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Author's Note: Elven Aging and Development

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"About as much fun as a bag of weasels"...when I first saw this Irish adage, it made me think of the life of a writer: sometimes perilous, sometimes painful, certainly interesting. My paper journal has always been called "The Bag of Weasels." This is the Bag of Weasels' online home.

Author's Note: Elven Aging and Development

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Because Elves live forever, it would be a safe assumption that they do not operate on the same biological schedule as mortal humans, even if no concrete information was available on this subject. Tolkien did, however, provide his readers with a limited amount of information on the Elven aging process. I have used this information when figuring the intellectual and physical development of my characters at various ages. (The original source material is The History of Middle-earth, Volume XII: The Peoples of Middle-earth, "Laws and Customs of the Eldar."

Please note, however, that this corresponds to the Eldar only. In other words, the Avari might have different customs based on the differing needs of their society. As many writers have astutely observed, while the Eldar were concerned mainly with the development of arts and science, the Avari would have held survival as their key concern, both as individuals and as a society. When this story goes to Middle-earth, I will likely write an essay about how I think Avarin customs might have differed from those of the Eldar and why; for the moment, however, it is impertinent. Suffice to say that the information that follows applies only to the Elves of Valinor in my story.

Elven Aging through Childhood
Elves reach physical maturity between the ages of 50 and 100. For the sake of argument, I assume 50 to be the norm, just as humans are considered mature at the age of 18, although some may still grow and change physically for some years after. I assume that the better part of development has occurred by the age of 50, however.

50 is also the age of majority for Elves, where they are recognized as adults in their society, capable of adult privileges such as marriage. I hold this equivalent to the age of 18 in American society, and so assume that a 50-year-old Elf is roughly the same as an 18-year-old mortal.

If one were to assume a linear relationship between an Elf's age and the equivalent mortal age, an Elf would take 2.78 years to develop in the same way that a human mortal does in one. This convenient formula means that to convert a human mortal's age (assuming that s/he is under the age of 18) into "Elf-years," one would have to multiply by 2.78. Conversely, if an Elf wanted to convert his/her age into "mortal-years," s/he would have to multiply by .36.

Of course, it's not that simple.

If this relationship were strictly linear, infancy and early childhood would be quite extensively prolonged. It would take an Elf five-and-a-half years to reach "the terrible twos," for instance. A baby Elf would require near-constant attention for around three years. Humans are already the slowest to develop in the animal kingdom; such a scenario is biologically improbable and would have been disastrous in the early years of their history, when survival was difficult and the Elves traveled quite extensively. I think it would also drive Elf-parents crazy.

So Tolkien added a contingency to his Elf-aging scheme that works contrary to what one expects: Elves develop faster in the early years of their lives than mortals. By the age of one, an Elf has developed the capacity to use language. S/he also develops physical abilities, such as walking, more quickly too. So while Carnistir in my story might seem too advanced for a four-year-old (by human mortal standards), that is because he actually has the physical and intellectual capacity of a child much older. (Tolkien gives us no numbers by which to judge this, so I cannot come up with a clean formula similar to that used for older Elves.)

After that, development slows greatly until it approximates the 2.78:1 ratio I outlined earlier. I have assumed that this slowing would begin around the third or fourth year, so Carnistir's development is beginning to slow while Tyelkormo's (who is fifteen, in this story) is by now quite steady.

Elvish maturity set at 50 to 100 years gives quite a large window, however, for how long it may take an Elf to reach his or her full physical maturity. (Elves experience no intellectual decline--quite the opposite, in fact--so there is no corresponding "intellectual maturity," as there might be for mortal humans.) There are two interpretations for what this might mean: 1) Some Elves take twice as long as others to mature, or 2) All Elves mature at basically the same rate with the "50 to 100" window corresponding to societal ambiguity about what and when "maturity" occurs and also to accommodate for individual differences in physical growth. I utilize the second interpretation in my story.

American society is this way too: Children are told that they will be "adults" at the age of 18, then presented with a laundry list of things that they cannot do until they are 21 (or some other, later age). Consider, for example, that the voting age in the U.S. used to be 21, although 18-year-olds could sign contracts, get married, and fight (and die) in the military. That law was later changed, but other societal peculiarities persist. For example, a person cannot drink alcohol in the U.S. until s/he is 21, even though s/he has been an "adult" for three years by that time. I consider the customs of Elvish society to explain this "50 to 100" window: While an Elf might be considered grown enough to marry and have children at the age of 50, s/he does not earn full esteem as an adult until the age of 100. During that time, also, there might still be minor growth and changes, but s/he is basically fully-grown by the age of 50.

Tolkien gives us no clue saying that Elven maturity occurs much differently than human maturity, so I assume that the two correspond. If the average human reaches puberty at the age of 12, for example, then the average Elf does the same at the age of 33. This, of course, leaves Elven children with the same conundrum as their human counterparts: While they are growing into adults, they are still considered children by the society around them. Hence, I do not assume that Elves are unable to marry and have children prior to the age of 50, I simply assume that it is not the norm to do so and that their society rightly discourages early marriage and childbirth in order to accommodate the couple's growth and maturity. My assumption that Fëanaro and Nerdanel married at the age of forty-two (based on the fact that Fëanaro married her "in his early youth" [The Silmarillion, page 66]) is not remarkable biologically but socially, as they would have been the equivalent of mortal fifteen-year-olds at the time.

Elven Aging through Adulthood
Once an Elf reaches his or her hundredth year, I assume that s/he has earned full respect as an adult in society. So what happens from there? Humans change over the course of their life: Reaching adulthood is only one such landmark acheived over the lifespan. Elves, on the other hand, are notable for becoming nearly static physically once they reach maturity. By static, I do not mean that they are incapable of improving upon physical skills as they age beyond their hundredth year. Quite the opposite! Elves maintain the ability for improved intellectual and physical performance over the whole of their immortal lives. An excellent swordmaster at the age of 100 is a superb swordmaster by his thousandth year; by his five thousandth, he might well be unstoppable. But Elves are not subject to the decline that mortal humans face; if they do not hone their abilities, one must assume that they remain exactly as they were in their youth.

One of the most depressing facts I learned during a Psychology of Aging class required for my psychology degree is that humans reach their physical peak around the age of twenty-two. (So I, at the age of 23, am literally "over the hill.") After this point, the organs stop performing optimally and people find that they must work harder and harder to maintain physical abilities that came very naturally to them in their youth. Because this is the physical "peak," then I assume this is where Elven growth stalls and remains for the duration of their immortal lives. So Elves are basically a civilization of perpetual twenty-two-year-olds in the physical sense: forever energetic, beautiful, and youthful.

As far as intellectual growth, Elves appear to be unbounded in what they can learn and achieve. The great deeds of Fëanor were considered to be mere shadows of what he could have accomplished, had he remained in Valinor, free from the stain of corruption given him by Morgoth. Although this fact is what allowed the Elves to build such complex and wonderful societies, to those Elves born in the later generation, it must have been disquieting, as it means that they will likely never equal--much less exceed--their forbearers.

Elven Gestation and Pregnancy
We are told by Tolkien that Elves celebrate their begetting rather than their birth and that the two are about a year apart. As with aging in childhood, these facts can be used to generate an idea of Elvish gestation that corresponds to that of a mortal human (having no information to the contrary). As with humans, it is convenient to divide pregnancy into trimesters, although Elven trimesters are four--not three--months long.

I assume that development of the fetus is equivalent to that of mortal humans, at least in the physical sense, adjusted of course for the lengthened gestation period. This means that a pregnant Elf may begin showing her pregnancy at seventeen weeks; she may feel the baby beginning to move at around twenty-five weeks. Again, these are very rough numbers, mostly generated so that I could have my characters behave in as consistent and believable a manner as possible.

Because Elves develop intellectually faster than humans in their early years, I think it is safe to assume that they are also born with greater intellectual capacities than human infants. They are more astute and intuned to their surroundings, for instance; they learn quicker the behaviors that bring positive responses from their caregivers, such as smiling. Tolkien stated that a one-year-old Elf is able to capably speak his/her native language, so Elves probably begin with the rudiments of speech at only a few months of age.

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