25. A Question Asked
Thanks to Anglachel, Joan, Julie, and Meg for discussion of various aspects of bonding among both Elves and Men that have helped with my understanding and portrayal of this key point, particularly to Joan for her remarks on the probable importance of the lack of children in a M/M (or F/F) pairing as a critical reason why it would be worrisome to Elvish society at large. Not all the ideas discussed are made explicit in this chapter or elsewhere, but they have been most helpful.
Throughout the next day, each of them looked forward to the evening with different emotions. Melpomaen hummed to himself as he made entries in the company ledgers, sure that he would think of a way to make his suggestion to Legolas when the time came. Legolas went about his usual duties, monitoring the various patrols and ordering a check on the weapons in the armory. At spare moments he wondered what Melpomaen and Haldir would have to say about the customs of their people, and indulged his curiosity about where exactly they came from – they were both close-mouthed about that. Despite his partner’s assurances, Haldir worried. He believed Melpomaen was right that Legolas would not be offended by this most unusual proposal, but he respected the captain and hoped that their idea would not disturb his peace.
When Haldir and Melpomaen tapped on his door after dinner, Legolas greeted them cheerfully and offered each a cup of wine, which they accepted. All three seated themselves, and a moment of silence ensued.
Melpomaen was the first to break it. “Haldir tells me that the other evening you and he had begun to discuss some of the differences in custom between your people and ours, Legolas.”
“Yes. Indeed one such tradition that will soon be upon us is the celebration of midwinter. All the patrols that are out in the forest return, so we who reside in the caverns often have to share our quarters; though those whose families dwell nearby may choose to go to them instead. The immediate watches are kept, but no patrols, so that each man serves only a half-shift and may celebrate the turn of the year with his kith and kin. It is a day of fire and feast, of drinking and dancing, of story and song. At twilight, everyone goes out to greet the stars as they appear – even if the skies are clouded or the snows are falling.” Legolas’s eyes were wide and clear, dark with his memories of many such midwinters. “At that moment, we are one – all the people of this land, united together in thought with one another and with the stars and their Lady also.”
“Our folk, too, make reverence to the stars on that night, but we delay our feasting and song until the next day, the first of the year rather than the last,” said Haldir. “It is said among us that a child who is born on mettarë, last-day, will be wise with the knowledge of the year, but a child born on first-day, on yestarë, will have the singing-voice of a nightingale to herald the beginning of a new year of the Sun.”
Legolas nodded thoughtfully, saying, “We say something similar. ‘Wise the one under stars be born, but with the dawn a singer comes.’”
“I have heard tell that the first dawn was in the west, not the east,” interjected Melpomaen. “Do either of you know the truth of that?”
“That is what I learned as well, but I have never met any Elf who saw it myself. Though I believe my father’s father was living then, he was slain before my own birth,” said Legolas.
Haldir said, “My cousin once told me that the Lady. . .” he paused and sipped at his cup, continuing, “the lady she served had seen the rising of first the Moon and then the Sun in the west before their courses were changed. So it must be true.”
“Your cousin must serve a great and fortunate lady, then,” said Legolas softly, “to have lived so long amid the dangers of these lands, through all the times of strife that have been since those days.” He paused, but Haldir made no reply.
Melpomaen said hastily, “I recall that you said once in the common room that you would wish to travel west one day yourself, is that not so? At least to the Sea, I think you said?”
“I have thought of it, yes. I would like to cross the Misty Mountains and find Imladris, where the Lord Elrond is said to dwell. One of my brothers made that journey – many long years ago now – but the way is long, and dangerous with the Orcs that infest the passes, and my father has been unwilling to let any of us travel so far without need. But sometime, I hope. Once to Imladris, the country beyond is safer, so travelers’ tales say, and one may pass through lands thinly peopled to the havens where Círdan the great wright still builds his ships. He is one who saw the first light of Moon and Sun, I’ll warrant. Have you any desire to make such a journey, Melpomaen? Haldir?”
“Are you trying to recruit fellow-travelers?” asked Melpomaen lightly. “Someday, perhaps. I have kin who have gone thither, and taken ship from the haven there.” A shadow crossed his face, and he added, “But for now I have no wish to see the Sea; I hear tell that once one has heard the gulls’ cry, the calls of lark and robin and owl are as nothing, and one cannot trade salt air for fresh.”
“But Men, traders, travel the rivers to the Sea and back all the time,” said Haldir. “They do not feel any such need to remain near the waves.”
“Oh, Men,” Melpomaen waved his hand carelessly. “It is not at all the same thing. They cannot travel to the West, as can we if we choose to take the Straight Road. For them the seas are bent, and their only way of leaving Middle-earth is through death. For them there is no chance of return thereafter.”
“There’s a question for you,” said Legolas. “Most among us here reck little of Men. They are weak, they die before they have seen even a hundred winters, they have not the time to learn as we have. My father treats them well and is content to have them dwell in this forest under his protection and lordship, but I know he does not consider them quite our equals. Do your folk hold likewise? What think you of Men?”
“I have not the right to judge,” said Haldir. “I have not known any well enough to say. But to answer your earlier question, as I said the other evening, I would go to the Sea, and thence into the West. Someday. . .” he trailed off, his expression thoughtful.
“Even less than Haldir would I be able to judge Men as a group. I spoke with a few in Dale, and have met several here too, but my skill in Westron is slight enough that I have not been able to converse with any enough to understand their race well,” Melpomaen said. “But from the little I know, I would pity them.”
“Pity? Why? For their short lives?” asked Legolas.
“Exactly. I am older than any Man I have ever met, and yet I know that I am still unlearned. Why, I do not even know much Westron, only our own Elvish tongues. How can I do other than pity those who by their nature cannot live long enough to overcome their own ignorance? Whose frailty can carry them off even in the prime of their own short lives, through illness or injury?”
“I don’t know,” mused Haldir. “What you say is true, Maen, but I am glad that we cannot choose which we would be, Elf or Man, for at times the Gift of Men can seem sweet. Have neither of you felt at times weary of this land, this life?”
Legolas looked down at the table, silent. Melpomaen reached out to touch Haldir’s arm. “Never that weary, no.”
Haldir clasped his lover’s hand. “I do not mean to say that I would rather have been mortal and died long since, only that I think we should not pity Men for what is natural to them. They have less time to take delight in this world, yes, but neither are they bound to its fate. Why do you think that the story of Beren and Lúthien is called the Lay of Leithian, the Release from Bondage?”
“I agree with you,” said Legolas quietly. “Unlike my father, I do not think Men are of lesser kind than Elves, only different, with strengths and weaknesses other than ours.”
Melpomaen looked from one fair head to the other, then shrugged. “I hold no ill-will towards Men – how could I? I know them so little. But I will venture still to feel pity for them, rather than envy in even the smallest degree.” Catching Legolas’s eye for permission, he lifted the flagon of wine and filled all their cups again.
“Compassion, I should rather say I feel,” said Legolas. “I have seen pity and dislike it. To me compassion is felt between equals, pity is what one feels for a lesser creature. But that is merely my own sense of the words, you need not agree with me.”
“Hm. Perhaps. I had not made that distinction.”
Haldir smiled wryly. “If you had ever felt pitied, you might.” To which remark Legolas nodded agreement.
“Why should I have felt pitied?” asked Melpomaen.
“No reason you should. I have, though, and I would imagine from his words that Haldir has too,” said Legolas.
“For lacking a spouse, children, the usual humble joys of life. It is not an unwarranted attitude. My ties to my folk are through the past, not the future,” said Legolas, “yet it is not a pleasant feeling, to be set apart in that way, even if one’s abilities and skills earn admiration from the same persons. I feel as if I am not really a part of my people, and that grieves me. Haldir, is it thus for you?”
“More or less.” Haldir tightened his fingers around Melpomaen’s hand again. “A friend of mine from my youth. . . we were close as brother and sister, once. Lalvenna wished me to be more than just a friend, and was disappointed when I chose a course that meant I would see her little, for she became a weaver while I learned to track and fight. Eventually she found that it was another whom she truly loved, and wedded him. Afterward, though I know she did not mean me to see it, she always had an expression of pity when she saw me, pity mingled with bewilderment that I could reject the joys she knew one could find with a spouse. Though she still cared for me, I am certain, she did not understand or respect the fact that my life path would not be as she thought it should have been. My brothers do not understand why I am different from them either – they are both espoused – but they do not pity me as Lalvenna does. I do not know why not, perhaps because they still look up to me as an older brother, perhaps because I am more skilled than they in our common duties. At first my solitary state was a matter of jest in the family, but later there was only silence.”
“Ah. . .” whispered Legolas. “Yes, you understand.”
“It is not even the pity I have seen so much as the idea that I am somehow set apart from others that I dislike. That is why I accepted this errand that we are now on, I think. If I am not to be fully a part of my own people’s lives, why not be physically separate as well?” Haldir said.
Melpomaen was shaking his head. “I don’t see how you can feel this way. I never saw you treated differently from anyone else, back in. . . back before we made this journey,” he amended. “I have met your brothers, they are both kind and decent. And no one else ever said or implied anything about you that was not praise.”
“If I may say, from my own experience, it might be more what is not said? As Haldir put it, there is silence,” Legolas said.
“But how can you judge what another is thinking from his silence? That doesn’t make sense to me.” Melpomaen spoke bluntly. “If what you are saying, both of you, is that you feel pitied, pushed aside, even outcast in some way, because others do not talk to you on common matters of family – well, what else can you expect, if you do not have a spouse or children to be discussed? Of course it will be other topics that they will converse about with you, matters that would be presumed to have more common interest for all parties, perhaps fighting techniques or the weather that season or what have you. That is only reasonable!”
“Perhaps,” admitted Haldir. “Perhaps I have misinterpreted, or overreacted to what I believe I have seen and heard.” But his eyes met those of Legolas.
“Enough of this talk – you will make me gloomy,” said Melpomaen. “Can we turn to some more pleasant subject? I will even make it a related one.” He could feel Haldir tense beside him as he continued, “Legolas, the last time we three spent an evening together, we spoke of some differing customs and beliefs then as well, did we not? You said that among the folk of Mirkwood it is held that pleasuring oneself is ill-done, for it can prevent forming a bond with another.”
“That is what I have been told, yes,” said Legolas. “You and Haldir said there is no such belief among your people.”
“Indeed. The practice is a matter for joy, not a cause for fear, as you believe.” Melpomaen took a breath. “I. . . would have you learn the truth for yourself.”
“How could that be? I do not think this is a matter susceptible to any proof,” Legolas replied.
“Oh, but it is. If I, if we, were to demonstrate for you, that bringing oneself pleasure need not interfere with a bond to another?” Despite his best intentions, Melpomaen flushed slightly as he spoke.
Legolas froze, then said, almost inaudibly, “What?”
“We could demonstrate the matter for you,” Melpomaen repeated.
“I. . .” Legolas shut his eyes and his mouth together. Haldir looked at Melpomaen and raised his eyebrows, and Melpomaen nudged him to speak.
Haldir said, “We could, Legolas. If you wished.” Sympathy filled him as he saw a faint sheen of sweat appear on the other’s brow and his throat work.
When Legolas opened his eyes again, they shone with tears, but his face bore only regretful resignation. “I do not see how this would prove the case. I know what has been, in my past and present. I indulged myself in youth, and I have reaped what I have sown, and found no mate. I am not saying that you would tell me deliberate falsehoods, but you two are already bonded; I am not.”
Melpomaen was silent for a moment, considering how best to reply. From what Legolas had said on that earlier evening, he had presumed that the other Elf was inexperienced, too worried by the tales he had heard to attempt his own solace. It was true that the proposed demonstration would not disprove those tales – he and Haldir were already bonded. He reached out across the table. “But we were not always so. You say that you do not think I would lie to you, and I assure you I would not. I did indeed pleasure myself alone many times before I met Haldir, and even after, before. . . before we made our bond. And he did likewise, or so he has said. Our bond completes us, but it does not change who we are or what we may do. I am certain your people are mistaken, and that you have been denying yourself this delight needlessly. By your own folk, your misery may have gone unnoticed, but we have both seen that you are closer to despair than anyone should have to be, and it was my thought to show you that you need not feel so.”
Now Haldir also clasped Legolas’s hand in his own. He could feel the faintest shiver run through the other Elf’s body at the touch. “This is only a suggestion, Legolas. A proposal. You need not agree.”
“To what would I be agreeing?” said Legolas, his voice shaking.
“To watch us, that is all. To see how one can pleasure oneself – though I suppose you must know that, if you have done so in the past, however long ago – and yet find still greater joys in the embraces of another,” said Melpomaen.
Legolas drew away. “And when would this take place?”
“Whenever you choose,” Haldir said, “and only if you choose.”
“Think on it,” added Melpomaen. “We do not mean to disturb you with this idea, nor will I suggest it again, unless you wish it.”
“I will. . . I will consider it,” promised Legolas, nearly overturning his chair as he pushed it back and rose. “I will tell you what I decide.”
The two lovers recognized his unspoken plea and stood to leave. His hand on the latch, Legolas looked at them as they left and with punctilious courtesy said, “I thank you for a most interesting evening, Melpomaen, Haldir.” The door snicked shut behind them.