Smells Like Elf Spirit

In an early Prancing Pony Ponderings essay, I made brief mention of the following passage in The Hobbit …

‘Hmmm! it smells like elves!’ thought Bilbo, and he looked up at the stars. They were burning bright and blue.
     (The Hobbit, p. 45)

… and quickly skipped past the questionable implications of “elf-smell.” And they are indeed questionable, in a way I felt completely unprepared to address back in October, when the Prancing Pony Ponderings segment of our website was still so new. It seemed too absurd, too indulgent, to tackle the question all those months ago when I was a younger, less wise man.

Oh, how times have changed.

Alas, dear readers, I can skip past such implications no longer, however questionable they may be. Maybe it’s the effect of far too many hours spent on the tragic story of Túrin Turambar in our recent podcasts that makes me yearn for some light-hearted absurdity. Maybe it’s because spring is in the air; the lightness of the April breeze has inspired me, like Chaucer’s West Wind in the opening lines of the Canterbury Tales: “So priketh hem Nature in hir corages” (“So Nature spurs them in their hearts”). Call it foolish, or even ofermod. But the time has come to examine the question of “elf-smell.”

Lúthien smells like flowers.
But is that really typical of all Elves?

Sadly, there isn’t much to go on. The usual secondary sources for The Hobbit offer little to explain this observation by Bilbo. Douglas A. Anderson refrains from commenting in The Annotated Hobbit, choosing instead to go straight to “tra-la-la-lally” (and who can blame him?). John D. Rateliff, in The History of The Hobbit, acknowledges the comment, but only to point out that an earlier draft by Tolkien had Bilbo saying, “it feels like elves” (p. 113, emphasis mine) and comments that the original line “does raise the question of how Bilbo knows what elves ‘feel’ like,” (Ibid., p. 117) which seems a much more troubling question altogether.

The only commentary I can find on this on my bookshelf is in Corey Olsen’s Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit:

We do get a hint about the smell of elves, actually, in another of Tolkien’s writings. Right around the time he was writing The Hobbit Tolkien was also writing a long poem called The Lay of Leithian, which wasn’t published until after his death. … In The Lay of Leithian, the elf-maiden Lúthien is described as being accompanied everywhere by a remarkable fragrance, the “odour of immortal flowers / in everlasting spring” (Canto XII. 3794-95). That, I suspect, is more or less what elves smell like, and what Bilbo was getting a whiff of on the breeze near Rivendell.
     (Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, pp. 61-62)

Longtime listeners may remember this passage from The Lay of Leithian from Episode 033 – The Princess Bride. Alan read these very lines to explain Carcharoth “[scenting] something strange in the air about” Beren and Lúthien in The Silmarillion. Despite our heroes being disguised as Draugluin and Thuringwethil, Carcharoth was not fooled; his keen lupine sense of smell was apparently quite able to detect the difference between “immortal flowers” and the rotting carcass of a bat-monster. [That takes a ‘keen’ sense of smell, does it? – Ed.]

So that’s conclusive. Lúthien smells like flowers. But is that really typical of all Elves? Is that really what Bilbo was smelling, thousands of years later in the Third Age, as he rode into Rivendell, lazily looking up at the stars astride a poor, Hobbit-laden pony? I’m not so sure.

We know, of course, that Lúthien was only half Elf. How do we know that the flowery bouquet that followed her didn’t come from her Maia mother? After all, Melian had some history with floriculture. The Valaquenta tells us that she “served both Vána and Estë; she dwelt long in Lórien, tending the trees that flower in the gardens of Irmo, ere she came to Middle-earth.” (The Silmarillion, p. 30) Lest we forget one of the Valier who doesn’t make many appearances after her introduction, Vána was apparently a patroness of flowers, and perhaps of spring: “All flowers spring as she passes and open if she glances upon them,” the Valaquenta tells us. (Ibid., p. 29) It’s worth noting that Lúthien seems to have a similar power to make flowers bloom in her wake:

… there in the forest of Neldoreth Lúthien was born, and the white flowers of niphredil came forth to greet her as stars from the earth.
     (The Silmarillion, p. 91)

… the song of Lúthien released the bonds of winter, and the frozen waters spoke, and flowers sprang from the cold earth where her feet had passed.
     (Ibid., p. 165)

… though the winter came it hurt them not, for flowers lingered where Lúthien went, and the birds sang beneath the snowclad hills.
     (Ibid., p. 176)

This is not an ability we see ordinary Elves display. And given that the flower power of Lúthien seems also to bear a resemblance to the seasonal triumph of spring over winter (see especially the latter two passages above) I am drawn inexorably to a comparison with Vána and the conclusion that these floral qualities are inherited from Melian, who in turn picked them up from her old boss back in Aman.

Which leads me right back to the question: what do Elves (other Elves) smell like?

Going back to the Third Age and Tolkien’s more narratively descriptive works, references to smells abound in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings — but nothing explicitly attached to the olfactory properties of the Firstborn. There are references in The Fellowship of the Ring to the smell of the trees and grass of Lothlórien (p. 340), and even “a faint scent of trees and flowers” in Rivendell (p. 220), but these are describing Elvish places, places (I would add) preserved by the power of the Three Rings. There’s no reason to believe that Galadriel or Elrond personally smells so nice.

In The Hobbit we do get this enticing passage:

There was the sound, too, of elven-harps and of sweet music; and as it echoed up towards them it seemed that the chill of the air was warmed, and they caught faintly the fragrance of woodland flowers blossoming in spring.
     (The Hobbit, p. 239)

However, the presence of Elven music suggests to me that this is a kind of musical dreamscape similar to the one Finrod casts over the people of Bëor, and perhaps akin to what Frodo and his companions sense in the company of Gildor Inglorion … and not the heady air of Elf-musk rising from the army laying siege to Erebor.

The only explicit reference to the smell of an Elf in the major works is in The Return of the King, when Arwen is described as “glimmering in the evening, with stars on her brow and a sweet fragrance about her.” (p. 951) But it’s her wedding day, for crying out loud. It’s not impossible that she applied some perfume. I see no reason to assume that this is her natural Elvish redolence.

As noted above, other references to non-Elvish smells abound in The Lord of the Rings. The fragrance of athelas alone is mentioned four times. Treebeard waxes poetic about the smell of Middle-earth when it was young, and even pipe-weed gets plaudits for its aroma. There’s also a beautiful scent-based image given for the recovery of Éowyn in the Houses of Healing, which I will discuss further in a moment. But there is nothing else that explicitly refers to the smell of Elves.

By contrast, there are tons of references to the smell of evil creatures and places. Bilbo’s trolls, the dragons Smaug and Glaurung, the flying steed of the Nazgûl and even the Watcher in the Water are specifically described with reference to their stink or stench. Frodo and Sam seem doomed to foul smells: from their own bodies as they trudge mile after mile away from the warm baths of Crickhollow along the path into Mordor, to the “stink” of Shelob and her lair. Most compellingly, there is the “noisome smell” that rises from the Dead Marshes (The Two Towers, p. 613) and the “sickly odour of decay in the meads of Morgul” (Ibid., p. 701) and the pass of Cirith Ungol.

This concept of an “odour of decay” is very striking. We might in our vernacular English call this the “smell of death” (a search string with over 53 million results on Google), but Tolkien is careful to call it what it is. Death is not a bad thing in Tolkien’s legendarium; it is the Gift of Ilúvatar to Men. So why would death smell foul? The answer is that it doesn’t. What smells foul is not death, but decay. The smell of evil things is not the stench of death itself, but the smell of rotting flesh; of corruption.

And now we’re getting somewhere. Because what does corruption make us think of more than Melkor and the marring of Arda? And what would we consider to be the opposite of corruption? Purity, as in the pure intentions of Ilúvatar in the creation of his Firstborn Children? Preservation, as in the deepest desire of the Eldar, a temptation so rooted in their nature that it was the chief power of the Three Rings?

If “corruption” or “decay” is the smell of the servants of evil, then I’d imagine that Elves have the opposite smell, a smell we might call “pure” or “clean”. Flowers don’t smell “pure;” they smell like flowers. And “clean” is not the smell of soap. It’s actually hard to imagine a smell that’s truly pure, unadulterated by either foul odors or sweet scents. Would it smell like nothing? Perhaps. But then again, what does “nothing” smell like? I imagine most of us have no idea, because we’re too busy constantly smelling everything. We are surrounded by good and bad smells all around us, from the flowers we stroll by every morning walking the dog to the fertilizer the flowers are grown in (and the stuff we pick up that the dog left behind). From every molecule of cleansing agent that lingers in the air after spring cleaning to every bacterium and mold spore that remains. We are so surrounded by such smells that we must not notice them at all anymore. Compared to an onslaught of olfactory stimuli so constant that our noses effectively shut down, what would absolute purity smell like? I think it would smell strangely … blank. Like the taste of distilled water at room temperature.

Going back to Tolkien’s texts (finally, right?), I can actually back up (sort of) my claim that the scent of flowers is not the scent of purity. In the Spring of Arda, the purest state of being known in Tolkien’s legendarium, there were no flowers:

As yet no flower had bloomed nor any bird had sung, for these things waited still their time in the bosom of Yavanna …
     (The Silmarillion, p. 35)

And there’s more. There’s actually a hint in The Lord of the Rings that the Undying Lands still have this smell of purity, unadulterated by even the sweet scent of flowers. I come back now to Éowyn’s recovery in the Houses of Healing. Despite the fact that fragrant athelas is the remedy for her sickness, that is not the ultimate olfactory descriptor of the event:

Then, whether Aragorn had indeed some forgotten power of Westernesse, or whether it was but his words of the Lady Éowyn that wrought on them, as the sweet influence of the herb stole about the chamber it seemed to those who stood by that a keen wind blew through the window, and it bore no scent, but was an air wholly fresh and clean and young, as if it had not before been breathed by any living thing and came new-made from snowy mountains high beneath a dome of stars, or from shores of silver far away washed by seas of foam.
     (The Return of the King, pp. 849-50)

Éowyn seems to be healed of her sickness and her despair by this clean air devoid of any scent. And if the references to “snowy mountains high,” “a dome of stars,” and “shores of silver” with “seas of foam” make you think of Taniquetil and the shores of Aman, then you must be reading Tolkien.1

There is, of course, nothing to explicitly connect this scent of purity with Elves, at least not the Elves of the Hither Lands. But as beings made effectively immortal by their nature and yet “made of the flesh or substance of Arda itself” (Morgoth’s Ring, p. 218), but intended by their Creator not to die or decay, is it so hard to believe that the smell of Elves might not be so much a matter of what they smell like, but what they don’t smell like? That creatures so obsessed with preserving the past might actually smell like something out of the past? Younger? Cleaner? Fresher than anything in the world we know?

Of course we’ll never know for sure. This is all pure speculation. Absurd? Quite. Indulgent? Absolutely. “Pretty fair nonsense I daresay you think it,” like the song of the very Elves whose mysterious smell started me down this road. (The Hobbit, p. 46) I’d love to think that this whole journey has given you a few laughs like it has me, like those good people in their trees. But even if you’re grumbling like a Dwarf, thinking me foolish, I’ll take it.

O! Tra-la-la-lally … and a Happy Easter to you and yours from the Prancing Pony Podcast.

1 Edit 4/25/17: Stephen C. Winter at Wisdom from The Lord of the Rings recently wrote about the healing of Éowyn with a different take on this “keen wind” that makes it much more personal to Éowyn, and potentially to Tolkien as well. I highly recommend reading it here.

11 thoughts on “Smells Like Elf Spirit

  1. I first read Tolkien’s works, and loved them immediately, over 40 years ago. I have read them numerous times, and have read commentaries–most notably those by Tom Shippey–but as familiar as I am with these works, there is always something new to consider. Shawn’s thought provoking essay is a perfect example. Like many, probably, I have thought more about the unpleasant smells Tolkien describes, for example in Shelob’s Lair, than the pleasant aromas, Sam & Frodo’s journey through Ithilien being the rare exception. Thank you, Shawn! I look forward to hearing and reading more of your insights, and those by your distinguished partner.

    • Thanks, Badger. I’m glad you mentioned Ithilien, because it’s another fantastic olfactory image I came across in researching this essay. Frodo and Sam notice the sweet fragrance of Ithilien shortly before they encounter Faramir’s rangers, and then later that smell is the first thing Sam recognizes when he awakens after the Ring is destroyed. It’s a beautiful image, but sadly I just couldn’t fit it into this essay. It’s interesting that Gollum does not like the smell of Ithilien at all, and he is similarly put off by the smell of Elvish things, like the mallorn-leaves in which the lembas is wrapped. Perhaps Gollum is too corrupted to appreciate pleasant smells anymore?

  2. Since it’s April, I’m reluctant to give up on the obvious explanation. The apple trees bloomed this week. Every time I go out my front door, I smell the blossoms. Delightful scent; makes me think it was worth it to get out of bed, after all. To hobbits, smelling that smell in autumn would definitely seem like fairy magic.

  3. It might be pure speculation and as you say, absurd and indulgent (I don’t think so), but it was very enjoyable none-the-less. I really enjoy these ponderings. I learn something new or see things in whole new lights each time I read one of these. You gave me a lot to think about today.

  4. Tra-la-la-la! What a wonderful write-up! I love the explorations of those unmentioned and unexplored moments which leave a lot of room for speculation and thought. When done professionally, like in your case, it’s pure joy to read. Thanks Shawn, I loved it!

  5. Many thanks for the recommendation to read my interpretation of the fragrance around the healing of Éowyn. Of course we have to say that we cannot be sure for certain what is being communicated by the three distinct fragrances related to the three healings that Aragorn performs. I was grateful to Kate Neville who pointed out that Lúthien healed Beren with athelas and so the link of a beautiful fragrance to healing is established there and you link fragrance to the Lúthien story.
    And we are certainly not wiser as to what Bilbo could smell that he linked so confidently to Elves.

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