolkien didn’t concern himself much with elves as main characters, so we don’t get a sense of how they mourn the “dead” (if at all). But as Susana also informs me, elves don’t always come back the same. And with all of the Noldor curse red tape — well, it gets complicated.
So what does it mean for Arondir to lose his brothers in arms? Do elves fear the possibility of death? Who’s to say. RIP Thondir and company, you were gone too soon. See you on the road to